Thursday, July 31, 2008

Sri Lanka v India, Galle Test, Day 2, Morning Session

India have been bowled out for 329 in 82 overs in their first innings of the Galle Test. Virender Sehwag carried his bat for an unbeaten double hundred. It is fast becoming a case of if Murali doesn't get you Mendis will for Sri Lanka. I would suggest however, that the telling wickets in this innings came yesterday after the the rain break, not from Mendis, but from Vaas. He sent back Tendulkar and Ganguly in an over that probably marked the turning point of the innings.

The Indian tail does not pick Mendis at all, and with his amazing ability to bowl wicket to wicket and turn the ball both ways, he's going to be a great bowler. He's shown in this innings the ability to keep bowling inspite of a batsman coming after him and doing it well. Virendra Sehwag seems to pick Mendis. Most of the Indian batsmen (with the possible exception of Rahul Dravid) seemed to pick him, and VVS Laxman who fell against the run of play seemed to have the measure of all the bowlers as well.

India will consider a few changes to their batting order. The obvious one is swapping VVS and Dravid in the batting order. Having made this change, India ought to have continued with it here at Galle. They probably will henceforth. The other change has to be to promote Ishant Sharma ahead of both Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan. In playing Mendis and Murali, none of India's bowlers pick him anyway. Ishant Sharma seems to atleast help himself by playing properly and giving himself the best chance of survival. Both Harbhajan and Zaheer seem to intent on playing their "natural game", without realizing, that they don't really have one. Harbhajan especially is best used as a tactical number nine - against bowling with little mystery. Pace oriented attacks are probably best targets for promoting Harbhajan to number nine. This is a problem, because inspite of the fact that every one of the Indian bowlers can supposedly bat a bit, only Kumble seems to put a price on his wicket. Against Mendis and Murali especially, they are walking wickets.

329 is about 50 runs below par, for you have to remember the gulf between Kumble and Harbhajan on the one hand, and Murali and Mendis on the other. The Indians will have to bowl out of their skins to stay in this game from here. The only thing in their favor is that the Sri Lankan batting, Jayawardene and Sangakkara apart, are not greatly experienced (even though they invariably seem to play well enough in Sri Lanka). Atleast India has some runs on the board.

Its over to Ishant Sharma.

India v Sri Lanka, Galle Test, Day 1

It rained at lunch time. In the short session of play after the rain break, India lost 4/62. The comment on my post about the morning session is probably indicative of the general view of India's efforts towards the end of the first day's play. In a classic, typically Indian usage, the three batsmen who fell early have been called "non-vertebrates". None of the dismissals were quite as bad as Sehwag's first innings dismissal at the SSC.

Tendulkar and Gambhir fell to fairly good deliveries, while Dravid fell to a classic out-of-form batsman's dismissal. Ganguly will be upset with his dismissal for he may feel he didn't need to play at that ball from Vaas. It was a great length, but Ganguly's early uncertainty outside the off-stump seemed to upset him.

Sehwag at the other end, continued on his own norm-defying merry way. He got through the early jitters in the morning, and since then has viewed the bowling merely as run-scoring fodder. He reached hundred in one outrageous over from Vaas - first lofted the Sri Lankan new ball ace over mid on for six, and then moving from 97 to 101 with a hard hit off-drive. The one thing that Sehwag has shown is that he's decisively quicker and more certain on his feet against the spin than Rahul Dravid or Sourav Ganguly. Tendulkar is also slow, but both at SSC and in his brief stay here, he's shown that he has little trouble reading either spinner.

Rahul Dravid looks like a batsman out of form. The little things that a batsman needs early in an innings are not falling his way. One could (and indeed in a technical sense one should) be critical of Dravid's method of play outside offstump. To play balls which are pitched in line and are on the stumps, with the bat in front of the pad is one thing, to play a ball outside offstump that way is risky. Dravid was searching for the ball, while Laxman, who plays spin quite similar to Dravid in defense (with the bat in front of the pad), seemed to wait for the ball and be altogether more comfortable.

