Monday, December 25, 2006

A Pivotal Test Match..... Durban, Boxing Day 2006

India play South Africa at Durban tomorrow, in what promises to be the most important Test Match India have played since Multan 2004. They go into an overseas Test Match, one up in the series. The last time this happened, at Melbourne on boxing day in 2004, they lost the Melbourne Test and could not win at Sydney.

The Indian selectors have made some refreshing choices ahead of the game. Rahul Dravid spoke with his usual candor at the press briefing, and the selectors have directed Irfan Pathan to return to India and play Ranji Trophy games instead of spending time on tour, where he is unlikely to play a lot of cricket over the next 2 weeks. This is the first time that this has happened for form related reasons in an overseas tour. It is probably the best thing that could have happened to Irfan. One just hopes that he will recieve good advice from the Baroda team management.

Durban has been a South African fortress, which only Australia have breached successfully in recent times. If India come through Durban with a win or with at least a draw, it will have marked not only an important shift in India's form overseas, but will also mark a realignment of cricketing power, away from South Africa towards the sub-continent and England. It is fast becoming clear, that England are the South Africa of the 1990's as far as Test cricket goes. An Indian win in South Africa will confirm this shift.

The nature of Indias victories overseas has also changed over time. While the big batting guns are still firing at crucial times (Tendulkar 44, Laxman 73, Ganguly 51, Dravid 2 fifties at Jamaica), it is the bowling which has been the driving force between Indias recent overseas Test wins. The return of Munaf Patel, who has been the best Indian Test bowler in the last 12 months or so, is something to look forward to. He will in all probability replace VRV Singh, if fitness permits.

All in all, plenty to look forward to. India have done well up to this point. Let's hope they can finish the job...

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Monday, December 18, 2006

Batting in difficult conditions - has it really been India's weakness?

One hears this argument all the time - that India struggle on the bouncy, seaming wickets outside the subcontinent, simply because the batsmen don't put up enough runs and don't deliver under pressure. Now, especially in Test cricket, this is not the case. The table below provides a comparison of the runs/wicket scored (S) and conceded (C) by each of the top 8 Test teams in Australia, England, New Zealand, South Africa and West Indies since the year 1990. It shows that India have had one of the better batting line ups in world cricket in those conditions in this period. India have the best runs/wicket record in Australia, England and the West Indies, have reasonable records in New Zealand and South Africa.

Victory at Johannesburg - South Africa's 14th defeat at home in 14 years.

If you look at Home test performances, then barring Australia, South Africa have been the most difficult side to beat at home. Of the 13 Test defeats South Africa have had in South Africa since 1992, 8 have come against the Australians, while 3 have come against England (and one of those was Hansie Cronje's quixotic declaration in exchange for a leather jacket and some money!). New Zealand (left arm spinner Hart and pace man Simon Doull bowling out South Africa twice) and Pakistan (fired by Shoaib Akthar) have been the other two victors.

We can now add India to that list. :) :) :)

I don't want to say the usual "i told you so" line (mainly because i didn't tell you so in so many words), but in my post at the end of the first day's play, with India 156/5, i said

"I sense good things for India in this test match, especially if the bowlers don't get carried away and test the middle of the pitch all the time (something that Sreesanth and VRV are prone to do)"

I have now successfully predicted 2 of India's most famous overseas wins - on the other occasion, at Adelaide, on the third evening i had said the following (i don't have the link, because i said it on a cricket forum).... "if India can get within 30-40 runs of the Australian score, and then get the Australian top 3 (Hayden, Langer and Ponting) before the Australian score reaches 50, then a 230 run 4th innings chase is gettable". As it turned out, from 7/477, India reached 523 all out, conceding a lead of 35 runs, after which Langer, Ponting and Hayden were all dismissed early to leave Australia 3/44. Australia went on to get bowled out for 196, leaving India exactly 230 to win, which they achieve with 4 wickets to spare.

