Sunday, April 29, 2007

Innovation XI

Chanced upon a different kind of one day XI on Will Luke's 'The Corridor'. It is not the best XI or the most successful XI. It is a Dream Team of XI guys that have contributed the most towards alteration of the international one day game for the better.

Across the decades since 1971 when the first official one day international match was played, each of these pioneers left a new taste to savour in the shorter version of the game with a distinctively unique and effective approach to his individual role.

Thus ends a cheaply peddled World Cup..

..when I am down to writing a blog post away from live television even as the final stages of a game no less than a Cricket World Cup final is being played out.

Scene 1: A damp morning awaits the World Cup Final. Play starts in the morning after a 2½ hour delay. The match is reduced to 38 overs a side even before a ball is bowled.

Scene 2: Chasing Australia's mammoth total of 281, Sanath Jayasuriya falls into the vicious trap of Duckworth Lewis. He eyes the rain clouds and senses that a rain interuption, possibly the last one, is round the corner. He desires to keep his team ahead. In trying to manufacture an ugly across-the-line swipe off the last ball of a Michael Clarke over he surrenders his wicket and sets Sri Lanka further back on the D/L chart after the loss of third wicket.

Scene 3: The 5th ball of the 25th over is bowled. Fairly dense droplets of rain are pouring for quite a while now. The pitch is getting mucky and the outfield / bowling run up gets more dangerous by the minute. However the batsmen Chamara Silva and skipper Jayawardene do not budge as that could mean the last of their team's hopes to win the cherished title. Umpires Steve Bucknor and Aleem Dar had hesitated on forcing a pause of play under the exceptional circumstances but now they decide enough is enough and call out for the covers.

Scene 4: The play resumes soon with two overs missing from the over quota available to Sri Lanka and the target reduced to 269. For the last few overs a couple of new-to-the-crease batsmen of a brave team making a valiant attempt to chase a steep target against the world's best side in the biggest and most watched cricket match of all have had the small additional worry of looking at the skies after every delivery as well as the 'parallel' scoreboard of M/s D/L for playing to two different game plans at the same time. One game plan is to win the game over the full distance, the other to stay ahead if rain interrupts the match.

All of this is actually taking place even though the tournament rules provide for a reserve day for EACH of the matches of the tournament. Unbelievable! When I first heard of the extra day during the group league matches I failed to appreciate the cricketing logic behind curtailing rain affected matches by more than 10 overs at any time earlier than the 2nd day. I still cannot reckon just how they could allow a final to be played under that same set of rules.

Perhaps remaining true to their ever-greedy selves that owe allegiance only to the telemedia & their sponsors, an all important group of entities that naturally want the matches to end on scheduled days, the rulemakers of International Cricket Council have decreed that:

(i) the reserve day is to be used "only if we have a match with any unfinished innings of less than 20 overs" for any of the sides; and that
(ii) the match starts afresh on the next day instead of the simple matter of completing an interrupted but full 50 over match over two separate days.

And who on earth would prefer that sort of painfully obnoxious enforcement of the word "one day" in "One Day Internationals" in exchange of a proper game of cricket? Who would refuse to even spare the Big Final that crap? Of course the self styled 'keepers of the game', the International Cricket Council.

As indicated in the previous mid-match post I had reckoned Sri Lanka to be overwhelmed by the concession of 30 odd extra runs to sublime big hitting skills of the Aussie wicketkeeper, runs that Adam Gilchrist had no business getting against a bowling side as good as the Lankans, runs that turned a potential nail biter into an expectedly one-sided affair barring an improbable 2nd miracle. However the speculation about the final margin - a fair one - is destined to remain just that as Sri Lanka, who unlike Australia had to suffer mid-innings downpours and consequently let a few crucial mid overs go by while they were helplessly torn between the two game plans, have been as badly hit by the ICC's rule makers as by that blinder from Adam Gilchrist.

Shame on you, ICC. Can you not just do us cricket lovers a favour by disappearing from the face of cricket? The game cannot seriously go on any worse by itself than it is doing at present under your central regime.

Update: These excerpts from cricinfo's text commentary sums the sad end to the people's World Cup aptly. Read on:

6.12pm The light's been offered and Sri Lanka have taken it - meaning Australia have won the World Cup again. They certainly deserve it and are huddling in celebration. A bit of a damp squib of an ending, which is of course fitting.

Now what's this? Aleem Dar is having a word with Australia, telling them they can't yet celebrate. Officially this match isn't over. You couldn't make it up. You don't have to.

And the farce continues! Now the stands for the ceremony have been brought on... and are off again, as the umpires shoo them away. My word.

6.17pm It's what is traditionally known as night. It is so dark but the umpires are now saying the match will continue. Heads should roll for this. The man is out putting the 30-yard circles back out. He needs a torch to do so. The batsmen are heading out to the middle accompanied by a guide dog.

6.30pm Congratulations to Australia who were the best team from the first match and maintained their relentlessly high standard throughout. Sri Lanka gave them a game but on the day came up just short.

There's a certain irony that cricket's four-yearly showcase ended in farce ... Australia, Sri Lanka, the Caribbean and millions of spectators deserved more but given what has gone before today, it was almost inevitable. You can spin it all you like, this tournament has not done the game any favours and people at the top, if they had any decency, would be contemplating their futures. But we all know that won't happen.

[cross posted on Desicritics]

Adam Gilchrist's Green Mile

We are into the lunch break of the 2007 Cricket World Cup final. Even if the break were to be of 10 hours instead of ten minutes I would be groping for words to describe that innings. I have decided that I will rather let this collage of images from various points of the Gilchrist innings. These can narrate what transpired till the 31st over of the Australian innings of The Final better than words ever would.

