Friday, June 29, 2007

India return the favor...

The tables were turned at Belfast today as it was Rahul Dravid who won the toss and sent the South Africans in to bat. The conditions favored the bowlers, and inspite of some inconsistent bowling from one end (RP Singh), the Indian bowlers made good use of the conditions. Runs were difficult to come by and it was RP's inconsistency which prompted Jacques Kallis to attempt that fatal square drive. Kallis had been immaculate outside offstump up to that point showing great judgement of line and length. It is quite likely that had it been Zaheer bowling, Kallis might have been more respectful of that delivery. Ishant Sharma bowled like a rookie and his line and length was varied - to the point where "inconsistent" would be an inappropriate word to describe it. This was most probably not by design. However, Sharma did work up some good pace (much more than he did in the hot, oppressive conditions in Bangladesh). The South Africans put up a score on the board, thanks to the gritty Morne van Wyk and the classy Jean-Paul Duminy, with the accomplished Boucher providing the late impetus. The loss of early wickets meant the the South African's could not attack the spinners as much as they would have liked to. Yuvraj Singh proved effective at the death and thwarted any South African hopes of a late surge of outrageous proportions.

When India batted, Tendulkar and Ganguly made great use of the easier conditions (compared to the first ODI) in the late afternoon. Tendulkar felt confident enough to unleash his horizontal bat shots against the South African pacemen, while Ganguly contributed gamely, inspite of being limited to the premeditated cover drive and some lofted strokes of the off spinner Tshabalala. This is the crucial difference between Ganguly and Sehwag - Ganguly seems to have the ability to ride tough situations unlike Sehwag and even when it is clear that his technique has been exposed, it is always apparent that he has a desperate desire to survive. Ganguly's errors are purely technical and not temperamental - unlike Sehwag, who has acquired a self-destructive streak in his recent ODI play. A mini collapse followed Ganguly's dismissal and it was left to India's best ODI finisher ever to see them home. We saw evidence of Yuvraj's steely temperament, where in even though he was not able to get the ball off the square, he stuck it out, even though it meant that an asking rate which was less than 5 twelve overs out, mounted to over 7 in the last 3 overs. In terms of the run rate, it was not a difficult run chase. South Africa lacked the Shoaibesque wicket taking menace which is required by bowling sides in circumstances where the run rate is a non-factor.

Today's game confirmed my pre-series observation that the South African batting is a bit thin and that India would find it possible to secure a hard fought victory. If the side chasing wins again in the third game, it may not offer any real indication of the relative merits of the two teams. Let's hope that the side batting first is able to win in the third game - that side, can say with confidence that it was the better team. More than a result, one hopes that both sides are able to pick the final elevens from fully fit and healthy squads. Reports yesterday indicated that some South African players have caught the flu bug as well.

Dale Steyn and Santhakumaran Sreesanth will add a new dimension to the third ODI. Lets hope they can make it. In the meanwhile, just sit back and wonder about 15,000 ODI runs - 11,927 of those as opener (another record he might approach quite soon - 12,000 runs as opener!), and 18 years of pure magic.... :)

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Wimbledon - From Sampras to Federer

These are the most important 8 minutes in modern mens Tennis. The great Pete Sampras playing Roger Federer in 4th Round in 2001. Also see this comparison between the careers of the two champions....

India v South Africa - 1st ODI Review

South Africa won the first ODI of the strangely named "Future Cup" at Belfast today. At the start of the day, India didn't know what their final eleven was going to be, and they were not spoilt for choice. It was a matter of finding eleven players fit enough to play - and i say fit enough, not fit. In the end, they took field with 2 left arm seamers, an off spinner and a rookie leg spinner, in conditions where they would have fielded if they'd won the toss keeping in mind the conditions.

India lost the toss and were put into bat, and even though Pollock wasn't playing, the South Africans still had a fairly strong (and more importantly - deep) seam bowling line up - Nel, Ntini, Langevelt, Hall and Kallis who average 27,23,29,25 and 31 respectively with the ball in ODI cricket (consider that india's best bowler Zaheer Khan averages 28). In addition, they had the debutant Vernon Philander, who also bowls seam up. Sourav Ganguly was dropped by Kallis second ball, but with his leaden footed play, it was a question of when and not if he would be dismissed. Gambhir followed suit, and while Tendulkar was also getting beaten, atleast he seemed to display a better technique (and hence possibly gave himself a better chance of surviving). Dravid joined Tendulkar and the two ground out the bowling. Eventually their class came through, and by the time Dravid had begun to throw his bat, they added 158 in 32 overs. Thereafter, wickets were lost at the wrong time, and India ended up about 20 runs short of where they ought to have been after finding themselves at 204/3 in 45 overs on a smallish ground.

With two seam bowlers, it was imperative that both put in flawless performances, and that didn't happen. The South African reply was a function of there being no real bowling threat that India could offer. It was left to the spinners to bring India back into the game. Without wickets with the new ball (de Villiers fell to an ordinary delivery), it was always going to be an uphill task. In the end, the South Africans made slightly heavy weather of what ought to have been a straightforward run chase keeping in mind the quality of the bowling - that can be put down to the fact that they don't seem to play spin bowling as well as some of the other teams.

Much will be made of how Jacques Kallis played a match winning hand and his Indian counterparts - Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar didn't, but the quality of bowling Kallis had to face ought to be noted. Kallis faced only 29 balls (out of his 116) from RP and Zaheer in conditions which suited those two, and was allowed to score on the leg side a dozen times. The rest of his innings involved facing spin bowlers (part timers and rookies included) to spread out fields. Is it any wonder that the South Africans completed the run chase?

With Sreesanth, Agarkar and Dhoni playing, India might have had a chance. As it happened, some fighting batting went in vain. This was Tendulkar's 6th 50+ score in his last 12 ODI innings. It was Dravid's 8th 50+ score in his last 15 ODI innings. Clearly, the pressing problems lie elsewhere. With must win games coming up, India must hope that the squad will get over illness issues as quickly as possible (may be they could mingle with the South Africans a bit - pass some of the flu over to their camp :) ).

Tendulkar is likely to face a lot of short pitched questions in England this summer. Batsmen can have many weaknesses, but somehow, being found out by short pitched bowling is a killer one - because it brings into question guts, temperament and all sorts of other issues, even if you are Sachin Tendulkar. In Tendulkar, we will see a great player this summer grappling with something that is a problem - and he will be more acutely aware of it than anybody else. You will see technical adjustments, tactical decisions (he may eschew the hook shot all together) and in general, a studious attempt to cope with the problem. It will also bring plenty of questions about final and irreversible decline. The murmurs have already begun. Not all murmurs will be as graceful as that one though.

