Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A picture representative of the Indian side today........

This picture appeared alongside Cricinfo's post match ode to the Indian batting line up. I thought it was very fitting. MS Dhoni is what can only be described as an impossible position, especially with the wickekeeper standing up to the stumps. Was this a Shane Warnesque bouncer-in-disgust from the slow bowler, which Dhoni was trying to upper cut a la Tendulkar at Chennai in 2001? No! The ball went bang in the middle of the most orthodox 'V' that Geoffrey Boycott could have drawn.

This is how Indias batting has been in the last 6-7 years (especially amongst the post Tendulkar-Dravid generation of batsmen). None of them have been orthodox, all of them (including Ganguly) have had glaring technical faults. Yet, most of them, have delivered runs and if you look at the numbers, the reason why India have competed in ODI cricket, has been because of these batsmen. Yet, it is invariably the batting which has borne the brunt of the blame during slumps. ODI cricket is a batsman's game, but having the most profligate bowling lineup in the world doesn't help, especially when the batting is occasionally not on song.

Yet, there has always remained that tinge of dismay, about batting success being limited to certain kinds of wickets. This is not true of the Indian side, any more than it is true of any other side in the world. All batting line ups do well on batting wickets, thats why they are called good batting wickets. The point is however, that in a batting game, limited overs run rates have been steadily climbing, and India have been at the fore front of this development, which suggests that they have been at the forefront of world batting. While the next generation of batsmen in India are a cause of worry, todays batting is amongst the best in the world. With a rejuvenated Ganguly (free of the insecurities and the baggage of captaincy and allied responsibilities), with nothing much to lose, and plenty of talent and experience to spend has much to offer. He still has his problems against the short ball, which every now and again conspire to demolish the rest of his footwork. But as long as he is in the right frame of mind, and can execute his block-block-bang theory of ODI opening, opposition sides will worry about him.

Tendulkar in the middle order also looks like a great idea. At this stage, it is quite perfect for him to be unleashed on the opposition at number 3 or 4 (i would suggest 3, especially when the early wicket falls). As we saw yesterday in Baroda, the results can be quite dazzling. It is a indicative of the class that has always characterized Tendulkar, Dravid and Ganguly, that they always appear to have something in reserve when they have long partnerships. Yesterday, Dravid and Tendulkar added 116 in 18 overs - yet, anyone who watched, might have been forgiven for wondering what might have been had they not been so slow in the early part of their stand.

The great advantage that Tendulkar, Dravid and Ganguly have over new batsmen is that they know how to score runs in ODI cricket (its called experience), and that comes to the fore every now and then. But there is always the Dhoni element to India's batting, which leaves is short of what Australia's has become - Indias best batsmen in recent times have been unorthodox, picked on outrageous talent (like Yuvraj Singh), with no real honing ground other than international cricket. Australia's outrageous talent is honed in their domestic cricket, for it is tested in their domestic cricket.

That is a shortcoming, which will require the entire genius of the Indian batting to extend itself beyond known boundaries to surmount.

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Monday, January 29, 2007

Sachin Tendulkar - Is he finished, or is he still on song?

This article on Rediff mounts a spirited defense of the legend of Tendulkar. The plea here is to stop questioning the great man's form, lest he quit "before his time". It contains the usual delicious (though occasionally over done) stew of statistics and weighty notions of "the burden of the nation of expectations". CP Surendran, a columnist in the Times of India once made the following observation about the Tendulkar phenomenon -

‘‘Batsmen walk out into the middle alone. Not Tendulkar. Every time Tendulkar walks out to the crease, a whole nation, tatters and all, marches with him to the battle arena. A pauper people pleading for relief, remission from the life-long anxiety of being Indian, by joining in spirit with their visored savior.’’

Yet, this very same article, which makes its plea based on statistical rationality as well as psychoanalytical gobbledygook ("weighed down by expectations"), seems to make the fatally flawed assumption that Tendulkar will indeed remain the flawless master batsman for ever. I have myself written about "Endulkar" and a google query results in 762 articles with that name in it. There are a 106 blogs on the blog search. This will doubtless remain the first great blog debate about a cricketer's retirement and legacy.

The numbers will always be in Tendulkar's favor. The fact of the matter is that he is in decline (which is natural given that fact that he has now been playing cricket for 17 years) and is not the batsman he once was. He has slowed down considerably, and his game, though possibly wiser, is no longer the crisp clean Tendulkar game of yore. The unconquerable hero has given way to the wizened elder - more aware of the ways of the world, more aware of his own limitations, and painfully reminded of his persistent decline. He is not the player he once was, and he knows it. He plays a more cerebral game these days - like an aging tennis player - one who is a yard slower than he once was, but one who can every now and then, produce greatness purely from memory.

Yet, even in decline, he is still clearly good enough to hold his place in the India side, simply because there isn't enough talent batting talent available for selection to threaten him. The supply side of selection is always ignored in the press - a glimpse perhaps into the less than sincere, and less than calm (even a bit vindictive) aspect of most calls for "dropping". Players being dropped for "lack of form" or "lack of performance", is seen as a slight - as a punishment to the player. In fact, it is simply a case of there being some one better available. In Tendulkar's case, this is unlikely to happen, unless another Tendulkar comes along. So far, most of the new talent has merely inspired statements like this one by Kris Srikanth-

"Whatever talent the team management has seen in Raina, the youngster has done well to conceal it on the international stage."

Selection is largely a practical matter of maximising runs, maximising wickets and consequently, ensuring victory. So even if Tendulkar isn't quite the boy wonder of the 1990's (and even the early 2000's), he's still well and truly amongst India's most important batsmen. He won't be finished unless he decides he is...... and i suspect that he will know before anyone else does.

Just for the record, Damien Martyn, Shivnaraine Chanderpaul, Kevin Pietersen, Sanath Jayasuriya, Kumar Sangakkara, and Chris Gayle, just to name a few, have done as well, if not better than Tendulkar in the 2006-07 season and were not in that list.

