Sunday, June 29, 2008

Don't strip Zimbabwe of full membership

The problem with Zimbabwe brings to the surface all the inherent contradictions in the class structure of international cricket. Zimbabwe's position is a weak one. Their full team is not strong enough to be a top level Test team. Indeed, they have not played a Test Match since September 2005. Yet, the decision to strip a member of its full member status is unprecedented. In the small club of Test playing nations (10 in all), the problem has always been whether or not to include a new nation. The nature of Test Cricket does not help matters. It would be impossible to have Test Cricket as we know it today if we had 20-25 top level Test playing nations.

The political situation in Zimbabwe complicates matters. The British Government has instructed the ECB to cut bilateral ties with Zimbabwe Cricket. In other areas, there is no such instruction apparent. The story there is limited to "pressure is growing on UK Firms". This story on the Sky News website (dated June 25) details some of trade involvement of British firms in Zimbabwe.

As always, there is Cricket - which is being used as a political football (pardon the poor pun) - an instrument to make a symbolic point. What is the material effect of stripping Zimbabwe of full member status of the ICC on Mugabe and co.? Nobody really knows.

The Indian position which David Morgan (soon to be President of the ICC) considers crucial, has been articulated in classic BCCI terms. Mr Shah is quoted by Cricinfo as saying
"We are very clear that we would like to fully support Zimbabwe on the issue of full membership of the ICC,"
This kind of clarity throws a hazy, murky, dull, flickering oil lamp of obfuscation on the matter. Caught in a no win situation, the BCCI has done what it always does so spectacularly well - issue a completely unintelligible statement through a person who's command of the English language is suspect. George Bush's press department or the Congress Party's press department would be lost in admiration for this skill (assuming of course that Mr Shah was not speaking extemporaneously).

Beneath all these non-statement statements lies simple electoral math. There are currently 10 full member nations of the ICC. On contentious matters, England, Australia, New Zealand and West Indies invariably vote together, while India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh tend to vote together. Zimbabwe usually voted with the sub-continent, as did the South Africans. If Zimbabwe are thrown out, the South Africans will have the swing-vote so to speak. Losing an ally is not good news for the BCCI, but it is not irredeemably bad.

In purely Cricketing terms, the decision to throw Zimbabwe out would be an interesting one if it came to pass. It would also never amount to a purely cricketing decision, for it could be argued that Zimbabwe's decline as a Cricket team is due to the Zimbabwe Cricket Board's handling of top Zimbabwe players since 1999 (which was the high point in Zimbabwe's cricket history). They have lost players to County Cricket, Shield Cricket and the South African First Class league. This policy has something to do with the political situation in Zimbabwe.

The Cricketing argument is a persuasive one - it will free up the future tours program and limit bilateral ODI tours with Zimbabwe (hopefully). It will be good for top level cricket to weed out a team in precipitous decline. In the long run, it will probably be good for Zimbabwe as well, even though they will not see it that way.

The danger of the decision though, is that it is a fairly permenant one. That may be too big a price to pay for something which has purely symbolic value in the eyes of many. It is apparent that England are not interested in kicking Zimbabwe out because they are a weak cricket team. They want to do so to make a point (however feeble) to Mr. Mugabe. If the Zimbabwe situation does get resolved in the next six months or so, where would England stand vis a vis Zimbabwe then? Would they support Zimbabwe's re-entry as a Test playing nation, especially if all the Zimbabwean Cricketers currently playing in England, Australia and South Africa were invited back to represent Zimbabwe? Where would India stand then?

Nasser Hussein writes in his autobiography about the 2003 World Cup, where England suffered greatly due to their botched boycott of Zimbabwe. That episode is a fine example of what happens when Cricket takes on the role of making a political point, when politicians and nations are unwilling to do so. If Cricket is going to do more (and stripping Zimbabwe of full member status would amount to doing more) than say the Indian Government or the British Government or the South African Government, then something is clearly wrong. Zimbabwe have been invited to participate in the Beijing Olympics.

