Friday, March 28, 2008

Sehwag smashes triple

I considered a number of titles for this post, but in the end, it seemed to be appropriate to be matter of fact about it, and simply state the core statistical fact of the day. Virender Sehwag has cracked the Chennai Test Match open with a colossal thunderbolt of an innings. He smashed all conventional wisdom and the South African Test attack to smithereens on the third day of the Chennai Test, and has scored 251 (223) on the day so far with about 10 minutes of play left in the day. By contrast, Wasim Jaffer achieved 48(101), while Rahul Dravid, so far has achieved 61(173).

(End of the Day: 468/1, Sehwag 309*, Dravid 65*)

It was an innings which seemed to reveal the very core and very best of Sehwag as a batsman. He played every stroke that he knows, or atleast, that we, from having watched him for most of this decade, suspect he knows. Rarely has a Test match innings played in response to a 500+ first innings been reduced to a batting exhibition. Sehwag conquered the South African bowling and for much of the day transcended the contest. Even the South Africans knew there was nothing they could do to stop him.

He set about the South African bowling after lunch, having spent the morning in pursuit of his hundred. He was 110(133) at Lunch, and ended the day at 309*(292). That tells its own story. When you consider that he seemed to cut loose when in sight of a landmark, that is made even more remarkable than the number 199(159) would normally say in the context of Test match batting. Nobody has made more runs in a day of Test Cricket since Denis Compton made 278 against Pakistan at Trent Bridge in 1954.

The 29,000 odd spectators at the M A Chidambaram Stadium have witnessed a miracle today. This could never have been planned, neither could it have been the result of strategy. It came from the very core of Virendra Sehwag's being. He ended the day in exalted and rare company - Bradman and Lara. This was Sehwag 10th consecutive 150+ century score, his 14 Test hundred in his 55th Test, and his second 150+ score in consecutive Test innings.

The numbers are astonishing. The innings has confirmed the return of a phenomenon.

Day 4 at Chennai promises to be equally historic. Sehwag is 91 shy of that record, Dravid is 15 shy of 10,000 Test runs. India are chasing an improbable win after having conceded 540.

This story isn't over yet....

Update: Watch this -

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Sreesanth v deVilliers

A B deVilliers's dismissal in the morning session today was a classic self-inflicted wound. It would be charitable to suggest that he overreached against Sreesanth. A more reasonable view would be to suggest that he was undone by his own seemingly boundless arrogance.

deVilliers, who is reputed to be so confident about his own quickness, that he believes he can complete any run, however impossible it may seem, was facing up to Sreesanth, on a truly, genuinely flat Chennai pitch. Sreesanth is not the most consistent bowler around, and any Test match batsman worth his salt would fancy his chances of getting a loose one to put away every now and then. Early in Sreesanth's over, deVilliers seemingly backed out of facing up to the delivery, except that he didn't move away from his stumps, but merely looked away after making only the merest sign to the umpire that he wasn't ready. He continued to keep fiddling with his gloves. Sreesanth who was well into his run up completed the delivery, and as he was in his delivery stride, Umpire Tony Hill indicated dead ball - too late.

There was absolutely no acknowledgement from deVilliers to the bowler. Normally, even in the most competitive of environments, you would expect some acknowledgement, yet deVilliers acted as if Sreesanth didn't exist. The subsequent balls in the over revealed why.

Two balls after this non-backing-away backing-away, deVilliers made a premeditate move towards off, and played a brilliant on drive from outside off stump for four. It was the sort of improvisation that you see in the Powerplays. deVilliers's intent was clear. He wanted to demolish the bowler. It was a typical bully's instinct. Flat wicket, hot conditions, team in a strong position.... the professional Test cricketer would try to cash in, and bat the opposition out of the game. Give nothing away, just professionally accumulate every run and then some. The bully, would try to Beat and deVilliers was offering a truly juvenile example of this.

If the improvization increased my suspicion that this is what deVilliers was attempting, then his airy fairy cover drive outside off stump confirmed it. Dhoni took the catch, Sreesanth had his say, and deVilliers made a complete fool of himself.

The arrogance of the episode was truly breathtaking.

Chennai Test - Day 1

South Africa won the toss and elected to bat on what seems to be a shirtfront at the M A Chidambaram stadium at Chepauk. The story of the day was predictable. The Indian new ball attack was ineffective and the spinners toiled away all day with 4 wickets to show for it at the end of the day.

The difference between Sreesanth and R P Singh on the one hand, and what might be c0nsidered India's crack new ball pair at this stage - Zaheer and Ishant Sharma, is the the ability of the latter two to keep the runs down when theres nothing in the wicket for them. Especially Zaheer, in his current avatar, seems to be able to dial back and bowl a fine restrictive line and length on the flattest of wicket in a bloody-minded way. Neither R P nor Sreesanth are genuinely quick, and hence the excessive variation in line and length which they demonstrated on Day 1 plays into the hands of decent batsmen - which the South Africans have. If you look through recent Test Cricket in India, the most successful medium-fast bowlers have been those who have chosen to be relentlessly accurate, giving nothing away. Think of the English bowlers who toured here in 2005-06, think McGrath. Think of the Pakistan bowlers who toured here earlier this season and went for plenty of runs. They bowled much like R P and Sreesanth tried to today, trying too many things.

At the end of the day, the question is quite simple - How realistic is it that a Test Match batsman will fall to a short pitched delivery on the first day of a Test match on a slowish wicket? I think the answer was amply demonstrated when Neil McKenzie pulled almost off the front foot, well in front of square.

India have a numerically impressive pool of fast bowlers right now. However, only about 3 of them can be considered to possess the quality to be really good Test match bowlers, especially in sub-continent conditions. Ishant - because he's a couple of yards quicker than the rest, Zaheer - because he now has the experience and the skill to bowl on these wickets, and Munaf - because he's got class (but the most difficult temperament amongst all our bowlers).

Consider the spin bowlers. In his last 14 Test matches, Harbhajan Singh has taken 37 wickets at 52. These include a spell of 5/13 on a mine field at Sabina Park. With Anil Kumble, his Home Test bowling average for the last 4 years has been consistently between 27 - 29 each year. Compare than to his Home Test bowling average between 1998-2002, which was consistently between 21-23 each year. The latter is a match winner's bowling average, while the former is not.

At this point, India will hope that the South African lower order without Pollock proves to be brittle. Facing a first innings of 500 in India is quite different from facing a first innings of 500 in England or Australia, where Day 3 is often the best batting day.

South Africa have had a solid first day. Whats more, most of their batsmen have made runs, and the ones who didn't have been their best players in recent years. India have plenty to worry about it at the beginning of this series.

Update: Note this article on Cricinfo - 400 dot balls by India on the day, but 45 fours - one in four scoring shots by the South African batsmen was a 4. A four was hit once every 2 overs on average.

Watch this catch by the 37 year old Kumble - diving to his left, one handed in his wrong hand, with the non-striker to think about. It was a googly and it seemed to hold up.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Conflict of Interest

I must state at the outset that im not in the least bit interested in the fight between India and the ICC, or in the quasi-civilizational clash for the control of cricket. In the time honored tradition of the Anglo-Saxon (and lately Indian) context, the market will decide. The level at which i wish to engage with the Gavaskar v ICC issue, is much more fundamental. It is important to unpack several assumptions which i believe do not bear closer scrutiny before anybody jumps to any conclusions as to whether or not Sunil Gavaskar does indeed have a conflict of interest vis a vis his position as Chairman of the ICC Cricket Committee, due to his outspoken criticism of Mike Procter and the anglo-saxon establishment.

Among these assumptions, is the basic question of racism. Mike Procter found Harbhajan Singh guilty of making a racially charged comment towards Andrew Symonds. It turns out that this was done without evidence. David Morgan or any of the people criticizing Sunil Gavaskar (among them Gideon Haigh, Barry Richards, David Morgan and John Reid) seem to be unwilling to engage this reality. If they have a problem with the assertion that a lot of Indians have indeed questioned whether Mike Procter's actions after Sydney may be considered to have racist undertones, then they must come forth and state their objection. Do they for example believe that Harbhajan - a Punjabi Sikh from Jalandhar, India, calling Andrew Symonds, an Australia from West Indian ancestry a Monkey (i'll concede that he may have called him that, even though there is Zero credible evidence to suggest that he did - thats another matter), is the same as a white man from England or Australia calling him a Monkey, in terms of racism? If they do, then i can only observe that they have trivialized the serious issue of racism.

