Thursday, November 29, 2007

Cricket, Murali and chucking....

The first test match of the England v Sri Lanka series begins tomorrow at Kandy. Mutthiah Muralitharan is four wickets shy of Shane Warne's all time Test record. 1 in 7 of Murali's Test wickets have come at the Asgiriya Stadium in Kandy (108 wickets at 16.06 in 15 Test matches). There won't be too many people betting against Muralitharan breaking Warne's record, even against the full English side. This will doubtless give new life the questions of chucking.

The current throwing law (Law 24(3)) states that "A ball is fairly delivered in respect of the arm if, once the bowler's arm has reached the level of the shoulder in the delivery swing, the elbow joint is not straightened partially or completely from that point until the ball has left the hand. This definition shall not debar a bowler from flexing or rotating the wrist in the delivery swing." A study of Biomechanics has revealed that it is infact impossible to bowl legally keeping in mind the above condition, and therefore, in the latest version, a 15 degree bend is allowed, based on the fact that in real time, a bend upto 15 degrees is not noticeable to the naked eye. It would seem then then that modern science has pointed out a flaw in the law.

The tragedy of the throwing law however is based on a far more fundamental misunderstanding of it. Throwing is equated with cheating, rather than with any technical shortcoming. This is quite astounding, and that throwing is not cheating is made abundantly clear by the fact that only successful bowlers with suspect actions are called cheats. James Kirtley was never called a cheat. Murali has. Shoaib has too. The common explanation of this phenomenon - racism, is both silly and unsatisfactory. The more plausible explanation is the most common cause of sporting discord - competitiveness.

The chucking law is especially important in the case of the fast bowlers, because batsmen tend to use the arc of the arm in picking the line of the ball (the ball itself is a red blur.... not nearly as clear as we see it on TV). When a fast bowler chucks, there is no clear arc for the batsman to follow. As explained by Colin Cowdrey in his autobiography, the ball appears "to come out of a muzzle rather than a sling". This impedes the batsman's ability to pick the line and length, and in the case of short pitched bowling, take evasive action.

Still, it is a technical issue, not one of cheating, just as the front foot bowling law. Arjuna Ranatunga's masterstroke in the Murali incident was to play on the insinuation that Murali was branded a "cheat". The Australian press fell for that, and as a result, to this day there are those who brand him a "cheat". In the meanwhile, Murali has gone on to take 704 Test wickets, without changing his action. He has even added the doosra, which by definition is delivered with a bent arm given the method Murali uses to turn the ball from leg to off (from the back of the hand with an off-spinners grip). This association of chucking with cheating has been damaging to cricket, mainly because it has meant that the issue could never be solved reasonably. Under the circumstances, the current law as it stands is a commendable accomplishment. The limitations on the umpires in its implementation are not.

Murali will finish his career as the greatest wicket taker in Test match history. His legacy however with forever be clouded by a "cheat" tag which he does not deserve. The chucker tag obviously does not hold either, because his action is legal from the point of view of the current law.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Coach Kirsten?

Cricinfo reports that Gary Kirsten will be the next coach of the Indian Cricket team. This is a textbook "scoop" with the news being leaked before it is announced. On the main Cricinfo the captain says "Deal finalised, says official". Yet if you look in the actual story, there is a subtle difference:
"It has been finalised," a senior board official told Cricinfo. "We just need some time to complete the formalities."

A reading of that quote would indicate that the deal hasn't been finalized, but is in the process of being finalized. When the board official says "it" has been finalized, he's clearly referring to the BCCI's choice being finalized. Yet, Cricinfo's caption under their main leader, suggests that the BCCI's deal with Kirsten has been finalized. This is often the genesis of the "unprofessional" BCCI comments so often presented by Cricinfo and other serious Cricket news organizations.
Furthermore, Cricinfo's interview with Gary Kirsten which appears next to this story clearly indicates that Kirsten has not yet accepted the job.

The rest of the article describes Kirsten's coaching background and yet the authors disappointment that he knew nothing about the Kirsten appointment until he was able to write this story today is palpable. There is also a list of applicants for the job, which is interesting in the light of recent stories about a lack of a process. It appears that BCCI did infact invite applications for the job. They clearly learnt something from the Graham Ford situation.

BCCI for its part, while it seems to learn about dealing with the press in fits and starts, has steadfastly refuse to address the core issue - that of creating a Public Relations Office which can handle all these pronouncements professionally. They would rather let things trickle out from "unnamed BCCI officials" or "senior board officials" rather than hiring some guy who could stand in a press conference in a nice neat suit and read out a written statement which could say exactly what these anonymous honchos have leaked. A statement describing todays story would read. If they didn't want to report the decision before Gary Kirsten had signed the paperwork, they could have gotten the same nice suit to stand in the same press conference and stalled.

I mean, its a multi-million dollar industry - conveying a message, stalling, talking a lot without actually saying anything. Its nearly impossible to switch on the television and not find some statement from some "spokesman" being reported to you. Why doesn't BCCI do the same?

Because they don't you get reporters who write two different things about the same issue in a story, and a third thing in the headline. Reporters are of course accountable to nobody, but shouldn't the sources of the information - in this case the Cricket Board not worry that multiple messages are being sent? The Cricinfo story says:

1. Deal has been finalized
2. "It" has been finalized, but formalities remain
3. Kirsten is "almost certain" to get the job, but the cricket board wants to be certain about the terms and conditions before making the announcement.

This is a textbook case. Cricinfo starts off with a headline which claims that its a done deal, and as the story progresses reveals that its not yet a done deal, but the choice has been made, and then reveals that the choice is only almost certainly made, but the terms haven't been agreed!

