Sunday, October 28, 2007

Learning from the Australians...

There has been much talk in the press after the just concluded ODI series in India, about the Australian cricket team and their behaviour. Behaviour is a broad term - everything from comments made by individual players in the press to comments made (allegedly) by them on the field have been the subject of discussion. This is a peculiar relationship - for on the one hand we seem to find nothing good about the Australians, and yet, which is the one team which Indian fans would like India to be like? Australia. Every shortcoming - real or percieved is attributed first to the Indian "system". This is followed by offering the the Australian "system" as an example of how things should be. "They have an assembly line of players", "their system makes them a strong team" - "we should field like the Australians", "we should drop our batsmen and bowlers and replace them with players who can field like the Australians do".... and other refrains are one stop solutions to the "problems" that plague Indian Cricket.

Yet, in terms of behaviour, the "ugly" Australians are not good role models. This seems to become the accepted point of view every time they hammer us (and defeat some of our weaker players in the mind). Our crowds try to impose from the stands what our players cannot with bat and ball. In doing so we end up revealing ourselves in the worst possible light. We end up losing not just the game of cricket, but our self-respect along with it. Andrew Symonds came to India, batted like a God, toyed with the Indian attack and won the series for his team. The best we could offer was a racist taunt in what is supposedly the cricket capital of India. Clearly, the ugliness lies on our side of the boundary rope.

It is my contention that nearly all of the general reactions to the Australians are without basis. The Australians are no better or worse than any other team in terms of on-field behaviour. Their success has little to do with their "system", just as our defeats have little to do with ours. The aspiration to be like the Australians is in my view unrealistic as well, especially if it means looking, behaving and playing like them. The first suggestion is in my view self evident if you accept that winners usually have more to say than losers. Since the Australians win more, they eventually have a better record to defend and therefore have more to say. So when Ponting says that Australia "want to win every game, and will aim to do in India as well" - he's merely stating what is a fairly realistic goal for this Australian side. When his players make pointed observations about the opposition, they put their records on the line, and nearly always back up their words with bat and ball. So they win more, and they say more...... and everybody hates their guts. It doesn't mean they are "ugly" - it means that they are successful.

My second contention probably goes against the grain much more fundamentally. The Australians are a "great" team. Their success is down to this greatness rather than to any method. They are blessed with once in a generation players in atleast 5 different positions - making them a hard team to beat on the best of days. Gilchrist, Ponting, Hayden, McGrath and Warne are all very special players and Australia have been lucky to see them emerge at the same time. The lasting impact of this kind of quality is that other players aspire to be like them. They create models of extraordinary success - breaking new ground and setting new, higher standards. It has happened in India as well. Tendulkar emerged and changed the whole outlook of batting in India - from Gavaskarean orthodoxy (Sandeep Patil and other aggressive batsmen were viewed with less than total favor, even though their talent was beyond question) to a more aggressive model of batsmanship. He pioneered modern one day batting in India and in the last few years, aggressive opening batsmen are dime a dozen.

Do "great" teams emerge from great systems? There is no evidence to suggest this. The great West Indian teams of the 1960's, 1970's and 1980's emerged inspite of the fact that no "West Indian" system existed. Players emerged from their local clubs - raw, ridiculously gifted, hungry for success, and honed their skills in English county and league cricket. Was English county cricket as a system producing great English teams, while it was shaping great West Indian teams and tremendous Pakistani talent? No. The West Indian greatness was down to the extraordinary gifts of a handful of cricketers. They were lucky enough to see these players emerge with regularity for nearly 25 years. When that talent dried up, especially in the fast bowling department - West Indian decline set in. If systems were all that were required to produce "great" cricket teams, then the current English team, with their supremely well honed system should have been atleast as good as the Australians. But they are not - not by a long way. If systems were all that were required to produce quality, then England had no business losing to India (no system whatsoever) this summer, even without Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison. Was Bradman's team of 1948 the product of a "system"? Bradman himself was nearly 40 years old at the time - no "system" would have allowed a 40 year old to captain a cricket team on an important tour.

"Systems" keep teams competitive at best. "Great" teams are the product of great, extraordinary talent. This is what we can learn from the Australians. Australia's lesson to the world is not about "winning" - it is about the wonderful value of talent. India cannot be Australia or Bradman's invincibles or Lloyd's West Indies - those are fake targets. The results India achieve are commensurate with the ability that they possess in their ranks.

Getting riled up about insufferable Australian behaviour is pointless. We can take heart from the fact that it is almost certain that every Australian fast bowler will not be McGrath, that every Australian batsman will not be Ponting and that every Australian wicketkeeper will not be Gilchrist. At the same time we must remember that every Indian batsman will not be Tendulkar. This is what sustains sport and keeps it interesting, especially for those who follow it for its own sake, and not out of any patriotic angst.

Australia will inevitably climb down from their current lofty perch. Will we then claim to want to be like the crack "system" of the post-Australian era? Or will we sit back and enjoy the amazing talent showcased in international cricket, without obsessing about India winning?

Are we missing the whole point of sport by insisting that India should win every time? When this drives us round the bend to the point where we collectively abuse opposition cricketers, does the "passion" show signs of going sour?

If we can begin to address these questions, instead of splitting hair about the legitimacy (or lack thereof) of the Mumbai crowds behaviour, or racism and other such loaded concepts, we might just have learnt the most valuable lesson that the Aussies have to offer.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Cruel Law....

The recently implemented free hit rule drives home the cruelty of the front foot no ball law like nothing else can. The fielding side gets penalized for possibly the only thing which they can not possibly do on purpose - the front foot no ball. High full tosses are no balls, but don't result in free hits. Illegal field placements (more than two fielders behind square on the leg side, or having too many fielders outside the 30 years circle) result in no balls, but no free swings for the batsmen. Yet, the front foot no-ball law, where bowlers fail to "have some part of their foot behind the batting crease", invites the free hit. Why is it penalized? Does it merit this kind of special attention? Or is the law driven by the need for a "free hit", rather than by any real merit (or lack there of) in the front foot no ball?

