Thursday, March 29, 2007

I blink for eight hours and miss it again

Keeping late nights over the last week took a rather heavy toll on me last night as I fell asleep right on the floor in front of TV sometime in the lunch break of SL-v-RSA match.Being no ordinary doser I refused to part my eyelids for the next eight hours. You can bet on cricket matches featuring South Africa to explode into scarcely believable encounters whenever I miss them and sure as today's sunrise this happened while I slept.

Graeme Smith thought he aged from 26 to 40 in those pulsating final overs. A glance at the fag end of cricinfo's live commentary for that match (where Sriram Veera & co apparently did a more-than-satisfactory job of describing the indescribable)
and I am ready for an hour long sermon on the absolute advantage of fishes, those magnificent eyelid-less creatures, over humans in following month-and-half long events taking place in the other half of the globe.

I was not even travelling this time.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Maroon versus Yellow

The colours of West Indies and Australia, scheduled to meet in the first Super 8 match today, remind me of an old joke. I hope all of you haven't heard of it:

The captain of a cargo ship spots a sailboat in the distance. As the boat draws nearer capt only needs one look at the shady looking folk in it to realise he is dealing with pirates. He looks for help in the form of other cargo ships but finds none. At once he issues a warning to his men to prepare for a battle and yells out, "Bring out my maroon shirt." Soon enough a fierce fight breaks out between the forces of good and evil.

The outnumbered pirates are finally vanquished into retreat by the gallant captain and his men. One soldier remembers that strange desire of his leader to change attire ahead of a grim fight and enquires about the reason. The captain says," I chose a maroon shirt so you would not spot me bleeding and get weak in the heart." Thunderous applause naturally follows.

The next day Captain Courageous cannot believe his eyes as he spots a fearsome monstrosity in the horizon. His fears are confirmed soon: a huge pirate ship complete with skull and crossbones is charging towards them, and this one looks like a warehouse of pirates. Once again the great leader asks his men to brace themselves for the big fight ahead. At the end of his moving pre-war speech he enquires, "Can I have my yellow breeches?"

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Thou shalt not predict

A look at that dated screengrab from the DC homepage last Sunday tells you a story about the risks of predicting results in sport. That one was a pundit-fan’s response to Pakistan's exit from World Cup 2007. After Black Friday it is now India’s turn to bow out with a whimper.

In recent months I have often acted like a self-styled crystal gazer and predicted with considerable authority that these two teams would be amongst the semi finalists. Now that both have missed the Super 8 with the same degree of authority I am left wondering - what do I strike off? The punditry, perhaps.

On deserving luck

Cricinfo's S Rajesh and HR Gopalakrishna summarise Indian misfortune in yesterday's match on their stats analysis thus:

"Sri Lanka clearly outperformed India in the second half of the match, but Rahul Dravid will be justified in believing that with better luck his team would have been chasing far fewer than 255. In the first 20 overs of the Sri Lankan innings, the Indian seamers - Zaheer Khan, Ajit Agarkar and Munaf Patel - beat the bat or found the edge 39 times, which is nearly twice per over. On another day five of those near-misses might have resulted in dismissals; today, Sri Lanka had the rub of the green, and once they survived that early passage of play, India didn't have a chance."

Memories of that
who-blinks-first start of play yesterday will remain forever. But as much as the stat indicates India's ill luck on the day, we need to appreciate that the stat also shows good technique exhibited by the Sri Lankan top order against the moving ball. Videos of the match will confirm that fact.

On Friday the Indian batsmen randomly picked their balls to get out even though they got none of the probing stuff their own bowlers dished out (they batted in the afternoon) but I can think of at least 4 batsmen out of the Indian top seven who would have edged quite a few of those near misses nonchalantly even in a more professional batting display.

As they say, you get 'luckier' as you try harder. The Indians would have been better at edging those by customarily poking at the ball after it moved away instead of staying committed to the original shot they played and accepting getting beaten. In yesterday's match the Sri Lankans did the latter (i.e. accepted getting beaten by not trying hard) with considerable regularity, a measure of the little but telling improvements they have made in their cricket. Unlike the Indians they have learnt that when the ball moves regularly batsmen are better off not poking at it.

The SL batsmen put up 250+ in conditions assisting swing and seam bowling without any of Jayawardene, Jayasuriya or Sangakkara firing. It was the Sri Lankan equivalent of India setting up that score without contributions from Ganguly, Dravid and Sachin in a similar setting.Sri Lanka have always fielded better than India and of late they have been bowling better than India, even outside their country.

Now gently but firmly they have shown us that they bat a lot better as well.

Dream Team woes continue

Coming from Dream team angle I have already lost out on a bucketful of points today as the Indian innings reaches the end of an eventful twenty overs with the loss of three wickets. Jayasuriya and Sangakkara did not last too long in the Sri Lankan innings today and although Sachin picked up a wicket he returned a blob with the bat. Sehwag's still at work though.

Preparing for the worst? Nyaah, not today, not in Trinidad......

Trinidad, 23rd march

Time: Interval of the India-v-Sri Lanka Pool B match

When Zaheer bowls a leg-side wide to flag off the match I feel a surge of anger rushing up but I refuse to shout. It is difficult for a date-happy fan like me to forget that Zaheer Khan had yielded 15 runs in his first over on this very day four years back and started the proceedings of an Indian flop show in the final of the last World Cup. I manage to control myself nevertheless and gently utter, “You can do it Zach.”

To my boundless joy he hears it, as does his team! Admittedly he does not do it that over; he continues bowling leg side and yielding extras. But then Agarkar does something first up that millions in India will thank him for if India scrape through the ordeal and end up as the winners of this unfolding epic. He starts off as a man possessed and has Sri Lankan openers in all sorts of problems in five of his first six balls. Becalmed, Zaheer gets back his groove and with later support from Munaf they send down eighteen overs of seam bowling that I would like getting replayed back to any team with an all-seam-no-seering –pace attack as the model way to do it on a slightly helpful track.

The first Sri Lankan wicket falls in the seventh over, An all-time classic, it could have been straight out of a Test match. Six overs had gone by and Sri Lanka, after being kept quiet, had taken 9 or 10 off the last one thru Chamara Silva. An iffy Jayasuriya has survived a few close shaves. Now he faces Zaheer and is promptly struck on the pads by Zaheer. Everybody in the ground and around the world thinks Sanath is out except umpire Aleem Dar.

Now, Jayasuriya has already benefitted from an even-harder-to-believe lbw let off from Daryll Harper off Ajit Agarkar’s very first ball. This second one threatens to be the last straw for a team not renowned for its resilience in adversity. Today is a little different though. Zaheer blasts one past Sanath’s ears the very next ball. Today’s Sanath can only swing at it as an afterthought.

Zaheer makes the ball move both ways in the next two deliveries. Somehow in the space of four balls he manages to distract Sanath from his original game plan of seeing out the first spells of Indian opening bowlers. Convinced that he is only waiting for the ball to gobble him up Sanath swings at the next one outside off stump without getting to it and Ajit Agarkar gets to pouch it at 3rd man quite like the Sri Lankan dasher’s Eden 1996 dismissal. All’s well again.

