Sunday, May 24, 2009

"Paara" cricket in Bengal

[Note: I made this post nearly 2 years back in another blog. The site has since been revamped and the post is nowhere to be seen. I have a soft corner for that post as it brings me back to my past and makes me say Hi to it whenever I go through that post. I am reproducing that Sep'2007 post here in Pavilion View.]

Sep 28, 2007

“Paara” cricket in Bengal’s suburbs

Bengal has been game for cricket for over two centuries. The first ever cricket match in Bengal apparently took place as early as 1792. Interestingly that match was played between Calcutta Cricket Club and a combined team from Dumdum and Barrackpur, two suburban cantonment towns near Kolkata.

As Ramachandra Guha observes in the opening chapter of his excellent book “A Corner of a Foreign Field”, cricket was the topmost game in Britain in those days. The British armymen posted in Indian cities and suburbs brought the game to India. While cricket in Kolkata was played mainly in inter-club format. The numerous small setups of British officers in the interiors of Bengal did not enjoy the luxurious infrastructure of clubs though. Nevertheless they found avenues of recreating home in a foreign land. Their habit of playing cricket in winter afternoons was as much an effort at competitive sport as an event of social gathering and entertainment. Often matches were arranged with nearby establishments and it was no different with suburban cantonments in and around Kolkata. In the process the British armymen had a big hand in popularising cricket in suburban West Bengal.

I grew up at Ichapur, a small town in North 24 parganas district and 6 kilometres from the above mentioned Barrackpur. As depicted in the 2001 cricket classic ‘Lagaan’, I can easily imagine forefathers of my friends in Ichapur / Barrackpur picking up this strange game from vantage points outside the parade grounds. [Why were my ancestors not watching? Because they hailed from Midnapur, where cricket must have reached much later.] Guha refers to army officer A G Bagot’s observation about the early aversion of Indians to the nuances of cricket in his account “Sport and Travel in India and Central America”. I too am inclined to believe that this multi-generation love affair with a foreign maid named Miss Cricket must have started off with our great great great granddads assuming the Britishers to be odd people capable of finding joy in “running about in the sun all day after a leather ball”.

Two hundred years have passed since. Barring the odd cricket coaching centre, the game still awaits infrastructure, development and organisation in the suburbs. Yet cricket is a widely played game in West Bengal. “Paara” cricket (‘paara’ means neighbourhood in Bangla), the breeding ground of suburban cricketers, comes in all sorts of customised avatars though.

The neighbourhood sporting club

The grassroot unit of competitive sport is the neighbourhood club. Typically it will be a one or two room infrastructure in the locality where young bachelors will assemble in the evenings to play a few games of carrom or cards. The club is often an spontaneous assembly of adolescents and grown ups rather than an officially registered body. The clubs generally seek to garner social prestige mainly through organising some or all of the many Pujas of Bengal.

The club folk generally play their sport in the patch of vacant land nearest to the club room. Soon it becomes their home ground.

Learning the sport

The suburban cricketers often take their first lessons of cricket from appreciative seniors in the neighbourhood club, who in turn were taught similarly. Often their bowling and batting techniques remain largely the same as their first attempt at delivering a ball or playing a shot. Seldom are any corrections or improvements brought about in a learner’s game unless it is drastically problematic or the player himself insists on it. Only a handful of youngsters are lucky enough to be exposed to ‘coaching’.

The concept of learning cricket is gradually changing because a significantly higher percentage of today’s parents are cricket-educated and attach more importance of proper learning of the game by their wards. Hence the clubs these days are more inclined to appoint sports coaches.

Competitive cricket

Competitive cricket starts when a kid becomes good enough to represent his club when they play a neighbourhood club. This match may be played either in the home ground or away. In addition to the bilateral matches, there are the tournaments that give away coveted trophies, ones that serve to adorn the trophy cases of the clubs and allow the club members to swell with genuine pride.