Further, Kirsten in his interview says that he didn't actually apply for the job, but that BCCI approached him. So Chandrakant Pandit, the former Indian wicketkeeper and Maharashtra coach, Richard Done, former head of the Queensland Academy of Excellence, Leicestershire coach Tim Boon, Kepler Wessels, the former Australia and South Africa international, Terry Oliver, Queensland's coach, Dave Nosworthy, coach of Canterbury, and former New Zealand captain Martin Crowe applied for the job but were not deemed to be acceptable candidates by BCCI. This in itself is fine. Both Wright and Chappell were hired based on the preliminary recommendations of Rahul Dravid (his Kent connection with Wright) and Sourav Ganguly (his Australia connection with Chappell) respectively. Kirsten was probably the choice of the senior Indian cricketers as well. This indicates a rather interesting "selection" process, which is probably not uncommon in high level job searches.

If they can do all this so well, why can't they get the part about conveying their message clearly right? At this point im reminded of the myth about the BCCI website, but im not going to go there.....

Monday, November 26, 2007

Delhi Test Match Review

It was in the end, a matter of the side which made fewer mistakes winning. India did not dominate the Test match by any means, neither did they break any new ground in terms of new players performing. Indeed, the only new ground that might have been broken would have been in the case of Munaf Patel. Munaf did well in fits and starts and bowled better in the first innings than he did in the second. All other players were proven Test players, or were new players whose position was not in doubt (Jaffer, Karthik, Dhoni). If there is one thing that stands out about this Indian side, it is the stability in the eleven. 10 out of 11 players pick themselves at the moment, and there are 3 decent options for the 11th - Munaf's.

The improvement in the pace bowling has been the feature of this team of 2007. That in itself is a puzzle - the same pace bowlers shrivel into cannon fodder when given the white ball. Zaheer Khan has returned to his wicket taking ways. Not only that, the element of continual threat in his bowling has reappeared, even on this low and slow Delhi wicket.

Pakistan looked hampered by injuries to Asif and Gul and might have seriously threatened India with their full first choice attack. Shoaib could have used some pressure from the other end. For his part, Shoaib was magnificient. Whatever you say about the man, the ball tampering, the drug allegations, the temper tantrums, the crooked elbow - he is a magnificient bowler. He has the natural gift of pace, but most crucially he has built up over the past few years a great understanding of length. Rarely does he try to blast batsmen out. If you think about his bowling yesterday with his bowling on Day 5, the contrast becomes clear. On Day 4, when the game was still in the balance, Shoaib was all class. On Day 5, it was a matter of making a statement, and hopefully denting the confidence of one of India's ageing middle order galacticos. It didn't work. Shoaib (and his partner Sami - more on him a little later) peppered the Indians with fearsome short stuff. It took all the slip fielders out of the equation, and Tendulkar hooked and pulled everything sumptuously, as did VVS. It was an especially skillfull display given the uneven 5th day bounce. The last 56 runs came in 10 overs. Shoaib did get Sourav Ganguly, but thats only because Ganguly is the worst player of the hook and pull shots amongst modern day specialist batsmen, who insists on playing the shot!

Mohammad Sami is probably the greatest of the could-have-beens in world cricket in this decade. He has a fine temperament as was seen by his batting in the first innings, he is genuinely quick (can match Shoaib for pace), and has the ability to bowl marathon spells at scorching pace (you may recall his 13 over spell on the 3rd morning in the scorching summer heat of Rawalpindi), and yet, averages 47 with the ball in Test cricket. There must be something technically wrong with his action, and even the stability of the Woolmer years did not seem to help him. Rarely has a bowler promised so much and delivered so little. Think about it - if Sami had full filled his promise, and if Gul and Asif had been fit, Pakistan would have had the best pace bowling pool in world cricket today. As it is, they probably have the best fast bowler in the world in their ranks right now.

Shoaib Malik did not bowl in this Test match. There in lies the dilemma, and there in lie Pakistan's problems. His captaincy may be made into an issue by some commentators, and this in my view would be a mistake. It is his role as a player in the eleven which invites greater scrutiny. Is he a specialist batsman? In which case, is he once of the 4 best middle order batsmen in Pakistan? Is he an all rounder? In which case, is he good enough as a bowler to play at Test level? If he's a batsman, then where should be bat? In his 21 Test matches, he has opened the batting, and he has batted at 6 or 7 in the middle order with equal success. He may put all these questions to rest by producing a sterling century at Eden Gardens, but in the long term, the question about his competence as a Test cricketer remain. If he isn't going to bowl (and India batted nearly 80 overs in the first innings), or isn't good enough to be more than a part time spinner, then what should his role be? Should he open the batting and ask Yaseer Hameed to bat at 3, with Younis Khan dropping down to number 5? Misbah has proved to be an able number 6 batsman. These are some of the questions Pakistan will deal with as they travel to Kolkata for the 2nd Test.

It is no secret that the captaincy has fallen to Malik by default, after Younis Khan turned it down. For a side with Pakistan's gifts, a Brearley or Germon like captaincy situation is unseemly. Yet, that is exactly what they seem to be saddled with. They will hope that Malik's stint will be more Brearley and less Germon!

India for their part with go to Kolkata in the hope that the great Eden Gardens will inspire Harbhajan Singh to his best form. His comeback has been steady and he will be eager to exploit the extra bounce (compared to Delhi, any wicket has extra bounce) at the Eden. One hopes that the spin twins get back into prime form, not only because of Australia, but because Anil Kumble as captain will be watched closely by the parasitic press pack for any signs of favoring himself ahead of his off spinning mate. Rahul Dravid made a century in each innings the last time Pakistan were at Eden Gardens, and he will dearly like to repeat that at least in part this time around. Ganguly returns to his home ground after having spent the year making a gutsy comeback. Tendulkar and Laxman - well, one hopes they can play sumptuous stroke filled innings. Dinesh Karthik ought to make a few runs, what with Parthiv Patel snapping at his heels with an impressive run of form. The phlegmatic Jaffer will take it all in as he does in every game. As far as Munaf is concerned, he will know that a good performance at Eden Gardens will result in a ticket to Australia. Most crucial to India's success however, is the continuation of Zaheer Khan's good form.

On to the Eden Gardens then.....

