Monday, April 28, 2008

Harbhajan v Sreesanth

It is disappointing that what is essentially a temperamental shortcoming is being passed off as "toughness" or "aggression" by other players and commentators. Mahendra Singh Dhoni has urged investigators to look at the entire sequence of events, comparing the event to the Zidane-Materazzi incident in the World Cup Final. I find the comparison laughable.

Firstly, that was the World Cup Final - possibly the most watched, and most significant sporting event in the world. Secondly, that incident came at the end of a hard 90 minutes of intense, high pressure football. Thirdly, and most importantly, within the traditions of football, sly, off-the-ball altercations have occured for many many decades (remember the Argentinian response to criticism of Maradona's hand of God goal? - there was supposedly an incident of an opponent elbowing Maradona off-the-ball in that game, and getting away with it because the referee didn't see it). To compare the Zidane-Materazzi scuffle with the Harbhajan-Sreesanth story is silly.

More fundamentally, why is Dhoni getting involved at all? His IPL team was not involved in the game. Why is the Indian captain defending Harbhajan Singh and at the end of the day casting aspersions on Sreesanth? No charges have been brought against Sreesanth yet. He is very much on the plaintiff's side in this instance. Besides, its quite irrelevant what Sreesanth said - what kind of provocation there was, unless it can be established that it was so bad, that anybody would have whacked him in response.

These are two weak players, whose erratic record is probably a direct result of this temperamental weakness. It has nothing to do with either aggression, toughness or provocation. Mahendra Dhoni, who usually shows such good judgement (though not coyness) in his publicly stated positions, ought to know better than to get involved. This seems to be the general tone of the IPL though - it seems to be un-serious free for all.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Harbhajan - Sreesanth Slap?

In the most momentous on field event on IPL territory so far, Harbhajan Singh allegedly slapped S Sreesanth after a game when Sreesanth, who was on the winning side supposedly went over and said hard luck or something to that effect to Harbhajan Singh who ended up on the losing side. So far, it is only an alleged slap, but the news is that Harbhajan has now been suspended by Lalit Modi on the basis of "prima facie video evidence as seen and reviewed by the match adjudicator and referee Mr Farokh Engineer from the tapes provided by Sony & TWI".

What would this mean for the ICC? If Harbhajan did indeed slap Sreesanth, that becomes a level 4 offense as per the ICC code of conduct. Will this count towards the enforcement of a penalty on Harbhajan Singh by the ICC? Or will they consider Harbhajan to be innocent, because the incident did not happen in a game directly administered by the ICC? Its still the same player who's going to turn up for India's next game. Will BCCI take disciplinary action? Or will it be limited to Lalit Modi and his show pony referees?

At the time of writing this post, the official IPL website gives us no inkling about this incident, even though it has a special "news" section. NDTV and a few other news organizations have stories about this on their website. The BCCI has apparently sent Harbhajan Singh a notice about this incident. If they are serious about this, then Harbhajan Singh will be charged under a level 4 offense of the ICC Code of Conduct, irrespective of whether or not the BCCI is bound to follow this document in its handling of the matter.

It is sadly fitting that something that hasn't happened on an international cricket field in living memory, should happen within 10 days on the lucrative charade that is the IPL. All the usual noise about it being "unacceptable" will mean nothing if Harbhajan Singh gets away with anything less than is his due as per the ICC's Code of Conduct (which BCCI is a signatory to).

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Do consider signing this petition. I found it here. For those of us who watch cricket on mute, it becomes even more important that we not be cut off before over ends.

Please feel free to post this on your blog.

Sachin Tendulkar at 35

Sachin Tendulkar turns 35 tomorrow and as he inaugurates his late thirties, it is worth looking at his eighteen and a half year career so far. No other Indian Cricketer has been an India regular for such a long period. Sunil Gavaskar played for sixteen years, Anil Kumble is in his eighteenth year. He has done so without ever being dropped for reasons of performance. I have written about him before, but i never cease to marvel at the sheer relentlessness of his accomplishments. He made Test hundreds on his first tours to England, Australia and South Africa and he is still making hundreds 18 years later - 39 Test hundreds so far.

In an era of unceasing pressure and unforgiving itineraries, his form has never fluctuated because of temperamental weaknesses. His slumps, when they have inevitably occured have invariably been accompanied by injuries - something that first surfaced in 1999 and has continued into the 2000's. Statistically, he remains unmatched. As far as his batting goes, its evolution has been sure and steady - almost unheroic. For all his god given gifts, Tendulkar has always been a methodical batsman; one ever willing to subordinate his desire to the need of the hour, to the extent that some have suggested that he has on occasion been too subservient to circumstances.

No other batsman has been studied with more care than Sachin Tendulkar - both by worried opposing teams and by observers. It is said that Sir Leonard Hutton saw him play in England in 1990 and immediatly observed that his footwork was amongst the surest he had ever seen. Bradman saw his own image in Tendulkar's batsmanship. Sunil Gavaskar watched him play in 1987, and at the time declared that the two best batsmen in Bombay were Dilip Vengsarkar and Sachin Tendulkar.