The lack of quality in the bowling in the meanwhile, will go unnoticed. Time and again this reality is exposed into plain sight. Its a strange situation - the batsmen are genuinely top class and everyone is waiting for their next failure so they can pan then..... while the bowlers are only moderately good and maddeningly inconsistent (because they are ordinary), and get decent press. In a queer sort of way, i guess the press and the public do accept that the Indian bowling line up isn't very good.

You may not see victory in Belfast, but you sure will see fight... the question is, can you identify it without getting washed over by the lack of success?

Saturday, June 23, 2007

A Commentary error on Cricinfo

This is Cricinfo's description of Tendulkar's early dismissal in todays game against Ireland:

0.6 Whelan to Tendulkar, OUT, got 'em! Whelan you beauty! The debutant follows up the freebie with a full delivery outside off stump that nips through Tendulkar as he flicks across the line, what a wicket for the young Irish bowler in his first over
SR Tendulkar b Whelan 4 (3b 1x4 0x6) SR: 133.33

I don't know what the cricinfo commentator was watching, but that was a straight full ball very much in line with the stumps, which Tendulkar tried to play too square, too early in his innings and missed. There is little argument that he ought not to have missed it - but the commentator in question here is probably well versed with the "Tendulkar vulnerable to ball nipping back from outside off stump" theory - so much so that he fell prey to it purely because Tendulkar was bowled!

Tendulkar opened the batting - a sign that he is moving back up the order keeping in mind the fact that the ball will do a bit early in the innings in England. Its an interesting insight into Rahul Dravid's frame of mind - the cautious policy of holding Tendulkar back to control the middle order is being discarded.

Friday, June 22, 2007

ICC emulates BCCI - Punitive Action against Match Officials in the World Cup Final

The International Cricket Council today took a leaf out of BCCI's book and punished its crack team of match officials, who officiated in the World Cup Final at Kensington Oval in Bridgetown, Barbados for the next ICC event - the Twenty20 World Cup. The match officials made a mistake by discussing the possibility of having to complete the game the next day, once bad light had stopped play with Sri Lanka needing 63 to win of 18 balls with their last pair in. The playing conditions for the World Cup, if followed correctly, would have meant that at this point, the match would be awarded to Australia, as the required 20 overs had been bowled in the Sri Lankan innings.

This is just like the Indian team selected to go to Bangladesh - some players dropped, a 'young' team selected, only for the dropped 'senior players' to return for an ODI series against Ireland and South Africa. The irony of the ICC appointment is that these 5 official - Referee Jeff Crowe, match umpires Steve Bucknor and Billy Bowden, the reserve umpires Rudi Koertzen and Aleem Dar, would still be available for all international cricket between today and the ICC Twenty20 World Championships! So they are considered good enough to stand in Test matches and One Day internationals, but are not good enough to stand in a Twenty20 game. Does that even begin to make any sense??? Also, they deplete the ICC's pool of umpires precisely when it is most needed - in a tournament where games come thick and fast.

Malcolm Speed offered the following pearls on this issue: "It would have been easy to let sleeping dogs lie and pretend nothing happened,........... But the reality is that the playing control team made a serious and fundamental error that caused the final of our flagship event to end in disarray and confusion." The irony of this comment was clearly on him - the CEO of the ICC which conducted its "flagship" event so poorly, that it is being called the worst ever World Cup.

Like the BCCI after India's World Cup no show, the ICC finds itself on the defensive. And like the BCCI did in response, the ICC hits out at the easiest targets - umpires who misinterpreted the playing conditions in the World Cup final. While we're at it, lets consider how silly the playing conditions themselves were. The stipulation was that while a reserve day would be available for a match, it would be used only if a "match" could not be "completed" on the originally scheduled day. A "match" was said to have been "completed" if atleast 20 overs of the second innings had been bowled.

Now consider the following situation: Suppose Sri Lanka had need 30 runs in 18 balls, with 3 wickets in hand, and had been say 3 runs behind on duckworth-lewis when bad light stopped play (while it is the batting side which usually determines whether play actually stops, the umpires can and have in the past stopped play if they deem it to be dangerous to the fielding side). Or - what if it had rained at this point in the game? The playing conditions would have stipulated that Australia be declared the winners, and then the same commentators, (lead at the time by Mark Nicholas) would have yelled and screamed at the ICC for having stupid playing conditions.

The fact remains that Ricky Ponting's Australians (who are no strangers to winning), jumped the gun and began their usual war dance, the moment the Sri Lankan's accepted the offer for bad light. This was bad behaviour - even unsportsmanlike conduct if you really wanted to be straightforward. The match had not been awarded to them at that point. It was a bit like celebrating an LBW decision before it has been given! This doubtless contributed to the confusion.

Yet, the ICC, instead of conducting a comprehensive review of the situation which would have involved studying the conduct of the players, the playing conditions, the umpires behaviour and numerous other events and actually learning something from the fiasco, simply seem to have engaged in assigning blame, the end result of which is that India and South Africa will play in an ODI series shortly, where two of the umpires - Aleem Dar and Billy Bowden, are not deemed good enough by the ICC to be umpiring in their forthcoming Twenty20 Championship.

The only difference between ICC and BCCI is that ICC's decisions are declared and explained in articulate, grammatically and politically correct English, while the BCCI's are communicated by amateur spokesmen in poor English. The content is the same. The inconsistency of the ICC is quite glaring - in that they only punish people when they make highly visible mistakes in high profile events.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

India v South Africa ODI Series Preview

India play South Africa in 3 ODI's in England - their first ODI committment of any note after the 2007 World Cup (Bangladesh are still minnows, who nowadays achieve the odd upset). The squads are as follows -

India: Rahul Dravid(c), MS Dhoni (vc), Ajit Agarkar, Gautam Gambhir, Sourav Ganguly, Dinesh Karthik, Zaheer Khan, Piyush Chawla, Ramesh Powar, Rohit Sharma, Rudra Pratap Singh, Shanthakumaran Sreesanth, Sachin Tendulkar, Robin Uthappa, Yuvraj Singh.

South Africa: Jacques Kallis (c), Mark Boucher, AB de Villiers, Jean-Paul Duminy, Hershelle Gibbs, Andrew Hall, Charl Langevelt, Justin Kemp, Andre Nel, Makhaya Ntini, Vernon Philander, Dale Steyn, Thandi Tshabalala, Morne Van Wyk

On paper, the South African batting looks thin, with only Kallis, Gibbs, de Villiers, Kemp and Duminy playing as specialist batsmen, supported by Boucher and Hall. Langevelt, Ntini, Steyn, Hall, Kallis, Philander form the fast attack, while Tshabalala is the great South African off-spinning hope. It is a typical South African team - the sort Duncan Fletcher, with his two skills thumb rule might have been delighted with. Fitness permitting, the South Africans will have 8 certainties in their line up - Kallis, de Villiers, Gibbs, Kemp, Boucher, Ntini, Steyn and Nel.