The second question, is that of competence. Mike Procter was the referee at the Oval in 2006, and his ("other match officials") performance there was criticized by Ranjan Madugalle in his judgement. The Sydney 2008 controversy found him at the helm again. During this Test Match several questions apart from the whole racism row can be asked - such as the fact that he ignored the Australian overrate on Day 3, the fact that he ignored Symonds's public comment about having edge the ball at the end of play on Day 1. Mike Procter was also the match referee who thought it fit to take absolutely no action at Antigua in 2004 when Glenn McGrath and Ramnaresh Sarwan had their colorful summit mid-pitch. Procter found it possible to let Yuvraj Singh go for blatant dissent at Melbourne. The number of questionable efforts by this Match Referee are astounding.

Let us make no mistake about it. The questions about Procter, and the questions about England and Australia vis a vis the Bindra appointment are valid. Everything Sunil Gavaskar has raised merits the attention of those reasonably interested in Cricket. The question is, should he raise it, given his position as Chairman of the ICC Cricket Committee? Gavaskar has not helped himself with his tactless bluntness. He evokes strong reactions even in India, where a number of people hate his commentary and thinks he is a cynical, calculating gent who favors Bombay. His is the classic case of "damned if you do and damned if you don't".

In this instance, i think that in principle, those criticizing Sunil Gavaskar are right. He must be cognizant of his role in the ICC when criticizing other ICC Officials such as Procter. There is no question that what Gavaskar says matter more, and carries more weight than what a lay journalist says. However, the irony of David Morgan expressing concern about the issue is delicious, and i don't think the ECB boss realizes it. The irony of a journalist like Gideon Haigh raising it is equally delicious, because these are questions which a journalist must raise. Given the partisan outburst we have seen in both Australia and India this year, i think it is fair to say that journalists pointing fingers at Gavaskar is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. As for Barry Richards, i have more sympathy for his position on this issue than anyone else. He does however betray the fact that his generations bitterness at having lost out on Test Match careers has a part to play in his criticism. I would be very interested to know what he thinks about Harbhajan Singh, and whether, given his background, he has a more nuanced understanding of the question of racism than you and me.

The ICC typically have shied away from taking a decision themselves. The questions Sunil Gavaskar raises are as important as they are uncomfortable, and he has trivialized them to some extent by raising them the way he has. However, i wonder whether this is because he has no opportunity to raise them within the ICC. The International Cricket Council, as Geoffrey Boycott likes to remind us so often, is the association of the constitutuent national cricket bodies. This latest fracas is just another sign, that all is not well amongst the nations who play top level cricket. What is even more tragic is that the battle lines are ethnic and racial. Just as Sunil Gavaskar ought not to disregard his position as the Chairman of the ICC Cricket Committee, the ICC bosses ought not to glibly reduce this into a technical conflict of interest.

One can only hope that some blunt, straightforward words are said by both sides when Sunil Gavaskar is confronted next week. I also hope that they don't end that meeting until they understand each other clearly. The time for niceties and bureaucratic cul de sacs has past. The ICC must realize that this ethnic divide is a fundamental threat. Currently both sides are reinforcing the divide. They must as educated individuals seek to move past it.

Monday, March 24, 2008

South Africa Series Preview - A tougher Test than Australia

Many readers will disagree with this assessment straightaway, and all conventional wisdom would suggest that the South Africans could not possibly be tougher than the Aussies. The Australians had Ponting, Hayden, Symonds, Clarke, Lee, Clark, Gilchrist, they were playing at home and India lost the Test series in Australia. The South Africans in the meantime, lost a Test Match at home to the West Indies, and struggled to beat Bangladesh in the First Test of their recent tour there, just before they landed in India.

The South Africans have a more potent, varied attack than the Australians did. Dale Steyn has routed all opposition this season, taking 63 wickets at 15 in 9 Test Matches. Jacques Kallis has bowled better in Test Cricket in the last 18 months than he did in the 3-4 years prior to that. Makhaya Ntini is an experienced hand. The South African trump card however, is Paul Harris. Harris is a left arm spinner, and left arm spinners have troubled the Indian batsmen more than any other type of spin bowler. Harris has also proven in his short career of 10 Test matches so far, that he possess that vital ingredient which distinguishes the effective Test spinner from the toothless one - accuracy. He is able to churn out maidens, and dry out the runs. He took 12 wickets at 21 in Pakistan last year bowling against Mohammad Yousuf and Younis Khan, who have thumped Kumble and co. at will in recent years. He is naturally attacking, and being a left arm spinner, will always attack the stumps, thereby increasing his chances of getting leg before and bowled dismissals. Unless India attack Harris and take him out of the equation, the South Africans will have enough bowling depth to bowl 80 good overs, without any weak links. The Australian problem in Australia was that once Brett Lee and Stuart Clark were out of the attack, they had to employ Mitchell Johnson at one end, who was steady, and a combination of Hogg, Clarke and Symonds at the other. The South Africans will have no such trouble if Harris delivers as he has done in his first 10 Test matches.

If the South African bowling can bottle up and dismiss the Indians, much like Nasser Hussein's side did in 2001-02, then their batting will cobble up enough runs at least once to put them in a position to make a realistic push for victory. A lot of teams go into series thinking about staying with the opposition and waiting for the one opening which will help them push for victory, but it doesn't pan out that way. Most Test matches yield results. The India - South Africa series should be a relatively high scoring one if recently history is anything to go by. But i would be very surprised there is more than one stalemate in this series.

Any Indian advantage is blunted by two further factors - the poor form of Harbhajan Singh, and the fact that the Indian batsmen do not like home batting conditions any more than they like overseas conditions. Add to this the fact that the Indian pacemen rely more on the conditions than someone like Steyn who is genuinely quick, and you can begin to see the realignment of forces that makes me think that this SA series will be quite tough.

Playing at Home, i would expect India to do to South Africa at Chennai, what Australia did to India at Melbourne. That this is a three Test series, and not four, works in India's favor as well. However, the South Africans have already been in the subcontinent for almost a month. They also beat Pakistan in the beginning of the 2007-08 season. Rahul Dravid, even though he played that magnificient innings of 93 at Perth has not quite been at the top of his game. Sourav Ganguly seemed to tail off in the second half of the series in Australia. Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman are in good form, and Sehwag showed great promise in the Adelaide Test Match. The question of whether to play Wasim Jaffer or to play Irfan Pathan remains. The injury to Ishant does not help and with RP Singh, Sreesanth and Irfan Pathan being picked, India face the uncomfortable choices in the bowling department. Murali Kartik may play as the third spinner should the wicket be a rank turner.

If the Australian challenge was a well documented much heralded one that was ultimately stronger on paper than in practice, then the South African challenge is likely to be exactly the opposite. Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith, both seem to have recovered from their modest run, and Ashwell Prince will be keen to emulate the new Indian coach's performances in India as a batsman. South Africa will miss Shaun Pollock, and that is possibly the only thing India can smile about.

All in all, this promises to be a hard fought series with two teams which are more evenly matched than you might think.

Dhoni's "message"

Cricinfo's exclusive interview with Indian ODI captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni has been published in Cricinfo Magazine. It clears up a number of things which remained unclear thanks to Cricinfo's earlier story. It doesn't quite clear up the whole mystery of the message. What is apparent is that the "question" (i put this in quotes because the printed question is not a verbatim record of the spoken question) in response to which Dhoni made his comment was a typically loaded, leading question, which amounted to - "Did your young team try extra hard to reinforce the wisdom of the selection?". It seems that what Cricinfo really wanted to ask Dhoni is "Did you try extra hard to justify the fact that you didn't want Dravid and Ganguly in the team". Dhoni's response completely ignored the question, and turned the tables on the press. His response essentially amounted to saying "People criticized the selection, now that we have won, why is there no acknowledgement of the fact that it was a good selection decision". So while Cricinfo wanted to find out if Dhoni would like to send a message to Dravid and Ganguly, Dhoni's response suggested that he was not happy with those who were critical of the selection.

