Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Verbal Twenty20

The ongoing yelling match between stray Indian and Australian cricketers seems to be the most sustainable, self-sufficient, environmentally friendly entity in the world right now. It seems to feed on itself, seems to require no outside impetus, and exists in an environment which cannot get enough of it. Win-win all round. Even the Cricket Australia boss has found it impossible to manage. Hayden was reprimanded, based on CA's own rules. In the normal world that you and I inhabit, that would be the end of the matter. But no! In the bizarre world of the Australian cricket team, the person reprimanded responds "Im innocent, but i accept the reprimand", and his opening partner says "Hayden's the most respected member of our team".

Does any of this make sense? If Hayden's innocent, then in what kind of idiotic world does an innocent man accept what is by definition an unfair reprimand? How is it in any way in the spirit of cricket? The spirit of cricket surely does not recommend cowardice or dishonesty! Wouldn't Hayden have shown better respect for Cricket Australia by choosing to respectfully disagree with his boss's decision, instead of indulging in the sort of verbal acrobatics which befit only a first rate nut-job?

But things making sense, as we have seen over and over again in the matter of disciplinary issues in cricket - be they with regard to the ICC or with regard to individual cricket boards, is at best an optional extra. Take the case of Harbhajan Singh for instance. The BCCI specifically instructed the Indian cricket team to behave themselves after the Hansen hearing, trying to keep a lid on all this nonsense. Yet, we have our first choice off spinner spouting off pearls of wisdom to anybody who will shove a microphone under his mustache.

Why is it that the Indians and the Australians are constantly at each others throat? Plenty of explanations have been put forth - a culture clash between the Indian and Australian sporting ethos, the fact that India have challenged the Aussies more than any other team has in recent years, the fact that the Indians have their own share of abrasive characters, the "ugly Australian" theory and the theory that all this is legitimate jockeying for on-field advantage. All these reasons are probably good ones, and all of them explain the issue to some extent. One could add to these reasons the question of money, the lop-sided power balance between India and the rest of the cricketing world and the weakness of agencies enforcing discipline.

Referees and Umpires one suspects are caught between a desire to make one sweeping assault on things, haul everyone up and ban them for a while on the one hand, and a desire to just carry on with the game and hope these things will go away (because the first option is unlikely work). Cricket Boards are caught between trying to keep a lid on things on the one hand and avoid alienating their respective cricket fans on the other. When an Australian player says something to an Indian player, or vice versa, a significant portion of the respective popular press corps and cricket fans take offense. Cricket Boards or the ICC are unlikely to be able to manage this.

There is a Twenty20esque quality to this current state of affairs - a complete absence of standards, of restraint, of any sort of coherent dialogue. The perpetual exhausting turmoil between bat and ball which marks Twenty20, marks the relationship between India and Australia right now. Just as the bat does not respect ball in Twenty20, there is little or no regard between players. Things are polarized, with standing up for ones mates being the overarching expectation, irrespective of the facts. Its like Twenty20 - irrespective of the line and length of the ball, the batsman is obliged to try and slap it to the boundary. The resulting edges, mis-hits and sweetly middled boundaries are all accepted with the exact same matter of fact nod. If you think about this, Gilchrist's reaction to Hayden being reprimanded is a similarly airy fairy case of nondescript karma, which surprised nobody.

With the players talking at each other and the administrators trying in vain to get their attention, one has begun to hope that these gentlemen would disappear at stumps, and only reappear when the Umpire calls play the next day. In Twenty20, there is no next day. That it would seem is the crux of the problem. The perspective which comes from having to keep an eye out for tomorrow, is sorely missed.

Update: The most amazing writing on the Hayden controversy is found here.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Trash talk

"Harbhajan an 'obnoxious weed'". This headline of Cricinfo is a fine comment on the state of cricket. Dhoni's comment that cricket can never be friendly is equally sad. Dhoni has suggested that what the Australians do is an art form. They are in essence trying to take advantage of the of the ICC Code of Conduct - trying to provoke opposition players and get them into the referee's bad books. This transcript of a Mathew Hayden interview is worth a read.

If you actually think about it, Dhoni's comment about cricket being less than friendly does not add up. Australia are not concerned with being friendly or unfriendly, they are concerned, in Dhoni's estimation with taking full advantage within the letter of the law and the playing conditions. If the playing conditions offered them a way of gaining the advantage over their opponents by being friendly, you can bet your last rupee that they would be very friendly on the field.

