Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Conflicting reports about the Referee panel...., will please clarify?

Rediff reported on the 24th of April, that Javagal Srinath has been hired as a Match Referee by the ICC for the 2006-07 season, in the annual panel revision. The report also stated that Chris Broad has been excluded from the new panel (a polite way of saying that he got kicked out).

It turns out that the Chris Broad story is completely wrong. The ICC in its bulletin makes no mention of the dropping of Broad, and infact has listed him along with the other referees in their 2006-07 panel.

The ICC Match Referee - an institution which has evoked mixed feelings amongst cricketers, and faced numerous accusations of being unfair and biased, is responsible for overseeing the conduct of players in international cricket. The role and the responsibilities of the referee have evolved since the early years, when the Referees position was viewed as a paid holiday by the cricketing fraternity (some still view it as a paid holiday), and some of the decisions by some referees have truly undermined the effectiveness of the referee. Some of the ugliest and most infamous altercations on an international cricket field in recent years have been completely ignored by referees, at other times, minor events have been penalised with a heavy hand.

The Referees position is characteristic of everything the ICC has done in recent years. Decision by committee in cricket seems to have an innate capacity of coming up with things which defy normal logic - which audiences and cricketers it seems are happy to accept. It is as though the ICC does all these important things, which nobody cares about. Consider for example the classic dichotomy of "elite" umpires who cannot be trusted to officiate in international matches contested by teams of their nationality. It is as though the ICC is telling the Umpires - "You are the best Umpires in the world, recommended by your respective boards as the best available Umpires in your respective nations, but we cannot trust you to be honest and we will not back you to be seen to be honest while Umpiring in your own country". Where does this hurt? It hurts when someone who is a really good umpire, but has no experience of the local conditions get thrown into a 4th or 5th day cauldron on a wearing turner in the subcontinent. It hurts because a top table contest like the Ashes cannot avail of the services of the two best Umpires in the world - Peter Willey and Simon Taufel.

The imposition of the referee has undermined the umpires, with the duality of authority crucially crippling the men in white when it really matters. Umpires can no longer realistically call a bowler for throwing (call no ball, and rule the delivery illegal on the field of play), because the law is unimplementable. Where does this hurt? It hurts when a bowler like Shabbir Ahmed, who got banned after detailed testing showed that he chucked, can take 51 Test wickets in 10 Tests at 23.03, even though everyone could see all along that he was throwing. He has cost visiting teams like South Africa series defeats.

Umpiring is a difficult task as it is, and the duplicity of authority caused by the existence of Match Referees further cripples the men in white. There is no necessity for matters between players or between players and umpires to be "refereed". What results is unfortunate off the cuff remarks like Jeff Crowes shocking comment "I have sympathy for Ricky" during the recent Test match at Chittagong. The Referee further went on to suggest the problem was caused by the local umpires poor English.

Now, if the Referees position is indeed serious, then he ought not to make off the cuff remarks about things, and he ought not to make unguarded comments to the press.

This general looseness is indicative of the ICC's attitude to everything - that of committees without focus or vision, chugging along doing something that nobody really cares about. It is not matter then, that 3 days hence, Rediff (which has consider viewership), has not retracted its mistaken report, and the ICC itself has not asked rediff to change things. Nobody basically cares! Chalta hai seems to be the flavor of the ICC.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Sachin Tendulkar's 33rd Birthday......

Apart from being a milestone in the Indian birthday calender, Sachin Tendulkar's 33rd birthday is his 16th as an international cricketer. His first birthday as an international cricketer was his 17th. He has now spent almost half his life playing international cricket, at about 95 different cricket grounds in 16 nations around the world. Cricket has truly been his life - sadly, to the extent that these days any birthday greeting he recieves includes "want to see you make more runs".

Sachin Tendulkar is facing a crisis at the moment - of fitness and of form. It is faith that is needed from his many supporters, although if you say this to him, he might turn around and tell you that from his experience, that faith is almost frightening!

Its an interesting comment though - what does it say about a man, when almost all his birthday greetings say "happy birthday! heres hoping for many more runs from you in the future" or "happy birthday, look forward to you getting fit again and making runs". It gives you a glimpse into the sort of the expectation he has lived with for almost half his life now.

The birthday is also an indication of passing years, and of the fact that some time in the near future, the Sachin Tendulkar epic will come to an end. He is clearly on the wane - in terms of both fitness and form. Michael Holding in his recent interview to cricinfo suggested that he regarded Sachin Tendulkar to be a great player of fast bowling upto about 3 years ago - not anymore. Tendulkar's is not the most sought after wicket in the Indian team any more. In addition to form and fitness, i have felt in recent years that it is this feeling of not being the lynchpin any more that has affected Tendulkar's run output. It not surprising then for Chappell to point out repeatedly that followers should get used to a different Tendulkar - one who will play a different role from now on. Whether Tendulkar in this role will be the same great cricketer that he was in his role as the engine of Indias batting remains to be seen. Captaincy sat uneasy on Tendulkar all those years ago.

Tendulkar has seen it all, and has shepherded India through the nineties and through the whole match-fixing fracas. Now he has the chance, to sit back an enjoy Indias ride to the top of the cricket world. The odd hundred on the way is all one asks for - for a Tendulkar hundred, is always unique - it tends to become one with the match situation and the opposition bowling. Adaptability has been his greatest hallmark. He has sought always to impose himself on the game, not as an arrogant batting genius, but as a studious master of the contest.

Best wishes to him - a lot of great players had their best years after the age of 33. Even if he doesn't score another run and play another match for India, it matters not. He will remain one of the greatest Indians of his era.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Answering irresistible questions......

The Two Indias blog on cricinfo has posed some irresistible questions

Is this something endemic to India that they produce world-class batsmen all the time, but never enough world-class bowlers at the same time? If so, are they condemned to being a second-rate Test side? And if not, do you hope in the new breed of young Indian bowlers that is coming up now? What do you think is the next step that India need to take to get there? Do you think they're on the way? If you were the coach of India, what are the first five things you would do to make this team even better? Who would you bring in, who would you leave out? What are the hard decisions you would take?

