Saturday, May 31, 2008

What do we watch when we watch Sport?

In his well recieved book about the 2003-04 Indian tour of Pakistan, Rahul Bhattacharya begins with a brief, thoughtful discussion about the point of sport. He suggests that to ask the question "why play sport" is analogous to asking "why live life". George Orwell, as Bhattacharya reminds us, once questioned the basis of international sport. Orwell was writing in the shadow of World War II, drawing on a visit by a Soviet football team to England in 1945. He wrote:
"but as soon as the question of prestige arises, as soon as you feel that you and some larger unit will be disgraced if you lose, the most savage combative instincts are aroused"
More significantly for those of us who follow sport, Orwell observed :
"But the significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators: and, behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe — at any rate for short periods — that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue."
In the debate about whether or not the 2003-04 tour of Pakistan was a good idea, Bhattacharya found himself siding with those who were in favor of tour. At the time, i had argued against the tour, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it was one of the very few tours scheduled April in Pakistan when it is extremely hot; the tour itinerary also included no first class games, three Tests in three weeks, and no off days - a most irregular and unduly taxing schedule. Rahul Dravid, in his recollection of the tour is supposed to have said that he stopped being aware of what day of the week it was - it was either a match day, a travel day, or a pre-match prep day. Secondly, because Cricket was being used by the Vajpayee Government as a pawn in international diplomacy, placing unfair burdens on the players, far above and beyond their calling, and much worse than that, as many suspected, as a pawn in national politics (the General Election was scheduled for April 20 that year (two days after the end of the tour). This speculation was fuelled by the fact that there were misgivings within the Government of the day about the adverse impact of an Indian defeat on their election prospects. At the time, this debate was cast in terms of the question - "should sport and politics be mixed". Of course, given Orwell's observation about nationalism, it is self-evident that they are mixed whether we like it or not.

As it happened, India won, and the BJP lost the election.
Simon Barnes, in this article about the concept of the "talisman" explains that the task of a talisman
"is to take the stuff of sport and turn it into fantasy. He must take the base metal of real life and alchemise it into a thing of beauty and wonder. He must rise from the mud of the playing surface, take wing and become the stuff of dreams."
Barnes observes that Jonny Wilkinson, Wayne Rooney and Andrew Flintoff, have all suffered from this curse - of being placed on this pedestal, only to find that they cannot live up to it - due to injury, loss of form, and occasionally other more human failings.

If you think about it, we create these pedestals, and it is we who are responsible placing and replacing characters on them. Andrew Flintoff or Sachin Tendulkar or Brian Lara or Wasim Akram play the same game today that they played when they were anonymous youngsters participating in sport. For them, it is still a game of technique, of skill, of watching the ball, of letting their instincts rule. Thanks to us however, it is more than that - it is about the burden of our expectations, thanks to the fact that we place our prestige in their hands. This, in most instances is possibly unwittingly so, both for us and for them, to the extent that we have come to understand it as the natural state of being. Of course, some would argue that this is what creates the value of sport in the first place - the many millions which Tendulkar earns are not because a billion Indians are obsessively interested in his unorthodox grip and his impeccable judgement of length, but because they feel confident that they can confidently place their prestige in his hands. In this, Tendulkar's success only serves to increase the burden on him. One of my most favorite lines about Sachin Tendulkar comes from C P Surendran (old readers will know that i have used this quote before as well) -
‘‘Batsmen walk out into the middle alone. Not Tendulkar. Every time Tendulkar walks out to the crease, a whole nation, tatters and all, marches with him to the battle arena. A pauper people pleading for relief, remission from the life-long anxiety of being Indian, by joining in spirit with their visored savior.’’
That is what a talisman is - apart from what Barnes suggests is his ability to lift his teammates and make them believe. In this however, i have misgivings, for the confidence which Tendulkar's presence in the Indian side may give his teammates, is surely different from the confidence that it gives to you and me. Besides, whether these teammates can lift themselves up to perform to the the best of their ability has to do substantially, if not entirely, with qualities inherent in these other players, than it has to do with Tendulkar. This is amply demonstrated by the fact that the same Tendulkar has played in (and led) some mediocre Indian sides, as well as some good ones. This elevation of Flintoff from stand out performer (in the 2005 Ashes) to talisman is something for which observers and commentators are solely to blame. The "fantasy" that Barnes refers to is created by his own ilk, and is about success, even though it may occasionally masquerade as one about skill, such as the nostalgia about Flintoff's famous over late one evening at Edgbaston in 2005. Flintoff himself has probably bowled as well, if not better, in tougher conditions than that, but this was the one celebrated over which contributed towards his "talismanization".
It is possible to assert here that the popularity (and therefore "success") of any sporting event depends not of the quality of sport produced, but on how many people may be interested in the victory that is possible. Thus, a contest against a mediocre Pakistan side is more popular (and more valuable) than a contest against a quality Sri Lankan side (it could be argued that the 2001 Indian Test tour of Sri Lanka produced a higher quality of Cricket than the 2003-04 Indian Test tour of Pakistan). What then do we watch when we watch sport? Are we actually watching what the players are doing? Do we try to read the contest? We celebrate the "passion" of Cricket fans in India - what is this "passion" all about? Does the value of a victory depend largely on the popularity and support that may exist for the opponents? We celebrate the fact that the average man in front of his television is likely to shout out instructions to say Rahul Dravid about batting - but do we realize the absurdity of this?
The franchise based model of Twenty20, it has been argued, is likely to create a "healthier" sporting environment in India - one devoid of the rampant nationalism evident in the following of India's Test and ODI side. But is the fact that an India player playing for a franchise from say Delhi, gets booed when he comes to play the Bombay based franchise at the Wankhede any different from say Andrew Symonds getting booed (and more) when he came to Bombay last October? Isn't the very success of Twenty20 based on the premise that new rivalries can and will be manufactured? The fact that the format is popular, is due to the fact that the length of the game (about 3 hours) is the perfect duration for these rivalries to be played out in an evenings entertainment. The actual Cricket that is played is irrelevant - Joginder Sharma and Glenn McGrath inhabit the same rarified atmosphere on the crude leveller that is the IPL.
Bhattacharya in his book balks at the "callous" Orwellian view of national sport. But is the grandiose notion that Sport is as vital as Life itself, anything more than just another slogan? I am distinctly uncomfortable with an interest in detail, in actually wanting to observe and watch what is actually happening on the field, and trying to understand it in terms of the rules and intricacies of the game (however erroneously one may do this) being cast as "liberal". The converse "non-liberal" notion seems to be that the market is the ultimate arbiter of the "success" of a sport - thus Twenty20 is a great sporting contest, simply because it attracts a bigger audience than say the Wednesday of a Test Match.