Tournaments and their rules

Entry into professional life has made me a little detached from those areas over the last decade, but till the late nineties there used to be no authority beyond the neighbourhood club hosting a tournament that had a say on playing conditions and rules for the tourney. The hosts’ ruling was final. That does not necessarily mean they twisted the rules beyond recognition. The post 80’s exposure to televised cricket ensured that most players and organisers had a sound knowledge of the game’s basic laws. I am sure things are even better now.

However all such tournaments are generally played on the home grounds of the hosting club(s) and the widely varying shapes, landscapes and boundary conditions of these grounds ensure invention of rules that best ensure a good game of cricket. e.g. Presence of a very short boundary on any side of the wicket will often encourage a ‘boundary two’ for all ground shot boundaries and a ‘four’ for over-boundaries to that side. No sixes, that is. The boundary scores may be further reduced to deter batsmen from hitting shots there in case a pond exists on that side! Also, matches played in small grounds would often be ‘9-a-side’ games.

Canvas and leather

Most games in such tournaments are played with ‘cambis’ balls over a 16 (or 20) overs a side format. ‘Cambis’ ball is really the canvas ball or tennis ball. [For other such ‘paara’ cricket terminology have a look at
Abhijit Gupta’s Paara Cricket Glossary] People coming out of suburbs often do not get a chance to play with leather balls till they reach college. That can make the purists cringe but I am afraid not much can be helped there.

The concept of a groundsman is unheard of in suburban clubs and playing with leather ball on such grounds is a heavy physical risk for both the batsmen and fielders. Moreover, grounds are shrinking in sizes and numbers every year and residents of buildings serving as boundaries of these cramped playing spaces are hardly willing to patronise three broken windows and one injured toddler every month.

Not just the ball but the duration of these games may well raise eyebrows of those not having the inclination to acknowledge cricket beyond the ‘real’ variety. Players – the ones in suburbs, that is - only have two hours to play. The duration, hence, are always in line with the latest cricketing invention, Twenty20. Barring the absence of ‘cambis’ ball and presence of international cricketer’s gear, Twenty20 is the closest thing to ‘paara’ cricket I have ever seen. As Ajay Jadeja said the other day, “the first time I played a 5 day game was my first Test match”. And Ajay is a city-bred player from a traditional cricketing family.

Perhaps tennis ball cricket needs to be appreciated better; after all, it has produced a leading batsman-keeper at the topmost level who is also proving to be a capable national team captain on his very first assignment as a leader. Mahendra Singh Dhoni is as much a product of suburban cricket as are his main pace weapons RP Singh and S Sreesanth.

Of course the odd leather ball tournament will also happen in the area, but those would generally be in industrial meets typically organised by a manufacturing unit in the district. The host unit will send invitations to clubs to participate in the meet’s “one-day cricket tournament”. [Here, “one day” signifies wrapping up the tournament in a day.] Back behind the closed doors of an invited club the bunch of tennis ball talents in the club will get divided into two groups over a meeting: the ones that are not fazed by the risk of injury posed by hard red ball, and the ones that will start making excuses and opt out of the tourney. The former lot will then effortlessly morph into masters of the ‘deuce’ ball [ref: that
Abijit Gupta piece, once again] and go ahead to get a taste of armoured cricket.

Women’s cricket

Oh yes, women’s cricket was non-existent in the districts even as late as the 1990’s. Jhulan Goswami, the fastest woman bowler in the world and ICC cricket of the year 2007, learnt her cricket and acquired pace in her bowling through playing with boys. As much as revealing her spirit and tenacity, it also says that players like her will emerge rarely unless there is an infrastructure in place. Hopefully this part will change too. Jhulan herself may have a big role to play in it.

