Thursday, January 01, 2009

Aftermath of 16 part 1 versus Aftermath of 16 part 2

Twice in the current decade an Australian Test team has won 16 Tests on the trot only to be stopped by India from winning a 17th. On both occasions the 16th win had also come against India. However there could be no greater contrast in a losing team's acceptance of the supremacy of the winners than those 2 occasions of 16th consecutive wins.

Mumbai 2001 demoralised Indian fans and made them lose any hope of their team salvaging even a draw from the mighty Aussies under Steve Waugh. The next match, Eden 2001, has unquestionable cricketing merits but it is sweeter to Indian supporters because it came after the mauling that was Mumbai 2001.

Sydney 2008, on the other hand, was infamous. I am not referring to the much discussed non-cricketing mud slinging associated with the match. I am only referring to the unusually large number of umpiring decisions that went against India in that crucial test match, some thing that cannot be refuted by the 'it all evens out in the end' argument simply because there were so many of them going in one direction in a single pivotal game. [An instance of what could have been: India could have drawn or even won that Test and become the first team to defeat Aussies in a series Down Under ahead of South Africa].

While the Australian hunger for a win and their attitude of not giving the match uptill the last ball was amply on display in that Sydney'08 win, it was not accepted as a deserved win for Aussies even amongst their wise & sporting home fans, leave alone with the Indian team and cricket fans (including yours truly). One of questions I asked in my rant after Sydney 2008 was:
“Is the Australian team confident of beating India fair & square – even in Perth?”
Perth was the venue of the match following Sydney 2008. Subsequent developments might well prove that I had been foolish in casting apersions on the ability of a team that has just won 16 Test matches in a row (Not that it would have taught me any lessons. Thanks to my habit of predicting results / form on this blog, I have a chequered history of having egg on my face with predictions). I do not remember my exact frame of mind while making that post but I distinctly remember that the question was not asked in a fit of rage and that I believed in that question. India's first innings total at Sydney and Kumble's composure after the match, and not misplaced rage at being forced to lose, had a lot to do with that belief.

Sydney 2008 may have been Australia's 16th win in a row for the 2nd time but it looked a lot different from the first sequence. Back in Jan 2008 they were still a great team but looked more beatable than the team that lost at Eden 2001. Australia are set to play another Test match at Sydney on 3rd of January, 2009 and I think this is a good time to revisit that question. How do I stand today after having raised the question?

Here's a study:

Aftermath of 16 part 2
Since that 16th consecutive win at Sydney on 6th January, Australia have played 13 Test matches till end of the year 2008 and here are their results:

4 wins, 5 losses, 4 draws.

The 4 wins have come against the 7th & 8th ranked teams - NZ & WI.
3 of the losses have occured at home venues.

Aftermath of 16 part 1
Now we look at the 13 matches they played after Eden 2001:
8 wins, 2 losses, 3 draws.

One of the 2 losses was in the 3rd Test of that India 2001 series against post-Eden Indians and the other was against England attributable mainly to a sporting declaration followed by a marvellous fifth-day knock by England's Mark Butcher.

A note about the 3 draws would help complete the picture: Contrary to popular belief that Indians in 2003-04 were the best performing visitors in Australia in this decade (till SA this year), the NZ team that played in those 3 draws should be rightfully given that credit. True they do not have a famous win like Adelaide 2003 to show for their efforts. But we need to remember that the Kiwis were playing a full-strength Aussie team including Warne-McGrath and yet they pushed Australia to a stage where they had to bat rather well on the 5th day of the final Test to save the series (after Warne had scored 99 in the 1st innings!).

I have been a lifelong admirer of the Australians from a rival camp. But memories of the Australian team (including Gilly dearest) violently celebrating Sydney 2008 win has kept pricking me like a thorn, just like India's loss against Zimbabwe in 1999 World Cup and the rain-forced abandonment of last day's play of Chennai 2004 Test against Aussies. That video of last moments of Sydney 2008 brought back some unpleasant memories. But the post-Sydney'08 performance summary of the Australian team amply demonstrates that they have not got near enough to another such hysteric celebration since the 6th of Jaunuary 2008.

Matthew Hayden's real worth

Note: This assessment is unrelated to Hayden's present slump - especially as he is over 37 and on the decline.

I pick up the question raised by Christian Ryan in this cricinfo article and progress the discussion. I am more interested in the question on Hayden's dominance at his peak - has it depended in demise of great fast bowlers who could make balls move at rapid pace or rise from good length? The question, please note, is on his dominance and not his volume of runs. I have somehow agreed to that line of thinking suggested by the author in this article. Further arguments in favour of that line: In the midst of Hayden's pomp we had the 2005 Ashes, the only series this side of 2000 where the bowling by a team opposite Australia (the English) was so good that it would have been creditable for any batsman to last against bowlers over an entire session. This series saw him struggle to dominate and even score decent runs. Ricky Ponting struggled as well, but more like a batsman who would come good any time (as he did to save the Oval Test), which was a little different from Hayden's struggle.

Let us clarify that this discussion is not undertaken with the sole aim of crucify a modern great like Hayden when his time is coming to an end. He is not the only one to benefit from demise of bowlers. Many of the other batsman of his team and his generation have benefitted similarly. But the spotlight is more to him than others because he has dominated like none else except Sehwag and Gilly did.