Mendis seems to have hit the right pace for bowling on this wicket, and it is fast appearing as though he has the wood on Rahul Dravid. The big three, after a very very long time, all look out of sorts at the same time. Its upto Sehwag and Laxman to put runs on the board now. Whether this is merely a bad series, or the beginning of the end for Dravid (especially) and co. remains to be seen. If it is, all i hope for is for one last hurrah - one vintage innings.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Sri Lanka v India, Galle Test, Day 1 Morning Session

India won the toss and elected to bat first - always an important thing in the subcontinent on most grounds (some grounds in north India are an exception). It was a signal - albeit a little one, that the slight rub of the green which often determines the measure of a session of play, was going India's way. By lunch time, Sehwag and Gambhir had forged an opening stand of a 150. Had any batsman other than Sehwag been involved, this would have to be seen as a titanic session of play for a side which had been so mercilessly pummelled at the Sinhalese Sports Club just a week ago.

Imagine watching a pot of milk on the boil on a flame. Then imagine, that it is bottomless and that you have at your disposal endless supplies of milk to ensure that the milk in the pot doesn't boil over. Sehwag's batting is a bit like that pot of milk, and it leaves you wishing that the invisible hand watching the milk is deft and alert. Nothing illustrates this better than Sehwag's front foot play. Initially, he's watchful. Then comes a phase where he actually drives the ball - watches the length carefully and plays a fairly classical drive. Then, when he's past that phase, he seems to cast only the most cursory glance at the line and length of the ball (if he feels he's reading the bowler from the hand, even more so), and if it's pitched anywhere close to the full length, he basically tries to blast it with all the benign vengeance of a gentle monster. Thats when he's most vulnerable, and thats when the milk needs topping up. The trick with Sehwag, is for him to find that delicate middle ground, where he's kept on his toes, and yet feel's confident enough to play his strokes. If the situation has to change, Indian fans ought to hope that it gets more difficult, and not more easy - for it is in easy situations that the Najafgarh nugget is prone to fall. Towards the end of the morning session today, one felt that the Sehwag was fast approaching blast off - a few excessively enthusiastic blasts aimed at fullish deliveries from Vaas and even Murali (whom he reads quite well) indicated this.

If Sehwag weren't quite as consistent as he is in the long run, the Indian dressing room would be reduced to being a bundle of nerves watching the man play. This session of play was one where Sehwag survived (if you can call 91 not out in a session "survival"). I had my heart in my mouth towards the end of the session though, precisely the because the man had reached ninety. I feared he would try and blast those nine remaining runs and try and score a hundred before lunch (think St. Lucia - where, on his way to 180 a couple of years ago, Sehwag was 97, nearing lunch time on Day 1 - he backed away to leg last ball before lunch against Bravo (i think), and tried to blast the ball between mid-off and cover, and miscued it just short of mid-off).

His partner Gambhir, is less gifted. He doesn't read Murali or Mendis as well as Sehwag, but he seems to do the basics better - he tries hard to get in line with the ball, tries to get a good stride in, and most times, plays with bat and pad close together in defense, especially when he's unsure of Murali's doosra.

So far so good then. India have a good stand going - something which one ought not to ignore in all of Sehwag's belligerence. They must keep it going. The wicket showed some early signs of uneven bounce, yet seems to be quite slow - possibly even slower than the SSC. India will need all the weight of runs that they can get here. They have made a good beginning.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Rajat Gupta on Wikipedia

The other day, while looking for something else altogether on google, i came across this wikipedia page about Rajat Gupta. The name had a familiar ring to it, and usually, when this happens about a person or thing, i visit the page. I seemed to vaguely remember that Rajat Gupta is the name of the former boss of McKinsey Worldwide. I also vaguely remembered reading that Mr. Gupta was in someway associated with the UN. With this background, i was puzzled when i came across this page about Rajat Gupta. The page reads:

"Dr Rajat Gupta is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Architecture.........."