Agarkar by now has seen some of his gems prove to be too good for the batsmen but then funnily enough he picks up the team’s 2nd wicket off an ‘Agarkar’ – that familiar full ball he bowls every now and then just outside the batsman’s pads. Those generally disappear into the boundary to the exasperation of Indian cricket lovers. Today is a little different here again, in that the ball disappeared into the glove of a magnificently diving Dhoni off Mahela’s faint tickle.

Agarkar and Zach only pick up two wickets in the excellent spell and Munaf remains wicketless in a relentlessly incisive spell to remind you-and-me of
His Unluckiness J Srinath. I can easily recall at least six or seven other deliveries by the medium pace trio which could have got a defending batsman out for no fault of his. The bounce helped them but so did a discernable steadfastness to remain unfazed in the face of ill luck and umpiring horrors.

This period of play is almost as good Srinath’s unforgettable opening challenge in
Ashish Nehra’s match from South Africa 2003 when India were defending a modest total against England. Srinath put up an unplayable spell and set the batsmen’s mind up for Ashish’s taking. [BTW that ‘no seering pace’ fails to apply to that match as Ashish was easily clocking 148 kph in it – nursing an ankle injury.]

No one takes six wickets today but things do not get too bad either. Hereafter skipper Dravid takes over and is made to look even smarter because his other three bowlers do not disappoint him. The only one to go wicketless is – once again – Harbhajan but he does not get much help from the seaming surface (contrary to the claims of commentators) and is distinctly unlucky to miss an lbw by way of another umpiring horror.

Ganguly had picked up a wicket in the last India Sri Lanka match back home and the book-ish (or studied, as you look at it) decision to make him bowl pays off rich dividends as he picks up the best Sri Lankan bat in my book, Kumar Sangakkara, in only his 2nd over. Dada bowls four on the trot and the remaining 5th bowling quota is taken over by one dunno-what-he-is bowler called Sachin Tendulkar.

Sachin has been having a ball with the ball since that Pakistan trip last year when his confidence skyrocketed after picking up Inzamam repeatedly on featherbed surfaces. On that occasion he bowled seam up. He did so not because the conditions were assisting seamers but because spinners were generally getting murdered. But then we saw the same guy turn up as the familiar leggie against West Indies two months back to play a critical role with the ball in the low scoring
second one dayer on an underprepared Cuttack surface.

Today, Sachin Tendulkar puts on his preaching specs and offers a free masterclass on both varieties of conventional swing. And he does that with a 30-over old ball. He swings the cherry both ways at will like Zaheer and keeps the batsmen guessing right till his eight over by which time it is too deep into the slog overs for the batsmen to play Sachin with respect. [Besides, ICC’s Anti Corruption Unit are reportedly keeping vigil on the match; who wants to face questions for the crime of not hitting Sachin for boundaries in the 45th over….]

Rahul Dravid rotates his bowlers frequently for good results. Interestingly he is seen readily making field changes to suit the bowlers’ liking. The last three overs of the innings yields 31 runs but that is understandable as Vaas and Arnold stay put till the end. If anything the relative ease of scoring for Sri Lankan lower order bats during end overs should actually be some cause for joy to Indian players as the pitch betrays signs of easing up there.

Must say something though - Sri Lanka are certain title contenders this time. They are way too poised in all situations not to reach the semis.

The match has resumed and I must sign off.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Jayawardene I hate you!

Chris sent us this update of our Dream Team standings after game 13th. I'm seriously considering dropping out of this race. This just isn't a place for gentlemen like me.

How is it that my Afridi barely gets just today's 1 game in a tourney he was destined to rule while no one protests against Chris' despotic Jayawardene pushing one of my soldiers, Sangakkara, down the batting order against Bangla and also extracting 6 (s i x) lives from guys like Bermuda's Dwayne Leverock and B'desh keeper Mushfiq (guys that caught like Superman against India) to scratch up two fifties in as many matches? And that another of my boys Jayasuriya is not likely to bowl owing to a finger injury and also missed out on an additional fifty runs today from a darned knee strain in the midst of a sublime patch?

To think Bravo
thought nothing of bowling at Zimbabwe is to feel my spleen boil.....who do I vent it on when Brian Lara, one from my own house, conspires against me. He simply forgot to throw the ball at Bravo! Worse, he let that 'opposition' bowler Chris Gayle go through no less TEN overs!@#?! Thank heavens, Gayle still went wicketless.
Can't even wish Lara a string of ducks for that conspiracy; he is in my team and I am not allowed substitutions, not even on grounds of treachery. Bat left handed they may but right handers (Lara is one) will never support left handed would-be winners like me. No wonder only Jayasuriya and Sanga, the genuine lefties, are really signalling a thumbs-up to my cause.

BTW I selected 2 Indians along with 1 Pakistani for my Dream Team. Come tomorrow's Indo-SL match result and I know how I fare in the will Anantha (3 Indians) and Chris (2 Indians)

Zainub is losing no less than three of her players (all Pakistanis) tonight and has to wait till tomorrow to learn of the fate of her lone Indian player.

Lahar, the board leader for a few matches now, is least bothered about tomorrow's big match along with Arun. Each of those two wise (read cold-blooded) men picked just 1 Indian - that they allowed Tendulkar more out of answerability to non-Indians in the race than out of any genuine faith is quite possible - and barred any Pakistani to put his hand up.

If I remember correctly Lahar invited us all to the game. Ever heard of people inventing games and winning it? I know what you are thinking of - Indians' initiation of Kho Kho at the Asian games, right? But I'm not letting Lahar win so easily if - if - India can pull off what millions wish them to on Fantastic Friday....

BTW the most interesting pick of all must be one of Chris's. Without him I would never have believed that Irfan Pathan, on current form, could feature in the Dream XI of a non-Indian. Hmmmm......I would love to get the exact nature of his dream verified by a psychiatrist.

Tailpiece: The pronunciation of 'Hussey' closely resembles that of the Hindi word for 'smile'. With an aggregate of six runs from two innings against Netherlands and Scotland he certainly brought none to the three people that backed him.

Update: Hurrah - Murali has picked up a wicket, Bangla's 5th. I can imagine him gallantly snatching the ball off that pest Jayawardene who is capable of doing anything - that includes overlooking Murali - to demolish my chances of winning this Dream Team contest. Some right handed men are in their right mind after all....

.....just as some lefties are ditching me, I learn. I was least expecting to be treated thus by a fellow left arm medium quick! Vaas shouldn't have done this (so what I left him out), not after that genuine left-handedness. He has now contrived to pick a wicket and push Lahar further ahead of me. Ever so gradually I am coming to terms with that. Very soon I will let Lahar know what I think of him for having talked all those players into this before inviting us.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Indian post-Bermuda worries and music therapy

India came out to defend 413 after the luncheon break, needing to bowl out Bermuda for a low total in order to keep up with the run rate. Bermuda went on to reach 110/8 on a pitch aiding swing bowling all along the day. In the light of their earlier performances this was already looking like a relatively better show by the minnows.