Something in the batting of those other two, Gilly and Sehwag, suggest that they would have gone for the same dominance in any era they would have played by paying the requisite price: their averages would suffer from taking up onslaughts against greater bowlers. Gilly is a number seven and would naturally be more likely to be successful at it even against good bowling sides while Sehwag would have to take a large dent in his stats to retain his dominance. Is it true for Hayden as well? I think not. Hayden's batting is designed to tackle 'line and length fast medium pace and spin' rather than genuine 'get out of my way' quick bowling from tall bowling greats. I am not an expert at cricket and hence cannot it out but the more I look at Hayden's batting (commitmment to front foot combine with lack of swift rockback to backfoot, etc) the more I feel that it might well be both lesser average and lesser dominance for Matthew Hayden had he played 10-15 years earlier.

It is only an opinion, and has no facts and figures to back it up. No one actually knows how he would have coped with the great fast men, except that he turned failure to success only after they had gone. If we judge Hayden only by that stat then we risk ending up being unfair in rating him. Even Martin Crowe averaged abysmally in his 1st 14 or 15 Tests, and had he too bloomed post-fast-bowling-era in same fashion as Hayden we might not have known how good Martin actually was against all bowling. The point of this post, therefore, is: Martin's batting would still have told a story that Hayden's batting does not tell convincingly.

Now to the good part. Even if you believe he is a bully only to modern one-day-type bowlers, it is still complimentary of his cricket sense and his awareness of his own capabilities. It indicates Matthew Hayden is one smart batsman who spotted the declining merits of bowlers across the world earlier than all other batsmen in his era. Such smart batsmen may not have averaged above 50 against all comers but would always have added value to the team when picked.


The word is used rather generously these days for teams doing well and having a leading light to show for their efforts. In a recent newspaper report MS Dhoni was termed as talismanic for Indian cricket team. I wonder. He has a rather decent team at his disposal which looks likely to do well. True Dhoni has contributed immensely to the development of this team (at least the team for shorter games) but that does not qualify him as 'talismanic', does it?

I will expect a 'talismanic' individual to play a direct role in the success of his team on regular basis, at a far greater frequency than others in his team. Agreed Dhoni has an elevating effect on the Indian team and he has lately done enough to be looked up to in all forms of the game. But the word 'talismanic' has a stronger meaning than just that.

It is not how the teammates see this particular individual but how the world, especially the rivals, views this guy that lends the charm to the talisman. India, at least in Tests, has done reasonably well even at times not too long ago when Dhoni was not justifying his place in the team. Even today, when Dhoni is deservedly praised for his positive role in the team's success it is not meant to imply that Indian fortunes have risen or sunk with Dhoni's performances. Clive Lloyd the captain was not talismanic, Brian Lara the batsman was. Ganguly the captain was not talismanic, Sachin the batsman in 90's and Dravid the batsman in early 2000's was. Ricky Ponting the captain was not talismanic, Ponting the batsman is (more so in the last couple of years when Australia have looked fallible). Mike Brearley the batsman was not talismanic, Brearley the captain perhaps was when in tandem with his weapon Ian Botham.

I regard that last instance of Mike Brearley the captain as a rare exception. In fact, I have not seen him in live action and hence I confess I am not too sure of knowing enough about Brearley's captaincy to back my decision to pick him if one of you challenges me on it. That is exactly the point: it is way too difficult for someone in a managing role (i.e. the captain) to be a talisman. How difficult? Even more difficult than being adjudged Man-of-the-match in a Test match for fielding alone. A talisman needs to work, not inspire.

In Test matches, the closest we have to a talismanic player today is Virender Sehwag. In one dayers and T20's we have none, although Yuvraj and Dhoni the batsman are perenially close to staking a claim. That explains why India are doing so well without depending on one or two individuals.

Webster's revised Unabridged Dictionary explains the word 'talismanic' thus:

Of or pertaining to a talisman; having the properties of a talisman, or preservative against evils by occult influence; magical.

The news of Bangladesh losing by just over 100 runs chasing 521 against Sri Lanka's Murali-Mendis-Vaas in the 4th innings was the news of the day to me. The first thought I had after that was: "How much did Ashraful score?" I have never tried to consciously analyse the contribution of various players to Bangladesh's famous cricketing moments but I have this perception that Ashraful has played a stellar role in an overwhelming majority of them. In other words, I consider Ashraful to be 'talismanic' to the fortunes of Bangladesh cricket team.

Why? I wish I could explain. Is it because Ashraful sparkled in the World cup 2007 victory against South Africa and played a sizzler against Australia at unforgettable Sophia Gardens? But then I also know that he did not do much against the same opposition at the Fatullah in 2006 and nor did he contribute when the Bangla boyz defeated India in World Cup 2007.

It is all in the mind, apparently. I have blogged earlier about how notions and perceptions can be unrelated to the reality. Maybe we WANT to see things in a certain fashion out of respect or contempt for certain individuals. I just see Ashraful as the guy who is pivotal to Bangladesh's success. In that respect, he is a talismanic Bangladeshi to me.

Perhaps that explains why I was satiated to learn that on this instance Ashraful has indeed proved to be 'talismanic' to Bangladesh's good 4th innings show where they could keep the match alive till a fair distance even while attempting a big BIG chase. 2008 was a disappointing year for Bangladesh and, not surprisingly to me, it was personally an even more horrendous year for this very special Bangladesh batsman. Hope the talisman can conjure up his magic in favour of Bangladesh in 2009.