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Mumbai in the 2006-07 Ranji Trophy Final

Mumbai beat Baroda by 63 runs to make the finals of the Elite Group Ranji Trophy final, in a match which was in many ways representative of the state of Indias domestic cricket today. On a wicket which was obviously (judging by the scores) not flat, Amol Muzumdar and Yusuf Pathan (brother of Irfan Pathan, who also played) were the only players who reached 50. In fact, Muzumdar's 97 in the Mumbai first innings, along with important runs in the group stage, where Mumbai came back from the dead to make the knockout stage, make him a front runner for a batsman spot in the next Indian Test squad. The Baroda batting, with Williams and Parab opening followed by the experienced Jacob Martin and the Pathan brothers, could muster only 143 and 173 against a Mumbai attack which had no India pacemen, and only 1 former India spinner - Nilesh Kulkarni. The Mumbai batting was even more astounding. After bowling out Baroda for 143, for a first innings lead of 90, Mumbai seemed to have spectacularly squandered their advantage by being reduced to 0/5 and then 6/17, before the wicketkeeper Vinayak Samant put together an innings of 66 to take Mumbai to the relative respectability of 145. Set 237 to win, Baroda could manage on 173.

This was a low scoring game by any standards. This Ranji Semi-final, brought no prospective India talent to the fore. The low scores were probably down to the quality of the batting and the nature of the wicket. The bowling on either side was not of particularly high quality either. Irfan Pathan had a good outing 7/96 in the match. Amol Muzumdar - who is arguably the finest batsman in India, never to have played Test cricket (it has been his misfortune to have competed with Ganguly, Laxman, Tendulkar and Dravid for a middle order spot), made runs - but then, he always makes runs for Mumbai. So yet another Ranji Trophy has passed, and no significant talent has come through. If you think about it, most of the talent coming in to the India side has come from age-group and A performances, and just been confirmed for a year in the Ranji Trophy before being brought into the national side. Why is the influence of the Ranji Trophy and the Duleep Trophy so minimal then?

The match was played at the Moti Bagh ground, which last hosted an international match (and ODI) in 1988-89, and has never hosted a Test match. International games at Baroda are played at the IPCL ground. One wonders why this was the case. Even the CCI in Mumbai rarely hosts Ranji matches now, even though it is an international quality ground which just hosted the final of the ICC Champions Trophy.

First class cricket in India is not a realistic practice opportunity for India players, in large part because of scheduling. England play first class cricket for a full 2 months - April and May, before their main summer Test tour. which is usually in July-August. Even for the early summer tour, which begins in mid to late May, England players have the chance to play nearly 6 weeks of first class cricket. First Class cricket in India has undergone plenty of change in recent years. The Duleep Trophy with 6 zones is just too few though, when you consider the fact that there are about 27 first class sides in India. Any player who plays Duleep Trophy and makes the finals, plays a maximum of 3 Duleep trophy games!

Here's a possible solution - the Duleep Trophy as a Zonal competition needs to be expanded. And here's how it may be possible - the Ranji Champion side, plays as itself in the Duleep Trophy. Every Zone - West, Central, East, South and North is allowed to field 2 sides. Add the invited foreign side to this (which is a great move), and we have a 12 Team competition.

If the Ranji Trophy (where a player who plays all available games and makes the Ranji Final, plays 8-9 first class games) can be completed before New Year's day - a Boxing Day Ranji Final every year..... then from January - April, you could have a 12 Team round robin Duleep competition, where every side gets to play 13 matches. These matches would be higher quality matches than the Ranji Trophy. India players would then have 21 first class games (which in a 6 month season - October to April) is not too high for first class professional cricketers to play in. 84 days of cricket in the year would be a significant amount of First Class cricket.

It has to be a problem when the Indian side plays more Test Cricket (9-12 Tests) in a full year, than the average First Class cricketer plays First class games. It is no wonder then, that India do not have a strong bench. Even in Australia, with their small population and just 6 first class Teams, they play 10 first class games in a season - 11 including the final - more than the average first class cricketer in India.

Currently we have two major first class tournaments - Ranji and Duleep Trophy, with their corresponding ODI tournaments, the Ranji ODI and Deodhar Trophy. Add to this, the Salve Challenger Trophy and the Irani Trophy (a one off season opener).

First class cricket will be able to build an audience if enough of it is played with reasonable quality and with reasonable participation from Test players. Unless this happens, first class cricket will remain irrelevant as it is today. With 20-21 first class games available to each player, what would the standard of performance be? 2000 runs in a season and 100 wickets. That should be reasonable.

Money should not be a problem - BCCI can probably afford to under-write the whole domestic season - but they will eventually make money from first class cricket as well. One often wonders why cricket grounds in India are in such bad shape - the reason ought to be clear, most of them are used for cricket, for 3-4 first class matches in a year, at the most! With a 21 match season, they would afford to maintain full time ground staffs and first class cricketers would be able to make a good living. If you look at Australia, each state hosts each of the other states - 5 matches, in addition to this, they host a test match (except Hobart, which hosts the Australia A match against the tourists) and at least 2 if not more tri-series matches. That is 8 international quality cricket matches in a season at least. In addition, they probably also host a few second eleven matches and club finals.

First Class cricket in India needs to become relevant, for India to consistently threaten the summit of World Cricket. Until that happens, we will keep having Ranji Trophy tournaments and finals, which Mumbai will keep winning, as if by divine right! In the last 14 seasons (1993-94 to 2006-07), Mumbai have reached the Ranji finals 8 Times now, won 6, lost 1 and we will know in a few days whether what happens this year). In all this while, they have contributed 1 Test player - Sachin Tendulkar and 1 ODI player - Ajit Agarkar to the India cause.

Something is clearly wrong....

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The perils of blogging..... who says bloggers are unaccountable?

Check out this blog post, and then follow the comments below it. It is my contention that this single blog post has been held to account more than any newspaper has in a whole year for all its stories together. If this had been posted in the newspaper, it might have recieved plenty of letters, but the public would have seen 1-2 of them at the most, and those 2 would have been one for and one against, all in the interest of "balance". The comments on this blog post however, reveal where the "balance" lies.

One has to commend the author of that blog for leaving those comments on. I guess he didn't have a choice in some ways. However, i just wonder how he got all those facts wrong, as the comments have demonstrably proved......

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Sunday, January 21, 2007

The State of ODI Cricket.....

