Sunday, December 21, 2008

Centuries galore

I had gone past the part on the report on 3rd day's play at cricinfo which said Kevin Pietersen had just scored his 15th Test ton but I came back to the line a little while later to re-confirm what I just read. I did so after I recalled that the present English skipper made his Test debut less than 3½ years earlier in the Lord's Test of the 2005 Ashes.

Kevin is brilliant in his shots, worth going miles to watch and, after the marginal decline of Ricky Ponting in the past year, perhaps the most consciously dominating Test batting great in the world game today(*) - if only amongst those who approach cricket 'normally'. But it still came as a huge surprise that KP is scoring nearly 5 Test centuries a year. What does it convert to - a ton every second match? That would place his ton rate per match, and thereby his batting average maybe, next to Don Bradman.

I rush to KP's player page on cricinfo. Batting average first. He averages a shade under 50, which I reckon to be a bit of an underselling of his ability. I was expecting it to be 60 or thereabouts. But then that average make the tally of 15 centuries even more eye popping. Interested, I move to the 'number of caps' column for Pietersen. There. Turns out that the 2nd Test at Mohali is already his 45th Test match. A century in 3 matches and a conversion ratio of over 50% are still rather special but at least we have seen comparable figures in the past against people not called The Don.

45 is a lot of matches for a man to play in under 3½ years. I had a similar shocker last year when I learnt that Matthew Hayden has scored circa 25 Test tons in a period of just over 6 years, and that Ricky Ponting had taken his tally of Test hundreds from 10 to 32 in about the same time frame. No one in history of Test cricket has even been that prolific in notching up tons. Then we looked a little deeper.

While the 'number of hundreds' column does reflect Hayden & Ponting's brilliant form over these periods, we also see the other side of the coin when we find that these players never did cross the so-near-yet-so-far 60 mark in their overall averages even during these glorious phases of their careers. The large number of tons, therefore, are more a product of these modern greats playing many more matches than previous great batsmen in history rather than them going through patches of form unforeseen in other non-Bradman greats across the ages.

Tailpiece: I hope you already know the famous snippet that even Don Bradman failed to match English opener Herbert Sutcliffe's unique feat of never letting his overall Test average dip below 60. And that really means NEVER in Sutcliffe's full career spanning 11 years! Amazing, isn't it? Striking too, because Sutcliffe ended with a barely sixty plus average (60.73) in Tests while Don ended with you-know-what.

(*) - The Test batting strike rates will put Graeme Smith & Matthew Hayden over KP & Ponting but I suggest you take a vote from the opposition bowlers and the captains as to which players, on their day, can make perfectly good Test bowling line ups look toothless and scurry for cover at the same time. This statement once again excludes freaks. E.g. men from Najafgarh, India.

The Never Never Land of Virender Pan

Excerpt from Rohit Mahajan's article on Virender Sehwag (courtesy cricinfo's Surfer) which attempts to dissect 'Sehwagism' in the aftermath of Viru's match-turning opening salvo in the 4th innings of the Chennai Test last week:

There are tales, and then there are tales, one more incredible than the other, about Virender Sehwag.Shane Warne narrates a delectable one in his recent book. Playing for Leicestershire against Middlesex, Sehwag found Abdul Razzaq reverse-swinging the ball alarmingly.

He called his batting partner Jeremy Snape over and said he had a plan. "We must lose this ball," Sehwag said matter-of-factly. Next over, Viru smashed the ball clean out of the ground. The ball was lost. The replacement ball would, obviously, not reverse right away. "We're all right for one hour," he told the non-striker, who told Warne. Mission accomplished.

For the rest of this discussion we assume this incident to be true. And for the discussion we also freeze the video of this incident at the point he has stepped out of the crease (we assume he did that - for poetry's sake) to meet the ball for the last time. What happened thereafter is besides the point.

When he actually set out for that launching shot he gave us a chance to call it 'audacity'. You can also call it 'backing one's ability' as it actually came off. But more amazing is the realisation that he tried to think of a way to actually solve a problem like stopping a bowler from swinging a ball.

Even the perfect skipper in Ian Chappell's book will have seen a bowler swing a ball and said 'Right mate, we have to play through this phase with common sense and try to ensure we lose as few wickets as possible.' Even that other-worldly super-brain from Chappeli's book would have seen this problem as an unsolvable one. Where then does this shot and its reason place Sehwag?