I decided to look up the history of the page, because usually, when there are two people with the same name, Wikipedia usually has a page which lists all the different context in which the word is applied, for example this Cricket page.

A look down the history of edits for the page about Rajat Gupta revealed that the older Mr. Gupta did indeed inhabit the hallowed encyclopedia until about a month ago. His page then underwent a very typically bollywood style land grab. A person by the name of RajatGupta1977 appears on the scene and note his first intervention. A paragraph about the architecture lecturer appears under the "Early Life" sub-heading on the page of the McKinsey boss's page! In the second edit, the original Mr. Gupta's Career information has been erased. In the third one, the new Mr. Gupta has almost completed his virtual land-grab. It appears that he isn't very careful about his work either, for the short first paragraph still refers to the original Mr. Gupta. The take-over is eventually complete.

Figure this out for yourself - a user called Rajat Gupta1977 edits a page about Rajat Gupta, the former boss at McKinsey, and replaces it with information about Rajat Gupta, lecturer of Architecture. Why does this smack of a typically ignorant, i'll-d0-as-i-please bit of gairkanooni kabza?

The beauty of wikipedia, and the reason im a fan of the public encyclopedia, is that this is sort of thing is out in the open for anybody who wishes to look for it. As someone interested in details, wikipedia is a place where they may be found endlessly. Of course, consumers of information may not prefer this, and may see this as a failure of the encyclopedia, but if this is what i think it is, does it not tell me more about the lecturer in architecture (who is some obscure individual - the example is purely academic), than any single write up about the person would? Hasn't the encyclopedia served its purpose?

The whole thing could of course be an innocent mistake... however, consider this.... i looked through several pages of older edits, and RajatGupta1977 isn't responsible for any of them. I felt this merited a post on this blog, where i have chosen to refrain from regular forays into matters non-cricketing.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

India v Sri Lanka, First Test - Review

India are 8/121 in their second innings at the Sinhalese Sports Club as i write this post and are sliding towards a thumping innings defeat, much like they did the last time they played a Test match in Sri Lanka. They have been thoroughly out-thought and outclassed. The out-thinking bit was easy for Sri Lanka, for while they play classical Test Cricket, and did several basic things right after winning a fairly important toss, India seem to have gone into the game with a muddled mind.

The Sri Lankan spin attack is easily the best seen in recent times, operating in conditions favorable to them, with the crushing weight of 600 runs delivered by the Sri Lankan batsmen. This Test Match, which Sri Lanka will in all probability win today has revealed a greater gulf between the two sides than Ajanta Mendis. Sri Lanka have shown better awarness of situations in the match - situation described by what the bowler is trying to do, what the field setting is, what the score is, what the batsman at the other end is doing etc etc. It has been a Test Match between one side which was playing Test cricket, and another, which apart from a few stray batsmen, was playing blind mans buff.

Rahul Dravid was well and truly beaten by the spinners in both innings. Tendulkar's first innings dismissal was understandable, but his second innings dismissal is like many other things, reflective of much of India's thinking (or lack of it) during this Test Match. Consider the choice he made - to sweep Muralitharan bowling at him from round the wicket into the rough, with a leg slip present, following on, facing a deficit of 300 odd runs. In the end, he was dismissed to a ball which would have missed leg stump by a foot. It was an entirely avoidable dismissal and seems to be an even more tragic choice of shot given the fact that Tendulkar played both Mendis and Murali quite well. The best Indian batsman was VVS Laxman, and once the gamble to promote him to number three failed, India was as good as beaten.

India's batsmen face plenty of problems here. They are faced with an extremely intelligent spin bowling attack - one which knows its home conditions inside out. They are unable to read one of the spinners. Whats more, some of them seem to be down on confidence and match play. The middle order is coming into this series cold. One of the openers is making a comeback, and the other refuses to use his brains.