Tendulkar's batting career is replete with instances where he has been kept in check - mastered even. Bowling line ups have tried many ideas against him. Bowling sides have tried to frustrate him outside off stump, they have tried to frustrate him with slow left arm bowling outside leg stump, they have tried to bounce him, they have tried to cramp him by bowling straight with a packed on side field. Each of these tactics have worked so some degree or another, but Tendulkar has never been mastered. Specific bowlers have troubled him - Glenn McGrath is one. However, there has never been an occasion when some engagement with the bowler's play on Tendulkar's part has not been apparent. Amongst his most memorable displays in my view was his effort on the second evening at Adelaide in 1999. He spent 40 minutes ignoring McGrath outside off stump, and later explained that he felt he was in control. On another occasion, he spent a full morning session over 12 runs against Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh in the West Indies in 1997, and on the way back for lunch told his partner Rahul Dravid that he hadn't been able to read Ambrose's length at all. Yet, he spend the whole morning pushing forward and managing as best he could, without throwing his hand away. He went on to make 80 or 90 in that innings if i remember correctly. Raymond Price troubled him in India a few years ago with his left arm spin. This was a stage where Tendulkar was unwilling to leave his crease against the spinner.

These are the battles which have defined him in many ways. These constitute the ammunition that critics will hurl at him whenever they seek to belittle his efforts. But, at a more fundamental, cricketing level, these are the contests which reveal the unheroic nature of his game. He is nothing if not amazingly dexterous in his use of batting technique. He is able to shift from prominently front foot play, to a more conservative back and across shuffle in the middle of an innings, indeed, from spell to spell. He is able to bide his time and he's able to attack. There is no trademark Tendulkar way of batting in my opinion. His batting is not about blazing cover drives, or exhilirating stroke play, or dour defense, or gritty survival. It is about all of those, and hence is about something much more fundamental. He is not just an entertainer or just a match-winner or just a technically correct, dependable, classy Test Match batsman. He is truly a cricketer, in the best sense of the word. He lives the contest between bat and ball, and is better equipped than most others to deal with it. He is able to do it without letting his own self get in the way.

Episodic as it is in its traditional form, Cricket allows for this kind of reflective expression. In fact, that is what distinguishes Cricket from most other sports. It is first and foremost a Sport, and does not lend itself too well to Sports Entertainment. It is not easily canned into a show, for it is already one in its very occurrence. It is what has created Sachin Tendulkar, and he has repaid Cricket many times over.

He has now spend more than half his life as an international cricketer, over the 19 most important years in the modern cricketing era. As Cricket heads into the Twenty20 age, with all its accompanying confusions about sport, entertainment, worth, value and quality, Sachin Tendulkar's career stands out as what Cricket at its best can offer. He may just be the last of a dying breed - that of the truly great cricketing sportsman.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Watch this!

"There is an element of improvisation within a discipline, that i think is very powerful"
- Barack Obama

In one succinct sentence, he reaches the crux of the skill and the art in sport.

Its a superbly crafted report as well.

The Freedom of the Press (to Profit)

It turns out, that the Indian Premier League, has for some unfathomable reason denied Cricinfo the right to cover the IPL. The reason the IPL gives (based on what Cricinfo says), is that the web rights have already been sold. Cricinfo being an "independent portal", must miss out on the action as a result. The ESPNSTAR website has a dedicated section on IPL at their website. They offer something called a "live cricket scorecast" on their site, currently feature the Pakistan v Bangladesh ODI at Multan. So they do offer live score coverage. However, they probably fall under the category of "websites run by newspapers, and general-interest websites", which have escaped the IPL's biased eye. That Cricinfo was Wisden-Cricinfo for a while, and that Wisden was bought by ESPN-STAR further complicates issues.

Its worth considering what this argument is about though. On both sides. The IPL refuses Cricinfo the right to enter the press box. Why? Because Cricinfo is the only agency in the world (other than the TV broadcasters), who provide live commentary at Cricket matches. I assume that their press-persons sit in the press box, laptop at the ready, TV screen humming in the distance, and the live game in progress out in the middle, and industriously type out ball by ball commentary. In essence, they do what the radio does, only, you have to read out their commentary and not listen to it. Personally, i find Cricinfo's coverage to be excellent, and much better than the unmitigated rubbish that talkative TV commentators dish out ball by ball. Other websites, like Cricbuzz appear to do the same thing, but im not altogether certain that they do infact inhabit the press box. More than once, i've observed phrases uttered by Arun Lal or Bruce Yardley, appearing verbatim in Cricbuzz's ball by ball commentary. This may be a coincidence, but they seem to rely a whole lot more on the television than Cricinfo does. They do claim to be faster than Cricinfo, and most times they actually are.

This begs the question though - is what Cricinfo does in terms of ball by ball coverage, closely related to what other members of the press do in the press box (who write about the game after the end of play), or is it more closely related to what TV or Radio coverage offers (minus the video of course)? If it is indeed closer to TV or Radio, does the IPL have a point in making the distinction between Cricinfo and other news sites? This is one of those grey areas brought about by New Media. Because if you think about it, other general purpose news websites (which IPL allows), do offer live scorecards and coverage. It appears to be a tricky situation all in all, with lots of unresolved questions.