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Delhi Test - Day 4: Accidents and averted disasters

As Zaheer Khan ran in to deliver the first ball of Day 4 of this Test match, the game was wide open. Pakistan might even have considered themselves in the ascendency, if you consider the fact that their last five wickets added 109 in the first innings. With Shoaib in Pakistan ranks, anything in the vicinity of 225-250 would have made India sweat in the 4th innings. As it turned out though, Pakistan lost their last 5 wickets for 35 runs today, including the last 3 for 4 runs.

Misbah Ul Haq became the first batsman in the history of Test cricket to be dismissed caught at deep mid on off the first delivery of the second new ball. Mohammad Sami then added to the novelty of the situation by abandoning all common sense and attempting a slog-slog (as against slog-sweep) next ball and was dismissed caught at short mid-wicket. At this point, with Danish Kaneria and Shoaib Akthar at the wicket, it was a matter of picking one of many possible methods of dismissal. Kaneria faced up to Kumble, attempted the exact same forward prod that he had in the first innings, connected with the middle of the bat, and set of for a deft single. He was the only one running though and turned (blind) with all the elegance of a toy cart, only to see that Dhoni had collected a widish throw and effected a difficult run out with the panache of a winner.

Thus, the Pakistan innings came to an abrupt end with three of the silliest dismissals you will ever see. Anil Kumble had taken the new ball in the middle of the 81st over, bowled by Sourav Ganguly, and then taken it up himself at the other end. If ever there was a case of "lets change things around a little bit", this was it. India were left with 203 to win the Delhi Test Match.

The Pakistan bowling attack consists of Shoaib Akthar and three other bowlers. He is bowling as well as he ever has and has been a consistent threat. The batsmen are however allowed some breathing space at the other end. The Indian batting in the 4th innings has so far been typical of their efforts in recent months - lots of small contributions, without anybody ever threatening to take the bowling apart and score than sumptuous hundred. Three of four years ago, there were 2-3 batsmen who might have been capable of doing so. This is a line up performing from memory, and their collective memory seems to serve them well, especially with Zaheer Khan finding a new gear with the ball. Tendulkar seemed intent on being there at the end of the day, while Ganguly continues to demonstrate his great ability to score quickly in Test cricket. Dravid was solid, and Wasim Jaffer played the best innings of the day against Shoaib and the Pakistan new ball.

As things stand, notwithstanding Shoaib, India should wrap things up tomorrow. As we saw on the morning of Day 4 however, strange things are possible. Conventional wisdom would suggest that India should go to the Eden Garden 1-0 up.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Delhi Test, Day 3

At the end of day 3, Pakistan are 167 ahead with 5 wickets in hand. In terms of the future of the Test match, the respective desired scripts are quite clear. India would like to wrap things up as quickly as possible and finish the game on day 4, while Pakistan would like to prolong their third innings and take the game into day 5. As it stands now, if India are left to get anything over 225 in the 4th innings, it's going to be tough. Given India's decent but less than decisive advantage in the first innings, the 4th innings comes into play, handing the advantage to the side batting first, especially in the subcontinent.

One cannot help contrast the approach taken by Mohammad Sami and Zaheer Khan with the bat. Both had a set batsman at the other end. Time was of no essence in both cases, yet, Zaheer, given the choice of playing like Shoaib on the one hand, and Sami on the other, chose the former approach. Not surprisingly, his fate was quite similar to Shoaib's. VVS Laxman was left stranded. For his part, VVS leaves himself open to criticism due to his alleged lack of urgency, and his unwillingness to shield the tail. He is right to expect the tail to be able to keep the bowling out, and he is also right in my view to take each and every single on offer. That is not selfishness, its simply taking everything that is on offer. It is also one of the reasons why the approach taken by Kumble in the first innings, does have its merits (may be not so much at 8/150, but certainly in the kind of situation Shoaib Malik found his side in). VVS's approach and batting style is a cogent argument for him being promoted ahead of Sourav Ganguly. India may just be missing a trick there. When batting with the tail, the opposition invariably tends to concentrate of dismissing the tailender, while ignoring the specialist bat. This would suit Ganguly tremendously, and with his great ability to out guess/think the bowler (honed in the high pressure arena of powerplays in ODI cricket), he may just take his test career to a new level. Coming back to Zaheer and Sami though - Sami kept out close to 16 overs, facing Kumble, Zaheer Khan and co. It is probably fair to expect Zaheer or Harbhajan to have been able to do the same between them against the Pakistan attack. They need look no further than their captain in their are looking for a fine approach.

The Indian new ball pair failed to provide a break through with the second innings and it was left to the spinners to do all the work. That India have managed 5 wickets is creditable in the circumstances. Anil Kumble as always has been the key. His ability to control the runs and threaten wickets remains unsurpassed among Indian bowlers. Harbhajan Singh must have been heartened by his classical off spinners dismissal of the prolific Mohammad Yousuf.

This Test match appears to be evenly poised at the end of day 3. Given the fact that the wicket is likely to wear, Pakistan are probably slightly ahead at this moment. Yet, if you look at the first innings, the 45 run difference is largely because India first let Pakistan make about 70 runs more than they should have in their first innings, and then made about 20-30 runs less than they should have in their first innings. India have not closed out the game in the first innings itself. As a result, they now face the very real possibility of heading to the Eden Gardens with a series to save. Teams batting second have won 10 times at the Kotla, while teams batting first have won only 5 times. But that is only half the story. In all but 1 of the 15 Test match which have yielded a results, the first innings lead/deficit been less than 50 runs. Fourth innings run chases however have been quite successful, the best of these being the West Indies scoring 5/276 in 1987-88. Teams have won despite first innings deficits, but in each of those cases, they have won in by demolishing the opposition in the third innings. India beat Australia in 1969-70 despite conceding a 60 odd run deficit by bowling out Australia for 107.

The first session of day 4 will be crucial. The winner of that session will win the Test match...