The front foot no ball law was initiated because it was deemed that bowlers were becoming too strong - that the contest between bat and ball was becoming skewed in favor of the bowler. The original no ball law which dictated that the back foot of the bowler had to land completely behind the popping crease at the bowling end, meant that bowlers with long bowling strides would bowl no-balls nearly every ball (if assessed as per the current law). The chucking problem in the late fifties and the early sixties seems to have initiated a backlash against bowlers which continues to this day. It started with the frontfoot no ball rule, and has since been followed by one day cricket including limited overs per bowler, but not limited overs per batsman, by the bouncer restriction, by covered wickets, by the "danger area", by umpires being given the power to terminate a bowlers efforts in a particular innings if he transgresses too often into the danger area (a batsman cannot be declared out, for the batsman, the harshest penalty is a 5 run penalty to his side) and now, the free hit. The advent of Twenty20 itself is an example of cricket's war on the bowler.

Its a strange dichotomy. Bowlers can win games like batsmen can't - thats how cricket is structured. The only way to win a Test match is to take 20 wickets. In limited overs cricket its possible to win without taking wickets - but any cricketer will tell you that nine times out of ten, taking a wicket is a good thing for the fielding side even there. The contest between bat and ball is built on the value of the wicket - both in terms of taking the game forward, and in terms of deciding the result. Limited overs cricket results in a reduced value of a wicket as compared to a Test match. The free hit rule skews this contest in ways which may not have been anticipated. Early evidence suggests that it has affected the frequency of no balls. Is this because bowlers have suddenly become more disciplined? Indeed, the evidence on offer is quite weak mainly because only 4 sides have played under the free hit regime so far. In any event, the suggestion that bowlers become disciplined is silly - its a bit like suggesting that India's cricketers perform better under threat of abuse from mobs. Could the effect of the no-ball free hit rule be that bowlers become more cautious and therefore grant even further turf to the batsmen in the contest between bat and ball? Will fewer bowlers try and bowl flat out simply because now the cost associated with an already unforgiving law is too great - great enough that it can cause their team to lose a game and cost them their place in the side? Will selectors and coaches select fewer tearaway's for the same reason?

In other words, with a seemingly innocent gimmick designed to pander to impatient audiences alter the nature of cricket? Think about it this way - a frontfoot no-ball in a twenty20 game can theoretically result in 13 runs being scored off 1 ball. In a 50 over game where 300 runs are scored it matters less, but in a 20 over game where only about 160-180 runs are scored, a front foot no ball followed by a free hit can account for anything upto 5-6 % of the runs. I have not even mentioned the momentum shift that this may cause. What if it happens twice? And what is it that actually happens? A bowler oversteps by a few millimeters!

Is it fair to penalize a bowler and a side for that kind of error (which can happen due to a variety of reasons - not least because different grounds can have minor differences in slope, or the type of grass, or the hardness of the ground, all of which require adjustment from the fast bowler in particular) for which the bowler can not be blamed - which does not hurt the batsman and which is never ever intended?

Until the free hit rule, the no ball law was simply a bad law - it made life more difficult for the umpires, gave them less time to concentrate on the batting end, and it had pedantic nature which got everybody shaking their head in disbelief when a bowler was denied a wicket because of it. With the free hit, it has the potential to subvert the contest between bat and ball. It has become a cruel law and cricket is worse of for it. It is unfair to the fielding side and it has the potential to redefine the contest between bat and ball in an entirely undesirable manner.

It has to be revisited and i hope that this will happen as soon as possible. The next experiment in this area should be reverting to the backfoot no ball rule. The batsmen won't mind.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Australia v India: The series in review.....

India beat Australia at Mumbai. It was a dead rubber, and most people will not attach too much significance to the result. However, there were a number of significant things about the result and the game which point to larger themes, and so it is worth discussing the last game for a moment in the series review.

India were lucky to win. The rub of the green went their way. At least 3 Australian batsmen fell to errors which India did not induce or even do anything to deserve (Gilchrist, Symonds, Hogg). India's batsmen had a lot of luck with outside edges, inside edges, plays and misses - something that points to poor Australian luck, simply because they induced all those edges. It points to the high quality of their play - of their bowling in particular, that they were able to induce those many errors. Contrast that with Indias effort. Zaheer Khan had a good day, but RP Singh seemed to struggle to control the swing. Inspite of the promise of swing and seam afforded by the unique Wankhede conditions, Australia reached 60 within the first 10 overs! Without Murali Kartik's midas touch (Kartik, Australia, Wankhede - theres something there :) ), India appeared to have blown this ODI game as well. With the bat, at 6/64 im sure many people were wondering about the wisdom of leaving out Rahul Dravid (out of form or not).

The amazing thing in this game was that India were competitive, inspite of so many of them being so sloppy and so many of them being bested. It points to the importance of the successful bowler. A successful bowler on a good day can dismiss half a side very cheaply - a successful batsman on a good day, rarely scores half the runs that his side makes. In fact, in over 2600 ODI games, a batsman has score 50% or more of his teams runs only 80 times. On the other hand, there are 180 instances of bowlers taking 5 wickets in an inning if you consider only those bowlers who have done so atleast twice in their career. I couldn't find stats for bowlers who have done it only once in their careers. So it can be safely said that there are more than 180 such instances. A team has lost inspite of a bowler taking a 5 wicket haul only 46 times. So a 5 wicket haul by a bowler means that his team has at least a 75% chance of winning the game. Of the 80 instances in which one single batsman has made atleast half the total numbers of runs by his side in the innings, only 31 result in wins, while 41 result in losses (with 8 no-result/tied games). So the corresponding win percentage is 39%.