In my view, there is nothing "liberal" about the former notion, and nothing "non-liberal" about the latter. What it illustrates however, is a fundamental difference of interest in what it is that is actually been watched when one is in the presence of sport. Essays like these usually end on a note which irritates me no end, with the obvious observation that both points of view have (more or less equal) merit. In this instance, both the prestige and inherent critical content of a sport both obviously have value. Orwell's observation has been proved to be an accurate one time and again either due to the use of high profile sport as a vehicle of prestige or as a site of protest (the Beijing Olympics are a case in point). I would argue however, that a sport endures and thrives on account of interest in it for its own sake. It is therefore valuable to promote this interest. It is important to reflect from time to time on what we are actually watching when we "watch" sport.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

T20 and Highlights reels

The West Indies pace bowling quartet in their 80's heyday was possibly the greatest international bowling line up ever to take the Test Match field. You could see a longer, more interesting video compilation of the West Indian pace dynasty here. "Perfume balls" are illustrated here, while this is a compilation of great spells of fast bowling by West Indies bowlers.

This one is a 10 minute video about VVS Laxman's epic 281 against Australians at Kolkata.

But what do these videos really tell us? I didn't see any of these games live. Laxman's innings was played in the middle of the week. He began on Tuesday afternoon (13th March 2001) and was dismissed on Thursday morning - working days all. But i remember every phase of that innings like it was yesterday. Amongst my group of cricket mad friends (all of us played endless games of cricket at every opportunity), me and one other guy were hopeful even at the end of Day 2, that there was a chance for India to win. I wouldn't call this partisanship, i wouldn't call it blindness (even though it would be reasonable for the uninitiated observer to use those exact terms). I would merely call it involvement.

That video shows every phase of his innings. The first cover drive and off drive are on Day 3, when the game was as good as lost (274 behind, following on, having lost the opener). The third stroke - the pull shot against McGrath from around wicket - the most important thing in that shot was the score - 124/3. Tendulkar had just fallen for 10 for the second time in the game. And the game, VVS notwithstanding, was now considered even more hopeless, given Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly's abysmal form upto that point. Every stroke thereafter, brings up in my mind, a story - a set of circumstances, which contribute to a narrative. VVS did not put a step wrong over those 10 hours. The period on the 4th morning (Wednesday), which was the most crucial period of the innings, saw some early jitters, as that fortuitous inner edge of Gillespie reveals. These were followed by a breathtaking counterattack which saw VVS take 6 overs of Gillespie in 2 overs. Rahul Dravid was coming into his own at the other end and if you see a highlights package of the whole innings, you will see Dravid playing some confident on-drives against Warne. You see the increasing dominance later in the day as VVS brought up one land mark after another. You see Mark Waugh bowling, then Hayden and Ponting. Finally, you see the dismissal on the 5th morning. I remember going to lunch on the 4th morning. I went to an Irani restaurant and asked the waiter the score. He came back and reported - 4/355. I knew the waiter well.. and he said to me "dat ke khele hai" (they have fought hard today). I remember thinking at the time - is that only because they've been successful? Does 140 all out means they didnt try hard enough?