Im going to present a view from outside the cricket journalism and cricket fraternities. Successful Test teams have historically been built on solid batting lineups and wicket taking bowling teams. This aspect of a bowling lineup is quite important. Wasim Akram, bowling alongside Ajit Agarkar, Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra and a host of other late-thirties and mid-forties Test bowlers, would not have been the same potent bowling force that he was bowling alongside Imran Khan, Waqar Younis, Abdul Qadir, Mushtaq Ahmed and Saqlain Mushtaq. Settled bowling attacks can prepare as a team, can target batting lineups as a team, and their cumulative effect is invariable greater than the sum of the parts. The English success in the last 18 months is a case in point. Flintoff has been the all round star of their success, and Steve Harmison has been the star pace bowler. However, it is Matthew Hoggard, Simon Jones, James Anderson and Ashley Giles who have been crucial as bowlers to the English success. They maintain pressure when the star bowler is out of the bowling attack. Australia's golden run in recent years has been built on a great core bowling combination, and on the occasions when Australia have not won series, it has been either because one of their core bowlers has been bested (India, 2001) or when their bowling lineup has been disrupted due to injuries (vs India 2003-04, Ashes 2005). Australia have never lost a Test series in which McGrath and Warne have played. Indeed, they have never lost a live Test match in which McGrath and Warne have both featured since 1999, except for Kolkata (2001) and Chennai (2001).

India have had 1 bowler of this quality over the last 14 years - Anil Kumble. Kumble gets criticized for his overseas bowling effort, but i did a study some months ago about him, and found that even with his statistically moderate overseas record, he outperforms the other bowlers in the team even overseas. In India, the man is a champion. 5 wickets per test, and 23 runs/wicket is a match winning record. Overseas, whats missed is that Anil Kumble outperforms the pacemen. Kumble has taken more wickets/test at a cheaper runs/wicket average overseas, as compared to the other bowlers in the side, in the Tests that he's played overseas.

The key for India, will be to identify a bowling squad for the Test team and persist with it. Munaf Patel made an exciting Test debut, and Irfan Pathan would be a very high quality bowling all rounder. Persisting with the 5 batsmen + Dhoni + Pathan + 4 bowlers policy over a longish period of time seems to be the way to go.

Another problem India will face in the near future is the middle order. With Tendulkar on the wane (if not in terms of ability, then definitely in terms of fitness and injuries!) and Yuvraj Singh still trying to establish himself, the nucleus of a new middle order is still not in sight. The problem with the Test middle order is that it is hard to try people out. The requirements of a Test batsman are different from the requirements of an ODI batsman. It is rare for a batsman to come into a Test team and straight away demonstrate that hes the man for the next 10 years. It has happened 3 times for India in the last 16 years - Tendulkar, Ganguly and Dravid. Realistically, a Test batsman will have a Laxmanesque or Gangulyesque career graph (as a middle order bat). The problem that India are likely to face with their batting is the exact opposite of the problem they face with their fast bowling. In an attempt to live up to existing benchmarks, which are almost impossible to deliberately aspire to, India run the risk of a batting decline, not unlike the West Indian fast bowling decline.

Bowling teams win Test matches - that is how Test cricket is structured. India win fewer Test matches inspite of scoring about 35 runs/wicket in Test cricket, than Pakistan, who score only about 32 runs/wicket over the same period. Are bowlers on the way? I don't really know. The two tier domestic structure should encourage a higher standard of first class cricket in India.

There is a lot of talk of systems - what BCCI should do, what structures we should have etc. etc. that gets thrown about. The history of cricket however suggests, that it is the lure of this great game that has inspired the outrageously talented cricketers to excel and become great Test cricketers. All of Pakistan's great cricketers, in the words of the great Imran Khan honed their skills in county cricket and became the champions that they eventually became. Inzamam Ul Haq and Waqar Younis are the rare exceptions who were world class right from the very beginning. What goes for Pakistani talent also goes for the West Indians who played under Clive Lloyd and Vivian Richards. In the same era however, English teams have not been quite as strong.

Systems are important, but history tells us that true greatness, which wins Test matches, happens inspite of the best intentions. In the Indian side itself we have seen glimpses of this - Sourav Ganguly, Anil Kumble, Virendra Sehwag, Mahendra Singh Dhoni - are all unorthodox in their respective skills. If you look around in world cricket, the most effective performers have been those who have basically adhered to the principles of batting or bowling (which themselves are seen to have evolved in terms of their definitions), but have played their own way.

The secret of sustained success must therefore lie not in aspiring to manufacture greatness, or in hoping that it will emerge by identifying trends, but by building a structure where the basic quality of first class cricket in India will be high - higher than it has ever been in the past. If that means better wickets, or better umpiring, or stiffer schedules or better outfields or all these things and more, then that will have to be pursued. To try and produce the next Tendulkar or Dravid or Kumble or Kapil or Gavaskar, would be a folly, because greatness by definition, is an exception to the rule. In the immediate term, one would give this team management a little bit of time before commenting on performance. Tendulkar's inevitable form slump has unfortunately coincided with the advent of the Chappell-Dravid era. This has been a crippling blow, and with a normal Tendulkar, India would conceivably not have lost at Karachi or Mumbai. The Mumbai loss was also down to quixotic team selection and a decision from the captain at the toss, which can be best described as ambitious. Indian Test batting success has been down to Sehwag, Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman and Ganguly. Ganguly has been dropped, Laxman was left out because 5 bowlers were played, and Yuvraj had to be played, Tendulkar and Sehwag have been struggling with their form. So i don't think there has been a fundamental decline in the Test team. Whatever development that has to take place has to happen at the first class level if it is to be of any consequence. The new phenomenon in first class cricket in recent years has been the emergence of seam bowlers averaging in the early to mid twenties with the ball. This is a good sign, and in a few years, a low twenties first class bowling average in Indias first class cricket will actually mean something. Selection for the national side is invariably done on potential and presence of "class" in the player, rather than purely on first class performance. The vast majority of national team members come through A, age-group and NCA ranks.