All that said, these are not India's biggest problems. The batsmen (one has to hope) will figure things out. The bigger problem seems to be the spinners. The Indian spinners never looked like getting a wicket when the Sri Lankans batted. More than Kumble, Harbhajan seems to be struggling. I cannot remember the last time he bowled with any success in a Test Match. He seems distracted and has lost the accuracy and control of length which marked his bowling when he was at his best. Unless India can threaten the Sri Lankan batting and keep Sri Lankan totals within manageable proportions, even the best batsmen in the world at their best won't be able to keep Murali and Mendis at bay on wearing wickets.

India have been out-classed by an accomplished Sri Lankan outfit. Whats more, India aren't thinking straight at the moment. Gary Kirsten has plenty to think about.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Sri Lanka v India, Day 4, Morning Session

It was an absorbing session of play. This has become a bit of a cliche and is invariably used whenever there is a contest between bat and ball. But it is an appropriating adjective, and it is worth delving a bit deeper into what it might mean. India began the day with Kumble and Laxman, Sri Lanka with their two spinners. Yesterday's play showed that the Indians pick Muralitharan, but not Mendis. Mendis will take some getting used to.

The early running was made by Sri Lanka. Mendis and Murali ran through Kumble, Harbhajan and Zaheer in quick time. Then came Ishant Sharma, who proceeded to demonstrate a basic understanding of what was going on, which is beyond his years. He used his reach and played dead straight. At the other end, VVS Laxman, in a familiar role, took nearly every run on offer, and India stretched their first innings till lunch. Sharma was looking impregnable and VVS was his usual calm self. Both watched the ball carefully and played off the pitch whenever possible. In this, Ishant was particularly impressive - his judgement of length was quite spectacular and was almost never caught on the crease against the spin. He played late and he played with a soft touch.

The canny Jayawardene took Mendis off, and brought on Nuwan Kulasekara, who then gave us a demonstration of just what i meant when i referred to the Sri Lankan ability to play professional cricket. Kulasekara is a medium pacer - he is not very tall, doesn't have too much pace. What he does do however, is do the basics right - bowl wicket to wicket. With the older ball, there was some reverse available, but what was impressive was the line and length that Kulasekara delivered from ball one. He had to be watched carefully, and even if it was possible to play him quite easily in the end, he did not concede anything by trying outlandish things. He made the batsman play.

The innings was terminated with the over of the match so far. Mendis returned and began with two of his special leg cutters (like the one which got Dravid), both of which went past VVS Laxman's outside edge. Laxman did nothing wrong, but since he is not able to read Mendis from the hand, or in the air, all he could do was push forward and cover his stumps. The length was such that he couldn't hang back and play the ball off the wicket. Mendis then reverted to a slower off-break which Laxman watched carefully and played to short-leg. This was followed by a classical off-break pitched on the perfect length outside off-stump. It drew Laxman forward. The memory of the two leg cutters fresh in his memory, Laxman's forward prod was more tentative than usual. This was enough for the ball to sneak in between bat and pad and take VVS's off stump. It was truly brilliant bowling.

In this short innings, Mendis has shown amazing control over length and over his variations. After his early jitters, he settled down and rarely bowled a bad ball. Bowling with Murali helps, but it says something about the young spinner, that Murali at his best did not put him in the shade.

India's batsmen have their hands full - in this game and in the next two. The more interesting consequence however, will be for Kumble and Harbhajan Singh, who are for once faced with a side which can match the depth of spin bowling that they can offer.

This may in fact be a classic example of home advantage, but Sri Lanka have looked more skillful and better prepared than India in these three days of Test Cricket.

Sri Lanka v India, 1st Test, Day 3

Sri Lanka declared their first innings closed at6/600, after which Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir came in to bat. Within 6 overs, India had made their first unforced error with the bat - Virendra Sehwag threw his wicket away trying to hook a head high bounder from outside off stump, without getting into any sort of position. Needless to say, he miscued it. From a Test opener in the 5th over of a Test innings, for a side facing a 600+ first innings, this was a shockingly amateurish effort.