So, it appears that bowlers, in purely cricketing terms are the true individual superstars - the most important playmakers. There is a perception in India, that batting is glamorous, while bowling is not. This perception is usually blamed for the fact that we have poor bowlers. This seems to be a classic case of putting the cart before the horse. Public perception of glamour does not determine what discipline a cricketer chooses to excel in. His heroes do to a great extent. So the quality of Sachin Tendulkar's play, or Rahul Dravid's play or Sunil Gavaskar's play has set a standard, which cricketers can aspire to. Amongst spin bowlers - there are role models, even though these role models are fast fading away into history. Kumble will remain a colossus. But even so, the general standard of spin bowling in India can be said to be reasonably high. This is largely due to the fact that not all teams in the world can boast of a decent spin bowler. Amongst pacemen, there are no comparable role models.

What this series points to, is that the current India side is fundamentally a good ODI side. They possess most of the ingredients, in terms of talent to be a competitive ODI side. If you consider the last 5 matches India have played against the other 7 top Test playing nations, they have won 18 of those 35 matches. If you consider only the last 3, then of those 21 games, India have now won 13. This is the same as the number of games Australia and SA have won out of their latest 3 games against each of the other top 7 sides.

This points to a couple of things, which Australia's overall competence and their World Cup victory mask. The first is that Australia are not quite an invincible as they were even 3 years ago. This has as much to do with Australia falling a notch or two, as it does with other sides improving. What the year 2007 has shown is that the transition to Cricket 4.0 is now complete, with England coming on board. Skill levels still differ, but the approach to ODI cricket from all sides is quite consistent. Australia are better at it, since they pioneered it. But that advantage is on the wane.

India have overcome a number of bogeys in this series. They beat Australia for the first time in over 30 months, and more importantly have beaten Australia batting second for the first time in nearly 10 years. In fact, since India's win at Indore in early 2001 (Tendulkar made his 10,000th run in that game and made 139), India have beaten Australia 4 times (including the two wins in this series) and lost 18 times. So, as far as India are concerned, despite the problems with the fast bowling (Cricinfo reported that India had lost the pace battle), some progress is clearly evident. Robin Uthappa has been a gain in the middle order and has shown a liking for the short cameo in the middle or late overs. He might be better suited to this role than to open the innings or batting at number 3, given his technique and his preference for front foot play. Irfan Pathan seems to have returned reasonably well. His batting did not come to the fore, but he offers crucial balance and enables the side to play 5 bowlers. Murali Kartik adds much needed variety to the spin bowling department. Harbhajan Singh, like Irfan has returned well, inspite of letting himself get distracted by some Aussie jaw.

If you really think about it - penultimate game was lost by only 18 runs. A half decent effort by the pacemen there would have given India a real chance of sharing the series with the world champions. Thats how close this series has been, and more importantly, thats how close the two sides have been, notwithstanding Australia's more consistent pace bowling and superior fielding. Australia were without Michael Hussey and also missed Mathew Hayden, Nathan Bracken and Ricky Ponting at various times during the series. For India, Rahul Dravid has been out of form.

The Mumbai match, and the manner in which India won it, point to Australian fallibility and the overall quality of the Indian side. India were not overmatched in this series, neither were they exclusively reliant on a couple of players. Indeed, given the Australian problems with fitness etc prior to the series, and India's terrific home record in the recent past, one felt that India were slight favorites to win the series. But India proved to be too erratic in the field.

Several crucial decisions will have to be taken in the near future and this Australian series have provided clues for that - Uthappa and Kartik have solved a couple of problems for India from the balance and variety of bowling point of view. Pathan, in my view has done well enough to go to Pakistan. Sreesanth and RP have not sealed the new ball slot. Neither has Zaheer, but it is unlikely that India will ignore his claim to a spot in the starting line up any time soon. Munaf has shown a glimpse of what he can do in the Irani Trophy. Fast bowling is clearly a problem area at the moment. The batting for the moment looks quite settled. Dravid's form is a worry, but his place in the squad is not threatened in anyway.

The other important question - is that of the Test captaincy. Dhoni is not quite ready for the Test captaincy, and should not be a candidate for the job, because keeping and captaining at the same time in a Test match must be ridiculously difficult - a completely different ball game from Twenty20 or ODI cricket. Concentrating for 6 hours different from doing it for 50 overs or 20 overs. Besides, with Dinesh Karthik doing well opening the batting, and with Yuvraj Singh getting better and better by the day, India have a real choice of asking Karthik to keep and playing Yuvraj (or a 5th Bowler - Pathan) ahead of Dhoni. On the flat wickets in Pakistan, the latter may be a really good option.

The key questions in the coming weeks will refer to fast bowling and test match captaincy. The Australian series has settled a number of other issues for now....

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Series defeat: Bowling flops again

Anand Vasu writes about the 6th ODI, which India lost by 18 runs to suffer their first series defeat at home since Pakistan won 4-2 in early 2005. India have conceded 280+ in 5 out of the 6 games, and in the one game where the batting failed, they conceded 6 an over in the Australian run chase. The new ball bowling has been ordinary and none of the new ball bowlers have distinguished themselves. That has been the sole reason for the Indian defeat. You can bring up Dravid being out of form, Dhoni's captaincy decisions - none of those things have been significant.