10.2 (ov): The first powerplay is over. Sri Lanka have restricted the Aussies to a rather low 1st Powerplay score of 47 in a 38-overs-a-side winner takes all encounter. Dilhara Fernando smiles ruefully as he failed a collect a very low c&b chance from Adam Craig Gilchrist, then batting on 31. The next three balls disappear for 4, 4 & 6.

22.2 (ov): Malinga bowls an inswinging near-yorker (outswinging for Gilly) that pitches on leg-n-middle and threatens to split the gap between bat and pad through late movement to hit off stump until Gilly, already predetermined for a big hit, still manages to make a little adjustment to middle the ball for a straight four over the bowler’s head. An international batsman on another day or even another international batsman on this day would be mighty pleased just to survive that one. [cricinfo text commentary: “Where did that come from?”]

30.3 (ov): Adam Gilchrist skies a riser from Dilhara and Chamara Silva take the catch at mid on. Gilchrist departs for 149 off 104 balls. It makes the incident from 10.2 the turning point of the match.

If you are about to write off the Sri Lankan bowlers for having conceded 281 in 38 overs think again. A mere 109 runs were scored off the 129 balls faced by other Australian batsmen. That is very good against this batting side in a 38 over match. Add an Andrew Symonds coming in at the slog and scoring just 2 boundaries in nearly eight overs of stay and you’ll think that the Australians finally met their match. It all, however, came to nought because Gilly rattled up 149 runs from the 104 deliveries he faced.

Just how special was it? I reckon that return of 149 to be at least 30 runs more than what any Australian batsman in prime form (including Gilchrist himself, perhaps) could have recorded against this bowling. Gilchrist hit no less than 8 sixes and 13 fours and yet so many of the shots went in and around the ‘V’.

From whatever we know of the man, Adam Gilchrist will be speculating hard during the lunch break on announcing his ODI retirement today in the event of Australia pocketing their third successive World Cup title.

My vote is on a ‘yes’. And so it should be.

Quote of the day: Adam Gilchrist hit his seventh six off the first ball of Sanath’s 27th over and took a single off the next ball. Ricky Ponting played out two dot balls and then another one. Michael Holding observed: “That’s a nice ploy by Sri Lankans, to keep Ricky Ponting on strike. You never thought you would ever hear it, did you?”

[cross posted on Desicritics]

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Cricinfo's Magnificent Six

What do you do when the Biggest Cricket Match in four years starts off 2½ hours late? Regale yourself with gems from cricinfo text commentary. Today the Cream of Cricinfo are doing the star turn at live text commentary and already they are off to a better start than the match itself:

8.30am Good morning and welcome to our coverage of the ninth World Cup final. Teams, toss and all that stuff to follow shortly. We have all our commentary team in action today, so it will be a mix of me, Martin Williamson, Sriram Veera, Will Luke, George Binnoy, Jenny Thompson and Siddhartha Vaidyanathan. If this was a group stage match we would outnumber the crowd.

The delay is apparently no good for the ICC either. The tele channels have found the easiest and most acceptable way of biding the intervening time.

10.20am Sadly for the ICC, the delay is giving several TV stations the chance to savage the format of the competition. And they are really piling in. Back at the ground, the crowd are being pretty patient. Lots of beach-balls bouncing around the Aussie contingent. They are probably seeking asylum from the Gabba fun police.

47 days were clearly not enough. If you are an avid reader of the hugely popular blog The Corridor run by Will Luke you will learn today about the reason behind its McGrathesque, restrictive (or economical) name:

11.10am "I don't like cricket," sings Jenny. " I really hate it." Not quite what 10CC (or the ICC) had in mind, but she has a point. We have eaten the entire day's biscuit supply already. The covers, meanwhile, are as stuck in place as Will's hand in his pocket when it comes to buying a drink. "I'm not tight," objects Will, before admitting that he has not bought anyone a beer since Sri Lanka last held the World Cup.

I'm expecting more from the Sexy Six at cricinfo's commentary box all along.

The Final Match-up

Since waking in the morning I wanted to carry out a stats study of the three best bowlers and four best batsmen from each of the finalists to guess what to expect from the World Cup final. The match is going to start in a few minutes from now (7 pm IST) and I finally get the time to do it. The cricinfo folks have done some job on Australia-Sri Lanka encounters from the past. Their study firmly reiterates that Sri Lankans have a dismal record against Australians, particularly so in the World Cup.

But then so much has changed in the last year or two. We have a Sri Lanka that has played exceedingly well outside Sri Lanka for one year now, one that has the best depth and width in bowling resources. Equally we have an Australian side that has shown over the last 11 matches that their batsmen can go the extra yards and even dwarf their already lofty standards to cover up for any perceived weakness in bowling.

I have a simple plan for comparative measurement of bowling and batting strengths of the two sides. We sample them from their last 15 matches. Since 70% of those have been played in the World Cup, the current form of these players gets adequately reflected in this sample. At the same time the temporary troughs and exceptional circumstances facing a few players (e.g. Mike Hussey never got a decent opportunity to express himself this Cup) get slightly evened out by extending the sample a few games prior to the World Cup.

The prime criteria of judgement for bowlers is, as always, wickets. Runs, for batsmen. However to get a fairer picture of the player performances we would modify the wicket tallies of bowlers with a factor inversely proportional to their economy rates. For the batsmen we will modify the run aggregates with the factor of their batting strike rates. So here are the basic rules:

Bowling: We take the top three bowlers of one side. We divide the wickets taken by each in the last 15 matches with his economy rate (expressed in ratio of six – i.e. an economy rate of five will be 0.833 and so on) for the period and add the resulting modified figures for the three. We do the same for the other side and compare them.

Batting: We take the top three batsmen of one side. We multiply the runs made by each in the last 15 matches with his CAREER strike rate on date (expressed in ratio of hundred – i.e. a strike rate of 80 will be 0.8 and so on) and add the resulting modified figures for the four. We do the same for the other side and compare them.