Cricinfo's umbrage is couched in terms of "Freedom of the Press", which is laughable to say the least. This has nothing to do with the freedom of the press. It has to do with a business contract. IPL has the right to refuse anybody they wish permission to cover their tournament (the sanity of such a decision is a different matter altogether). TV broadcasters other than the one which coughs up huge sums of money are not allowed to plant cameras and provide a live feed to games. Would that denial be a freedom of the press issue as well? The Cricinfo editor's outraged arguments about being denied rights under the freedom of the press are misplaced, even though the other observations that he makes about Cricinfo are well made. Cricinfo has covered Cricket with great passion, and in more detail than any other news source (let alone website) that i know of. What this current situation boils down to is that Cricinfo have been denied the right to profit from the apparent mega-production that is the IPL. They would be left out. That has nothing to do with the freedom of the press. Now, you might argue, that it is absolutely an assault on the freedom of the press if some newspapers are kept out and others are given exclusive preference. But this, as i have pointed out above, is not quite the same. The intention is not to deny the public the right to know about the IPL - it is to ensure that IPL makes every last rupee that they can in every possible way.

Cricinfo has plenty of good arguments to make, and much new ground to break. They are the New Media of cricket coverage, and they do what they do expertly. To co-opt the "freedom of the press" - a sacred concept, in this matter is unworthy of them. This is about the freedom of the press. The Cricinfo-IPL issue is a business matter.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


This is the final straw. As someone who is unable to fathom the excitement that T20 and the IPL has generated within the cricketing world, this column by Tunku Varadarajan makes the whole charade even more befuddling. It turns out that the Bangalore Royal Challengers (with Rahul Dravid as Icon and sundry other players like Wasim Jaffer making up the numbers), will have cheerleaders trained by the Washington Redskins. This appears to be a mid-table team in the National Football League in the US, and i wonder if the Bangalore team wants to wish upon itself the same mid-table mediocrity in the T20 circus. On the other hand, they could be training cheerleaders to make up for expected mid-table mediocrity.

Wikipedia informs us that "Cheerleading is a sport that uses organized routines made from elements of some tumbling, dance, jumps and stunting to direct the event's spectators to cheer on sports teams at games and matches and/or compete at cheerleading competitions". Has spectator enthusiasm ever been a problem at cricket grounds in India or anywhere? T20 has its own rythm and pace though, and a Twenty20 game would last about as long as an NFL game or an NBA game. It is interesting to note that cheerleading in Baseball has been a much more recent, and less pervasive phenomenon.

The very idea, that when a spectator goes to a cricket ground (or any sports ground) to watch a sporting contest, he or she would need to be exhorted to cheer for a particular team, and that this cheering should be encouraged is quite condescending. It suggests that the spectator may not actually be interested in what goes on on the field of play, despite having paid good money for it - that interest may flag, and needs to be propped up. The whole question of cheerleading being blatantly sexist (there are never male cheerleaders at women's sporting occasions) is another huge issue altogether.

Maybe this is yet another "reformist", "forward-looking", "___________ (insert a vaguely synonymous phrase here)" aspect of T20. Those who oppose cheerleading are likely to be considered "backward" or "retrograde" or "traditionalist", much like those who fail to appreciate T20 are. But that's hardly the point. There is absolutely nothing reformist or progressive about either cheerleading or T20 cricket. To see it as a trailer reel advertising the main event (Test Cricket), is to fall for the spin disseminated by the powers that be (ECB - the original promoters of T20, BCCI and tacitly - the ICC). To bring "new audiences" is a euphemism for bringing new consumers. It is a fallacy to assume that the game will definitely change for the better. Nobody has a clue what this means, because nobody is able to state what it is that allegedly ails the game right now. The assumption that it will not affect real Cricket at all, is equally faulty and baseless. The only passably good thing about T20 is that it enables top cricketers to make top money, which they deserve, and which real cricket is unable to deliver.

The primary pragmatic argument in favor of T20, and indeed the reason for its inception, was the fear, that if BCCI didn't do it, some outside party might (as ICL did), and eat into the ICC calender anyway. It was the lure of big money which drove the creation of T20, more than any discontent with Cricket itself. T20 is obviously not the way to tackle this problem of income, because Cricket has conceded too much in return for the money.

A truly path breaking shift would have been to invite all these cash rich individuals and corporate entities to invest in first class teams and take a stake in owning these entities. So the Ambani's for example could have bought a minority stake in the Mumbai Cricket Association. Overseas players could have been invited play in these teams - it would have made first class cricket much more intense and much more exciting - for it would have included a much more punishing schedule, and many more games. It would also have encouraged India players to play first class cricket at every opportunity. Furthermore, it would have professionalized the running of these state associations (which is where the real power lies). A showpiece T20 tournament every year as part of such an association might have been an interesting proposition.

But it would have meant that the BCCI would have had to reform - would have had to change itself fundamentally in keeping with the times. The "utsaah-utpaadak-naari" route was obviously a much more convenient one!