If I was Greg Chappell (wouldn't that be nice!), i would long for an overseas tour, away from the hurly burly of the two minute pundits, where the team can play a series of Test matches, the batsmen can make some runs, the bowlers can put in some long spells, and i could find out more about my players. The big tours for India come up in the next 20 months - away series in South Africa and England in 2006-07 and away series in Australia and New Zealand in 2007-08. With those in mind, developing the fast bowling squad would be the first thing on my mind. By then, Tendulkar and Dravid will be 35 years old each, and Kumble will be 37. Those would be my medium term issues. Chappell himself would know only too well what the simultaneous retirement of players does to a team. The immediate goal then would be to ensure that the Tendulkar-Dravid-Kumble era in Indias' cricketing adventure meets with a fitting end.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Atirathi Mahendra Singh Dhoni

In his 42nd ODI, M S Dhoni is the world's no 1 ODI batsman according to the game's governing body. He has made more than 1000 runs, averages over 50 in ODI cricket, has a strike rate of 100, keeps wickets, has already made the highest ODI score for a wicketkeeper, and played one of the greatest innings ever played in an ODI. Hes extremely fit, deceptively powerfully built and has in Greg Chappell's opinion "leadership qualities". He is in short India's cricketing dream. For a team which had to resort to getting Rahul Dravid to keep wicket, so that there would be depth in batting, Mahendra Singh Dhoni is a God send. His test record is almost as fabled as his ODI record, and he has already shown the ability to do great things in Test cricket. His 148 against Pakistan at Faisalabad was the stuff of fantasy - a wicketkeeper coming in and meeting the fastest bowler in the world (and all the other bowlers) with a ferocity which left them stunned, and ultimately got India a first innings lead after they had conceded a mammoth 588.

The Dhoni story however is one where the stats are bit players. These days when India play ODI cricket, the fall of a wicket makes every spectator look expectantly to see if this exciting star will emerge from the darkness of the players area. When he emerges, striding out purposefully, much like those atirathis and maharathis of the much fabled Mahabharata series, he carries with him expectations which only a young Sachin Tendulkar has carried to an Indian batting innings before him. With Dhoni however, unlike Tendulkar, it is not the hopes of India that he carries, but the dreams and the joy of India. There is no despair if he fails, for in this team, there are many who are match winners. His batting technique looks about as real and sophisticated as the swordsmanship and marksmanship of those television actors who played the Pandavas and the Kauravas in the Ramanand Sagar's Mahabharata war. His backlift, his footwork, and his general demeanor at the crease is like that of a tone deaf dancer with two left feet. His success suggests however, that there must be a certain correctness hidden away beneath all the antics. His magnificient eye helps him hit whatever he wants to (most of the time), and when it comes off, there is nothing quite like it on a cricket field. With Dhoni, one can't help get the feeling that he's not actually playing the same cricket that the other 21 players on the field are playing. Never has anyone "done it his own way" more than Dhoni has.

It is fitting then, that Dhoni is only the second Indian batsman after Sachin Tendulkar to be ranked number 1 in the world in the ODI game. Here's to a long association between Dhoni and that coveted ranking. For when he launches himself at a delivery, it is hard not to smile the smile of pure joy.


India in Tests - December 2003 to April 2006

This is a report of Test Cricket from December 2003 to April 2006, as derived using my Ratings.

This table shows the ratings used to build the above graph. I have taken ratings over a time span of 1-4 months.

The Ratings suggest, that India have never been in the top 3 in the world as far as Test Cricket is concerned at any time in the last 3 years. The recent debate in the press and the inflated expectations from India in Test cricket are mainly a result of the ICC's flawed rankings (based on a flawed methodology, and random time spans). Three years ago, Australia and South Africa were clearly number 1 and number 2 in the world, with everyone else forming a middle group, and the West Indies bringing up the rear. Now, there has been a clear shift - in that England, Pakistan and South Africa have formed a second tier in the Test world - South Africa having slipped from their heady 2nd place into this second tier. Pakistan have moved up into this tier as a result of a solid middle order and a very good bowling unit (Shoaib, Kaneria and now Asif), while England have moved in as a result of a great 18 months in Test cricket. India are hovering - occasionally straying towards this second tier, at other times lapsing into mid table mediocrity. Sri Lanka and New Zealand are currently a rung below India, while the West Indian decline continues unabated. The upcoming series against India in West Indies is the only series they have won against major opposition out of the 14 which constitute this rating.

The ICC's rating in my view has the following shortcomings:

1. It does not measure extent of victory.
2. It does not measure each team over the same type of Test matches, and its sample is based on time rather than Test series. The rating ignores the ICC's own Test match cycle.
3. It measures results - not performance, with the result that it makes the fatally flawed assumption that an "inconclusive" result (a draw), is a 0.5-0.5 Test match, "win" is a 1-0 Test match and "loss" is a 0-1 Test match.

The result of these loop holes is that if you used the ICC's method over a different time span, you would end up with different ratings, and since there isn't any particularly good reason for using the timespan that ICC uses, there's no reason to not use another time span. In fact, if you changed your year beginning and year end from August to December, you would have different ratings at any given point in time as well. Some food for thought then...... would appreciate some feedback on this!

Monday, April 17, 2006

Shades of Pygmalion, as Ponting gets away with it in Chittagong Test.....

Reports of this event are few and far between, given the press boycott of the Chittagong Test Match. It showed Australia up in a very negative light as a cynical cricket team. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that Ponting has been fined 25% of his match fee for the incident.

The quirky third umpire law, where the aid of the TV replay can be taken only for specific parts of a decision is at the centre of this latest Australian escapade. The TV Umpire was to rule whether or not the ball had touched the ground before it was caught by Adam Gilchrist. Aftab Ahmed was the batsman in question. The third umpire clearly saw however, that there was no contact with bat or glove, and the ball, and ruled in favour of the batsman.

This is a mistake on the part of the Umpire as he is supposed to ignore whether the ball hit the bat or not, and only judge whether or not the catch was infact a fair catch. At this point, Ponting protested with the umpires and the decision was reversed. The batsman was declared out. Here we have the Australian captain plainly interfering with the umpires decision.

To take you back to another famous incident in Sri Lanka in 2004, where Andrew Symonds was given out LBW by a Sri Lankan Umpire in an ODI game - a clear mistake on the part of the umpire due to a huge inside edge. At this point, Symonds showed his displeasure and walked off. Gilchrist, the non-striker, remonstrated with the umpire (which he had no business doing), and the umpire in consultation with the fielding captain (Attapattu), reversed his decision.

