Thursday, November 30, 2006

That desperate urge to opine forcefully

Indian cricketer Mohammad Kaif's house was attacked by protesters. Apparently these gentlemen love Indian cricket soooooo much that they cannot see it get 'harmed' by this 'inept bunch'.
Right at the end of this report we are served with a nice reminder:

Fickleness of public perception of its local heroes is evident from the fact that people had twice last year protested against non-inclusion of Kaif in the Indian team and burnt effigies of the captain and selectors.

That was in last year, when 'people' loved him. Apparently they don't now, just as they didn't then. [Back during the 2003 world cup when India were struggling in the initial stages, Kaif's house had survived the first such hate attack in response to a disheartening show from the Indian team.]
About the only thing certain about this kind of frenzied expression of misdirected emotions is that it shall go on in one direction or the other till Kaif retires from international cricket. But I would still not advise him to shift over to another place, as his family has threatened to do. He and his family need to stand their ground. Precisely for that reason - it is their ground and no bloody vandal should be allowed to have a business there.
Firstly, if not for himself and his family's self respect, Kaif needs to pause for a moment and think of the young men and women who will wear the India cap in the future. Such a move will only arm the faceless and cowardly wrongdoers and their aspiring successors with a precedent of success in their attempts. Secondly, there is no guarantee that his new locality will be free from such elements, whichever end of the earth he flees to.
Fortunately God has blessed Kaif with a relatively low profile. The plight of his high-profile colleagues is far more unenviable in this context. The hysterical cycle of public adulation and hatred must be nearing its silver jubilee for the guy who was waving his shirt from the Lord's balcony when Kaif's greatest moment in international cricket had arrived in 2002. Luckily no house attacks have ever been reported for that man though.
On second thoughts, it is quite understandable. For subsequent to achieving their noble mission, the attackers would have to lay down their lives to a lynching - such is His standing at Barisha, the Kingdom of the Prince of Kolkata.

Tailpiece: Yesterday my friend Samir winked and said, "Remember what the Indian team did in the World Cup right after that Kaif incident of 2003?" That wisecrack runs a little risk of being dubbed "insensitive to a serious concern to top flight sportsmen in our country" by the prudes but now that the worst (the attack) has passed, let's all hope that that history gets repeated!

Surprise, surprise - we are not the only cricket supporters secretly dreaming of a second great escape....

Deep and his Dada

As speculations of Sourav Ganguly's return to international cricket reach a crescendo Deep Dasgupta, his successor to Bengal captaincy, says:

"Ganguly`s presence would have made a difference to us with both the bat and the ball. But as a Bengali and a fellow cricketer I will be happy if he is selected for the South Africa tour."

I hope the BCCI wakes up from a slumber and sends an urgent fax to him that goes:


Hi Deep

We all are happy with that show of camaraderie from you. But we would be happier if you could get yourself prepared and in shape to come along with him as a specialist opener. We are not joking, Deep. You are one of the only three or four Indian batsmen to have represented India in the last decade who do not poke at outside-off-stump deliveries on bouncy pitches.

One - Rahul Dravid - is already there; the second, Akash Chopra seems to have gone out of the radars of some of us. Sanjay Bangar, the third, is too inconsistent to be awarded a return to Test cricket. That leaves you as our only option as a second opener, just in case Wasim Jaffer is unable to cure himself of his off-stump wafts by the time the 3-day tour game draws to a close.

We wish you to go easy on your Bengal Ranji skipper's duties for a while and align your thoughts and batting game for joining your Dada in the very near future. We hope you can repeat your doughty acts in the same land during the 2001 tour.

Yours truly


PS: If you are picked, you shall play only as a specialist opening batsman. No keeping job shall be assigned to you on this tour.


Just as I am putting that wish to words, the second big news of the day arrives (1st one: Mohammad Yousuf breaking Viv Richards' 30 year old record for most test runs in a calendar year). Here's an excerpt from a Zee News report:

National selectors on Thursday recalled Ganguly for the Indian Test team to play against South Africa. Sourav last played for India in the Karachi Test against Pakistan in early 2006. .....VVS Laxman has been made the vice captain in place of Sehwag.

Sixteen member team for SA Test series: Rahul Dravid(C), VVS Laxman(VC), V Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar, Gautam Gambhir, Wasim Jaffer, M S Dhoni, Sourav Ganguly, Dinesh Karthick, Munaf Patel, Zaheer Khan, S Sreesanth, VRV Singh, Irfan Pathan, Harbhajan Singh, Anil Kumble.

End-Nov report card

Take a talented all rounder, capable of troubling batsmen all around the world with his natural swinging abilities and also of averaging 30+ with the bat in all conditions. Take out consistency from his bowling and application from his batting. What do you get? Ajit Agarkar, for most of his career.