India could not trouble the only pro Bermudian batsman, David Hemp (he remained not out). Upto this point the Bermuda innings adequately reflected the toothlessness of Indian bowling and the skipper had little to do about it. All 3 medium pacers were bowling at speeds within a few miles at each other, with no yorkers / slower deliveries in sight. Dread to see such a unidimensional team of bowlers face the attacking batsmen of Sri Lanka in 4 days....

Soon after the team from the isles with 70,000 odd population eased themselves to 154/8. During this period Dravid kept bringing on, among others, a struggling Agarkar to finish off the innings but never did he think of summoning that 4th swing bowler in his team, Sourav Ganguly. When Dravid finally brought on a non regular bowler it had to be Sehwag, and I thought even his off spinners swung enough to remind the captain of Dada. A few overs later Dravid gave a bowl to his second non regular bowler Sachin and he promptly picked up Leverock with a leg spinner. Sach then proceeded to prodigiously swing the next two deliveries into the pads of last man Jones. When Kumble (he bowled better today but not exceptionally yet) dismissed Jones finally Bermuda had made India field for 40 overs.

Dravid has often shown this tendency of persisting too long with his main bowlers even after they have ceased to be effective. We have seen him rotating his struggling specialist bowlers when allowing a part timer to have a bowl would perhaps be saner. In the conditions prevailing in Trinidad today Dravid's decision not to employ Dada even for a single over looked like an outright shocker from a distance, especially as India needed to maximise the win margin to give themselves the best chances of qualifying in case there is a 3 way points tie with Bangla and SL in Group B.

If that - persisting with an out of form Agarkar and never trying out a part time bowler tailor-made for the conditions - was not stubbornness I do not know what is.

I hope Dravid gets rid of it (stubbornness) by the end of this match and his team management seriously considers including Pathan in the next match as a replacement for either Uthappa (5 bowlers) or Agarkar (7 batsmen).

Lovely Sidelight: Over no. 37.2 of Bermuda innings. As India are made to toil by the Bermudian lower order the television camera zooms into the Indian dressing room. It looks relaxed. Irfan Pathan is saying something to Sreesanth. No wait, Irfan is actually humming a few lines of some popular melody. Pathan's lost-in-the-song expressions and waving hands speak a lot about his involvement in the solo performance.

It does not remain a solo very long as - joy - Sreesanth in his studiously frameless glasses joins in pretty soon! Why don't they put mikes inside the dressing rooms and switch those on specifically at these tender moments? [Perhaps the main concern is switching them off before a batsman comes back dismissed off an umpiring error].

As though that is not exhilarating enough, the third guy to appear in the same frame is also a reputed dressing room singer in his own right - Harbhajan Singh. However he looks a little distracted and is probably busy reading a mag.

With the skipper making all his musically talented (remember, Dinesh Karthik is more than chirpy behind the stumps...haven't heard much of his dressing room singing though) players warm the bench, Bhajji may well have been fishing for entry coupons for the trio to musical talent hunts while the other two maestros practised for it. What do they call their band? Do rush in your suggestions.

Or did the doctor finally recommend music therapy for the grim Mr. Chappell?

Monday, March 19, 2007

Cricket coaching: being judged on uncontrollables

Bob Woolmer succumbed to a heart attack following Pakistan's shock defeat to Ireland that led to the former team's World Cup exit. I have diligently avoided commenting on performances of coaches because their job, as I see it, is almost unseen to a common cricket viewer like me. But at these times you try to imagine yourself as a cricket coach of an international side. The question that comes first to your mind is: How stressful is it for cricket coaches to be constantly judged on parameters many of which are beyond his control??

As a coach in any team sport perhaps you come with a vision of making a positive impact on the performances of a set of individuals aiming to function as a team. You decide that you will shut yourself from external praise / criticism / opinions and do your job as planned but find it hard to do so with communication hitting the roof these days. You see players in your team and find a similarity between them and yourself.

You notice a difference though. The players are judged on individual performances but the captain and you are judged on team performances. That automatically signifies that the players are almost entirely dependent on their own performances on the field for their rating points but the skipper and you have no individual scores except team wins. The skipper has an individual role to play when the team gets into the ground but not you. You have an individual role unseen to all but the players and administrators.

Now we come to perceptions of the role of a coach. Many ex-players believe coaches have a peripheral role to play and the skipper is responsible for team performance. However there are occasions when a coach gains the stature of a supercoach. This effect is augmented in countries where people are emotional and perenially in search of shining heroes and shady villains.

This blow-up takes a bigger shape if cricket is one of the few fields where your folk see themselves as world beaters. Things get further exhilarating for you if the media and people don't see their captain as too clever irrespective of the reality. It has a positive effect on your share of plaudits. Some of the phenomena you get credited with when the team succeeds are:
(i) the team performance takes an upswing soon after you join the side,
(ii) the team shows inprovements in fields earlier thought to be its weakness,
(iii) the skipper suddenly takes a few smart on-field decisions in the following year, decisions that are thought to be beyond him.

Slowly but surely you are accorded the status of a sorcerer, someone with a knack of working wonders with people and turning also-rans into champions.

The flip side comes when the team falters. Now you get to learn of the essential problem with not having an individual role to be assessed on. You may still be thinking that you are doing your job well but the team is struggling because most players are. You are prepared to take some of the blame for that but not all. If you are a born leader you will take it anyway without a word of protest, but it seldom goes down well in the digestive system.

It is quite like a skipper scoring a century chasing 240 in a losing cause. Skippy gets blasted for his handling of bowlers in the opening overs but gets praised for the fighting innings later on. In your case you got only praises when the team did well. You may think you did certain things improperly at the time but it did not matter; people were searching for their shining heroes and you were one of them. Now that the tide has turned you can resign yourself to morph into the shady villain that pubic are looking for. They are unaware that you may be still scoring centuries with your unappreciated work.

Only tough people can continue performing in such situations for years. If you are Bob Woolmer you are a tough cookie. You avoided quitting your roller-coaster job of
coaching Pakistan for greener pastures. Difficult as it is to coach a subcontinent team, it certainly took even more out of you to switch to this extreme mode if you are coming from lands where your role in the team performance is understood better by the game's followers and, maybe, the players and administrators as well. You prepared yourself for a lot to happen, or at least we can say that you backed yourself to take most things that could happen....

if you are Bob Woolmer you will be long remembered for your role in revolutionising your (i.e. coach's) role in the international game. These tributes state as much.

[Cross posted on desicritics]

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Two surprises, that 'upset' two teams

Yesterday’s results

So India lost to Bangladesh and Pakistan to Ireland. India batted way below par at the two ends of their innings and Pakistan batsmen succumbed to Irish persistence in not allowing them to score. Indian bowlers were too wayward to defend 191 and Pakistan bowlers didn’t have enough to defend. India are still hoping for two wins and some winners’ luck to qualify for the next round but Pakistan are out of the world’s biggest cricket tournament by the 5th day.

We can go on and on elaborating on the surprise results of the two 17th March games in this fashion. But are we giving credit where it is due? Probably not. Yes those results were surprises, but they were not upsets in the true sense of the word.
An 'upset', so far as history of such matches go, is a loss that resulted mainly (sometimes solely) from the big team playing badly. I'm not sure that was the case yesterday either at Trinidad or at Jamaica (unless we have reports of post-match upsets of a visceral kind in the Pak camp).