The comparison with the boycott of South Africa does not hold. There, we had member nations taking firm positions unilaterally unlike this instance - where each nation has been hesitant about taking a position. India, Pakistan and West Indies had already boycotted the South Africans, while England decided to boycott them when South Africa refused to accept Basil D'Oliviera as a member of the English touring party on the 1969 tour to South Africa. There was a clear cut reason there, and everybody agreed about it (England and Australia came on board later than all other nations).

The ICC is not equipped to deal with issues of this complexity, and unless every single member is voting for the right reason, and until the reason is absolutely clearly stated, they should not vote to strip Zimbabwe of Test playing nation status. The right reason in my view would simply be that Zimbabwe are currently not good enough to play Test or ODI Cricket bilaterally with the other 9 Test playing nations, and are unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future. Currently, i don't think everybody agrees that this is why Zimbabwe should be stripped of full member status.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

India v Bangladesh - Asia Cup

The headline for the day seems to be that India have "overpowered" Bangladesh.

Given that India conceded 283 in their 50 overs, shouldn't the headline actually read "Batting rescues India yet again" or "Bowling under performs again for India" ?

Cos i can see a game where the 280+ run chase will falter. 2/56 could easily become 4/80, and thats the end of the run chase. Its not a question of if, but when this will happen. My guess is that it will happen in a crucial game - like say the final.

India don't deserve to win tournaments with such poor bowling. It doesn't matter how flat the wicket is. They ought not to concede 283 against a minnow side like Bangladesh.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Third Umpire Referrals in Test Cricket

The upcoming Test tour of Sri Lanka by the Indian Cricket team will feature the first instance of players being able to challenge an on-field umpire's decision in a Test Match. There are several intriguing issues which arise from the details of the proposed arrangement which is described in this Cricinfo story. This BBC report confirms that each team will be limited to three unsuccessful challenges per innings.

This proposal has several interesting features. The limited use of Hawkeye to trace the path of the ball from the hand until it hits the batsman is interesting, for it signals official acceptance by the ICC that Hawkeye as a predictive technology is not good enough to judge LBW's. Will this stop TV Broadcasters from using Hawkeye in Commentary?

The most interesting part of this proposal however, is the limit of three unsuccessful challenges. There is a basic asymmetry to this, because the batsman makes a challenge on behalf of the batting side, while the fielding captain makes it on behalf of the fielding side. This puts the batsman in a spot - for if he makes a challenge which is unsuccessful, he then becomes obliged to explain why he felt his challenge was justified in the first place. The rule is especially difficult for the batsmen - would Wasim Jaffer feel comfortable in making a challenge early in his innings if he feels a decision is marginal, especially with Dravid, Tendulkar, Ganguly, VVS and others to follow?

The ICC is at pains to point out that all challenges will be issued by players on the field. No influence from the dressing room is to be involved in the challenges. It will be interesting to see if a batsman who is walking off, and nearing the boundary rope, turns around and makes a challenge based on frantic messages from the dressing room.

The new system is likely to help weed out the most obvious and blatantly wrong decisions. This in itself is a good thing. One wonders though, whether a system such as the current one might have been necessary in order to achieve this. This system involves the players in the process. Would it not have been more advisible to require the third umpire to advise the on-field umpires about any problematic decision on their part, without being asked by the on-field umpires, based on what the third umpire is able to discern from TV replays?

The ICC has chosen to involve the players in the process. This is a potentially slippery slope. In trying to retain the primacy of on-field decision making, the third umpire, who is in essence still an umpire on the elite panel, is still reduced to being a spectator to a bad decision, unless it is referred to him by the onfield umpires - either through the prompting of the players or the umpires.

The other problem with this system is that all the TV technology that the ICC proposes to use is still made available by the TV broadcaster, and not by the ICC. So it still depends on the broadcasters cameras. There has long been a view that Umpires must have access to their own camera feed, customized to the needs of umpires. This is still not the case in the proposed system.