Friday, November 23, 2007

Delhi Test - Day 2

At one point yesterday, Pakistan were 8/150. The score however, was not the striking thing at that point. If you walked into that cricket ground, with no knowledge of the score, you might have been forgiven for believing that the batting side was on top and the fielding side, having fallen behind in the game, were trying to manage the damage. There were fielders on the boundary and the in-field was set deep as well. Misbah Ul-Haq was on strike. India were giving him the single trying to bring the tailender on strike. Shoaib Akthar seemed to miss the point. He went for a characteristically nonchalant swipe and missed completely. Mohammad Sami didn't. The trigger was Misbah Ul-Haq lofting Harbhajan Singh for a straight six. This prompted the debutant Indian captain to go from looking for wickets 6 balls an over, to looking for wickets whenever Misbah Ul-Haq decided it was Ok for Mohammad Sami to come on strike.

Now, this has been one of the great tactical debates in modern Test cricket. Should the fielding side bowl at the tailender and forget about dismissing the set batsman, or should it continue to aim for wickets at both ends? Both methods have worked in the past. Given that this is Kumble's first game as captain, his cautious approach may be understandable. However, the state of the match - Day 1, opposition electing the bat first and being reduced to 8/150, an inexperienced specialist batsman at the wicket, might have enabled the more aggressive approach.

As it happened, the wicket fell today through an error from Misbah Ul Haq. Mohammad Sami remained unconquered. Even so, 231 was a modest first innings score, and seemed increasingly modest as Rahul Dravid and Wasim Jaffer played expertly. Then Jaffer fell to the best bowler on show in this series (170 Test wickets at 25.2), and Sachin Tendulkar arrived. He managed to run himself out 2nd ball. Sourav Ganguly then came offered Sohail Tanvir a huge gap between bat and pad, which the bowler gleefully accepted. In walked VVS Laxman, with India in more than a little bit of trouble.

Of all the Indian players in the current eleven, VVS and Dhoni have had the most tenuous hold over their places. Dhoni is effectively the second wicketkeeper, while VVS, since he doesn't play ODI cricket, seems to have a peripheral hold on public memory. Besides, Indias Test batsmen seem to have lost the ability to play long innings. A couple of 70's are not as effective as a stray 170. I have wondered in the past if Dhoni is a better choice compared to Yuvraj Singh, if Dinesh Karthik is also available. Others have wondered whether VVS still deserves a spot ahead of Yuvraj Singh. It turns out that the selectors have been proved right, and we have been proved wrong in this instance.

The Test match is interestingly poised. If India's tail can drag India to 300, it would be a significant lead. On the other hand, if they fall quickly tomorrow, then the prospect of a 4th innings chase puts India's bowlers under enormous pressure in the third innings. India's worst nightmare would be for one of the Pakistan players to hit his straps and produce 50 good overs of batting.

Thanks to VVS and Dhoni, this is still India's Test match to win or lose. There is this sobering thought though - Tendulkar has been run out 4 times in Tests prior to this effort, and India have not won any of those games.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A low key Test Series....

The first India v Pakistan Test began at Ferozshah Kotla today. Pakistan have won the toss and elected to bat. As i write this they are 4/76. All the Indian bowlers have bowled well. Poor deliveries have been few and far between.

This series is about as exciting as the hazy smog laden mist in Delhi today. Even the Sun does not seem to find it interesting enough. Yet, this is India v Pakistan, the biggest deal in cricket just a few years ago. The players are friendly with each other now, the gladiatorial edge of the past has been blunted by the league like frequency of games of recent years. A low key Pakistan outfit doesn't help either. May be Shoaib Akthar will bring the series to life.

Cricket though, throws up interesting situations irrespective of the star-value of the players involved. Let me take you back to the 1999 Adelaide Test match. Sachin Tendulkar was captain of India. Australia had demolished Pakistan 3-0 prior to the Indian series. They batted at Adelaide (the easiest scoring ground in Australia according to some), and the unassuming firm of Srinath and Prasad had them on the hop. They were reduced to 4/52 and had an uneasy lunch at a precarious 4/76. Tendulkar chose to resume after lunch with Sourav Ganguly, ahead of his specialist pacemen. Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting returned from their lunch and hammered a century apiece, and India went on to lose the series 3-0. The Indian Captain was panned for his choice of the plebeian part timer from Bengal (his "secret weapon" if you recall the Canadian tournaments against Pakistan). "Always start a session with your best, most accomplished specialists" declared the pundits.

Today, Kumble began the post lunch session with Patel at one end, and Ganguly at the other. He held himself back, and didn't bring his top paceman on right way. As i write this, Patel and Ganguly have delivered 2/9 in 5 overs between them. Kumble's hunch has worked, while Tendulkar's didn't. On such things are reputations made.

Pakistan face an uphill struggle at the moment. India v Pakistan games have habit of coming to life from seemingly innocuous situations. Unless India get a big first innings advantage, this morning efforts will not fruitful. Osman Samiuddin remarks that India v Pakistan as a series hasn't yet reached the cricketing heights that one might expect of a great rivalry. Let us see if we are surprised this time, just when Pakistan seem to be a side transition, and ICL advertisements appear during the over breaks.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

18 years of Sachin Tendulkar

Given the number of ODI's that are played by a top team in a year, making 1000 runs in a calender year in ODI is the gold standard in ODI batting. If you look at all the players who have done this (the feat has been performed 87 times by 48 different batsmen in the 24 years since David Gower first did it in 1983), then on average, these batsmen make 10 scores of 50 or more in such a year. Sachin Tendulkar has made 128 such scores in the 18 years that he played cricket - 7 per year. He features 7 times in the list of batsmen who have made 1000 runs or more in a calender year. In the list of "Most runs in a series" by an Indian batsman, of the top 50 such efforts, 14 are Tendulkar's.

Over the past 18 years, he has achieved a great deal. The precocious youngster who faced up at Karachi on November 15, 1989 is today the greatest colossus of the One Day game - arguably the greatest batsman since the Second World War. In a year when he finds himself in a bind which is unlike anything any cricketer has ever faced in history, he has made 13 fifties and a century - including 6 scores in the nineties. Tendulkar has not only made the most number of centuries in ODI history, he also has the best fifty to hundred conversion rate (inspite of 16 scores in the 90's) in ODI history. Yet, this year, he hasn't been able to get to three figures since January.