The recent round of tu tu main main is just plainly silly. "Unfriendly" is hardly how one would describe it. "Childish" would be more appropriate. Except that the persons involved are 36 and 27 years old respectively. That makes the whole exchange obnoxious.

The ICC continues to miss the point, with plaintive requests to both teams to behave properly. If the governing body which has the wordy Code of Conduct at its command is reduced to begging, what does that tell you? To be fair to the ICC though, they have been quite good about making changes to the way the Code of Conduct is enforced. Initially, the referee could bring charges at his own initiative and then make rulings on them after holding hearings. Thus he could act as both prosecutor and judge. Post Denness, the ICC took away the power of the referee to bring charges against players except in certain exceptional circumstances.

It appears that while this has reduced the inconsistency in refereeing decisions, it has not helped convey a sense of fairness to proceedings. This is because there has been an inconsistency from umpires and opposition teams in reporting transgressions. Thus the Symonds "catch" was not reported by the Sri Lankan cricket team and Symonds got away with it. This time around, in Ishant's case, the referee acknowledged that Ishant was provoked, but since the charge had been brought against him and not against Symonds, the referee could not charge Symonds. The same was the case in the Harbhajan Symonds affair (its funny how Symonds appears in all htese instances). In that case, Symonds himself acknowledged in the Hansen hearing that he was abusive towards Harbhajan Singh, but since there was no original charge against Symonds, the referee couldn't bring the charge against him.

So, the current system does not guarantee that the Code of Conduct is applied fairly, even if the referees make near perfect judgements based on the written Code every time. The time has come to review the referee system. ICC should either empower one member of each squad (may be the manager) to be prosecutor - to sit with the rule book and bring charges against opposition players. This will ensure that teams (and more importantly supporters of teams) are not left wondering about the fairness of it all. Alternatively, the ICC could appoint an independent third party prosecutor, just as they have appointed referees.

The best option though would be to do away with the match referee system, and put the onus on the home boards to ensure discipline. The current system isn't working, even though the referees by and large have been quite even handed and consistent.

In any event, some way has to be found to ensure that respectable cricket sites like Cricinfo do not find reason to put up ridiculous headlines like this one.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Purist Entertainment, Twenty20 and Cricket

Harsha Bhogle casts the debate about IPL as one between the traditionalists and the reformists among cricket watchers. He deftly claims for himself a view on the sidelines of this debate, and yet proceeds to find with his reformists. I am unable to get interested in Twenty20 as a cricketing contest. I believe that Test cricket is the supreme cricketing contest, which probably places me squarely amongst the Mr. Bhogle's traditionalists.

I am uncomfortable with this, for i would like to think that i am sympathetic to the aspirations of the BCCI and Cricket in general to approach the same level of financial well being as any of the great European or American professional sports. I like a watching a good slog as much as the next viewer. It is this correlation between Test Cricket and some kind of arcane cricketing orthodoxy or dogma which i find troubling.
A connoisseur is one who is especially competent to pass critical judgments in an art, particularly one of the fine arts, or in matters of taste. Such a person can discern the exquisite from the ordinary, and is often viewed by the unsympathetic as a self-styled arbiter of taste. To illustrate the ultimate stereotype of the "traditionalist" or connoisseur, he or she is one who savours and celebrates a rare cover drive on an afternoon of slow cricket - both the exquisite beauty of the stroke, and the rarity of it.

Mr. Bhogle's central argument seems to be that "good cricket" requires good pitches, proper sized grounds and good coaches running good teams. If these conditions are met, then Mr. Bhogle suggests that cricket will have kept its part of the bargain. The onus will then be on us - the spectators, to reveal whether we actually love cricket and are able to buy into the reformist sentiment embodied by the franchise driven multi-million dollar IPL. The problem with this, is traditionalists by and large agree with Mr. Bhogle's prescription for good cricket. I contend that the distinction between the traditionalist and the reformist is a false one when it comes to this issue of Twenty20.

