Sunday, July 30, 2006

John Wright's book - Zonal Quota biases and other things....

John Wright has written a book about his Indian years in which he has made reportedly had some unsavoury things to say about the selection system. He refers specifically to the Zonal quota system. His comments come as manna from heaven for the cynics who think everything in BCCI is underhanded, that every single place is sacrificed at the altar of high politics. There has been accusation and counter accusation already.

This whole business of Zonal quotas has always intrigued me. Before one launches into an accusation, one should first define what they mean by a zonal quota. Do they mean that selections from certain zone take places in return for political favors in BCCI? If so, can they prove this, or even find enough circumstantial evidence to make the accusation in the first place. Or do they mean that a squad of 15 must have equal representation from each of the 5 zones.

If we consider it to be the latter, then Zonal Quota biases simply do not exist and have never existed. Look at any Indian squad ever selected for tours and you will find unequal distribution amongst the zones. The fringe selections are almost never from zones which are underrepresented. As examples - in the famous Noel David selection, David came from the South Zone which already had 7 out of 16 players selected for that particular West Indies tour in 1997.

Selection is a difficult, thankless job. Since none of us in the real world have jadoo-granted powers to see the future, we must rely on selectors to make judgements. That is precisely what they are. Predictions based on judgement of potential. It is easy to criticize selection decision, because beyond a point they cannot be explained. They are not always right either.

However, this kind of habitual cynicism about selection seems to stem from a deep rooted victim mentality. The selectors are just the easiest and most defenseless target for the fans and the critics ire, especially when something happens (either on the field or in selection), which is beyond the liking or comprehension of the average critic.

Coming to John Wrights book - it is obvious that he would write his opinion about selection when writing about his time in India. I think critics need to be wise about this - it is quite obvious that in high stakes, high performance, personality driven environments, there are bound to be personality clashes. Throw in celebrityhood and you get the gossip mills running overtime.

It all boils down to whether the cricket fan wants to take a cricketingview or wants to be the voyeur who enjoys the soap operatic nature of high profile personality. The downside of the latter is that after a while, you start believing a lot of the stuff against your better judgement - mostly because you tend to suspend judgement.

Selectors must surely get it wrong at times. However, just the fact that they have gotten it wrong does not suggest that they have been parochial. If there is a zonal quota for selection the selected teams do not show any evidence whatsoever of this. If we are talking about the odd dubious looking selection about once in 5 years, then i think we have to give the selectors the benefit of doubt. A lot of Wrights concerns may stem from cultural differences.

Wright, it is worth noting, did not assert himself inspite of his opinion about Ganguly. More about the Ganguly-Wright era later....

But for now, think about this whole selection thing and decide if it makes sense to you. And don't forget to check out the teams.

For information about Zones and Ranji Trophy teams by Zone, see this excellent entry in the Wikipedia encyclopedia. For information about Indian squads, see this cricinfo page. In each tour page, there is a squads link. The selected squad is available on this page. For example - this is the India squad for the tour of the West Indies in 2006. The Test squad had 2 players from Central Zone (Kaif and Raina) and 1 player from East Zone (Dhoni). Yet, the fringe selection - VRV Singh, came from North Zone. If Zonal Quota had been in play, Shiv Sunder Paul might have won the place ahead of VRV. Didn't happen.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

World Records, Unconventional Training - Crests and Troughs for Cricket Teams........

This has been a momentous week in cricket for England and Sri Lanka, two teams which struggled in the previous season - Sri Lanka lost Test and ODI's in India, England lost Test and ODI's in Pakistan and ODI's in India. Yet this week, Sri Lanka have achieved the biggest first innings lead in Test history - almost 600 runs and made the biggest partnership in Test history - 625. South Africa face the prospect of 2 tough days against Murali and co. on a wearing wicket. England have just thumped Pakistan by an innings and 120 runs - Steve Harmison showing what hes capable of on his day taking 11/76 in the match, and Madhusuden Singh Panesar (i reject the anglicised mis-spelled version Mudhsuden) showing further evidence that hes likely to go on to become Englands best spin bowling option since deadly Derek Underwood. Andrew Strauss Test captaincy career has gotten off to a good start. Ashwell Prince on the other hand has endured a nightmare - given the history of recent South African selection policy - theres bound to be post mortems of this South African effort (conceding 756/5 at more than 4 an over) and Prince is likely to bear the brunt of the criticism.