These are some of my memories of that great Test Match.

Do you really "see" the innings though? Or do you just see a sequence of strokes? Do you really see the classical, aristocratic bearing which VVS brought to the Test Match with his quiet, skillful, searing batsmanship? Do you really get an understanding of the narrative?

Similarly, in all those videos about fast bowlers, do you get a feel for the event? You hear fearsome stories about Charlie Griffith and Wes Hall, and then read that they in fact to 2/80 or 3/88 in the innings. You see the batsman duck into a delivery, facing a forbidding field, and wonder how any runs were scored at all. You see that fierce off cutter from Malcolm Marshall that Mike Gatting pads up to, and wonder how any batsman played such bowling at all. The pace is brought home to you especially in the part about Michael Holding's famous over to Geoffrey Boycott - in my view, the video succeeds precisely because its from wide mid-on and not from behind the bowlers arm.

What do these highlights packages tell us? These crudely edited snippets, which claim to present a few well-chosen moments (usually boiling down to boundaries or wickets)? What do they really communicate? I have long wondered about these packages. Sometimes they are accompanied by a commentator taking us through the highlights. This helps somewhat, it doesn't help however when all the commentator does is describe what he's seeing. Sometimes, the live commentary snippets accompany the highlights, and these provides the scene if you're lucky. For example, you hear Ian Chappell's call for declaration as VVS falls in that video, as the camera pans to the Indian captain, with his feet up, contentedly observing the salvaged home battlefield.

The other question i guess is, how much are we really interested in knowing? The emergence of TV as our medium of choice has meant that everything is reduced to a soundbyte. Every innings is reduced to a series of strokes, accompanied by the sound of the crowd fading in and out, as one stroke gives way to the next.

What we are really interested in knowing, is a function of how we look for in these games. Do we look for a contest between bat and ball? What do we watch when we say we watch cricket? This is a question which becomes even more interesting in the light of Twenty20 cricket, which some have argued is essentially a crudely edited live highlights reel. What do the millions of people who watch T20 games look for when they flock to these games? Why do they watch the "stars" (who are undoubtebly the draw), if the site of stardom itself is abbreviated? Isn't watching McGrath bowling in a Twenty20 game a bit like watching a Lion in a Zoo?

On this blog, i have tried to keep focus on the contest between bat and ball, and tried to follow this contest in all its fascinating detail. The highlights reel - be it of the West Indies pacemen, or of VVS's innings, does them disservice i think, for even though it introduces them to new audiences, this introduction is necessarily hyphenated.

There's a great comment someone once made about people who are born and brought up in a big city (Bombay) - these people, this man said, think cotton grows inside pillows. In the same way, i wonder what audiences brought to cricket on T20 or on highlights reels, who are introduced to McGrath or Tendulkar or VVS or Lara through T20, or to Wes Hall or Charlie Griffith or Malcolm Marshall or Michael Holding through highlights reels like the ones which proliferate youtube (and are great resources for cricket devotees), think about it.

Maybe T20 or highlights reels are about as much cricket as most audiences would like be involved with. To them, i would say they don't know what they are missing. There needs to be, in my view, an alternative medium which advertises cricket to audiences - advertises it as a compelling narrative between bat and ball - an understanding which grows on a viewer, the more s/he gets involved with it.

Something to think (and blog) about...

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Test Cricket comes roaring back

As the IPL league winds down, with franchises getting eliminated and the attention shifting from players to owners, the Test match season has begun in right earnest. Earlier in May, New Zealand began their tour of England and forced a stalemate at Lord's. The second Test is being played at Old Trafford. In the Caribbean, Ricky Ponting's Australians have begun their defense of the Sir Frank Worrell Trophy at Sabina Park in Kingston, Jamaica.

The Lord's Test began with both teams fielding unheralded line ups - the New Zealand batting and the England bowling, both without their experienced stars. New Zealand batted first, and reached 277 thanks in large part to Brendon McCullum's T20 hangover. England eked out a lead of 42 thanks to Michael Vaughan fighting century, and then had New Zealand reduced to a 120/5 (effectively, with McCullum retired hurt), when Jacob Oram came to New Zealand's rescue producing a strokeful hundred to force a draw.