If India go on to lose this game and this series, they may well look back to Sehwag's dismissal. The consequences of Sehwag's wicket have to be seen in the context in which it was situated. Ajantha Mendis, in his short career has already shown a great ability to bowl a superb line and length, and a complete lack of fear in trying out all his variations. India faced a huge first innings total, and in a situation where the Sri Lankan spinners were likely to be the major threats, it was important that the Indian openers did not concede a wicket to the Sri Lankan new ball pair. More than any other team, India ought to know the disadvantage that spinners face if the new ball attack fails.

The other batsmen were dismissed. I haven't seen the Ganguly dismissal, but the Tendulkar and Dravid dismissals were due to good balls. In Tendulkar's case, he read Murali's doosra but was in two minds whether to play or leave..... ultimate choosing (too late as it turned out) to leave. In Dravid's case, he recieved a fastish leg cutter from an off-spinner. It was superbly pitched, and even if Dravid had read it, he would have had to be in supreme form to get anywhere near it. Gautam Gambhir was beaten in flight.

Muralitharan and Harbhajan Singh form an interesting comparison. In 1998, when Harbhajan Singh emerged, both he and Murali were probably equally skillful off spinners - both could turn the ball a long way. Murali couldn't bowl his doosra yet, neither could Harbhajan. In the ensuing ten years, Harbhajan Singh has added a doosra and a floater, and now bowls just off breaks and the odd floater. He still struggles to bowl round the wicket, and if anything has lost some of his zip off the wicket, and the metronomic accurate which marked his bowling in his hey day. Murali on the other hand, has developed into the complete bowler - he can turn the ball both ways, is a master of flight, can bowl round the wicket and over the wicket to both right and left handers. The difference in their records is obvious.

Sri Lanka now have two spin bowlers who can turn the ball both ways. Batsmen around the world read Muralitharan nowadays, but he's so accurate now, that even if they read him, he's hard to play. The Indians haven't read Mendis at all, which is understandable since none of them have played him before (Sehwag has played him for 2 balls).

They will figure out how to play him eventually, but it may be too late. They won't lose because they can't read him though. They'll lose because they have an amateur (albeit a stunning batsman) in their ranks.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Sri Lanka v India, Day 2

It was Sri Lanka's day at the Sinhalese Sports Club today. At 422/4 they hold the upper hand in this game. It is fast approaching a stage where only Sri Lanka can realistically push for a victory. The wicket is quite slow at the moment, but Muralitharan will extract much more turn off the wicket than Kumble and Harbhajan.

The referral farce was played out again in the dying minutes of the day. This time it basically amounted to Harbhajan Singh and Dinesh Karthik's judgement (from extremely poor positions) against Mark Benson's. Its a terrible idea, and gets worse with time, mainly because it structurally flawed. I have posted more detailed assessments of the Referral system here and here)

India failed to make a breakthrough in the morning session, and that seemed to seal their fate for the rest of the day. The Indian bowling had an element of predictability about it. Teams all over the world have basically figured out how to play Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh now, and unless there is something exceptional in the wicket, or the batsmen become overly ambitious, or Kumble and Harbhajan bowl exceptionally well and have a lucky day where great catches are held and every good appeal is upheld, they are not going to run through line ups on good wickets.

The slow wicket negated Ishant Sharma and Zaheer Khan even though both toiled manfully. If any criticism at all may be offered of either, it would that they tried too many things too often. I wonder how Sri Lanka would have responded had Zaheer or Ishant bowled outside offstump on a bloodyminded good length to an 8-1 field or a 7-2 field and basically ignored the stumps. A drop in the run rate might have brought about an interesting situation. As it happened, Sri Lanka made 2/337 from 98 overs on the day. The absence of a fifth bowler hurt India.

Weather permitting, Sri Lanka should have enough time to win. Before this game, they have made 400 or more batting first in a Test Match in Sri Lanka 10 times, and won 7 of those games. They have never lost a Test Match at home after making 400 or more batting first. Of the three drawn games, two were severely affected by rain.