Be that as it may, his batting today was an exhibition of the distilled essence of his mastery. It was studious, it was methodical, it was breathtakingly skillfull, it was at times viciously powerful. Above all it was ruthless without ever missing that crucial element which marks great sport - enjoyment. It was a joy to watch. He has produced innings of this type this year. Indeed the extended injury free run (please touch wood if you can reach it in your vicinity - please define your vicinity liberally :) ) seems to have given him confidence. He's gotten better and better as the year has gone on.

If ever there was an exhibition of mastery in a nutshell, it was in one over from Shahid Afridi, where Tendulkar moved from 65 to 77 with three boundaries which were exhilirating in their faultless execution. The thing is - these were strokes of an instinctive genius, planned and executed with practiced ease. They looked deceptively easy. The first one was quite conventional - Tendulkar gave himself room as many batsmen sometimes do against the leg spinner (in order to hit with the break), and lofted a reasonably good length (for a spinner) delivery to the cover fence. The next ball, he backed away to leg again, Afridi dragged it down just a trifle bit shorter in order to beat the lofted stroke. Tendulkar waited that extra yard and played a square drive, backward of square, on the rise. The last of the three balls was a replay of the second, except that this one was belted away in front of square. The timing was such that the sweeper fielder could do nothing about it. It's hard enough to hit a pace bowler on the rise - its probably even more difficult to do it off a spinner. Strokes in the batting textbook were played as a matter of course, and they do not even ellicit comment.

When Tendulkar made his Test debut, economic liberalization was still a pipedream, the internet was an academic "information superhighway", the Soviet Union was in the throes of glasnost and perestroika, the South Africans had little or no hope of playing international cricket in the 1990's and Sunil Gavaskar had only just retired from all first class cricket (indeed Gavaskar and Tendulkar were both named to the list of probables for the Mumbai Ranji Trophy team for the 1987-88 season. Tendulkar didn't make the eleven that year, but did so in 1988-89 and made a hundred on debut against Gujarat at the Wankhede). Since then, while all else has seen tremendous upheaval, we have been able to rest assured that we in India possessed one of the most gifted cricketers ever. Over the years, this relationship has changed as Tendulkar went from being the precocious boy wonder to an unsuccessful captain, to a wealthy, slightly distant master.

C P Surendran said it best. When Tendulkar emerges from the dark confines of the pavilion "a whole nation, tatters and all, marches with him to the battle-arena. A pauper people pleading for relief, remission from the lifelong anxiety of being Indian ... seeking a moment's liberation from their India-bondage through the exhilarating grace of one accidental bat."

For 18 years, Tendulkar has remained at the cutting edge of a game that has evolved beyond recognition. While one would want to wish him many more years of cricketing success (out of pure selfishness), it almost seems impolite to demand any more. Instead i will pray that he should never have to get out in the 90's again.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Muppets headed by a Joker...

When Marvan Atapattu branded the Sri Lankan national selection committee as "muppets headed by a joker", he was merely echoing the thoughts of every self-styled cricket pundit in India vis a vis the Indian selection committee. Atapattu is a former Sri Lankan captain who started his test career with scores of

0, 0, 0, 1, 0, 0, 25, 22, 0, 25, 14, 4, 7, 10, 26, 19, 29

His first 17 innings yielded 175 runs at 10.29. At that point, you can be sure that there were others calling the Sri Lankan selectors "muppets headed by a joker" or something similarly ridiculous. Was Attapattu's appearance in the Sri Lankan Test team sporadic during that period? Atapattu made his debut in the 1156th official Test match. His horror run continued until the 1376th Test match. Sri Lanka played 47 Test matches during that time, over a period of 7 years, and won a World Cup to boot. The point of this is to suggest that the selectors did not lose faith in Atapattu's ability (even though he caused them to stretch their imagination considerably during those 7 years). They were repayed for it, as Atapattu went on to make 16 Test hundreds in his next 72 Test Matches.

So what does selection involve? And how do we view it? It is clearly not a science (never mind exact science). It is at its core a judgement - a judgement about players and a judgement about the team. Players are considered for their potential output - in the short term and in the long term (as in the case of Marvan Atapattu), while teams are built with a view to achieving the best possible balance keeping in view the available individual skills and talent. Its a difficult job. It is also a thankless job. By definition, all but 15 candidates end up disappointed by the selectors work. By definition, the supporters of all but 15 candidates end up disappointed by the selectors work. Add to this the fact that in a reasonably good team (such as India), thanks to the selectors doing a good job, about 9-10 of those 15 positions select themselves. So, if you think about it, all but 6-7 candidates are invariably rejected by the selectors.

Each of these candidates have regional supporters, factional supporters in BCCI (all though i don't think this is as true today as it might have been 10-15 years ago). Above all else however, is the disgruntled fan - disappointed by the most recent defeat and waiting for an opportunity to lash out. Everyone of these people have an opinion, and invariably have a newsworthy opinion. More newsworthy than the (necessarily) mundane explanation by a selection committee about the decision making. It might actually be interesting, if BCCI were to hire someone like Salman Rushdie (not for a moment am i assuming that he would take the job), with his gift for using the English language to announce and explain decisions to the press. A year of this, and the selectors in all probability (provided Rushdie doesn't lose his mind!) be rock stars.

Some of the most astounding allegations have stuck more persistently than others. Through out the late 1990's and early 2000's we had allegations of the "quota" system. These were quite stunning, because when i looked at the Indian cricket team, i found Kumble, Dravid, Srinath, Azharuddin, Robin Singh, VVS and occasionally a few others like Sunil Joshi, Sadagoppan Ramesh, all from South Zone in the same XI, not just in the same squad! John Wright wrote about sitting through a selection committee meeting, and being astounded by the kind of trades that occasionally went on. But think about it.... take both these facts together - if there are no stand out talents for a given position, if there is no real way to make a reasonable assessment that of three players under consideration for a particular slot, there is no real way of gauging who's most qualified, or who has the most ability, is it not reasonable that the position should go to the most under-represented region amongst that group of players?