Sambit Bal's comment on January 20, 2008, on the selection of the ODI side did take an admirably considerate view of the selection. Bal concluded his article by saying -

"Having bitten the bullet, the selectors must show strength and resilience to stick by their vision. If they have chosen a team for the future, they must not abandon it on the basis of immediate results. Quite likely this team will lose and perhaps lose badly. But if the selectors consider this to be the nucleus of the team that will represent India at the next World Cup, they must allow them to grow and learn from their failure. Otherwise, it will be going neither here nor there."

In conclusion, the "revealing" interview, reveals nothing. It is a statement of boring normality, convoluted to a mind boggling extent by roundabout language. It suggests that Dhoni is not prone to excessive analysis, neither is he a compulsive control freak. He is also unlikely throw his players under the bus when the going gets tough. If you think about it, only someone who was completely crazy would admit anything to the contrary, except possibly in the first matter about analysis.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Tehelka undermines Dhoni

An article on Tehelka about Mahendra Singh Dhoni caught my eye. If ever there was to be a prototype article about a player - a profile, this is it. It contains anecdotes about Dhoni's upbringing and the ever present, and always galling narrative about the player - in this case Dhoni, making it without any "godfather", against all odds, inspite of his current employer (BCCI). There are some of the usual factual errors as well. The Tendulkar - Kambli stand of 664 was made in a little over a day and a half, not three days as someone interviewed for that article suggests. The Dhoni story of 213 (150) is quite astonishing, but this anecdote and the way it has been portrayed embodies the tone and demeanor of the narrative and the narrator.

Dhoni was playing for East Zone (not his state - Bihar, but East Zone) in 1999-2000, at age 18. Does that indicate that his talent was not being noticed? He was playing for India A in 2004, despite the fact that his first class record was not spectacular (a first class average for 35, identical to his current Test batting average).

The godfather obsession undermines the whole story, because it seems to blame the fact that nobody told Dhoni how to get to Agartala on the lack of a godfather, instead of blaming it on less exciting but more consequential quarters, such as the lack of communication and coordination between the Bihar Cricket Association and the BCCI. Obviously, the BCCI and the some of the local associations have a spectacular capacity to mess up simple things, but surely, that ought not to be conflated with sinister speculation about the need for a godfather to make it to the top. Is it Tehelka's point that every other cricketer who's made it has done so because he's had a godfather?

If this was a story intended to celebrate the man and his achievements, it has ended up being one which undermines the man, because it inadvertantly undermines the teams he has been part of, and the one which he leads.

In contrast, do read this profile by Sharda Ugra at India Today.

On Darrell Hair's reinstatement

The ICC announced the reinstatement of Darrell Hair this week, much to Pakistan's dismay. This has been a complicated episode, one which i believe arose because of the weakness of Mike Procter as referee during that Oval Test match. Procter let an explosive situation get out of hand, and from that point on, every party brought their worst, most xenophobic instinct to bear on the matter, until Ranjan Madugalle performed the role of the benevolent judge, finding what was ultimately a fair compromise overall, but a sad one nevertheless.

It all started when Darrell Hair penalized Pakistan for what he deemed to be ball tampering. Hair's actions were within the laws of the game, and given that the event occured on the field of play, during a session of play, Hair's actions cannot be challenged. It later emerged that Darrell Hair could not conclusively prove that the ball had indeed been tampered. The uninitiated reader might bristle at this point, but do you really think an umpire can "prove" any judgement call he makes on the field of play? For example, can an umpire ever "prove" an LBW decision when questioned about it? The means do not exist for this to be done.

As i see the issue (i wrote about it a great deal on this blog at the time), there are three major issues that made it what some have called the biggest controversy in cricket since bodyline. First, there was Darrell Hair's charge of ball tampering, along with the 5 run penalty. Second, there was the Pakistan team's delayed, unilateral decision to discontinue the game. Finally, there was Darrell Hair's ill-advised letter to the ICC suggesting a settlement with severance pay. Take these three events, and then take the fact that Mike Procter refused to exercise any sort of leadership during the situation, which caused the matter to become a trial by news media, and you get a potent pot of controversy.

Hair's initial ruling on the field could not have been challenged. It ought to be jarring (but apparently is not), that in this day and age, where batsmen do not walk, and fielding sides make professional appeals with great skill, a charge of ball tampering and a 5 run penalty should bring such tantrum from Pakistan. It's a peculiar situation. Was it their point, that a batsman not walking and going on to make big runs (think Symonds at Sydney 2008), was less likely to affect the outcome of the game (which one would think is the point of it all), than a tampered ball? I think not. Their point was that their honor as sportsmen had been sullied. This is a bit rich, especially when accompanied by the walkout and the petulant refusal to continue the Test match.

Given the fact that Pakistan refused to continue, the umpires had no option but to consider it a forfeiture and award the game to England. This result stands to this day. The official record shows that England won that series 3-0, even though, given the match situation at the Oval, Pakistan might well have won there. This decision by the umpires made things even worse, and with Mike Procter snoozing on the job, everybody left the Oval unsatisfied. The battle shifted from the Kennington Oval to the press, always a bad sign. It was Hair v Pakistan, and the ICC, the ECB and the rest of the cricket world watching with increasing discomfort, and not a little bit of bewilderment as both parties proceeded to defy commonsense, decency and displayed a terrific disregard for the long run. Ultimately, it was left to the ICC's man for the crisis, Ranjan Madugalle, to sort things out. Come to think of it, this was the first time he had to clean up Mike Procter's mess (Sydney 2008 was the second).

Im glad Darrell Hair has been reinstated, because he has been a really good umpire, and given the fact that the ICC are likely to lose Steve Bucknor to age soon, Darrell Hair's experienced eye will be a good addition. His contract runs until 2009, and while the ICC probably not renew his contract (not after he brought a racial discrimination suit against them, only to withdraw it within a week), they will do well to think really hard before they take a decision, especially if Hair proceeds to have a good year.

The Hair episode brings into question the whole question of balance in the way actions on the field are judged. Batsmen do not walk, fielders appeal professionally (a euphemism for an optimistic appeal by the fielding side when they are reasonably sure that the batsman is not out), every team in the world tries to get under the skin of their opponents and are not shy of hitting below the belt to do so, and yet, we consider a team being charged 5 runs for tampering the ball, based on what an umpire sees as unseemly marks on the ball, to be absolutely outrageous. This seems to stem from a basic disregard for the importance of the umpire's authority. The cricket field is not democratic, neither is it a court of law. The umpires run the show, and their decision is final. It may not be questioned on the field of play.

The ICC changed their rules for Match Referee's after the Denness Affair in 2001, and discontinued the practice of allowing Referee's to bring charges on players except in certain exceptional circumstances. This was a sound idea, for referee's were imagined to be headmasters then, when in fact their role was that of a judge. There is of course the complementary argument to be made in the case of the umpires. The advent of the match referee, has turned the umpires into judges as well as prosecutors. Their role now, is not only to make decisions on the field of play (which they thankfully don't yet have to "prove" later), but also to report breaches to the referee, and provide evidence as witnesses in these hearings. Clearly, this is problematic, for the same reasons that the Referees position was problematic before the Denness affair.

The ICC has done well to reinstate Darrell Hair, after requiring him to complete a few courses and serve some time. They have been admirably level headed as employers inspite of Hair's racial discrimination lawsuit against them. This goes a long way towards salvaging the disaster at the Oval in 2006. Now they must review the role of the umpires in reporting events to referees. Meanwhile, Pakistan seem to be stuck in a time warp. If Darrell Hair were to be denied reinstatement because of supposed irregularities at the Oval in 2006, what for Pakistan Cricket? Were they blameless in the matter? Was their reaction to the issue - which included a period of about a week where there was pure vitriol and no leadership in any way exemplary? Wasn't their bowler Shoaib Akthar caught on camera doing something suspiciously akin to ball tampering just weeks after the Oval Test?