Indias batsmen have their work cut out for them.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Review System and Elimination of Error

The purpose of the new review system being tested during the India v Sri Lanka series is to eliminate obvious errors. This is what the ICC tells followers of the sport. Yet, the major issue that the ICC seems to grapple with, is not the errors themselves, but the consequences of errors. Everything in the design of the review system suggests that the ICC is more interested in appearing to be fair, than it is in being correct. The involvement of the players in the system is a telltale give away. There is nothing that the players can do to eliminate obvious errors, that the Umpires cannot achieve without their help.

Here, it also appears that the ICC is grappling with some faux issues related to tradition, and the authority of the Umpires. Cricket governing body seems to be more willing to have the players question the authority of the umpires, than it is to have the third umpire question the authority of the Umpires. The use of technology is a completely seperate issue. The slippery slope that the ICC is currently negotiating (quite tentatively), is the issue of the adjudicators authority.

The first ever review in a Test Match was requested by Anil Kumble at 11.18 am this morning when an LBW appeal by the Indians against Malinda Warnapura. Umpire Mark Benson's not out decision was reviewed by the third Umpire Rudi Koertzen. Cricket fans who are familiar with the LBW law will realise the absurdity of this. The Umpire at the bowlers end is in the best possible position to judge LBW's. He has the best view (obviously not by accident). The fielding captain is able to request a review for LBW decisions - but he is not allowed to consult any body with a television. So he has no real information to go on when he requests a review of the LBW - other than the bowler and the wicketkeeper and the close in fielders, none of whom have a good view of the LBW. When bowlers and fielders appeal for LBW's, they appeal based on instinct - but umpiring decisions are made based on information.

Then there is the issue of the no-ball being checked by the third umpire when the review is made. Dismissals which occur off deliveries which are ruled as no-balls are not checked! If the third umpire were allowed to review decisions without prompting from either the batsman or the fielding captain, he would have identified that Mark Benson ruling a no-ball on a delivery where Zaheer Khan had Warnapura caught and bowled was wrong.

In all this, the basic purpose of the review system - to eliminate obvious errors is not satisfied. It is not satisfied because the ICC and the Umpires are timid - by relinquishing authority to the players, they are essentially saying - "you keep complaining that we're not competent, here.... why don't you help us out by taking on some of the responsibility". This in my view amounts to umpires shooting themselves in the foot. Under the garb of preserving the tradition the ICC are not using the third umpire as well as he could be used.

The TV Broadcasters are obviously pleased with the referral idea, especially the part where the players request a review, because it creates a new spectacle for commentators to talk about on air. It creates unnecessary pressure on everybody concerned, and doesn't serve the purpose that it is supposed to. In years gone by, commentators used to express a certain amount of disgust with third-slip or mid-wicket appealing for LBW's, because they couldn't possible know what the line and length of the ball was. Now, the ICC has granted that same third-slip or midwicket the right to question the Umpires decision.

Readers may feel im jumping the gun here. The obvious reaction here might be that i should give the referral system some time before criticizing it. But the criticisms raised here are structural and these issues should have been considered while the system was being designed. What the ICC's system lacks is a clear philosophical basis - an understanding of the role of the umpires and that of the players and the relationship between the two. What has resulted thus is a muddled, timid adhocism. Im quite amazed that this referral system got to the stage where it could be tried out in its current form.

Cricket cannot afford to have players and umpires as adversaries. The referral system directly undermines the Umpires, and does so in the worst possible way. It ought to be scrapped immediately and if it is to be replaced at all, it should be replaced with a simple system where the third umpire is instructed to be in constant communication with the on-field umpires whenever an appeal is made by the fielding side and a decision is made by the on-field umpires.

Sri Lanka v India, Day 1

The Test Series got off to a rain affected beginning at the Sinhalese Sports Club ground in Colombo yesterday. Sri Lanka won the toss and elected to bat on a dry wicket, which was expected to take turn earlier than usual. The persistent rain in Colombo has meant that the wicket has been under wraps since Sunday, and may not in fact have been watered since then. This will suit Sri Lanka who have the weaker pace attack, but arguably the stronger spin attack. Mutthaih Muralitharan remains unrivalled as a spin bowler in Sri Lanka (451 Test wickets in 68 home Tests over 16 years - a bradmanesque statistic), while the Sri Lankans have done better against Anil Kumble than almost any other side.