At the heart of the Indian side are Dravid, Tendulkar Ganguly, Dhoni, Yuvraj, Zaheer and Sreesanth. The other four slots are up for grabs. Dinesh Karthik and Rohit Sharma will contest the middle order slot, while Gambhir and Uthappa will contest the other opening slot, for the privilege of walking out to bat with Sourav Ganguly. Ramesh Powar is likely to get the nod for the spinner's slot, while RP Singh and Ajit Agarkar are the options for the third seamers slot. This will be a difficult choice, for Agarkar is India's most successful ODI bowler ever, while RP Singh has had a good tour of Bangladesh, and has also been selected for the Test tour.

This is a small ODI series, played for the same reason that all off-shore ODI series series are played. Morocco, Kenya, Kuala Lumpur, Sharjah and now Belfast. For India though, it is an important short series. A good effort here (a series victory), would be very useful from the point of view of the Test matches against England. Even though there can be no comparison between Test and ODI cricket, and the wicket in Belfast may have its peculiarities like most other offshore venues which might decide the ODI games, India need confidence right now. Beating South Africa outside the subcontinent would be a confidence boosting effort. Making runs against the South Africans, especially Steyn, Ntini and Nel would be good preparation for facing the tall English bowlers.

Belfast will be the 98th venue at which Sachin Tendulkar will appear in an international match. When you consider that ODI and Test cricket, in the 130 years that it has been in existence, has been played at a total of 156 venues in all, this says something about the man and his era. India will also be the first international side in many many years to undertake a major international tour without a cricket head coach. It is also the first time they undertake a major international tour with specialist fielding and bowling coaches. England is no longer unfamiliar territory for our cricketers. Almost every member of the squad has played cricket in England before, be it Tests, ODIs, County Cricket, League Cricket, A team cricket or age-group matches. For Sachin Tendulkar and Anil Kumble, this is their 5th tour of England after 1990, 1996, 1999 (World Cup) and 2002. Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly have been on all those tours except the 1990 tour. VVS Laxman was in England in 2002, as was Zaheer Khan.

The South Africans are no strangers to England either. Will the conditions give them an advantage? Conventional wisdom would suggest that this is so. I am not certain, especially given the lack of batting depth in the South African line up (Boucher and Hall could smash some quick runs and prove me wrong of course). Even though the South Africans reached the World Cup semi finals, i would give India the edge - if only because Shaun Pollock is absent.

I predict a hard fought victory for the Indians against South Africa. Before that however, they take on the Irish (beat Pakistan and Bangladesh in World Cup 2007). This is the second time that a major team will have played four consecutive matches against minnow nations. The first instance also featured India when they fielded an understrength side in a triangular against Bangladesh and Kenya (they did not win all games on the occasion - Maurice Odumbe managed to beat them at Gwalior). The Ireland match is a slippery beginning to the tour, not unlike the opener against Bangladesh in the World Cup, even though elimination is not an issue.

As Yuvraj Singh noted, it is important that India start well.....

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Inzamam interrogated.. a disgusting spectacle..

Inzamam Ul Haq, a great batsman and one of Pakistan's more successful leaders, who brought some stability to Pakistan cricket after it had been disrupted by 9/11 more fundamentally than any other thing could (teams were refusing to even play in Pakistan), faces an interrogation which would be deemed offensive in any civil discourse. The subjects are usual laundry list of drivel that is propogated in the subcontinent. and Inzamam sadly is too nice and too courteous to tell the interviewer exactly where to go..... i can imagine what Rahul Dravid might have done in the face of similar questions. It is a glimpse into what every TV channel in India must have been itching to do after the world cup.

I have nothing against accountability, and i definitely have nothing against straight talk and tough questions, but in my view when such an interview is planned, it is incumbent upon the interviewer to have an understanding of cricket. This particular interviewer displays complete ignorance, and merely seems content to hurl the accusations of the loudest sections of the public at former Pakistan captain.

I don't know if it is the theme of this show to be rude (a bit like Ryan Seacrest on American Idol or his assorted clones (a good word for Anu Malik :) ) on Indian Idol), but seriously - this is no laughing matter.

inzi 1
Uploaded by badar2

inzi 2
Uploaded by badar2

I hope this never comes to pass with an Indian captain.

A great ode to Monty Panesar...

I found this on Youtube... its terrific.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Thought leadership.... Open Source Cricket......

G Rajaraman questions Sunil Gavaskar's role in BCCI Office, and makes a fine point about conflict of interest. Sunil Gavaskar has in the past and even recently used information available to him due to his official position on BCCI committees in his newspaper columns. Yet, he seems to command tremendous respect at BCCI. Gavaskar is not alone. Most of our articulate cricketers - Gavaskar, Shastri, Manjrekar, Arun Lal, Bedi, Sidhu (articulate is the wrong word for him!) and many others make their living in the press, either by television contracts or by writing newspaper columns. The ability to articulate is important, indeed i would say it is a central and non-negotiable requirement for anyone seeking to study and then describe problems and solutions for our cricket. My intention here is not to deride any of our less articulate cricketers, but to point out, that when it comes to developing any system, communication is key - something they are not very good at.

BCCI as an organization, inspite of its enormous financial wealth is beholden to successful ex-India cricketers, because the involvement of these cricketers gives it legitimacy, apart from providing the best available source of cricketing know how in India. Yet, BCCI does not hire these individuals full time, because they can not and ought not to match ESPN and/or any other news organization when it comes to salaries. In today's age, articulate ex-cricketers are worth their weight in gold, and they know it. A work around therefore is necessary, in order to harness the strengths of our time - plenty of ex-cricketers who have opinions and know how, articulate current cricketers, the internet, enormous amount of public interest and an upcoming BCCI website - to address the weaknesses of our time - lack of apparent initiative, name calling in the press, discussion about cricket being limited to the assignment of praise or blame, and BCCI's poor public profile.

The best possible launching content for the BCCI website would be a wiki to be developed by the likes of Gavaskar et al. where they address (through columns, notes, questions, researched responses to questions) specific issues - such as the selection of the coach, the future of ranji trophy cricket, BCCI support for local cricket, upkeep of the maidans of Bombay and other cities, coaching, fitness etc. etc. etc. - this will enable communication of the best ideas, on a forum which the public can see - which won't require wasteful committee meetings which use up a lot of each individuals time and do not allow very effective discussion.

The electoral process, which forms the basis of BCCI, is conducive to deal making, not collaborative work. Committees are instituted so that the resulting solution will be the better than one proposed by any single individual. These committees could work virtually, whats more, the work of the committee could be viewed by by others in a non-intrusive manner. This would enable constructive discussion - far more efficiently than meeting once every 5 months in a 5 star hotel can. What will happen then, is that there will be less scope for the press to speculate, and less blind name calling. Everything would be on the table.

It would also enable the most articulate minds in India to express themselves profitably, without clashing with their other more lucrative commitments. I would in fact go further and enable these individuals as well as members of the national team to write blogs..... but that is for the future.... :). Transcripts of selection committee meetings could be posted online as well.