The 2007 World Cup in the West Indies is the next great event in the cricket world. Up until now, there were other victories to be won for teams. Now however, everything that happens with each side, will happen with an eye on the World Cup tournament. India kicked out their schedule with two series of 4 matches each against West Indies and Sri Lanka. The Australians and the New Zealanders, currently participating in the annual ODI tri-series of the Australian summer, head to New Zealand for a 3 match series in February before the World Cup commences in March. England are not playing any cricket after the tri-series until the World Cup in March. For England, this may be a good thing, given their recent struggle with injury issues to key players. Pakistan and South Africa will play a 5 match ODI series in South Africa in preperation for the World Cup.

At this point, it might be instructive to look at the state of the ODI world today. The table below, shows the record of each team over their last 5 games against each of the other 8 teams. Zimbabwe's lone victory came against New Zealand in 2001. They haven't beaten a major team in over 6 years now, a record inferior to that of Bangladesh as well as Kenya. Australia and Sout
h Africa have shown themselves to be in a class of their own, with South Africa beating Australia 3-2 in the last series they contested in South Africa in early 2006. These two sides must surely be the big favourites to win the marquee event this time around. For the Australians, there must be a word of caution - the West Indians of 1983 were similar world beaters, and came a cropper in the final, going for their third successive World Cup win. India, New Zealand and Sri Lanka have a better than even record, and Pakistan, even though they have a lesser record, on paper are probably just as good - what with their phenomenal batting firepower.



If you consider the ratings

Australia 0.643
South Africa 0.611
New Zealand 0.519
India 0.516
Sri Lanka 0.507
West Indies 0.491
Pakistan 0.461
England 0.446
Zimbabwe 0.309

they convey pretty much the same story.

ODI Cricket, going into this years World Cup is probably more talent laden than it has always been. There are more teams playing a similarly current brand of ODI cricket in this World Cup than there have ever been before. On their day, each team can beat each of the other teams. Australia have raised the bar and the other teams have been forced to follow. In World Cup tournaments, it is the individual performances which guide team performances. Australia have had so many individual heroes in their World Cup victories, but Warne and Steve Waugh in 1999, Michael Bevan and Ricky Ponting in 2003 stand out. ODI games are designed so that they can be won and lost single handedly. India have done well in World Cups 1996 and 2003 when Tendulkar has been in top form for them. In 1999, Rahul Dravid was the top scorer, but even he will admit that in 1999 he was not good enough as a batsman to influence ODI games in the manner of a Tendulkar or Lara.

Brian Lara is the man to watch in this World Cup in my view. He has not had the World Cup fame of his great contemporaries, and would want to bow out in style in a home tournament. He is clearly still one of the World's great batsmen, and his brand of play, and most importantly, his middle order skills, should stand him in good stead in the West Indies, where the wickets will ensure that games are not won or lost in the first 15 overs. Among others, Michael Hussey has made sure that Australia do not feel the absence of Michael Bevan in their middle order. The greatest ODI batsman in the world according to Steve Waugh was vital to Australia's triumph in 2003. Along with Clarke, Symonds and Ponting, Hussey forms a formidable middle order. With Gilchrist in his last major ODI tournament, Australia are clearly the team to beat. Apart from South Africa, no team has looked like being able to achieve this in the last 18 months or so. The West Indians have threatened, but often flattered to decieve. Pakistan must always been regarded as dangerous dark horses - what with their batting depth and the recent emergence of Mohammad Asif and Umar Gul to partner Shoaib Akthar. Sri Lanka, with Murali (the most prolific wicket taker in the history of international cricket) and the renewal in their batting with Sangakkara and Jayawardene at their peak, and with Jayasurya going strong as usual, will threaten as well, especially if Malinga and Vaas can deliver consistently with the new ball. New Zealand will always compete, but one feels that their success in the World Cup will depend a great deal on the presence of Shane Bond. England are probably the weakest of the big 8 teams in the World Cup - but with Strauss, Pietersen (along with Hussey, the best ODI batsman in the world at the moment in my view) and Flintoff, supported by Bell and Collingwood, they have a competent batting line up. Bowling support for Andrew Flintoff and their inability to field a decent spin bowler (as against New Zealand who have Vettori) will hurt them. If they can make the knockout stage, then anything is possible for them. The South Africans will be competitive, not least because they bat deep, bowl deep and field better than anyone else in world cricket bar Australia. With Kallis bowling again, and with Ntini having taken his game to a new level, they will compete. Their fortunes will probably rest on how Herschelle Gibbs plays in the World Cup, for he is a genuine match winner. Pollock and Boucher will ensure that they are always competitive. Those two can chase 80 in the last 10 as well as set up games by batting for 20-25 overs to set up a total with South Africa can fight to defend. And this is over and above a strong batting line up. Just imagine where the South African's would have been, had Kevin Pietersen not moved to England!

Where does that leave India? On the face of it, they look to be in disarray. Their top players have aged, and their talisman in the ODI game - Tendulkar has been in steady decline. This time around, i don't think his reinstatement to the opening slot will help India. Number 3 seems like the place for him. The bowling is still weak, inspite of the emergence of Sreesanth. Hopefully, the Munaf Patel issue will be handled decently, because Patel offers India some semblance of control with the new ball, which the mercurial Zaheer Khan does not. Zaheer has disturbing tendency to follow up a good bowling effort (like Nagpur) with a couple of mediocre ones. Kumble remains a question mark, in large part due to the team balance issue. Two specialist spinners are realistic only if we play 5 bowlers. In the absence of Irfan Pathan, this seems unlikely. The middle order still has to be sorted out, with Dinesh Karthick currently occupying a middle order slot. Yuvraj Singh will hopefully be fit soon and put that to rest. Ganguly looks certain to play the World Cup now that he seems to have shed the cobwebs and begun to play like the Ganguly of yore (he still has problems, but between him and Wasim Jaffer, it has to be him). If both Ganguly and Kumble play, then we will have a poor fielding unit, with Dravid and Tendulkar also aging. Having said all this, in terms of personnel, and in terms of the ability to field spin heavy side, India probably have the core personnel available to mount a strong World Cup challenge.