[Filtered strike rates of players for recent matches are not readily available. We are therefore forced to make do with career strike rates]

We are not taking up a fielding comparison. In pre world cup previews I rated these two as comparable fielding sides and their performances from the world Cup indicate as much.

SL – bowling

Lasith Malinga: 28wkts @ 5.17 ~ 32.5
Chaminda Vaas: 23 wkts @ 3.35 ~ 41.2
M Muralitharan: 31 wkts @ 3.80 ~ 48.9
Total: 122.6

Aus – bowling

Glenn McGrath: 29 wkts @ 4.57 ~ 38.1
Nathan Bracken: 22 wkts @ 4.11 ~ 32.1
Shaun Tait*: 28 wkts @ 5.47 ~ 30.7
Total: 100.9

[*played only 14 matches so far]

Bowling Strength Analysis: The Sri Lankans are holding a slight edge there, 21.5% precisely. The Aussies do have an in-form left arm slow bowler (Brad Hogg) as their 4th bowler but Sri Lanka are equal to it. Their crisis man is Sanath Jayasuriya of the left arm slow-medium-fast variety.


SL – batting

Sanath Jayasuriya: 500 runs @ 90.73 ~ 454
Mahela Jayawardene: 570 runs @ 76.07 ~ 434
Chamara Silva: 501 @ 72.70 ~ 364
Kumara Sangakkara: 419 @ 74.3 ~ 311
Total: 1563

Aus – batting

Matthew Hayden: 927 runs @ 78.6 ~ 729
Ricky Ponting: 850 runs @ 80.24 ~ 682
Andrew Symonds: 340 runs @ 92.23 ~ 314
Adam Gilchrist: 371 runs @ 96.12 ~ 357
Total: 2082

Batting Strength Analysis: Aussies hold a 33.2% edge there. This value is significantly more than the 21.5% deficit in the boeling analysis. Also these figures do not take into account the increased batting strike rates exhibited by Hayden and Ponting in the present tournament in comparison to their overall strike rates, or else the batting would have looked even more of a mismatch.


If the number crunching is beginning to put you off then just dwell on this: Mike Hussey is no more amongst the top four Australian batsmen for being reduced to an unknown quantity in WC’07. However Sangakkara, also going thru a dip of form (and having no excuses of exceptional circumstances like Hussey) since the Super Eights, still qualifies amongst the top four SL players.

Sri Lanka will need one last World Cup ton from the blade of Sanath Jayasuriya to bridge that gap. For all the wizardry of Murali, he has only ten overs to bowl and Australian batsmen are quite unlike Indians and New Zealanders in that they know it.

1) Huzaifa, for correcting me merely two days back that the final happens to be on the 28th of April and NOT 29th
2) The rain in Barbados, for letting me complete the post without missing the match!

[cross posted on Desicritics]

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Big Swim - Where My Heart Still Goes On

Disclaimer: All characters in the story are fictional. Any similarity with anyone living or dead is purely coincidental.


April 24, 2007: It is the 43rd day of our trip. An amazing cool day awaits me on the breezy deck of the cruiser. It is an irresistible combination, always provoking a liberating sensation in the midst of the sea. You feel on top of the world, another world.

Let me introduce myself first.

On second thoughts I do not matter here. Let's say I'm a lot like The Anci.. OK, it is the third millenium so it is proper to say that I am like Jack Dawson of Titanic the movie minus his Rose. I had my Rose too but..

I walk ahead and stand near the tip where the railings from both sides of deck meet. This place floods me with memories. My Rose used to stand on this railing with both hands stretched out like wings and eyes closed, dreaming of flying like a proud albatross. A childlike joy dripped from her countenance when she emulated Titanic's Rose or the albatross - I'll never know - and I loved her for it. Fifty feet below where I stand, the cruiser is cutting through the cold seawater at a leisurely pace. It is following four guys that are swimming in the ocean for an ever-nearing destination ahead. Those guys are Oz, Kwi, LionL and SpBok, in descending order of their ranking positions in the quadrennial Big Swim.

The guys are participating in a month-and-half long swimming challenge of several rounds spread across seven seas. The Final Destination is now just five days ahead. I am holding the pre-trip prediction sheet where 90 days ago I jotted down four prospective winners from the starting lot. My heart still wants to take one last look at the piece of paper before jettisoning it with other redundant paraphernalia into the milky turbulent trail of the four valiant swimmers that is being continously devoured by our dogged vessel like a never-ending noodle.

The four names were noted down in large fonts and fourth one was later touched up in a loving red hue. A sprinkling of gold from the morning sun today makes that name look nearly as beautiful as the person herself. I had backed Oz, Green, LionL and my Rose, in that order of ranking, to remain in the hunt when the final week began. Green inexplicably got off at the first port and the other, the love of my life, sank into the depths soon thereafter. But Kwi and SpBok, two of the next three on my rating charts, managed to stay on board. (I had rated Kwi and Windz joint 5th and SpBok 7th.)

Immune to logic, I pick up the pen and circle off the two lost names on the sheet to write Kwi and SpBok above them with a strange introspection. I peep across the sheet at the four moving images challenging the wavy sea in the distance. SpBok was the crowd favourite to win the challenge at the outset. I dedicate a silent round of applause to him for doing better than I thought but his swim (so far) has been more of the seasick guy from my predictions than the prospective champ he was made out to be. Not too many people around would argue that SpBok would have been following the Big Swim on his bedroom telly this weekend if even one of Green and Rose could have stayed on for a half-decent duration instead of letting two valiant but inexperienced prize fighters called Bong and Irlos take their places in 11 of the 24 Swims in the Super Round. If..