Now, as the law stands, in the case of reversal of a out decision, the fielding captain has to withdraw the appeal for this to be possible. So decisions related to dismissals cannot be reversed without the consent of the fielding captain. The captain must either reverse his appeal, or reiterate his earlier appeal. So the reversal of the decision, was not only the umpires call, but required Pontings appeal as well.

Here we have two instances, where an Australian team, over-extends itself twice, espousing contradictory principles. The first instance (Sri Lanka), being a case where the Australians insisted on getting the correct decision, even at the cost of following the wrong/illegal process (the non-striker protesting with the umpire), while in the latter instance (Bangladesh), Ponting insisted on the correct procedure being followed, even at the cost of the wrong decision being reached.

Which is worse? Showing dissent, disagreement with something that you think is a mistake? Or breaking rules to get your way? The ICC penalizes both things equally - dissenting batsmen and dissenting fielders get fined just like interfering non-strikers and manipulative captains do.

The ICC Referee, puts it all down to the third umpire's poor English.

Is Crickets 21st Century adaptation of Pygmalion being played out here?

Sunday, April 16, 2006

The Two Indias - An interesting discussion on cricinfo blogs..

The Two Indias on cricinfo blogs is a discussion about the Indian cricket team this season. The discussion dwells on a number of areas and is the most wide ranging and significant discussion on India cricket taking place in any journalistic circles right now. The discussion is in the context of the 2005-06 season as i mentioned at the beginning, and its specific interest seems to lie in what will doubtless come to to be known as the "Chappell Era".

Since the year 2000, when John Wright became coach and Sourav Ganguly became captain, India's cricket has come along by leaps and bounds. We have in the words of Harsha Bhogle, begun to play more "contemparory ODI cricket". In the last 5 years, we have seen more overseas Test match victories than the preceding 20 years. From the potentially fatal match-fixing mess, BCCI, a succession of team managements, selection committees, and most importantly, teams, have turned Indias cricket scene around, and revived what is not just Indias only great sporting adventure, but also one of the world's biggest sporting business ventures.

The question to be asked, and i have asked this before, is - Is the Indian Cricket Fan better educated (in cricketing terms, in 2005) than he was in 2000? A difficult question to pose and an even more difficult one to answer.

Commentary about cricket, seems to ignore the cricket that is played all the time. A case in point would be that famous World Cup match between India and Pakistan at Centurion Park in 2003. Here was a great cricket match - a strong Indian side - with Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dravid, against a great Pakistan side - possibly the last hurrah of Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Saeed Anwar. I have just named 6 of the greatest achievers in ODI history. If you look at the reports about that match, the closest they get to discussing the cricket, is Sachin Tendulkars slashed six over cover point.

I watched that match, ball by ball, and i cannot for the life of me, understand how that cricket match can be described without referring to two moments of genius - the first by Tendulkar and the second by Waqar Younis.

Tendulkars great moment of genius came the ball after he hit that six of Shoaib. It was a leg glance to the backward square fence, which only Tendulkar among all the batsmen i have seen could have played. Every other stroke he played was a simple case of extremely good technique, a lot of practice and a willingness on the day to attack. But that single stroke - after he'd just hit a Shoaib attempt at a bouncer for six, was a stroke of genius. Genius, because he knew what the bowler was going to bowl. Very Fast, good length, on middle and off stump, clipping the top of off and middle. Tendulkar moved back and across, flicked it to backward square. A lesser player would have done well to keep that ball out. That was the moment, when Pakistan and Shoaib knew they had their hands full. This great bit of batting genius was unfortunately lost in the chauvinistic pretense of revenge which followed that flayed six to third man - at best a cultivated waft at a terrible ball.

Waqar's moment of genius came when Ganguly came to the wicket. He waited for the field to get set, and then, from the top of his run up, signalled to the cover point to move to a third slip. He then proceeded to deliver the perfect leg cutter (off cutter to the left hander), which trapped Ganguly on the crease and caught him plumb in front. Its a trick which ive seen Wasim Akram use on Kumar Sangakkara once. And it took a fast bowler of extreme skill to execute that, in that big game, in that important moment in the game.

There were so many events in that game, which might have been described in a cricketing sense, not in a victory-defeat sense - Ganguly's move to bring on Dinesh Mongia in the 40th over, because Shahid Afridi was at the crease - Mongia with his teasing lack of pace snared Afridi, and nipped a potential 320 score in the bud.

When i read the newspaper the next day, it was as though these things never happened.

What the role of the press and the journalist is as a stakeholder in the Indian Cricket story, is every bit as important as the role of the team management and the fans. It is interesting that the journalist is never counted amongst the stakeholders, even though, s/he is arguably the most important cog in the wheel. The fan makes his opinions based on the journalist.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

5-1 Dravid returns India to their winning ways....

Rahul Dravid returned to lead India to a 7 wicket victory in 7th ODI game at Indore against England. It was Indias 17th successful run chase in the 2005-06 season - a world record achievement.

There was an interesting comment doing the rounds a couple of weeks back - about this generation of Indian batsmen growing up on Michael Bevan - a reference of course to Bevan's phenomenal success with run chases. Rahul Dravid i think has shaped the Indian batting, especially in ODI's in his team - in terms of attitude, in terms of method. Every batsman - Raina, Yuvraj, Dhoni, Pathan etc. have their own style and their own strengths. What is however common to them all is the Rahul Dravid approach - professional, always focussed on the goal, very skillful and relentless. The captain has truly shaped this ODI side in his own image. The Tendulkar era of Indian batting has given way to the Dravid era. It is not surprising that there weren't too many players who can be said to have batted in the Tendulkar mould - Ganguly in ODI's and VVS in Test cricket are about the only long term successes, because you can't copy genius and be genius yourself. Rahul Dravid has been blessed with talent in his ODI team. More importantly though, hes been blessed with an ability to lead that talent - through personal example.

Great things lie in store of India's ODI side, especially if they can find one more top class fast bowler - preferably someone who is genuinely quick.

280+ runchases have become routine for India now, and they have probably had more successful 280+ runchases than any other team in history. This particular record is made possible because of a weak bowling attack, which gives them so many opportunities to chase these big scores, and because of unquestionable skill and talent in their batting lineup.