Monday, April 14, 2008

Onwards to IPL.......

The next big thing on the Cricket calender is the IPL. Everybody is worried about this. This post on the Corridor of Uncertainty (a pioneering cricket blog) captures the debate quite succinctly. Broadly, there are two points of view about this - those who think its a good thing, and those who think its a bad thing. This distinction is obvious and is in itself useless. What makes up the agreement and the disagreement is however quite interesting.

Those who think its a good thing, seem to think that its only fair that India as the biggest market should attract the biggest, richest tournament in cricket, with the most high profile cricketers available, playing under Indian masters (both on and off the field), regardless of whether or not they are the best available Cricketers for the position. Now, if you put it this way, there isn't a single self-styled cricket pundit who will admit that he thinks thus. It does however underly much of the pride about the IPL. A recent pan masala advertisements which shows a young Indian tycoon being driven past a mansion belonging to India's erstwhile colonial masters. The tycoon is heard declaring that he was here to do to the British what they did to India during the Raj (buy up the mansion). The Pan Masala advertisement in a nutshell is what the pro-IPL pride is about. BCCI is that tycoon (if i have summarily demolished the romance of the tycoon, i apologize). I don't know whether this is a good thing. Im not sure that it is healthy or desirable. The counter argument to the IPL comes from British journalists and scribes, who seem as a group to view the growing Indian influence with suspicion, dismay, and i suspect more than a little bit of envy. Their approach seems to be to cast it as a circus, as an example of the naked, crude vulgarity that they suspect will be imposed on cricket by the disrespectful Indians. Someone other than the MCC (or the ICC) will call the shots, and the Pommie Punditocracy can't stand it.

A milder version of the for and against positions seems to be an economic one. Those for, seem to see it as a victory for market forces (always a good thing in these people's view), while those who are against it, worry about the problems that this might create for traditional cricket. As one commenter in the post i linked to above suggests - the big fear about IPL is that 30 years from now, it may just be that players are judged based on their performances at IPL and not in international cricket (Tests and ODI's).

I tend to agree with these mild dissenters. But only in part, and i would argue that they have the argument backwards. The problem with the IPL is the Twenty20 format and it is the Twenty20 format which is the greater threat to International Cricket than the IPL is. Of course, our Pommie Pundit friends can't diss T20 - for it is originally a British phenomenon. I find Twenty20 to be mind-numbingly boring. Therefore, i have misgivings about IPL, for my view of Twenty20 must seem counter intuitive to most readers. I have explained elsewhere why i find T20 to be boring, and also why i think IPL is a bad idea, so i won't repeat myself here.

Indeed, the only casualty in this inter-continental crossfire is Cricket itself. Nobody can argue for Cricket - the English can't because they invented T20 (and thus facilitated the "revolution"), and the grass is too green in India for anybody to stop and think about anything other than gluttony.

Me... im looking forward to following the South Africa - England Tests this summer. Thats a series which has produced a 2-2 result in 2003 and a 2-1 England victory in 1998. Steyn, Morkel, Ntini will try and best the new look English pace attack lead by Ryan Sidebottom, with Chris Broad, James Anderson and (hopefully) a fully fit Andrew Flintoff, in a real Test match. Graeme Smith will return to the scene of his dual double hundreds (259 and 277), which set tongues wagging about a threat to Bradman's record (this did not transpire, Smith made 714 runs in the series, falling 260 short of Bradman's series record of 974 set in 1930).

The T20 circus will remain just that - a circus.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

India win at Kanpur

On a wicket which more or less guaranteed a result if 450 overs were possible, India overcame the disadvantage of losing the toss and potentially being forced to suffer the worst of the wicket to beat South Africa by 8 wickets in 3 days and 256 overs of cricket at Green Park, Kanpur. The innings of the match came from Sourav Ganguly and the bowling spell of the match came from Virender Sehwag, who broke the back of the South African second innings immediatly after drinks in the post-lunch session on Day 3, dismissing Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith within a space of 3 overs. From then on, it was a matter of time.

It was not only the wicket which was the cause of the Indian victory. Without the incisive fast bowling offered by Ishant Sharma (5/73 in the match) and Sreesanth (took only 1 wicket, but bowled superbly, especially in the second innings), India would not have been able to exert the relentless pressure which is necessary to be successful on a wicket like this. South Africa squandered the massive advantage of winning the toss by being bowled out on the first day - losing 9/113.

Test matches on tricky wickets usually rest on the performance of the middle orders of the respective sides; especially in the case of wickets which are dry and afford turn and uneven bounce, because the massive advantage of the the new ball is neutralized to some extent. All 80 overs become threatening, potentially wicket producing overs. The South African middle order failed to capitalize on the start provided by Smith, McKenzie and Amla on Day 1, while the Indian middle order showed customary fight and eked out a competitive first innings score. Ishant Sharma and Sreesanth showed exactly why the "don't trust the tailender and take chances" strategy employed by Sourav Ganguly yesterday might have been a mistake in hindsight. Ganguly played a brilliant innings, but that miscalculation might have cost him what would have been an amazing hundred on a difficult wicket against a good pace attack. The Indian middle order (3-7) played 439 balls in the Indian first innings, compared with 283 by their South African counterparts on Day 1. They played Harris better than the South African's played Harbhajan Singh, and India's overall spin bowling depth was too much for the visitors.