This is easy to establish just by looking at the Australian side. Hodge has not distinguished himself, and the one time his bowlers had an off day, Ponting's Australia lost. They field better than India, but the point is that with poor bowling, the effect of the fielding wears off. This is fairly straightforward as well - if a bowler bowls the occasional bad ball, and someone fields brilliantly to save a certain four, then pundits claim that "it adds to the pressure on the batsman". This is an incomplete description, because what adds to the pressure is the fact that here was a rare scoring opportunity, where the batsman was denied because of great fielding. The operative word being "rare". With poor bowling, the problem is that scoring opportunities are a dime a dozen (10 out of 12 - a faux statistic to be sure, but close enough). Therefore, the value of a great bit of fielding in the broader contest between batsman and bowler is diminished. It might be argued that poor fielding hurts poor bowling less, than great fielding benefits accurate bowling.

Dravid's poor form and the fast bowlers poor bowling are not comparable problems. The former is temporary while the latter has become habitual, to the point where poor fast bowling is considered routine. Even if the wickets don't assist fast bowling and the batsmen are of high quality (as the Australians are), the bowling can still be "good". By this i mean, that Ponting and Gilchrist and Hayden and Symonds must surely be required at the very least to demonstrate their best form and their best skills in order to score runs at the rate that they do. There is a difference between going for 12 runs in an over conceding 2 backfoot cover drives played on the rise and two straight drives played on the up down the ground for twos, and going for 12 runs an over bowling wide half volleys and half trackers. The Australians have been consistently allowed the runs in the latter way, while the Indian batsmen have to score their runs in the former way - because that is the difference between the Australian and Indian bowling.

Compare Rahul Dravid's poor form, which has been a matter of concern (though muted by respect for the great man), and Zaheer Khan's performance in the last 13 ODI's that India have played (7 in England and 6 in India). Zaheer Khan has possibly been the "best" of the three Indian pacemen who are had use of the new ball for India in those games. He has taken 11 wickets at 54.81, going for 5.58 runs per over. Dravid has scored 284 runs at 25.81 in that period - poor returns. But, has Zaheer Khan's record invited the same scrutiny that Dravid's has? In my view, Zaheer's record in cricketing terms is worse than Dravid's - he hasn't taken enough wickets and he's gone for too many runs. But, for Zaheer and India, his performance seems to be par for the course.

That is the issue. The fast bowling is consistently poor and the bar is set so low for them, that they are viewed either as hapless victims of batting bullies or heroic crusaders who are full of machismo - returning stares with interest.

Given the records of our bowlers, they should not be engaging even in eye contact with batsmen. Or maybe they should, because batsmen are likely to smirk at them and lose concentration - probably the best chance our bowlers have of getting them out! Andrew Symonds and his ilk, who talk the talk after performing on the field (Symonds scores in this series have been 7, 87, 89, 75, 107*, he also averages 41 with the bat after 176 ODI's in the middle order and has a career strike rate of 93) are viewed as villains, while questioning jaw-jaw from Sreesanth supposedly amounts to putting him down! It is not surprising that the two loudest and silliest Indian bowlers in this series - Sreesanth and Harbhajan went for 120 in 16 overs for 2 wickets. India fell short by 18 runs. Inspite of playing 5 bowlers, M S Dhoni was forced to use his fifth bowling option for 6 overs - and those overs were cheaper than Sreesanth and Harbhajans - they went for 35. Harbhajan to a lesser extent that Sreesanth, because Harbhajan has at least established a record that commands some sort of respect.

I may be accused of going on and on about Sreesanth - but he happens to occupy one of the two most important slots in the ODI side - 10 overs of fast bowling (the other important slot is his new ball partner's). Those must be bankable overs for a captain. Yet, for 13 straight games now, those overs have been liability - in Sreesanth's case misguided, ill-focused, ill-mannered liability. It is not surprising that India have won 4 out of those 13 games and lost 8. Unless the new ball pair can be relied upon to bowl well, the other problems become irrelevant. Dravid will recover form, the the fielding is still quite safe (India don't drop catches any more or less than any other team), but the new ball pair gives no indication that they know what they're doing.

Unfortunately, opinion on this seems to follow the premise of the tipping point like most things. The "blame the batsmen and complain out athleticism" argument has been bandied about so often, that it has almost assumed the mantle of being the truth. Evidence suggests however, the the lack of quality in the fast bowling department has been much more perennial, and there is little quality to fall back on in the fast bowling as there is with the batting. Cricket suggests that quality or batting and quality of bowling are far more important than quality of fielding (or else Zimbabwe would be amongst the best teams in the world).

The value of quality fast bowling has to be considered when assessing performance. Just because India don't have quality fast bowling, doesn't mean that it doesn't matter. Until this is realized, Symonds and co. will continue to make hay, Sreesanth will continue to look like a fool, and India will keep clamoring for "quality fielding in the inner ring". India will also continue to lose, for sooner of later the quality of the batting will surely fall from todays dizzy heights.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Watch the last shot in this video.

This is a video of Yuvraj Singh's six sixes against Stuart Broad. But watch the last shot in this video. Its Andrew Flintoff to MS Dhoni....

Reverse Sweep!

Friday, October 12, 2007

2007-08 Cricket Season: The story so far....

The first skirmishes of the 2007-08 cricket season are nearly over. England have indeed turned the corner, continuing their impressive ODI year with a series victory over Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka. South Africa have won their first Away series victory against a top team other than the West Indies since they won in India (Cronje led them). India have reached a point in their home series against Australia where they can at best draw the series.

Inzamam Ul Haq's career which had to have a sadly leased ending, ended without a bang. It was all set up on the last day, but the underrated Paul Harris snared him second ball. It also brought Inzamam's career average below 50 - compounding the injustice on the great man.
The last former captain to be selected for a game on the understanding that it would be his "farewell" game was Mohammad Azharuddin at Bangalore against South Africa, and he made a century.

Paul Harris was South Africa's bowler of the series in my view. He took 12 wickets at 20.66 (the numbers matter - he took lots of wickets and took them cheaply). This in my view ought to get all those Indian fans who were so abusive of a couple of very skilled batsmen during the Cape Town second innings think. Harris is turning out to be a really good bowler.