Twenty20 is a format devised
in England, which has been adopted by the ECB to run alongside its regular county championship. The major reason behind its adoption was to compete with Professional football and other sports in the UK. The ECB used Twenty20 to bring attention to county teams. India have no such competition. They have no trouble filling grounds for ODI games or even for Test matches. When India played Australia recently, the Test matches were nearly always played to full houses. It is hardly "reformist" to appropriate the format and use BCCI's present ability to lure in the big bucks, so that Shah Rukh Khan and Vijay Mallya can have some lucrative entertainment.

Instead we have a format where the slog - a daring charge, made by a batsman inspite of a real risk of losing his wicket and the consequences of the loss of that wicket, one which is made in order to deposit the bowler out of the ground, loses all meaning and significance, because theres almost nothing to stop a batsman from charging a bowler every ball. Twenty20 devalues the wicket, it devalues the slog, and therefore it devalues the contest. The point of the slog, the excitement of the slog comes from what it signifies, not from the number of runs scored. The excitement comes from the statement that is made due to the slog attempt - an insurrection against the imposed will of the bowler - an act of desperation, an attempt to change the balance of the contest - to "break the shackles" as todays commentators like to say. There are no shackles in Twenty20. A lofted six over cover is no more significant than a forward defensive. Twenty20 is the game of reckless charge and counter-charge, with the victor being chance.

Good cricket requires a fair contest between bat and ball. Even with good pitches, proper sized grounds and good coaching (which contribute to the fair contest, but do not guarantee it), Twenty20 would hardly provide that. Bowler friendly pitches are hardly the answer. The contest would then be even more of a lottery, not less.

The Indian Premier League does not represent the "reformists" anymore than i represent the "traditionalists". One can only hope that it represents only a lucrative sidelight, which will not not blind the actual show with its gaudy glare. Meanwhile the actual show - Cricket - goes on.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

IPL Frenzy....

Subhash Chandra ought to be ashamed of himself. The BCCI refused his bid for TV rights, and he took it badly. Just to spite BCCI, he decided to start the Indian Cricket League, which caused BCCI to launch its own Indian Premier League. Today we had the first, and possibly most exciting day of the this league with various players being auctioned to various franchises. Shah Rukh Khan and other monied people inflicted their taste in cricketers on cricket and the public.

I have a hard time seeing Mr. Ambani as Cricket's Roman Abramovich. Inter-national Cricket has been reduced to being a faux-national joke. Some of the top players in the world will be playing silly cricket (twenty overs a side), peddling their hard earned Test match reputations for a few extra bucks. The game is shortchanged because its best exponents are reduced to participating in a farcical format which does not allow any real contest between bat and ball. The spectators are shortchanged, because they see a team sheet with some of the greatest names in the game, only to find that most of them are over the hill, playing a format which is better suited for under 12's.

Many people will seek to compare this with Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket. Packer Cricket was real cricket. Many of the players who participated thought it was some of the highest quality cricket they played. Real test matches were played and real contests were seen. Twenty20 by definition cannot produce a real cricketing contest, for reasons discussed before.

At the end of the day BCCI will make lots of money, but at what cost? Might they not have taken the Ranji Trophy and built it up into something similar instead, without the Twenty20? County Cricket has attracted the world's best cricketers for 40 years now. Why would Ranji Trophy not do the same? What is BCCI's strategy for domestic cricket? It is no secret that the Indian first class calender needs a wholesale revamp. Instead of rebuilding the Ranji Trophy (something which BCCI has paid a lot of attention to in recent years, with different formats being tried) and applying their business acumen in an area where there might be benefits beyond their bank balance, BCCI has taken the easy way out and floated a silly franchise based system. They have ignored their local associations, which are their real franchises.

In doing so, they have stooped to the level of Subhash Chandra. The difference between BCCI and Zee TV, is that the BCCI is the trustee of the game of cricket in India, while Zee TV is merely a Television channel on the look out for lucrative television software. The IPL weakens this differentiation. Previously, the BCCI's monopoly in running cricket had merit. Now, it is obvious that there is no difference whatsoever between BCCI and Zee TV or any other company which make wish to make a quick buck off cricket.

If you want a summary of the result of the bidding, see this. Suresh Raina $ 650,000, VVS Laxman $375,000, Ricky Ponting $400,000, David Hussey $675,000... Enough said!

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Symonds "catch"

I found two videos of the Symonds "catch" to dismiss Chamara Silva at Perth. In the first one, we have Ian Chappell, Michael Slater and Ian Healy discussing the catch, in the other, we have Harsha Bhogle and Wasim Akram doing it.