With Robin Uthappa making 86 on debut as opener, and Tendulkar on the mend, Virendra Sehwag's ODI opener position has suddenly been threatened. With Raina, Uthappa, Sreesanth and Munaf emerging as long term prospects on the international scene for India as a result of this seasons performances, the old order (Ganguly's team?) is likely to see many changes in the near future. Looking at the Indian lineup for the Indore ODI, there was no Tendulkar, no Sehwag, no Kaif, no Zaheer, no Agarkar, no Nehra and yet, there was a successful 280+ run chase, achieved with the ease of a routine jog in the park.

The Dravid era is in full bloom...

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Bangladesh Baazigars lose Fatullah Test.....

Shah Rukh Khan's iconic line - "Haar ki bhi jeetnewale ko Baazigar kehte hai" never seemed truer than in the context of the events of the Fatullah Test. Bangladesh played well enough on the first three days to entertain thought of outright victory, yet by lunch of day 5, had pretty much lost the game, barring a miraculous spell of bowling from somewhere.

The world's champion Test team showed why it was rated so highly, when, even with the captain struggling to get the ball off the square, and the loss of two quick wickets at the other end - Gilchrist and Warne, Brett Lee came in and knocked off 29 in a partnership of 46 with his captain in 18.4 overs, of which Lee played 12.2! It was a team effort, and even though Ponting's innings will go into Test history as being yet another "match-winning" innings, the really important innings in this game came from Adam Gilchrist. His 144 out of 269 (144 out of 207 when he was at the wicket), kept Australia in the game, and from then on their reputation carried them through.

For Bangladesh though, this was an uplifting Test defeat if there ever was one. On earlier occasions, they had enjoyed thrilling periods in Test matches - often provided by some exciting batting from their young batsmen - Mohammad Ashraful, Aftab Ahmed among others. This was the first time when out of 4 innings, they competed extremely well in three of them. This time Bangladesh glory was not restricted to stray individual batting brilliance in one innings.

Its looking very likely, that before the end of this decade, we will have the 10th Test playing nation being a realistic force in Test cricket. If the Zimbabweans can get their mess sorted out, then Test Cricket will have 10 strong cricketing nations by 2010.

Well played Bangladesh. Well played Australia.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

India's streak ends.....

England beat India by 5 wickets in the 6th ODI at Jamshedpur. With India leaving out Rahul Dravid and Irfan Pathan, from what is one suspect their normal first choice line up (these day, i think theres about 2-3 first choice line ups), and England missing Andrew Flintoff, it seemed like this was a game neither side was interested in playing.

India actually played the game like they didn't want to play it. It seemed like a festival game - with M S Dhoni being promoted at this - his home ground to open the batting. The promotion of Mohammad Kaif was to be expected - however whatever little movement the English bowlers got in the morning session proved to be his undoing. From 79/5, it was a matter of ensuring thatthe game lasted long enough so the crowd could enjoy a good game of cricket, and wouldn't be moved to riot. Indian ODI crowds seem to have develop a capacity for only three states:

1. Euphoria, triumphalism and other similar things upon victory
2. "Bring back Sourav"
3. Rioting

The Indian cricket team has done well this season to keep it to the first two states for the most part.

England played well today, and stole an important victory for them, and inflicted an important loss upon India. The inexperience of the Indian pace attack was exposed, and for all their pace, RP Singh, Munaf Patel and VRV Singh, didn't have a clue as to what exactly they were supposed to do. They didn't seem to expect any field placing, and obviously hadn't worked out where to bowl with a particular field. It was a hark back to the worst day of Zaheer Khan and Ajit Agarkar. The spinners did well on a wicket which offered some turn, but remained firm - but they were left too much to do by the pacemen.

So Indias streak of 8 successive ODI victories ends. Usually, an 8 match streak reflects a form team. The Indian Teams stats over this successful ODI season (Played 26, won 19, lost 7), make interesting reading.

In the 2005-06 season:
Sehwag 25 matches 717 runs at 29.87
Dhoni 26 matches 958 runs at 73.69
Kaif 21 matches 428 runs at 30.15
Yuvraj Singh 26 matches 1067 runs at 59.27
Suresh Raina 15 matches 276 runs at 55.20
Venugopal Rao 10 matches 108 runs at 15.42
Sachin Tendulkar 14 matches 504 runs at 38.76
Rahul Dravid 24 matches 833 runs at 43.84
Irfan Pathan 22 matches 448 runs at 34.46

Irfan Pathan 22 matches 44 wickets at 19.02
RP Singh 13 matches 19 wickets at 24.84
Harbhajan Singh 20 matches 25 wickets at 28.96
Ajit Agarkar 22 matches 34 wickets at 26.61
Zaheer Khan 4 matches 3 wickets at 67.66
Ramesh Powar 6 matches 8 wickets 26.62

This summary of performances over this season, gives you an idea of the composition of the first choice India team right now.

Tendulkar, Dravid, Dhoni, Yuvraj, Irfan, Harbhajan are the only players, who based on this season's record are automatic selections to the first choice playing 11. Sehwag and Kaif have been in decline with the bat. RP Singh has got wickets, without looking convincing enough to suggest that he will play 200 ODI's for India. Ramesh Powar will play, and remains good in certain conditions. Ajit Agarkar has been cast as the perennial dependable fall back 3rd seamer option in the ODI side. Suresh Raina is the only player who has emerged this season, who looks like a long term ODI find.

Its quite an interesting situation actually - with a 19-7 record this season, only 6 out of 11 first team places are certainties. Irrespective of what happens at Indore, this uncertainty is likely to remain.

India's rating with this defeat at Jamshedpur will doubtless come down from a all time high of 0.573 after the Kochi ODI. With 2 games against Pakistan at Abu Dhabi to be played next month, there might yet be a sting in the tail for India's ODI side this season.

India remain far from favourites at the World Cup. This seasons success has been built on opportunism, luck, and some indifferent opposition. There is still nothing to suggest that India have a first choice bowling attack. If Sehwag and Kaif can be persisted with, and if they are able to get back into form and fitness, it will obviously help.

Strangely enough, if you look at England's first choice line up - they also have only about 6 places which are certainties - Strauss, Trescothick, Flintoff, Vaughan, Pietersen, Anderson. However, in their case, there is genuine quality in the bowling reserves - and it is merely a matter of fitness.