The caressing breeze stops abruptly. Logic intervenes along with the smell of rotten fish being thrown out from the deck. My Trance of Lost Romance is broken. Soothsayer designates are not permitted any 'if's. All that reasoning and ranking counts for nothing when two of the four contestants you had backed to be swimming into the last week are out and down by Day 10 of 48. No droplets of mercy for my dead prophecy ever welled up as all the talk of 'two bad days' went around the deck. The format was circulated well ahead of the swim and I laid my bets knowing full well of the rules, the scheduled face-offs and their pitfalls.

There goes my prediction sheet into the ocean. It gets wet rather quickly and sinks. The blue embraces the red Rose and takes her home. I repent not making a boat or swan out of it like childhood days. It could have floated a while longer in the ocean and sung a final song before going down.

April 25, 2007: LionL has eliminated Kwi in the one-on-one challenge last night. The bout between Oz and SpBok is scheduled for tonight. Only one of the two winners gets to complete the swim in the swim-to-finish thereafter. In four days we'll know who gets to stand on the railing with both hands stretched out like my Rose when the ship reaches the Final Destination cheered by admiring onlookers.

The winner will no doubt have earned the applause by dint of stamina, bravado, hard work and good luck. However by then the faithful cruiser ship would have done enough to get a fair share of the applause because strangely the journey has been tougher for the lifeless ship than the living, breathing, struggling and retiring contestants in this edition of The Big Swim.

[Cross posted on Desicritics]

Monday, April 23, 2007

That's all folks - no more Lara!

You are on a week long all-expenses-paid trip to the Hawaiian islands. You wake up on the 5th morning at Honolulu only to get a message from your sponsors that your trip is aborted with immediate effect.

Or, you move out of town for five days to attend a wedding at a remote area. You come back in town and learn that the one cricketer you hated to miss even for a single game has played his last in all forms of the sport.

The former is more shocking, if only because you did not see it coming. But then it only takes a few curses and a smooth passage back home to a happy family to forget all about it. Try emptying the gallons of regret oozing from a fan’s heart when the rarest batsman - a combo version of the greatest and the most attractive in at least three decades of cricket - bids adieu without so much as giving the fan a chance to stand up and applaud his idol when he departs for the last time.

The only time I saw him from the stands of a cricket ground was way back in 1994 in a tri series final at Eden Gardens. He scored something like a blob in it. But no one can take away the memory of those few hours of live cricket watching till the wee hours inside a hotel room 1000+ miles away from home when he scored that 153 not out to win the third test against Australia in 1999. It felt unbelievable then, and it still is hard work to believe that someone – even Brian Charles Lara - actually scripted a win in those circumstances.

This is a farewell post, but one where I am going to quote someone else’s words all along. It’s not as if I am unwilling to write one of mine but fortunately Rahul Bhattacharya has already given his masterly words in
this cricinfo piece published ahead of Lara's last match to most of the clumsily compiled points you would have found in an 'original' post of mine. Most exactly similar to my thoughts is this one:

I also came across a short note on the message boards of minutes after the understated announcement of retirement. "My hero since I was a very young boy. I've followed his career since de afro days at Fatima. Missed classes to watch him bat. This is a sad day for me."

It is for me too, because Lara's batsmanship was the greatest pleasure I derived out of cricket in the last two decades along with the bowling of Wasim Akram and I could have watched the game if they alone played it in the field.

That Rahul piece has so many gems on offer that I cannot resist quoting them here.

On Lara’s relatively lesser success in one day cricket:

He bows out now in a one-day match but it was not his preferred stage. Though his magical wrists, his intuition for gaps, his talent at going aerial were all suited to one-day cricket, not so the scale. The canvas was too small. Lara was of odysseys. He liked to get in, bat one, two days, score two, three, four hundred runs. Before such calibre, the limitations of one-day cricket were too petty.

On Lara’s brilliant backlift:

Having been unlucky in that way, it is from a one-day match that I have the best memories of watching Lara live. This was in Trinidad last year. The position was carefully determined so as to find the most unfettered view of that great big glittering backlift and wind-up. We settled somewhere between wide long-off and extra cover. Till he closed the issue with triumphant sixes off Harbhajan Singh, he played an innings of hard grit. So it was an hour or two of watching him size it up and really it was all I wanted to watch.

There comes a point in the Lara wind-up when all the game seems frozen. He is bent climatically at the knees, bat, as the cliché' has it, raised like a guillotine, eyes trained down the pitch and, surely, given his knack for reading of spin and swing, at the bowler's wrist. Insofar as the life of a cricket stroke goes, this is the fatal moment, the hairline between death, glory and a day at the office.

It is perhaps not normal to think of cricket shots in those terms. Yet nobody could make the spectator more alive to these possibilities. Nobody could pack so much drama, meaning in every shot of cricket. Consequently nobody could so illuminate the point that this is a sport of such independent events, of an infinite number of worlds. Nobody, for better or for worse, could so strongly confirm that this here is the ultimate individual sport played by a team.

On ‘the’ 153 not out:

Five years ago after a fair chase I did a satisfying interview with him. He told me a little story behind the 153 not out against Australia, perhaps his defining work in a career full of defining works. You remember the scenario, pay dispute, 0-5 in South Africa, 51 all out in the first Test, and then the brilliant double hundred to level the series before the classic Test at Bridgetown. A school friend, Nicholas Gomez, had presented him a Michael Jordan book. In it Jordan had spoken about his visualisation techniques. "I remember calling Gomez at six o'clock in the morning, the last morning of the Test match, and we went about planning this innings against the best team in the world." This was Lara's focus upon arousal, and if it deserted him he always found it back, and in the waxing and waning there was something reassuringly cyclical as it was frustrating.

On Lara’s Lara:

Nobody twinkled his feet so and angled his blade so and keep hitting gaps like Lara, an intuition sharpened in childhood when he arranged pots as fielders to practise. In 2003 a man at deep midwicket was taken out and put beside another behind point. This comes from Adam Gilchrist in The Australian a couple of seasons ago. "Mistake," hissed Lara. Next ball Lara lofted to midwicket for six. Gilchrist taunted Lara to take on the two men behind point instead. Lara strung it between them for four. Next ball was straighter, Lara backed away and strung it through again. Best remain silent now, Gilchrist then decided. This was to demonstrate precision of his skill. But I particularly liked "mistake". 'You don't know what I can do?' was the strut. That is the Lara motif.