Video with Channel 9 commentary

Video with Star Cricket commentary

It was an awesome catch by Symonds - an amazing demonstration of reflexes and catching ability. The only problem is that under Law 32, it was an incomplete catch, because as Bhogle and Akram point out, the ball was grounded before he completed the catch.

For a brilliant fielding side, Australia have absolutely no understanding of the catching law. The law does not just require that the ball carry to the fielder on the full, but requires that for the fielder to complete the catch, he must demonstrate control over the ball and his own movement without letting the ball touch the ground. Symonds, as the both videos demonstrate (actually its the exact same video feed with different commentators), hit the ground with his palm facing downwards, with the result that it is inconceivable that the ball did not touch the ground. Hence the catch was definitely illegal.

Rashid Latif got into a similar tangle against Bangladesh in 2003 and got banned for 5 matches as a result. As that BBC story shows, the charge was brought by the Bangladesh team. It would be easy to blame the referee or the ICC in this case, but the only people who can bring a charge are the umpires or the team managements. Australia are obviously not going to charge Symonds with a level 3 offense. The umpires are unlikely to do so, because it makes them look like a fool. There is no catching agreement any more, and Symonds could well turn around and say, i thought i caught it, and therefore claimed it. The umpires are there to make a decision. In this instance they made the wrong decision.

Now, if the Sri Lankan team management makes a charge, then there would have to be a hearing. Given the precedent set by Procter in 2003 in the matter of Rashid Latif at Multan, the referee Jeff Crowe would be hard pressed to find in favor of Symonds. The Sri Lankans, for reasons best known to them have not pressed charges. I wonder what Arjuna Ranatunga thinks about this.

This situation is made worse by the events of the Sydney Test match where Symonds was a central figure, and Australia's antics after the game. India made a huge hue and cry about it, and if Arjuna had been a member of the Sri Lanka team management, he might have done the same.

As for the commentary, if Channel 9 still has figured out the pitfalls of an all Australian panel, then the ICC ought to regulate and force TV channels to have international commentary panels. Their isolationist stance may work in Australia, but with Youtube, blogs and discussion forums, their credibility is sinking by the day, because other people who watch cricket and don't watch it through Australian eyes watch them, and end up thinking the worse of the them.

We should all remember that its just a game, and the Symonds getting away with a awesome albeit dodgy catch is not the end of the world. The question of course is whether Australia believe that Andrew Symonds getting hauled up and banned is the end of the world.

Symonds definitely dodged a bullet there....

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Yuvraj, Sehwag must run the batting....

Dhoni's India have given a good account of themselves in the Commonwealth Bank Series so far. Yet, all they have to show for it, is one victory. They have now lost to both teams in the tournament and are fast entering must win territory. Tuesday's game against Sri Lanka must end successfully for India to feel that they can make the finals of the tournament.

If you look closely at India's performance in the VB series, they have had 5 stand out performers - Dhoni (as captain and batsman), Ishant Sharma, Gautam Gambhir and to some extent Irfan Pathan and Rohit Sharma. India's performance is being viewed positively, because of runs and wickets from unexpected quarters. Yet it is the experienced members of the team whose performances have been more telling. Tendulkar and Yuvraj have been the two best Indian ODI batsmen in recent times and they have underperformed. The team selection, even though it has been inspired and positive, has also revealed that India are not quite sure how to play their batting line up yet.

The middle order is unsettled, which is understandable. The problem lies not with the fact that there are new players in the mix, but with the roles performed by the experienced players. Tendulkar opening the batting is not working and were he not such a superb ODI opening bat, India might have pushed him down to number 4 in the ODI line up as well by now. Sehwag is being wasted opening the batting, mainly because he hasn't produced an innings which justifies his position opening the batting in about 3 years. He needs to be moved to the middle order and given responsibility - a position like number 4 may be. Like Dhoni, he may respond better to responsibility. The problem with him opening, is that his role has come to be seen as one where he has licence to go hell for leather. He is not opening the batting because he can play 50 overs with better results than anyone else, but because he is reputedly able to slaughter the new ball.

Robin Uthappa, who had such a good run of scores in the lower middle order has been completely sidelined mainly because of a lack of opportunity in the late middle order. Rohit Sharma has played well at number 4, but is not the best candidate for the job given the talent and accomplishment around him.