Love of cricket

Suburban tournaments are mostly organised by local sporting clubs. Some of the bigger tournaments are hosted by a group of clubs and even manage some sponsorship. Sponsorship is relatively easier to find for tournaments in Kolkata (Bagpiper sponsors a prestigious ‘paara cricket’ championship in Kolkata) but for their suburban brothers financing a tournament can be a painstaking affair. Competing clubs are often charged pocket-pinching entry fees to fund the tournament expenses. Most of these competing clubs are run by youngsters with meagre incomes. Those tournaments will never happen unless so many cricket loving young people are ready to part with big money in form of participation fees.

The better players get a platform to exhibit their skills in such tournaments and often get noticed. Subsequently fame spreads by word of mouth and they get hired by other clubs to play in other tournaments in exchange of a small sum of money. The term for such ‘professional’ cricket is ‘khep khela’. The luckier and more enterprising amongst the good players get to attempt a breakthrough into mainstream cricket by qualifying to play for first or 2nd division leagues on behalf of some Kolkata cricket clubs.

Farewell to cricket

Most of the ‘star’ players though have to soon look for livelihood by the time they end their schooling or graduation and cricket in their lives fades away like a flashback. From live participation in games played on a green field with a bare patch in middle, cricket loses one of the three dimensions to these young men and gets firmly ensconced in the idiot box, to be followed only in the spare time extracted from a hard day’s work and a million other daily duties.

I saw each one of my childhood playmates get detached from cricket that way. One or two amongst them were very good and could have even shone at higher platforms. They were never serious to pursue cricket as a profession though, partly because we grew up in a society that never suggested such ‘self destruction’ to its kids and partly because a typical Indian youngter is not likely to be taught to back himself by anyone other than his own inner voice.

A memorable match

Jhulan Goswami’s native place Chakdaha in Nadia district is about 50 kilometres of railway journey from my place Ichapur in the opposite direction of Kolkata . Chakdaha first caught the regional headlines for producing a remarkable student that topped both the secondary and higher secondary board exams. In those days A prestigious tennis ball knock-out tournament used to be hosted every winter in Chakdaha (I do not know if the tradition of the winter tourenament still continues). We had participated in it once in the late 90’s.

The ground was a real small one; a 40 yard boundary on the off-side and barely 25 yards on the on-side. The number of spectators assembling to watch the match surprised us. (Obviously they had to stand on the lanes, as the ground could not be curtailed any further). Apparently the tournament already had a bit of history. A spectator spotted some familiarity in the face of one of our players and asked the name of his father. Upon learning the father’s identity he was elated. “So he is the son of Chanchal! We still remember how well he played that year here at this ground”.

It was a 16-overs-9-players-a-side match, with all other rules of normal cricket. We scored only 84 in a 130-par-score arena and duely lost the match. But more than anything else I have ever read about or seen in cricket that one match demonstrated to me the value of taking every chance in the field. As soon as the 2nd innings started one of our bowlers conceded a 24-run over. And yet it turned out to be the most thrilling match I have played till date as our team, catching everything and goofing up just one half-chance of a run-out, lost by a nail-biting solitary wicket mainly through the solo shepherding act of a late middle order batsman.

Not quite a ‘Lagaan’ ending for us there - even after generations of picking up the bat-ball game from the East India Companywallahs in and around Barrackpore. And to think Lagaan’s Bhuvan and his team learnt not just playing the game but also the art of finishing a cricket match inside of a month!! Is that why Gujarat produces more Test cricketers than Bengal?

Ground realities

I will have to end this piece on a sad and alarming note. The next generation kids of my old Ichapur ‘paara’ have no home ground to play. The defence colony ground we played in has been put out of bounds of the general public due to growing security concerns, and most of the other nearby grounds have long yielded to increasing demand for dwellings. I am sure this has happened to many other Ichapurs in India.

The basic / minimum requirement for development of any sport is the existence of open playgrounds in enough numbers. Playgrounds not just need to be protected from the infrastructure boom but also increased in numbers to the extent possible. And such drastic steps need to be taken without delay, else even the few remaining spaces will be gone. Leave alone producing cricketers to win world cups, this country may not even have enough people like me to write or reminisce about the game.