Now, outright quota based decisions make absolutely no sense, but have the Indian selectors been guilty of these in the past 10 years? Look at any Indian team in the last 10 years and see what you find. Sure there are the occasional "Noel who?" situations. But has there been one apart from the Noel David decision in 1997 when Tendulkar asked for Tushar Arothe from Baroda but got Noel David instead? Occasionally, communication does break down. Has there been a correction as a result of that? With every passing year, the captain (especially if he's a well established captain) gets heard more and more in selection matters.

Just in the past 12 months or so, this current selection committee has made a number of bold decisions, some decisions have been just plainly brilliant. I will point to just two - the return of Sourav Ganguly, and the selection of Dinesh Karthik as a specialist batsman. In both cases the selectors have gone on potential - in Ganguly's case due to his past brilliance, and in Karthik's case of sheer potential. The Ganguly situation provides endless opportunity for cynicism, but it has proved to be a brilliant decision in retrospect. The case with Zaheer Khan is the same. Leaving both of them out for a while and bringing them back worked in both cases. This took place over two seperate selection committees and it is a measure of the maturity of the Indian system that Ganguly's antics vis a vis Chappell were not held against him.

Have we credited the selectors for this? Have we credited the selectors for the selection of R P Singh for the Bangladesh and England test tours? It has in each of these cases been upto the players to go out there and perform - that is what ultimately proves the selectors right or wrong. When it proves them wrong, we are quick to pounce on them. When it proves them right, we ignore it completely. Just look at the number of brilliant selections in the last 7-8 years. Mohammad Kaif, Yuvraj Singh, Harbhajan Singh, Dinesh Karthik, Irfan Pathan, Virender Sehwag and many many others made an immediate impact on the international stage - they immediatly confirmed the selectors prediction that they had the ability to play international cricket. The Twenty20 World Championship team was selected by Vengsarkar selection committee.

If you look at Marvan Atapattu's early career, it illustrates the difficult of the selector's job. Heres my point - the selectors get it right far more often than they get it wrong. The Indian team wins more than it loses. Yet, the stray constructive critique (and i don't claim for a moment that this is one of them) about selection gets lost in a sea of angry noise and abusive breastbeating. There seems to be a default view that the selectors are stupid and/or dishonest. This is due to a basic misunderstanding about the job that they do.

Why is this important? With an increasingly belligerent press and TV media, interested less in nuance and more in juice, there is the risk that a task such as selection will be overrun by public opinion. Already, there is some indication that the BCCI's decision making is becoming swayed by an ill-informed public opinion - they do things merely to appease the public. The BCCI does not interfere with selection issues, but there may come a time when they might have to, pressured by public opinion. They need to become a stronger institution. But at the same time, the public interest must be informed, with the hope that this will cause it to be more reasonable. The selectors have already minimized the number of press conferences that they must give - with good reason in my view. They're job is fertile ground for juicy quotes and difficult ground for reasoned, nuanced positions. The latter are almost never attempted, the former are a dime a dozen.

Selection is a difficult job. It is also a fragile job. It needs to be respected and protected. Players criticizing selectors is different from the public or the press criticizing them. The public must realize this.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Batsmen fashion yet another victory.....

India's batsmen fashioned yet another sizzling batting performance to set up a victory for India after being put in on a difficult pitch in the 3rd ODI at Kanpur. Given variable bounce and some early moisture thanks to heavy overnight rain, Shoaib Malik must have fancied his team's chances of an easy run chase in the afternoon, once the demons in the wicket had satiated themselves with Indian scalps. Instead, Kamran Akmal dropped Sourav Ganguly first ball, and from then on it was a matter of an experienced Indian opening pair weathering the early storm (albeit a somewhat wayward one - Umar Gul was particularly inconsistent), and the rest of the Indian batting chipping in with a lot of class. Yuvraj Singh's was a terrific innings on a wicket which he may not have liked very much, while Dhoni came just at the right time and provided crucial impetus. Every plan the batsmen made came off. The turning point in the Indian innings in my view was the fact the Shahid Afridi went for plenty. On this wicket with unpredictable turn and bounce, he might have proved to be a handful, but he wasn't allowed to settle into a line and length. The left handers in Indian line up made it difficult for him. Even though Sohail Tanvir was demonstrating the virtues of good old fashioned line, length and consistency from the other end, India could afford to play him out because Afridi and then Malik leaked runs. Shoaib Malik's decision to hold Abdur Rehman back was sound - there were two left handers at the wicket. What he chose to ignore however is that the specialist spinner would probably turn it more than the part time batting all-rounders (this is not always true, but given that neither Malik nor Afridi are great turners of the ball, in this case it was probably significant). Rehman got a wicket in his first over, but by then it was probably too late. Tanvir had been taken out of the attack at the other end, and there was no pressure being built on Dhoni and Yuvraj.

For their part, Dhoni and Yuvraj continued their dominance of Pakistan. Since Dhoni joined the Indian team, he and Yuvraj have been at the wicket together against Pakistan 7 times in ODI's, and their association has yielded 4 century stands. All in all it has yielded 499 runs at a strike rate of 108. Both are amongst the top ODI batsmen of their era. Dhoni is much underrated as an ODI batsman. He averages 43 in ODI's, while Yuvraj, since Jan 1 2005, averages 45.57 over 79 games. He's reached 50 21 times in 74 innings. Considering the 13 not outs it means that he has reached atleast 50 in ODI's once for every third dismissal. Compare that with Tendulkar's record as opener, which remains the gold standard in ODI cricket - Tendulkar has reached 50 102 times as opener in 283 innings. Considering 19 not outs, it means he's reached at least 50 once for every 2.6 dismissals. Yuvraj is not far behind over the past few years.