As you can see, my predictions have become less glorious with time. But India have been just as glorious at Johannesburg in 2006, as they were at Adelaide in 2003. India have now won 2 consecutive overseas Test matches for the first time in 20 years (Jamaica and Johannesburg). Previously, they won at Wellington and Auckland in 1967-68, at Melbourne and Sydney in 1977-78, and finally they won at Lord's and Headingley in 1986. I don't count their wins against Zimbabwe last season at Bulawayo and Harare. The Durban Test offers India the chance to win 3 overseas Tests in a row for the first time. The return of Munaf Patel should help them - the one weak link in the bowling line up - VRV Singh will make way for him. Irfan will have to sit out again. In this decade, India now have a 14-13 win-loss record in overseas Tests (4 of these results have come against weak opposition - 1 in Bangladesh and 3 in Zimbabwe). These are the records of some of Indias lynchpins in those victories:

Sachin Tendulkar
10 matches, 1013 runs, 92.09 average, 4 centuries, 1 fifties

Rahul Dravid
14 matches, 1552 runs, 86.22 average, 4 centuries, 7 fifties

VVS Laxman
12 matches, 819 runs, 51.08 average, 2 centuries, 4 fifties

Sourav Ganguly
12 matches, 876 runs, 67.38 average, 2 centuries, 7 fifties

Virendra Sehwag
10 matches, 577 runs, 44.38 average, 1 century, 0 fifties

Anil Kumble
10 matches 52 wickets, 21.32 average, 3 5 wicket hauls, 0 10 wicket hauls

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Saturday, December 16, 2006

Why i think David Gower is the best cricket commentator in the world.......

As he watched Adam Gilchrist (93 in 51 balls right now) and Michael Clarke (125 in 158 right now) hammer England into Ashes oblivion, David Gower came up with the following nugget - this is in my view the greatest line in cricket commentary in a long long time.....

David Gower, wondering if Gilchrist will break the record for fastest Test ton - it's held by Viv Richards; 56 balls. "I was there," he begins, "I was captain of England at the time - that's a loose term."

QED

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Friday, December 15, 2006

Looking forward to the past....... Johannesburg Test - Day 1

Of the 6 batsmen who are in the Indian side for the Johannesburg Test match, 5 played in the Mumbai Test of the 2000 series. Since that time, India have flirted with Yuvraj Singh, Mohammad Kaif, Akash Chopra, Shiv Sunder Das and Gautam Gambhir in the test batting line up. It is a measure of the shift in selection policy from Kiran More to Dilip Vengsarkar. All the Indian batsmen, bar Sehwag and and to a lesser extent Wasim Jaffer, gave a good account of themselves, and all the dismissals were a result of good balls, rather than bad batting. Whether it is a measure of the quality of the wicket, that the South Africans have India 156/5, inspite of bowling poorly for most of the day is questionable. May be it is just that the Indian batting has aged and this is the best they could do under the circumstance. 3-4 years ago, the score on a similar day might have been 170/2, or it might still have been 156/5. We will know that only after South Africa have batted on this pitch.

A Ganguly epic on day 2 is not out of the question. If there is one player in world cricket who can make runs on sheer will power, in spite of all his technical problems and fitness issues, it is Sourav Ganguly. Mahendra Dhoni is yet another player who could fall potentially in the Ganguly category. Indias success in recent years has been down to these unorthodox, supremely talented players, rather than being due to the correctness on which Tendulkar's god given gifts flourish. Every Indian batsman barring Tendulkar and Dravid has obvious technical weaknesses - Sehwag, Laxman, Ganguly. Yet, each of these players has made their name based on their own innate method, which has defied conventional wisdom often enough. Tomorrow we will find out whether Dhoni belongs in that illustrious list.

I sense good things for India in this test match, especially if the bowlers don't get carried away and test the middle of the pitch all the time (something that Sreesanth and VRV are prone to do). Munaf Patel will rue the fact that he couldn't make it back to full fitness on this bowler friendly surface. If India compete in the first innings, then it will be down to 1 big innings - 1 batsman who can get on top of the conditions long enough to make the decisive difference, before Anil Kumble can come into play. But before that, India need to get as close to 300 as they can tomorrow, and then given nothing away with the ball.

I dare say that this match will be decided by which team gets the greater number of free square cuts and half volleys and pull shots to put away. But then, if you think about it, thats how most games are decided.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Mapping Test Match Progress - I The Ashes 2006-07 Tests at Brisbane and Adelaide

I developed a very simple (not simplistic) method of mapping the progress of a cricket match some time ago. I used it to map One Day games, like this one in the Malaysian triangular series, and have used the principle development which makes this method possible in my Test and ODI ratings.

I write runs and wickets in terms of points. The run average for a Test match is the total runs scored divided by the total wickets fallen. 10 runs make 1 point, therefore 1 wicket is the run average divided by 10. A test match is said to progress with the fall of each wicket. The total points scored by each team is calculated at the fall of each wicket. This is essentially the state of the test match at that point in the test match.


The graphs reveal the extent of Australian dominance at Brisbane. They also reveal that England were in a similarly strong position early in the Australian first innings at Adelaide.