Team form ebbs and flows and seems inevitably cyclical. Often, success will sow the seeds of future failure, at the other times its the retirement or the ageing of a few vital cricketers. The top team is one which is able to stay consistently on crests. That is possible in large part by the availability of a steady stream of top class talent.
I will be very surprised if South Africa go down tamely in this Test match.

India have been trying out some unconventional training methods to prepare for the new season. This has drawn a lot of comment. Typically, there are those who think it is hogwash and there are those who think it is great. Both these parties miss the point. The real value lies not in the outcome of these new methods (which it is quite impossible to determine), but in the experience of going through them.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Seymour Nurse.... World Record holder....

The title of this thread may sound a tad dramatic, especially to many cricket fans who have probably never heard of S M Nurse. I read about him in Gary Sobers's autobiography. The subject came up on a cricket forum I participate in. Seymour MacDonald Nurse was in Gary Sobers's opinion one of the finest West Indians batsmen in the 1960's. He made his debut against England in 1960 in Jamaica and through out the sixties played in strong West Indies batting line ups along side the likes of Sobers, Kanhai, Hunte, Lloyd, Worrell, Butcher. He didn't always make the playing 11, but when he ended his career, he averaged 47. Even in the golden age of batting, that was something, especially for a non-regular West Indies batsman.

In 1968-69, the West Indies toured Australia for a 5 Test series. This was to be followed by a 3 Test series in New Zealand. They started well enough, winning the Brisbane Test by 125 runs. Things went downhill from then on against a strong Australian side playing at home (Lawry, Stackpole, Chappell, Redpath, Walters, Sheahan, MacKenzie etc.), they went on to lose the Test series 3-1, despite Sobers (497 runs and 18 wickets).

The series for the West Indies (and for Australia) was characterized by the last Test at Sydney, where Australia won by 382 runs - making 619 in the first innings, securing a first innings lead of 340, and then batting a second time, making 394, leaving the West Indies with a mammoth 735 to win). Only 300 spectators remained when the game ended and Australia won.

Nurse was 35 and had decided to retire. Sobers persuaded him to stay on for the New Zealand tour. Seymour Nurse stayed on, and made 558 runs in the 3 Test series - 95 and 168 in the First Test, 21 and 16 in the second and 258 in the Third.

The 168 was made in 215 minutes (less than 2 sessions of play), in a 4th innings run chase of 345 which was accomplished in 69 overs. The 258 was made over 8 hours in a West Indies first innings of 417.

258 is still highest score by a batsman in his last Test innings. In recent years Aravinda De Silva - 206 vs Bangladesh and Jason Gillespie - 201* vs Bangladesh (so far its his last Test innings, and the way hes going for Yorkshire currently, i dont think he'll get picked for Australians next Test match) have come close.

Isnt that the best World Record to own - the highest test score in a players last test innings!

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Manjrekar on Tendulkar......

Sanjay Manjrekar's recent article on Sachin Tendulkar has created a furore of sorts in the cricket community. Every ex-cricketer worth his salt has come out and made one comment or the other on this issue. Manjrekars apparent suggestion that Sachin Tendulkar purposely missed a few series because he was afraid of failure, has not gone down too well.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Indian team for Tri-Series selected....

Successful cricket teams are easy to select. Another way of saying this is, that if the odd change is made in a successful cricket team, then it doesnot cause too much heartache.

Dinesh Mongia made a comeback to the ODI squad - a good selection in my opinion. Mongia will add his English experience of playing day in and day out and playing first class, 20-20 and ODI games to the side. He will bring is match fitness, which comes from playing through out the year to the side. At 29, Mongia is probably in his prime as a batsman.