All in all, i think the referral proposal is a worthy experiment. The ICC will need to clarify where it stands vis a vis involving players in the process - allowing players to challenge umpires, as against asking the third umpire to challenge the on-field umpires. Any successful system has to maintain the authority of the umpire, while minimizing error.

I just wonder whether the third umpire is a better agent in achieving this, rather than putting players on the spot.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

India v Pakistan, Asia Cup - the Bully Syndrome

Statistically speaking, it was a thumping win. The second thumping win by India over Pakistan in their last three encounters. The final of the kitply cup was also one sided, though not to the same degree. Even the most one-eyed India fan will agree that the result in that final was a foregone conclusion about 85 overs into the game.

It does not help a tournament like the Asia Cup, saddled as it is with minnow games, that Virendra Sehwag comes along and treats the tournament hosts - a major Test playing team, like a minnow side. The bare headed bandit from Najafgarh has been in dazzling form since his comeback in Australia in the new year and now seems to have found his feet in the ODI game as well. Sehwag has been a surprisingly modest performer in the ODI game, leading many observers to compare him to Michael Slater - a dashing opener who looks tailor made for ODI cricket. In Test Cricket, the Sehwag phenomenon has been underrated. Statistically, Sehwag is an astonishing Test opener, given the consistency and pace at which he scores his runs. In the all time list of batsmen with scores over 150, Sangakkara, Ponting and Tendulkar amongst current batsmen are ahead of him. The other batsmen with more 150+ scores than Sehwag are Bradman, Lara, Hammond, Gavaskar and Steve Waugh. Thats a measure of his Test batsmanship. He's also the only batsman other than Lara and Bradman to have passed 300 twice in a Test Match.

Here is what im driving at. If Virendra Sehwag even vaguely approaches his potential as an ODI opener (based on what he has achieved in Test Cricket he's a phenomenal batsman, lets leave aside his special interest in the Pakistan bowling attack), we have the makings of another Viv Richards. This may sound like an over statement - but look at his record. He started superbly in ODI cricket and for a while had a record like the one Adam Gilchrist built - a strike rate in the mid nineties and a batting average in the late thirties. This batting average has since slipped to 30 or so.

There is of course a downside to todays game. The usual criticism of it being a flat wicket. I have no problem with flat wickets as such, as against say a seaming track or an uneven track. Any type of wicket which is basically safe for an international cricket match is fine as far as im concerned. The problem with flat wickets in my view, lies in the fact that there is little or no evidence that flat wickets produce great contests. A 300 run-chase on three occasions between India and Pakistan has produced three one-sided games. None of these games went the distance. For much of the the time, one side (the fielding side in five out of six innings) was getting hammered. In the 6th inning (Pakistan's run chase in the Kitply Cup league game) they collapsed in the process of revving up the run rate).

So not only does a flat wicket not produce a great contest between the two teams, it doesn't produce a particular exciting contest between bat and ball either. The term flat-track bully is one which i think is used poorly. The point about flat tracks, is that it is impossible for the batting side to not be bully-like on it - either in success or in failure.

But if there is a batsman that id like to see on flat tracks, it is Virendra Sehwag. For he, more than any other batsman in the world today has convinced us that he would play the same way anywhere. Flat tracks merely garnish the Sehwag presentation more seamlessly than other tracks.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Switch-Hits and the Law - Why the switch-hit should be banned

The switch-hit issue is an intriguing one like most other issues which involve the Laws of Cricket. Kevin Pietersen has illuminated a grey area in existing Law. I feel however that i must clarify my reading of the Laws as they stand now in order to support my earlier arguments. All commentary about this subject suggests that there is little agreement as to where the current Law actually stands in the matter. Given that the issue is being discussed along the lines of "lets not legislate risk and skill", it is worth looking at where the law stands. In my post yesterday, i have already presented a scenario where a lesser batsman, an anti-Pietersen, could take advantage of the Law if a new leg-side off-side determination were to be applied. I have also pointed out the problem with allowing Pietersen's stroke.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Switch-Hits and Misguided Motives

Cricinfo reports today that the MCC has approved Kevin Pietersen's so-called "switch-hit" reverse slog for six which drew so much attention this week, because it raised several interesting problems within the existing Laws of the game. This is not the first time Pietersen has used this stroke. Indeed, he has been playing the stroke for over a year now, and i wrote about the problems this raises on this blog on May 20, 2007. That post has drawn a number of hits over the past couple of days, yet the most interesting thing is that nothing that the MCC has said addresses any of the problems raised in that post (Laws wise) which arise as a result of Pietersen's switch hit.