Cricket must strengthen the position of the on-field Umpire, and Darrell Hair's reinstatement indicates some progress in this regard. The ICC must however deal with this issue of the Umpires having to serve as de facto prosecutors, and make their job simpler. Darrell Hair and Steve Bucknor (who was sadly singled out and sidelined after the Sydney Test because of an angry BCCI) have been fine umpires, and deserve a honorable farewell.

Adam Gilchrist and Harbhajan Singh

Cricket Australia is said to have complained to the BCCI recently about Harbhajan Singh's less than polite comments about some of the Australian players. In particular, the Jalandhar Off Spinner said that the recently retired Adam Gilchrist is not a saint. I found Gilchrist's response on the Cricinfo quotes page:

"An offspinner from Punjab said Adam is not a saint. There are no saints in Test cricket and I never proclaimed to be one."
Whose jibe do you think Adam Gilchrist is reacting to?

So Gilchrist basically agrees with what Harbhajan Singh said. Sage opinion here must be limited (as Cricinfo's comment on the quote suggests) to the alleged dialog between Gilchrist and Harbhajan. Here's the problem though - the construction of Gilchrist as a Saint, is a press construction, based on a couple of obvious examples of him walking when he thinks he's obviously edged the ball. The question of professional appealing, which every international team worth its salt (bar none) practices, is never raised. What Harbhajan was probably pointing to, was this fictitious construction by the press, which neither Gilchrist nor Harbhajan himself know to be true. Yet, all that we get out of it, is that Harbhajan is unsophisticated, while Gilchrist is reacting to Harbhajan's "jibe".

The point here is not to question whether or not Gilchrist is in fact a saint (when you put it like that it sounds ridiculous), but to question whether the construction by the press about Gilchrist has been sufficiently scrutinized.

Thumbs Up from the BCCI President

BCCI President Sharad Pawar, the ultimate uber-pol, who's interest in the BCCI and Cricket is unfathomable to most sincere, well-meaning, middle-class, educated, English speaking, honest people, has this to say about the Captaincy. Before this crowd jumps on Pawar's comments, fuelled by cynicism and possibly even pure envy, let me just point out, that there is a sedate, calm normalcy to everything Mr. Pawar has done as BCCI President, and as indicated here, he has maintained the time honored tradition of BCCI Presidents not getting involved in selection matters. In the matter of appointing the captain, and selecting the team, the BCCI President, who must 'approve' the selection has invariably acted as a rubber stamp. However, as you can see here, the President can also play an important communicative role between the players and the selection committee, because direct, unofficial contact between the players and the selection committee, when initiated by the players, would be improper.

This should also serve as a reminder to all those who think that Tendulkar and co. are in it basically to make every last penny that they can, that this is an absurd notion, antithetical to all notions about excellence - excellence which is seen in abundance in our senior players.

This is especially timely right now, it was during this week, one year ago, that India were eliminated from the World Cup, on account of 2 bad games, and every news organisation worth its salt was engaged in sucking every last penny they could out of the situation.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Cricinfo "interview" Dhoni

Cricinfo published this bizarre story about an interview they did with Mahendra Singh Dhoni. It has been called a "revealing interview" in the story. It is not clear whether it was an exclusive interview (i. e. whether Cricinfo were the only people asking questions). The exact line from the interview is as follows:

"I was pretty clear about the players I wanted in the side," Dhoni told Cricinfo in a revealing interview where he spoke about the selection controversy for the first time.

The obvious question is, if it was an interview, why was it not printed as an interview? If it had been, we would have know how the questions were phrased, which would have given us a better read of Dhoni's responses. It could be that it was just a conversation over the phone or on email, in which case, it ceases to be an interview - it then becomes reporting.

I would really have liked to see Dhoni respond to a question about the "selection controversy". That there was a "controversy" is news to me. The word "controversy" refers to "a prolonged public dispute, debate, or contention; disputation concerning a matter of opinion." By this account, unless there are two seperate team lists circulated by the selectors, or unless one or more of the selectors publicly disagree with the rest of the committee, there cannot be a "selection controversy".

Essentially, if there was a "selection controversy" with this selection, then there has never been a selection without a controversy, because someone or the other amongst the members of the public or the cricket fraternity always disagrees with the selected team. So, the "controversy" was manufactured by Cricinfo in it's "interview" with Dhoni.

This article by Cricinfo is problematic beyond their bizarre decision to write a story instead of printing the interview. Their story is extremely poorly written. Take this paragraph for instance:

Dhoni, though, is clear the time had come for a tough decision to be taken and felt vindicated after the final triumph. "It's very important because the process and the timing were critici[z]ed a lot," he said. "But sometimes it is very important to send the message across, because sometimes people neglect the answer."

The gist of it seems to be that Dhoni wanted a young team. What exactly does that quote mean? In the absence of the exact question in response to which it was made, it could be taken to mean lots of things. What does the "it's is very important" part at the beginning refer to? The victory, or the feeling of vindication, or the fact that those criticizing the side were proven wrong? What is "the message"? Is it that a younger team needed to be selected? Or is it that the victory needed to be emphasized in an interview? Who are "people"? The senior players? The press? The public? What exactly does Dhoni mean by "neglect the answer"? That paragraph can be taken to mean lots of things. It is poor, even useless reporting to leave it hanging like that. There seems to be a broad narrative in that article somewhere, and it appears to be quite simple - The Indian ODI captain is trying to engage those who criticized the selection of the ODI side for the CB series, and trying to get them to own up to their criticism.

The article is condescending towards the Indian captain. What was basically a stinging comment on the press by Dhoni, a comment on "what would have happened if this side didn't do well in Australia", was couched by saying that "Dhoni was happy that the team had overcome the odds". That was surely not Dhoni's point!

The second part of the interview referred to the Indian team's aggressive on-field behaviour. In essence, it said nothing new. The point of the article seemed to be - "the Indian Captain gave us - Cricinfo, an interview". Was this a preview story, and will Cricinfo publish the interview at a future date? Will it be published in Cricinfo Magazine? There is no mention of that.

There has rarely been a story with a title like "Its important to send the message across" - where it is not at all clear what the message is, or who it is directed at, or even why it is important to send it! With the result, what could have been a really important story about the Indian captain seeking to engage the press and the public in some useful questions at a time when the Indian side is in transition, was lost in confused jumble of quotes and paraphrasing, which i suspect was driven by the fact that Cricinfo didn't really want to engage Dhoni's basic question - How would the press react when it appeared that they had been proved wrong? How would the press have reacted if it turned out that they were right - that this team did need the senior men in the middle order.

Those are uncomfortable questions, for they require reporters and opinion columnists to own up to things which they may have written before, and also explain their own positions on things - real positions.

I hope the interview, if there was infact a formal interview, is published soon.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Test Cricket in the last 3 years - A Statistical Summary

Some may consider using "statistical summary" in the title to be akin to shooting oneself in the foot, but i think you will find this quite interesting. The great thrill of statistics is when they reinforce a suspicion, or reveal something that one may have missed simply by following on field events.

My Test ratings have had a fairly stable methodology for nearly three years n
ow. The only major change i have made to them is to exclude Zimbabwe from both the Test and ODI calculations, thus the final rating for each team changes. The most interesting statistic in my ratings though is a tally of the Home and Away Runs/Wicket values which i apply for calculating bonuses to sides winning away from home.

You will find four tables below. Each table is a Summary of the Hom
e and Away runs/wicket for each of the top 8 teams in the latest Test cycle at that date. So the March 2008 Home value of India for example, would include India's latest series in India against each of the other 7 teams, while the Away value for India would include India's latest series away from India in each of the other 7 countries. Each table is tallied at the end of the stated month.

January 2008
January 2007March 2006March 2005
The general state of Test cricket has remained consistent. Teams have not done significantly better at home or worse away in the 2008 cycle than they did in the 2005 cycle. This is seen from the fact the the average difference is invariably between 4 and 5 runs/wicket for home performances, while it is about -6 to -5 for away performances. The only way this will change is if there is a distinct tiering in the world of Test cricket, where one group of teams consistently hammer another group of teams both home and away (currently only Australia do this).