There is one final issue that i think will be absolutely crucial in this World Cup. The round robin format, will test teams like no other format has done before. It may allow teams to start slow and still sneak into the semi-final stage. The West Indies also offer the most varied palate of wickets of any World Cup. Guyana and Trinidad are very different from Jamaica and Barbados. With a round robin format, this may come into play, with some wickets suiting some teams more than others. In previous World Cups, it was possible to describe the representative wicket in the host country, and wickets generally behaved similarly. This time around, it is likely to be much different. The length of the round robin format might cause some teams to peak early, like New Zealand in 1992 or South Africa in 1996.

Finally, i think that if Australia do not win this World Cup, then the winning side will not be the "best" team in the world, but the "right" side for the format and the conditions.

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Friday, January 19, 2007

SachinTendulkar is Vice-Captain again.......

He first led India on 28th August 1996 in Sri Lanka. He was vice-captain since 1994. 12 years later, he is back as vice-captain of the side. This is a move which has led to plenty of speculation. Tendulkar's reintroduction into the core team management is being viewed as a comment on Rahul Dravid's performance as captain. The thinking is, that should Rahul Dravid not do too well against West Indies and Sri Lanka before the World Cup, then at some point, Sachin Tendulkar will be asked to take over the job.

This is quite typical of the press. In my view, Tendulkar's appointment as Vice Captain is merely a continuation of the "look forward to the past" policy of the current selection committee, headed by Dilip Vengsarkar. If you consider all the selections of this committee - the recall of VVS Laxman for the final ODI in South Africa, the recall of Sourav Ganguly, the selection of Wasim Jaffer to the ODI side in South Africa, the recall of Anil Kumble, the preference to Zaheer Khan (in my opinion a failed selection in SA) and now finally, the appointment of Tendulkar as Dravid's deputy; all these decision indicate a change in direction, from the forward looking, youth policy of the More committee. The judgement of the committee seems to be (based on second season blues faced by a number of the young turks who fashioned India's most successful ODI season ever), that the new crop of players are just not good enough to replace the tried and tested senior pros. The thinking in a nutshell seems to be, that even if Sourav Ganguly has not been at his best for a long time now, and even though he has problems with the short ball, which in turn affect the rest of his batting technique, and even if VVS Laxman has well known fitness issues thanks to his injured knee, these two are still better than the Suresh Raina's and Venugopal Rao's.

There is merit to this line of thinking - Raina was probably found out to an extent against quicker, shorter bowling. His footwork especially to a goodish length outside offstump has been found wanting. If Raina has indeed been found out this early in his career, it makes sense for him to be left out. Similar arguments can be made about other players - either due to a decline in their own form, or due to the fact that they may have been found out.

The selection of Tendulkar as vice-captain suggests that there is nobody in the side among those who began playing in this decade, who is considered good enough to be captain in the near future. Rahul Dravid's captaincy is not under any threat from Tendulkar's appointment. Tendulkar becoming captain again may not be such a bad idea though. He was only 27 when he quit the captaincy. At this late stage in his career, when he clearly looks like he wants another challenge, captaincy might just be the thing for him.

For now though, Rahul Dravid is firmly in the saddle. India go into the world cup with the two most prolific Test batsmen of all time (no two batsmen have scored more runs playing in the same Test team) at the helm. Giving Tendulkar that extra responsibility is probably the best thing that could happen to him. Motivation has been in his problem in the last 2-3 years in my view, along with injury. For very long, Tendulkar was the Indian batting line up, once that ceased to be the case, his batting lost its edge, much like Gavaskar's did in the mid-eighties.

But he is no threat to Dravid, and i don't think the decision is intended that way.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

First Class Batting Statistics - Trends and Analysis

First Class cricket is the backbone of the cricket structure in all Test playing nations. The Test and ODI sides are chosen from the first class teams. I studied the strike rates of first class batsmen in 5 Test playing countries - India, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and England. The motivation for doing this was to find out if this revealed anything about the nature of first class (and by inference Test batting). The results were quite interesting. The graph below shows the progression of batting strike rates in first class competitions in these five countries. The list of batsmen was sorted in descending order of the number of runs scored by the batsmen in the reason.


The graph makes for interesting reading. It clearly shows that batting strike rates in the Ranji Trophy Elite Group (for which the averages were considered) were significantly lower than those in the other competitions. If we considered 70% of the total runs scored in the first class competitions by the fewest batsmen (which would be the top run scorers in each competition contributing to 70% of the runs), we find that the characteristics of the first class teams are in sync with the characteristics of the respective Test teams. Run scoring in India is distinctly slower than it is in any of the other countries. In New Zealand, there are more batsmen contributing sizable runs and the batting orders generally seem to be deeper than in the other countries.



The scoring rate in India is interesting, because India is reputed to have the weakest bowling line up and the easiest batting conditions in the world. Fast bowlers graveyard etc. etc. Further, if we look at the bowling averages, then of the 15 bowlers who have more than 25 wickets in the 2006-07 Ranji trophy competition, we see 1 off spinner, 3 left arm spinners and 11 fast medium/ medium pace bowlers. Spinners have not had great success in the Indian domestic season, which suggests that there isn't a great deal of spin bowling talent in first class cricket in India today. Given that Indian grounds are invariably quicker scoring grounds than grounds in Australia and South Africa especially, a strong case can be made that the batting in the country is not yet used to shift in bowling focus from spin to pace. The nature of wickets for first class cricket - the number of low scoring games is quite high. The average total for a completed innings in the Ranji trophy was 278, as against 337 in the Australian competition and 317 in the County Championship.

Another interesting statistic is that the 13 first class sides in the Ranji Trophy (Elite Competition) used 260 players between them, thats and average of 20 per side over a 7 match season. 9 English counties (Division 1) on the other hand, used 180 cricketers over a 16 match season. The 6 Australian sides used 99 players over the 6 matches played so far. In terms of results, 25 out of 49 matches yielded outright results in the Ranji Trophy, 39 out of 84 yielded outright results in the county championship, while 10 out of 15 Pura Cup matches this season have yielded outright results.

