Sunday, October 19, 2008

Wanted: Umpires with no affinity for showbiz

Upon the fall of last wicket in the Australian first innings of the 2nd Ind-Aus Test, Cricinfo ended its text commentary on the innings with a cricket fan's rant-in:
Billy Gane writes in to say: "Seriously; is anybody else out there sick of the "slow death" finger of umpire Koetzen? Can't we get back to the umpy being a non-entity and letting the players shine?"

C'mon folks, let's allow them umpires a few things of their own liking as long as those are not called 'bad decisions'. We don't mind Shoaib Akhtar taking off after every wicket as if he won the match with it, or the regular fist pumping of batsmen after reaching their centuries. So why grudge Rudy Koertzen his slow finger or Billy Bowden his crooked one as long as the receiving team has no grudges against the umpire?

Billy has a disability that prevents him from straightening his finger. Maybe Rudy too has a mystery disease called 'cold muscles' where the muscles on his arm go cold due to prolonged inactivity. This can explain the he takes to raise his arm in the event of a dismissal.

Going by that logic, his speed should increase at the end of a hat-trick. Surely the arm muscles would be sufficiently warmed up by then. I am willing to spend millions to get a video where some bowler bags a hattrick with Rudy officating at the bowler's end. Oh yes - the last wicket should be lbw. The TV guys forget about the umpire when a bowler hits the stumps.

I am tempted to stretch the imagination further on that last line. The 3rd ball hits the stumps but the bowler oversteps. Will old Rudy be as slow in stretching out his right hand in the other direction to crush the aspirations of the bowler dreaming of a hat-trick? Not necessary - the affliction may only be on his wicket-taking left-arm. Even for the left arm the problem may only be restricting movement in one direction (i.e. the same left arm may well be quick as a flash in signalling no ball which requires hand movement in another axis).

Isn't it strange (and shameful) that I do not recall Rudy's speed (or lack of it) at raising either of his now-contentious arms to signal no-ball? I must have seen it umpteen times during various matches.

Too many open threads. For now let us assume that Rudy has slowness stacked up both his sleeves and in both directions, and that he uses it to mill-grind the hattrick hopes of this imaginary bowler. I do not wish to read the unreadable thoughts of the bowler with crushed hat-trick hopes but some of the batsmen given out by Rudy's finger would certainly feel appeasement by the sight of him finally administer 'slow death' to a bowler instead of a batsman!

Sehwag's straight bat

An excerpt of cricinfo's text commentary on a passage of play in session 3, Day 3 of the India-v-Australia 2nd Test at Mohali:

Siddle to Sehwag, no run, fires in the yorker on middle and leg, Sehwag manages to squeeze that one out
Siddle to Sehwag, FOUR, Slower delivery, full and outside off, and Sehwag launches that over extra cover, one bounce and into the boundary
Siddle to Sehwag, 1 run, Sehwag steer a delivery that was angling into him to cover point

That fifth delivery needs better explanation. Coming after a rather wide slower ball that was despatched to the fence, it was a sharp delivery that jagged back from back of a length into Sehwag and sought to breach any gap between bat and pad. The same gap that Zaheer Khan successfully found in the defence of mighty Hayden in the Australian first innings. Sehwag had none on show, and the good fifth ball in that Siddle over could only help raise a muffled appeal from the only man on the field unable to see its contact: Haddin, the keeper.

That sequence shows emphatically that Virender Sehwag is back at his world-beating best. Not only is he judging deliveries on their merit, he has also fully revived from his form slump of 2006 when he was visibly falling behind on the basics that had catapulted him into the elite group a few years earlier.

Sehwag was always a miser at feet movement but the straight bat of the young Sehwag could break the heart of many a fast bowler. Good to see him get back to doing that again. Another piece of joy: he used to be no heavier in his early days than he is now. Looks like he has also regained control on his increasing love for that extra dish of delicacy.

Test of Dhoni's Test character begins at lunchtime, 4th day

At the end of 3rd day India have taken a lead of 300 runs with all 10 second innings wicket intact. Barring a spectacular collapse inspired by now-unfamiliar Aussie aggression (not the verbal stuff, but the real challenge they can throw at others at their moment of reckoning) India are looking at a lead of 400 plus with 5 sessions and plenty of wickets in hand. Declaring at 400 will be the stuff that relives Test cricket back from dead. But all skippers these days are known to be slightly more defensive than that. Part of the blame goes to declining balance between ball and bat. 450 should be enough. We agree.