Bangladesh and Ireland in this World Cup

Unlike other wins of Bangladesh in other tournaments and series involving big teams these wins are no one-off shows. Their matured game and that warm up result against New Zealand indicate otherwise. Ditto for the Irish. In fact the latter deserve a bigger applause for making full use of their county exposure to make up for lack of matches against international sides.

I gladly take back the words from an earlier post of mine. Ireland and Bangla were not doing
too much too soon by surprising big teams in warm up matches. They were merely serving up warnings. To then come into the World Cup and live up to the growing expectations against teams that were already aware of their shock value speaks of self-belief, meticulous game planning and talent in the ranks.

The Bangladesh game plan

I have not had much of the Irish game except in highlights. But I watched a new look Bangladesh unfurl at the biggest stage. They were slightly aided by the ever-prepared-to-choke Indians but the win belonged to only to Bangladesh.

Bangladesh remind us so much of the Sri Lankans in the 1996 tourney. They have a number of attacking batsmen with just one (Nafees) or two (Bashar) likely to get near a hundred. They have a swashbuckling opener (Tamim Iqbal) who announced himself in yesterday’s match, and looks good to score a few in the Powerplay overs whenever a loose delivery comes him way. That bevy of enticing, accurate, strangling slow bowlers in their ranks is ably supported by one very good pace bowler, Mortaza. Just what the doctor ordered for the West Indian grounds.

From their choice of bowlers I suspect restricting opposition batsmen to a low-ish total and chasing it down to be the Bangladesh game plan for the tournament. (Yesterday’s match will lead them further on that path.) They even have an interesting plan for the chase. I noticed that most of their top, experienced batsmen like Bashar and Ashraful had moved down the order to propel the finishing act in a chase, if required. It may not be the greatest plan against top sides for an anchorman like Bashar to come in so far down the order but the Ashraful move looked a good one. They will need a combination of striking ability and big match experience in case the asking rate climbs.

It will be interesting to have them bat first though. Their flashy batsmen are likely to struggle a bit. And while their spinners can expect assistance in the afternoon on drier pitches that may not always happen, as the pitches tend to hold well on the first day. On the flip side Mortaza and his medium pacer mate Rasel will be hard pressed to give those vital breakthroughs.

Indian woes and hopes

As for Indian fans hoping to see India proceed further from the Group of Death, they have to add the following to their list of daily prayers:
- no rain on India’s match days
- India bat first against Bermuda and put up 350 plus
- India win both their remaining matches (with top seven firing in both)
- either Bangladesh beat Sri Lanka, or Sri Lanka thrash Bangladesh badly
- Bangladesh Bermuda game getting washed out

The equation, as it stands now, is elaborated by cricinfo's Anand Vasu here. India have to overcome two major hitches to make the best of the controllables. [Those are besides the accepted perennial minuses of lethargic fielding, lack of consistent bowling and, increasingly, the Sehwag form problem.] Both of them reside in the Indian middle.

The Indian middle overs bowling led by Bhajji is not hot and everyone except Bermuda can expect to be let off the hook at that stage. Sri Lanka did that in three consecutive games last month and will be hoping for the same again. Also Indian middle and lower order batsmen have no plan in place to counter loss of early wickets even after so much exposure to these conditions over the last year or so. Bangladesh administered Lara’s methods to Team India and the latter demonstrated their continued ability to freeze in the face of accurate slow bowling. Ones and twos are just not their cup of cricket.

Let's hope forthe sake of Indian cricket lovers that these 'middles' are not 'upset' anytime soon. As Dr. Mardy quotes Ovid in today’s Quote of the week newsletter:

"Chance affects everything. Let your hook be always cast;
in the stream where you least expect it, there will be a fish."

PS: A few weeks back Harbhajan publicly asked his lower order mates to contribute more in West Indies. Look at Bhajji’s two innings since landing there: He casually gave catching practice to the cover fielder first ball in the Holland match, and was bowled attempting to cut a ball inside stumps yesterday. This when each of the occasions required a senior player like him to play sensibly and stay on. Perhaps that ‘contribute more’ call from Harbhajan was just a surreptitious request to Pathan, Zaheer, Munaf and Agarkar to share his quota of scoring runs.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Sehwag question and Mortaza's visual answer

"Mashrafe Mortaza to Sehwag, OUT, Gone! Mortaza nails Sehwag! Sehwag's disastrous recent run continues. Perfect offcutter that landed outside off stump, on a good length and cut back in. Sehwag's eyes lit up at what he perceived as width and shaped to cut it. The ball jagged back in, took the inside-edge and crashed into the furniture. Bangladesh taste first blood."

That was cricinfo's Sriram Veera describing Sehwag's departure in India's opening match against Bangladesh.

Now we try to look at that dismissal from the point of view of the Indian think tank. We will not discuss the fact that this batsman was arguably picked on the insistence of the captain who believed he would strike form in the nick of time. It is immaterial now. We leave perceptions aside and concentrate on the facts.

Our man Sehwag has now got out in that fashion a good many times in the past couple of months. We can easily picture all opposition coaches and captains playing back his well documented problem with the fast incoming deliveery to their new ball bowlers ahead of an India match, helping them plan Viru's dismissal. It is the same with Viru's skipper Dravid; he too has a problem with this particular delivery.

The difference ends there though. To nail Dravid you have to bowl it fast and full - but not too full. And bowl it on a particular 3 or 4 inch wide channel just outside offstump. And have the delivery swing / jag back onto his pads. When struggling with form Dravid can often get out to lbw to this ball. But then this is a pretty handy delivery for any batsman to face.

Not so with our Viru. These days he seems to make it easy for the bowlers. We can't help thinking that the quickies start their run up against Viru with the simple aim of bowling it quick and bringing it back secure in the knowledge that Viru, like a typical 5th day pitch, will do the rest irrespective of length and width. Worse: Sehwag does it.

And he does it yet again, come next match. [It is a sad and ironically reversed usage of 'again' to his batsmanship; once upon a time the word was most accompanied by 'fours' and 'sixes'.] Sehwag does it off the full deliveries and he does it off the short ones. In the last warm up match he added variety by edging one that moved away. For a change.

Of course we need to be objective and avoid excessive criticism of his attitude ("he's reckless and needs to be dropped") considering this period of time to be the lowest ebb of this capable player. And these can be truly embarassing times. Had The Don been videotaped at such times he just might have evoked cat calls like "isn't he from the same country as McGrath" today.

this match started I was wondering about the adequacy of the Indian build up to the big matches, the first of which is scheduled against Sri Lanka on 23rd March. India will have played five matches in the West Indies by then (2 of them warmers) with the only big opposition in that sequence having folded for 85. i.e. Barring upsets they would have had too long a sequence of relatively soft matches to keep their alertness up.

I do not think so anymore. Part of it is because I never expected the ongoing one to be a soft match and it is looking as close a call as was my hunch
yesterday. But coming from the point we were discussing, India have to sort out the Sehwag problem before facing Sri Lanka and the slingy Malingy, sorry, Malinga and they are fortunate to have another soft match before it to sort things out. Now they simply have to try out plan B in the next match against Bermuda.