I'll leave you to look at the numbers and read into them. Different venues make for different type of contests. It also gives you a good guide as to what to expect in any given series. For example, the South Africans touring India should be involved in a fairly high scoring series. Moreover, the series should favor India. The question however is, whether this advantage will translate into results, given the fact that India concede 327 on average in India, while the South African's concede 411.

The numbers also reveal the relationship between a team's batting and bowling departments. For example, the South African batting and bowling departments are more or less equally strong (or weak), while in the case of New Zealand, they have a modest batting line up, with a bowling attack which does well at home, but struggles abroad. India's away bowling performance has improved significantly since 2006, but it's still not top tier (which would be late 20's, early 30's away from home).

These are just some of the things which these numbers reveal. The numbers say more than i could possibly say in one post, so i'll leave you to look at them.

Friday, March 14, 2008

South Africa Series: Andre Nel and Affirmative Action

Andre Nel's omission from the South African Test team for the India tour has been attributed to South Africa's affirmative action policy of including atleast 6 players of color in a 14 member squad. If you look at his record in the subcontinent in his appearances there, it does not make for impressive reading. He's taken 8 wickets in 4 Tests are 53.25 in Sri Lanka and Pakistan. In Sri Lanka, the hosts made 756/3 declared, while in Pakistan (a series in which Nel averaged 40 with the ball), Pakistan's scores were modest - 291, 263, 206, 316/4. Given that Steyn has been in the form of his life (he topped the Test bowling averages in the 2007-08 season for all Test match bowlers, taking 63 wickets at 15.3 in 9 Tests.), and that Ntini has taken over 300 Test wickets, it makes perfect sense for the South Africa Selectors to go with Morne Morkel (who's genuinely quick) and Charl Langevelt (untested in Asia), who hasn't played Test Cricket for 2 years now. Since two spinners have been picked, South Africa have selected only four pacemen. There appears to be a genuinely good cricketing reason for leaving Nel out. So even if affirmative action did play a role in Nel's omission, he really has no reason to feel aggrieved. Maybe he ought to bowl better.

In other news, Ray Jennings, who recently wanted to scare the whole Indian nation, now thinks that Graeme Smith is not the best candidate for the South African captaincy. When asked who he thought would make a better captain than Smith, he said "Names aren't really important to me. I believe there are better guys to do the job but that's my opinion." Now, this unfortunate construction suggests that he doesn't really care who might be better than Smith, but we'll give him the benefit of the doubt as interpret it as him not wanting to reveal names and embarrass Graeme Smith. One thing is certain - Ray Jennings is going to need a lot of benefit of doubt at this rate. We also know who we must never invite as the India coach!

That Test Match - 7 Years down the Road

Kolkata 2001. That epoch making game, where India finally turned the corner, leaving match fixing and the 90's behind.

If you're in the Western Hemisphere, as i write this, VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid were preparing at the Eden Gardens nets to bat all day. The Australians, with 16 Test wins and a follow on had already taken 4 second innings wickets, with India still 20 runs in arrears. Rahul Dravid's Test place was probably on the line and Gillespie, McGrath and Warne smelt blood. What followed was a testing day, on which the great bowling attack was thwarted, with increasing certainty, until Mathew Hayden and Ricky Ponting were called in late in the day to make up the numbers. Jason Gillespie bowled one of the best spells of his life and i became a fan of his bowling for life. Shane Warne tried and tried and tried, but could barely spin one past the bat. McGrath was his usual frugal self, but on this day, the telling edge was not found.

I am adding a video of VVS's famous innings at the end of this post. This in my view is the best video of this innings on the internet. Note how the description goes from "entertaining innings" on Day 3, to "notching up records" on Day 4. There is the unforgettable effort by Ricky Ponting on the leg side boundary, trying to stop one solitary run, trying desperately to prevent one further boundary late on the day. There are those effortless on drives of Laxman's, played from off stump or outside. There is nothing pragmatic or pedestrian about this man. It is all beauty. It seemed as though even the 4th Day wicket decided to pack up and make for the stands, leaving behind a flat featherbed on which VVS and Dravid would mesmerize the best all round Test match attack in Test history. Later in the day, just for variety, VVS would easily deposit Warne to the cover boundary, from outside leg stump. On days like these, there's the Cartesian coordinate system for the rest of us, and the Laxman Coordinate system for VVS.

If you are in the Eastern Hemisphere - in Kolkata or Bombay or Chennai or Sydney or Melbourne or Adelaide, then 7 years ago today, you were probably wondering what might happen. As with the Sydney Test earlier this year, many of you must have thought (like i did) that there was simply too much cricket left and too little time for a result. Would Ganguly's India declare? How would they read the game? No wait.... that's probably not what you were asking. Your questioning probably was along the lines of "Would he have the guts to declare against this batting? There were some who wanted an immediate declaration. Instead, Ganguly waited. First VVS went, caught at point for 281, then the runs came in hurry, and so did the wickets. The Indian tail enjoyed the pressure free opportunity for a slog and dug in with gusto. Finally, Ganguly called the Indian batsmen in. About an hour later than everyone would have liked, and about a day later than Steve Waugh might have expected. Venkatesh Prasad then dropped Mathew Hayden at mid-off before lunch and the VVS and Dravid were forgotten for the moment.

The post lunch session came and went, and with Steve Waugh and Mathew Hayden at the wicket at Tea, it looked like Australia would head to Chennai to seal the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. But Sachin Tendulkar was to have his say this game, and after Tea he produced a spell of ripping leg breaks, and won three LBW decisions, to help Harbhajan Singh and India take 7 wickets in the post tea session for a famous victory. There was that brilliant catch by Dravid at leg gully to dismiss Steve Waugh. Glenn McGrath then learnt of the peril's of using the pad as the first and only line of defense, as S K Bansal upheld an appeal from Harbhajan Singh to maintain his record of never having umpired in an Indian defeat.

By the end of Day 5, seven years ago, India's Cricket had been changed forever.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Sweetest Moment

Was this the sweetest moment of the Indian summer Down Under?

Symonds LBW b Kumble 12 (177/5)
Perth Test Day 4, 19th January 2008

It was more than just an important wicket. It was poetic justice - more satisfying than if Symonds had been out clean bowled, more satisfying than if he'd been run out backing up at the non-strikers end... more satisfying than if he'd been left unbeaten looking helplessly at an abject Australian collapse at the other end.... more satisfying than if Irfan or RP or even Ishant had dismissed him.... more satisfying than if he'd fallen to a blinder at cover.

For the lion hearted Captain, the sight of that inside edge must have been more satisfying than the sight of Bowden's crooked finger....

Fairness be damned..... this was FAIR....

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The White Man's Burden

The White Man's Burden is a poem written by Rudyard Kipling about the US conquest of the Philippines. Theodore Roosevelt, later to become one of the most celebrated of Presidents of the United States of America called it "rather poor poetry, but a good sense from the expansion point of view". Cricket has long been removed from its colonial, imperialist roots. Ashis Nandy observed that Cricket is "an Indian game, accidentally invented by the British". Now, it appears that Kipling's "white man" is seeking subaltern status.

Christopher Martin Jenkins, writing in the Times laments about the impending appointment of Mr. Bindra as Chief Executive of the International Cricket Council (formerly the Imperial Cricket Conference), soon to be followed by the election of Mr. Pawar as the Chairman of the ICC. Neither of these appointments are foregone conclusions, but both are certainly likely.

CMJ, went to Marlborough, which as Wikipedia informs us was a boys school for a very long time, until the winds of modernity reached its doors and made it co-educational in 1968 (that tumultuous year). Other illustrious alums of Marlborough College include Sir Mark Tully. He was captain of the cricket team at Marlborough, and once made 99 against Rugby School at Lord's. 99's can be life altering experiences (unless you are Sachin Tendulkar, who, true to his middle class roots takes the pragmatic view that a 99 is better than a 19), and i speculate that his experience with a 99 prompted CMJ to fire off a letter to Brian Johnston at Test Match Special on the Marlborough letterhead asking him for instructions about becoming a commentator.