So win-loss records can be deceptive.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Has the 10th Test playing nation come of age?

Day 2 of the Fatullah Test ends with the most improbable scoreline imaginable - Bangladesh 471, Australia 145/6, and that 145/6 is after a 52 run stand for the 7th wicket between Gilchrist and Lee! While it is too early to predict where this Test Match will end up, one thing is certain - Bangladesh have done enough against a combined experience of 1150 odd Test wickets and about 30,000 test runs, to ensure that they are taken seriously as a Test team.

That they have had significant batting ability has been clear for a while - Mohammad Ashraful looks like an Aravinda de Silva in embryo, and along with Shahriyar Nafees and Aftab Ahmed forms what in the future will be a formidable batting side. In Mashrafe Mortaza they have a fast bowler who would walk into any subcontinental Test team, including Pakistan.

The Australians may turn this around yet - all it will take is a 150 from Gilchrist and another 100 runs from the tail - that would get them to 400. The length bowled by the Australians in the second innings is most likely to be quite short - with Lee and co. targetting the upper half of the Bangladeshi batsmen, rather than their stumps. It will take some doing - but who would bet against these Australians?

Best wishes to Bangladesh. One just hopes that the ICC does not spoil the fun by asking the anti-corruption unit to investigate a Bangladeshi victory.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Unseasonal Rain.... Seasonal Crowd at Guwahati..

I woke up today morning to the news that there had been a mini-riot in the stands at Guwahati, with fans burning whatever they could find, and even destroying one of the mandatory camera's for international matches set up by the production company! I guess it was an interesting statement from Guwahatians - "we can burn in the rain, why can't you play cricket".

Even though it sounds good, it's just another illustration of the general ignorant, almost sycophantic (to the idea of the popularity of cricket) jingoism that pervades the "cricketing" view in India. It is not a surprise however. With a billion people, which demands 9 Test venues and 22 ODI venues, and a national team which can play only so many games in a year, places like Guwahati get a game every couple of years of so, and when thats ruined by unseasonal rain, one can understand the frustration of the crowd. However, understanding the frustration of the crowd, should not and cannot in civil society equate to condoning rioting. In the ideal world, everyone would be civilised, and would be capable of independent thought.

Some exciting Cricket was played yesterday as well, only a few hundred miles south of Guwahati, where there was no unseasonal rain - only unseasonal clouds and unseasonal batting. Bangladesh hammered an Australiaesque 355/5 in 88 overs in their First Test match against Australia at Fatullah. With nothing to lose, and potentially endless gains, the Bangladeshi's set about the Australian attack, which must have found the Fatullah wicket to be quite different from the scene of their recent South African triumphs. One must imagine that Australia were flat coming into the first day of this Test series, following their massive South African tour, on their way back home to Australia. The robust Bangladeshi assault almost flattened them. It ought not to be a surprise that apart from Jason Gillespie's 16 overs for 36 runs and a couple of wickets, the Australian bowling which performed with consistent success over 6 innings in South Africa, went for 319/3 in 72 overs.

Such is cricket..... unseasonal.

Shane Warne - Greatness, Leg-spin and the quirks of Stats....

Even Bangladesh have hammered Warne now. Between the 2 leg-spinners theyve conceded 194/3 in 42 overs of leg spin. Says something about Warnes record - built on South Africa and England (which didnt have a clue how to play him for more than a decade, because he could turn the ball)
How much of his greatness lies in his
1. Novelty

2. Competitiveness
3. Sheer Quality of his bowling
4. Accuracy
Id say that Murali beats him in number 1 and number 3, and equals him in number 4. Kumble atleast matches him in number 2 and number 4, but lies behind both Warne and Murali in number 3. Sure, every bowler is to be granted leeway for getting hammered every other day, but with Warne, its happened all too often in the subcontinent - inspite of having ample pressure being built up at the other end (a luxury which Murali and Kumble never have).
The anomaly in his record is Pakistan - 90 wicketsa at 20. This is built up over 5 3 Test series, where Warne's averages have been 28, 10.42, 30.83, 12.66 28.71. The second of those, is a series where Warne bowled only 115 overs in 3 Test matches (thats less than 40 overs a Test match, or 20 overs per innings). The 4th seres, in Sri Lanka and Sharjah was a bit of a joke - with a Pakster side in total disarray.
However, i think rather than being a criticism of Warne, his record when broken down reveals the nature of leg spin bowling, and the kind of cricketer and person who can succeed at it. Great cricketers are born to be great cricketers, and Warne was born to be a leg spinner.

Who can argue with 674 wickets at 25.5? Just as every great record requires some luck, id says that the inability of South Africa and England to play Warne is what makes Warne's record. In the case of Wasim and Waqar, id say they had a lot of success against New Zealand and played quite often against them in the early to mid 1990's. Viv Richards played most of his cricket in the decade when Australia and England had their weakest teams in modern cricket history. In Tendulkar's case, id say he was lucky that he was selected at age 16, which gave him a 4 year head start over everyone else.

These are the quirks which make a great statistical record. What makes the owners of these records great is that others in their era don't really make it count as much as they do, given the same conditions and opposition.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Jason Gillespie

Jason Gillespie is my favourite bowler in the whole world. I remember watching him at the Brabourne Stadium bowling for the Australians vs Mumbai in their 2001 tour game. It was mesmerizing watching him, as he gathered himself on top of his run up at the Tata pavilion end before setting off purposefully to deliver yet another one of his testing questions to the batsman.

Everything about Gillespie's bowling is extremely deliberate - his run up, his delivery stride, the lines and lengths he bowls. He was an ideal foil to the metronomic Glenn McGrath. McGrath bowled just back of a length, on or outside off-stump not letting the batsman drive on the front foot, occupying Geoffrey Boycott's Corridor of Uncertainty. Gillespie was the more aggressive bowler - was ever willing to bowl fuller, inviting the drive and attempting to lure the batsman out. He was not an out and out pace bowler, but he was much quicker than "medium-fast", and hit the mid 140's with the speed gun without too much extra effort. Contrary to the popular view about Gillespie, he never appeared to me to be the "fiery" fast bowler in the Shoaib or McGrath mould, and rarely engaged in an exchange of views with the batsman. There was a deliberate brilliance about him, that set him apart from his peers. He had everything you could ask for in a fast bowler.