This is the standard of the Indian batting. Rahul Dravid, even considering his moderate scores in the recent Australian series (i don't think he was dropped because of that - it was a combination of both his decision to give up the captaincy and his poor scores), averaged 39.91 from Jan 1 2005 till date. Ganguly since his comeback has made 1235 runs at 45.74. Tendulkar, since Jan 1 2005, averages 41. In this year, his batting average is 46.35 (with 1 century and 12 fifties! - these 12 fifties include scores of 99, 93, 99, 94, 99!!). Ironically, the century was made at number 4 in 76 balls, while all the nineties have all been made opening the batting.

Ironically this doesn't give India the win-loss record that they should have. This year alone, Sri Lanka have scored on average 15 runs per 50 over innings less than India, and still produced the same win-loss record. England have scored 25 runs per 50 over innings less than India this year on average, and yet have a win-loss record which is only slightly inferior to India (18-16 to Indias 19-14). India have conceded an average total of 262 in a 50 over innings this year. Only Pakistan (270) is worse. Australia have conceded 253 per innings, but this includes their run of 6 straight defeats just before the world cup where they conceded 335+ to NZ three times. Even the West Indies have conceded on average 10 runs per innings less than India. New Zealand have conceded 16 runs per innings less than India. Part of this has to do with the fielding. Part of it has to do with the consistently ridiculous output of India's pace attack, to which i have alluded many times before (the latest numbers are in my previous post.)

Just two years ago, 1/60 would have gotten Irfan Pathan nervous about his place in the side. His slump began in the West Indies last year and from that time - 18th May 2006 to Jan 31 2007, he took 13 wickets at 39.07 with an economy rate of 5.90. Look at the numbers in my previous post - it makes you wonder about our expectations from our pacemen. Since his comeback, Irfan has taken 10 wickets at 44.10 with an economy rate of 5.38. His economy rate has improved without doubt, but is that enough? Are fast bowlers expected to take wickets?

The "blame BCCI" brigade is probably chomping at the bit by now - but i would caution them against initiating the usual blame game. Can questions be asked of our bowling coach? ODI pace bowling output has infact declined during Venkatesh Prasad's tenure. Is this because ODI cricket has changed? What does Venkatesh Prasad think about these numbers? Can someone please ask the him? Would asking him be more useful than the usual blame the BCCI approach? Is it less cool to ask Venkatesh Prasad a question than it is to blame BCCI?

India need their pace attack to be effective, along with the spin bowling. They need to be able to deliver 50 good overs. If they do that, then the batsmen are good enough to enable India to dramatically improve the win-loss record. Until such time, we'll have to make do with watching our batsmen fail in chases of 290 or more on a regular basis.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

A busy week in Indian Cricket.....

For those of us who are interested in Cricket, this has been an interesting week. India are playing Pakistan, South Africa host New Zealand and the Australians host Sri Lanka. The old rivalry is a bit muted this time around, largely because India seem to play Pakistan very often. South Africa v New Zealand is one of the more interesting series in Cricket - both sides play a very similar brand of cricket. The difference this time around is that both sides have a quality spinner. Australia have just rattled up 550 against the Sri Lankans on a flat pitch at Brisbane, handing Murali his worst mauling in living memory. India's pacemen continue their woeful form. This time the beneficiary is Pakistan. Since India won the Test series in England, India's pacemen have built up the following record:

Zaheer Khan - 15 games, 14 wickets at 53.21, econ. 5.47
R P Singh - 12 games, 16 wickets at 34.75, econ. 5.58
Sreesanth - 4 matches, 9 wickets at 27.11, econ. 6.77
Irfan Pathan - 9 matches, 9 wickets at 42.22, econ. 5.29
Ajit Agarkar - 6 matches, 9 wickets at 40.77, econ. 6.92
Munaf Patel - 3 matches, 6 wickets at 23.83, econ. 6.50

Of the 17 games played, India have won 7. This inspite the fact that the batsmen have done really well - including Uthappa and Gambhir - two newcomers. Will someone please ask Venkatesh Prasad what's going on?

Anil Kumble has been named Test captain. He's clearly the second choice. Tendulkar was the first choice. His refusal was expected, except by the Vengsarkar-Tendulkar-Mumbai Lobby conspiracy theorists. We have a strange situation right now - 4 persons have refused/quit the top posts in Indian Cricket this year - Chappell quit, Dravid quit, Tendulkar refused, and Ford refused. Many more candidates whom we know nothing about have probably refused as well. So we end up with a 38 year old leg spinner with another year of cricket in him at the most as Test captain, and a young wicketkeeper-batsman with nothing to lose as the ODI captain. This may even bring great success. I just wonder however - why is it that so many top people think it isn't worth their while to captain or coach India?

Kumble also becomes India's first bowler captain in 31 years. This in itself will bring with it many firsts and many interesting issues for those who are interested in them. Spin bowler captains are rare - Benaud, Illingworth, Inthikab Alam, Bishen Bedi, Venkatraghavan and Daniel Vettori come to mind as spin bowler captains. There hasn't been a single one in World Cricket between Venkatraghavan and Vettori, except for stray games where spin-bowlers have been stand-in skippers. Kumble's appointment marks a milestone in the spin revival led by his generation of spin bowlers after the barren 80's. He has been a great bowler, and has the experience of over a hundred tests. He's probably one of the most respected cricketers in the world at the moment. It will be interesting to see how he handles his side in the field in a Test match.
I also wonder whether Kumble will still do the nightwatchman's role if such a role is required. He may just tell the batsmen to deal with the music themselves!

I only wish that he hadn't been given the captaincy after Tendulkar had publicly refused it. Not because it will cause any trouble within the team - it won't, but because he will always be viewed as the second choice. BCCI might have been more tactful - Tendulkar himself might have kept his position to himself until BCCI made the announcement. What makes things even worse was Tendulkar's comment about the suitability of looking for a younger captain.