Take a bowler who is no good at turning the ball, who happens to be amongst the dodgiest ground fielder around ever to walk the ground, er, earth and who has only ever played one kind of shot with a bat in hand. Add application to his bowling, purpose to his batting and ‘never say die’ to his spirit. What do you get? The Anil Kumble we all know.

Take a batsman whose exhilarating talent was aided to full bloom by his unfettered approach to success and whose fielding abilities had once proven crucial to his team’s greatest overseas triumph in recent years. Remove the basics and the work ethic that took him there as also the willingness to do his job with the team under pressure; replace those with stubbornness and fatalism. What do you get? The wreck of a one-day player that is Virender Sehwag in end’06.

Take an otherwise capable quick bowler whose main problem was that he thought he was doing his country a favour by turning up to play for her and consequently never collected throws from fielders after delivering the ball. Add a year of penitence and willingness to do the hard yards for making himself worthy of the highest level. What do you get? The reincarnated Zaheer Khan of South Africa.

Take a once- in-a-generation batsman and remove his confidence of dominating the opposition and his belief in being able to see his team home in a run-chase by staying till the end. What do you get? A Sachin Tendulkar still struggling his way back from an unwelcome career hiatus induced by tennis-elbow!

Pick up a seriously talented, sharp-paced bowler with natural lifting ability from the sleepy world of Indian domestic cricket (that is light years adrift of a modern-day urge-cum-necessity named fitness) and put him under the quadruple pressure and workload of international cricket. What do you get? A perennially injured Munaf Patel.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

29th Nov, 1996: celebrating 10 years of a 74-ball Test ton

A gloomy morning dawned for Indian supporters at Eden Gardens on 29th November 1996, the 3rd day of the 2nd Test in the 3 match series between India and south Africa. The visitors had got off to a roaring start on the 1st day, scoring in excess of 350 in a day's play. Venkatesh Prasad's second morning heroics pulled India back into the match and restricted the South African 1st innings to 428.

However the uncharacteristic 'sporting' surface of Eden held little joy for Indian batsmen and by the end of 2nd day's play India, down to 152/6 and with a specialist batsman having retired hurt with a wrist injury, were staring at humiliation. I heard the score on a radio on my way back from work and refused to catch up on the day's highlights that night.

That injured specialist batsman was Mohammad Azharuddin. It looked less likely that he would be in a hurry to come back and rescue India, given his apparent disinterest of late and his indiscretions in the 2nd innings of the 1st Test that should have cost India the match but for debutant VVS Laxman's 2nd innings 50 and Srinath's 4th innings bowling heroics on a crumbling Motera turf. The Eden test was the comeback match for the newest star of Indian cricket, Sourav Ganguly, who got injured during the ODI tournament preceding the tests.

Azharuddin's wretched run with the bat over the past year made him a suitable candidate to yield the Test place to the youngster. Eventually the long-struggling Sanjay Manjrekar made way for Sourav Ganguly and that Motera Test came to be Sanjay's last international match.

On that 3rd morning Azhar came out to join Anil Kumble soon after start of play at the fall of Javagal Srinath's wicket. India were 161 at that point, still 68 runs adrift of the 229 they needed to prevent following on. I happened to be on my way to work when the 7th wicket fell. [Reminds me of a few similar situations; I wonder if I am perpetually destined to be in travel mode whenever something special happens in cricket with South Africa involved in it?].

The sports loving folk of Kolkata seldom stop supporting their team (notwithstanding the recent aberrations) even in the deepest moments of despair, and there they were on the streets and in the public vehicles, transistor radios firmly pressed against ears.

Not much happened over the 1st few minutes after his arrival. Then came a rumbling from one corner of the bus. It went something like this: "Azhar por por duto char marlo," [Azhar just hit two consecutive boundaries]... "Abar ekta," [another one]..."chaar tey chaar" [four fours]...."panchkhana char maarlo ei over ey Azhar!" [Azhar has hit 5 boundaries in this over!]. Azhar was on 47 by then and India were no more in danger of being made to follow on.

At the office, we all kept walking up to the privileged radio-wielding gentlemen in one pretext or the other. This continued till the lunch breather. Azhar was unbeaten on 97. He got great support from Kumble. A debutant South African bowler named Lance Klusener took the brunt of Azhar's fury. Azhar came back and completed an amazing century in all of 74 balls.

He was dismissed soon after while trying one hoick too many, but not before taking India to within 100 runs of the South African total. it could have been better had he managed to stay on. Who knows, his team might even have managed to avoid defeat in such a scenario. That was not to be.

The other sad fallout of Azhar's dismissal gets reflected to this day on Anil Kumble's Test batting record. The 88 he scored in the surreal passage of play (before running out of partners) remains Kumble's highest Test score till date, and looks rather unlikely to be surpassed. But if that special partnership had continued for another hour Anil could well have secured his 1st and only Test century. He deserved it that day.

I certainly watched the highlights that night. And again before start of next day's play. In the breathtaking five-four over Azhar played across a Klusener near yorker at middle stump and the commentator was heard gasping, "He's gone" thinking Azhar missed it, only to realise that the ball had inexplicably changed direction and disappeared into the square leg boundary.