The day began with the in-experienced Sri Lankan pair of Warnapura and Vandort facing up to Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma. Vandort looked more solid than Warnapura initially, until he chased wickedly rising delivery from Ishant and Dinesh Karthik completed an tricky catch. Sri Lanka were one down. The Warnapura-Zaheer contest was an intriguing one and it will be especially interesting to watch it play out today. Warnapura is a typical sub-continental batsman - brutal off the frontfoot, with an almost pathological preference for it. He tended to commit himself to the frontfoot quite early, and Zaheer, having detected this in about 3-4 balls, seemed to sense an easy kill. At that point, Zaheer went berserk against Warnapura, subjecting the Sri Lankan southpaw to a barrage of short pitched bowling, which if it had been perfectly directed, might have been lethal. The wicket is not especially quick though, and once Warnapura became attuned to Zaheer's methods, he seemed to play him without too much trouble. Warnapura in the end, proved to be a deceptively tough nut to crack.

Ishant Sharma toiled manfully on heartbreaking wicket for him and got the odd ball to rise sharply. Both Zaheer and Ishant however seemed intent on bowling to a plan rather than going flat out. Given that India are playing only two pacemen, this is a prudent ploy.

So far, in the brief period of play that we have seen, India have bowled reasonably well, all though they have conceded about 20 runs more than they would have liked to concede. Harbhajan Singh in the solitary over that he bowled was unable to hit a length. He has been in poor form for a while, and unless he can find new wind from somewhere, India's four bowler ploy (with Bhajji as one of the four) may come back to haunt them. Early wickets are an absolute must for India, especially given the lack of depth in their bowling line up.

Sanjay Manjrekar thinks India are the better team, but it will ultimately come down to the age old question - Can India bowl out the opposition twice? In this, India have some convincing to do.

Aaj Tak's Ram Sethu

I must digress from usual Cricketing fare to another story which is related to India and Sri Lanka - specifically to the mythological bridge between India and Sri Lanka which Lord Rama's Simian Army built so that Rama's righteous might could descend on Ravana's Lanka. The Government, fresh from its bruising victory in the trust vote (i have no clue what to make of the cash for votes spectacle since all the MP's involved on all sides of that issue seem to be of dubious repute), is all set to revive the SethuSamudram Project.

While surfing the vast sea of TV Channels available to us as cable subscribers here in Bombay, i came across coverage of this story on NDTV as well as Times Now, and both used shipping related visuals, or satellite images of the Ram Sethu. Imagine my surprise then, when i came across Aaj Tak. This channel coolly produced visuals of individuals with tails and crowns and Gadas milling about, some industriously working away at constructing Rama's Grand Bridge to Lanka! It took me a while to realize that the Aaj Tak Channel was using visuals from one of the many Ramayana television production that we have had in India (minus the music!). Im posting this in part to confirm that my eyes were not playing tricks with me, and that this was indeed the visual accompanying Aaj Tak's coverage of the story.

It is not surprising then that the government has shelved Science and found a version of the Ramayana which says that Lord Rama actually destroyed the Sethu himself in order to pave the way for the project. Naturally the BJP is up in arms.

Maybe Aaj Tak has it right. Most news in India does deserve this kind of irreverent treatment (even though Aaj Tak's particular brand of irreverence may strike some as extreme). In the spirit of Aaj Tak's creative leaps, maybe the next debate should address the following question: What might Lord Rama have to say about the proposed Shipping Sethu? It might actually be less fractuous and infinitely more interesting, in the same vein as Mr. Lalu Prasad Yadav's vintage effort in Parliament during the Trust Vote debate.