And finally this:

Nobody made the game look better and few ever played it better. So look hard on Saturday because we may not see the likes of this again and if we do we can think back to Lara and smile.

I personally thank Rahul Bhattacharya for doing this article on his idol and mine. It befits a most special cricketer. I feel no need to add any more to what he has already said except that I was denied that chance to look hard at this incomprehensible creature on Saturday. It is as if Lara ran me out.

Cricket lovers from some future era will be thankful that television technology had made reasonable progress by the time Brian Charles Lara came to the scene. For this man is far, far beyond the scope of explanation through the numbers he leaves back against his name. Batsmen unworthy of comparison to him in genius have left (and will continue to leave) better figures of career achievement. Brian Lara is virtually the sole cricketer that makes the stats-happy person in me feel ashamed of even existing.

If anyone is still interested in having a peek at Lara's story in numbers here’s a
statistical career summary of Lara. Rahul finds the man in his figures:

Lara batted with sensual beauty and gluttonous appetite. To watch him move into position was to already understand the possibilities of this game. To study his figures was to marvel the scope of his conception. He made the most runs in an over, an innings, a career. Anything anyone did he did bigger.

It's all over folks. Now maybe we can stop bickering over what Prince Charles Lara of the Brian name could have been off the field and revel in the legacy of all that he chose to unravel on it.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Greg Chappell's parting interview

Let's hear what Greg Chappell has to say before leaving India. I got the link via Homer and like him I'm making this post more as a record keeping exercise than to make any point.


If you want to be like Australia, you can't run your cricket like Zimbabwe: Chappell
TIMES NEWS NETWORK / Sumit Mukherjee

How would you sum up your 22-month tryst with Team India?

It has been a huge learning experience for me. As a coach, it was easily one of the most challenging assignments one could ever hope to have. I have had only two 11-day breaks and a slightly longer one during this period, apart from one or two minor ones. But I have loved every moment of it, planning, strategising, analysing etc before every tour or series. It's a big high for a coach to watch the players pick up the cues and apply them successfully in match situations.

How did they react to your views and ideas in general?

Individuals react differently to different ideas. In some cases, the reaction time is longer whereas some others pick up the ball (cues) quickly and run with it. I have enjoyed challenging them to get better and better all the time.

Is this a better Indian team that you are leaving behind than the one you inherited?

Team building is a never-ending process. You have to keep at it all the time. We are a much better side than what our results have shown in recent times. Some of the junior players are not finished products yet. It's important that their development continues so that they are ready to take on bigger challenges.

But they may be lost forever in a divided Team India?

I came here to do a job that I have done to the best of my ability. I do not have any vested interests in Indian cricket. I have briefed the BCCI about the issues facing Indian cricket. One of them is youth development. It's up to the BCCI to act in the best interests of the game in the country.

What went wrong with the seniors?

I don't want to get into senior-junior issue again. Look, as a player, you have to keep challenging yourself. When that stops, it's time to do a quick reality check and take a few hard decisions. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite happen that way in many countries. So, in Australia we now have a system in place which will reject you the moment you slip below the mark.

Would you put it down to bad attitude?

Bad attitude is like bad habit, hard to get rid of. Greg Blewett started off with two successive Test centuries, Matthew Eliott had more talent than Matthew Hayden or Justin Langer and Stuart MacGill should have played more often for Australia. If they didn't it's because they failed to fit into the team fabric. They were rejected by the system.

Do you advocate such a system for Indian cricket?

You don't have to replicate the Australian system, but it is absolutely important to have a model in place that is similar to the one they have Down Under. It will entail making sweeping changes to the existing system and changing mindsets.

Isn't that a tall order...?

If you want to be like Australia, you can't run your cricket like Zimbabwe. The BCCI must adopt, may be, a 10-year plan, spelling out the aims and objectives and go about attaining those goals in a professional manner. Any half-measures or cosmetic changes at this stage would be like putting band-aid on cancer.

Have you spelt out your vision for Indian cricket to the BCCI?

I have given them the picture, highlighting the areas of concern. The BCCI must realise that a strong Indian team is a must for the games overall good. If India drops the ball now, it will be a tragedy for world cricket.

Changes would certainly mean a new look at our selection process?

It should be right there at the top of the agenda as it's critical to the team's performance. I still maintain that if we had Sreesanth in Pakistan (instead of three left-arm pacers), we would not have lost the Test series there. They must have, may be, four full-time selectors with an excellent background in the game and they should be paid to do the job. Along with the coach, they should be made accountable. The coach and the captain must also have a larger say in selection matters.

OK, so you didn't quite get the team you wanted for the World Cup. But can you say with any certainty that India would have fared better if you had the players of your choice?

I think we should have done much better in the West Indies with the squad we had. We batted poorly against Bangladesh, but we should have still squeezed out a win. You may point to the 1983 World Cup final, but history says India's record in defending low totals has been quite poor. We could have done with a few young legs, but I believe that we still had the ammunition to at least reach the semis.

You have always emphasised on youth?

Absolutely, but having said that, any good team always has a healthy mix of youth and experience. Seniors players in the side have an obligation to guide the juniors. As a junior I learnt such a lot from seniors. I like the look of India's crop of new players. My only concern is that the talent pool is not big enough for a country as big as India.

How big should be the pool?

Considering the fact that pace bowlers are injury-prone, if I were an Indian selector, I would love to have at least 12 pace bowlers to choose from before a series. And I am not talking about greenhorns. Right now, apart from the ones who were in the Cup squad, you only have RP Singh and a VRV Singh, both very young and raw.