Azhar had adopted an unorthodox open stance in that series in order to counter the short-pitched bowling he expected from the South Africans. Coming from a caresser that innings was uncharacteristically violent but that particular moment, which I had once tried to click from TV pictures of a re-telecast of that innings many years later, and some others from the day's play bore the unmistakable signature of the wizardry that was Azharuddin at his best.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Magician, the King and the Boatmen

[When Greg Chappell and BCCI joined hands last year, they vowed to deliver Indian cricket across the sea of mediocrity to a never-before land.
Never mind the "Mission World Cup 2007" refrain - that was always an eyewash for the majority of fans of an ODI-crazy nation. The real aim, it appeared to people who bought into the concept, was always inculcation of a team with a mindset that would never stop aspiring for the next higher level in the true tradition of "A team that is not growing is actually dying" and like, a team where individuals would put team needs ahead of his own and yet there would be enough warmth for the unit to function as a family rather than an army of robots.

Let us interprete the saga that unfolded subsequently through an adventure story set in late 19th century.]
A stinking rich Indian King (BCCI) met a Magician from Oz (Indian Coach) and asked him to perform the greatest magic of his life for him. The Magician took the King to the sea shore and pointed to a ragged wooden boat there. "See that boat? It has so far been used only for ferrying passengers in tidal rivers."

Then the magician pointed to a few joyous young men. Attired in blue, they were rowing a fishing canoe near the coastline. "See them boys? Now here's the magic: I am going to make those boys row this boat across the ocean to another land across it. The King challenged the Magician to make his scarcely believable words come true and promised to embellish the sorcerer with unheard of riches if he could do that.

The Magician was keen to initiate the voyage with whatever resources he could muster. The journey would span a couple of years and yet the chosen mode of transport was that ragged medieval rowboat driven by muscle power of a team of rowers. For his crew the magician combined a few seasoned men with a number of untested rookies.

The boat itself was made of high quality wood - but it was understandably a far cry from the treated steel that had come into vogue at the time. The Sorcerer from Oz nevertheless spotted unmistakable steel in the will of a few crew members and entrusted one of them with the cox's duty. Magician brought a flag and tied it to the boat mast. It said: Commitment to Excellence.

The magician's challenge was to impart adequate strength to this boat and its crew in order to get it performing like a modern day steel-hulled ship over the long voyage. Inherent to the ambitious voyage was the danger of the old-fashioned boat giving way and sinking mid-sea but the King and the Magician agreed that it was "now or never". Each person of the rowing group was assigned a distinct oar to row. He was trained to perform his role in an optimum fashion. Yet others were given the roles of keeping the susceptible hull in shape.

The monumental journey started off in a far from smooth fashion. A few members were thought not to be compliant with the common aim and were promptly debarred from continuing the voyage at the 1st port irrespective of their past records or potential. Certain other members of the crew openly showed their displeasure with the magician over one such decision.

The entire Kingdom was always suspecting that the boat and its crew would crack up under the extreme stresses it was going to be put to by the magician; now this initial disharmony testified that the fear was real. This old fashioned boat had a past history of getting harboured numerous times due to various failings. The boat and the diverse crew on it almost resembled an unstable chemical compound and the voyage a surefire way to ignite that explosive powder.

Contrary to expectations though, the bunch on board regrouped soon and responded magnificently to the challenges thrown by Mr. Magician at them. The entire unit worked in unison like a dream. They all put savvy modern-day ships in shame with the performance of their boat. Every little crack in the hull was getting repaired with amazing finesse as soon as it got spotted and the muscular arms of those rowers seemed to generate more power than fuel-powered engines.
The inspirational Cox led like a man with a mission. A few rogue ships tried to chase it but were instead given a tough time by this lot. The news spread fast from the next port; the world sat up and took notice disbelievingly.

The seafaring went on smoothly until the day they had an encounter with the pirates of the Caribbean. These unheralded new generation pirates pulled a few punches above their weight. When the bloody fight was over a number of cracks opened up in the hull of our boat all at once. From that point of time little and not-so-little fissures kept appearing in the voyager at various locations. No sooner than a crack would be stitched, two new ones would pop up at the opposite end of the hull. The magician and his team of faithful maintenance men were running out of choices by now. They had never envisaged taking care of so many ruptures.

Far bigger than the repair problem was the problem with the rowers. Many of the them had started running out of steam far earlier than Sorcerer and his Cox had anticipated. In a last ditch attempt the Cox even took to rowing two ores by himself but he could do only so much. Those first few golden days of voyage had faded in the distant past; all this while the journey was far from over.