If Lord's promised a keenly contested series, it looks like the Old Trafford Test will deliver on that promise. Ross Taylor produced a blistering 154 on his first tour of England to boost New Zealand's first innings total to 381. In reply, thanks to a miserly New Zealand bowling effort and Captain Vettori's 5/66, England were bowled out for 202, conceding a lead of 179. New Zealand reached 85/2 in their second innings, before collapsing to the wiles of Monty Panesar (6/37), to leave England with 294 for a series lead. Old Trafford has been a game of batting collapses though, something that England will be weary of. England had themselves reached 2/141 in their first innings before losing 8/61. New Zealand outdid the hosts, losing 8/29! One is hard pressed to recall another Test match in England in May in recent memory, when spinners have had so much success. England have reached 76/1 in their run chase, with Michael Vaughan and Andrew Strauss at the wicket. It promises to be a riveting run chase, especially if one of these two gets a hundred.

The Australian's seemed dominant as usual in the opening Test match at Sabina Park, until the West Indies pace attack brought the game to life towards the end of the third days play. Ricky Ponting began the series with his 35th Test hundred, in itself a magnificient achievement. It was also his second hundred in consecutive innings, following his epic 140 against India at Adelaide. The Australia reached 431, on what has been termed a "up and down wicket". In reply, the West Indian batting was its customary exasperating self. Shivnaraine Chanderpaul was the only batsman other than Runako Morton to play a substantial hand however, and his hundred (if Ponting was on an up and down wicket, then Chanderpaul's must have been an real gem, coming as it did against Lee, Clark and Johnson on a Day 3 pitch), meant the the West Indies finished their first innings 119 runs behind the Australian first innings score. By any standards, this is a sizeable lead. Indeed, if you have followed Australian Test Match play in recent years, this is usually the standard script of any Test Match that they participate in. This time however, the West Indies pace attack tore through the Australian batting line up, reminiscent of the Indian effort at Perth, only much more devastating, to leaving Australia in the dumps at 5/18 at one stage - an effective score of 5/137. Andrew Symonds rescued the visitors with a swashbuckling 79, and honour was restored some what. Still, the West Indies are left with 287 runs to chase in the fourth innings for what will be a memorable win.

The West Indies have not beaten Australia in a live rubber since 1998-99 when Brian Lara made 213 at Sabina Park to silence his critics and write possibly the greatest chapter in the history of the Sir Frank Worrell Trophy since the tied Test at Brisbane. As the West Indians of 2008 eye 287 at the same ground, they will seek to author the first great triumph of the post Lara age. The chinks which appeared in the Australian middle order during the Australian summer have been revealed yet again.

New Zealand for their part, will look to their Captain - Daniel Vettori to lead them to their first great victory of the post-Fleming era. Vettori has played for New Zealand since he was 18 years old, and is in his 81st Test match. It seems to be a spinners pitch, and he has 294 runs to play with. England's most stable Test batting lineup since the late 1980's stands in his way.

Two sub-three-hundred fourth innings run chases. Its hard to imagine a more exciting end game in any Test match. I suspect though, that this round with go to the southern hemisphere sides. Chanderpaul and co. may have other ideas.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Hollow Commentary about the IPL

A friend told me some time ago that my post about cheerleaders in the IPL has been linked in a blog post on the Guardian website. The post appears in the "comment is free" section. The professed aim of this website is "to host an open-ended space for debate, dispute, argument and agreement in which users are able to comment on everything they read." The context in which the link was made is as shallow as the post itself, which is an attempt by the author to discuss his favorable view of the IPL. The problem with the article (apart from the fact that a T20 game is 240 deliveries long, not 120, as has been pointed out in several comments) is that none of the qualities attributed to the IPL stand up to close scrutiny.

The author starts off by noting that "off-field bigotry and pitch fisticuffs are deplorable but the fact that they are being debated is not". This development has nothing to do with the IPL. For one, there hasn't been a single incident of fisticuffs in international cricket in recent memo
ry (it took the IPL about 3 weeks to achieve something that Test Cricket couldn't achieve in 131 years). As for the "debate" - there was plenty of yelling and screaming (as well as more thoughtful, less noisy opinions) across the Indian Ocean this January over issues such a bigotry. The 2006 Oval Controversy resulted in some very detailed discussion as well.

It goes on and on - traversing diverse ground, ranging from the merits and demerits of the draw as a result, to the breathtaking claim that Twenty20 has made cricket in India a cultural obsession the same way football is in Engand. Indeed, if the author of that post had actually followed Cricket in India, he might have refrained from equating the IPL with the emergence of the modern sporting age.

"Indians have finally learned to love the brilliantly coarse Shane Warne.... " says the author at one point. This observation is as pompous as it is ignorant. I wonder what Warne himself might say about it, having played to full houses over 10 years in both Test and ODI cricket in India.

The framework for the post is in the first line - that sport mirrors society. Mirrors alas, are far from innocent.....