What about Ranadeb Bose, the Bengal lad, who emerged as the highest wicket-taker in Ranji Trophy this season?

He has the movement, but not the pace. He must add a few yards of pace to be really effective in international cricket. On current form, he can be handy in only certain conditions in England and New Zealand. His partner Shib Shankar Paul, on the other hand, is a good back-up bowler. He hits the deck regularly and pitches it in the right areas. I have not seen him bowl after he underwent a knee surgery, but he too has fitness problems.

You have already said that Manoj Tewari (Bengal batsman) has impressed you?

Yes, he looks to be a smart cricketer, doesn't he? He is young, so he must learn not to get carried away after just one big season. He must look to make most of the opportunities that come his way and remain positive even if he meets with no instant success.

What happens to Suresh Raina if you go away?

I think he had paid dearly for the few good words I have said about him. Unfortunately, as a coach, I do not measure success and failures by applying general yardsticks. In my book, as also in the books of a few others, he is a special kid. I hope he will go on to be a big star one day.

Who are the others who rate Raina so highly?

Brian Lara for one. If you remember Raina went up to Lara recently and sought some advice. I later asked Brian what he thought of Raina. Brian just said: 'Anyone who can play like that off his back foot has to be special'. In Malaysia, a couple of Australians, including John Buchanan and their fielding coach Mike Young had asked me 'Gregy, where did you find this guy?'

Just for the record, why do you rate Raina so highly?

He is a complete package, for god's sake. You guys didn't do him a good turn by comparing him with Sachin Tendulkar after he had played one or two brilliant knocks. However, if you look at Sachin's record in his first 30-35 ODIs and compare it with Raina's you will not find much difference, especially after you factor in that Sachin has always batted in the top 4, while Raina comes lower down. As Brian said, if someone can play good shots off the back foot, he has to be special. He is still learning and far from mature. You have to be patient with him. Look at Jacques Kallis. He hadn't set the stage on fire on his debut. He has, however, made slow and steady progress over the years and emerged as South Africa's leading batsman and the world's premier all-rounder.

And how would you rate Raina as a fielder?

Only behind Ricky Ponting in contemporary cricket. And only because Ponting is more experienced. In the games he played for India, Raina got us one run-out, on an average, per match with his superb pick up and throws. He has an uncanny ability to hit the stumps which India can ill afford to ignore. Yuvraj and Kaif are also good, but more flamboyant. In Pakistan last year when we had all three of them manning the off-side at point, cover and extra-cover, Rahul didn't need a sweeper on the boundary!

Is Sreesanth ready to lead the Indian attack or he is still a step or two behind?

He is ready. We have had to work hard on him, drop him for the Champions Trophy because he was losing focus. But he has now sorted all that out and is bowling with lot of fire. As I said, they are good kids, but need to be nurtured carefully so that their talent finds full expression.

When did he catch your eye?

At the first camp (for pace bowlers) in Bangalore after I took over. We were playing a practice match and Sree was pitching his out-swingers nicely. I got so excited that I told Ian Fraser that I am going in to field at first slip to take a closer look at the guy. Soon enough, Sree pitched another one up and the edge flew to me.

Is RP Singh coming along well?

He ought to have been played more. He didn't because we couldn't afford three bowlers bowling the same stuff from the same angle all the time. He should not lose heart and look to improve all the time. He is one for the future for sure.

We all know that Irfan Pathan has forgotten how to bowl. Can you tell us why?

The funniest thing that I have heard after coming to India is people saying Irfan forgot how to bowl after Chappell tried to make him into an all-rounder. If someone had suggested that to Ian Botham, I would not have been responsible for the consequences. Irfan hasn't lost his talent; he has only lost his way. That's what's wrong with Irfan. We are trying to help him sort this thing out, which appears to be more mental than a physical problem. Someone has to work with him till he gets his confidence back. If he is not handled with care, he may be lost forever.

What impresses you most about VRV Singh, his pace or his ability with the bat?

His attitude. He is like a sponge, absorbing all he can. He is a tireless worker and enjoys the game. We all know that he can work up a bit of pace, but we are still trying to show him how to harness it the best. With a bit more control, he will be an asset.

The spinning cupboard seems to be bare?

It's definitely an area of concern. We must go to the root of the problem. Other countries are also facing similar problems.

Is the lack of options in batting a major worry?

We have to give the likes of Raina, Venugopal Rao and Rohit Sharma more chances. Rao was a trifle unlucky. Perhaps, he deserved more chances. However, he may be a better option in Tests rather than ODIs.

What about VVS Laxman?

It's a pity that injuries have taken their toll on him. He still looks so classy when he is looking to attack. One common thing I have observed about Laxman, Sachin and Sourav's batting of late is that they are not allowing themselves to be guided by their natural instincts. I can understand the pressure they are under all the time, thanks to you guys. Perhaps they are too scared to fail.

With Dhoni and Karthik in the side, you have options in wicket-keeping?

They are different characters, but great talents. Dhoni's controlled aggression is something that rivals will always be scared of. He simply needs to tighten up in terms of technique, both with the small as well as the big gloves on.

You have said Dinesh Karthik has leadership qualities. Why do you think so?

If you give him a cue, he is quick to grab and run with it. He is a thinking cricketer with a sharp cricketing brain. They usually make good captains.

Are you disappointed with Yuvraj's slow rate of maturity?

More than me, he should be disappointed with himself. He is an incredible talent, perhaps too much for his own good. He should have been leading the batting charts in both form of the game by now.

People seem to have forgotten Mohd Kaif?

He has had his opportunities. We have tried to impress upon him the importance of using his feet. He is working on it, but his progress needs to be monitored.

When you came in Virender Sehwag was struggling. He is struggling even now?