Several important conclusions can be drawn from graphs like these. Conclusions about competitiveness, conclusions about the story of the match. All the twists and turns become apparent. Below is a graph of a closely contest test match consisting of 4 completed innings, the lowest of which was 238 and the highest 286. The final result was a 12 run win for Pakistan.


Competitiveness can be visually assessed by determining the number of times the lines of each team cross. Surges, partnerships, batting collapses, trends etc. can also be visually assessed. In the Chennai Match, the two surges are Afridi's century and Tendulkar's century, both of which threatened to break the deadlock, before the spectacular collapse at the end (revealed in the graph as well), sealed Indias fate. All in all, this seems to be a robust method, which i have used in my ratings as well as here.

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Monday, December 11, 2006

World Cup Final 2011 - Mumbai!!!!

A quick note..... just read that the World Cup Final is coming to Mumbai.......

I wonder whether that new stadium will get built by 2011. They should fast track it and build it...... the BCCI president has said in the context of organising the World Cup,

"
There would be practically no challenge in organising it and it will happen smoothly"

Heres a challenge...... a new 100,000 seat stadium in Mumbai by the time the World Cup Final comes around. To build something like that in 3 years (it would have to be ready by 2010, so that the wicket can used and tested), would be a challenge anywhere in the world. If they are going to have the final at Wankhede, then that would not be much of a challenge - neither would it be much of an achievement.

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A tale of two coaches.......

Cricket Coaches, especially the ones who coach international cricket teams have become targets for accountability hawks (accountability is usually defined for these purposes as - "if the team doesn't win, then the coach is held accountable, all team management decisions become coach's decisions, all problems result from problems between the coach, the captain, the "senior players" and the selectors, with the coach being the villain of the piece). The role of international cricket team coach has been questioned by several commentators, most notably by Ian Chappell, who thinks a coach's involvement should be minimal. Today we have a situation, where two of the most difficult coaching jobs in the cricket world have just become even more unsavoury, because the teams in question have been losing.

Greg Chappell has presided over what must now be seen as more than just a troubling slump in form - 18-6 over his first 25 games as ODI team coach (with Rahul Dravid at the help), and 3-12 in his last 16! Duncan Fletcher goes into the biggest series in recent English history, with all of England anticipating Ashes success, and finds his side down 2-0, with a very real possibility that England will go into the marquee Test matches (Melbourne and Sydney), with the Ashes already lost, and with the more familiar goal of not falling to an Ashes whitewash). Both Chappell and Fletcher have faced criticism thanks to their alleged biases against certain players. Chappell is seen in parts of India as having been vindictive against Sourav Ganguly (never mind that Ganguly's record in the last 4 years of his career was very poor), while Fletcher is seen to prefer the diligent prose of Giles over the classical poetry of Panesar. "Experimentation and flexible batting line ups, all overdone" in the case of Chappell, translates to "questionable selection and poor preparation" in the case of Fletcher.

A calmer, purely cricket based investigation (minus subtexts driven by and riddled with common press frailties), reveals simpler a simpler explanation - class. Eleven players make up a cricket team, and there is general agreement about the distinct skills and gifts that
these 11 players must offer, to make up a good team. It follows then, that the quality of each player, is what defines the quality of the team. In sport, there is another characteristic - form. The form of each player, reveals how much above or below par the team performs. Bench strength or depth, further explains how much longevity there will be to the success. These three factors - class, form and bench strength, in that order, are far more central to the results achieved by a cricket team, than the singular influence of a cricket coach. What a coach and a captain can do at best, is to ensure that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

The simple truth of the matter is, that in Indias case, success in 2005-06 was down to the performance of 3 players - Irfan Pathan, Mahendra Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh, who offered something over and above what was generally contributed by players in their positions to the national side. Add to this a well above par effort with the bat from Rahul Dravid, and you have the makings of an 18-6 record. During the 3-12 phase, Irfan, Dhoni and Rahul Dravid went off the boil, while Yuvraj Singh got injured. The rest of the side, continued their par effort - Tendulkar made his sporadic appearances, and played well on occasion, Sehwag continued his usual hit or miss performances, Kaif was steady, the bowling actually did better than it usually does, Harbhajan remained world class, and the fielding in general was pretty good. The fringe places - in the case of the current India side 1 batsman and 1 bowler, performed as well as fringe places can be expected to. The winning edge was lost, because the match-winners went off the boil. This is where class comes in. World class match winners do not stay off the boil for too long, and the availability of relentless class at each position, ensures that when some match winners do occasionally go off the boil, others come along and take their place. The same argument extends to bench strength - which in Indias case is light to begin with.