If India are to make progress as a team during this tournament, they need to settle on a first eleven and stick with it. This is a tough series and learning at the deep end as they are, they will be best served if they stick together with a consistent tactical approach as a team. Flexible batting orders work well when you have players who know what they are doing and are in form. India have basically begun with a clean slate here.

Yesterday's batting collapse is just another illustration of the problem of an unsettled line up. For the rest of this tournament the following batting order could be suggested (playing 5 bowlers works really well, and India should consider persisting with this idea).

Tendulkar, Gambhir, Yuvraj, Sehwag, Uthappa/Sharma, Dhoni, Irfan, Harbhajan, Sreesanth, Munaf, Ishant.

Ishant has been the bowler of the series so far, and Munaf made an impressive return yesterday. Sreesanth continues to be erratic but possesses the ability to take wickets, which makes him useful in a 5 bowler set up.

Yuvraj Singh is a batsman out of form and low on confidence. India have to back him at this point. His decline on this tour has been astonishing, and it is inconceivable that this is anything more than a loss of form. India should invest in Yuvraj by placing him at number 3 - something which may shield him for starting against Murali or Hogg and let him play the faster bowling which he has always preferred more. A similar argument can be made for Sehwag. Sehwag is the most important Indian batsman today, because the Indian batting post Tendulkar and Dravid must be built around him. He needs to be given the responsible position of number 4 (but no lower), may be this will help him.

If India are trying to effect generational transition, Yuvraj and Sehwag must inherit most of the responsibility. Tendulkar can open the batting because his experience and his ability ensure that India are able to counter the new ball. The first 15 overs are not central to winning games in Australia, the last 35 are.

India's problem in this tournament has been handling pressure. The batting failed in both run chases against Australia (even though they won at Melbourne, it was down to Tendulkar's runs), and the bowlers failed while defending against Sri Lanka. The upcoming games will become more difficult pressure wise. The way ahead must therefore be to place the most experienced hands in positions of maximum responsibility. Sharma, Gambhir and co. must play around Tendulkar, Yuvraj and Sehwag, and not the other way around.

If India don't make the final, there will be plenty of pressure to recall Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid back to the ODI side and it will be the pre-world cup U-turn all over again. That would be a set back for Dhoni and India. Yuvraj and Sehwag have to bat for the next generation...

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Twenty20 - Limited Overs Cricket, or just Limited Cricket?

The final over of the Twenty20 World Cup in South Africa in 2007 was delivered by Joginder Sharma - a medium pacer who is probably not even as good as Sourav Ganguly with the ball, to a young upcoming Pakistan batsman who then went on to make superb match saving Test centuries in a subsequent series in India. Guess who won - Joginder Sharma.

Pakistan needed 12 to win if i remember correctly. Sharma's first ball was so wide that it barely stayed within the prepared wicket. His next ball was a full toss wide of off stump which Misbah walked into and smashed over long off for six. It was an amazing stroke - to hit a waist high ball over long off for six like that requires some skill. Joginder's last ball in the 2003 World Cup was yet another good length ball well outside off stump. Pakistan needed a run a ball to win. In a Test match that ball would have been absolutely slaughtered backward of point for four - a square drive played with a flourish, on the rise, on one knee. In the cauldron of the Twenty20 final, Misbah carried out his pre-determined, walk down the wicket and across his stumps, so that Joginder's good length offering wide outside off stump was now a near half volley at Misbah's feet, and tried to scoop it over Sreesanth at short fine leg. His scoop got as far as Sreesanth, who took at catch and India's ascent to Twenty20 folklore had begun. Dhoni was feted as the great mastermind who handed the ball to Joginder. The reality is that Joginder Sharma probably bowled the most terrible last over defending 12 runs, in the history of international limited overs cricket.

What cricketing logic was at work here? What cricketing logic is at work in Twenty20? After India were "bowled" out for 74 in the Melbourne Twenty20 contest, Dhoni said that the batsmen forgot their roles. Really? Should Gambhir and Uthappa have simply blocked those two half volleys which they tried to loft over over mid-off? Was that shot selection "wrong"? Was Misbah's shot selection wrong in that final? Can shot selection ever be wrong in Twenty20? What is a good line and length in Twenty20? Did Joginder Sharma bowl a poor line and length in that final over?