The way he loads his bat he reminds me of a golfer and as his game is reliant on fantastic hand-eye coordination, it will be quite futile to teach him technique at this stage of his career. It's best for him to clear the cobwebs, if any, in his mind and look to bat through 30-40 overs. Against Sri Lanka, he was looking good till he became over adventurous.

Your take on Sourav Ganguly?

He has practised most of what I had preached during the time he was out of the side. He has shown plenty of determination in winning his place back. I hope he continues to work hard on his fitness and score heavily for the team.

What is the problem with Sachin as an opener?

In ODIs, opening is an easier option. I felt that the team would benefit immensely if Sachin came in at No 4, for he has the experience, technique and the talent to milk the bowling in the middle overs. In any case, we have to be very flexible with our batting order in ODIs till we have a settled side.

Finally, how has been your partnership with skipper Dravid?

I have utmost respect for him both as a person and a player. We have had our differences on many issues, but I have always believed that the captain should have the final say. That is the way I have played the game and I suppose that's the way it should be. It's not an easy task being the captain and also the sides best batsman, but Rahul has managed that brilliantly. He deserves more credit and success.

In hindsight do you regret not taking the Sri Lanka offer and sticking with India?

No regrets mate. I have enjoyed every moment of it. Wouldn't have missed it for anything.

I have no intention to put people to sleep by listing my views on so many pointed observations from the departing coach but I must say I still like Greg Chappell for the way he speaks on cricket and continue to be amazed to hear that his words were supposed to be the exact problem with him (according to reports) while dealing with players.

He may or may not have been a good coach for his failure at dressing room management and bridging two different cultures but he has the makings of a bloody good advisor. BCCI President Pawar was not too far off the mark in requesting him to work as a consultant.

His take on the two Bengal opening bowlers was agreeable. I too would like 'Ronaa' to add a bit of pace to his ability of accurately exploitating favourable conditions and hence force selectors to consider him as an all surface bowler.

Bangla’s conquest & a Protean heel

Main features of Bangla's win over South Africa:

1) Mohammad Ashraful holding the Bangladesh innings together without losing his own tempo. All the points that follow have a few invisible linkbacks to this one, for every one of them resulted / drew from Ashraful’s nonchalant imposition of his exceptional skills on an unsuspecting big brother.

2) The stabilising 5th wicket partnership between Aftab & Ashraful: They encashed on the Dravid-ian tactic from the South African skipper to slip in his 5th bowler instead of putting a full stop to the struggling Bangladeshis. The pair did the crucial job of stitching a steadily paced partnership in reaching the 40th over with 5 or more wickets in hand.

3) Mortaza’s tide-turning assault in the end overs: The more I see of this energetic young man the more I am impressed about him. He grabs every opportunity to make an impact in the game. He is there with the new ball making vital breaktroughs like his identically featured bowling idol. He is there to let the bowlers smell his intent of hitting a few big ones late in the innings whenever he has an outing at the crease with a bat. In between he is also there to make diving stops and cut off runs inside the circle as well as near the boundary.

4) South African batting woes against certain left arm spinners – check out on the ODI success of Jayasuriya & Sunil Joshi against them while Oz tormenter Vettori struggles. Rafique has not been too impressive against Proteans until yesterday but then that is what a cocky performance by a standout player does to people who know how to stand up and be counted.

5) The well-known monotony of South African attack and lack of slower balls / bowlers in their ranks makes them a lesser team in conditions unhelpful to seam & swing bowling. Only Nel seemed capable of bowling decent yorkers and slower balls. Pollock’s loss of sting in the major event has landed him a new role - of delaying middle overs acceleration. On current form South Africa need both Nel and Hall in the final overs; and other teams will be watching how they solve that dilemma.

6) Propensity of South African batting (and, to a lesser extent, bowling) to choke in unlikely circumstances.

We can discuss a little more on that last point. Of late Graeme Smith’s men show a remarkably wobbly streak once a few early wickets are taken. The South African top order seldom looks prepared for great blows from lesser teams. Perhaps this team bats well against the Aussies because they expect to get in bad situations against that opposition. But then Aussies have not taken early wickets against them in their last two matches – that record breaking one at Wnderers and their WC group league match last month.

While other big teams manage to stem the rot in the lower middle order after starting badly, the South African middle order often freezes upon failure of plan A. Most South African collapses generally penetrate right down to the tail. That tail is the most formidable of all – housing South African allrounders Boucher, Pollock and Hall.

Some teams have often let up or faltered in resources after bagging the first six or seven South African wickets and payed dearly. The
3rd Ind-RSA ODI at their backyard in end 2006 is a classic example. South Africa were six down for 76 even then but Indians dropped Justin Kemp twice before he reached 10 and then it all went out of hand. South Africa, batting first, reached 274 then and won by 106 runs. India never recovered and where washed out in the series.

But Shakib Al Hasan and his left arm slow mates never let off the pressure yesterday even when they were not picking wickets. When Pollock was stitching together a typical comeback partnership for the 7th wicket with Boucher, a
direct hit from Tamim Iqbal put paid to South African hopes of not facing a desperate struggle to qualify for the semis.

Earlier in the tournament Bangladesh had opened up the group league matches of Group B by defeating India. Yesterday they did enough to bring global cricket audiences back to their tellies to follow Super Eights by re-igniting semi final hopes of a few other sides not excluding the home team.

Now we hope Ireland catches a big fish to turn this final phase of the Super Eights into the bitter dogfight no one expected it to be when Vaughan and Jayawardene went out for the toss on Wednesday.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Unity and Providence

Master cricket writer Rahul Bhattacharya ends his typically lucid piece on Shiv Chanderpaul's cricket and genes with this observation:

"On the television in Mr Chanderpaul's living room it appears that West Indies have just slipped to defeat against New Zealand, their second loss in three days. The thought, I'm afraid is inescapable: Unity and Providence must come together if West Indies are to win it in Guyana."