Instead of passing thoughtless remarks on the Indian inability to produce a ICC-event-winning side in two decades, Mr. Malcolm Speed will do well to take a reality check on such aspects and instruct BCCI, the ICC’s self-appointed money-spinning wing that needs instructions to carry out its other greater duties, to join hands with other outdoor sports bodies in India and ensure protection of playgrounds. This is going to be a long drawn task involving implementation of a few government ordinances, and hence needs to be initiated right now. Identification of vacant areas in various districts, acquiring them and converting them into ‘sports sanctuaries’ seems to be our last chance to ensure that enough numbers of young men and women in this country keep playing and appreciating outdoor sports half a century hence.

Spinners were more successful in SA's IPL-2009 than the Indian IPL of 2008

What was it that allowed that to happen?

Was it the extra bounce? Perhaps it was. The extra rise was clearly worked to the advantage by all the top spinners including Kumble, Ojha, Warne, Vettori, Harbhajan and Muralitharan.

Also, was it the extra 10 or so yards from the batting crease to the boundary ropes? I remember Ian Chappell expressing frustration last year at the bats getting better and the fields getting shorter at the same time. His argument was that by allowing this to happen the cricket administrators were looking for short sighted satiation of the spectators for more sixes (for that is what the administrators can think of as the only love of us one-dmensional cricket fans). The short boundaries were making the spinners lose the inclination to flight deliveries as even the mishits created by good bowling from spinners to top batsmen would regularly go over the fence instead of becoming a catch in the deep. At least the 75-80 yard boundaries in South Africa give tweakers some extra 'ground'.

But someone will need to explain to me where the turn came from. Since their return from exile in the 90's, the SA cricket team were as notorious for their lack of spinners as the pitches in their country were renowned for not supporting them. However spectators got to see some sharp turn in some matches with 6-7 over old balls. And they got that not only from the best spin doctors but also from some of the lesser known (but adequately effective) practitioners of spin bowling.

Did the IPL supremo Lalit Modi manage the impossible of not only taking the tournament from Asia to Africa but also some of the original Indian 'pitch' and tenor within a one month timeframe?

Can't rule that one out, going by the way Modi is beginning to rate himself as a 1st class miracle worker and trying to conjure up bigger challenges for himself.

Arranging 2 IPL's a year, for example!!

Asking rates above 10 for more than 5 overs are difficult to get even in T20.... matter who you have at the crease during those overs with whatever number of wickets in hand.

Need proof?

Have a look at this chart for the IPL season 2 stats showcasing best strike rates amongst batsmen.

The list may well get new additions after the 2nd semi final and the final, but as on 23rd May morning there are only a handful of people who could twice achieve a strike rate of 200 or more (i.e. 2 runs a ball, or 12 runs per 6 balls) in the completed innings they played over 14 or more matches.

They are the usual suspects - Ross Taylor, Adam Gilchrist and Yusuf Pathan. What's more creditable, they have achieved these strike rates when it has mattered most - in the 2nd innings(if I am not mistaken then all of these 6 specials barring one Y Pathan innings were done chasing down a total - or is it 100%?? Hope someone answers that). This shows how good they have been in cracking the opposition team's bowling strategies.

But ultimately this list also shows that even these 3 whirlwinders were THIS good in only a couple of matches in such a long series. And that some other not-too-less special guys like Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh, MSD, Raina, ABdV - for all their fireworks - could either not achieve a completed innings with 200 strike rate or managed to get there just once. In other words, these 2-runs-a-ball-and-more innings were not as common as we may presume they were if these stats were not presented to us.

Say one of these top 3 guys (Pathan / Taylor/ Gilly) were chasing 10 an over and also playing one of these special innings. A simple calculation will show that they would still be required to either take risky singles to hog the strike or need their partners to also score at 7 or 8 to get over the line. In the closing overs it is quite likely that the partner will be a newcomer at the crease. That complicates things further.