The cricinfo story does acknowledge problems with the LBW Law, which one would think is a fairly fundamental, consequential alteration (the Law was modified only once in the 20th century as far as i know). What is troubling though, is that if one went purely by the quotes offered in the Cricinfo story, then the MCC was swayed by Pietersen's skilfull execution of the innovative stoke, than by legal considerations, which is precisely the sort of thing that the law making body should have discounted in their considerations. Pietersen's innovation is different from the modification of the bowling law, because in the case of the bowling law, new technology brought new information to light and thus rendered the old position untenable. The response to the new information in terms of the new Law is problematic, but at least it was based on serious information.

This is the gist of the MCC's response -
The committee concluded that the "superb execution" of the stroke should not disguise its difficulty. "It incurs a great deal of risk for the batsman. It also offers bowlers a good chance of taking a wicket and therefore MCC believes that the shot is fair to both batsman and bowlers."
This risk argument is not relevant the question at hand. This is because as the Law currently stands, it is precisely because the risk of the LBW is mitigated with balls pitching outside leg-stump that Pietersen and co. can attempt the stroke with impunity - with almost no risk of dismissal.

The tone of the MCC's argument begs the question - what if it was some batsman other than Pietersen playing the stroke? Would they have responded in a similar way? Given all the hoopla in England about ball-tampering with Wasim and Waqar and reverse-swing and the horror with which that innovation was viewed, this is a question worth asking. But it is also a question which is unlikely to ever be answered satisfactorily, so lets set it aside.

It might be more useful to ask - why not allow bowlers to tamper with the ball (they are already allowed to apply spit and/or sweat on the ball, and are also allowed to shine the ball - both actions involve manipulating the condition of the ball), if the switch-hit (which cause huge problems from the point of view of existing Law) is to be allowed simply because it is a fine innovation?

The switch-hit ruling is a slippery slope. Here's why. Lets consider a situation, where the law has been changed - that switching hands (i.e turning from a top right hand to a top left hand), opens up the possibility of the LBW for the left arm spinner (for example) bowling over the wicket, into the rough at the right handed batsman. Now consider a situation where you have a right handed batsmen facing a really good medium-fast bowler, bowling over the wicket. A 7-2 field is in operation and the bowler is aiming to keep it tight outside offstump, and try the occasional off cutter to see if an LBW is possible. What is to stop a batsman in such an event, from switching hands on the bat handle, everytime he shoulder's arms? This way, he would never be out LBW even if he was padding up to an off-cutter coming back into the stumps after pitching outside off stump, because the "switch" would be in operation.

So the switch-hits brings with it two very bad options - one, where the batsman is able to counter bowling into the rough outside his leg-stump and effectively sweep without the risk of the LBW, or it could create an opportunity for a batsman (an anti-Pietersen, if the MCC would like) to completely negate the contest between bat and ball as it stands today. Either ways, allowing the switch-hit skews the contest further in favor of the batsman.

All this arises from the misguided (in my view) notion that fours and sixes are what entertain people. Every significant rule change in the modern era has been in favor of the batsman - the rule limiting bouncers, the front foot no-ball rule, the rule with regard to over-rates, ball-tampering rules. Some of these are admittedly good rules, others are problematic. The only rule change in the modern era which can be said to have been to the bowlers benefit is the new bowling law, and this law has in my view been a disaster. The response, given new information has involved defining what is legal, instead of further refining a description of the what is illegal as far as the bowling action is concerned. The old law explicitly described the illegal delivery. The new bowling law, while it has accomodated Shoaib Akthar, Mutthiah Muralitharan and a host of other bowlers, has made Cricket more rancorous and more uncertain.