The BCCI's problem is putting together information and communicating it effectively. This they can do very effectively by making it visible from the source. I suspect it might be their best hope when it comes to "tackling the media" as well. It might clips the press's wings, because TV channels might get fewer "scoops", but good journalism will still thrive. Loaded commentary (my pet hate - that note by Anand Vasu :) ) will be shown up for what it is (if his view is borne out, then that will be revealed as well).

Furthermore, this would be an originally Indian solution to the issue - and thus would be something where the BCCI would be a leader, rather than being a rich follower which it is at the moment. Gavaskar's main wish, that we ought to do things our way (there is plenty of merit to this position in my view), will have been met.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Sir Ian Terence Botham

Cricket being mainly a commonwealth sport, with many cricketing nations accepting the British Monarch as their head of state (Australia, New Zealand, many of the Caribbean Islands), means that many distinguished cricketers are recognized by the Queen of England with a Knighthood. Cricinfo provides a list of Cricketing Knights. Bradman was the first Cricketer to be knighted for his efforts as a player. Ian Botham is the latest player to join this select group. He becomes the 5th Englishman to be knighted for his services to cricket after Jack Hobbs, Len Hutton, Colin Cowdrey and Alec Bedser. Bedser and Hadlee are the only bowlers to be knighted.

Indeed, it would be possible to build a brilliant team of Cricketing Knights, it would read something like this -

Sir Len Hutton
Sir Jack Hobbs
Sir Donald Bradman
Sir Vivian Richards
Sir Everton Weekes
Sir Frank Worrell
Sir Clyde Walcott (wk)
Sir Gary Sobers
Sir Ian Botham
Sir Richard Hadlee
Sir Alec Bedser

Lord Cowdrey would be 12th man. The side would be a bit thin in the bowling department, but with that kind of batting (and Sir Conrad Hunte joining Lord Cowdrey on the bench), there is little danger of this side losing too many Test Matches. The Queen of England has chosen a great squad!

Gideon Haigh - Odd Men In.....

Abe Bailey, Roy Marshall, Ajit Wadekar, Charlie Blythe, Archie Maclaren, Vincent van der Bijl, Errol Hunte, Ewen Chatfield, Bob Fowler, Dennis Amiss, Dilip Doshi, Tom Horan, Ken Farnes, Dr. Harry Owen Rock, Bruce Mitchell, Roy Fredericks, Fred Root, Bert Ironmonger, Wasim Raja - all Cricket men - subjects of the finest cricket column in the world in recent times. Gideon Haigh' Odd Men In, discontinued because Haigh decided to work on a book on the 2006-07 Ashes (see All Out) was about cricketers who don't figure in normal dinner table discussion about cricket. I hope he revives that column. It must be infinitely more rewarding to write that, than to focus ones attention full time on the Ashes, only to watch Steve Harmison bowl the first ball to third slip and England hammered 5-0. In fact, i want him to revive this column so badly, that i even have a list of cricketers he might consider writing about -

Mark Ramprakash, Sadanand Vishwanath, Chetan Chauhan, Glenn Turner, Colin Milburn, Mohinder Amarnath, Gilbert Jessop, Majid Khan, Stan McCabe, Vinoo Mankad, Syed Mushtaq Ali, Colin Ingelby-Mackenzie........ there are many more for Haigh to bring to life.....

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Dissecting an editorial comment.....

Cricinfo's associate editor Anand Vasu has written a commentary on the selection of the Indian Cricket team for the upcoming tour of England (See Too Many holes). The article is worth a second look.

The article begins with the usual lament about the opening batting and fast bowling - "And so, India will set out to play three Tests against England with an opening combination untested in those conditions and a fast bowling attack desperately short on experience" - Lets consider the evidence on this one. Kapil apart, the 1990 touring squad had little fast bowling "experience" (the same can be said of the 1986 side, and that one beat England 2-0), the 1996 squad had Srinath and Prasad, both greenhorns at that point, the 2002 squad had Nehra and Zaheer - again, greenhorns with zero 5 wicket hauls to their name. The story in 2007 is actually much better - Sreesanth is the most promising fast bowler in living memory who bowled superbly in South Africa, including a match-winning haul, and Zaheer is returning to England after taking the highest number of wickets in the 2006 county season after the veteran Pakistan spinner Mushtaq Ahmed. Anil Kumble is on his 4th tour of England, and Ramesh Powar has played league cricket and so isn't likely to wrap himself in a sweater and sulk about the cold. When have India gone to England with the 2 W's leading their pace attack? And when have they ever had an opening combination "tested" in those conditions? Is he referring to Sehwag? Later in the article he offers Akash Chopra as an option, allegedly because Chopra is "reliable and technically tight, who has had a decent season in domestic cricket and is currently playing club cricket in England" - the same Akash Chopra who couldn't get past 40 without getting a life and who averages 23 in Test cricket. Now, i have nothing against Chopra, but if a reliable technique brings those results, then i want to know how a reliable technique is defined.

It is difficult to fathom the point of that first salvo from Vasu - ordinarily you would think he was merely stating a well accepted fact - but he follows this up with "On top of that, there's no place for either Virender Sehwag or Harbhajan Singh". Vasu then goes on to whisper that "Inevitably, there will be whispers over how Rahul Dravid, who has openly backed the two in recent selections, has lost out to Dilip Vengsarkar, the chairman of selectors, who has been gunning for them"!! (This is a bit like the "We won't cover Paris Hilton" stories in the American media). This is followed by some apologetic sanity - "They'll now have to make it back to the team on performance in domestic cricket, not merely on reputation, or someone's backing" - not the most straightforward line you will ever hear, but its a relief in this particular note.

This is followed by three paragraphs about Sehwag and Harbhajan Singh - which refer to ODI cricket oddly enough (even though the England squad is a Test squad). Vasu fails to mention Sehwag's increasing troubles against the short ball, the manner of his dismissals in Test cricket, and his struggle especially against England in India last year. Vasu doesn't mention Harbhajan's dismal Test match form starting with the tour to Pakistan in 2006 - his last 7 Tests have fetched 19 wickets at 52.86 and 5 of those have been in the subcontinent and 2 others have been in the West Indies - at Basettere and Kingston. Those 19 wickets include a spell of 5/19 on a minefield at Kingston. May be this information contains a clue about Harbhajan's omission from the Test team to England. But Vasu instead concentrates on ODI's. The next paragraph is about Irfan Pathan and Munaf Patel - about their lack of form and fitness respectively.