I can only narrate the story till this point for the voyage is still on. The sorcerer's magic is waning by the day and reaching that land across the ocean is fast becoming a distant dream. Now we hear that the boat has entered into the rough seas near the Cape, a place where most of the rowers have no prior experience of rowing, just when the magician and the crew would have least wanted to. We can do little else except waiting till the end of it all. Only then do we know the ending of this adventure story and learn if

(i) the ageing magician and his Cox turn back the clock and conjure up a great trick; rejuvenated crew members join in with renewed vigour to fulfil the sorcerer's promise of completing this unlikely journey to 'Neverland' with his original crew, or

(ii) he gets overwhelmed with the increasing efforts and diminishing returns and directly accepts defeat by ending the journey at the next port at the behest of the King, or

(iii) he decides to rethink his methods and replaces some of the stressed out young rowers with a few well-rested and experienced arms at the next port to increase his chances of completing the journey, or

(iv) the senile magician and battle-worn Cox fail to produce a new trick to rekindle the fire in his crew with the magician steadfastly refusing to alter strategy; the boat slowly but surely sinks in the ocean, taking down all on board with it.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Exactly how tall is Damien Martyn?

Amit Varma's India Uncut post on men's heights reminded me of an impromptu measuring drill we did on that memorable day at Chandigarh airport earlier this month. Not that it matters in any way....actually my friend and I were trying to assess the height of each player in the tall Australian side as they passed by at Chandigarh airport to board their Mumbai flight the day after 1st CT semi-final (details in this post).

My friend is 1.74m and I happen to be around 1.77m. We thought Damien Martyn to be the only one in that team who was certainly shorter than me while Ponting appeared to be the only one in the same range as me. Hussey and Clark looked just shy of the six foot mark (i.e.1.83m) while Gilly and Lee looked identically tall at just above that mark. And yes, Bracken looked slightly taller than McGrath.

I checked the Wisden player pages for heights of these players. This is what I got:

Damien Martyn : 1.81 m
Ponting: 1.78 m
Michael Clarke : 1.78 m
Hussey : 1.8 m
Lee : 1.87 m
Gilchrist : 1.86 m
McGrath : 1.95 m
Bracken : 1.95 m

It transpires that most of our asessments were reasonably correct. As for the faulty ones, I am ready to accept Bracken's identicality of height with McGrath without a single word of protest. Not so with Damien's 1.81 m though.
I clearly recall a shorter Damien Martyn at Chandigarh airport on November 2, 2006. His eyes appeared to be below my eye level - and I was not wearing high heels. In fact, even my friend - who was wearing slippers - felt Damien was not taller than him! This last bit is liable to get an adverse ruling but I would still love to have another opinion on the "1.81m" in the 'height' column of Damien's official player page.
Surely one or two of my Australian friends armed with Ashes tickets are willing help me out on this?

Young Indian batsmen should look for inspiration left, right and centre

Imagine this young batsman in his teens, woefully out of form and confidence at the present and with reflexes attuned to a completely different set of logic statements, attempt a desperate editing job with the operating system of his game. He aims to add the following subroutines in it ahead of the Capetown ODI between India and South Africa:

"I am not going to start playing any shots in the coming few days that I have never played / not preferred playing in the past 19 years. "

"I will not try to change the essence of my batting. "

"I am prepared to let my batting strike rate go down a bit till I start putting few runs on the board."

"I am going to get behind and try to score singles off balls that do not offer driving length or width. "

"If I cannot get behind such balls then I'll leave them."

So simple to jot them down, and yet so darned complicated to put them all together inside the head, ready for recall every single time the hostile paceman at the other end of 22 yards lets go of the leather at you.

It is not easy stepping into the shoes of 19 year old Suresh Raina after the Durban drubbing. Even if this hastily edited program gets compiled in his brainware, chances are Suresh will get to test it straight at commissioning stage i.e., playing another international match for India at Capetown.

Of course there are other Indian batsmen like Kaif, Jaffer and Mongia that share his plight. All of them are going through only a slightly lesser hell than Raina's abject one. Not blessed with the abilities of a Dravid or a Tendulkar, they are the ones worst hit by an inexplicable lack of practice matches ahead of the internationals. [I did not miss one name there; Dhoni should come out of the hole pretty soon.]

Even more than them though, Suresh Raina needs a few days off live matches on these foreign conditions. Raina has just not looked the part during his brief stay against the South African quickies at Durban. He needs time and practice to regain his fearlessness and assurance, and to work out a plan. Of immense help could be a good on-field show by his mates at the gloriously inspirational setting that is Newlands.

Among other things Greg Chappell would do well to arrange a video replay of the double century Test partnership between two Indians at Newlands on 4th January 1997. The developments of that day will always get a mention whenever people will talk of the greatest entertainment seen on a South African cricket field - a couple of crazy Indian batsmen with backs to the wall coming up with a sensational counter attack against the best fast bowling attack of the time in their backyard. Those twin efforts still ended up on the wrong side of the result - just like Azhar's century and Kapil's quadruple follow-on saving sixes at Lord's 1990 - but what the hell...