But what if acting skipper MS Dhoni is more defensive than we think he is? An Indian declaration with a lead of 450 will allow Australians well over 4 sessions to get those runs. He knows that the Australian batting line-up, if they get going, can bat at run-rates well over that requirement. This pitch shows no signs of decay as yet. So what does the ultra-defensive avatar of Dhoni do at such times?

If Dhoni IS the braveheart we know him to be, he will ask his batsmen to play positively and declare just after lunch. If they get 450, good. If they get more, even better. If they get slightly lesser, no problems with that.

But if Dhoni is unable to profess "we will get them before they get us"to his men, we will see a less than eager middle order tomorrow who will try to ensure that the Aussies have not only more runs to get but also less time to get those. We may even see the Indians slowing the run rates all by themselves, so that they can give themselves the excuse of delaying the declaration. ["We planned to declare at 450 - but Australian negative bowling tactics ensured we could reach it only at tea"].
Here's hoping that on the 20th of October, 2008 Team India will be led by the man we saw at South Africa, the man that led a bunch of young guns to a magnificent, brave and well-earned T20 world cup.

Amit's noble feat, and its undesirable but certain fallout

I have not seen much of Amit Mishra except in the IPL matches. An inevitable comparison comes up with that other young hope of Indian leg spin bowling, Piyush Chawla. Based on the IPL show (which was hard-fought, top class competitive event), at this stage I rate Amit to be a little ahead of Piyush Chawla. Chawla is talented and can bowl genuine wicket taking deliveries but he can also be profligate. Amit Mishra seems to possess all of Chawla's skills but also gives away very little.

To replace a legendary bowler-cum-skipper like Anil Kumble in a debut Test match must be pressure enough. To do it against Australia would be even more difficult. His teammates did well to compensate for those burdens on the young shoulders by batting first, putting up a good score and then, vitally, knocking of early Australian wickets (including Hayden) before Amit came in for his first spell. But credit goes to him and only him for bowling as well as he has done in the Ist innings and earning 5 wickets from good batsmen using classic leg spinner's guile. The feat shows a wealth of potential lurking beneath his unassuming persona. How about having Lalit Modi to divert some of his time from ICL-beating and ensuring that the boy plays for Rajasthan in the next next season to gain some more knowledge of his trade under the tutelage of Shane Warne?

I can see one fallout of Amit's feat that is as certain as it is unfortunate for him. His 5 wicket spell will be used by the Indian sports media to put more pressure on Anil Kumble when Anil needs it the least - in the middle of a tough series, perhaps the toughest in world cricket today. Kumble is 37, injured, coming from a poor last series and went wicketless for the first time on Indian soil in the series opener. Amit is 25, fit, has played for Kumble and took 5 wickets in his very first innings.

Poor chap Kumble - if I were him I would have nausea today even at the thought of the possible contents in tomorrow's sports coverage in media. And our selectors - how will they react when they select the team for the last 2 Tests?? While they have every reason for resting Kumble and continuing with Amit in the 3rd match, the selectors can also jump the gun and end up sending Kumble out of the team he was leading a match ago.While that is a little unlikely, I would not exactly be stunned if Anil Kumble is deselected, feels humiliated by his non-selection in the last 2 Tests and ends up declaring that he has played his last Test.

Brings another such occasion to my mind. Waugh Jr averaged under 28 in the 10 tests preceding the Australian away series against NZ in March 2000. The last series before that was against Indian visitors. Among middle order batsmen, Ponting was in best form against India. However he got injured (as far as I recall) and had to be replaced by Damien Martyn who (unbelievably) used to the bench those days. Martyn topped the middle order averages in the NZ series while Mark Waugh was the least impressive. While Mark Waugh did quite well to still average 47, many of us from the sub-continent suspected that he was likely to lose his place when Ponting returned. Nothing of that sort happened though. When Australia played their next Test against West Indies they went back to the same middle order that played the last match against India before the Tests in NZ. Martyn went back to the benches.