This switch-hit rule promises to do the same.

Monday, June 16, 2008

A superb Commentary from Tony Cozier

The great West Indian chronicler and commentator writes about Xavier Marshall. Note the acknowledgment of the West Indies selectors choice. I haven't yet read any Indian writer offer similar (and Cozier's acknowledgement though unmistakable is understated, some may say even backhanded) commentary about the Indian Selectors.

He makes an important point, which applies as much to Pakistan as it does to the West Indies in recent years - the relatively low representation of players from those two countries in County Cricket. If Salman Butt, Shoaib Malik, Yaseer Hameed and a number of the West Indians could polish their batting in the daily grind of first class cricket, Pakistan and West Indies would be world beating sides today.

Not everybody can be a Chanderpaul or a Inzamam Ul Haq.

Which points in turn to the BCCI's folly in turning its attention to the IPL and Twenty20 instead of using its wealth and influence to strengthen Ranji Trophy Cricket. Does it help Suresh Raina and Robin Uthappa that they get a total of about 12-14 innings of first class cricket in a calender year if they don't play Test Cricket for India?

At least the West Indies have Cozier to point this out (and he has done so before, repeatedly). We in India are stuck with debating whether or not T20 is good or bad for Cricket - a debate in which we consider everything except T20 as a format and Cricket as a game.

It appears though, that even the West Indies are going the T20 route, with the Stanford millions bringing the circus to the Caribbean.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Deja Vu

Pakistan beat India in the finals of the Kitply Cup at Mirpur today. This was India's 13th defeat in 19 tournament finals in this decade. They have won three finals, of which only the NatWest Final at Lord's in 2002 was a sudden death game. The two finals India won in Australia earlier this year were part of a three match finals playoff.

This is a telling record, especially for a team which has won more than it has lost against good opposition in the same period. These defeats have included some spectacular batting collapses, such as the 54 all out against Sri Lanka. These 19 finals constitute a poor run with the toss as well - India have won the toss 6 times, while they have lost it 13 times. In the 16 finals which have fielded a result, India have batted second in 11 games and lost 9 times. In these 9 games, the average total conceded by India is 293. On the 11 occasions when India have lost the toss in conclusive finals, they have been asked to field first on all but one occasion (this was the KnockOut final in Nairobi in 2000 when New Zealand beat India).

Off the 25 tournament finals that have occured in this decade in all ODI cricket, 16 have been won by the side batting first, while 9 have been won by the side batting second. In these 16 finals where the team batting first has won, the average score is 270.

These numbers are fairly clear indicators as to the reasons why India have not been reasonable successful in finals (winning half and losing half would be a decent record in my view, 3-13 is a poor record). Bowling and fielding, which has been India's ODI weakness for much of this decade, gets amplified in finals, due to the fact that India are twice as likely to lose the toss in finals as they are to win it, thereby putting extra pressure on the bowlers, whose task it then is to restrict an opposition batting line up bent on racking up runs on the board without the pressure of a run rate.

Here is how significant this figure is. In all ODI games where the side batting first has made 290 or more, the side chasing has lost 85% of the games.

This Mirpur final was an interesting one, because India's young, top class fielding side still conceded 315. This presents a strong argument in favor of player your best available bowlers (Munaf Patel etc) instead of playing bowlers who can field well. Praveen Kumar, Irfan Pathan and Piyush Chawla have all made the side mainly because they offer something with the bat as well. The selectors seem to have chosen this approach, possibly because it is what Dhoni and Kirsten (with his South African roots) want. Admittedly, this tournament has been too short to make any long term choice, but India have to strengthen their bowling in ODI cricket if they are to reach the next level. This decade has been the decade where India's ODI batting has come of age (after Tendulkar and to a lesser extent Azharuddin being lone rangers in the 90's). It has also shown that without a good bowling and fielding unit, there is only some much success that is realistically possible, even in ODI cricket.