When inspiration is at a premium it needs to be acquired from all possible sources. There is no harm in adopting the motto of their rival keeper Mark Boucher who, as per a factoid aired by the broadcasters during the last match, believes in walking on to a cricket field 'as if you own the ground.'

Update: To comprehend the extent of influence that the foreign nature of a playing surface can have on unaccustomed Indian batsmen one only needs to take a look at the dismal scorecard of the ongoing Punjab-vs-Bengal Ranji trophy encounter. The venue is Mohali, the liveliest track in India when Daljit Singh so desires it to be. The medium pace bowlers are the very same Ranji cricketers and yet on this surface batsmen of either side have failed to put together even a single 200+ effort in all of four innings.

Why England ain't digging out enough fast bowlers

We all knew cricket was a mind game. I just learnt that it is also a mine game.

Alan Hill writes in "Whistling up the winners" [The cricketer, January 1996]:

The present-day dearth of English fast bowlers is arguably linked to the collapse of a great industry. Whistling down a mine shaft for a cricketer was a legend based on truth. The escape from the harsh under-ground toil was celebrated as gladly as a break-out from the wartime fortress at Colditz. The measure of the miner's martyrdom was expressed by one observer: `There was one road into a coal mine and two exits - sport and politics.'

Apparently Harold 'Dickie' Bird, first class cricketer and world class umpire, came from a mining background; his father used to work in pits. Harold Larwood was another of those 'unearthed' cricketers. [Now you know why Harolds tend to be such gems]. Alan says:

....At 5ft 8in he was a pygmy compared with the modern West Indian speed merchants. But his success, awe-inspiring in its ferocity, was a testimony to the strength he acquired as a miner.

"Had Larwood been an office worker," wrote John Threlkeld in his absorbing book on the coal industry, "one doubts whether he would have had such formidable power in his legs and shoulders, essential requirements for an intimidating bowler. It was not just Larwood's physical strength. His mental attitude had been moulded down the pit as well. He gave no quarter on the field, to give emphasis to the cliche that miners worked and played hard."

Catch hold of a reproduction of that piece here on cricinfo. If not anything else you will enjoy a rare pic of Dickie bird playing a lofted on drive for Liecestershire during his playing days!
[The wicketkeeper in the pic, by the way, looks a lot like Michael Atherton...but that can't be.]

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Other, Incorrigible Prince

Sourav Ganguly is creating off-the-field news again:

Sourav Ganguly, the former Indian captain, has said that Greg Chappell's coaching philosophy may not work in India.

"They are saying process is more important than the results," said Ganguly at the Hindustan Times Summit in New Delhi. "I don't know how long it will work in India."

Reminds me of the climactic sequence from that smokin' movie "The Mask" where the vanquished villain Dorian tries to attack our masked hero with a knife. As Dorian rushes across an artificial fountainhead brandishing hias weapon, The Mask promptly turns the pool into a giant loo and opines "This guy's incorrigible!" before flushing Dorian out.

Ganguly further exercises his right to freedom of expression:

"If you want to win, you've got to be thick skinned."

We are listening, Dada. And we gather that you have not changed one bit. This is the same guy we all loved and hated all at once. We love you for remaining that guy but we are not too sure about the timing of these quotes. You can brace yourself for a stern message from BCCI with a twist to that last quote of yours: 'If you want to be in, you've got to be tight lipped.'

Perhaps even the supremos of Indian cricket are having a hearty laugh in acceptance of Ganguly's characteristic audacity. They may be shaking heads: "This guy's incorrigible." Hope they do not flush out his slim chances of qualification!

Princely Ton

At some point of time during Lara's assault on Pakistan bowlers today the West Indian scorecard for the Multan Test read thus:

Batsmen ------------Runs--B---4s---6s--SR
RS Morton (rhb) -----5-----13---1---0--38.46 striker
BC Lara (lhb) -------92-----63---12--5--146.03 non-striker

Runako Morton failed to see the fun of it all and chose to depart immediately.

The Day I failed to Click

Date : Nov 2, 2006
Venue : Chandigarh airport lounge

My friend and I were returning from Mohali. Both of us had thoroughly enjoyed the
1st semi final of Champions’ Trophy '06 the previous evening, a match that the world champions first made into a no-contest a little after the breather and then uncharacteristically allowed their arch rivals to mount a rearguard that threatened to put paid to Australian CT dreams for a 5th time. Decisive though the win was in the end, the match – upon hindsight - still turned out to be the most watchable one in the knockout phase.

A few words on the cricket ground. We loved Mohali. Apologies for not serving up the cliched “It is a beautiful ground”. I mean – Mohali is beautiful, but so is any greenish ground at any corner of the world that is blessed to host a game of cricket at any level!! The part we liked most: Mohali does not have an optico-psychological barrier in the form of a wirenet fencing around the playing field that separates the 22 protagonists from the spectators.