Mahajan says Sehwag has ' a razor sharp mind'. I am willing to go one step further and point out that it is a mind whose thoughts we mortals - complicated ones - will perhaps fail to comprehend on most occasions. Especially if it results in more misses than hits. We will say 'there is little percentage in it' and refuse to acknoweldge that this freak actually saw this problem as a solvable one, and that he tried to do something about it so as to turn the tables in his favour rather than wait for fate to take its course.

Let us see it from another angle. Let's say Virender Sehwag had the limited batting ability of his dependable percentage playing Delhi teammate Aakash Chopra. Had he then thought of this plan to stop the ball from swinging, the idea would still be just as invaluable for the reasons cited above. But then this plan would never have seen the light of the day as
a) Aakash Chopra, with his ability, has no realistic percentage of pulling this off and
b) it is not one of those things that you dare ask your partners do even if they are more talented!

That act of actually attempting a hit to make the ball disappear (that the ball did disappear, I again emphasize, is irrelevant here) therefore shows a culmination of the following traits in Virender Sehwag:
1) an urge to break new path the desperation of which is rare even in the greatest of cricket minds,
2) an instinctive knowledge of the percentage of success he may have on his various shots, and
3) a remorseless readyness to cop the flak upon failing on a low percentage choice made knowing fully well that the plan will have no takers without the backing of success.

Some things never change. It is a joy the world of Sehwag features amongst those.

As Sambit Bal states in his review of the Chennai Test:

Sehwag is a man of incredible batting skills but his mind is pure genius: doubt is not allowed to hover nearby, let alone enter.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The wall's papers

Half of us are waiting for those, and the other half too have started accepting that the papers will come sooner rather than later.

For valid reasons. While watching Dravid walk out to bat in the last half hour of play today, it was a given for me that he would get dismissed in the pre-dusk play on 4th day of the Chennai Test against England today. It took me an immense effort to grit my teeth and say to myself 'He WILL bat tomorrow." It seems almost a creditable feat that he has lived up to it and is still there on 2 not out. To think he is our no. 3, a slot supposed to be manned by the best bat.

You thought that was irony enough? Half a decade ago, Dravid scripted a famous, incredible, savoured win for India at Adelaide by scoring a double century today.

To be fair to media and Dravid's critics, I do not think anyone has really questioned Rahul's place in the team earlier than it should have happened. In fact I respect them all for having been more patient with Dravid than they have been with Tendulkar & Ganguly.

When cricinfo's Sambit Bal rates Rahul's ninety at Perth as Dravid's only contribution in an Indian Test win in the past 2 years he has my support. Players in this sport often go through similar rough patches. Some, like, Mark Taylor, Sachin and Ganguly, had extended ones in Test matches. But you start to suspect recession of a player's abilities when he keeps getting runs against lesser opponents while faltering against the big fish.

Rahul Dravid's aggregate profile over the past two years will show that his already modest Test average of 30 in this period would be downright dismal if fair weather runs and runs against lesser opposition could be counted out. In the build up to the recent Australia series he got two successive 50's in the Irani Trophy but then struggled right through a big series where every other batsman in the top 7 did well. It is almost unbelievable that we are talking about Dravid here. The same man whose innings used to be the platforms for these same other batsmen to score match winning runs in some of the biggest matches of Indian cricket.

It is really dark out there for Dravid. But then let's hope we see another day that brings rays to him. I truly wish I could go out with a guitar to Chennai tonight and sing, like young actor Imran Khan does in the hit Hindi movie 'Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na', to grief-stricken Aditi-like Dravid: 'Raat ke baad hi to savera hota hai.' I will half-expect his intelligent and sensitive skipper Dhoni to be doing something akin to that tonight.

All these excesses of emotions come out not just because I am a Dravid fan, but because I STILL believe he has 2-3 solid years of cricket left in him.

He can once again be the no. 1 player at no. 3. It is another matter if he will be.

Update: I must take this opportunity to express thanks to the present England cricket team and their authorities. Considering the larger picture, any result is acceptable to us Indian cricket supporters as the match is at least happening. That the experience has been heightened by the quality of contest is a further credit to both teams. But the match being set up in the final session today with a posibility of it going right into the final session tomorrow with all 3 results still possible is entirely the work of a genius from Najafgarh called Virender Sehwag. Plays like his innings today serve as life saving drugs for the failing health of Test cricket.