'Unity' assumes even greater significance in the upcoming SL-v-WI match tonight if we take into account the open-book West Indian infighting during the past week on team and squad selection issues. It should be a cracking game between 2 teams desperate for a Super 8 win tonight.

Here's a Rahul Bhattacharya profile of Ireland's rising speedster Boyd Rankin. He observes:

"Boyd now averages 23.5 from four matches in the World Cup; before it he was not even a certainty in the XI, just a raw talent who had impressed coaches, including former England seamer Mike Hendrick. Indeed, World Cup preparation had to be mixed with some equally pressing issues.

It is lambing season back home, and things are busy on the family farm in Londonderry in Northern Ireland. "There were a few sheep lambing," he told the Mirror, "so I was doing that whenever I came back from training." It is not quite so casual too. Wake-up time 6am, then a session of farm work, then a driving of 140 miles to practice, then back to farming chores
till midnight."

280 miles of travel each day - all for the love and joy of playing an uncelebrated but beautiful game. And to top it all with a World Cup bowling average of 23.5. That must be getting his 'ranking buoyed'. (Apologies for the two bad puns, Rahul)

When will we learn?

Inzamam poured his heart out at a press conference yesterday and urged the Pakistan media to first sort out the right way to support their own national team and then show the public the way to do it. He asked, "Are we not Pakistanis any more after losing two cricket matches?" At last a captain from the sub-continent has openly expressed his views on the role of media in whipping up mass hysteria, a phenomenon that prevents players of this region from playing cricket as just another game.

Anil Kumble also formally announced his retirement from ODIs yesterday. Even without going into Test exploits Anil is arguably the greatest one-day bowler to serve his country post-1983 just as Inzy was Pakistan's finest one-day batsman since 1992.

Anil Kumble, being a restrained personality, spoke at a much lower pitch than Inzamam's and asked the people to stand by the players in the midst of a crisis. But enough was on show around us yesterday to suggest that that is not going to happen anytime soon in this emotional country where a sensationalist media aims to make a living out of fanning people's baser emotions.

If we look past Kumble's last few years in ODI's, he has served as the go-to bowler for the skippers he has played under. Whenever the team needed a wicket the ball went to him. When the situation demanded drying up of runs he would have to bowl. His average and strike rate are less impressive than corresponding figures of some other contemporary ODI bowling greats. But have we not heard all and sundry complaining these days about Sachin and other Indian players being unable to deliver the goods under pressure? You only need to catch up on the videos of India matches between 1990 and 2000 to believe that none in this Indian team knew that essential part of the international game better than this man Kumble.

But all that we did for him on his day of ODI farewell was dilute his big farewell decision by diverting the attention away from it. Only NDTV concentrated on Anil Kumble and his on field achievements. Most of the other news channels failed to get over their sensationalist streak and instead concentrated on Ian Chappell's suggestion that Sachin Tendulkar should consider retirement. It was more or less the same with print and online media. The big theme for the day was: Should Sachin join Anil and Inzy?

Anil Kumble is without any doubt the greatest ever Test player of India and was also the country's best ODI bowler over a significant period. For such significant contribution to the most popular game in the country he received little or no share of the adulation many of his peers and juniors enjoyed and encashed in the form of sponsorship deals. His achievements are mentioned with muted appreciation rather than gregarious delight. No one mentions his name in any kind of on-the-street opinion polls. Even on the day of his one day retirement it was no different. People were busy answering queries on Sachin's future rather than Anil's past.

Anil Kumble hopes to carry on playing Tests for some time and end his Test career on a high note. He may well do so by cricketing yardsticks ( I hope he does) but chances are he will be an also-ran on the cricket news columns of Indian media even on that day. For he is a cricketer, not a sensation.

Update: Shekhar Gupta writes in the Indian Express:

"It is precisely because our cricket has improved over the years that our expectations have risen. We have recently won 3-1 in
Pakistan, convincingly against England, the West Indies, Sri Lanka and South Africa at home. Not just that, our Test performance has improved a great deal in the past five years or so. We beat Australia in India and came closer to beating them on their home-turf than anybody else had in their decade of total dominance. We won a series in the West Indies just last year, after exactly 30 years, and won our first Test match in South Africa, in our third outing.

And just as an afterthought, can I ask you what was the one common factor in almost all these great victories? From Kolkata to Chennai to Sydney to Jamaica, it was a batsman called V.V.S. Laxman who stood up to be counted, a real match-winner. How come he is not even a fraction of a star
that so many of the others are? "

Shekhar concludes ruefully:

"...if V.V.S. Laxman does not have the same star quality, the same fan following, as so many of the others, it only means one thing: we may be equal to the South Americans in their sporting passion but we don’t quite know our cricket as well as they know their football."

This is the team Haldia wanted

The Dream Team's ICC has incorporated a few rule modifications in the game. Substitutions, essentially. Needless to explain, it was necessitated by Indo-Pak exodus. Here's the new team list along with the old one. I welcome the three new entrants to my team - Ponting, Gayle and Kallis.

Remember what former DT skipper Brian Lara was doing to my chances when Gayle used to be a rival player? Well, Gayle is now in the team for the Super 8 and sure enough Lara doesn't let him complete his bowling quota against Australia. So I wasted no time in saying thanks to Lara and handed over the duties to the Aussie skipper.

Now see this masterstroke from my new skipper and you will spare a nod of appreciation for Punter's extra effort to give your friend some return on investment (I expended a lot of points for the substitutions). Hussey and his single digits have so far prevented me from posing a serious challenge to Lahar but that can change soon. The 10 wicket victory against Bangla last night gave them no chance to add to my tally though. It was all a fault of the weather in Lara's region.

By the way Dream Team competitors have unanimously acknowledged Lahar as the DT Champ for the group league stage played with the 1st set of players under original Dream Team rules. Congratulations to him.