You’d probably appreciate this part better if you have been to Eden Gardens in recent years (post
13th March 1996, to be precise). One should not really complain as the fencing serves to protect players from certain pests that should have no business inside a stadium. Notwithstanding, that net remains a big eyesore for spectators in my home ground. Here at Mohali we were feeling that much better about our ‘participation’ in the match - even though we reportedly failed to feature in any of the crowd shots on TV.

The two of us also missed out on something else. We forgot to pack in our cameras and rued the decision at the ground; so many times we could have clicked some of the cricket heroes that were posted to guard our part of the boundary.

Chandigarh airport is a low-traffic, small complex with a cosy little lounge. People tend to bump into each other in that lounge, particularly in the afternoon when two departure flights are scheduled to take off within half an hour of each other. As we completed our security check at Chandigarh airport and entered the lounge my friend pointed in the direction of a tallish crowd of Men-in-Black right beside us.

The New Zealand team was queueing up at the gate to board the earlier of the twin flights just as we were checking in for the next one. A fresh-from-heroics Danny Vettori chatted with skip Fleming as Lou Vincent lent an ear.

We exchanged blank looks - “No camera#!*?” Terrible. Then my friend pointed to the other side of the lounge. There sat the entire Australian team, clad in elegant white T-shirts and clay trousers. These guys – officially the best cricketers on this planet whichever way the game is played – were seated like a bunch of school kids waiting for their school bus to arrive. On another day the sight of it would entrance us; now we felt far more miserable instead. Why did both of us have to forget the cameras!!!

I have never been a great fan of autograph hunting. I get no kick out of having my name scribbled by a celebrity, nor do I harbour a dream to be photographed with them. Frankly speaking, I feel quite awkward to just walk up to a celeb and blurt out a ‘Hi’ and get back a typical celeb smile in return [and these are entirely my shortcomings - there is no reason why a fan should feel so while expressing his admiration for an idol or asking for an autograph].

I only wished to capture these guys on my camera. And that failing pinched me real hard as a lady clad in red sat herself alongside ‘cute’ Lee and got herself snapped by hubby. Soon the great men stood up, picked up their hand luggages and passed by us to board their flight - one by one, tall and handsome, silent and disciplined. [Wonder who
served spinach to Damien Martyn on that flight to Mumbai…]

Well it is now more than a fortnight since the rueful incident; I have almost come to terms with that great miss. This reconciliation job with self needed a ‘one at a time’ approach.

“I could not click Lee – fine.”
“I could not click Bond – fine.”
“I could not click Fleming – fine.”
“I could not click Ponting – fine.”
“I could not click McGrath – fine.”
““I could not click Gilchrist – fine.”

Wait – that was NOT fine!

I missed a golden opportunity to have Adam Craig Gilchrist on a piece of film exposed on my camera. How can that be fine? And how am I supposed to cope with that? I mean, he is as big an idol as I am ever going to have, the one man I seriously considered asking for an autograph at Chandigarh. From the looks of it he may never tour India again as a player. Even if he does, I may not be waiting with a camera at some airport lounge at handshaking distance from Gilly.

For a moment it seemed everyone from the world of top flight cricket was in that lounge - the celebrated Australian players, the lanky Kiwis, the ICC executives, the popular commentators, the cricket writers. And yet when Gilchrist's mates queued up in front of us I kept following just this man right from the time he left his seat. For all I know, it was scarcely different for my like-minded friend.
Physically the Australian keeper stands close to six feet in height. I stared at him and remembered his last great innings against Bangladesh last summer, his move as a captain to promote himself to number four when faced with a difficult situation at Chennai in the 2nd Test of 2004, and more and more. "How greatly taller he must be than that," I thought, "to still make me feel like a 10 year old cricket struck kid." Not for nothing was he born on Children's Day...
Cameraless, I was extremely upset that afternoon; so much that I did not even remember to shake hands and offer my very Best Wishes to Gilly.


Saturday, November 18, 2006

The umpires strike back

cricinfo Australia reports:
The New South Wales Umpires and Scorers Association (NSWCUSA) will today print an advertisement in Sydney's Daily Telegraph in support of Darrell Hair, the sacked umpire who accused Pakistan of ball tampering during the Oval Test against England in August.

The full-page advert is expected to appear in Saturday's edition, and in copies throughout the week, as a written attack against the ICC chief executive Malcolm Speed. The final line of the statement reads: "You and your ICC should all be ashamed of how this has played out".

How nice it would be if battles such as this could also be sorted out on the field of play!

Hmmmm, hang on a second. On second thoughts, that would be the first step to further chaos. It would involve another tier of cricket administration for settling their on-field disputes - and so on and so forth.

Imagine this high voltage match between Umpires XI versus ICC XI at SCG. Darrell Hair bowls Malcolm Speed round his legs with his version of the "ball of the century" and erupts in a bout of wild celebration. Then he notices keeper Taufel's very different expression and turns around. Percy Sonn (neutral guy - hence umpire) is stretching out an arm signalling no-ball. Darrell cannot believe his eyes.