With Andy Roberts warning teams that quicker surfaces await them later in the tournament, Sehwag looks set to dig the team's and his own chances of success a deeper hole if he is retained in the opening slot. The only alternative to dropping him altogether is to get him playing in the lower middle order right where his co-struggler Pathan is slotted.

On the other hand, the Team Management can back Sehwag to just do a Jayawardene on Bermuda and hit a few vital, confidence building runs from his usual opening slot. Things may never be this woeful again for the beleagured dasher once he gets into a scoring groove.

In order to tackle the Sehwag conundrum this Indian think tank has been pushed to deciding between a plan and a gamble . Whatever their choice is, there just cannot be any further postponement of that critical decision.

Nothing said in the above post discredits Mashrafe Mortaza of that Sehwag wicket and the next (he sends back Uthappa as I draft this piece). With better luck he could have scalped a few more, including his Bong neighbour Dada.

Mortaza had looked good in his early days but then he went off the radar for a while. He is now back bowling at full tilt and furiously well too, reminding us of one Mr. Waqar "You-miss-I-hit". With more bowling support and careful preservation I see Mashrafe Mortaza making it into the top bracket.

Interestingly Mortaza has also found a way to look like the great Pakistani rocket launcher in his younger days!! Mediapersons / commentators can save precious column inches / airtime seconds by not asking Mortaza who his bowling idol is, coz' these days Mashrafe prefers wearing the answer on his persona.

HG Shells

On 12th March HG settled The War of the Worlds. Here's his next work, released on 16-Mar-07: A shape of things to come (a.k.a. Bunge thumping)

HG has asked his fans to wait for the third instalment due on 20th March 2008...

Thoughts on upcoming India Bangladesh match

India play Bangladesh after a long gap; 2 years and 3 months to be reasonably precise. The second last time they played a match India ended up on the losing side. Virtually everybody in this world, including people who know nothing of cricket, remembers that day for a far heavier reason. It was Boxing Day of 2004 when the killer Tsunami struck on the east facing coasts of many South Asian countries extinguishing hundreds of thousands of lives.

Two of the badly affected countries, India and Sri Lanka are group B rivals of Bangladesh this World Cup. ICC associate member Malaysia and neighbours Indonesia were the worst hit by the calamity. It is needless to repeat stuff that people know too well but the thought of so many cricketing nations tied by a second common thread of grief makes it resurface spontaneouly.

Cricinfo's enchanter-in-chief Siddharth Vaidyanathan explores a few areas of the Indian game that Bangladesh will look to assault. One of them can be an ambush with their left arm bowlers. Siddharth observes:

India are likely to face a slew of left-arm spinners in that (middle overs) period, with Mohammad Rafique's darts complemented by Abdur Razzak's loop and Saqibul's accuracy. Razzak and Saqibul arrive with economy-rates of 3.5 and 3.7 respectively and India will need to find innovative ways to manoeuvre the ball around with the field spread.

Indeed Habibul Bashar and Shahriyar Nafees hold the key to Bangla doing well in the match. Indians are in pretty decent nick but Bangladesh are at the top of their game with a warm up win over the Ashes beating (Oz and now England) Kiwis. And Mortaza, if he knows anything about latching on to good form, will be a handful for the openers.

Talking of left-arm menace, ace cricket writer Mukul Kesavan was really upset about certain aspects of the Indian think tank's vision around six months back and strung his grievances together in a piece that can make you chuckle when Indian cricket is doing well. The post (a rant really) is dated but nevertheless enjoyable for his delicious take on left handers.

My left-handed left hand says it looks forward to meeting you, Mukul.

[cross posted on Desicritics]

Gutsy Glovemen

Where do these wicketkeepers buy their gall from? Many other cricketers have the stuff too but the keepers’ variety looks like a different brand altogether. It just keeps oozing out of their persona without them trying. That customary chirp with the batsmen, that pep talk for the boys between overs and during them, that nervous energy in anticipation of another pouch – it all comes to them naturally.

Expectedly in a game as mental and lengthy as cricket you get a generous helping of the strong silent types, people who prefer to stack their guts below the stomach and away from the public view. Batsmen contribute the most numbers to this lot, those “give him a bat and he becomes a character” types. But follow a keeper at work and chances are he’ll radiate his pluck even as he repairs the broken stumps. If team performance is a buggy riding on four wheels i.e., batting, bowling, fielding and captaincy, then the wicketkeeper resembles the axle of the 10-spoke fielding wheel. There’s a difference though: the noisier this axle is, the better this wheel functions.

Interestingly in their demeanour they all remind us of one another. It has little bearing on the way each bats. He may be a tear-‘em-apart bat like Gilly / Dhoni, a smart cameo player like Boucher / McCullum, a class act with the willow in the Sangakkara mould or a plain and simple blood and guts man that you want to bat for your life, like West Indian Ridley Jacobs or the inimitable Ian Healy. The rule is same for each of them: give him a pair of gloves and he becomes a character, a kind of second lieutenant who takes control of the players and allows his captain to plan their next move.

There’s a new addition to this lot. It is Paul Nixon of England. He is every inch the wicketkeeper your team needs competing in an event of this magnitude. I am only watching him in action for the first time today as he plays in the second consecutive nail-biter in the making. But I have little doubts that he must have played a significant role in the England we see in this tournament, an England that, though far from dependable, are at least prepared not to be the first ones to blink.

No thought on modern wicketkeepers can be complete without a mention of Khaled Mashud, the Bangladeshi avatar. He is the one who hit a six off the first ball of the final over and remained unbeaten on a 7 ball 15 to finally turn an unforgettable, seesawing, rain-affected 1997 ICC trophy final match against Kenya in his country’s favour, a result that went a long way in waking the cricket world up to Bangladesh and supporting their subsequent claim to Test playing status.

It is ten years hence. The Mashud that played for Bangladesh a year back was already past his prime with bat as well as gloves and it is only logical that a younger man has
replaced Mashud, the last survivor of that 1997 ICC trophy winning side.

If their Group B encounter with India develops into a close call (somehow I get this feeling that it would) - the sort with the underdogs needing quite a few in the nerve-jangling final overs - the Bangla boys would need to summon belief in their ability to pull through from a few sweet memories of the recent past. Memories of the glorious exploits of their ex-gloveman on that 1997 afternoon at Kuala Lumpur should do them no harm in that regard.

Thursday, March 15, 2007


There's a raging topic of discussion these days: Ponting vs. SunnyG. I am not sure I want to add to it. But today I am on a forced holiday with India's cup opener nowhere in sight, so here I go:

Ponting knows that perhaps Sunny is right to an extent. Every single cricket follower on this planet carries , like his own fingerprint, an individual interpretation of "this far and no further" on the sledging issue. And yet most outside Australia agree that some of their players carry on mouthing obsceneties involving certain issues that are (rightly) considered taboo in the civilised world. Beyond a point The doctrine of "doing everything to win" takes an ugly turn and these Australian players perhaps need someone to point that out.