Next, Vasu points his pen at the opening batsmen. On Wasim Jaffer, Vasu suggests - "Wasim Jaffer's supporters will point to an average of 35.66, but his scoring pattern, since making a comeback to the team in 2005-06, reads 81, 100, 31, 17, 11, 10, 1, 212, 43, 60, 54, 1, 1, 9, 4, 26, 28, 116, 2, 0, 0, 138*." This is convenient and also wrong, because the string of scores which Vasu provides, when calculated yields a batting average of 45 in 22 innings, with a 50+ score once every 3 innings (7 innings out of 22). The 35.56 is Jaffer's overall batting average and also includes 13 Test innings played by him between 2000 and 2002. Compare this return with that of the great Sunil Gavaskar - he made 79 50+ scores in 214 innings. If Jaffer delivers with the same regularity over 220 innings (i doubt he'll play that many) then he will have 70 50+ scores. Even if he has 55 - 60, he would still be a long way ahead of the next best Indian specialist opener after Gavaskar and Merchant (Navjot Sidhu has 24 50+ scores in his 78 Test innings, 14 of those came in 33 innings in India). What is Vasu going on about? Then comes his bizarre comment about Akash Chopra and Gautam Gambhir - there is no mention of Gambhir's left handedness - such trivial details are of course of no use.

In discussing the opening situation, Vasu delivers his coup de grace (i hope i spelt that right) - "He might just have been a better bet, but then again Indian team selections have not always been made on pure cricketing logic." Even by the hackneyed standards of the rest of Vasu's commentary, this is a ridiculous comment - it suggests that anyone other than Akash Chopra being selected would not reflect sound cricketing logic!

On the selection of Ranadeb Bose, "It's no secret that Bose has been rewarded for taking 57 wickets in the last Ranji season, but what is less well known is that this reward should have come long ago. When the selectors met to pick the 36 probables for the World Cup, in Rajkot, Bose's name was in the list, before last-minute intervention from a senior official, and the choice of venue for the selection meeting, got Cheteshwara Pujara, who too had a good domestic season, a back-door entry as Bose's name was struck off." - Now, please consider the following facts:

Cheteshwar Pujara made 595 runs at 59.5 in the same season in which Ranadeb Bose's performance has allegedly been "rewarded". In addition, Pujara was the top run getter in the Under 19 world cup, and is a fine 19 year old talent. Secondly, there were 30 probables picked and not 36. And thirdly, as Vasu points out elsewhere in this same article - "Bose's selection appears to be one of horses for courses - if he succeeds anywhere he's likely to succeed in England - his style of bowling, steady and straight, a bit of movement but not much pace, might just prove to be cannon fodder for English batsmen brought up on a diet of just this, leave alone the likes of Kevin Pietersen" - Now - think for a moment - Vasu suggests, and reasonably at that that Bose's style of bowling is suitable for England, but is likely to be unexceptional from the point of view of the English batsmen. Lets extend that - wouldn't Bose be pure canon fodder on the flat, hard West Indies wickets, where the bowl wasn't expected to seam and swing ? Yet, a young batsman who has performed well in the Ranji Trophy is condemned by the associate editor of Cricinfo to have been provided with a "back door entry" to the World Cup Probables list, because Vasu chooses to ignore a perfectly reasonable cricket based argument, which he himself makes elsewhere! Im sure with good reason..... If Vasu does have firm information that the "high official" (not hard to guess who) did in fact intervene then i don't see why he can't say so straight. Indeed, it is quite likely that the high official did not "intervene", but his actions were reported to the gullible Vasu as "intervention" (If speculation is what we are indulging in here, then the more the merrier!)

Bear with me for a little bit more, we're coming to the end. Vasu contends that it is hard to see India playing a Test match without a third seamer, and that Ajit Agarkar might have been considered. He ignores RP Singh's selection (RP v Agarkar, relatively untested young bowler vs proven failure in Test cricket - make your choice - keep in mind the impressive pace Singh worked up in the ridiculously oppressive conditions in Bangladesh recently).

Vasu ends his article with a typical canard - "but this is due as much to the fact that the cupboard in domestic cricket is a bit bare at the moment, as to the fact that captain and selector aren't always seeing things eye to eye." - He is talking about two individuals with over 100 Tests experience each. Im almost certain that there has never been a captain who didn't disagree with a selector ever in the history of the game. Consider his final comment about the possibility of India having "carried a couple of passengers" at the end of the tour - this is quite unexceptional, indeed India went through the 2003 World Cup with 12 players and 2 passengers in the end.

If you really think about it, India begin a period of 10-12 months where many players will have the best opportunities of their life to cement their reputations - Jaffer, Sreesanth, Karthik, RP, Dhoni and even Zaheer have the opportunity to make their name with consecutive Test series against England, Pakistan and finally Australia. Some firm messages have been sent by the selectors and a good team has been selected under the circumstances. The decision to retain Robin Singh and Venkatesh Prasad is a sound one, and points to a desire to not disrupt the team management too much in the absence of a full time coach. Chandu Borde has been asked to do the same job that Ravi Shastri did, and there are several good things that can come out of this whole thing.

With commentaries like Vasu's, who needs critics though....

PS: I don't expect Mr. Vasu to ever read this, but if he does - my apologies to him. It is his writing that i have found it necessary to comment on.I have not referred to him getting back door entries anywhere, neither have i offered any opinions about him being "rewarded" for anything. I just wonder - when he has a disagreement with a colleague, and finds that the other colleague's opinion prevails, does he "lose out" or does he ever concede the point? He seems to find it impossible that the Indian captain might have in good faith changed his mind about Sehwag and Harbhajan Singh - and conceded the point to the selectors that they did not merit a place in the Test squad to England. In Vasu's book, the captain has to "lose out".

He's not the only one losing out here....

Indian Test and ODI Team to England

The Indian Test and ODI squad for the tour of England and Ireland (im not making this up, thats what this tour is called) is in my view one of the most interesting Test team selections in a long time. Selection decisions ought to be judged based not on who you or I may think needs to be in the side, but based on whether a selection makes sense based on other current criteria.

The major points of interest here were the fates of Harbhajan, Sehwag and Irfan Pathan. The most surprising selection, or non-selection, was that of Munaf Patel. This is possibly the first time in the history of our cricket, that a player has been omitted from a squad purely because of fitness issues - purely because he didn't inspire confidence that he could get through 3 Test matches without getting injured. This must be why he wasn't picked, because Mr. Shah suggested that Munaf and Zaheer were both available for the England tour. I half expect Munaf to be picked as replacement for one of the bowlers, given the tendency of our fast bowlers to break down. Ranadeb Bose is a fine selection - he's had the finest season by any fast bowler in domestic cricket in living memory. Ishant Sharma, based on his efforts in Bangladesh, appears to be a medium pacer (the conditions ought not to be a good argument, for RP Singh produced terrific nippy spells in similar conditions), and seems to be a long term investment.