"Why the heck did you do that?"

"You chucked it again son."

Ross Emerson - skipper of Umpires XI - walks in aggressively from the covers with a white kerchief dangling from his waist.

"What the @#!?.....c'mon Percy, Darrell's bowling leg spin now. I told him to do it and you have just confirmed my doubts. This is ridiculous. We refuse to play out this farce. Boyz, we'll leave the field right now."

There, you see?

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Croucher stalks back

You simply cannot have enough of some special cricketers. The experience gets significantly more pleasurable if you can sense the author sharing your boundless admiration for the subject.

Christopher Pierpoint's narration of an anecdote concerning a young Neville Cardus adequately sums up the legend of Gilbert Jessop:

A favourite story about Jessop is one told in the first person by Neville Cardus. As a small boy one day at Old Trafford when Lancashire were playing Gloucestershire, Cardus missed the last few minutes before lunch to buy his drink of lemonade for the interval. He was so short that his head barely came above the bar counter, and he had just given his order when there was a tremendous noise and the glasses on the counter, together with other items of crockery, were sent crashing in all directions.

Young Cardus thought the end of the world had come, but the barman had seen it all before and was able to reassure him. "Don't worry, son," he said. "It's only Mr Jessop just beginning his innings."

Here is an earlier post on The Croucher, who was also called the Human Catapult across the big pond.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Hair Episode

Darrell Hair has been sacked by the ICC! He will not be allowed to officiate in international cricket matches henceforth! Either side of their premier showpiece event, the ICC has executed this final act on the controversial Australian umpire with the ruthlessness and eeriness of a war crime prosecution.

The original ICC ruling on the ball tampering controversy gave little indication of this grave eventuality. It only carried a mild rebuke for the umpiring community in general, urging them to take a pro-active role in times of strife rather than sit pretty and point to the rule book at every opportunity.

I dislike the operating philosophy of Darrell Hair, as do most other people who love to see the cricket and cricketers take centrestage rather than rules and umpires. Yet I did not entirely like the tone of the final portion of that
verdict statement read out by Ranjan Madugalle on 28th September 2006.

It read:

(1) The Umpires would do everything possible to try to defuse tensions in the dressing-room by explaining that a team is entitled to raise any grievance through the ICC but that it is not in their interests, or in the interests of the game, for the team to interrupt play.

(2) The Umpires and other officials should do everything possible to ensure the resumption of play. And they should not return to the field of play and then declare the match to be forfeited unless and until they are absolutely sure that the team is refusing to play the rest of the match. All other options should first be exhausted, involving discussions with the team captains and management.
The worst scenario I had imagined then was of Hair getting tactfully held back from all series involving Asian countries. But the lame, 'insecure' excuses offered by ICC and BCCI for removal of Hair from ICCCT’06 duties heightened the suspicion of Hair’s nosediving furtunes. And now we all know that the decision on Hair’s ouster was taken back then. The announcement was delayed only to avoid unleashing more bears in the equity market ahead of the lucrative Champions’ Trophy.

When ICC expressed its stand on the events of the Oval Test, I personally felt that the message, apart from being ambiguous in purpose, had a not-too-subtle undermining effect on the authority of international umpires. James Sutherland, CEO of Cricket Australia, expresses that feeling today only as a reaction to the ban on Hair. Things would not be so bad for Hair if the people supporting him would make him see things as they were instead of presenting a picture too radiant to retain its glow.

This may be the right time to look back at Darrell Hair the umpire and try to reach an objective assessment of his mid-career calamity.

We must be fair to umpire Darrell Hair on two things:

1) Hair was a good umpire; and
2) Obnoxious though his role was in all those controversies over the past decade, Hair can still look his critics in the eye and claim to have simply implemented the rulebook in virtually each one of those instances.

Let us take the oldest egg in his basket, the Murali affair. Even Murali’s supporters like me have no choice but to agree that Murali’s action looks a little weird unless you are aware of his medical deformity (a fact confirmed by biomechanists at a later date). So if Darrell Hair was doing a job on the field in 1995 and was expected to be honest about what he thought he saw then maybe calling Murali was not the worst decision of all time.

The point is, he could have done it very differently. He could have tried a chat with Arjuna during a break and expressed his reservations. That would be a more effective way to be firm and yet be humane, instead of the hit-the-nail-on-the-head approach favoured by Hair all through his umpiring days. The rulebooks never elaborate these aspects in as many words, and probably he deserves some of this ill-feeling for being so insensitively inept at reading between the lines. He merits it all the more because he ends up behaving in this fashion particularly against the Asian sides.

But in the end the sole argument against Darrell Hair is his method of putting things across to certain people rather than his actual decision making on the field of play. Moreover, he could continue with this disdainful treatment of Asian sentiments only because a section of ICC allowed him to behave in that fashion for no less than 10 years and thus led him to believe that he could go on doing it. In other words, by not correcting his approach when it needed a reprimand the ICC set Darrell Hair up for this “Asian wrath”.