But Sunny, by repeating his oft-repeated criticism of Australian players' behaviour one time too many at an inappropriate time, left Ponting no option but to speak out in defence. In making the first comment in the midst of a World Cup Sunny resembled a school teacher, also a school senior, who hires a loudspeaker just outside the school gate and blares out harsh words against the roguish behaviour of students of a particular standard of that school while those students are appearing for their board exams inside.

The class representative of those students had to try and shut him up. This teacher, IMO, should have first complained to the
parents, then to the school's principal before resorting to the option he chose. In any case he should not have chosen this delicate moment to enforce a long standing decision on something he has little control over. Sadly, it is an issue that the principal could have easily solved a long time before the exams had he not turned a blind eye to it.

Besides, we now suspect that the main issue, i.e. poor conduct by that particular standard, is perhaps overhyped. The class representative of the
teacher's own class has made a subdued admission that they all do it.

C'mon Sunny and Punter, it doesn't look nice for record holders of the highest run aggregate and most tons in Tests - Past & Gonna-be - to lock horns instead of exchanging niceties.

Update: We thought only P&G were confusing issues. Boof jumps in the bandwagon:

"I came into the international arena a few years after he had retired," Lehmann said. "He was a player I admired. Not any more."

Yeah? And Boof I just stopped respecting your batting prowess coz' you, besides being a quintal too heavy, have been caught abusing some Sri Lankans over colour .

On second thoughts I forgive him the first offence. It is one of the two counts in which he is second only to Arjuna Ranatunga in the history of cricket. Click here for the second.

The only plausible upside of this proliferating fracas is that for once an India-Australia World Cup match will get to challenge the Indo-Pak one on viewership!

Update 2: Our Australian friend John Cook agrees with Sunny on on-field behaviour of the Aussies and the idiocy of relating it to aggressive play. John says of Ponting's first reaction to Sunny:

"...In other words, Australia might be carrying on like petulant prats but at least they win more games than India. Ponting is one of Australia's greatest batsman and has a great captaincy record. But the Australian captain's job is not just to win matches but to represent his country. With regular dummy spits, the dreaded Pawar shoving incident and now the way he handles criticism, Ponting is showing all the diplomacy and statesmanship of a George Bush."

Methinks the offending players would do well to have a chat with their own 'Mark Tubby' Taylor who was unassuming in manner without being un-aggressive in captaincy.

But Sunny is effortlessly succeeding in
turning away John and other Oz supporters of his point by raising the 'bar'.

Scot free

Q: What did the Australian say after his team defended 335 against Scotland in their world Cup opener?
Clue: It is same as the West indian said after their victory against Pakistan in the tourney opener, as every cricket fan said when Sir Garfield Sobers declared the Big Carnival open on 11th March.
Ans: "Finally..."

Google cricket blog contest

Vishnu shares this info on Willow and Leather:

"Google India is hosting a cricket-blog contest for all India based blogger users. Click here to participate. Winner gets to be on TV with Krish Srikkanth."

Thanks Vish. Competitive juices are indeed oozing out of creaky crevices in the musth of World Cup and few cricket bloggers can resist that challenge. I am part of that marathon.
Winner emerges with World Cup Champions.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

My WC dream team

As a mark of "3 cheers" to Chris Fogarty on the occasion of his home team Ireland announcing their World Cup arrival in gallant fashion, we let Chris be the master of Dream Team scoring rules. As per his diktat scoring rules have been (over)simplified to:
Every run scored = 1 point
Every wicket taken = 25 points
Here are our teams. No substitutes are allowed.
Rusty nails were never so cherished.

1st match, 1st innings: head, heart and tail of it

Why do you keep your head still while playing a shot?

“Coz’ it is fool-proof?” Nyaaaaah!

“Coz’ it is in the books?” So is ‘too much of anything is bad’.

“Coz’ your coach will kill you if you get out playing a wrong shot, perhaps?” Phew!

You do it simply because it makes you look like the master of all you survey. It actually makes you look better than you are. Catch up on the six and the four off consecutive balls that "Mr. Phoenix" Samuels essayed off Rao Iftekhar and you’ll get my point.

And what a lion-hearted talent this Danish Kaneria is.

He tried to bowl a newly arrived Brian Lara round the legs with a googly. And he tried it again. A couple of overs later he tried to get a stepping-out right handed batsman (Samuels) stumped off a vicious leg spinner after going for a four and a six earlier in that over. And tried to back it up next ball with another straight-on sucker. Danish tried all of them, which shows the stuff that goes on inside his champion’s head.

Lara was uncomfortable in that over to whatever Kaneria dished out. Samuels could have gone in either of the last mentioned deliveries. Danish very nearly achieved each lofty target he set himself, which domonstrates his ability.

If Harbhajan emulates three-quarters of that aspiration or skill he can win India the World Cup.

I look forward to watching Danish succeed - even against India.

By the way have you ever seen a batsman capitalising on a little good fortune to multiply his tally by eight times…or infinite times, to be correct?

Tailend man Corey Collymore hits the penultimate ball of the innings to short mid-wicket and takes off for a non-existent single. The fielder narrowly misses bowlers’ end stumps with Collymore well short and the ball is finally fielded deep, by which time Collymore completes a comfortable two. Then he coolly hits the last ball for a six over long on and turns to start his walk back to the pavilion - even before the ball lands on the stands.

Does Corey keep his head still? I forget to notice really – and he turns rather quickly….sort of….and it was the head of the tail anyway...Okay, I go back to the match if you insist.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Nothn’ much haas changed n 4 years maan

“Hey paal. Wath’s gowun’ on – is this a new world cup or wath? Once ahgain we ar playun’ tha 1st match of a World Cup; an ahgain a green team is fieldun’ against us. Ahgain our one drop baathsmaan is dropped aat slips firsth ball and again he proceeds to play a steady haand, again a lower order maan scores a fifteen-ball thirty two that gets us to aa competitive tothal…and again…” Better to stop there, yo maan from WI; it’s only half way thru and we gotta wait for the rest.
But Pakistan supporters won’t be happy with that history-repeating start. Not only do they stand to lose the ongoing match by three runs, at this rate Pakistan are going to be ejected on a D/L miscalculation like the 'green team' of 2003!

That hardly matters to me though. What a glorious joy it will be to watch Team India walking out to play another final against Australia!! And
then – hell, something needs to change BADLY then…..

Speaking of resemblances, I always find familiarity in the mannerism and looks of Pakistan’s Rao Iftikhar Anjum. Today I connected him at last - to my friend, across-the-street neighbour and cricket-mate Anupam. Anupam’s name having 4 of the 5 letters in ‘Anjum’ in same order should be proof enough of my accuracy of observation.

Another familiarity struck me in the 5th over of the freshly fragrant World Cup when Danish Kaneria overthrew the wicketkeeper by about 20 feet throwing from a similar distance and yielded four overthrows. During their 1996 post-WC tour to England I watched skipper Akram bowl a delivery and then yell at mid-off fielder Waqar for attempting a direct hit at the bowler’s end which went past the bowler and overthrew a run. The front-on slo-mo suggested that the run-out was on. The other camera revealed Wasim's side of the story – Waqar had threw 10 feet wide of him from virtual touching distance.
With Pakistan fielding, nothing much has changed even in 11 years.
Update: Minor alterations in pattern finally emerge late in the inaugural match. The result is the same as 2003 with the West Indies once again lording it over a green team but this time the margin is much more than 3 runs.