All this suggests that the quality of wickets on offer for First class cricket in India, need improvement. Wickets which will allow faster scoring, and also leave the bowler with a chance. The fact that 20 players per first class team have been used in the elite group, in spite of the fact that interference in first class sides due to Test players has been minimal, also suggests a dearth of talent.

This does not augur well for the next generation Indian side. What implications does this have for the policy of conducting A tours, age group tours, basing selection to the national team increasing based on academy performance and age-group performance? Of the 11 batsmen in the elite Ranji competition who made more than 500 runs this season, only 2 - Cheteshwar Pujara and Robin Utthappa are realistically in line for national team selection, and that too in the One Day game. Where are the replacements for Tendulkar and Laxman?

The BCCI Technical Committee headed by Sunil Gavaskar is meeting to discuss rules for the 20-20 competition. They might also want to discuss first class cricket. First class cricket in India can become a contest in itself, with better grounds and better publicity. But for that, it must not be attritional, slow scoring cricket.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

Warne and McGrath - the most successful bowling pair in Test history.......

1271 Test wickets in 14 years of Test cricket make Warne and McGrath the most successful bowling pairing in Test history. What makes them astonishing is that Warne was a leg-spinner while McGrath was a medium pacer. Warne practiced a notoriously difficult art, while McGrath had no discernible weapon - like Ambrose's pace and lift or Trueman's outswinger or Waqar's reverse swing. Even though their bowling styles were poles apart, they were more similar than it seems at first. Both based they're bowling on absolute, unwavering mastery of line and length. When one thinks of the two of them in a Test match - the one operative word which comes to mind is - Control. They were good enough to control the game most of the time. Warne could do so on first day wickets which offered him nothing, and McGrath could do so on bright sunny days, on flat, plumb wickets made for batsmen.

Between the two, i would say that McGrath was the superior bowler - he took his wickets cheaper, performed more consistently than Warne against all opposition. All great players have their bogey teams - Warne had India and to a lesser extent, the West Indies, Lara has had India, Tendulkar has had South Africa, Lillee had the West Indies, Viv Richards had Pakistan. McGrath has had none. There are very few batsmen who can claim to have absolutely mastered him, in the way that Lara and Tendulkar have mastered Warne.

In Warne's case, the story of leg-spin bowling is integral to his story. He revived the art - his value lies in great part to his mastery of this specific art (as against say classical off-breaks, or medium pace bowling). It lies in his competitiveness, and his understanding of the cricketing contest. Warne will always been the more celebrated bowler. It will always be a case of Warne's poetry to McGrath's prose. It was easy for the average viewer to be drawn into Warne's contest, embellished by high quality television coverage and detailed (for want of a better word) commentary. There was never a sense of stalemate. In McGrath's case, there seemed to be no apparent contest. It was a stalemate until he won. Warne was the master of subterfuge - before every series, he invented a new word which could pass for a new, secret delivery which he had developed, just for that series. He did have the ability to turn the leg break exactly as much as he wanted to, and bowl it exactly as fast as he wanted to. McGrath never had a genuine outswinger, and Warne never had a genuine googly which worked against top-order batsmen. He rarely used it against top order players, reserving it for lesser tail-end prey.

It is a measure of the value of leg-spin bowling in Cricket, that Shane Warne, who began his career in 1991-92, was elected one of Wisden's 5 Cricketers of the 20th Century. This was no partisan nomination, it was an election by a large number of Cricket's most prominent citizens and journalists. Warne was elected ahead of Frank Worrell, Sunil Gavaskar and Imran Khan, each of whom in my estimation rank above Warne amongst 20th Century cricketers, for the simple reason that they were responsible in large part of the development of their national sides into powerful international cricket teams. Imran and Worrell especially.

The legend of Shane Warne is the legend of Leg-Spin Bowling, as much as it is of the man himself. In McGrath's case, it is a case of unrelenting, unadulterated excellence. McGrath is one of those rare bowlers who can claim to have never had a slump, to have never failed in the face of any challenge. He was the quintessential machine. Warne on the other hand, was great theatre...

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Friday, January 12, 2007

Sehwag dropped - Ganguly reinstated.....

There is something disconcerting about Virendra Sehwag being dropped from the ODI side and Sourav Ganguly being reinstated. It is clear from the South Africa Tests, that while Ganguly still has all of his technical problems, especially against the short ball, he has regained some measure of confidence in himself, and has adopted a completely new mental attitude to things. Ganguly's admission that the break did him good was an excellent beginning.

I just wonder though, do we get Ganguly circa 2000 or do we get Ganguly circa 2003? There have been two distinct phases in Ganguly's career, and they can be separated by the advent of the bouncer rule in ODI cricket. Ganguly 2003, was less fluent than Ganguly 2000, because he had to be more premeditated in order to score runs due to the threat of the bouncer not allowing him to set himself up off the front of back foot. The bouncer became an inconvenience, to be countered with protective gear and a prayer.

Lets look at the player he is replacing - it is exactly the same story. Both have had their fitness problems, both have based their batting success on extremely strong temperaments, self-confidence and an unbelievable eye and sense of timing. Both have been found out by the short ball. Both have in their time denied they had the problem. Both have tended to take their eyes off the short ball when playing it. Sehwag has arguably been cheekier, and aimed upper cuts and hook shots at bouncers whenever possible, with little regard for the consequences (but this is true about most of his batting).

VVS Laxman after his appearance in that solitary ODI in South Africa has been omitted from the squad for the first two ODI's against the West Indies. Mohammad Kaif and Dinesh Mongia (for some odd reason) have been dropped from the side for the first two ODI's. Mohammad Kai f's travails are a mystery to me.

If this selection policy is an attempt to identify genuinely match-winning batting talent, then it is probably a good thing. With Dilip Vengsarkar at the helm, i think he understands this. I assume Yuvraj Singh is out injured and hence has not been included in the ODI line up.

So what will the batting line up look like? This selection suggests that we will have a top heavy line up which harks back to the halcyon days of Tendulkar and Ganguly, when Indias batting was its opening pair and little else. The squad is as follows:

Rahul Dravid (captain), Sachin Tendulkar (v/c), Gautam Gambhir, Sourav Ganguly, Robin Uthappa, Joginder Sharma, Ajit Agarkar, M S Dhoni, R P Singh, Dinesh Karthik, Suresh Raina, Zaheer Khan, S Sreesanth, Ramesh Powar, Harbhajan Singh.