CMJ is clearly concerned by the impending disaster - two Indians running Cricket! There is an essential duplicity in opinion's such as CMJ's, for it is grounded in concerns which essentially boil down to the preservation of the five Test match long Ashes series. England have been regularly hammered in these contests for over 20 years now, with the exception of 2005, as all those MBE's commemorate, and it must be a measure of their desperation to preserve the primacy of the Ashes (especially in the context of the Border-Gavaskar trophy, which has become a series of battles in a long standing war now), that 6 Ashes Tests have been scheduled for the next series. England may yet regret it, for some one like Mathew Hayden may decide that he wants to sign off from Test cricket making 1000 runs in the 6 Test series, but this is besides the point. Why are England interested in preserving the Ashes? This is mainly because it is an extremely popular contest in England and Australia. Many fans in both hemispheres say that even though India - Australia Test Matches have been hard fought in recent times, the Ashes is the most important contest in their view. Thus, the commercial opportunity of the Ashes Tests, couched conveniently in tradition, has been preserved inspite of the Future Tours program being imperiled by it. There is discontent about BCCI doing the same with series against Pakistan, and while it could be argued that BCCI have over done it with a series every 12 months for the last 4 years (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007), the Friendship Series follows much of the same logic as the Ashes series does. (I use the Ashes here as a surrogate for the idea of Anglo-Saxon dominance in Cricket)

The duplicity, is because CMJ's essential point is that Sharad Pawar and Bindra won't really care about Cricket, and that if the clout falls officially into India's hands, then it could change Cricket forever, given India's financial clout, while those in the ECB and CA who care enough about Cricket to preserve the 5 match Ashes series in the FTP may get marginalized. His desperation is apparent from the weakness of his argument, which essentially boils down to - "Bindra should not be ICC Chief Executive, because even though he's capable and has accomplished much in the area of Cricket Administration, there are others who are equally good candidates, and more importantly, he will be joined by Mr. Pawar in two years time at the helm of the ICC". The obvious irony here is that he proposes a former South African "with a successful career in cricket and business" (an obvious reference to Dr. Ali Bacher), or Imtiaz Patel, also South African. The (ethnic) choice which Mr. Patel represents is according to CMJ a "compromise choice"!

The audacity of the argument is breathtaking. In essence, CMJ's point seems to be to beg to be allowed to continue fulfilling his white man's burden. The best reason he can offer to support his case, is that without being allowed to do so, he (i used "he" here to refer to the anglo-saxon clique that CMJ represents) would be divested of his agency as a cricket man - reduced in essence to the status of a subaltern! This loss, i speculate might be embodied in the Ashes being clipped to being a 4 Test series like most other Test series. Of course, England have historically disliked playing the Ashes for less than 5 Tests at a time. Indeed, when the Packer Australian's returned in 1979-80 to challenge England's hollow Ashes victory of 1978-79 (5-1), England refused to play for the Ashes, because the 1979-80 series was scheduled for only 3 Tests. Greg Chappell's Aussies thrashed England 3-0. Dennis Lillee took 23 wickets at 16, and Greg Chappell made 317 runs at 80.

That this rationalization of the Ashes in line with the rest of the cricket world would greatly help the Cricket calender is obvious. Many people criticize the cricket calender, but it is important regulation in my view - an essential balancing instrument between the desire to preserve Test cricket and ensuring commercial success. This theme of threat pervades a lot of CMJ's writing. He has called Twenty20 "a fast Frankenstein of a game", but only in the context of the enormous amounts that it seems to attract. From the purely cricketing point of view, the only comment by CMJ that i found was that "it's not much of a game for bowlers". So, Twenty20 as an innovation was probably Ok, until it began to attract big money - money which Test Cricket could not compete with. Had Twenty20 been a format originating out of India, one can only imagine the kind of scorn it would have attracted.

Just like India have done with Cricket as whole, they have appropriated Twenty20 as a format from England, and the BCCI has turned it into big business. Business which in CMJ's view threatens to disrupt the traditional Cricket calender - incidentally a calender tailor made for England and Australia (the cricket seasons are essentially the English Summer and the Southern Hemisphere Summer). Martin-Jenkins is an influential Cricket writer. He was invited to deliver the Cowdrey Lecture in 2007, where he covered a lot of ground and referred favorably the ECB "pioneering Twenty20". He also referred to the danger of journalist's being conned into "becoming spin machines for Premiership" - a reference to the dominance of the English Premiership coverage at the cost of interesting cricket news.

Isn't it ironic then that Christopher Martin Jenkins is unable to see the dangers of his own spin, and that of many other writers in England and Australia, who seek manufacture "India's arrival", there by feeding the sort of racially charged jingoistic frenzy which gets whipped up in the aftermath of contentious incidents like the recent Sydney Test Match? The enduring story of this Indian summer in Australia has not been the repeated childishness on the field, but the relentless jingoism off it. By building the BCCI up as this marauding tycoon seeking to take over cricket, writers like CMJ feed the prejudices on both sides. It does great disservice to the global game, much more than Twenty20 will ever do (unlike CMJ, i believe there are plenty of things wrong with Twenty20 as a cricket format).

There is no threat to the global game from India. At most, BCCI influence will make it a truly global game. Christopher Martin Jenkins ended his Cowdrey Lecture quoting Shakespeare:

"They are as sick that surfeit with too much, as they that starve with nothing" (The Merchant of Venice)

The problem with the current cricket calender and the current cricket establishment, is that it is surfeit with a deeply pervasive anglo-saxon influence, while the problem with the Twenty20, is that it is too little cricket. These are probably two of the greatest concerns in modern day cricket. It is a measure of the limitations of CMJ's anglocentric view, that he is on the wrong side of both these concerns. The great threat to cricket is not that two Indians may run the game, but that relics of the Raj like CMJ will use their enormous influence to discredit such an enterprise.

I certainly hope that more objective Indian observers than myself do not see any wisdom in engaging in a quasi-racist attempt to appoint the other man. It would do Ali Bacher or Imtiaz Patel great disservice.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Gary Kirsten

Who was the coach of the Indian cricket team in Australia? The nearest thing to a coach - was Lalchand Rajput, who probably ran the team by committee, with Robin Singh and Venkatesh Prasad making up the numbers. Now, they will have a new boss - Gary Kirsten. Amidst all the celebration of the Test series defeat, and CB Series victory, Kirsten's upcoming tenure has been sidelined to a great extent. This is possibly because nobody is seriously looking ahead to the challenge posed by Dale Steyn and co. in two weeks. Kirsten began his tenure on March 1, 2008.

Anil Kumble and Gary Kirsten, have been plotting for the upcoming series in the shadows of the Indian triumph. Kirsten spent a couple of weeks in Australia in an "advisory role", and it is reassuring to note that he never appeared before the press during or after games, did not come along on Star Sports commentary as a guest, and was barely mentioned in the Australian press. His major concern with the Test team is to oversee a smooth transition to the new generation in the next 18-24 months. He has said that he expects that there could be two new players in the Indian Test team in the next few years. He has also requested that Paddy Upton be hired by BCCI as a mental conditioning coach. With the BCCI being favorably inclined to the proposal, it will take the Indian support staff to 8 - Head Coach, Assistant Coach, Bowling Coach, Fielding Coach, Sports Psychologist, Fitness Trainer, Physiotherapist and Analyst. This is a far cry from just 8-10 years ago, when all India had was a coach/manager and physiotherapist. With John Gloster having quit, India are on the look out for a new physiotherapist.

The current Indian set up has the potential to be a horizontal rather than top-down organization. Consider this - Anil Kumble and Sachin Tendulkar were playing international cricket before Gary Kirsten, Venkatesh Prasad and Robin Singh, indeed they welcomed the latter two (in Singh's case into the Test squad, he made his ODI debut in 1989 in the West Indies) into the Indian squad. This has the potential for changing the way the younger players view the coaches in the team. This is the greatest potential advantage of the Kirsten tenure. John Wright, even though he had a modest record, was from an earlier generation compared to most of his players. This contrast was even more stark in the case of Greg Chappell. With Kirsten and co., it is less likely that wisdom will be handed down in Olympian sermons backed by the weight of an imposing career record. Indeed, Tendulkar and Kumble have probably sledged Kirsten, and been sledged by him!