Consistent inconsistency

This World Cup is all about a truckload of teams coming into it with consistently inconsistent performances. People who know their cricket have seldom had opinions so widely varying yet so perfectly logical. And on so many teams.

this observation on Pakistan from no less a person than the Zimbabwe skipper:

Utseya told reporters in Jamaica. "With the West Indies and Pakistan, they are not consistent, so if we can capitalise on that we could do well."

Agreed to that? Now read this Kamran Abbasi cricinfo blogpost on the same team. It screams:

"Only Australia block the road to victory"

Once again you find most contents in it reasonable. Even by Pakistan cricket standards those views are too high on contrast. And Pakistan are not alone this time. You name West Indies, India, New Zealand, England, South Africa and Sri Lanka and you are talking about possible semi finalists. And Group league stumbers, perhaps...

Even Australia (and they would certainly cross the group stage) are not going to exactly shock the cricketing world if they fail to make the semis this year. That - let me say it once even if you've read it a hundred times or I'll burst - is the oddity and the beauty of the campaign that is about to start in a couple of minutes.

In the very recent past all these teams have had a few spectacular performances to show with disheartening setbacks. Isn't it quite fitting that the World Cup starts with a match between the two teams with highest standard deviation figures?

On an unrelated note, players (along with media) these days make too much demands on their captains' dressing room habits these days. In my opinion any player who complains that his captain can handle him a lot better should read this remarkable article on leadership in cricket and a bit of its Indian history.
Get set, Gooooooo - Pakistan won the toss and opted to bowl! ['Field' is hardly the right word for the team or its skipper...]
Update: Cricinfo commentary team is already off to a flier. Here's a gem:
"Percy Sonn, the ICC's president, has presented the original trophy to Clive Lloyd. Sonn didn't drop the trophy - or anything else come to that - which means he is already having a better tournament than he did in 2003."
And another:
" we have the hosts, West Indies, against Pakistan, a side whose preparations could not have been worse had they tried."
My word, no one's going to blame them of inconsistency with such display of form. It's amazing how such little pearls can make the real thing infinitely more enjoyable.....

Monday, March 12, 2007

The Hour arrives

Everyone's been warming up to the Event: the spectators, the hosts, the players, the officials, the administrators..... and even the newly laid Caribbean pitches and venues. (Why else would those shabby 'warm up' matches be scheduled?)

So the World Cup hour arrives, finally.

I recommend the following links to PV readers for interesting cricket views and updates during the coming excitement- filled days:

Willow and Leather : Vishnu Pavan

The Surfer : cricinfo

Men in White : Mukul Kesavan /cricinfo


My two cents : Homer

Cricket24x7 : Jagadish

& not to forget our
DS friends, notably Zainub, Chris, Will

[If you are blessed enough to receive and promptly forward one or more of those divine chain emails then you might even find a few posts on cricket by Lahar, Anantha, Amit and Gaurav within these WC months. Why they must have mentioned this in those emails]

Have fun dears!

Update: Anantha is a guest blogger at Uberdesi this World Cup

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Sweet and sour dates from 'real cricket'

“..the real cricket for us starts on March 17”, says Rahul Dravid. Wish you beginners' luck, skip. And quite a significant date, that. ‘Real cricket’ touched Group B rivals Sri Lanka on this very day –they won the World Cup on this day in 1996. Understandably the Sri Lankans are not wishing Dravid's men a similar touch at this stage. We meet the Sri Lankans on March 23 and that is another significant date - in a reversed context.

The 2003 edition of 'real cricket' and India’s challenge in it ended on 23rd March. Australia snatched the African Cup. Worse, they thrashed the Indians mercilessly like a heavyweight boxing champ would do to an immature amateur daring the former to a prize fight. They landed the first blow in the very first over of their innings (and the match) by despatching Zaheer for 15 and they did it again in the first over of the Indian innings by sending back Man of the Series and perpetual thorn-in-the-Oz-flesh Sachin Tendulkar for a duck.
I’m sure the one-sided proceedings of that evening continues to prick the flesh of many others like me. Team India can hand their fans a soothing balm by ending their Group B campaign with happy memories of the day.

Click here for World Cup fixtures on cricinfo. You can also filter match schedules by teams / grounds / groups / stages here.

The two ends of this game

A couple of days back I get an email from Lahar Appaiah, our old pal from the now-defunct Different Strokes blogging community on cricinfo. He addresses the group and invites the members to his own version of Jumanji suggesting each nominates a Dream WC XI and tracks down how it competes against other XIs. In short, we agree upon a scoring system based on runs / dismissals and each one selects XI cricketers from the World Cup players' pool that he/she thinks will fetch most points in the WC matches on that set of parameters.

The XI's come thick and fast. Interestingly most declare their choices of top XI cricketers even before the scoring system is frozen and then proceed to add their two cents to the point scoring methodology. Chris proposes a rule and after a few exchanges we settle for the tried and tested "1 run 1 point, 1 wicket 25 points, one catch 5 points, 1 stumping 10 points". [I hope that is settled]

In between Anantha suggests, "how about a point for each win as a captain?" I lose no time in imagining some bugger collecting the skipper's points because his team won inspite of his captaincy. But then, I agreed, there has to be a way to quantify a good skipper's contribution. Then comes another suggestion from Zainub. "We could add in something like a certain number of points being deducted from the bowler's tally for every certain number of runs conceded, say 5 points deducted if you concede more then 60, and 10 if you concede more then 70, and 15 if you concede more then 80, and so on...".

Just a few hours into XI building exercise and a group of cricket-crazy people are suffering from an uneasy sense of guilt. They realise that the system is perhaps unfair on some cricketers.

Indeed, we have no provision for a bowler's economy as Zai opines, or the batsman's striking ability. Credits for leading well do not translate to points in our system as Anantha gently brings to our notice, nor do the tens of other things that make a bowler's spell / batsman's innings / team's peformance successful. Come to think of it - so many stats exist in cricket but all of them appear against some names credited on the match scorecard for the stat - the 'frontenders' - as if no one else has anything to do with it. The buck stops there.

We intend to have fun through this simple game but even this scoring is so damned heavily loaded in favour of frontend cricketers. Here too we do not have a statistical tool or point scoring system to reflect the enormous difference made by the backenders - comprising of excellent ground fielders, stifling bowlers, good leaders and other players of roles vital to functioning of the celebrated frontend.

Let's take everybody's eternal favourite Jonty Rhodes as an example. Of course he collects a 5 pointer for the average stunning catch he plucks every second match and, at most, the odd scarcely believable run-out-off-a-direct-hit he effects but that is all. Of course he is loved by all of us - but he get no points or stats for that. We want him to, but there's no way.