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Twenty20 Cricket

Much of the discussion about Twenty20 Cricket has been about its impact on Test Cricket and nearly every point of view possible has been expressed (these exist on a predictable continuum between good and bad). My own posts have been critical of the IPL as an idea, because it ensures that Cricket is saddled with the worst of both worlds - on the one hand, domestic cricket gets ignored, while on the other the huge infusion of money into a Twenty20 format creates a challenge for Test Cricket in the marketplace which could be threatening (if T20 proves to be a financial success; if franchises lose money, this criticism is moot). I have also written about the limitations of the format and the impact this has on the contest between bat and ball. This, in my view, is the more serious problem with the Twenty20 as a format. But none of these criticisms say anything about what Twenty20 Cricket is as cricket. Even if the contest between bat and ball, as it has been understood in normal Cricket is skewed in favor of the batsman, there is still some sort of contest.

My original assertion about this contest is that it introduces a greater element of chance, because the batsman cares less about preserving his wicket, and the fielding side cares less about dismissing the batsman. Hence, you would see greater fluctuation in performance, and a generally disheveled contest between bat and ball. With the benefit of some evidence, i will revisit this question in this post.

What is Twenty20 Cricket? What does it mean when Glenn McGrath bowls 4 overs in an innings for his team, and Sachin Tendulkar makes 65 (41) without it seeming to be an exceptional innings? What does it mean when Sanath Jayasurya produces an astonishing 162(65) for once out over two innings?

The IPL Twenty20 tournament has seen 10069 balls delivered so far. 1822 of those have been deposited by the batsmen across or over the boundary. That amounts to one boundary hit in every 5.52 balls. Every over on average has seen a boundary being hit. In the recent Border-Gavaskar Trophy series in Australia, over 4 Test matches, 552 balls out of a total of 8969 delivered were hit past or over the boundary rope. That amounts to 1 boundary hit over every 16.25 balls, or almost three overs.
Boundaries are scored 3 times more frequently, wickets probably fall three times more frequently as well. Of the 13141 runs scored off the bat in the IPL so far, 8244 (or 63%) have been scored in boundaries. Of the 4851 runs scored in the Border-Gavaskar Trophy Tests in Australia, 2258 (or 47%) were scored in boundaries. This can be put down to the bigger grounds in Australia. If we look at the recent home series that India played against South Africa, 1570 of the 3003 runs were scored in boundaries - 52%. The cost of an wicket in the IPL so far has been 24 runs. The cost of a wicket in the South Africa - India series recently was 36 runs. The batting run-rates of the sides in the IPL range from 7.18 to 8.89, while best economy rate achieved by a bowlers who has bowled atleast 16 overs in the IPL is an even 6 runs per over.

The ball crosses the boundary line three times more frequently in Twenty20 Cricket compared to Test Cricket. When you think of it this way, it doesn't look like much. In those three overs in Test Cricket, so many other things happen - some deliveries are simple stalemates, others are moral victories for the fielding side, some others are moral victories for the batsman. The bowler sizes the batsman up, just as the batsman sizes the bowler up. The format allows them to do so. It is in the interest of both bowler and batsman to perform in a way which gives as little as possible away to the opposition. It is, in a nutshell, a contest. Twenty20 shows a higher percentage of runs in boundaries than Test cricket. All of this points to undue haste. But that in itself is not significant. The average scoring rate in Twenty20 is about 4 runs per over higher than it is in Test cricket.

What does a wicket mean in Twenty20? Is a batsman getting yorked in a Twenty20 game equivalent to him getting yorked in a Test match? Is a batsman getting caught at the wicket in Twenty20 equivalent to the same dismissal type in Test Cricket? Is an LBW equivalent? It is quite obvious that the answer to each of these question is an unequivocal no. The basic rules may be the same, but the meaning, in terms of what the bowler accomplished is completely different. How many times have we seen a sheepish grin on a bowlers face when he knows that the wicket was unintended? How many wickets in Twenty20 are unintended? I would suggest that nearly all of them are unintended. What we have at the end of the day is hunches being played (by both bowler and batsman) like there's no tomorrow, the luckier side wins. There is in my view absolutely no way to measure the relative merit of the sides. The points table merely reveals which side had the most players who have had good days.

Is Rahul Dravid a poor Twenty20 batsman? He has a IPL batting record which is nearly identical to M S Dhoni's. He has produced a better strike rate than Graeme Smith, Sourav Ganguly, VVS Laxman, Robin Uthappa and Sachin Tendulkar. Yet, it has been observed that he hasn't yet played a single "match-winning" innings. Every batsman with more than 100 runs in the IPL has made his runs at better than a run a ball, with the sole exception of Parthiv Patel. The average batting strike rate in the IPL is about 135 runs/100 balls.

Twenty20 has sucked the Cricket out of the Contest. The engagement between bat and ball is fleeting and abrupt. If a comparison between Twenty20 and Test Cricket were to be made, it boils down to this: Twenty20 gives you boundary hits three times more frequently than Test Cricket does, in addition to eliminating everything else that goes on in a Test match when boundaries are not being hit.