I count 5 specialist batsmen, 1 all rounder, 2 wicketkeepers, 4 fast bowlers and 2 spinners in this squad. I think we can safely say that the batting heavy line up of the 2003 world cup will not be seen during the 2007 world cup. Dhoni will have a serious role as a batsman. I just hope Dinesh Karthick is not played as a specialist batsman.

But all in all, it looks like a good selection. I suspect we will see 4 different squads in the 8 matches. Its good preperation for the World Cup. Probably better than an away tour to New Zealand on bad wickets in 2002-03.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Lost in Translation..... Niranjan Shah, BCCI and Indian Cricket.....

The BCCI has supposedly "questioned the integrity" of Munaf Patel in the aftermath of his selection for the Cape Town Test and his not doing well (this, despite the fact that the semi-fit Munaf bowled 20 overs for under 2.5 runs per over in the first innings, contributing in large part to the Indian lead). On the face of it, this is a serious matter and deserves decisive handling - either Munaf Patel has been unfairly blamed and deserves an apology as public as Mr Shah's allegation, or Mr. Shah is absolutely right in his suggestion, and Munaf needs to be disciplined at the very least, or more realistically dropped for good.

Sadly, in the disastrous world of cricket reporting in India, made up of amateurish, off-the-cuff BCCI statements (any office bearer of the BCCI deems himself to be the self-appointed spokesman for the institution), and parasitical reporting (where opinion and analysis is deemed necessary only when the reporting is not deemed juicy enough), the one thing missing, is a genuine regard for Cricket or Cricketer.

Just think about the BCCI statement on Munaf Patel. I quote Niranjan Shah here : "Here I am a little concerned about the player himself. The player himself should be honest enough about his own fitness. The last 5% has to come from the player. The doctor cannot say how much pain you are experiencing. Many players can play even with a big injury but some players cannot play even with a small injury. The honesty of the player - at least in the case of Munaf Patel - is in question."

Really? The "honesty" of the player is in question, because the evidence shows that Munaf Patel at worst made a mistake in judging his own fitness, even though every doctor consulted said he was fit? And if Munaf had not declared himself fit, inspite of the doctors declaring him to be medically fit, then his honesty would have been in question as well - because he would then have been accused of chickening out and not earning his money.

How can Munaf Patel's honesty be in question here? In Niranjan Shah's defense though, i will say that this is not what he intended to say in the first place. He probably thinks in Gujarati and speaks in English, like most of us Indians do - think in our mother tongues and speak in English. This disconnect is well-known to have caused some of the more humorous moments in the saga of Indias English speaking prowess.

The Cricinfo story is even more bizarre. They quote Anant Joshi who's comment as i read it says the following:

1. Munaf Patel is medically fit.
2. He recieved top class treatment.
3. He is unsure about his fitness in his own mind.
4. He has subsequently been advised R&R.

How does this amount to Dr. Anant Joshi "not sparing" Munaf Patel?

Rahul Dravid didn't make runs and the selectors have come down hard on him. Batting failures were the cause of the Indian defeat, and it is natural that the best batsmen should face the brunt of the blame. All this can be done constructively, with out launching against the integrity or the commitment of the player/s in question. Instead, all that we find here, is that integrity and commitment is all that is being questioned, both by BCCI and the press (all though i must say that some press reports, which have not addressed the BCCI part of the story, but have been essentially match reports and series summaries have been quite good about this).

The only thing that comes into question here is the integrity and commitment of the BCCI. The following specific questions can be asked:

1. What is the BCCI protocol when it comes to making the position of the Board known on cricket team selection and performance issues?

2. Was this protocol (assuming it exists, and assuming that it will be laid out in response to question 1) followed during and after the South Africa series?

3. If not, where did it fall apart, why, and who was responsible for the breach?

4. What is the Boards perspective on this tour?

5. If BCCI does not interfere with selection committee matters, then why did the Board recommend Munaf Patel returning along with Irfan Pathan, when this was clearly not the position of the team management?

6. What should Munaf Patel make of this whole thing? As someone who has faced serious injury early in his career, should he expect support from his employers? Can he expect clarity?

7. What is the BCCI's position on the use of the English language? The Secretary is clearly limited in this regard, and Munaf Patel, who is not entirely fluent in English, must not have understood what the secretary intended to say about him. Will BCCI come clean on Munaf Patel? Are they interested in his services for India? Or are they keen on forgetting about him, because Niranjan Shah does not trust him? If Munaf Patel decides to question BCCI about their comments with regard to his participation in the Cape Town test, what will their answer be?

Could we please have some answers?

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Saturday, January 06, 2007

Batting costs India the series.....

The record shows that Indias batsmen do not struggle in overseas conditions. Peculiarly enough, this was actually borne out in this series. The two Indian batting failures which lead to Indian Test defeats in this series came on 4th or 5th day wickets. It is largely a commentary on the poor form of the Indian batting that they have struggled on 4th and 5th day wickets. Form batting line ups have at least one or two batsmen who are able to weather the vagaries of unreliable, wearing wickets.

Congratulations to South Africa for their come from behind victory. What this series has shown is that even though South Africa are definitely in decline, especially when it comes to the quality of their batting, the presence of Shaun Pollock and Mark Boucher as players who can deliver late order runs, offers their Test team enough of a run cushion. South African line ups of yore (with Kirsten, Cullinan, Kallis, Smith, Gibbs, Rhodes) would not have folded for 84 at Johannesburg and would definitely have out batted this Indian line up. Pakistan have a real chance of winning in South Africa, especially if Younis and Yousuf can keep up their batting form and if Inzamam can shrug of his dislike for playing in South Africa and pitch in with some runs. With Asif and Gul, they are at least as good, if not better than Sreesanth and Zaheer, and in Razzaq and Rana they have superior back up bowling as well.