India should have been favorites for the home series against Australia, but proceeded to concede 280+ in 4 consecutive ODI games (this is becoming such a habit, that nobody thinks conceding 280 is the result of poor bowling anymore), losing 2 of them (would have lost 3 if it hadn't rained in Bangalore). Yet, typically, the debate amongst the pundits is about "carrying" the seniors. The way ahead apparently is to phase out the seniors to compensate for the poor, inconsistent showing from the fast bowlers - which is the weak link in the current Indian side. The one time when that weak link demonstrated that it was not quite so weak, India won in England. Contrary to phasing out the seniors, the idea ought to be to find ways to lengthen the careers of the seniors - by allowing them to pick and choose tournaments (ODI games, not Test matches), so that India don't get hammered too often and yet give themselves the opportunity to find new players. That Australia lost the one game where they matched India's bowling in terms of profligacy, should merely underline the fact that the bowlers have let India down in 11 consecutive ODI games now - 7 in England and 4 in India. Even by playing two spinners, and even if those two spinners bowl reasonably well (and they have), India cannot hope to carry two new ball bowlers and win an ODI game against good opposition.

Rahul Dravid is short of runs in Tests and ODI's, after 7 phenomenal years where he established himself as one of India's finest ever batsmen. It would be foolish and shortsighted to drop him in favor of someone who hacked his way to fame in Twenty20 and is not worthy of cleaning Dravid's boots as far as serious batting stakes go. There ought to be no question of dropping him. Dropping Dravid won't be the "hard" decision that so many claim it will be. It will be a silly decision, which will hurt India. This business of giving youngsters "chances" - is as damaging to the youngsters as it is to the Indian team. Spots have to be earned. If a young batsman comes along with 1500 runs in this year's Ranji season and a century against a touring side, and then makes the squad (not the eleven mind you, the squad), that will be how it should be. Utthappa, Gambhir and co have done nothing to deserve Dravid's spot in serious cricket. We have to realize the phenomenally high standard which has been set in the Indian middle order. Yuvraj Singh is approaching that standard. The Indian middle order batsman has to be amongst the best in the world. In my view, at the moment we have two candidates for middle order slots who are head and shoulders above the rest - Yuvraj Singh and Virender Sehwag. Both have proven their ability in international cricket and have a good claim on a middle order spot. Badrinath, if reports about him are true, may follow. But "isko bhi chance do" is a one way ticket to cricketing mediocrity. We ought not to confuse form with class and quality.

Speaking of quality, Munaf Musa Patel destroyed the Mumbai line up on the third day of the Irani Trophy at Rajkot to set up a thumping win for Rest Of India. Badrinath and Kaif didn't make too many runs. Parthiv Patel made a terrific century, and we might soon see the bizarre phenomenon of an Indian side with three wicketkeepers in it!
One has to commend the selectors eye - they picked him at a very young age as a prodigious talent, and even though his wicket keeping went downhill, he keeps providing evidence that he is above the level of the average Ranji cricketer. That Patel opened the batting is indicative of his clear eye on Dinesh Karthik or Wasim Jaffer's spot.

England showed the value of quality fast bowling in Sri Lanka. Their bowlers rarely let three high quality batsmen - Jayasurya, Jayawardene and Sangakkara dictate terms to them, and their sustained accuracy brought them wickets and control on the run rate. Yet, these were the very same bowlers that Zaheer and co. out bowled in the Test series in England recently. Can we really refrain from asking serious questions of Venkatesh Prasad any more? It is time for India to find a head coach and possibly a replacement for Venkatesh Prasad - his public rant against Munaf Patel should have been the telling straw.

India tour Pakistan next, England and Sri Lanka play a Test series and South Africa and Pakistan play an ODI series. Pakistan have cleared the ground for Shoaib Akthar to be available for that series. The "one last chance" saga continues. It is amazing how everything else recedes into the background when India play Pakistan, even though it is true that this series is gradually losing its edge.

The biggest story in the last two weeks though, is Inzamam Ul Haq's retirement. I leave you with Osman Samiuddin's comment about the dazzling batsman's reassuring presence. Several former players bid him farewell. An era has come to an end for Pakistan cricket....

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Farewell to a great batsman......

For Inzamam Ul Haq, batting in international cricket was like a stroll in the park. When the appropriate wicket fell, he would emerge from the dark confines of the pavilion, squinting in the sunlight, chewing gum like his hero Viv Richards and proceed to the wicket. Not for him the hyperactive stretching and twisting, not for him the desperate last minute rehearsals of the forward defensive. At the most, he could be found working his shoulders a bit, loosening them in anticipation of the bowling. This maulvi's son from Multan was born to be a batsman. And what a batsman he has been!

There are few batsmen in world cricket who can claim to play genuine pace with the felicity of Inzamam. Few others have the ability to stay balanced at the wicket like he does. And few others had that special ability to bat better and better and the situations got tenser and tenser. His shot selection - precise at the best of times, reached unparalleled heights in ODI end games and at the business end of Test matches. He had every stroke in the book and an understanding of batting which made it inevitable that he would average 50 in Test cricket.

He began his Test career in 1992 in England, where Pakistan won, led by Javed Miandad. But he had already become a household name before that through his exploits in the ODI game. He was probably the first cricketer in the modern era who made his name as an ODI batsman before appearing in a Test match. After a slow start he played his first significant innings in Hamilton. With Pakistan facing a first innings deficit of 50 in a low scoring first innings, Inzamam rescued them in the second from the depths of 4/25 towards a lead of 127. The 2 W's then stepped in and delivered victory.