Sehwag, Harbhajan and Irfan not being picked is more a case of there not being enough evidence to pick them than anything else. One Day exhibition games are hardly the best arena for being seriously tested. There can be little argument against their omission - 200 Test wickets and a Test batting average of 50 notwithstanding. The selection of Gautam Gambhir for both Test and ODI (to Ireland) squads is a bit puzzling. Him being a left hander possibly worked in his favor. For now it looks as though Dinesh Karthik and Wasim Jaffer will do the job. Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar have a long summer ahead of them. Sourav Ganguly gets yet another opportunity to fill his boots against minnow opposition in Ireland. His selection, along with Tendulkar's for the Ireland ODI is two spots wasted - there is little doubt that both will play. Typically, the only area where a surplus of talent is available is the middle order.

Sehwag, Harbhajan and Munaf Patel on reputation, experience and in the case of Patel, current quality, ought to walk into the Indian Test side. Yet they find themselves on the sidelines, because they have - on form and in the case of Patel on fitness - created a situation where lesser options who may be in better form (or willing to be in better form) and options who are more likely to get through a full series (such as Bose - who bowled for a full season without breaking down) have been preferred. For this, they have themselves to blame.

The only selection which might hurt India in England is the omission of Virendra Sehwag, for he has been over the last 3-4 years, been a genuine match-winner. But the verdict on him is out - you can't bat like he does, with the carelessness that he does and repeatedly be dismissed in the same manner, and not do anything about it and still continue to get selected in the Indian side with whatever success rate that may result. Sehwag was first denied the cream and jelly tour of Bangladesh - which indicated that there was little chance of him returning for the England Tests. I suspect that he will return for the England ODI 's because in ODI cricket, there is a case for his selection given his talents with both bat and ball. It is a case Rahul Dravid has made quite passionately in recent times. I have little doubt that he will do so again.

This is a consistent selection - it reveals the strengths and weaknesses of the Indian squad. The only remaining spot is that of the coach. :)

Monday, June 11, 2007

England beat West Indies, Graham Ford stays at Kent.....

Inspite of Shivnaraine Chanderpaul's terrific unbeaten hundred, England beat the West Indies by 60 runs to retain the Wisden Trophy at Old Trafford. On a wicket, which started out being a quick wicket (Alistair Cook suggested it was quicker than any of the wickets in Australia during the Ashes), and later, by all accounts eased out a little bit, the West Indies played terrific cricket in the third and fourth innings, and in the end were left ruing the shambolic collapse in the first innings. But for that loss of 6 wickets for 13 runs at the end of the second day, West Indies might have found themselves leveling the series. There is much comment about Darren Ganga being a fine find for the West Indies as a replacement for the luckless Sarwan, and one hopes that he is able to stay in the job for a while. The West Indies badly need some stable leadership at the moment, because they clearly do not lack talent.

England for their part seem to have become increasingly comfortable with using Panesar as an attacking spin bowling option. The preference for Giles seems to have gone with Duncan Fletcher and Monty Panesar has shown his worth. All that was needed for Panesar to be useful, was the opportunity to bowl. His Test average has dropped below 30 for the first time and he has now taken 59 Test wickets. By English standards, that makes him an established Test spin bowler. The return to form of Steve Harmison, promising an end to the "debilitating madness" that seemed to have engulfed this explosive pace man (a genuinely quick one at that) does not augur too well for India. Flintoff in all likely hood will miss the Tests against India, and Hoggard is in doubt. Harmison's return to form is a much needed boost for England. If the West Indies batting effort is anything to go by, India should do quite well in England with the bat. Harmison and Panesar will be the biggest threats.

In other news, Graham Ford chose to stay with Kent, leaving the Indian quest for a national team coach high and dry - and without any candidates at that! Lets hope that Ford's decision gets BCCI to sit up and take notice that they need to move away from this coach obsession, find suitable a candidate to replace Ravi Shastri and continue with the Cricket Manager idea. I think that the problem areas for this current Indian line up are well known in batting, bowling as well as fielding, and it is not rocket science to build a list of these areas, and then go about finding the best possible person to implement regimes to address these issues. It it means hiring 3 specialist coaches, then thats the way to go. For starters, the committee ought to meet with the "senior" players (a category which arises whenever there are no known authors of any idea allegedly emanating from the Indian Cricket team), and find out why they were keen on Graham Ford. If this cannot be articulated by Rahul Dravid (he definitely falls in the category of "senior" player), then it is clearly not worth pursuing the team for its opinion.

Contrary to what BCCI says, what they are looking for is a messiah - someone to hide behind - whether he is outspoken or less outspoken is merely a matter of window dressing. Graham Ford has rejected such a position.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Rafael Nadal makes it three in a row...

The story of Tennis in the post Sampras era has centered around the dominance of Roger Federer and his precise, measured style of brilliance. At Roland Garros however, Rafael Nadal has shown that he is the undisputed King. Not since Thomas Muster proved unbeatable on clay for a year or two in the late 1990's has a single player dominated clay court tennis as Nadal has. Sergi Bruguera did with consecutive French Opens, but Nadal holds the world record of most consecutive wins on clay - beating Guilermo Vilas's record of 53 straight wins which stood for 29 years. He is number 2 in the world purely because the World's Number One player right now, is possibly the greatest ever in history. Roger Federer has featured in every men's grand slam final since Wimbledon 2005, and has won 6 out of 8 finals - both defeats coming in Paris. From the French Open on, Roger Federer has won both remaining Grand Slams for 3 years in a row.

Nadal is Kumble to Federer's Shane Warne.... tennis does not have a murali :)

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Graham Ford - India Coach

Graham Ford has won the approval of the 7 member committee to select the Coach of the Indian Cricket Team. Ford, who formerly coached South Africa and Kent was chosen ahead of former England Captain John Emburey for the job.

And so, what Rahul Dravid wished for, has come to pass. The BCCI duly went through the motions of picking a coach - this also confirms that

a. There aren't too many good options, even internationally, for the job.
b. There aren't any option in India for the job
c. There is very little expertise in India about making a choice for the job outside the national team.
d. Nobody really knows what the job involves.

The only stipulation in the selection seems to have been that the coach would have to be a low profile, behind-the-scenes, back room bloke who will run the team like a bureaucrat rather than like a leader. This in itself is a good thing - but there is obviously no assessment of what a coach is supposed to do. Coaching, like selection seems to be a very difficult job - and in Cricket, there isn't 100 years of know how to fall back on. Coaching as a job is only about 20 years old (if we consider that the role of the modern coach was first described by the appointment of Bobby Simpson as Australia's coach).

Somewhere, off the field, someone needs to emerge as a leader for India - the way Simpson was for Australia. Until then, we will get decisions like Graham Ford - safe decisions, made by committee - decisions designed to retain the status quo, or at best achieve unintended incremental achievement. If simple questions are asked:

1. Why has the new coach being appointed?
2. What are the lessons from the Wright and Chappell appointments?
3. Why does the team have such a huge say in this matter?
4. Why are Sunil Gavaskar's opinions considered "influential" inspite of the fact that he offers no coherent arguments to support his positions?
5. Why is there no attempt to build up expertise and have coaches taking up positions in domestic teams and building up reputations?
6. Why are coaches from Bombay, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Bengal, Baroda, Delhi, Railways etc. not in contention for the national job?