I mean, where were James Sutherland and the like when these on-field controversies kept happening around this same man time and again? Surely they could have done it differently too. Instead of maintaining that patronising silence and playing up the Aussie PM’s Murali bashing, these oh-so-righteous bosses could have called on Darrell Hair and said,”Hey you are a great umpire but your job in the robot factory was over last century; it is about time that you come to terms with dealing with humans.”

It might just have saved the career of a scarcely sensitive yet upright umpire who, whether on the field or off it, was always prepared to stand by his judgement even in the face of adversity and pressure.

To end this grim assessment on another note, it was amusing to learn that Hair actually ended up with three votes in his favour. Surely this was no coincidence but a reiteration of our speculation from this take-off on the Hair saga. These were the three witches within the ICC that, along with many more in the wilderness Down Under, led the ‘Macbeth’ of Darrell Hair to this tragic end.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Bracken's sister

Hurray! At last we have found a long lost sister of Nathan Bracken. Shocked? Surprise, surprise - she is a bigger celeb than her brother. Nathan would be happy that Amelie Mauresmo (God knows how she landed in France) is doing rather well in tennis of late.
Look at these pics for the similarities.

CT Awakes: Mind of the metronome

I had the good fortune of being at Mohali stadium for the 1st ICCCT semi final on the 1st of November. New Zealand were gasping for breath during that knockout spell from Lee and Mcgrath after the breather. Between his overs Glenn McGrath was guarding the boundary near our stand. In one of the overs Glenn produced an uncharacteristic ill-directed short ball that allowed the batsman to score a couple behind square leg. He bowled another guided missile to bring that over to a close.

On another day and in front of television, I would have to watch a couple of hastily aired ad spots in the break thereafter. This time I had the luxury of watching Glenn collect his cap from the umpire and amble back towards us, his fielding position, with that well-known shake of the head, grimace firmly in place on chiselled countenance. One look at him and a new entrant to the stadium would conclude that this bowler just went for more than 20. A wave of the hand replicated a pull shot and another shake of the head followed as he finally put on his cap.

Those two 'easy' runs conceded off the fifth ball were killing him. 'How could you bowl such rubbish?' - he seemed to rebuke himself as Lee got ready for another blast at the lower middle order of their arch rivals. This, in the midst of a MoM clinching effort of 10-2-22-3.

cricinfo reports on McGrath's progress since his return:

He said he has "put a little piece of the puzzle back together" in each game he has played since returning from a long lay-off to be with his sick wife. "It's feeling pretty good at the moment, and I was happy with [the semi-final]," he said. "There were a few little errors I can still improve, but it's looking pretty good. If I keep doing that, there's a few more games until the Ashes and I shouldn't be too far off 100%."

Therefore, while all his fast bowling peers are well into their 2nd and 3rd years of retirement, Glenn McGrath is getting it just right ahead of his last Ashes. Yet another batch of English batsmen visiting Down Under may be waking up in the middle of the night.

Friday, November 03, 2006

CT Awakes: Mark Boucher opens up South African options

Little over a year ago Mark Boucher was struggling for his place in the South African side. His wicketkeeping was only a hazy reflection of the sprightly young man from that glorious international debut season of 1997-98. Most of all, his combative batting had lost some of its sheen in that period leading up to the Australia vs. ICC XI in October 2005.
Boucher's selection in the ICC XI raised most eyebrows, including the pair looking into the monitor while keying in this post. Upon hindsight even Boucher will agree that a premature end to a promising career - he is only 28 - was not out of sight at that point of time as the South African selectors explored other options like AB deVilliers as an alternate keeper batsman.

The last year or so has been especially fulfilling for Boucher the batsman in that context. Since the much-criticised Aus-v-ICCXI affair in October last year he has upped his Test batting even though the opposition has been some of the toughest (6 tests versus Australia in either land and two against Sri Lanka in their backyard). Moreover his one day scores have started flowering like never before. Let's have a look at this statistical breakup of his fall and rise as a batsman:

Mark Boucher batting stats (upto Oct 2006)


Avg, career: 30.10
Avg, Nov 2003 to Oct 2005: 26.85
Avg, Nov 2005 to Oct 2006: 29.36


Avg, career: 27.93
Avg, Nov 2003 to Oct 2005: 27.45
Avg, Nov 2005 to Oct 2006: 44.62
The clincher of an innings he played against Pakistan coming in at 36/4 in the league match at Mohali the other day was another confirmation of his capacity to fill up a lower middle order position in the South African ODI line up. That would hand his team a useful leverage in the form of flexibility to pick a few slow bowlers without leaving out any of their potent fast men.
Ahead of a world cup which is likely to test their adaptability to the fullest, 'Boucher on song' may well be some much-needed soothing music for the selectors.