On a wicket tailor made of his style - the kind he has been pleading and begging for, Harbhajan Singh (7/96 in the match) delivered as he would have been expected to do. The wicket allowed him to control the runs and he was difficult to hit, especially on the first day. The added pressure of the absence of Anil Kumble was managed well, and Harbhajan Singh lived up to his billing (275 Test wickets in 66 Tests at 31). He would like that average to be on the right side of 30, but he needs far more in his armoury than he possesses right now in order to achieve that. Too many games are played on good wickets these days.

All in all, it was a re-assertion of home advantage by the hosts. The South Africans will be pleased with their efforts in this series. The hosts can point to injury troubles, but the 1-1 result confirms my pre-series view of the Proteas - especially of Dale Steyn (15 wickets at 20 apiece). They will be a force to reckon with in England later this year. Makhaya Ntini, the old pro came good for his side with 10 wickets at 24 in the series after an early mauling from Sehwag. Morne Morkel was impressive for South Africa. Paul Harris disappointed, especially at Kanpur. Kallis, Amla, McKenzie and DeVilliers all made centuries in the series for South Africa.

Dhoni had a good outing as Test captain in Anil Kumble's absence at Kanpur. That augurs well for India. The middle order batting seems to have plenty of good options, without any truly outstanding ones. Ganguly is playing better than he ever has, and VVS is now one of the canniest Test batsmen in the world. Rahul Dravid has slowed down a bit, but is still a gutsy performer, and Tendulkar showed glimpses of his old touch in Australia. Yuvraj Singh promises much, but has had a rough time with the bat in the last 3-4 months.

One just gets the feeling with this Indian side, that they are a side from the past - full of experience and stories, performing from memory. Very little surprises them in Test matches any more. The only unknown seems to be the unpredictability of the fast bowling.

It would be very interesting to hear Gary Kirsten's review of this series. Not necessarily the one that he offers in a press conference, but the one that he offers in the dressing room, behind closed doors. I suspect he is a little bit at a loss as to what to say to a side who's batting line up he cannot help, and who's bowling line up he isn't qualified to coach. There may not be much he can say at all.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Kanpur Test - On a Knife Edge

As with most low scoring Test matches, the Kanpur Test is likely to go down to the wire. India have secured a slim lead - 23 runs with 1 wicket standing at close of play on Day 2. On a deteriorating wicket, in a first innings of 260-270, this lead is about 9% right now; not insignificant. However, if you consider that India will have to bat 4th on this wicket, then this lead would mean almost nothing. South Africa, it would be fair to say, are one Test century away from winning the series. They have the batsmen in their line up who could do it. Smith, deVilliers, Boucher, even Amla to some extent - all could produce the brisk third innings hundred which sets up the match.

If South Africa are allowed to declare in their third innings, it would be the end for India. On the other hand, if India were bowl South Africa out cheaply in the third innings (and this is the sort of wicket on which it would be possible), then they wrap this game up very quickly.

Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman both passed 50 to help India to 288/9 at close of play. While this in itself is a competitive effort, I wonder if losing 4/40 towards the end of the day was a satisfactory way for India to finish a fighting day. Tendulkar has been sorely missed, but Sourav Ganguly more than made up for it by being able to score quickly. Rahul Dravid again played a slow, laborious innings, and it would be fair to say that with his current form, on these wickets, this South Africa line up has his measure. I suspect that had Tendulkar been available, we might have seen Dravid and VVS swapping places in the batting order. In Tendulkar's absence, India have to retain Dravid's solidity at the number 3 to prevent a top order collapse - a purpose which Dravid and VVS fulfilled admirably. The substantial innings eluded Yuvraj Singh and Mahendra Singh Dhoni yet again as both fell in the 30's. The manner of Ganguly's dismissal was an example of the "selfless" strategy failing, as against the method employed by Tendulkar and Laxman in recent times to calmly take every single run that may be on offer when batting with a tailender. Much is made of this, but i see it merely as a tactical choice of individual players - one is not more selfish or selfless than the other.

All in all, India have been competitive. Whether they have been competitive enough to offset the disadvantage of having to bat 4th, only time, Harbhajan Singh and Ishant Sharma will decide.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Protest and Sport

Major sporting occasions are high visibility showcases, and naturally invite attention from most interested agencies. International sport has always been fertile ground for political protest and dissent from Jesse Owens in 1936, to the Black Power salutes in the Mexico Olympics of 1968, to the current protests in cities around the world in support of Tibet in the lead up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

International Cricket has had its share of protests. India playing Cricket with Pakistan has always been a touchy political issue, both from the point of view of refraining from playing, and from the point of view of using a series as a political statement (the Friendship Series in 2004). Australia and the West Indies did not play in Sri Lanka in the 1996 World Cup, for security reasons. A combined team from India and Pakistan played an exhibition ODI against Arjuna Ranatunga's Sri Lankans in response to this. This was at the time when India and Pakistan were not playing bilateral series. The selection of Basil D'Oliviera in the MCC touring party for the Test tour of South Africa in the late 1960's caused the series to the cancelled after the South African government protested D'Oliviera's inclusion. This came to be known as the D'Oliviera Affair and led to South Africa being banned by the ICC until 1992.