The whole "process" occurs in a vacuum if you will. The Indian Cricket Team is an accident which is incidentally run by the BCCI, which is constituted by regional cricket associations. Cricketers chosen for the national team do not emerge from Ranji Trophy Cricket. They emerge separately and pay mere lip service, much the same way that Ranji did to early attempts at building an Indian Test team. Therefore, there are no reasons or rationales to be found in anything that happens with reference to the national team. It is truly the product of various committees and little else.

Graham Ford and the national team will stay afloat, because there is enough competence and quality to be found in the team, in the coaching staff and the selection committee to keep the national team afloat and the money flowing in. Who is BCCI's Cricket boss - the ostensible go to man for this apparatus? As far as i know, such an entity is mythical and resides in part in Sharad Pawar, Niranjan Shah, Lalit Modi and other apparatchiks of the Working Committee (the sum total of Cricketing acumen of the members of the working committee compares unfavorably with that of say Ali Bacher). Ultimately, there is nobody who runs Cricket in India. To tell you the truth though - there is no Cricket in India that needs "running".

We need in India a high profile, rigorous, domestic competition. The national team needs to emerge from this. Right now, its a bit like the famous IIT's in India - centrally instituted world class technology schools which have no relevance to the cities they reside in - contribute nothing to these cities, and recieve nothing from these cities. Yet they have neighbors in these cities who could use their help and who could in turn contribute plenty to these schools - the quality of both would benefit. In the case of IIT's for that to be feasible, there need to be 50 IIT's and not just 6 - and they need to teach not just technology but the liberal arts, the law, the fine arts are other disciplines and subjects.

Similarly, the Indian Cricket team needs to feed off the Ranji Trophy and the gulf between the national team and the Ranji Trophy needs to narrow. In Cricket, unlike in the case of the IIT's (which had an effective governing agency within the Central Government), this gap will narrow, if not with the Ranji Trophy standards being raised, then with the national team standards dropping. Already - there is no sign of the successors to Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly and Laxman - all of them are 34 years old - they will definitely retire within a year or so of each other. Unless other brilliant talent emerges and is tested (for which the testing ground needs to be of quality), they will leave behind a deep gaping hole in the inside, a breach which most other Test teams will exploit mercilessly. Graham Ford will be able to do nothing about it.

The appointment of Graham Ford is a little bit like the appointment of a new bureaucrat to a position by a government - the rationale as in the case of bureacratic appointments appears mysterious, and yet seems to work - but there are inherent limitations which narrow the scope of the appointment. All in all it is a very safe process - to be repeated every couple of years.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Michael Vaughan - England's Ganguly....

When Michael Vaughan was selected for the South Africa tour of 1999-2000, his first class batting average was in the 30's and like many other cricketers of that generation, he was selected as much for his temperament as he was for his record. It was the beginning of the Duncan Fletcher era and the combative Nasser Hussein had taken the reigns of an England team which had become an embarrassment to its illustrious past.

Vaughan's early years were spent in a side which Hussein and Fletcher were busy forging. They played combative, occasionally cynical cricket. They had some very bad times, but for the most part they competed and were hard to beat. The nucleus of the powerful English side which Vaughan would eventually lead was being laid - especially with the emergence of some exciting fast bowlers to replace the ageing Gough and Caddick. When India toured in 2002, that English team was in embryo - Simon Jones made his Test debut against India at Lord's, Steve Harmison and the new look Andrew Flintoff also played in that series. Vaughan emerged that summer as a superb authoritative batsman. He was the very antithesis of the typical English cricketer - typically an English cricketer would be mid to late twenties, moderately talented, competent county cricketer being tried at international level - stressing work ethic, steady line and length, manufactured strokes, the "forward-press" and the reverse sweep (Duncan's Fletcher's contribution to batting). English teams were well aware that they couldn't match the opposition on talent - except Vaughan.

The 2002 Englishmen provided the first glimpse that they could and would match any opposition on talent, skills, work ethic..... general ability and compete on equal terms with them. Hussein's combativeness was rooted in an acceptance of his side's inferiority - "we're not as talented, so we'll scrap and we'll fight and occasionally we'll stretch the rules a bit, but we won't give in. We won't play pretty cricket and lose". Michael Vaughan embodied the shift away from this ethos - first at home against India, and then in Australia, where he took on and decimated the world's best bowling attack in very good batting conditions (very few batsmen had achieved that, and even they had done so only sporadically). England were destroyed in Australia that season, and the reason for that, apart from injuries was the Hussein era process - never more apparent than in Hussein's decision to field first at Brisbane.

When the 2003 season arrived, the knives were out for Nasser Hussein (the World Cup in SA had helped) and Vaughan took over from Hussein in the middle of the South African series. By then the English pace attack had matured, and the next three years were brilliant years for England. They hammered everyone in sight, and in Vaughan they had an England captain who played and behaved like the captain of one of the better teams in the world would.

He has an imperious bearing and he is treated like aristocracy in English cricket. He can bat like a prince and averages atleast 10 runs less than he should be averaging in Test cricket. He should be on par with Ponting, but instead find favorable comparison with VVS Laxman. Since that golden run from 2002-2004, he has been in decline and injuries have meant that he didn't play Test Cricket for England for almost 18 months at one point in time. But it is a measure of his standing, that he walked right back into the Test side - that he made a hundred merely confirmed his position in English cricket.

Vaughan has been a transformational figure, much like Ganguly. Like Ganguly, Vaughan has changed how English cricket is viewed - both in England and overseas. He has demanded attention for members of the national squad and gotten it, to the point where people now think matters have gone to the other extreme. Ganguly did the same thing - he backed his players to the end, got BCCI to pay for trainers, physios, coaches, consultants and raised the profile of the Indian cricketer. Vaughan has changed how England play cricket - as Ganguly did with India. The actual results and the actual tactics and strategy aside, the authority which both brought to their respective sides have pushed their respective sides through long standing barriers - for India, it was winning overseas, for England it was about regaining their preminent position amongst the world's cricket teams.

Both have been lucky in terms of the personnel they had had at their command. Ganguly was lucky enough to captain an Indian side with one of the strongest middle orders in Test Cricket (and easily the strongest middle order ever for India), while Vaughan had the benefit of Andrew Flintoff's best years, the emergence of Harmison, Jones and Hoggard and the emergence of Strauss, Bell and a host of fine young batsmen who would have walked into most English teams in the 1990's.

Today when England play - they are invariably the better team on the park (except when they play Australia). Vaughan symbolizes this new attitude. He is the most gifted English batsman i have seen (Pietersen is not an "English" batsman) and he bats in the most un-English way. Indeed, when one sees Vaughan batting, one can possibly see a glimpse of what it must have been like to watch the great English line ups of yore - talented, free flowing batsmen, not over coached, but with sound defense and an air of superior competence.