When a Sachin or Lara chokes under runlessness from a Shaun Pollock-deVilliers-Gibbs combo and throws his wicket away to a decent ball from Andrew Hall, all 25 points go to just that last guy. Even the evergrin big-talking quickie that pouches the skier at mid on gets five points but not them. No points go to the skipper either, for fighting like a tiger at the selection meeting for inclusion of an off-form deVilliers with exactly this dismissal on his mind.

Obviously we picked the players for our teams coz' we see them collecting the best 'frontend' stats. And I mean no disrespect to these special players even in this vociferous representation for unsung champs. My pals selected them irrespective of the scoring system, which further underlines their worth. I'm hoping my boys to do the needful and place me on top of the DS lot.

Having to leave out some of the backend ones still rankles though. These instants allow us a peek into the selectors' dirty job and how little it has to do with stats. How I wish to wake up some day and learn that some blessed soul has devised a fairer method to pick such big event XI's.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Musical chairs, and repeating a tough act

The Team India we saw play in the 2003 World Cup final had (i) a flamboyant leader who could coax out a show from most of his wards and deal in sixes with the bat, (ii) the greatest ODI batsman in sight to open the innings, (iii) a multi utility keeper-batsman adept at grafting runs n' assisting the skip and (iv) a pack talented but unpredictable fast bowlers backed up by an attacking offspinner and a few part time tweakers from other batsmen.

The bowling lot is still led by Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh in familiar roles but the intervening 4-year period was apparently sufficient time for those batting roles to complete an intriguing game of musical chairs (this version even had some forced 'time outs'). The keeper-bat for the 2007 event is no grafter but one powerhouse of a hitter, while the erstwhile keeper-bat is now the skipper-bat. The former skipper-bat is now the greatest ODI opener in the planet on current form, while the erstwhile greatest opener is guised as a shrewd middle-overs modulator.

In 2003 we saw the skipper having 2 distinct roles (point no - i above). When last spotted Rahul Dravid was desperately trying to master the second, six hitting part in the WC lead-up matches. In fact he has surprisingly done rather decently. Having already hit 5 sixes in his last seven ODI innings, he hit two more against Netherlands the other day. Can''t remember watching Rahul Dravid hit as many sixes anytime before; he has 34 of them in his entire 310 match career - to Ganguly's 176 sixes in 286! U n b e l i e v a b l e for two players having identical career spans and averages, isn't it? Check out
Gangs' and Dravid's player pages before it engenders distrust between us old friends.

Tough as that may look, infinitely tougher for Dravid will be to emulate that first of skipper's jobs: making his mates go through the roof on special occasions. For much of the past year it has looked just that but fortunately for Indian cricket that part is not beyond the means or stature of Rahul Dravid.

After a prolonged period of struggle for much of the previous year the Indian team has finally shown good-ish form in recent matches riding on the blazing form of - who else, Sourav. With some delicate-yet-decisive man management in the dressing room and intrusive leadership in middle overs from the present leader this team is not stopping before the semi finals - and (slurrrpp) beyond.
[This post features in the collaborative World Cup 2007 preview for Team India on Desicritics]

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Promoting cricket beyond the borders or killing the Golden Goose

Some ICC events are planned in the months after the World Cup with the 'aim' of pushing the geographical boundaries of the game. But like all other first-time exercises these off-shore series / tournaments too need to have an impact asessment study done on them. To the extent of my knowledge there is a fair history of such exercises in world Cricket. I would like to know if the ICC has done scientific studies on earlier such series played in the name of popularising the game.

Why do I suddenly think of that? Because India have a couple of such series coming up in the course of 2007. You find Indians everywhere, and wherever they migrate and settle they keep going crazy about this game. With varying intensities the pattern is similar with other sub-continent / South Asian expats, and perhaps also with Australians. But does playing a high- profile cricket series in a 'targetted' expansion area actually catalyse development of interest amongst other kids and youngsters in that region that do not think much of cricket?

It may, or it may not. Frankly I do not have a take or theory on that. The phenomenon is far too complex to be predicted on a blog post by a bloating neighbourhood bowler with no stamp on his passport. Not that anything was ever going to depend on such take. But surely it is important that the ICC studies past history of such tours before cramping an already cramped players' calendar with more such events?

One of the earlier outland-ish series was the Indo Pak Sahara Cup played in Toronto, Canada from 1996 to 1998 before Kargil put paid to its continuation. It was more of a BCCI-PCB event than an ICC one. No one's complaining on the quality of cricket played (in fact the first two series were outstanding) but I would love to hear from one of the 15 men in the present Canadian World Cup squad - or even some of their fringe players who missed selection - that he picked up a bat / ball after watching Sachin / Waqar in those series.

It will show that the exercise, the choice of venue in particular, was not entirely futile, which will be a momentous pacification for me and, I'm sure, many others who still feel that some events related to that Sahara Cup tournament killed off an in-form India's chances to win the 1999 World Cup long before the first ball was bowled.

I will recount the mysterious chain of events for you. The 1998 edition of Sahara Cup at Toronto was scheduled in September, the usual time. However it clashed with the Commonwealth Games cricket matches to be hend in Malaysia, where India had agreed to send a team. The IOC (indian Olympic Committee) refused to settle for a second string Indian team and so did Sahara, referring to their 5 series contract.

BCCI procrastinated typically till matters came to a head. The team that knit together a string of tournament wins in 1998 was consequently split as a last-minute 'masterstroke' and sent in opposite directions for participating in both tourneys. It was an act that in retrospect amounted to splitting the golden goose in two halves. Both the halves fared badly, and could never again be the sum of their parts even after they were reunified.

Admittedly smart scheduling can avoid involvement of such high stakes for any individual team. But times have changed since 1996 and international cricket is no more a fun game in the sun. The players are getting worn out by a combination of increasing number of matches and skyrocketting pressure to keep performing. The injury list ahead of the World Cup tells a story the ICC and cricket boards may not want to hear.

God knows what further tolls the list will include at the end of the longest World Cup and then at the end of relentless 2007. Did these players, the guys people pay to watch, not deserve a month or two of time away from the cauldron in the aftermonths of the showpiece event? If not, then when?

On the other hand if the ICC has serious (rather than financial) reasons to believe in the promotional effect of past 'beyond the border' series and shares the study reports on previous such exercises with the players, the latter will feel gratified about the service they are putting in for the spread of their beloved game. It will do little for the aching knees, ailing backs and bruised elbows but deep inside it may just make this maddening lack of respite a lot more bearable.

I refrain from commenting upon other teams who play far less than India in the coming season but the Indian players would need mental marijuana like that to survive the Tsunami of
15 Tests and 38-46 ODIs (depending on success in tourneys, and adding the 3 ODIs in Ireland vs. Aus) awaiting them between May 2007 and April 2008.

So can we train eight guns on the matador's forehead and expect him to fight the raging bull? In other words do we really expect Rahul Dravid's boys to concentrate on just the World Cup at hand? After all early elimination from the showpiece allow them some much needed (and well deserved, in my opinion) rest to prepare for the FTP ordeal.....
Update: This link via Homer suggests worse is in store. Guess 2007 is the year of cricket beyond the boundaries - of cricketers' physical abilities. 'Do paise ka tamasha' indeed, Homer.