Mark Waugh was also past 35 & struggling a little at that time. However the selectors thought that Mark still had enough cricket left in him to be considered ahead of a peaking, younger Martyn. And Waugh proved his selectors right by doing well for better part of the next 2 years till he finally lost his touch and quit for good.

Of course Mark's retention in 2000 was helped by the fact that the next Test match against West Indies, which saw Ponting's return, was played 6 months later! How Kumble would have loved his shoulder injury to have deferred itself till the Nagpur Test.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Predicting Australia's strategy on the 5th day

I had a chat with blogger friend Homer a while ago on the fourth day's proceedings. He thinks Australia are playing for a draw.

I do not think that is the correct assessment. I would say that, unlike other Australian teams from the past 10 years that tried to force results with both bat & ball (even from positions of disadvantage), these guys have gone back a step and decided that bat will save the match and set it up for ball to win it. Automatically that cuts down chances of a result as slower scoring rates mean less time to get the opposition out. However as I see it, the Aussies are backing themselves to bowl out India on the final day. And if that is possible in their book, why not reduce risk of losing the game at the same time by batting longer in the second essay?

Of course they would still have liked to set India in excess of 400 with nearly 5 sessions to go. But the Indian tailend resistance, combined with the absence of one Shane Warne and one Adam Gilchrist (that time Australia got 44 more first innings runs batting a session lesser than in 2008 on the back of Gilly's near-run-a-ball 104) , have denied them the luxury of having the best of both worlds. They will not risk losing for a result - at least not in this crucial 1st Test - and have designed their plans at Bangalore around that. It may be a retrograde step and give India space to escape with a draw, but I will still be pleasantly surprised if India manage that.

Now the reason why Australia feel they can bowl out India in the second innings even in the limited time remaining:

India have a few performances in the past 3 years that will encourage even teams much lesser than Australia to think that Indiare are more than likely to succumb if asked to secure a draw by batting over 2 sessions on final day. Leaving out the Sydney Test (which we could have surely saved had umpiring been better) we have done horrendously on the 5th days of 'live' Tests. Thank heavens that the current one is not the final Test of the series, which makes the filtered results even worse.

In the recent past the Indian batsmen, barring Sehwag & Sourav, have excelled in becoming sitting ducks on the fifth day by allowing the scoring rates to dip way below 3 very early in the final 3 sessions. That will again be the death trap that Australia will lay in the first 25 overs of the Indian innings tomorrow. They will try to remove Sehwag and then revert back to just restricting India for the 1st 2 hours. The 2nd burst of attack will come much later, after the drinks break in post-lunch session.

India will need to score at least 85 or 90-odd in those 25 overs without losing too many wickets. If India get stuck up in the first 25 overs, even retention of wickets will not matter in the end and they will certainly be in a soup. Getting stuck automatically means that the asking rate (for a win) goes beyond 5 with more than 40-45 overs remaining. An India win out of the equation rather early, Oz can then start manning up fielders around the bat that much earlier and prise out wickets.

Greg Chappell was around and has noticed the unbelievable transformation of Indian batting tigers to stagnant sloths on the final day in quite a few Test matches. If he missed Bangalore 2004 vs Aus and Bangalore 2005 vs Pak, he was with the team when India messed up Mumbai 2006 vs Eng. Then India repeated the story in Kingsmead 2006 & Capetown 2007, both against SA. The last occasion was not even a 4th innings, but the match was handed over to South Africa on a platter by an inexplicable withdrawal into shell by Dravid-Sachin in the 3rd innings leading to subsequent (and inevitable) dismissal of all middle order giants barring a positive Sourav.

It was almost the same story at Lord's 2007 vs Eng but rain came to India's rescue.

Rain and MS Dhoni, to be precise. Dhoni tried to be positive in that innings without being cavalier. In each of those above-referred innings of capitulation there has been at least one Indian batsman (even a lower order one) who has seen through the problem and tried to be positive. This batsman was the best player in the ruins mostly due to his right approach to the situation at hand, but lack of support from others had generally undermined his efforts and led to a loss. Kumble at Bangalore 2005 stands out in memory, as does Sachin at Mumbai 2006, Sourav-Dhoni at Kingsmead 2006 and Sourav at Capetown 2007.