Sachin Tendulkar returned - with the inevitable controversy following him. The waiver of the fitness test raised eyebrows and cynics have suggested that SRT recieved preferential treatment. This despite the fact that the guy who was supposed to take his fitness test has been monitoring his recovery for the past 4 months and probably needs to find out nothing more about Tendulkars fitness to be able to say whether the player is fit or not. Besides, as Kiran More pointed out, Tendulkar has to participate in the fitness camp scheduled before the series.

But, its Tendulkar, and inspite of all his discipline and fortitude, he must never ever be left alone. He must wish he was less correct in his behaviour than he has been. The odd tantrum and the odd misdemeanour might actually have won him some sympathy. Now, hes so perfect, and so boring, that the press hangs on to morsels and even if he sneezes and doesnt say "excuse me", the press is going to point that out as his shortcoming. But he just becomes more perfect in response to all this.

I am not saying that he should be exempt from scrutiny, but this assumption in the press, where they feel able to start a story with "lets assume that hes guilty" and then try to build a plot around this assumption, says more about the press than it does about the subject of the story.

BCCI in the meanwhile, needs to urgently appoint an official spokesman (not the Board Secretary, but someone who will prepare well and read out a well prepared, well discussed statement in correct English, and then also be prepared to take questions about the same). That will stop a lot of this reading between the lines.

Since he took over the captaincy, Rahul Dravid has delivered India's most successful ODI season ever, and has now also delivered Indias first overseas Test series victory in 20 years. He must now face up to yet another bogey - that of not winning finals. Winning a triseries against South Africa and Sri Lanka, would be a creditable achievement. India are 6-1 against Sri Lanka and 2-2 against SA when they last played them in a series.

Given Dravid's record so far, he might just slay this demon as well.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Lord's Test Drawn - my prediction has been proved false......

So the Lord's Test ended in a draw. If it hadn't been for Andrew Strauss's second innings century, Pakistan might have had a real chance - 168/7 were made that the other end, while Strauss made 128.

Abdul Razzaq and Danish Kaneria between them took 9 of the 18 English wickets which fell in the Test match. Razzaq and Kaneria took 9/327, bowling mainly with the older ball, while Umar Gul and Mohammad Sami - Pakistans new ball pair took 4/342 between them.

By contrast, Englands new ball bowlers - Harmison and Hoggard, took 9/285, despite bowling only 3.3 overs more than Sami and Gul.

Both sides an uncannily well matched. Id say that Pakistan have the stronger middle order batting, while England have the stronger opening pair. England have the better new ball attack, while Pakistan have better spin bowling options. I wonder what difference the return of Andrew Flintoff will make to the balance of power.

I still say that Danish Kaneria can win it for Pakistan. The current heatwave can only help his cause.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Can Danish Kaneria win the Lord's Test for Pakistan?

Given the Australian dominance in the Test arena, in recent years, the England v Pakistan series which started at Lords this week may as well be regarded as the blue ribbon event of the Test calender. With apologies to the Englishmen and their Ashes obsession, the current Australian team, post Steve Waugh, has if anything become even more dominant, and the Ashes result from the summer of 2005, is a distant memory. Since that series clinching draw at the Oval at the end of the 2005 summer, England have won 2, lost 4 and drawn 3 of their 9 Tests. Even though the Pakistan series is an home series for England, they have not beaten Pakistan in England for a quarter of a century.

This Pakistan side is a fancied one as usual. They have talented fast bowling, a solid middle order, a few immensely gifted all round cricketers and a wicketkeeper who will go into history as one of the all time greats. Kamran Akmal could well be Pakistans Jeffrey Dujon, with the additional brilliant skill standing up to the wicket. As usual though, there is more than meets the eye with Pakistan. A few months ago, Imran Khan was touting the Pakistan bowling lineup as one which would be unplayable in England. Asif, Gul and Rana Naved, all tailor made for "English" conditions. Shoaib if fit and willing, is tailor made for any conditions on his day. With his air speed, he can threaten any batting lineup on any wicket. Add to this lineup, the most complete orthodox legspinner in cricket after Shane Warne. One who has a googly which a lot of specialist batsmen don't pick. As i write this, Pakistan are 115 behind on the first innings at the end of day 3 with 3 first innings wickets standing. Kaneria, on a 4th day Lord's wicket which has already threatened turn early in the game, could well be England bogey. The Pakistan middle order is in its prime. Inzamam, Yousuf and Younis are capable of big hundreds on their day, as Yousuf demonstrated.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Mumbai rocked.....