The 3-13 record is probably worse than India deserve (their poor run with the toss in finals has contributed to it), but it reveals their weaknesses. We could continue to point of Sehwag who failed with the bat in the final, or Yuvraj and Raina who fell at the wrong time during India's run chase, but thats not why India continue to lose finals. There is a deeper issue - one of quality bowlers.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

India return to familiar turf

India beat Pakistan at Mirpur in their Kitply Cup league game today. After the heady One Day International results in Australia, and the heady tumult of the Indian Premier League, this was the quintessential return to business as usual.

It was an old-fashioned ODI game, played on a flat sub-continental wicket. The new ball went for plenty of runs and India made more runs in their first twenty five overs than they did in their second twenty five overs. Virender Sehwag, facing his favorite Pakistan bowling attack played his most significant ODI innings in over a year. Gautam Gambhir has emerged as one of India's best top order players in limited overs cricket, and he scored at a run a ball, with only six boundaries contributing to this score. Yuvraj Singh, at number 3 (potentially a long term shift for him) continued the good work, and even though the rest of the batting faltered, these three had done enough to ensure that India would have a competitive score on the board. In reply, Pakistan lost early wickets, and were never in the hunt. Praveen Kumar and Piyush Chawla took 4 wickets each.

This tournament and its format appears old and boring now, especially with the third team being Bangladesh. Yet, these were the tournaments which cricket fans waited with bated breath for. That there is no real hoopla is sign of a generational shift in Cricket, just like that one that is apparent in India's line up for this game. After all, this was an Indian line up without Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dravid, Laxman, Kumble, Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan. The traditional script for these tri-nation tournaments as far as India is concerned is that they win impressive league victories, but go on to lose finals.

It remains to be seen whether Dhoni and co. can stay unbeaten in the tournament.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Of Fist Pounds....

Barack Obama won the nomination of his party for the upcoming presidential election in the United States. Obama has been an phenomenon on the internet. His youtube channel (i think this is the one maintained by his campaign) contains over a thousands videos and has been viewed more than 14 million times, with his most famous speech accounting for nearly 5 million of these views.

Yet, the most phenomenal Obama video in recent weeks has been one showing him giving his wife a fist pound, a gesture which attracted national news stories like this one. The gesture has been analysed by psychologists and observers of popular culture from all hews. The right wing (which is critical of Obama) has tried to christen the gesture the "terrorist fist-bump", as part of their attempt to undermine his chances of victory.

Even in the overheated atmosphere of an election campaign (we know how wonderfully crazy it gets in India), i found it amusing, that all this attention was centered on something that basically down to this:

As Obelix would say - these Americans are crazy!!

Update: The History of the Fist Bump

Sunday, June 01, 2008

A typical Tendulkarism

Sachin Tendulkar says he doesn't feel "feel that, you know, (IPL is) dumbing down the game. It's just another version of cricket,". He goes on to suggest that "if the game is gonna get globalised in the form of IPL, then why not?". As usual his response is precise, not made on his own initiative. He makes no commentary about IPL as such - as to what the nature of the contest is in Twenty20 Cricket.

This has always been the exasperating travesty of interview with the Tendulkars of this world. They get softballed with soundbytes, and respond in soundbytes. I would be really interested to know how Tendulkar views Twenty20 as a format - what he sees as its long term impact on batting and bowling (and i wouldn't let him state the usual platitude that "new" tactics will emerge). I would be interested to know how Tendulkar views big money being associated with a Twenty20 league, while Ranji Trophy Cricket is being ignored. I would be interested to know what Tendulkar thinks about First Class Cricket and how he views the fact that India players rarely get a chance to play First Class Cricket.

Alas, there is almost never any interest on the part of reporters who get to interview someone like Tendulkar (and may be desperate to please him, not ask him questions which are not gotcha ones but still require him to think about his response) to find out anything in detail from him.

If you notice two-thirds of that story is full of platitudes about Tendulkar's career - something he is probably bored of Ttalking about, given that he's asked about it nearly every other month. Note his comment that he thinks he's done "reasonably well".

With non-question questions, all you get is non-answer answers.