Like Ganguly, Vaughan has also invited criticism and very few people are indifferent to him - he is either liked or disliked - each with intensity. He is sure of his own place as one of the most important cricketers in the world in this era and he does not refrain from demonstrating this. Rarely has a cricketer so suited the role he is saddled with.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The search for Coachissimo....

Specifications for the perfect coach have been flying thick and fast. Here's a sample from an unnamed source at BCCI - "The search was for somebody with a profile that could fit into India’s scheme of things. Somebody with a reputation and a little background and at the same time, one who would work from behind the scenes". This alleged revelation rivalling many of George W Bush's spectacular Bushisms was reported by Indian Express. Navjot Sidhu, not to be outdone, offered the following (also reported by the Indian Express): "We need an Indian mind for a better coordination with the players".

Now it has been revealed that it is the very English John Emburey and not the feisty Arjuna Ranatunga who is the other "foreigner who has not been named" in the running for the role of coach. Emburey, for 24 years "a model professional" with "a modest Test record" has had a forgettable run as coach. The teams he coached never did better than they were doing before he took over. He was going to coach a Minor Counties side (not even a first class team), when he was asked to take over from Mike Gatting at Lord's. Finally, in the time honoured tradition of getting rid of people by promoting them, he was sacked as coach (Middlesex were relegated in the county championship) and made Director of Cricket at Lord's.

In the meanwhile, the players sought Graham Ford whose mild mannered style and unforgiving focus on fitness allegedly impressed the players. After Tom Moody, Ford is clearly the players choice, and if history may be referred to here, the players have invariably had it their way. All of which suggests that John Emburey is merely making up the numbers - a bit like the other guy on the ballot with Saddam Hussein in one of the many elections in Iraq during the dictator's rule (where Hussein would get 100% of the vote!).

All of this - the bizarre expectations from a coach, the tendency to select the new coach in reaction to the experience with Greg Chappell (and with reference to the experience with Wright), rather than based on any forward looking vision from BCCI - tends to suggest that the new coach is expected to be a messiah. Dav Whatmore's fatal flaw was that he couldn't convince any of the experts on the select committee to select the coach that he could be an effective messiah. BCCI has yet to articulate a coherent vision of where it want's the Indian side to be in say 2010 - the Test Team and the ODI team. Indeed, BCCI doesn't even have a Cricket boss who could possibly articulate this vision. Mr. Modi has taken on Mr. Lele's loud role and while the selection committee situation has definitely improved with Dilip Vengsarkar bringing more than 100 Test matches of experience to the chairmanship, no other changes are discernible.

What we have therefore is a fait accompli where Graham Ford will be appointed coach and everyone else - BCCI, the committee, John Emburey etc. will merely enable his selection. While Ford may ultimately prove to be a fine coach, the complete lack of support for the national side and the national coach means that Ford's tenure, will be crippled from the start. The great debate - indeed the only real debate is about the suitability/unsuitability of an Indian to do the job. The fact of the matter is, that there is not a single Indian ex-cricketer today who can point to credible experience of having coached a professional first class cricket team - except possibly Paras Mhambrey and a few others, who noticeably are not the most loquacious of the India-firsters. Even Emburey is better, because he has atleast tried to coach a first class team and not done too well.

What if im wrong? What if Ford's appointment is not a foregone conclusion? Well - then India will be saddled with a failed first class coach - John Emburey. What if im wrong again? Then the Indian coach will be selected on the eve of the England tour - and as the Indian openers walk out at Lord's, the new coach will probably still be trying to figure out who is who in the Indian dressing room.

BCCI cannot exist only for the Indian Cricket team. Its major focus has to be first class cricket - more first class cricket, higher profile first class cricket - that will enable a credible pool of first class coaches to be built. That will actually amount to something.

Until then - good luck to the new coach - and to his minders...

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Test Openers for India... a lesson about selection.....

Vijay Merchant and Sunil Gavaskar have been possibly the greatest one-off anomalies in the history of cricket - great opening batsmen in a land without fast bowlers and consequently - opening batsmen. It is no surprise that they arrived 30 years apart in a 75 year old history of Indian cricket. The next best opener is Virender Sehwag - yet another freak phenomenon. Look beyond Sehwag and you find Navjot Sidhu and little else. Set your sights lower to batting averages in the late 20' and early 30's, and you will find Srikkanth, Chauhan, Roy, Madhav Apte and Nari Contractor. The other prolific opening batsman for India was Vinoo Mankad - a truly great cricketer. Lesser equals of the versatile Mankad were Ravi Shastri and Manoj Prabhakar. Wicketkeepers were called up to open - right from Navle in the inaugural Test to Dinesh Karthik in recent times. That is a long illustrious list - indeed, India have had more successful wicketkeeper-openers than they have had specialist openers - Navle, Hindlekar, Kunderan, Engineer, Dasgupta and now Karthik - all wicketkeepers, called up to open because they would keep wicket and also bat reasonably well.

In all, of the 50 or so batsmen who have opened the batting for India in Test Cricket, about 14 have been wicketkeepers. Indeed, wicketkeepers have taken up the role more frequently than middle order specialist batsmen. The Indian team has shown greater awareness of history than the press.Playing both Dhoni and Karthik in the same side, is not only bold, it is also not quite as eccentric as it seems. What history also shows is that successful middle order batsmen do not open the batting, for the very good reason that they are too valuable in the middle order. Think of the most successful middle order batsmen in India's history - Hazare, Modi, Umrigar, Manjrekar, Sardesai, Nayadu, Vishwanath, Vengsarkar, Amarnath, Tendulkar, Dravid, Azharuddin and VVS, and you will find that none of them were very useful opening batsmen. They were all quality batsmen, and would have all done a fair job had they taken up that position - but their batting in the middle order has been too important and too valuable to be replaceable.

Is it more useful to have an ordinary specialist opening batsman, or is it more useful to have an opening batsman who can also keep wickets or bowl, and deliver the same 30 run average that an ordinary opener will develop? When Tendulkar was captain in the late 1990's, a move was afoot to bring in Vikram Rathore as opener, provided he would also keep wickets. Ironically, Sunil Gavaskar never opened the batting with a wicket keeper, barring the odd occasion with Farokh Engineer early in his career. For much of Gavaskar's career, Syed Kirmani - possibly the finest of all Indian wicket keepers played as a specialist wicket keeper and strictly lower order bat. If a player is world class in his specialist position, then it makes sense to let him be, unless he wants to do the job (like Sehwag did). I do not believe that VVS is a lesser player because he eventually declined the challenge of opening the batting.

Until then, Dinesh Karthik is India's best bet, and history suggests that there is ample precedent for this type of selection for India's Test team.