In Englands case, more than anything they have done, it has been down to what they have been faced with - relentless, unyielding class, playing in home conditions with something to prove. Steve Harmison's form and Panesar's absence has not helped, but i doubt whether it would have made a telling difference. It is interesting to compare this series with the 2005 series. Australia lost the second test in 2005 by about 2 runs (it may have been 3), after a tremendous fight back. They won the second test in 2006-07, after a tremendous fight back. You can argue endlessly about how Vaughan's tactical understanding was superior to Flintoff's and how the English bowling and fielding in 2005 was superior to that in 2006-07, but the fact of the matter is very simple, and Duncan Fletcher knows it - England have to be at their absolute best, and have to have everything go right for them in order to beat Australia by a whisker (2005 Ashes in England, won 2-1, the victories coming by 2 runs and 3 wickets, the defeat by 7 wickets), while Australia at their very best, with everything going their way, are good enough to hammer anybody, let along England, 5-0.

There is no substitute of quality - a coach can not manufacture it, and therefore a coach can not be realistically assigned all the blame. Both Chappell and Fletcher have taken selection decisions (assuming that they had a hand in team selection decisions), which are well supported by statistics and performances of the players available to them. And this is the key - they can only choose from the players that are available to them. Formers cricketers must necessarily be opinionated, cricket journalists must look for stories, and cricket fans must demand victory at all costs. In the end however, reality wins out. Completely brand new realities are created only rarely, and even these are often traceable, if you look carefully enough.

In most cases, the winners play well enough to win. They don't however always end up being enduringly successful cricket teams. Just to put Chappell's efforts in perspective, the Ganguly-Wright era, which we look back at today with so much nostalgia, saw India achieve a 45-60 record against non-minnow ODI opposition. The Chappell-Dravid era, still has India with a 50% record against non-minnow opposition. Fletcher's England side is still the most successful English test team since the second world war.
Chappell and Fletcher remain easy targets, and indeed, it is their job to be targets. That is part of the responsibility of the exalted Gandalfian role of "coach". They can not however manufacture cricket teams.

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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Australia win - England shocked. Was it really so unlikely?

A simple Test Match truth was revealed at the Adelaide Oval - just like it was 3 years ago, when India defeated Australia in uncannily similar style at the same ground. That truth is: In high scoring matches, if there is no significant 1st innings deficit for the team batting second, then the team batting second has the advantage.

This is quite obvious, simple mathematics can explain this. England had absolutely no chance of victory once Australia made 513 in response to Englands 551/6 declared by the evening of the 4th day. Team's chase a 4th innings total under 200 to win more often than teams take 10 wickets after declaring on the final day. I don't recall a single occasion in recent history when this has happened. There have been instance when the third innings has been completed - i.e. the team batting third has been bowled out on the 5th morning, and gone on to win on the same day. A declaration however suggests that the conditions were decent for batting, or, that the side batting 3rd had a significant run advantage. Most teams that win in the 4th innings, set up their victories by taking the target out of the equation. "Keep the opposition interested" is implemented in terms of setting them 400 in 120 overs, but never in terms of setting them 225 in 50.

England had no chance of winning as i said. They would never have been able to make a realistic declaration. The only way this game would have been decided, would have been with a spectacular collapse - which we saw in England's case. Yet, England batted for 73 overs in their second innings. They made 129. Even if they had made 200, and left Australia with 240 to win instead of 170 in 36 overs, that would still have meant that the most likely results would have been a draw, then an Australian win and then an English win.

Contrary to most opinions at the start of the 5th day, there was no time left for England to win. There was however time for Australia to win - because the run chase would always be a realistic option for them. England did not have the time to take the runs out of the equation. When it came to the crunch, the gulf in class between the English and Australian batting line up was revealed. England were unable as a batting team to keep the scoreboard moving. The relentless class of the Australian batting - from 1 to 7, means that even in the event of a mini collapse, each of their batsmen has the ability to keep making runs, and not getting stuck. The class of Shane Warne (English commentators were quick to refer to "both sides playing defensive spinners who could bat a bit" - a reference to Warne being in the mould of Ashley Giles!) came through.