If all you want from a game of cricket is a winner, a loser and boundary hits, then IPL is for you. A highlights package may also serve your purpose equally well.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Summer Tests begin

As temperatures soar in every place i can call home (tentatively or otherwise), Daniel Vettori's New Zealand have begun their 2008 international season at Lord's. Test Cricket comes as a relief after weeks of interminable T20 bouts of slog and counterslog, faux-five wicket hauls, Slaps and idiotic owners (i thought that term had connotations with slavery, but we recently learnt that Vijay Mallya "owns" Rahul Dravid and co.) have lent color to circus that is the Indian Premier League, but as i see it, it is more a botched paint job than a thoughtful painting.

If you look at the scorecard, there has been a generational shift in both teams. Hoggard, Harmison, Jones and Flintoff are not playing, and the home fast attack consists of Stuart Broad, Ryan Sidebottom and James Anderson. Tim Ambrose is the new England wicketkeeper. After Alec Stewart retired, England have struggled to find a long term replacement - Jones came closest to making the spot his own, but James Foster, Chris Read, Matthew Prior, Geraint Jones have all been tried in the last four or five years.

It was in 2002-03 that James Anderson emerged as a superbly gifted fast bowler, with a smooth side on action, the ability to swing the ball and not inconsiderable pace. He excelled in the World Cup, especially under the lights of Durban and much was expected of him as England faced South Africa in the summer of 2003. He started well, but faded under Graeme Smith's monumental batting as the series progressed. The common, and cruel consensus was that he had wilted under the extraordinary strain that Test Cricket places, and that he was not mature enough for the top level. Since then, he has been a fixture on the fringes of the English side. When the 2005 Ashes winning combination emerged, he must have felt his fate was sealed, but injuries took their toll on the English pace attack, and Anderson returned to the Test team for England's 2006 tour of India. He excelled as part of a superbly disciplined bowling unit. He bowled to 8-1 fields with great skill and it was apparent then that Anderson had now learnt a great deal about that elusive mistress which the truly great fast bowlers seem able to call on at will - length. Since that series, Anderson has steadily made his way from the fringes to become the senior paceman in the English Test team.

In stark contrast to James Anderson, is Ryan Sidebottom. The left arm paceman, originally a Yorkshireman, is the son of Arnie Sidebottom, who himself stood on the fringes of England selection in the 1980's. Ryan's story however has been a peculiar one. He has rarely looked out of place in Test Cricket. He is accurate, can bowl long spells- spells which have invariably been intense events. Sidebottom must also been the unluckiest fast bowler in the Test Match world over last couple of years. Nearly every catch spilled by the English slip cordon (and Mathew Prior) seems to have been off his bowling. Lately though, his fortunes have improved and he has emerged as one of the top seam and swing operators in the world.

Stuart Broad is the newest of the lot, and possibly the quickest. In T20 mad India, it is unlikely that he will ever be rated as a bowler, given that he got smashed for six sixes in an over by Yuvraj Singh during the T20 world cup, but in 2008, he is probably where Anderson was in 2003. Broad has great promise, given his late order talents with the bat and could provide England with a quality third seam bowling option - worth about 20 runs an innings late in the order.

On the other side, New Zealand batting line up reads - How, Redmond, Taylor, Marshall, Flynn, McCullum, Oram, Vettori. There's a generational shift for you. This is a classic New Zealand side. In recent years, their strength has been their players with all round ability, and this line up places McCullum, Vettori and Oram front and center. Without Shane Bond, this New Zealand bowling line up is quite thin, and the Kiwis will do well to compete in this series.

Having come from behind to beat New Zealand 2-1 in New Zealand earlier this year, England will hope that this time around, they can take an early lead and drive home the advantage. It will be good preperation for Dale Steyn and South Africa later this summer.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Corporate Efficiency

Charu Sharma was fired by owner Vijay Mallya as the CEO of the ridiculously named Bangalore Royal Challengers franchise in the Indian Premier League. Yet, the most bizarre part of this story, if you actually think about it, is that Charu Sharma was hired as "CEO" in the first place! The ever reliable Wikipedia encyclopedia describes Mr. Sharma as "an Indian cricket commentator, cricket administrator and quizzer". I suspect that the "cricket administrator" bit comes from Sharma's stint at the Bangalore Royal Challengers.

Charu Sharma has been a fixture during Cricket broadcasts (when the players take a break), goading inarticulate experts (former players) with provocative suggestions and liberal references to shame, spines (lack of) and guts, unless of course he has Miss Noodle Straps for company. This was the case during most of the 2003 World Cup, and with his looks and her brains, they proceeded to reinvent the old English game with all the imagination of a Bollywood B-movie script writer (Ok .. maybe B movie scriptwriters don't deserve this comparison).