There are some things more important than cricket. Murderous attacks on a beloved railway system (well, the sister of my beloved railway system), in my beloved city, count above everything else. As i sit here, half way across the world, at about 5.45 pm (6.15 am on the morning of the 12th of July in Mumbai), someone in my city is just waking up - their lives changed for ever. Maybe they havent slept at all. Maybe theyve been helping out all night - trying to fix the railway, trying to help other people who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. As i write this, i am almost certain that the Western Railway suburban service is up and running - may be not in all its glory, but glorious all the same. People, who had the good fortune to be away from wrong place at the wrong time, would be preparing to go to work - packing their lunches, drinking their chai and hurrying for their daily appointment with their train. The Trains account for 88% of the total daily passenger kilometers in Mumbai. Cars, Taxis, Rickshaws, the great BEST Bus service, all between them account for only 12%.

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Folly of Technology

The title of this post should reveal where i stand in the debate on usage of technology in cricket. I consider it a folly, especially the way in which it has crept into todays cricket. There seems to be a lot of basic confusion in this matter which i should clear up at the outset.

When most people refer to "technology", they do not mention what specific technology they are referring to. If this is to be a serious debate, and if the matter is to be settled based on merit, then surely, there must be some clarity as to what we are talking about here. My understanding of "Technology" in cricket is the use of TV replays for run outs and catches, the use of Hawkeye, the use of snickometer etc etc. These technologies tell us more about catches, run outs, LBW's - areas where the maximum number of disputed decisions in cricket occur. The common argument is that the use of Technology will eradicate or atleast minimize the error in umpiring decisions. This argument is fundamentally flawed, because the only way to eradicate human error, is to get rid of the human being. This is amply supported by situations where even the third umpire has made umpiring errors in clear run out decisions.

The Technology itself has time and again shown itself to be unreliable. Hawkeye for example is a oversimplication at best, and a gimmick at worst. It has crippled umpires by consistently second guessing their decisions. Time and again you have decisions which an umpire gives not out, which the commentators give not out, but which, within the letter of the law, are considered out by Hawkeye. The whole Hawkeye contraption misses the point of the LBW law. LBW, is by definition a matter of conjecture, where a number of things come into play which go beyond the pale of the letter of the law. To say that an LBW is simply based on whether the ball pitches in line, and would have gone on the hit the stumps, is too simplistic.... An Umpire may for example watch what a batsman is doing, and if he finds that a particular batsman is showing a tendency to shuffle too far across his stumps, may give him out to something which hawkeye eventually shows to be hitting legstump, while for another batsman, facing another type of bowler, the umpire wouldnt even consider giving something which hits legstump, and the bowler himself wouldnt appeal for it. This is part and parcel of the conjecture involved in an LBW. Some umpires are more likely to give LBW decisions on the front foot than others. That is part of the conjecture in an LBW as well.

TV Replays for catches, are consistently proven to be inadequate, not because of the quality of the camera, but because its impossible to tell on camera whether an object of about 2.5-3 inch diameter was caught cleanly on a surface with blades of grass of the same length. Similarly for run outs, the camera cannot see thru the occasional fieldsman or umpire who may come in the way. Yet, the Television replay has become the ubiquitous symbol of "Technology" in cricket.

What other Technology exists then? How does it make any sense to allow batsmen to appeal against an umpires decision 3 times in an innings, where it will then be adjudicated by yet another umpire (human being) based on "technology" which is at best dubious? Further, where was the existing technology developed? By whom was it developed? For what purpose was it developed? Isnt there a difference between enhancing a cricket broadcast, and enhancing cricket itself?