Australia go up 2-0 then after the first two tests, and there is a good chance that the Ashes will be decided in the year 2006 itself. In the end, the difference was class. England have some good players - Strauss, Bell, Collingwood. What was at play here was the difference between a batting order with mid-forties batting averages (very good in most circumstances), facing a batting behemoth with 2 young batsman - one averaging 40, the other 80, two champion openers, the best batsman of our day, and an out of form wicketkeeper, averaging 49.

I referred earlier to both these realities - that of a team giving itself the best chance of winning by leaving itself the option of winning in different realistic ways (hoping to bowl out a test team in under 50 overs is not realistic, chasing 5 an over for 50 overs is, especially in modern cricket), and of the class gulf between the English and Australian batting (in that same article).

The better team has been winning. Relentless class almost always comes to the fore. The contrary is true once every 17 years....

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Friday, December 01, 2006

Kevin Pietersen's illegal reverse sweepshot for Six!

Kevin Pietersen reverse sweeps Muralitharan for Six!

This is an illegal stroke and the runs should have been disallowed. Pietersen reverse the hands on the bat - something which is the only distinguishing factor between a right handed and a left handed batsman. This presents a dilemma for the umpires, due to the restriction for number of fielders behind square on the leg side. Batsmen do not usually change the grip on the bat (the left hand remains the top hand during the reverse sweep as well for the right handed batsman). Its something that Craig MacMillan, the New Zealand middle order batsman got called for once in New Zealand.

Cricinfo's Statsguru....

Statsguru on Cricinfo.com is one of the best, if not the best stats databases available online. One of the stats in this database has always intrigued me. It is the "bowler/fielder summary" in the list of batting stats. This provides a list of bowlers that a batsman has been dismissed by, and a run average for which this happens. I used to think at first, that when it said that Batsman X averaged Y against Z bowler, it is a measure of the number of runs the batsman has made off bowler Z per dismissal by bowler Z.

Not so. It is in fact, the number of runs made by a batsman in innings when he was dismissed by a particular bowler. So it does not provide a measure of a bowler's mastery of a batsman. Take the example of Glenn McGrath and Sachin Tendulkar. McGrath has dismissed Tendulkar 6 times in Test cricket, and Tendulkar's average against him is 22.16. This is Tendulkar's average in all the innings in which he has been dismissed by McGrath. If you consider all the test matches that Tendulkar and McGrath have both featured (which obviously includes all the innings in which McGrath has bowled at Tendulkar in a Test match), Tendulkar's scores have been
11, 0, 61, 0, 116, 52, 45, 4, 76, 65, 10, 10, 126, 17, 8, 2, 5, 55
So Tendulkar's average in innings where McGrath bowled at him is 36.8.

The point is, that the 22.16 average appears in Tendulkar's statsguru list, not McGrath's. 22.16 is not a measure of Tendulkar's performance against McGrath, 36.8 is. Similarly, McGrath's "batsmen dismissed" results should list 36.8 vs Tendulkar. If the statistic is to be a real McGrath v Tendulkar statistic, then it must list the number of runs Tendulkar has made off the bowling of Glenn McGrath (in his innings against Australia) and divide that figure with the number of times McGrath has dismissed Tendulkar. That would be the truest McGrath v Tendulkar statistic. The current statistical measure is inaccurate, assuming that the purpose of the statistic is to provide a measure of a batsman's performance against a particular bowler. This is important because statistics invariably cause the reader to find conclusions why they do not actually support, but seem to support.

Brian Lara has a 41.40 average in 15 innings in the "bowler's dismissed by" result against Glenn McGrath's name. In Test Matches where both Lara and McGrath have featured, Lara's scores are as follows:
65, 9, 88, 43, 24, 14*, 65, 0, 26, 44, 2, 1, 2, 2, 9, 78, 132, 62, 3, 213, 8, 153*, 100, 7 , 0, 4, 0, 17, 182, 39, 16, 0, 35, 28, 14, 42, 68, 60, 30, 14, 13, 45, 226, 17
Lara has made 2000 runs in 42 complete innings in Tests where McGrath has played, an average of 47.16.

Lara's average against Australia is 52.12 over 30 Tests, Tendulkar's is 53.11 over 18 Test matches.

McGrath v Lara should read 47.16 (52.12)
McGrath v Tendulkar should read 36.80 (53.11)

It is clear that McGrath has had more success against Tendulkar than he has had against Lara. It is also clear that his difference is not as much as 22.18 vs 41.40 suggests. What it also reveals is the disparity between the number of Test innings that Tendulkar and Lara have played against McGrath (16 for Tendulkar vs 44 for Lara).

Cricinfo needs to revise this statistic in their statsguru in my view....