Over the years it became a habit - Inzamam would deliver runs and Pakistan's magnificient bowlers never let him down. Like most long careers however, Inzamam's spanned two generations. He began in what many will consider Pakistan's strongest side ever, and enjoyed great success. Pakistan won a great deal and his runs were invariably very fruitful. But his best years were between 2003-2007 in my view. He was made captain and provided Pakistan with much needed stability. Along with Bob Woolmer Inzamam rescued Pakistan cricket from the double disaster of a rough generational transition and the post 9/11 upheaval which caused other sides to avoid playing Test cricket in Pakistan. He led them through difficult times - a home defeat to India being the lowest point, before squaring a series in India, beating an English side which had just captured the Ashes convincingly and at one point going nearly 18 months without a series defeat. He was a proud captain and even though i felt he was on the wrong side of the Oval controversy, it was hard not to sympathize with his position. It is fitting that he should play his last Test match at home in Pakistan.

Photo sourced from: Cricinfo

When i watched Inzamam bat, i would wait in anticipation for his first stroke in anger. For that is how he played. He was a deliberate genius. He had tremendous ability, but like his great counterpart from India, had mastered his art and liked to apply that mastery. Of his two great contemporaries, Inzamam had a little bit of Lara and a little bit of Tendulkar in him. In my view, he tended to favor Tendulkar's studious, deliberate approach to the West Indian genius's more instinctive strokeplay. He always began watchfully, with that exaggerated forward defensive - his giant frame bent over the ball, much like a gentle giant being kind to a delicate kitten. Once he was ready though, he would unleash a ferocious drive or a ferocious pull shot, always played with decisive footwork which oozed class. This was a proclamation of intent. At his best he could toy with the bowling and do more justice to that phrase than any of his contemporaries. He always seemed to have endless amounts of time and patience at the wicket. A masterful judge of a run chase, there was rarely any need for indiscriminate slogging in Inzamam's view. He didn't need to slog, for he had three strokes to every ball and invariably ended up playing a fourth. He made runs all over the world. He might look back and wonder if he might have done better in Australia and South Africa, but only an uncharitable spoilsport would hold that against him.

I hope he makes a hundred at Lahore - the scene of his epic 329 against New Zealand which set up an innings and 324 run victory for Pakistan thanks to Shoaib's 6/11 in the NZ first innings. He is a 187 runs away from 9000 Test runs and only 19 runs away from Javed Miandad's record career aggregate for Pakistan. For one of Pakistan's greatest, it would be a fitting finale....

Photo sourced from Cricinfo

Friday, October 05, 2007

What do we expect of our bowlers?

Since the beginning of the natwest series in England on August 21st, India have played 10 ODI's now and even though one of those could not be completed because of rain (Bangalore ODI), here is a list of totals that India have conceded in those games:

Southampton: 288/2 (L)
Bristol: 320/8 (W)
Birmingham: 281/8 (L)
Manchester: 213/7 (L)
Leeds: 242/8 (W)
Oval: 316/6 (W)
Lord's: 188 (L)
Bangalore: 307/7 (NR)
Kochi: 306/6 (L)
Hyderabad 290/7 (L)

India have conceded 280+ in 7 out of 10 games, and two of those victories have come in high scoring games (Bristol, Oval). Looking through the bowling stats of the natwest tournament, the economy rates of our pacemen in that series are shocking by any decent standard (all though not so according to conventional wisdom in India, more on that later). Here's how they read:

Zaheer Khan 4.82, Average 67.50 runs/wicket
RP Singh 5.28, Average 31.71 runs/wicket
Agarkar: 7.11, average 44.71 runs/wicket
MM Patel: 8.23, average 26.75 runs/wicket

Coming to the three games against Australia, after the errant bowlers (the last two in the above list) had been dropped and less errant bowlers (Sreesanth, Irfan) had been picked,

Irfan Pathan 5.07, Average 35.50 runs/wicket
Zaheer Khan 6.00, Average 36.00 runs/wicket
Sreesanth 6.42, Average 22.50 runs/wicket
RP Singh 6.70, hasn't taken a wicket

The bowlers do not seem to be able to take a wicket unless they are profligate and concede about six runs/over. The only acceptable bowling average amongst those is Zaheer Khan's in England. And there it appears that his efforts in the Test series earned him the respect of the English batsmen - they seem to have decided to play him out.

There used to be the adage that 3/50 is better than 0/35 in 10 overs in an ODI. Both seem to be too much to expect from an Indian paceman. There is no point in blaming the spinners, because by the time they come on to bowler, the batsmen are set and the batting side is on the attack. The fifth bowler doesn't seem to be much of a problem either - the fifth bowlers overs go for 70 in 10 overs, while the main bowlers go for anything between 55-70! Most of our pacemen cannot be relied upon to bowl an entire over of decent line and length. Batsmen never seem to have to improvise at all to take 6 an over of our bowlers. Conceding 90-100 runs in the last 10 overs seems to have become par for the course for India.

And yet, the great concern seems to be whether or not the "senior" batsmen should be in the side! If they are asked to perform miracles in every game, then they will fail more often than they will succeed. If you lined up the 6 greatest batsmen in history, it would be no different. The selectors in this case can't do anything, because the best bowler in India - Munaf Patel, seems to be on the wrong side of public opinion (this time his fitness is not the issue). The "best" bowler in India - Sreesanth can't seem to figure out how to bowl a good line and length. The in form bowler - RP Singh seems to get the rough end of the stick - one bad effort and he's out of the side. Sreesanth is exasperating from the selection point of view, because amidst all his rubbish, he seems capable of producing some wicket taking gems.

It is interesting - the two best bowlers in India - Munaf Patel and Sreesanth, each have problems of temperament for which there seems to be no solution. One has drawn the rough end of public opinion and has the coach complaining about him behind his back, the other has drawn public adoration (misguided adoration in my view, detrimental to his own development), and seems to have nobody who can keep him on track! Inspite of having about 6 fast bowlers to choose from, India seem to be unable to decide a true pecking order. Venkatesh Prasad needs to explain a few things in my view.