So we basically have a debate about a non-existent technology, being a solution to illunderstood, misconcieved problems, to achieve a mythical error free welfare situation in 21st century cricket. We consistently commit the folly of assuming that technology is the solution to all the worlds (in this context crickets problems) problems, without considering for a moment the possibility that the real problem is the people who comment on cricket, and watch it, and don't take the trouble to understand it.

The best technology solutions for cricket would be as follows:

1. Revert back to the backfoot noball rule, so that the umpire gets longer to concentrate on the batting end. This will also tilt the balance in favor of the bowlers.

2. Give authority to the onfield umpires about all matters cricketing.

3. Encourage walking. Explore the possible uses of TV replays to penalize batsmen who stand, even when they know they are out.

Before all this though, Cricket needs to be honest with itself and stop playing to the gallery, pretending to be in with the times and going "hi-tec".

Monday, July 03, 2006

F S Trueman RIP

Ball of Fire was one of the first cricket autobiographies i read. To the uninitiated, it is the autobiography of F. S. Trueman, of Yorkshire and England, in his own words , "'t'finest bloody fast bowler that ever drew breath." I had read one or two other autobiographies before i read Fred Truemans masterpiece (i shall explain later... ) - Sunny Days (Sunil Gavaskar) and Twenty Years at the Top (Gary Sobers) , i think. And coming after these two formidable efforts, Truemans book beat them hollow in my estimation. The completely uninhibited expression of opinion, no mincing of words when telling the reader about situations where he felt wronged, the fast bowlers dislike for amateur - professional divide, selectorial bias towards the south, everything was explained clearly and succintly. As an insight into cricket in England after the second world war, Truemans autobiography, along with Colin Cowdreys autobiography (M. C. C - his cricket loving father ensured his initial were the same those of the famous club) is the best ive ever read. Afterwards, when i read other books, i learnt that some other people did not appreciate the frank expression of views. Trueman, especially after his retirement in 1968 was described as being 'curmudgeonly'.

I never had the benefit of listening to him on Test Match Special, where he made up what must have been the greatest ever commentary team on Television - at various times constituted by Jim Laker, Bill Johnston, Fred Trueman, John Arlott and Richie Benaud but listening to some of the nonsense today, i can only wonder what it must have been like, to watch a cricket match along with Fred Trueman. In todays game, watching cricket is a bit like attending an online lecture series, with one ex-player after another expounding on perfectly simple things, watched on by people like Cozier and Bhogle.

There is another bit of greatness in embryo in the modern day. This may be taking the Trueman story a bit too far, but Santhakumaran Sreesanth and Munaf Patel do embody an Indian version of Trueman and Statham, currently however, only in embryo. Brian Statham was the metronome - accurate, quiet, relentless, didnt swing the ball too much, bowled superb line and length, gave nothing away. Trueman was the more expressive bowler - willing to bowl a fuller, more attacking length, able to swing the ball. Now, Sreesanth and Munaf have a very very very long way to go before they can be spoken of in the same breath as Trueman and Statham, but as a fast bowling pair, they seem to show the same basic qualities, which complement each other and make them work as a pair. Neither of them is genuinely quick, while Trueman was genuinely quick.

So I end this, in the fond hope that Indias fast bowling may just have found their own crack new ball pair - built along the lines of Trueman and Statham.

On the day Fred Trueman died, England conceded 324/4 in 37 overs, the first ever 300+ run chase completed in less than 40 overs in One Day Internationals, at Headingley, the home of Yorkshire County Cricket Club. I wonder was F. S. Trueman would have thought of that!

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Series Victory!!

India beat West Indies by 49 runs at Sabina Park to win the 4 Test series 1-0. Their first overseas Test series win of note outside the subcontinent, since the 2-0 victory in 1986 against an English side, ravaged by the after effects of a 5-0 blackwash in the West Indies. After the 1-4 reversal in the ODI series, India bounced back, to show that they were consistently the better side.