What went wrong with Indias batting then? I think the answer lies in the personnel more than anything else. Sachin Tendulkar is at a stage of his career where his injuries do not allow him to play anything other than the most important matches - matches for India. At this stage, he is batting from memory and not really doing a very good job of it. Slow Left Arm, over the wicket into the rough can now be officially classed as the one type of bowling which the man hates and is unable to deal with. With the lack of matchplay inherent in his schedule (he will not play Ranji Trophy, Duleep Trophy, County Cricket, Shield Cricket or any other such thing), coupled with his natural decline with age, make him, in terms of preperation and ability a lesser batsman. This is shown up in his performance. India get themselves not a 55 batting average world class batsman, but a 40 batting average test quality player. The same is the case with VVS Laxman. He is a 43-44 average player to start with, and with age, he is equally in decline. Ganguly, looks good right now, because given where he was a year ago, it would have been impossible for him to look bad. Add to that the fact, that the two most crucial Indian Test batsman in the last 2-3 years - Sehwag and Dravid, in 12 innings between them, made as many runs as Sourav Ganguly, and you have the makings of a batting debacle. Wasim Jaffer will eventually develop into an opener as good as Siddhu at best. He is not going to average 50 in Test cricket.

Zaheer Khan, inspite of the "good" series he is supposed to have had, on wickets which were bowler friendly for the most part, did not get a 5 wicket haul, and averaged 30.38 with the ball, and went for 3.38 runs per over against a South African side which didn't have too many free scoring batsmen. Anil Kumble was a good as ever. The big find of this Test series was Sreesanth. When Munaf is fully fit, i would still select him ahead of Zaheer on current showing, because this is about as good as Zaheer Khan is going to be - at best a low 30's average fast bowler, and you can look through history to see how many of those have ever won anything worthwhile.

I did say sometime back that the selection of Ganguly and Laxman to the ODI side and that of Ganguly to the Test side was a step backwards, and so it has proved. The point is simple. We know very well what Ganguly and Laxman can do. If India want to be a really top quality Test team, then they need to be able to play Ganguly as the spare batsman, not as a first team regular. In another year or so, Laxman is going to reach the same stage. The current selection committee probably had little choice other than to revert back to the old hands given the poor form India were in, but the omission of Mohammad Kaif from the Test team was baffling, given the runs he scored against England (a better attack than the South African one) and in the West Indies. Kaif also has proven match temperament.

I would still consider this series to have been riddled with a little bit of poor luck for India. Dravid being umpired out twice at Durban probably made a bit of a difference to the outcome of the match. Tendulkar being umpired out yesterday probably made a difference as well, because had Tendulkar been there at Tea time, then the post tea session would have been viewed differently by the South Africans.

At least the story is different this time around, and India won a Test match in SA for the first time, and found a genuinely good new ball bowler. The batting however has come away with fewer plaudits than in previous series. The only question about selection is the omission of Mohammad Kaif. Questions about selection for future series are aplenty. What of Sehwag? What of Zaheer Khan? What of VRV Singh? With the return of Sourav Ganguly, what happens to Yuvraj Singh? What of Sehwag's position in the middle order? At this stage, Sehwag looks like the ideal number 6 batsman who can also score quickly with the tail. He has probably been sorted out as opener by now.

All in all, this series has been a good one for India, because it has thrown up some good questions and should inform future selection, because it has basically exposed how good this team really is.

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Friday, January 05, 2007

India commit suicide........ almost.....

Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar showed their old penchant for getting stuck and being unable to score runs. Add VVS Laxman's run out and Sehwag's failure to the mix, and you have self-inflicted wound writ large on the scene. Even so, i say "almost" because South Africa are chasing 200+. Its the sort of score which requires one century stand in order to be successfully chased. With Jacques Kallis due in next, the first hour tomorrow morning, assumes great importance.

The batting has been below par consistently this series, and the only comfort is, that the South African's themselves have not done much better. All though, the fact that they do bat deeper will surely help them in this run chase.

India are about 40 runs short, they should have managed 200 in the third innings. Now they will require something special from their bowling. South Africa don't have this sewn up quite yet.

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

India have the advantage...

A lead of 41 in a 400 run first innings may not sound much. In the context of this match however, it is significant. With 6 sessions left to play, and with about 265 runs being scored on each day of this test match (254, 304 and 229), a lead of 41 put India half a session ahead. It is likely that this match may end up being a draw, but i do think that right now, unless India commit suicide in the third innings, the most likely results are an Indian win, a draw and then a South Africa win.

With a 41 run lead, India can play normally till the drinks break in the second session and then push the scoring along, by which time the ball will be old, and they will get at least 30 overs of the old ball against which to score. Leaving Sehwag down at number 7 would be excellent in this scenario. Sehwag could easily make 50-60 in an hour of play, and turn a 200 run lead at tea time in 280-290 very quickly. Conversely, with the softer, older ball being difficult to score off, coupled with the threat of reverse swing, it may make sense for India to revert to Sehwag and Jaffer opening the batting. This leaves a fairly long tail, starting with Anil Kumble at number 8.

These last two days will be a great test of Rahul Dravid's captaincy. Dravid has consistency shown himself to be a far more aggressive captain that any of his predecessors. He is also due for a score in this series. Tomorrow might just be the day where he makes a few important runs. It is time some good luck came his way, after being shot out to poor decisions twice at Durban. I do think that Virendra Sehwag will open the batting tomorrow.

As i have pointed out before, most successful 4th innings run chases are formalities. South Africa must seek to end the contest tomorrow. If it goes into a 5th day with all 3 results realistically possible, then India are almost certain to come away from South Africa with a series victory or at least a 1-1 draw. By tea time tomorrow, we will know which it is to be.

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Classic Shane Warne.......

Sledging gold from Shane Warne as he hammered England to all corners of the SCG in his final Test.... Paul Collingwood got testy and began to let Warne in on his honest opinion about things, to which Warne, amongst other things told him "You got an MBE for making 7 at the Oval in 2005"!!!

Just a glimpse into the great competitiveness of Shane Warne, also a not so subtle glimpse into the depth of feeling in the Aussie camp about this Ashes series. England have well and truly been shown their place, and as an unbiased observer, id contend that England, if you think about it are actually a very good Test team - clearly the second best in the world.