Kirsten must now oversee Kumble's retirement, and possibly that of some of the middle order batsmen. As Tendulkar has shown, and as Lara showed before him, these top class players seem to find a second wind in their mid thirties. Ganguly certainly has. So far, Kirsten has shown no ideological preference for youth the way Greg Chappell did. He is lucky that the Vengsarkar Selection Committee has already completed that task successfully in ODI cricket. He is lucky that he takes over at a time when both the Test and ODI teams have given a good account of themselves. He is also lucky that the next few international assignments are less combustible than the Australian tour was, or a Pakistan series or England tour can be.

Kirsten's first great Test will come when the Australians arrive for a Test tour in October. His challenge until then will be to set up a system within the side and a relationship with the press which builds on this opportunity for collegiality. His greatest contribution will be to make sure that the new generation of players imbibes this atmosphere of shared responsibility which is almost certain to exist with Kirsten, Kumble, three former India captains and the current India ODI captain in the squad.

Dilip Vengsarkar, the current chairman of the senior national selection committee understands this collegiality. He comes from the great Bombay tradition, where new players were given a safety net by the senior, more accomplished and experienced players to develop their match play skills as they came into the Bombay Ranji Trophy side, so that they would then be ready to take over in due course. This was the secret of Bombay's dominance in their heyday. Many sides have had the talent pool that Bombay had, but Bombay had a tradition of player development. The term is familiar to most cricket fans - it was Greg Chappell's mantra during his tumultuous tenure as the India coach. It remains to be seen if Colleague Kirsten will be able to build this virtuous cycle, which is what Guru Greg couldn't do.

Hopefully, he will prove to be the right man at the right time for the Indian cricket team.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Latest ODI Rating

April 21 2007 Nov 18 2007 March 5 2008
Australia 0.601 0.588 0.568
South Africa 0.596 0.550 0.567
New Zealand 0.535 0.533 0.507
India 0.469 0.510 0.536
Sri Lanka 0.484 0.470 0.484
England 0.411 0.465 0.466
West Indies 0.430 0.431 0.419
Pakistan 0.416 0.423 0.424

The table above shows ODI ratings in the year after the 2007 World Cup. When plotted in a graph is shows the development of ODI teams during the past year. The completion of the triangular tournament in Australia marks the end of the major ODI tournaments in the southern hemisphere for the 2007-08 season.

Basically, it shows that India and England have improved the most during the past year, all though England were bottom of the table, while India were closer to mid-table than bottom at the end of the world cup. Pakistan and West Indies have pretty much stagnated, as have Sri Lanka.

I would caution the reader that this graph does not accurately represent trends as it uses only three distinct ratings (while theoretically you could have ratings after every single game). I used the November 17 date, because most of the games between November 18 and March 5 were played in the souther hemisphere, while the games between April and November were played in England and in the subcontinent.

Comments are welcome. (See this post for an explanation of the methodology).

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Symonds and the Streaker

The wikipedia entry on streaking makes for interesting reading and is well updated (as is usually the case with wikipedia pages) to include the latest incident of streaking in cricket. This is the incident im talking about:

It is a fitting end to the craziness of this summer, that Andrew Symonds should end up dropping his shoulder at a male streaker who was apparently running straight at him. Think about it. Of all the players on the ground, the streaker chooses to run in the general direction of Andrew Symonds. If you consider the classical idea of streaking, it may just be that the streaker was trying to accomplish his goal of running across the ground, and the shortest (and most spectacular) path must have led him past the non-striker.

There are many ways of looking at this. The most likely one seems to be that Symonds felt threatened by the streaker who ran dangerously close to him and decided to shoulder charge him - bring him down - end his game. This, it seems is the typical Australian way (going solely by the methods of the Australian Cricket Team) - when in doubt, leave no prisoners. Don't look beyond the tip of your own nose. There's always the option of saying it was funny if it goes wrong. Im just wondering - what if the streaker had been squarely nailed by Symonds's shoulder charge and broken a bone or something. Would the "manly" Aussies considered it funny then? Was there any consideration given to the possible consequence of such a violent shoulder charge? Maybe there is a simpler explanation. Maybe Symonds's simple point to the streaker was "im the star of this show, how dare you steal my thunder".

In any event, it is difficult to determine who is more in need of an intravenous dose of sanity - Symonds or the Streaker. The ICC could have delivered that dose, it even has a statute on the books for such a dose - Level 4.2. But, in its infinite wisdom, the ICC has capped a season of terrible refereeing decisions by refusing to hold even a hearing about this issue. There is no doubt as to whether Symonds was at fault. He had no business tackling the spectator. If it had been an Indian player who had assaulted the streaker, can you imagine what the reaction might have been? Symonds had no business interfering in the matter. He could have turned away or moved aside.

In short, he could have acted like a responsible adult. Instead, everybody concerned has passed it of as a light-hearted bit of mirth, even though the streaker in question was probably 3 inches away from a fractured collar bone or something thanks to a completely crazy Australian cricketer. All one can hope for is that this feeling of mirth is accompanied by just a little sliver of unease.

The ODI series in Review

In my preview of India's tour of Australia, i speculated that the expectation of Indian cricket fans for this tour was that India would be competitive - that they would give the Australians a run for their money. This was written with the Test series in mind. For the ODI games, the outlook was possibly even more bleak. India's ODI side was in disarray and the patchwork solutions which Dilip Vengsarkar had to resort to after he became Chairman of Selectors had not worked. It was expected that the selectors would pick a new team, with younger players, and leave aside some of the senior pros. As it happened, they did exactly that.

This week India will return from Australia having lost the Test Series 1-2, and having won the ODI tournament featuring the two World Cup finalists. They beat Sri Lanka 2-1 in their head to head match ups, and they beat Australia 3-2 in head to head match ups. All in all, it was a sterling effort. Captain Dhoni said in his post match conference - "This was very important, because this is the building stage of my team". The one phrase that stood out in that sentence was "my team".

Dhoni has been praised for his captaincy on this tour, and while i do not believe that his captaincy (tactically speaking) was groundbreaking in any way, he seemed to know what was going on, and most importantly, he seemed to have a good grip on what his players could do for him. Every captain needs some good fortune, and Dhoni had that bit of luck in the Twenty20 World Cup Final, when India won inspite of Joginder Sharma bowling a horrendous last over against Pakistan in the Final. This time around, with the game on the line, Dhoni went with the temperament of Irfan Pathan. It probably helped that Irfan had actually bowled quite decently earlier in the game (two outside edges, and one set of 5 overthrows didn't help his bowling analysis). In fairness, Australia were always behind the clock once they lost Michael Hussey. So the decision to bowl Irfan was not that big a gamble. It was not a case turning a game which was slipping. At no stage did that situation arise yesterday.

Here's where i think the secret of Dhoni's success so far lies. He has a young team which is able to match the opposition in the field, he has a strike bowler in Ishant who is top class, and he actually has players who can deliver in in different kinds of situations. This is a contemporary ODI team, something which a team consisting of Dravid and Ganguly can not be, simply on account of their fielding. This was in effect what Chappell and Dravid tried to achieve. Their move succeeded at first, but then backfired spectacularly for well known reasons. This is the second attempt at that same project. How well has it succeeded?

Only time will answer that question in its entirety. However, at this point it is possible to identify a couple of characteristics which distinguish this team from the Team of 2005-06. The only new player to emerge from that line up was Suresh Raina to some extent. The other players were already known entities - Yuvraj, Irfan, Dhoni and Dravid. This generational shift has also been marked by a generational shift in captaincy. I wonder what might have been if Sehwag and not Dravid was offered the captaincy after Ganguly. Rightly or wrongly (i believe rightly), Dravid was offered the leadership mantle. In this series, atleast two new players have emerged - Ishant Sharma and Rohit Sharma. You could argue that Gautam Gambhir with a century each against Australia and Sri Lanka has matured, and that Praveen Kumar has forced himself into the reckoning amidst India's burgeoning fast bowling bench strength. Robin Uthappa has not been entirely convincing opening the batting, but he will hopefully improve with an extended run in the top slot.