The issues are many, and in the significantly less urgent, and less critical arena of popular sentiment, the question invariably seems to be - should politics and sport mix? Colin Cowdrey for example, writing about the D'Oliviera Affair in his autobiography, took the view that they were simply trying to play cricket, and that politics and sport ought not to have been mixed. Many have taken the view in the recent China-Tibet issue, that once the Olympics had been awarded to Beijing, it is incumbent upon the rest of the world to help China make it a success and not let it be disrupted. Richard Gere, Hollywood superstar turned activist, makes the counter argument succinctly. He suggests that the Olympics are China's opportunity to showcase their society and their country, and while the violent clampdown continues in Tibet they ought not to be allowed to produce their show unmolested.

Nasser Hussein wrote feelingly about the Zimbabwe controversy during the 2003 World Cup in his autobiography. In his view, at the time, there was a clear distinction between the British Government making a firm decision that the English team would not play in Zimbabwe, and the British Government merely suggesting that the English team not play in Zimbabwe, and leave the burden of the actual decision on the ECB. What actually happened was the latter with the result that Hussein's England were left in the lurch and lost valuable points through their Zimbabwe boycott.

Clearly, this is a complex issue, and as with most significant, charged issues, emotions run high. I remember being very upset that India's cricketers were being used for public relations purposes by the Indian Government in the hastily arranged 2004 tour to Pakistan - the so called Friendship series. But then again, why should they not be used for public relations purposes? This, as i think about it now, is not as clear cut as it once was. Public protest, as has been the case with the Tibet protests, adds another dimension to the whole thing.

How are the protesters disrupting the tour of the Olympic flame through the cities of the world by trying to extinguish the flame and or impede the bearer of the flame (Sachin Tendulkar is scheduled to be one in Delhi), different from the people who vandalized the Wankhede stadium pitch a few years ago to emphasize their disagreement about Pakistan and India playing cricket? Most of us will doubtless view the pro-Tibet protesters favorably (i do), while many (if not most) of us think that the people who dug up the pitch and poured oil into it to be vandals (i do). How do we reconcile these two things?

Many critical observers will jump at these comparisons, and indeed, this post does offer only an extremely short, extremely superficial and brief view of this complex issue. The Olympic Charter explains why Sport is important and there is little disagreement on this. Protest, in my view, and the principle of offering protest where injustice is observed or percieved, is equally important. If you think about it, Sport and Protest are two arenas which are remarkably similar, for both entail the expression and exposure of character - both are outward expressions (often direct and instinctive) of one's inner most, core being.

Something to think about...... for all of us. A great sportsman like Tendulkar should know better than to carry the Olympic torch when others like Kiran Bedi have refused to do so. We can blame the politics of it all, but the simple point is, that it is our Government, and it is our character which is revealed. We ought not to sacrifice it at the altar of "interest".

Saturday, April 05, 2008

South Africa win Ahmedabad Test

My series Preview

Ntini, Steyn, Morkel and Harris produced a solid bowling performance to bowl India out for 328 in their second innings on Day 3. With able support from Jacques Kallis, and the crushing weight of a 418 run lead, South Africa's decision to declare overnight was vindicated as they wrapped up the game in 3 days.

Well played South Africa.

As for India, the problem as usual, lies with the bowling. The Indian bowling has failed to trouble the South African batting in 3 innings out of 3 now, while the batting failed on the first morning in this game. Ishant and Zaheer have been sorely missed, as has Tendulkar. The bench has been shown up. If you look at the batting and bowling averages for India, the top 6 batsmen for India averaged 114, 44, 37, 34, 27 and 26 respectively, while the four bowlers have averaged 33, 46, 60 and 78. Add to this the fact that R P Singh has gone for 235 in 53 overs in the two Tests, and hasn't taken a wicket and so doesn't figure in the list of bowling averages yet.

Plenty to think about for India going into the must win final Test. Sachin Tendulkar will miss that game as well.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Ahmedabad Test - Day 1

The visitors had their best Test Match Day in an overseas Test in a long long time on Day 1 at Motera, as they produced a near perfect morning in the field to bowl India out for 76, in just 20 overs before lunch. The knives are out for India, with all the usual cliches about India being clueless about seam coming into play. Already, they have been called an "amateur club third XI" and the obvious parallel to Johannesburg, where the South Africans were bowled out for 84 seems to have escaped some.

That said, India find themselves deep in the soup at the end of day 1. 147 behind on the first innings already with six South African wickets standing, it will take a miracle for India to make a comeback in this game. India being bowled out for 42 at Lord's was explained by Sunil Gavaskar as a case of "the top five specialist batsmen falling to good deliveries, and the tail not having a good day".