Australia though, are probably the greatest side in history in this Test match. I think they have had their strongest pace combination since that short period in 2000, when Gillespie was in his prime and Brett Lee was frightening batsmen and getting plenty of wickets early in his Test career. They have their strongest batting line up, with the emergence of Michael Hussey and Michael Clarke.

But its not just the personnel. Warne's comment is a classic illustration of the reasons for their unrelenting success. Ricky Ponting, inspite of his Ashes loss, is the most successful Australian captain ever in terms of win percentages for any captain who captained Australia in more than 30 Tests. His 26-3 record in 34 Tests a captain is better than Waugh (41-9 in 57 Tests), Bradman (15-3 in 24), Benaud (12-4 in 28), Lindsay Hassett (14-4 in 24), Mark Taylor (26-13 in 50), Greg Chappell (21-13 in 48) or Ian Chappell (15-5 in 30). Only India and England have beaten Ponting's Australians in a Test match, and only England have won a series. Warwick Armstrong (8-0 in 10 Tests) does have a superior record but he captained Australia in the years immediatly after the first world war when English opposition was depleted. So, the Ponting era is actually one up on the Steve Waugh era, inspite of the fact the Ponting has captained a side which has actually lost important players such as Jason Gillespie, something which Steve Waugh never had to encounter.

In my view, it is essentially down to everything embodied in that smart remark by the greatest leg-spinner in Test history to an average English middle order batsman, in Warne's final Test, with the series won and superiority well and truly established. One would think that machine like relentlessness would not be human. Looking at Warne and Australia, it is easy to envision a ruthless juggernaut, more so than it has ever been possible to do so.

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South African can still win this Test.... but is that a better position for India to be in?

Given the nature of Test cricket, with batting becoming more and more difficult as the match progresses, it is unusual for sides to chase totals in the 4th innings and win. In contests between evenly matched sides, in most instances (barring unusually excellent individual efforts), it is invariably the side batting 4th which has a distinct disadvantage. It takes a sustained effort over 5 days and 3 innings for the impregnable lead to be established (South Africa at Durban, India at Johannesburg and numerous other Tests). Winning Test matches chasing runs in the 4th innings is the one of the rarest ways in which Test matches are won (Innings victories are probably rarer), unless the game has been effectively won before the 4th innings begins. The vast majority of successful 4th innings run chases are low target formalities. The table below strongly supports this claim.



With evenly matched sides, it is often conditions or the toss which decide the outcome. What this series has shown so far, is that India and South Africa are evenly matched sides. Given the current match situation, both India and South Africa would find examples of these situations being turned into winning positions in the recent past. India beat Pakistan at Kolkata in 2005 after making 400+ and watching Pakistan reach 270 odd for 2 at the end of the second day. South Africa were on the recieving end at the Oval in 2003, where England responded to a big South African 1st innings with 600+ and went on to win by chasing a small target on the 4th innings.

The general consensus is that Anil Kumble will be the big factor in this game. However, i just wonder whether an even bigger factor, will be Indias bowling combination - 3 and 1 with Munaf returning from injury, instead of 2-2 with Harbhajan and Kumble bowling on this pitch. If South Africa are still batting at the end of day 3, then in all likely hood, India will not win this series. If India are already batting by the end of day 3, then they have every chance of winning this series. India need a 5 wicket session tomorrow, preferably one of the first 2 sessions of the day. Only then will they have effectively offset the 5/19 collapse, which saw them slump from 5/395 to 414 all out.

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Cape Town Test Day 1

Having lost the Durban Test, India went into the Cape Town test with the express aim of winning this series. There was no long term view taken, and no "investment" selections made. Mahendra Singh Dhoni was out injured, and moving Sehwag down to number 6 (or 7 as it may turn out) was a decision which was crucial to breaking the pattern in this series, where Sehwag has proved to be an easy wicket for the South African slip cordon. Dinesh Karthick is by no means the first choice wicketkeeper, and he is by no means the first choice opener.

This kind of thing has historically been successful for India. With makeshift performers rising to the occasion. Nayan Mongia made 152 vs Australia on a difficult Delhi wicket as makeshift Test opener to set up an Indian win in Tendulkar's first test as Indian captain. Deep Dasgupta made a crucial half century in the second innings at Port Elizabeth during India's last tour to South Africa, to ensure that India saved the infamous Denness Test. Sanjay Bangar made a crucial half century in the first innings at Headingley in 2002, to set up the Indian innings victory. Now Dinesh Karthick has delivered as makeshift opener and the Indians have built a cautious platform on Day 1 from which they can launch an imposing 1st innings total, which will hopefully take a South African series victory out of the equation by the end of Day 3, if not at the end of Day 2. That realization will play a significant role in the South African effort in this Test match.

I don't want to put the wood on Sachin Tendulkar, but his batting average has dropped below 55 for the first time since November 1999. Most of the work on the second day will hopefully come from the Tendulkar blade. India must reach a position, where Sehwag and Ganguly can wield aggressive willow and drive up the run rate to 3.5 runs/over by the end of the innings. 400 all out from 254/3 overnight will be a disappointment and will also leave the door open for South Africa.

I am of the opinion that it is better to make 500 all out by tea on Day 2, than it is to make 600 all out while batting into the third day. However, in this particular case, there is a larger issue at stake - and that is about the quality of the South African Test team. A lot of Indias success has been down to the fact that the South African batting they have faced has not been quite as deep as the the South African batting line ups of yore. This South African summer with India having won a Test match, and with Pakistan poised to tour with a strong bowling line up, may just show up the South African weakness for what it is. Up until now, the South Africans have beaten every visitor to their shores, England and Australia excepted. This summer, that is under serious threat for the first time since South Africa's return to Test cricket. With this in mind, i would think that there would be significant value in India achieving a total (if they are good enough to do so of course) which would effective eliminate the chance of a South African win.

The first two Test Matches in this series have gone with the side batting first, simply because that is how Test Matches on bowler friendly wickets usually go. They reveal if anything that the two sides are evenly matches, even in South African conditions. If this wicket does turn, then India may rue the fact that they have gone in with 3 pace bowlers. What this also reveals is that South Africa have realised the folly of playing India on "seaming" wickets.

All in all, a good first day, but still very much a work in progress......

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