So far, the only real bit of wisdom going around about Twenty20, is that batsman actually have a lot more time than they think they have. Twenty20 is viewed as 20 overs a side ODI cricket - an ODI limited by Duckworth-Lewis at the very beginning. 54 Twenty20 games have now been played, and the average Twenty20 Innings is 7/158 in 20 overs. A wicket falls once in every 17 balls, and nearly 8 runs are scored in every over. In a nutshell, more things happen in a short span of time and overs.

Lets take the shot selection issue. What is shot selection? Common sense would suggest that it is a judgement about what shot should be played to what delivery, in order to score the most runs with the maximum certainty and minimum risk of dismissal. "Shot selection" even in the early overs, the middle overs and the slog overs of an ODI is different. It is different against the new ball than it is against the old ball, it is different on a green seaming wicket and it is different on a dry dust bowl. It is different on a hard wicket and it is different on a soft wicket. It is even different depending on whether you're a left hander or a right hander - for depending on the nature of the opposition attack, one of the two may be driving from a terrible rough while the other may be driving from the intact pitch - a different risk of dismissal in each case. What else affects "shot selection"?

Most crucially, shot selection and more directly "risk of dismissal" are affected by the value of a wicket. What is a wicket worth in a 20 over game? Is it worth less than it is in a 50 over game? It would be safe to say that it is. Everything that happens in the Twenty20 game, and every consequence of Twenty20 cricket flows from this observation - this completely different value of a wicket in T20.

Each batsman needs to last 12 balls in Twenty20 cricket in order for his team to ensure that they played out 20 overs. Courtney Walsh, arguably the worst batsman in modern day cricket international cricket, played 2088 balls in 185 Test innings - an average of 11.2 balls per innings. The conclusion ought to be obvious - there is no realistic risk of a side getting bowled out in Twenty20.

As a result, batsmen are more likely to throw their bats around, hence they are more likely to get into "bad" habits in other cricket, especially with short adjustment times between formats - India played a Test match from 24-28 of January, a T20 game on Feb 1, followed by an ODI on Feb 3.

All normal analysis falls apart. What is "orthodox" Twenty20 cricket? What is the standard of play in this format of the game? Is the only measure of quality in this contest the frequency of high octane events? One certainly cannot suggest that there was "quality" bowling or batting, given that batsmen don't particularly care about getting out (not because they don't want to win, but because it is not in their interest to care). Does the "best" team win? Or does the luckiest team, which finds itself at the right end of the plays at the right time win? Or does the most "powerful" team - the team with the best ability to arrest the other teams momentum and build its own in its place, win? How is momentum built or arrested? It is built by relentlessly taking chances, and it is arrested if the opposition takes the proverbial "one chance too many".

Twenty20 at the end of the day is about building a glorified highlights package, which is communicated to us by commentators as a compressed ODI game, but is in fact, one colossal throw of the dice. Real cricket is not about what happens in an individual delivery. It is about the story of that individual delivery. Twenty20 is currently like those very poor bollywood films in the recent past, which had no beginning, no end, no real reason for existing except for the fact that a few people shot a few stray songs and a few stray scenes. It is like the multi-starrer without a script or a spine. Unfortunately, it is here to stay. It is here to demolish precious, carefully nurtured cricketing talent, the way bad companionship demolishes character. Having destroyed the contest between bat and ball, it is going to peck away at the cricketer himself. It certainly isn't just limited overs cricket - more accurately, it is limited cricket. Cricket Ltd. meanwhile, is happy.

Melbourne ODI - India v Australia

India won a terrific victory at the MCG aided by a couple of fortunate decisions, terrific bowling and level headed batting during the modest run chase. It was India's first win chasing against Australia in Australia in 22 years, and only their 4th successful run chase against the Aussies in Australia in 15 opportunities.