Among Mr. Sharma's salient efforts as CEO of the Royal Challengers is this comment about cheerleaders:
The whole controversy is irrelevant. Frankly speaking, it is a trivial issue and doesn't deserve the attention it is getting. All those creating such a big ruckus are looking for publicity and the least we can do is not to allow them to get away with it
"the least we can do is not to allow them to get away with it" - if you can make sense of that statement, then you deserve to be in the Civil Service. I suspect (in all humility), that Mr. Sharma started off trying to point out that the whole issue with cheerleading was much ado about nothing. The latter portion of his quote suggests that inaction would be a bad idea. Now, this in itself, if one chose to be pedantic is not implausible. Of course, cheer leaders perform public service and have nothing to do with publicity. And Mr. Sharma making public comments about the so called "detractors" gives them less publicity, not more. So, Mr. Sharma in effect suggested that people who were uncomfortable with the fact that he had hired cheerleaders for publicity purposes in a public arena, were in fact, merely seeking publicity (my aunts don't think its a good idea, and they want no publicity).

It gets funnier. When the grand divorce finally happened, the Bangalore franchise tried to put a kind spin on Mr. Sharma's departure, suggesting he left on his own. It would have meant lesser publicity for all concerned. But what does Mr. Sharma do? He comes out in righteous anger to correct his former employer, and explains precisely what happened - "I was summarily dismissed". Publicity anyone?
While many commentators, like Sharda Ugra, have discussed this episode, nobody has actually questioned why the glib tongued Mr. Sharma was hired as CEO in the first place. For years and years now, the BCCI has been consistently pilloried for being "unprofessional" and "amateurish" (these are some of the less offensive terms), because it is run by elected officials who are not necessarily joined at the hip with Cricket. Ms. Ugra observes :
"The free market hawks will interpret the Sharma sacking as the advent of a new ruthlessness and accountability that cricket lacked"
The more interesting and more consequential question i believe is whether Shah Rukh Khan or Priety Zinta or Mukesh Ambani or Vijay Mallya or anybody else is any more qualified than Mr. Pawar to be at the helm of Cricket. At least Mr. Pawar is accountable to Cricket community in India by way of elections and a board. The same free market hawks that Ms. Ugra refers to have long decried the influence of the likes of Mr. Pawar on the BCCI. But this is business now. So what if the owner knows little or nothing about cricket, as Mr. Mallya himself admits, albeit as a way of explaining why he had to throw his CEO under the bus. It's useful to note here that the public pronouncements from all parties in the wake of firing put even Mr. Lele's worst efforts to shame.

So, at the end of the day, Mr. Sharma getting sacked as CEO of the Bangalore Royal Challengers, is about as ridiculous as him getting hired as CEO of the Bangalore Royal Challengers. Which in turn is about as ridiculous as Mr. Vijay Mallya owning a Cricket team, and then making hiring and firing decisions while explaining that he knows nothing about cricket.

Any publicity is good publicity for Charu Sharma, Mr. Mallya and for the IPL. The whole thing is a show anyways. Just like the WWE.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Another test for the IPL

I briefly followed one of the IPL games this morning, and Cricinfo's commentary reported the following:

18.2 Maharoof to NK Patel, OUT, confusion! Patel gigs out a yorker top the off side and sets off for a risky run, Watson is sent back and he's miles out of his crease as the throw misses the stumps, they take a run anyway off the overthrow but Watson's really struggling to make his ground at the striker's end, the throw to Karthik is accurate and he whips off the bails. Now here's the drama - Delhi celebrate but umpire Steve Davis refuses to call for the third umpire, Delhi fielders are really peeved and Sehwag has a word with umpire Koertzen, Watson is also fuming about the situation, as if to suggest they get on with the game, finally the third umpire is called and gives Watson the marching orders.

Umpire Pratap Kumar, was suspended by Match Referee Farokh Engineer for doing something almost identical - making a referral after being requested to do so by a player. The difference between the two instances is that on this occasion it is the fielding side making the request. I have been critical of the IPL for granting Farokh Engineer the authority to officially rebuke an Umpire, although i am in a minority on this one - most people don't seem to think of it as a non-trivial event, inspite of the obviously unprecedented realignment of authority among match officials that it represents.

On this occasion though, Rudi Koertzen is again the Umpire at the other end, but the Umpire in question is a former Test Umpire from Australia - Steve Davis. What will the IPL do? If consistency is to be achieved, then the IPL must continue on its disastrous course of pitting Referees against Umpires; of having Referees sit in judgement of Players and Umpires. If they set aside the Pratap Kumar verdict, under some flimsy pretext (request coming from the fielding side as against the batsman for example), then they will show themselves to be worse than the ICC in this matter. The IPL is faced with two bad options - suspend Steve Davis and show consistent stupidity, or ignore the matter, and show inconsistency - something which will be construed as racist in some sense - the book is thrown more easily at a small time Indian umpire, than it is at the big name Australian elite panel umpire.