Rahul Dravid, Wasim Jaffer and VVS Laxman did almost nothing wrong and yet lost their wickets, in the case of Jaffer and VVS very early in their innings. Makhaya Ntini showed why he came to India with 334 Test wickets to his name, as he expertly exploited the seam movement (killer help for a bowl if he can use it well) on offer, bowling from wide of the crease and getting the ball to move both ways off the seam. It was effective, because he was able to attack the stumps from wide of the crease. He was not bowling for the LBW, but was bowling for his slip cordon - something which has a high chance of working if the bowler gets the length right. In the case of Jaffer, he dropped short once, and the India opener played an elegant cover drive off the back foot - a beautiful stroke. The next ball, Ntini aimed much closer to the line of off stump, albeit on the same shortish length - Jaffer defended off the back foot, but the ball straightened past his edge. Almost immediatly afterwards, Ntini got it perfectly right - the length was fuller, there by giving Jaffer a shorter look at the seam movement off the wicket, and also drawing him forward. Jaffer had to play because of the wide of the crease angle. The ball straightened and took a crisp outside edge, which was caught brilliantly by Graeme Smith.

VVS Laxman is the more experienced batsman, he was intent on leaving as much as possible from Ntini, especially when it was pitched slightly wide of off stump. Ntini got one on a goodish length which just clip the outside of off stump and reached Boucher on the full, the way an outside edge would. It was unlucky for Laxman, but Ntini was bowling for that. I remember him getting Tendulkar out in the second innings of the unofficial third Test of the 2001-02 series in South Africa in a similar manner, only Tendulkar's leave was on the front foot.

Rahul Dravid batted expertly, until he got the ball of the day. What made it worse for him was that it came in the midst of what until then had been a lacklustre morning for Steyn. It was quick, on a perfect length, pitched on middle and took off. It was unplayable.

Virendra Sehwag fell to a characteristically ambitious stroke, the sort that he has eschewed early in his innings in both Australia and at Chennai. The ball was much closer to him than he thought, and seamed in take the inside edge and crash into Sehwag's stumps.

Sourav Ganguly played the weakest hand of the morning, not only for its extremely brief length, but also for the lacklustre manner of the dismissal. He seemed to shape to leave the ball, but at the last moment, seemed to decide to play at it, with the result that he laid the limpest of bats on the ball and played on. It was an uncertain effort, but it was too early in his innings for it to indicate anything about the batsman to us.

MS Dhoni played the worst shot of the morning, but it was in keeping with the belligerent Dhoni that we have come to know. It was a full ball outside off stump, which Dhoni aimed an all mighty square drive at, and managed but a tickle into Boucher's gleeful gloves.

The South Africans enjoyed their batting stint more than the Indians did, fortified as they were by their bowlers exploits. Tony Hill seemed to have made the wrong call when he gave Graeme Smith out LBW, but its still 223/4. The the longish tail of this side, India will still fancy their chances of keeping to lead under 250. What India have missed is a fast bowler who can keep the runs down. Irfan Pathan has not performed this role too well, and the class of Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma has been sorely missed. Sreesanth has tried gamely as he usually does, but support at the other end has been lacking. Harbhajan Singh was amongst the wickets early in his spell, and that is possibly the only positive development for India on what has been their roughest Test match day in recent memory.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

On Expert Commentators

A very famous Marathi playwright once remarked that the value of anything that is said is determined not by the merit of the statement itself, but by the identity of its author. This is admittedly a pedestrian translation - the original Marathi is masterfully simple and lyrical. I hope you got the gist of it though, for this notion goes to the heart of the automatic legitimacy that "expert" commentators have. These are usually ex-cricketers. What they say is considered valuable, purely because they bring with them the experience of having played the game.

Cricketer-Commentators have proliferated in recent years, especially since the advent of Cable TV. They come in all shapes and sizes, and represent all points of view. They are joined occasionally by non-cricketers, who must perform subordinate roles. Harsha Bhogle is the most storied of these subordinates and has become a respected voice in his own right. Mandira Bedi brings up the other end of the subordinates spectrum. The point of her noodle-strapped presence is all too obvious. Unlike Mr. Bhogle, she has no claim to being a journalist. But this post is not about these subordinate bit players.

It is about cricketing giants from yesterday posing as narrative giants of todays cricket. They deliver their olympian insights about the heat of battle from the cool confines of specially constructed commentary boxes at Test Match grounds. They participate in multi-national commentary teams, purporting to bring to us cricket in its best international flavors. Some of these commentators are truly great former players - Barry Richards and Sunil Gavaskar, to name just a couple. Some others among them have built their own personages anew as commentators. The strokeless wonder that was Siddhu morphs into an elegantly attired, loud, colorful bloviator, specializing in some truly unconventional cliche.

Expert Commentators broadly fall into three categories. These have nothing to do with their playing record. The only area where their playing record might come into play is in the richness and depth of their bag of anecdotes, but you'd would be surprised as to how little impact this has.