There was a consistent threat about India's new ball attack with the white ball after a really long time, and it paid off. Australia came out blazing as usual, and for a while Mathew Hayden's front foot play threatened to force India into a bowling change. Ishant Sharma struggled with his run up early in his spell with the new ball, and the free hit rule came into play. Mathew Hayden revealed an interesting method of playing the free hits. Usually, his method is to stand outside his crease and aim to play off the front foot with a good stride. For the free hit, he stands deep inside his crease, and instead of assuming his normal stance, takes a baseball style stance with the bat almost fully at the top of the backlift. He got one four for the free hit, but the narrow minded aggression evident in Hayden's approach to the free hit, seemed to permeate all the other Australian batsmen. Ishant Sharma dismissed Ponting and Symonds, beating them with fine line and length outside off stump. Hayden himself went caught at the wicket attempting the hardest hit cover drive in the history of ODI cricket. Michael "pup" Clarke came down the wicket to Irfan Pathan with his side at 64/3 and found the orthodox mid wicket fielder instead of a neo-orthodox power-play boundary. At 64/4, Australia finally realized they were in trouble, and in the next 31 overs of their innings, they produced 6/95, to be bowled out for 159. Only Michael Hussey showed a willingness to graft and was stranded on 65 at the end.

In response, Tendulkar made an important 44 against the best of the Australian bowling and was probably lucky to survive against Stuart Clark on one occasion. He seems to have bought into this youth theory and in a throw back to his halcyon days fairly thumped three fours in an over off Brett Lee, the second of which was absolutely blasted. He will try and tell you till he's blue in the face that he was merely playing the ball on its merit, but this is a much more interesting narrative. The introspective, careful Tendulkar giving way to the carefree master blaster. He did to Lee what Hayden did to Sharma. He fell to a soft dismissal, the nature of which indicated that Ponting's prophecy that the wicket would slow up considerably in the 2nd innings of the match was absolutely accurate. Tendulkar had done enough in the context of the run chase, but with the wicket becoming less friendly for run scoring, at 97/4 chasing 159, India might have considered themselves only halfway to their target. Yuvraj Singh's poor run continued and it was left to the captain and the much discussed Rohit Sharma to shepherd the run chase. They played and missed, but as with everything else that had passed earlier in the game, they had the rub of the green. They also added to it with some of their own commonsense, which as Dhoni revealed later was to wait for the 5th bowler. In doing so they conceded the opportunity to gain a bonus point.

That was the characteristic of this win - prudence. There was no maverick individual brilliance. All the bowlers bowled quite well, there was no weak link anywhere - save Yuvraj Singh's batting. The south paw who has been one of the world's finest ODI batsmen in the past two years, will have to think long and hard about his batting and make sure that he turns the corner in Australia. The fact that his fielding no longer stands out as much as it once did in the Indian ODI side will not be lost on him or the selectors. This series will test the young indian middle order like little else in the world. They will have to play the pace of Lee, the unorthodoxy of Malinga, the cunning of Vaas and the greatness of Murali. Anybody who comes out of this series with an average of 40, will be a really good batsman.

Noticeably absent today was any over the top aggression. The only display came from Ishant Sharma who was quite fired up when Hayden was dismissed - a reaction to Hayden's aggravating mixture of awesome strokeplay and aw-shucks mis-strokes i guess. Sreesanth was almost philosophical, and when he got the 9th wicket, didn't even celebrate.

Much has been said about M S Dhoni. All i will say is that a new team is being built in Australia this month. They will almost certainly lose some games, and hopefully win a few more. The batting line up may yet be found out some players may fall away. But this is not Ganguly's team being led by Dhoni. Neither is it Dravid's team. It is Dhoni's team.

Round One to the Indian selectors....

Kasparov on Politics...

This is Gary Kasparov doing an interview with one of the many commentators in America who have their own TV shows and engage in political and social satire. The great Chess Grand Master talks about Russia and politics....


Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Why is the Duleep Trophy played?

The English Lions are the visiting team in the 2007-08 Duleep Trophy. Bangladesh A and South Africa A have toured here before. The Bangladesh A side predictably got hammered even by the Zonal Sides. This years English Lions side includes Monty Panesar. This should promise high quality, competitive cricket in this tournament. However, the Duleep Trophy is less than ideal, as Paras Mhambrey writes on Cricinfo, given that it consists of scratch teams. This is no reflection on the attitude of the players, but is a reflection on a tournament format which doesn't work. The Zones are an administrative convenience for BCCI, and should not stray on to the field of play. The Deodhar Trophy, which is the ODI counterpart of the Duleep Trophy is equally useless for the same reasons. Further, if you look at cricketers who have made it to the India side in the recent past, almost none of them have made it on the back of great performances in the Duleep Trophy. The Duleep Trophy offers 2-3 games of higher quality cricket compared to the Ranji Trophy, not enough to let any selector make a firm judgement on a player's form or ability. The Ranji Trophy which is a longer tournament, which tests players are numerous venues in different conditions, is a much better breeding ground. Even the age group teams have yielded more players for the national side than the Duleep Trophy.