Coming back to the ongoing ODI series, we can expect more of the same from India - good batting, rubbish bowling, ordinary fielding. That the selectors have named an unchanged side for ODI's 3 and 4 suggests the futility of naming a side for just 2 ODI's in the first place, and also the lack of pace bowling options (since that would be the area where a change would be warranted). India currently possess a group of 6 or 7 pace bowlers who are all equally unpredictable, and are all just short of being good enough to command a regular place in a top international cricket team. If anything, matters have taken a turn for the worse under Venkatesh Prasad - everybody seems to be uniformly inconsistent now, and no single bowler seems to be in good form in any game. I don't remember the last time an Indian paceman was difficult to score off in an ODI.

All in all, there has been a flurry of activity this week, just like there is in the Civil Service bureaucracy. One should expect a similar maintenance of the status quo as well.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Pakistan arrive....

This should be a momentous arrival. Geoff Lawson recently said that in his view the India v Pakistan contest was bigger than the Ashes. And yet, it is anticipated about as much as an India v Zimbabwe series with Andy Flower and Heath Streak in the Zimbabwe side. This is no reflection on the strength of the current Pakistan side or on the saleability of Flower and Streak. The edge has gone out of the contest, because it happens so often. India went to Pakistan after 15 years in early 2004. Pakistan came to India in early 2005, and India made another full tour in early 2006. That this tour has been delayed and pushed to the end of 2007, is only because of the World Cup - though both BCCI and PCB must be wondering what the value of playing the World Cup was - Pakistan had its second straight first round exit and a dead coach. India had its worst showing in the World Cup since 1979 and severe bout of ugliness.

When India went to Pakistan in 2004, it was a hastily scheduled tour. Mr. Vajpayee was in power when that tour began, and it was electric beginning. India batted first at Karachi, made 349 and won by 5 runs. In a closely fought series beset with the usual cynical allegations of match fixing, India won 3-2. The Test series that followed involved 3 fairly one-sided Tests - India won 2 of them and Pakistan won the third. In each case, one side got ahead and stayed ahead to win. It took place at the fag end of the subcontinental cricket season - only rarely have Pakistan played home Tests in May.

I consider it a good thing that this contest has become routine. The marketing men will still attempt to cast it as a war or as a struggle or something similarly inappropriately gladiatorial, but this will now viewed the same way as other efforts by these marketing men - with a cursory shrug at the most. That India are playing Pakistan 4 times in 4 years flies in the face of the ICC's 10 year Test series cycle. The Ashes are held every 4 years in each country - and they play 5 or 6 Tests in a series. India play Pakistan every other year in each country and play 3 Test series. If you think about it, it is about the same amount of cricket.

Pakistan arrive with a new coach and a new captain. Their captain is considered to be a good cricketer and has long been identified as a future captain. He is not shy of an opinion and is prone to expressing some rather indiscreet ones as was evident in the Twenty20 World Cup. His team is not shy either. In Shahid Afridi and Shoaib Akthar, they have two outrageous talents, and two of the most difficult cricketers in the World. Mohammad Asif seems to have missed out at the eleventh hour, with an injury. If India had been Australia, the Indian press would have pounced on this late withdrawal, coupled with the inclusion of Shoaib in the side. Instead, the Indian press is likely to try hard to ingratiate themselves with the Pakistan side. Shoaib - a man who in the past 18 months has been suspended from ball tampering charges, drug charges and assault charges, but still remains an international cricketer, is likely to be the main draw. The rest of the side (save Afridi) is quite dull.

On the cricket side of things, Shoaib and Gul will form a quality new ball attack (provided Shoaib survives). Danish Kaneria with nag away, and it remains to be seen which Pakistan bowler emerges during this series. In 2004 in Pakistan it was Gul, in 2006 in Pakistan it was Asif, while in India in 2005 it was Kaneria with 19 wickets in 3 Tests. On the batting front, Mohammad Yousuf comes with a huge reputation. He has been the best batsman in the World in the last 18 months along with Ricky Ponting. He has made 10 Test hundreds since the beginning of 2006, and even though he hasn't played too much cricket this year and has found himself in the midst of the farce that is ICL, has shown glimpses of the kind of run making that brought him all those run in 2006. He made 3 fifties and a century in 5 innings in the recent ODI home series against Pakistan to be man of the series. He will be India's severest threat with the bat. Shahid Afridi is always a threat, because he has the rare ability to decide a Test match in a session.

For India, many decisions still remain. It is unclear who will captain them in the Test series. Having won in England, they must feel quite confident - but with Rahul Dravid's form in the doldrums (Mumbai tested him today and he came through quite well with a 40 in a Karnataka total of 9/189 - on an early season Wankhede wicket you never know how good or bad that is). The last series in India was drawn 1-1, and India will hope to beat Pakistan at home this time - for the first time since 1979-80. That in itself is a worthy goal. Kumble will be a handful in India, but they will need the new ball attack to make the early breaks. With Sreesanth having self destructed spectacularly in Pakistan, it will be interesting to see how Irfan Pathan does in the ODI series. If he does well, we might well have the first instance of 3 left arm seamers playing in a Test eleven!

I see India playing the following side in batting order for the first Test:
Jaffer, Karthik, Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman, Ganguly, Pathan, Kumble, Zaheer, Harbhajan, RP Singh.

One of these players will be the captain. My guess is that the most likely candidate is Tendulkar, all though VVS and Kumble would also be good choices. Dinesh Karthik will have to keep wickets, because this enables India to play 5 bowlers. Harbhajan will enjoy the fact that there will be 3 left arm pacemen in the game (possibly 4 if Pakistan play Sohail Tanvir). Murali Kartik is likely to push Harbhajan for a place, but i think Harbhajan will prevail with his Test record.

How the aging Indian middle order tackles the seemingly ageless pace of Shoaib Akthar remains to be seen.....

All in all, the Test series looks promising from the cricket point of view, with no other nonsense like "friendship" (the Government view) or "Sangharsh" (the TV company's view - i guess they though Jihad would be too loaded, but they would still use it if they had half a chance) likely to skew the equation.