And that, eventually, gives us an idea why it can be rather difficult to chase 10 plus in closing overs even with wickets in hand.

Knockouts are the phase where this pressure of asking rate will be felt even more in the 2nd innings. Why 10, anything above 8 can prove to be too much pressure in the final 5 overs of a semi final or the final. Now watch the replay of Gilly's innings yesterday and rate it in perspective. In a semi final clash and chasing a not too modest target, he scored at 3 runs a ball for the first 17 balls and at 2 runs a ball for the next 17 before getting out in the 35th delivery he faced.

How do I rate it? Even leaving alone the premium quality hitting demonstrated by the ageless gladiator from the Aussie Juggernaut of the 2000's, I consider Gilly's 85 yesterday to be the best of all above-50 IPL 2009 innings in terms of significance, and is arguably also the overall best amongst all knocks played in the 2 editions of IPL we have seen so far.

[Closest contestant in overall category: Warnie's cool headed finish in IPL 2008 final. Warnie scored just 9 runs, but then it was special not for the volume but for the sheer weight of the situation he was in].

Saturday, May 23, 2009

"Good captains need to be fiery and pumped up on the field"

Do you believe in that?? Then perhaps you can't even picture the man I will talk about now as a remotely good one.

Look at

We remember Shaun Pollock the captain as the guy that allowed his team to get knocked out of the 2003 world cup by miscalculating the rain shortened target by 1 run....But he is the 3rd most successful captain after Ponting and Jardine in the history of Test cricket. And that record spans over not 3 or four but 10 series which he captained (unlike most of the other guys in the top 10 list).

I think whoever pushed him out of Test captaincy (or did not think to coerce him to continue in tests after he stepped down after 2003 WC) pushed SA team back by a few years and allowed SA cricket to pay a price costlier than that 1 run.

I still remember the 3 match ODI series in
April-May 2000. Steve's not-almighty-but-already-mighty Aussies landed in SA to play the series that was scheduled about 7 days after what turned out to be Cronje's ouster from cricket.

It was in such a scenario that Shaun Pollock took up the South African captaincy - and SA almost surreally won that series in spite of all that chaos leading up to the series. Fluke? I guess not. Aussies played well and still came out 2nd best. Later in September the same year we saw the Aussies taking SA on in the new 'covered' stadium in another
3 match ‘away’ series. Polly's Springboks lost the first match badly. However they came back and TIED the 2nd one before winning the last one.

He was perhaps the one international captain in the 2000’s who never got his due as a galvaniser of cricketers into a unit stronger than the sum of its parts. [I am not talking about Warnie / Gilly and such like that did not get the opportunity; that will be a whole new discussion and the topic of some future post of mine]. If you look back at the particular phase in last year's IPL when MI started to turn around (only to botch it up in the last 2 matches and miss the semis berth) you will notice that the fightback happened just as Polly replaced Bhajji, stand-in captain for the first few matches till the ban was 'slapped' on him. It happened even as their best player and captain Sachin Tendulkar was nursing injuries on the sidelines. One can almost say (at the risk of insulting Tendulkar’s leadership capabilities) that the finishing touches never happened because Sachin Tendulkar happened to be back after the injury and took back the leadership for those crucial last league matches!

The above stats and recollections, strrewn together, suggest that the taciturn man we saw on the field was as good a leader in ODI's and T20 as he used to be in Tests. He was not quite the commentators' / adman's delight like some skippers from the subcontinent during his time but he was no less effective than his boisterous counterparts, to say the least.

Pollock has opted out of travelling to India for the IPL and in all likelihood he will not be back in next year’s edition of the IPL. But if he decides to have a rethink, don't you think my home team Kolkata Knight Riders needs someone like him at the helm?