But then again, Referees and big name umpires have been mere show ponies at the IPL anyways. That they had referees without having a code of conduct in place is testimony to this lackadaisical apathy. It is almost as though the referee and the umpires are part of the show, as much as the cricket is.

The WWE analogy returns....

Monday, May 05, 2008

Unrelated to Cricket.....

George W Bush inadvertantly blamed India for the spike in food prices world wide. Given his tendency to misspeak (entire books have been written about this), i thought the coverup/explanation from the US Government was hilarious.

It goes something like this - India's middle class is 350 million strong, they want better food and better nutrition, hence they use up more livestock, hence more corn etc. gets used up to raise that extra livestock... hence food prices have spiked.

Now, is this an even bigger diplomatic gaffe than the US President's original effort... ... seriously...... the assertion that a predominantly Hindu nation is using up more livestock (more "meats") because of greater affluence....

I wonder what our Indian politicians will say.

Interestingly, the most plausible argument came in the face of criticism about ethanol subsidies -

"over the last year, food prices have increased about 43 per cent around the world. Of that portion, about 1.5 per cent of that is due to an increase in bio-fuel production. The other majority, vast majority of that, is due to things like increased demand, like you were talking about, or increased energy prices, or weather-related problems in Australia or in Eastern Europe -- problems with wheat production, as an example -- that's driving up the price of those commodities."

Friday, May 02, 2008

Clumsy IPL Insanity - SlagGate, Referees and Code

They are falling like nine pins. Players are getting banned, suspended and fined. They're blaming each other for using delaying tactics (in a 20 over game). Sachin Tendulkar meanwhile is still injured (and is being spared all this nonsense).

It emerged in the midst of SlapGate, that even though the IPL had all the trimmings - on field umpires, third umpires, fourth umpires and match referees, they didn't actually have a code for the referees to enforce. The garrulous Farrokh Engineer eventually used the ICC Code of Conduct in his ruling on SlapGate. It now appears that the IPL has appropriated the ICC's Code of Conduct for Players and Officials and further extended it beyond the ICC's wildest dreams. What we have, is the first ever instance of a referee suspending an umpire in a game of cricket! Farrokh Engineer has suspended the on-field umpire Pratap Kumar for heeding Sourav Ganguly's request to refer a disputed catch to the third umpire.

It began with this incident involving Shane Warne and Sourav Ganguly. Warne's side claimed a catch against Ganguly. Ganguly wasn't sure if it was clean, and didn't leave the wicket. The fielding side was convinced that it was clean, as was the square leg umpire (Rudi Koertzen, no less!). It all rested with the umpire at the bowler's end who needed to be convinced that the watch was clean. Now, if the umpire at the bowlers end was convinced that it was clean, he should have given the batsman Out. Usually, if the umpire at the bowler's end has been unsighted, he will take the word of the umpire at square leg. In any event, Ganguly requested that a referral be made (which he ought not to have done), and a referral was made.

So far so good. Farrokh Engineer has effectively ruled that Pratap Kumar went against his own better judgement and was influenced by Sourav Ganguly's request in making the referral. Is it really possible to prove that sort of thing? Also, if it is infact proved, is a suspension enough? Shouldn't Pratap Kumar get kicked out?

In any event, the most breathtaking thing here is that the Umpire has been dragged by the match referee into the fray, along with the players. This is unprecedented ground - where a referee sits in judgement of an umpire. Given Engineer's decision, why should he not suspend an umpire if a couple of LBW's are given wrongly, especially if in both cases, you have the batsman showing his bat to the umpire as the appeal was in progress (indicating an inside edge)? The whole premise of the Umpire, is that they are above the fray. They are not in competition with the players, and hence cannot be judged alongside the players. Referee Engineer has done just that.

Shane Warne's suggestion that Ganguly asked the Indian umpire to make the referral (as reported by Cricinfo), is dragging the whole matter down further into a charge of favoritism. Since the catch was taken by Graeme Smith, and the square leg umpire was Rudi Koertzen, why would a similar charge of favoritism not apply when considering the case of the square leg umpire immediately ruling that the catch was clean? This is especially interesting given that the third umpire, Asad Rauf eventually ruled in favor of the batsman, against Rudi Koertzen. With Farrokh Engineer enforcing his adopted British voice in the matter, what we seem to have is a perfect commonwealth brouhaha.

Of course, all these charges of parochialism are absurd, but that is what this seems to have descended into. The whole thing seems to closely resemble World Wrestling Entertainment, which resides deep in the bowels of Cable TV, with its make believe umpires and contests. The convenient application of the ICC's Code of Conduct to grant an element of seriousness to proceedings, coupled with the complete moral and logical relativism which marks Farrokh Engineer's treatment of the umpire, is just one more signal that the IPL is not serious about Cricket.