The Duleep Trophy does not meet any of the criteria for a first class cricket tournament - the teams in it are scratch combinations and have little or no stake in winning the tournament as a team, the tournament is too short to enable any sort of team building, the tournament does not fulfill its purpose as a selection tournament, because players who have done well in the duleep trophy have not been selected for India in recent years - Ranji teams and India Under 19 are more likely to yield an India cricketer than a Duleep Trophy team is!
Why then is this tournament being played?

Ideally, the tournament should be scrapped and the Ranji Trophy should instead be extended.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

The question of youth.....

India took on Australia at Brisbane today on a lively, fastish wicket offering some seam movement, with a middle order which read - Gambhir, Sharma, Tiwary, Utthappa, Dhoni. Sachin Tendulkar got into the spirit of the new, by treading on his wicket as he played one backward of square off Brett Lee, finding a brand new way of getting out after 634 international innings. Australia played four fast bowlers and left out the worlds most effective ODI spin bowler after Muralitharan, thats how they see the wicket.

Brett Lee proceeded to demonstrate his mastery, but a look at his wickets suggests that he was helped a great deal by the freak Tendulkar dismissal and Manoj Tiwary's inexperience. The ball that got him was the oldest two card trick, and it wasn't even perfectly executed by Lee. The full delivery which got Tiwary was more half volley than yorker, and Tiwary as a specialist batsman ought to be disappointed by that dismissal. Utthappa and Sharma were both defeated by the bounce and Gautam Gambhir, for the umpteenth time looked accomplished for 39 before falling to his old problem of trying to play around his front pad, falling over to the off side. It was the best ball of the day which got him. Sehwag had fallen earlier trying to cut one too close to his body. But the on field cricket has been secondary and whatever happens from here (the news is that at 128/6, India have 9 more overs to play after the rain, before the run chase begins), India have today turned a page and this is possibly the new generation of the Indian middle order in embryo.

Rohit Sharma looked phenomenally gifted in his short stint at the wicket. As Wasim Akram astutely pointed out, he might have done well to let that Brett Lee delivery go given that it was Lee's 7th over, possibly the last of his second spell. Sharma has had a peculiar rise. He is a product of the BCCI's age group teams and made his first class debut at Darwin, playing for New Zealand A against India A. In that game, he batted at 7 and made 57 coming in a 100/5. He made 52 against Pakistan at Jaipur. Batting number 4 for India in ODI cricket, in Yuvraj Singh's absence, he gave a good account of himself. The big change over all in the running between the wickets was already apparent. Every batsman in the batting order has been quite superb at it, starting with Tendulkar at the top.

Here's an interesting juxtaposition though. The story goes that Sunil Gavaskar, on returning from a long overseas tour in the early hours of the morning in the early 80's, made himself available at 10 am the same morning for a game for his club on the maidan in Bombay. South Zone are playing East Zone today in the Duleep Trophy. If VVS Laxman, Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid are serious about making a comeback to the ODI side, you would think that they would be hungry for as much cricket as they can get, for more than the obvious reason of wanting to put the runs on the board so that they have a case to make when the time comes, but also because they must show that they are able to withstand the grind of playing continuous cricket. There is plenty of noise being made about "too much cricket", but these are professional cricketers and this is the cricket season. They are still members of the Test team, and if one of the new players has a dream series with the bat in Australia, then he will threaten the South Africa series. Without runs to their name, and with the selectors keening on blooding new players to prepare the next generation, we might just see further surprises for the selection of the Test team.

This Indian ODI side will not win by pretty individual brilliance. There won't be the sumptuous Laxman hundred. But the hope is that they will concede less in the field, and win more in the field than just with the bat. If you consider the last ODI tournament India played in Australia, they began in red hot form with the bat, but were always ordinary in the field. The batting won them 1 game out of 3 against Australia, before they began to fall away at Perth, and in the finals, where they were hammered.

The result this time may be the same, but one hopes that the Australians are made to really earn their runs. The selectors have got their selection exactly right and Ganguly, Laxman and Dravid are making it easy for them.