As for the senior batsmen, not only do they face decisively superior bowling (i wonder what Dravid, Tendulkar and Yuvraj would average in Tests and ODIs if they were able to face the Indian bowling) than the opposition batsmen face, they also face ridiculously stiff targets game after game. India has lost the last 3 games (in my view they would have lost at Bangalore as well) because they do not have a clue as to how they are going to control the runs or organize their overs when they bowl.

Typically though, it is Dhoni (or Dravid before him) or the batsmen who will draw the public ire. If not them it will be the selectors or the "BCCI". The bowlers seem untouchable. This is not surprising - for to pay attention to the bowler is to pay attention to cricket. Everybody other than the pacemen have been doing their bit - the selectors have made good selections, the BCCI has hired bowling and fielding coaches and the batsmen have had a fine year.

5 of the top 13 run getters in ODI cricket in the year 2007 are Indians. The top 15 run getters in ODI cricket for the year 2007 include 5 Indians, 3 Australians, 3 Englishmen, 2 South Africans and 2 Sri Lankans. There are only 2 Indians amongst the top 20 wicket takers in ODI cricket this year - Zaheer Khan and Ajit Agarkar.

We have come to accept 6 runs/over as a par performance from our bowlers. It is not. Even if ODI batsmen have become more aggressive, good bowlers still go for 48-50 runs in their 10 overs where they would go for 35-40 a few years ago. Out of the top 20 wicket takers in ODI cricket this year, if you leave out Zaheer Khan, Ajit Agarkar and Ryan ten doeshate of the netherlands, the other 17 bowlers have all conceded 4.7 runs/over or less.

A poor economy rate almost never means that a bowler is "aggressive" and "looking for wickets" all the time. A look at economy rates for India in 2007 is revealing. They are as follows:

In 2007 (figure in the bracket is the bowling average):

Harbhajan bowled 99 overs at 4.34 (61.42)
Ganguly bowled 53 at 4.71 (41.66)
RP Singh bowled 91 overs at 4.74 (33.23)
Zaheer Khan bowled 204 overs at 4.81 (32.80)
Munaf Patel bowled 88 overs at 4.83 (25.17)
Piyush Chawla bowled 111 overs at 4.84 (31.83)
Ajit Agarkar bowled 154 overs at 5.20 (32.08)
Sachin Tendulkar bowled 72 overs at 5.59 (44.77)
Yuvraj Singh bowled 69 overs at 5.85 (45.00)
Sreesanth bowled 84 overs at 6.08 (30.05)

Our best bowlers this year in terms of economy rate have been Harbhajan Singh, RP Singh, Zaheer Khan and Munaf Patel. All the part timers (Sehwag has gone for 4.82) have done better than Sreesanth. Zaheer and Harbhajan seem to have lost the art of taking wickets. Munaf - i've said enough about him already.

We can't seem to play a steady bowling line up. Looking at the numbers above, its not hard to see why. And yet, we have a bowling coach who complains to the press about the one bowler who's record in 2007 compares favorably with that of any of the top bowlers around the world.

Its not hard to see where the problem lies - not just with the bowling, but with our expectations from our bowling. In my view it is indicative of our skewed understanding of cricket. Anybody in an cricketing community (including our own) will tell you that quality bowlers are gold. Ian Chappell, talking about captaincy on cricinfo recently said "it helps if a captain has a couple of good bowlers".

If the same standards that are applied to Tendulkar were applied to our bowlers, most of them wouldn't last more than 2 months. The reason they last, is because there are no Tendulkar's in the bowling line up. This points to a crucial point that the "give the youngsters a chance" crowd don't seem to understand. Chances have to be earned - they can't be handed over by default, simply to be nice to somebody. Whats happening in the bowling line up is that we are so used to mediocrity, that we don't know what to do with genuine quality when we see it (Munaf Patel). Some of us expect him to be a tearaway quick, when the true measure of his quality lies in the fact that he was able to modify his method to being an accurate brisk medium fast bowler. Some of us are stuck up on his alleged "attitude" problem. Fitness is a different issue. It is also the most professionally dealt with issue (mainly because the public doesn't interfere with it).

This Australian series is pretty much lost right now. A miracle might come about - but if it does, then that's precisely what it will be - a miracle. It will not be Dhoni's fault, it will not be the fault of the batting ..... the cause of defeat is down to conceding 300 in nearly every game. Bowling is our bogey. And it has been so for so long that we can't even identify it anymore. We seem to prefer the madness of Sreesanth (which results in him going for 6 an over - the worst among all our bowlers - specialist or otherwise this year).

If that is all we expect of our bowlers, then lets sit back, and watch India get pummeled to the tune of 6 an over and then get ready to belittle our batsmen for not performing miracles game after game.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

An Ratings Method for ODI Cricket

This is a method that i've been developing over the last 3-4 years. Its gone through many modifications as one might expect. The motivation for developing this method was to measure relative performance of teams in a way which takes into account the peculiarities of international cricket. I have developed a method for Test Cricket as well. The results of this rating have been posted on the left sidebar of this blog. I update them as often as i can.

In this post, i will explain the method and the basic assumptions which guide it. The approach used in designing this rating is to measure performance per delivery in a limited overs game. Even though the fall of wickets does affect the result of an ODI game, it is not mandatory to bowl a side out to win. The Ratings method takes into account the 3 parameters which describe an ODI game, and affect its outcome. RUNS/BALL and WICKETS/BALL are fundamental towards describing an ODI game. The RUNS/WICKET ratio is calculated for each ODI game, and a factor correlating RUNS and WICKETS is thus derived. Points are then calculated based on RUNS scored per BALL and WICKETS taken per ball. Consider the following example:

Consider a contest between 2 teams, A and B. The contest is 50 overs a side. Suppose Team A bats first and makes 270/8 in 50 overs. Team B chasing makes 272/4 in 44 overs, and hence wins the game by 6 wickets, with 6 overs to spare.