Later in the great series in 2001, in the Kolkata Test, the Australians bowled a whole day without getting a wicket - and no one came closer to breaking through Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman than Jason Gillespie. He bowled with great heart and great skill and it was only due to sheer luck and not a little bit of skill on the part of the batsman that they kept him out. Gillespie was often at his best on flat wickets, where there was nothing on offer for the bowlers. He had this amazing ability to often produce a spell where he was pretty much unplayable. When nothing was happening, it was Gillespie who was the go to man for Steve Waugh.

In my dream cricketing contest - id have Wasim Akram and Jason Gillespie bowling with the new ball, followed by Andrew Flintoff and Shane Warne, bowling against the best batsmen of the day.

Gillespie's batting, like his bowling was grounded in method rather than instinct. He had the discipline of a top order batsman and in my opinion, the only reason India didn't win in Australia in 2003-04 was the batting of Jason Gillespie in that decisive Sydney Test Match. The only reason they won the series in India, was Gillespie's batting in the Chennai Test.

He's making his come back in Bangladesh. Here's wishing him the best of luck in Bangladesh and in the bigger Ashes battle to come in the next Australian home season. The 2005 Ashes were his undoing - may be the 2006-07 Ashes will mark his rebirth, so that he can take his rightful place as one of the great fast bowlers of his day.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Of Cryptic scorecards, and cricketing ways....

One of my friends, who knows nothing about cricket, but is always very sporting if you ask her about the score (shes always willing to look it up on her laptop and tell you), found herself in an interesting situation the other day. Cricinfo's scorecard in the Kochi ODI said

A Flintoff c Dravid b Yuvraj

Now my friend, who didn't really know what the c and the b mean't, naturally assumed that the A was merely yet another alphabet, akin to the b or the c. This naturally led to plenty of mirth, and we all had a good time.

It took me back though to the issue of score cards. The scorer has been an integral part of cricket, indeed, a scorer and bagman named Bill Ferguson scored 208 Test matches in Australia from 1906 to 1952, over 43 series! Bill Frindall has been a scorer for 336 Test matches since he debut on Test Match Special (the BBC's cricket coverage) in 1966. He incidentally writes a superb column in the BBC where he answer stats related queries. Ive linked the column in the sidebar. Do have a look.

The wonder of it all is that Frindall and Ferguson did their work in an age when there were no computers and there was no cricinfo. Being a statsman and scorer was therefore a labour of love. Ferguson invented the radial scoring chart (now called the "wagon wheel"). Frindall also developed his own hand drawn scoring charts (see the sample of Lara's world record quadruple hundred at Antigua).

In the handwritten age, scorecards were descriptive and explanatory. In the book about the 1981 Ashes (Botham's series), Frindall supplied the handwritten scorecards - every word was written fully. Frindall's entry for the Flintoff dismissal would have read:

Flintoff caught Dravid bowled Yuvraj
(slogged across the line, caught low down at mid-wicket)

all in a beautiful hand.

The age of computers seems to have crammed scoring charts with more information - wagon wheel , player v player (incidentally, also a Frindall invention), minutes at the wicket, balls faced, fours and sixes scored, the score when a particular batsman was dismissed.

Yet, the age of the computer has not made a single significant contribution to the representation of the scorecard. Yes, the players name appears as a link and you can click on it and know all about the player's career, but the system of representing a Test match scorecard remains the same, even if the medium has changed.

Times have changed - but Frindall and Ferguson will epitomize forever what cricket is about.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Test and ODI Ratings Update

My latest Test and ODI Ratings are as follows:

Test Matches, 4th April, 2006 Including Pakistan v Sri Lanka, 2nd Test, Kandy
Australia 0.638
England 0.528
Pakistan 0.524
South Africa 0.524
India 0.483
New Zealand 0.453
Sri Lanka 0.454
West Indies 0.380

One Day Matches, 28th March 2006 Including India v England, Colombo
Australia 0.617
South Africa 0.603
India 0.573
New Zealand 0.545
Pakistan 0.478
Sri Lanka 0.462
West Indies 0.459

England 0.444
Zimbabwe 0.321

Pakistan have replaced their 2-0 win (in a 3 Test series) in SL last time around with a 1-0 result (in a 2 Test series). This actually caused their overall rating to drop. India, in their ODI rating, will not improve their rating any further in this series against England. They have now won their last 5 games against England, and can only lose from here.

India stand to gain in the Test ratings when they tour the West Indies- in a series which they lost last time around. Pakistan go to England this summer, where they will defend a 1-1 draw in a 2 Test series in 2001.

India win series, but history beckons......

India have now won 16 of their last 20 games this season. Thats pretty awesome record. The worrying thing is that its the same people who are delivering over and over again, and more importantly, the same players who are failing - Virendra Sehwag and Mohammad Kaif. With the series wrapped up, India can now turn their attention to working out the future - playing new bowlers, playing different combinations in the batting lineup. One of the things one would like to see is to play Kaif and Sehwag in the top 3 in the batting order for the next three games.

India have won the series, but they have something special to look forward to over the next three games. They have played 614 ODI's so far, won 293 and lost 294. I feel confident enough to reveal this bit of history right now, as i feel India should win atleast 2 of the next 3 games (hopefully, i havent put the wood on them now!). For the first time in their ODI history, they can look forward to having won as much as they have lost. Dravid would go down in history as the Indian captain who achieved this. While this may not quite be regarded by some people to be in the same league as Ajit Wadekar and his epoch making away efforts of 1971, it is important enough in the larger context of Indias ODI development.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Closet Contempt

I have been searching for a phrase to describe the Indian cricket press, and i have found it i think. By and large (this like most generalizations is a dangerous thing to believe or even to suggest, but this is also an internet blog :)), the phrase "closet contempt" seems to aptly describe most of the commentary that we find about cricket in the press - both in newspapers and in the electronic media. We (and by that i mean the Indian "cricket" fan) seem to have an almost pathological capacity for blind speculation. We are unmatched in our ability to link together the most unlikely events (the ardent supporter of the 4th estate would call this sign of the "eternal vigilance of the press"), and pass them off as valid press reports.