During his stint as Indian cricket coach, Greg Chappell had identified the malady of the 4th innings immediately. He made an attempt to address it in Nagpur 2004 vs Eng, a match that saw India lag behind England all along, by sending out Irfan Pathan at number 4 on the final day. Ahead of Sachin. Agenda: playing a cameo quick innings. There was a controversy on that promotion and it was not necessarily a solution to the problem. I still think that promotion, and Irfan's quick 35, was a 'bluff' to prevent the strike rate dipping too early than an actual attempt to carve out an unlikely win. But it certainly did prevent England from manning up close-in positions till the final session (i.e. too late) and the game was 'successfully' drawn. However, the familar problems returned later in the series at Mumbai to cost India a series win.

As we can see in the instances above, India have been caught repeating the familiar "crumbling to own methods" act at the business end of Test matches in recent years, twice at this venue. We have seen no indication of any lessons being learnt by the middle order batsmen. They are still without glares while crossing the highway called "5th day" across to safety of a draw and the headlights of a car called "Rivals' stifling strategy" can still catch them unawares in middle of the road. Greg Chappell and Ponting will the last people to let go of this opportunity to throw back the hosts' old ghosts on their faces and try to eke out a 1st Test win that will hugely impact the outcome of the series.

When walking is not fun

"There used to be a bloke who gave himself out by walking when he'd hit the ball. The popularity of that within his team-mates may be shown by the fact that since his retirement, they no longer reply to any emails, phone calls or text messages."

Adam Gilchrist gives a tongue-in-cheek response to his own philosophy of 'walking'
[source: cricinfo quotes]

Tongue-in-cheek? I thought I detected an element of hurt in it.

Now we get a hint how difficult it can be for an Australian who intends to practice walking at international level. It is equivalent to risking being a social outcast! Makes Gilchrist's decision to continue walking even more divine.

The half-evil power of 3 on Day 3

What do you think of the coincidence that only the 3 "bad boys" of Greg Chappell in the Indian team -Ganguly, Bhajji & Zaheer - have done rather well with the bat in the inaugural innings of a Test series just when Greg Chappell has departed from the Indian camp and is watching from the rival camp as their batting coach?

I found it HILARIOUS, and would have actually rolled on the floor at the thought had I not remembered that Dravid too made a fifty plus.

Ponting has acknowledged Greg's presence as the Australian batting coach and his role behind his century earlier in this same match. Imagine taking a spy camera in a room having Ganguly / Bhajji / Zaheer and getting them to talk on just the opposite i.e. how Greg's absence has played a role in their good performances.

Come on, let's get a little more serious. 6 is the number of evil. So, if bad is half-evil then 3 should be number of 'bad boys'. Today was Day 3 of the match. Also, today was the 11th of October (11/10) : the numbers total up to 3. The number of bad boys is also 3. So today was naturally meant to be 'bad boys'" day of success against forces that label them as bad.

How on earth did Rahul Dravid benefit from this scheme? I really do not have an explanation except that he bats at 3 and thus may have got a bonus!

The 'First' Gap to bridge with Australia

When I returned to my apartment in the evening today, the last update I had had of 3rd day's play was that India were 196/6 at tea in reply to Australia's first innings score of 433. Imagine my joy now at learning from the evening's highlights package that not only had Indians avoided follow on (something that Australia would never enforce till Laxman and Dravid are dead and burnt) but had gone two better - first by crossing the 300 mark to come very close to reducing the Aussies' lead to two digits and second by managing to keep 2 wickets intact at close of day's play. Bhajji & Zaheer had ensured that the Indian cricket supporters' day ended far better than it started.

In between the breaks I had hopped channels and seen barely enough of a particular news channel which suggested, through repetitive replay of 4 or 5 select deliveries where ball was seen shooting or rearing, that the pitch had terribly irregular bounce early on and this made life difficult for the Indian top order during the 1st session.