Nothing characterizes the paradigm shift more than Dhoni's decision to drop Virendra Sehwag in favor a 5 bowler strategy. In effect, Dhoni chose Irfan Pathan over Virendra Sehwag, and it is hard to fault his thinking. When playing in India, he may well choose the reverse. It also marks a refreshing shift away from the question of whether a "profile player" like Sehwag can or should be dropped. There are good arguments in favor of persisting with him, not least the fact that he's capable of winning a game in a hurry on his day. Sehwag's ODI batting record does not help him, and as of now he does not fit into India's first eleven, even though there is little doubt about his place in the squad.

The other impressive feature about this generational shift, is that India won the psychological battle against the Aussies. Beginning at Sydney during the Test Match, they chose to hit back and answer every word, without ever performing out of character. None of the Indian players behaved unlike their normal selves. The Australians by contrast were falling over each other to stand up for their mates. Gilchrist publicly supported Hayden and defended the indefensible weed comment. If Hayden is still " one of the most respected" players in the Aussie dressing room, especially in the light of the weed comment, then something is wrong with the Aussie players sense of right and wrong. Through out this series though, this has been the theme. The Australian claim on borderline behaviour as well as the moral high ground has been jarring. Whats more, the Indians have picked it apart at every opportunity, without making any sort of claim for themselves at any stage. Hence Dhoni's matter of fact comment after Ishant was fined - "sledging is an art and we need to learn it".

Being competitive alone is not enough though. There had to be the telling performance with bat and ball. The killer display of skill. For India, these displays came from Ishant Sharma and Praveen Kumar with the ball, and from Sachin Tendulkar with the bat. As badly as Australia's batting performed in the finals, without Tendulkar's batting, India might have found themselves on the wrong side of a 2-0 result today. He shepherded both the batting innings in the finals, after playing the telling innings in the must win game against Sri Lanka. After a lacklustre ODI series, he finished with 63, 117* and 91. Every time he makes runs of this magnitude, people says the Tendulkar of old is back. They miss the point. This was a calculating Tendulkar. He played strokes that he didn't know how to play 5 years ago. More importantly he did not try to play strokes which he could play 5 years ago. With Praveen Kumar swinging the ball both ways and producing wickets, Ishant was not missed in the finals. Sreesanth had a good day as well. His effort in Australia has been reassuringly understated. Piyush Chawla is technically solid as a bowler, and produced two steady spells with the ball after being thrown in at the deep end in the finals.

Results such as this are important in the life of a team, especially a new team like Dhoni's. If India are to truly transition to their next generation ODI side, they must learn to win without the great man from Bombay. The challenge now lies in developing the new players, while the safety net of the killer skill of Tendulkar is still available.

After the stillborn attempt to force the spring two years ago, lets hope that Dhoni's team emerge as a successful ODI side in the near future. By all evidence, the ingredients are in place.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

The Sydney Final

India beat Australia by 6 wickets with 25 balls to spare in the first CB series final at Sydney. Consider the following -

1. India have never beaten Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
2. In the last 10 years, Australia have score 239+ while batting first in an ODI 47 times (not counting today) and won 44 for those games.
3. India had not beaten Australia in a final in 10 years.
4. Up until today, India had beaten Australia chasing only once (at Melbourne in this series) in this decade.
5. Tendulkar had this record chasing
6. India had not won in ODI tournament final since 2002.

In India's favor was a resurgent Tendulkar, and the fact that the Australian batting has been struggling. They were reduced to 24/3 by Ishant and Kumar before Andrew Symonds and Mathew Hayden led a counter attack. It was their nemesis Harbhajan Singh who accounted for both, and finished with impressive figures of 2/38 in 10 overs. The course of the Australian innings was such that it would be possible to draw contrasting conclusion without much difficulty. The Indians could say that the unfortunate injury to Ishant Sharma meant that he couldn't be brought have to finish his quota of overs, and that probably cost India about 10-15 runs in the end. Irfan Pathan who had a terrible day with the ball had to bowl a third spell after having conceded 5 overs for 42, and gave away 21 in those two additional overs. The Australians could say that 239 was quite a good score given their early trouble at 3/24 and 5/135. Still 240 was the sort of score which was attainable through one substantial stand during the run chase. For India, it came between the two Bombay men - Rohit Sharma and Tendulkar. They added 127 for the 4th wicket to seal Australia's fate.

India's run chase began promisingly with Tendulkar and Utthappa putting on 5o in good time before Utthappa was brilliantly caught by Michael Hussey on the mid wicket fence. Gautam Gambhir came in, and looked out of tune from the beginning. He seemed out of step with the singles, and his judgement was that of a distracted batsman. It came as no surprise that he was caught ball watching and run out thanks to some fine work by James Hopes at the bowlers end. At 2/56, Australia were right back in it. Yuvraj Singh joined Tendulkar, and given the occasion and the match situation, one felt that these two would have to make India's stand. They had added 31 in quick time, when Bradley Hogg went past Yuvraj Singh's bemused poke with his flatter one
to hit off stump. The wicket had fallen with the score on 87, and for those of us with long memories, it appeared that this would be yet another one of those stolen Australian triumphs in a final against India.

Rohit Sharma joined Tendulkar and began with assurance. He is calm at the wicket, much like VVS Laxman, and soon he caressed a couple of off drives. A nod of approval from the great man, and they were on their way. A feature of this tour has been Tendulkar's approach against Bradley Hogg. Hogg has been the most effective ODI spinner in the world, and the secret of his success has been his ability to disguise his variations. Tendulkar saw through the disguise very early on and seems to read him like an open book. Time and again he would pick Hogg's googly and deposit it over cover for a boundary. Sharma too played Hogg with assurance, and soon it was apparent that Australia's number one spinner had failed his captain again, just as he had in the Test matches. Tendulkar's strategy seemed to be clear. He was bent on playing out Lee, and going after the other bowlers.

In the end, it was an eminently gettable target, made easier by Sachin Tendulkar's 42nd ODI century. It was also his first ODI century in Australia. The host captain made a peculiar observation about the dew after the game. In effect what Ricky Ponting said was that the dew meant that the wicket played better. Further, he went on to suggest that if you know about the conditions, you would probably win the toss and bowl! Given that Australia are hosts, and Ponting has played 37 times in day-night games at Sydney, it makes one wonder why he decided to bat on winning the toss.

For the Indian captain though, this tour just keeps better and better. This has been sweet revenge for the Sydney Test, and if India do win at either Brisbane or Adelaide, they will look back at the Sydney Test and wonder what might have been. It may just be, that at the end of 3 months of hard fought, at times bitter battles, what separates the two teams is one over by a part time Australia spin bowler!

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Ray Jennings on the U-19 World Cup Final

India and South Africa meet in the 2008 U-19 World Cup Final at Kuala Lumpur this weekend. This is U-19 One Day Cricket. Not the toughest contest ever. But the winds of discontent and crazy talk seem to have crossed the Indian Ocean from down under if South Africa U-19 coach Ray Jennings's comment is to be believed. You would normally expect the coach of an U-19 unit to be the adult, but if Jennings really did say "India are expected to win and that excites me. We're going to come from the bottom and try to scare, not only the Indian team, but the entire country", then you have to wonder what goes on in the South African U-19 dressing room. I suspect that many of the teenage members of the Protean outfit must be cringing with embarrassment at Uncle Ray.

Note that South Africa have lost 1 game in the tournament, while India are unbeaten. So the Proteas are not exactly coming from the bottom. And scare not only the Indian team, but the entire country? Really? Mr. Jennings has coached the Graeme Smith's South African side prior to this, and if the UCBSA felt then that Mr. Jennings was in over his age group there, this is proof that they were quite right.