The first category is that of the commentator who seems to speak from memory all the time. They sit there in front of the game, watching it with all this amazing technology and statistical know how at their beck and call, and yet, seem stuck in their own narratives, which they repeat endlessly. It is almost as if it is irrelevant what's actually happening of the field. These are the commentators who tend to say the same thing about the same player over and over and over again, game after game, week after week, season after season. They also tend to speak a lot. These commentators seem to think it is their duty to speak ball by ball, producing dull mind-numbing monotony. In short, they show all the signs of being intellectually lazy, and seem plainly bored at having to watch cricket a lot of the time.

The second category is that of the commentator who seems to speak from a limited, but highly personalized database of cliche. Members of this type sound very interesting at first, but invariably end up appearing to be loud, truculent and confrontational. Of the three types of commentators, members of this type are most likely to completely ignore events on the field if they don't appear to support their chosen narrative of that day. Members of this group also tend to think that things were better in their day.

The third category is the most sparsely populated, and consists of commentators who actually watch the Cricket that they are commentating on, and see it before they say something about it. What they say seems to depend on what they see, and so, they tend to say less than their colleagues who belong to the two types described above. Because they bother to look out for what is actually happening, they tend to prognosticate less, and they also tend to find new ways of describing events. They are least likely to resort to cliche. It is not that they don't have a point of view. It is just that they seem to actually follow John Arlott's dictum of explaining the game to the viewer - the actual game in progress that is, not one which lies in the figment of their imagination.

The tragedy of it is, that this third, highly desirable band of cricket commentators are invariably paired with members of the first two tribes during commentary stints. As a result, i tend to watch international cricket on mute for the most part.

Read this...

George Packer writes a searing article about the Iraq War. If you're interested in true nuance, this is it.

What do you think of this?

Dolphins, Cobras, Titans, Heroes, Superstars and Zimbabwe!

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

How different are Dravid and Sehwag?

Suresh Menon writes about the apparent contrast between the batting styles of Rahul Dravid and Virendra Sehwag on Cricinfo and concludes that "[a]lthough both Dravid and Sehwag are of the same generation, they belong to different schools of batsmanship." This is an intriguing idea, as is the article itself, for it is built on a number of complementary stereotypes and well established "traditionalists" beliefs. But before we all agree that Mr. Menon has successfully condemned "traditionalists" to their footwork laden fantasies of stroke less afternoons, and crown Virendra Sehwag as the undisputed champion of unfettered unorthodoxy, lets take a moment and consider the following.

The basic tenet of batsmanship is in two parts - don't get out, make runs. However, how a batsman bats, is determined by the batsman, not by batsmanship. Akash Chopra supposedly possesses a magnificient technique, yet, he is clearly not in either Dravid or Sehwag's class as batsman. Menon's observation about "schools of batsmanship", based on his view of some of the greatest batsmen of all time, is both flawed and even facetious. In doing so, he divests these great performers of their individual agency - that Sehwag's success actually points to some broad legitimization of his school of batsmanship (whatever that might be) is as absurd as saying that Rahul Dravid is proof that batting conventionally is generally a good idea. That this argument is based on one day of batting is even more astounding. The article has a word for Sadagoppan Ramesh, who in Menon's words, lost his place in the side because commentators kept beating their drums about his poor footwork. For the record, Ramesh began his Test career well, going on his first tour to Australia in 1999-2000 with a batting average of 55 in 7 Test matches. His next 12 Tests produced 200 fewer runs than his first 7, at an average of 26. He was then dropped, because he kept getting in in Sri Lanka in 2001 and then kept getting out, in a series where playing Murali was hell for the new batsman - especially an Indian middle order without VVS and Tendulkar.

Virendra Sehwag and Rahul Dravid are both very similar batsmen. Their success (which seems to be at the root of all the technique talk), is down to their ability to bat all day. It is down to their ability to play fast bowling - each in his own way, to size up situations and respond in their own unique way. There is as much difference between Dravid and Tendulkar or Dravid and Ganguly or Ganguly and Tendulkar or any of these three and VVS, as there is between any of these four and Sehwag as far as batting technique and batting method goes. Haven't we all endlessly heard about Tendulkar's unorthodox grip, about Ganguly's unnatural leg side play, about VVS's lack of footwork and supple wrists? Haven't we heard about Lara's high backlift, of Ponting's tendency to walk onto the front foot at times? Haven't we also heard about how Sehwag has consciously tried to move better into his back foot play? If anything, great batsmen have time and again shown that batting is an art. These batsmen have transcended mere technique, after having honed it to perfection. If you were to ask Virendra Sehwag and Rahul Dravid about batsmanship, im quite sure that in a serious stint of coaching, they would both offer similar, if not almost the same technical advice.

There is this though - if Sehwag fails, he is vulnerable to criticism about his batting technique, which is not conventional. If Dravid fails, nobody is likely to suggest that its because his batting technique is not like Sehwag's. This obviously suggests that there is something to conventional orthodoxy, even if it is demonstrably not the primary cause of great batting success. Conventional batting technique, as it is taught by cricket coaches is a basic knowledge base of the game. Greatness however, is all in the mind.