However I saw no dismissals in those 'wretched' deliveries. Naturally i was more interested in seeing the next part of the highlights which showed how wickets had fallen. Irrespective of the pitch, you can digest dismissals at low scores if those dismissals were earned by good balls. Here is a synopsis of the 8 Indian dismissals today:
Gambhir: playing across the line to a fast bowler with mastery over swing.
Sehwag: Brooming a wide ball to 1st slip due to lack of control (playing too far away)
Dravid: lbw to a inswinger
Sachin: committed to the pace of a fast bowler who saw that and sent down a slower one to get him caught at covers
Laxman: A terrible waft outside off which could only deserved the result it had.
Ganguly: lbw to indecisive footwork to incoming swing bowling.
Dhoni: Terrible shot (or non-shot) played in Test even by his standards, worse than the stroke he played at Perth '08 in the 2nd innings (at least the team was setting a target then, not looking at 433 with 6 down at 196) - bowled with 3 stumps on view and feet rooted on ground to a slow left arm turning delivery from Michael Clarke
Bhajji: perished to the shotmaking that fetched him 54 good runs.

About the only 2 deliveries where the bowler could take a certain amount of credit in claiming the wicket were those of Dravid and Ganguly (the batsmen took the rest of the credit, not the pitch). Sehwag and Bhajji are exempt from terms like "rash stroke making". They live by the sword, and have shown enough for us to accept that they will die instantly without it.

That leaves four other batsmen. Sachin was dismissed by his premeditation, Gambhir by his indiscretion, Laxman by his lapse, Dhoni by his T20 stroke making intuitions. No great balls, no horrid bounces - plain batting errors. 4 out of 8 is 50%. The ratio of batsmen dismissing themselves does not befit a team that pretends to challenge Australia. This ratio for India will surely go down in the coming Tests as the batsmen will rise. Point to note: Australia, not India, are visiting but they have a lesser percentage of batting errors in the first Test (which, make no mistake, is as tough for them as it was for the Indians when we returned two sub-200 innings in our first Test there last year).

But then it may be too late for Indian hopes - like it was last season. Most of these top batting guys in India are experienced enough to know that the difference between the #1 Australian side and the rest is very often the first Test of a series. The others take it as a warm up match while the Australian win it to ensure they are up in the series and can hence take all the initiatives steps thereafter that suits their style of cricket even more.

This is where the importance of an early big innings from a rival batsman of Australia cannot be emphasised enough. Sourav Ganguly's Brisbane innings in 2004 in the first Test of that series (amidst an early Indian batting collapse) immediately comes to mind. Ganguly's effort helped draw the first Test. In taking away some of the initiative from Australia, that innings paved the way for Dravid's & Laxman's epics in later matches.

Risk it on pitch-and-toss, and lose, and start again

Aakash Chopra. If you followed the 2004-05 Indo-Australian away Test series you will remember the sedate opening partner of a rampaging Virender Sehwag. And like some of us maybe you will always wonder why he never got another fair chance to redeem himself in an away Test series even though he obviously was a good horse for courses where an opener scoring 30 in the 1st session is still doing his job by protecting the middle order from the new ball.

A few days back he got another chance to stake a claim to the Indian Test side against the visiting Australian side. He failed to score big in the match - and must have been the first to know that at his present age he may not get another chance in his career to make amends. He must have been distraught at that realisation. But the man is man enough to put his head up, look back, and smile about it. I thought there was a lot of Rudyard Kipling's "If", especially lines 17 thru' 20, in that post by Aakash(and I thought Aakash expressed that rant on the silly newspaper comment because the comment was too silly not to rant). Am I being over-dramatic? Well, maybe. But I just thought of what the man went through, put myself in his place and wondered if I could bring myself to write that post. I decided that I would be proud of myself if I could 'achieve' writing that post.

That's more like the good Test opener you are, Aakash. Taking some blows and falling over, back on feet quickly with a wry smile, replying to some silly comments passed by the fielders and moving on to the next delivery.

Update: Here's a recitation of Rudyard's 'If' by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal...forget their lack of oratory skills, and find me two other people from the world of all sports that are more worthy of this poem than those two.

Aussie wicketkeeping A.G.....and B.G

Cannot curse my current busy work schedule enough for encroaching upon that 'final frontier' in my personal life: following the last India-v-Australia Test series of this decade.