This game would be measured as follows:

Total number of runs scored in the game = 270+272 = 542
Total number of wickets fallen in the game = 8+4 = 12.
The average cost of 1 wicket during the game = 542/12 = 45.16 Runs

So the Points earned by Team A during the game is calculated as follows.

Team A scored 270/300 + 4*45.16/264 = 1.584
(264 is the number of balls in 44 overs, wides and no balls are not considered as they are included in the score) (PA)

Team B scored 272/(44*6) + 8*45.16/300 = 2.408. (PB)

This is the points tally in the said match. A Win Bonus is awarded to the winning side. This is the average performance per ball in the match, i.e. (1.584+2.408)/2 = 1.996

So the total points earned by the winning side..... Team B in the match = 2.408+1.996 = 4.404 points
Team A earns 1.584 points.

So the Rating for Team A is 4.404/(4.404+1.584) = 0.735
The Rating for Team B is 1-0.735 = 0.265

If only 1 match were to be measured, then at the end of this match the Rating would be

Team A 0.735
Team B 0.265

However, its not quite as simple as that when you are trying to measure 8 teams and not just two. Some teams are stronger than other teams. Performances against stronger teams should be worth more than performances against weaker teams. That is to say, that a win against a stronger team should improve a teams rating more than performance against a weaker team. This is achieved by introducing a handicap for each team. It is important that this handicap not be arbitrary. This handicap is measured as:

(Total performance per ball by Team) - (Total performance per ball against Team)

This value is added to the total point score of the team which beats this team.

This as you have probably realized can be either positive or negative. Tables 1 & 2 at the end of this post provide an overview of the matches considered, the rating and the win bonus records of the eight teams considered for these ratings.

The ratings take into account the 5 latest matches played by a team against each of the other teams. Therefore a total of 35 matches are considered. A rating which takes into account matches in sequential order cannot provide an accurate measure of the relative performance of a side with relation to all other sides, because a side in a longish sequence against lower ranked teams will perform better than a side with a longish sequence against higher ranked teams. Further more, the efforts of these two sides will be impossible to compare. Since ratings are relative (as are rankings), this set of matches is considered to offer a better representation of the relative quality of sides.

The best team thus would be the one which has performed best against all the other teams the last time it played against them over a 5 match span.

The ICC's approach is to consider the sequence of games and then use each teams existing rating to measure the "handicap". The ICC does not take into account extent of victory, which in my view is a crippling drawback of the official rating.

Until now we have seen how one match is measured, and how many and which matches are considered in the rating. Three distinct values are calculated:

1. Points scored by the Team (P)
2. Win Bonus for the game (W)
3. Win Bonus handicap against the losing team (H)

Total points (T)
if Team A wins,
total points for Team A = PA + W+ HB
total points for Team B = PB

if Team B wins,
total points for Team A = PA
total points for Team B = PB + W + HA

where W = (PA+PB)/2

If we consider the 5 latest games between A and B (1,2,3,4 and 5, 1 being the latest) then the win bonus against A would be:

average of (PA1 ,PA (1+2)/2, PA(1+2+3)/3), PA(1+2+3+4)/4, PA(1+2+3+4+5)/5)

This ensures that the latest performance is given higher weightage than the oldest performance. Similarly, when calculating the rating, the average is weighted. Two steps are carried out. First the 5 weighted values are measured:

TA1, (TA1+TA2)/2, (TA1+TA2+TA3)/3, (TA1+TA2+TA3+TA4)/4, (TA1+TA2+TA3+TA4+TA5)/5
TB1, (TB1+TB2)/2, (TB1+TB2+TB3)/3, (TB1+TB2+TB3+TB4)/4, (TB1+TB2+TB3+TB4+TB5)/5

for each of these, the rating is normalized to a scale of 1. So, for A it would be TA1/(TA1+TB1), ((TA1+TA2)/2)/(((TA1+TA2)/2)+((TB1+TB2)/2))) and so on..... and for B it would be 1-the corresponding value for A.

The final rating is the simple average of the 35 total values determined against the other 7 top teams in this way. Sometimes, this measure shows very different ratings values for similar or even same win-loss records over the 35 games in question. In order to illustrate why this is so, i have listed the percentage matches won in the last 5 (a total of 35 games) and the last 3 (a total of 21 games) in Table 1 below. Teams which have improved win-loss records over the last 3 as against the last 5 rate higher, even if their win-loss records over the last 5 are similar (Australia, South Africa; England, India).

AUSTRALIA 69 31 67 33 0.623
INDIA 46 54 57 43 0.498
SOUTH AFRICA 69 31 62 38 0.559
ENGLAND 43 57 33 67 0.434
NEW ZEALAND 60 40 57 43 0.533
PAKISTAN 37 63 33 67 0.396
SRI LANKA 40 60 48 52 0.499
WEST INDIES 37 63 43 57 0.428

Table 1. Win/Loss & Ratings

AUSTRALIA 280 238 293 248 0.491
INDIA 250 256 251 252 0.011
SOUTH AFRICA 260 237 258 252 0.199
ENGLAND 243 242 248 247 -0.219
NEW ZEALAND 244 241 251 245 0.026
PAKISTAN 224 256 256 260 -0.274
SRI LANKA 248 240 256 226 0.051
WEST INDIES 229 254 229 254 -0.285

Table 2 Runs scored, Runs Conceded & Win Bonus

The rating is intended to be only one part of a set of descriptive statistics which explain the relative status of the teams and also where they are headed. This set of statistics would include Tables 1 & 2 for now, but is very much still a work in progress.