I read somewhere recently of a supposed meeting between Arun Jaitley (president of DDCA) and Sourav Ganguly. The report stated that a second meeting between the two was likely. It further went on to speculate that Jaitley (a rival of Sharad Pawar, even in Cricket elections) was in favour of Sourav Ganguly returning to the national side! The obvious inference from this is unlikely to escape a well developed Indian brain. I have several questions here - wouldn't people think that Jaitley and Pawar have more important things on their mind that worrying about the reinstatement of an ageing, physically unfit former captain into a successful side? But, this kind of news forms the heart of any cricket discourse in India.

There is another strand to this closet contempt - this attitude of looking down upon the achievements of Indian cricketers. The better a players individual record, the more selfish he is deemed to have been. Never has this been more evident than in the case of a certain player from my city. We saw yet another example of this recently. I saw more than one blog (all by Indian authors), and the odd newspaper report, suggesting that the emergence of Dhoni, Yuvraj, Kaif, Raina etc. and their ability to chase runs well was down to them being a generation brought up on Michael Bevan. Now, apart from the similarity in their comparable success in run chases, there is nothing about this new generation of Indian cricketers thats even remotely similar to Michael Bevan. They don't bat like him, and they definitely don't plan their run chases like he did. Michael Bevan was a master at finding the gaps, and made his name on the huge cricket grounds in Australia, where he was the master of the twos and the threes. Dhoni, Yuvraj and Raina are essentially fearless young strokemakers who have come along at the same time, and between them managed to succeed more often than not. Their run chases are built on an unswerving confidence, more akin to a Viv Richards than a Michael Bevan. Im almost certain, that when Michael Bevan emerged, no one suggested that he grew up on Dean Jones, and im absolutely sure that no one suggested that he grew up on Javed Miandad.

Everything i see or read, apart from the odd exception, like Chandrahas Choudhary's blogs on Dhoni and more recently on Ramesh Powar, seems obsessed with success rather than with the cricket.

Id attribute the success of these new players in large part to the Indian selectors, who have shown an almost unerring eye in picking out special talent. Almost everyone theyve picked has looked like he belonged at the international level. Id give credit to BCCI for their remodeled Ranji Trophy system, their NCA, their A tours and their age group tours. Id give credit to the team management and id give credit to the cricketers themselves.

Im unable to explain the attitude in the Indian cricket press in terms of anything other than closet contempt. They can't be openly contemptuous of Indian victories, and they plainly have no regard for any cricketing detail. Whatever genuine cricketing interest there is, in minority.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Yuvraj Singh - Viv Richardsesque....

Yuvraj Singh finds himself in a purple patch with the bat this year. His scores in 2005-06 have been 1, 53*, 22, 120, 20, 14, 18, 10, 3, 79*, 0, 103, 4*, 53, 49, 39, 82*, 79*, 37, 107*, 1, 18, 103 giving him 1000 ODI runs this season (1015 in 24 games) at 63.43, with 4 hundreds and 5 fifties.

Yuvraj has now played 145 games and its interesting to look at this ODI record. Yuvraj averages 48 when India win and 20 when India lose. Of his 145 ODI's, India have won 80 - 40 batting first, and 40 batting second. And it is here that the special value of Yuvraj Singh is reveals. He averages 65 in successful runchases, while he average 39 in ODI's won batting first.

Compare this to some of the middle order ODI batsmen - Michael Bevan, Viv Richards, and Javed Miandad

Viv Richards in successful runchases averaged 57 over 75 games
Michael Bevan in successful runchases averaged 86 over 75 games
Javed Miandad in successful runchase averaged 66 over 54 games

Yuvraj Singh has a long way to go before he can rightfully hear his name being spoken of in the same breath as these great players. His value however, goes beyond his batting average. It is the confidence that he conveys in his ability to hit any type of bowling that makes him special. It is fast getting to the point where until Yuvraj is at the wicket, there is in a cricketing sense a realistic chance of victory for India, however hopeless the over all situation may be.

The sign of an important player..

His mate Mohammad Kaif on the other hand can't seem to make a run for love or for money. Its good to see Chappell and co. backing the out of form player. Chappell backing Kaif and Sehwag by the way, is not a "double standard" in my opinion.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

A Bad time for Landmarks......

Playing 100 Test matches has historically been a huge thing in cricket. Playing Test cricket has been the ultimate goal for serious cricketers, and playing 100 times for your country, in a sport rich in tradition and statistics holds a significance which is probably difficult for you and me to fathom. The first man to play a 100 Test Matches was Colin Cowdrey and he made a century in his 100th Test match. Javed Miandad, Geoffrey Boycott, Gordon Greenidge, Alec Stewart and Inzamam Ul Haq also celebrated their 100 Test with centuries. Ricky Ponting went one better and produced a hundred in each innings in his hundredth Test. The story goes that in the case of Javed Miandad, in a series against India in 1989-90, where Pakistan boasted of Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Imran Khan and Waqar Younis in their bowling line up, the Lahore Test match pitch (where Miandad's 100th Test match was played), was prepared devoid of grass. With the result that Miandad made his century - 145, but the Test match was a runathon with Sanjay Manjrekar making 218 and Shoaib Mohammad (son of the great Hanif, batting in the middle order on this occasion) made 203 not out.

Recently though, this landmark has proved to be a nightmare for players. Rahul Dravid's 100th Test turned out to be a nightmare - with a decision to field on winning the toss which he came to rue in about the 16th over of the first days play, and a 212 run defeat to boot. Justin Langer had an even worse time. The Australian opener playing in his 100th Test, had the traditional Australian honour of leading his side out on to the field, but when his turn came to bat, the first ball he faced was a vicious bouncer from Makhaya Ntini, which hit him in the back of the helmet, forcing him to retire hurt! Gone are the days of giving a batsman one of the mark on special occasions.

Andrew Flintoff's 100th ODI was a nightmare as well - he failed with the bat for the first time on this Indian tour, and his side lost from a winning position later on in the day.

Playing 100 Test matches is a pretty awesome achievement and only 32 players have done this in the 129 year history of Test Cricket. Jacques Kallis is the next player in line for playing his 100th Test match. Shivnaraine Chanderpaul has also played more than 90 Tests. Azharuddins career ended at 99 Tests - poetic justice that!