I missed the entire 2nd Day's play at Bangalore. Today, the 3rd day, was a Saturday and yet I did not get a chance to watch a single delivery live on television. Worse, I failed to catch up with the scorecard after the tea time score of India limping at 195/6.

Coming back home I rushed on to Neo sports and found solace in an ongoing highlights package. Solace stayed for a moment and disappeared soon. I felt a pang. 'Coz the man in baggy green keeping wickets during the Indian innings was not the guy that I would have loved to be seen there forever. There was Hayden at his familiar 1st slip position. There was Ponting with his old signalling habits, Clarke making Indian batsmen look like his bunnies once again, Lee generating the same effortless pace but not the same guy to collect those perfume balls.

It hurt to remember that Lara and Gilly are not playing Test cricket anymore. I removed the sentiments and got back to the game on hand.

I had a second look at the man behind the stumps. By now he had stopped sticking out like a gold coloured button on a black shirt. I recalled that I had liked this guy for his gritty and positive displays at every opportunity he got. I have not seen too much of his keeping but his batting should be as good that of the guy on the other side of Gilly,Ian Healy, which was bloody bad enough for opponents going by the occasions he chose to rise to.

And then I discovered what I did not expect. Watching Brad Haddin in whites for the first time I thought his persona has glimpses of Ian Healy himself. Not to say that the two men look like identical twins; but I thought I saw a reflection of Healy in the stature, manner and movements of Brad Haddin. If you are wondering if it was an illusion effected by tears welling up at the grief of losing Gilchrist, I suggest you have a peek at the photos below.

I have sampled 7 pics apiece of the two Aussie keepers on either side of Adam Gilchrist from cricinfo photos. The 1st four pix cover their keeping, the fifth pic shows them celebrating dismissals, the 6th & 7th ones are snaps of their batting.

Haddin pic 1, 2, 3, 4; Healy pic 1, 2, 3, 4

Haddin pic 5; Healy pic 5

Haddin pic 6, 7; Healy pic 6, 7

Let me know what you thought.

Footnote: I shall be unfair to Brad Haddin if I fail to add that he is a classier batsman than Ian Healy. The pics 6 & 7 are adequate indicators. By the way, that "A.G." in the title really stands for "After Gilchrist", even if you found that too horrendous after guessing so.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Lesson on 'Never say die'

The sound of bat whacking ball would have Chandidas Ganguly waking up with a start in the middle of the night, only to find son Sourav batting in the drawing room with the domestic help bowling to him.

“My son has gone mad,” the father would say and tell his wife to get her son to realise that there is life beyond cricket as well. But his mother never had the heart to tell her son that it was all over and “he could never make it back to the Indian team”.

Moving lines those, on Sourav Ganguly's extreme dedication to making a comeback after being left out in 2005-06.

I am certainly as inspired by them as most of you, I am sure, are. My prayers are with him this series.

Lessons that will not be learnt

Cricinfo quotes Australian captain Ricky Ponting thus:

"Some of the older players are probably looking at this as their last Test series. There are all sorts of things going around in the media at the moment, with claims that some of them will be forced out and told they have to retire at a certain time. Guys like Laxman and Dravid. And who knows when Sachin is going to call it quits.

"He's probably going to be the only one who is going to have the luxury of deciding when he is going to retire by the sound of it. I'm sure they'll be reminded of that on a daily basis, and not just by us. Their media will be all over them if we start the first Test well and put pressure on them in lots of different ways. "

Sad part is: Perhaps he is true with that last sentence. I remember the Australian captain saying similar words ahead of their 2004 campaign as well. It is like saying 'Indian media will help our cause.'

Even sadder: Very few, if any, in media will feel insulted by Ponting’s insinuation at the the way Indian sports journalists put pressure on THEIR players instead of the opposition. Most of them will STILL do as Ponting says if Australia do well in the first Test.

Ponting goes a step further and predicts the exact words that will come out in criticism of some Indians:

"If we can make their fielding look as bad as it is by some good running between wickets and good hustling and good pressure," Ponting said, "then you know straight away all the old stuff about the old bodies and 'Ganguly can't field' and 'Dravid looks a bit slow', all of that stuff will come out."