Please tell me that Aaj Tak did actually have snippets of the Ramayana Serial accompanying its Sethusamudram story.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Of Risks and Odds

South Africa and England went into this Test Series equally matched. England had a slight edge in the batting department, while the South African bowling line up has shown explosive form in the last eight to ten months. With the return of Andrew Flintoff, the English bowling attack was definitely bolstered in the Leed's Test, but this was offset somewhat by absence of the in form Ryan Sidebottom. Overall, it would be fair to say that on paper, this was a series against two well-matched sides. The visitors' lead is somewhat surprising given England's recent Test Match results in New Zealand and then in the home series against New Zealand. Their batting line up is more settled than at any time in recent memory (even during the 2005 Ashes, Ian Bell's slot was still uncertain). Yet, the South Africans have outbatted and outbowled them at Leeds.

The visitors began the series tentatively. Graeme Smith made an ill-fated decision to field first at Lord's and spent the next two days in the field as England romped to a first innings of nearly 600. The South African pacemen looked out of sorts on the first morning when the wicket and the conditions were at their most helpful. They survived at Lord's thanks to their batsmen and a wicket which England did not have the means to exploit. A good second spinner to assist Panesar would have come in handy for England at Lord's.

The reason why South Africa find themselves ahead today is because they have played better Test Cricket. What i mean by this is that they have shown better awareness of the demands of Test Match play. Their batsmen have been willing to graft and work hard for their runs, allowing their bowling the time it needed get it right. It started with McKenzie and Smith who played superbly according to the situation of the game at Lord's. Smith scored his runs faster than McKenzie, but the caution was evident in his play. McKenzie seems to be temperamentally well suited to the long haul and took to the Lord's situation like a duck to water. England have some right to feel that the rub of the green did not go their way in South Africa's first innings in the Leeds test, but how many times have we seen the side which gets it right most of the time get all the breaks? How many times have we seen Glenn McGrath for example have edges carry to lone slips, while lesser bowlers have their stray edges streak between slip and gully? At the end of the day, this phenomenon is easily explained by way of odds. McGrath is likely to get his man more often than a less accurate bowler, because he is likely to create an edge inducing more often than a less accurate bowler.

The art in Test Cricket at the end of the day, is about judging risks. Every player who plays at the Test level is aware of basic batting technique, and all bowlers get sorted out with time. Mystery and brilliance rarely win Test Matches, and the advantage of these is always temporary. By creating an finely balanced contest between bat and ball, where each has a stake, and where a certain basic quality is required of each, an episodic battle ensues marked by shifting risks and odds. If you look at the batting averages of the English and South African batsmen in this series, you will find that England's batsmen have scored quicker than South Africa's batsmen. The South Africans have showed a greater ability to graft and bide their time. For most of their first innings in the Leeds Test, they were scoring at less than three runs per over. The runs flowed only after South Africa had put the first innings beyond doubt.

What makes Test Cricket such an intriguing spectacle is that different players have different basic tendencies - some are more aggressive than others, some favor certain wickets more than others, some favor certain types of bowling more than others. These individual tendencies of a batsman do play a role in how he assesses risk. The "natural game" which every keeps touting is almost always only half the story. Often a player going off the boil and experiencing a lean run, is basically assessing the risk wrongly, or is not assessing it very well (on account of form, technical problems etc.).

In this light, it will be interesting to watch India play Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka in the coming weeks. The presence of Ajantha Mendis makes for an interesting battle, especially if Mendis shows himself capable of handling the rigors of Test Cricket. That the first Test is to be played at the Sinhalese Sports Club, where the wicket has traditionally offered some assistance to the medium-fast men makes it even more interesting. Will the Indian batsmen choose to go after Mendis, match situation permitting, if the wicket doesn't assist spin bowling too much? Or will they choose to use the easier (likely to be) wicket to have a good look at him in view of the tougher battles to come? Will Sri Lanka field Mendis at all if the wicket is likely to be a particularly true one? With Vaas and Kulasekara likely to open the Sri Lankan bowling, it looks as though they lack depth in the pace department, given the injury to Farveez Maharoof. India hold a slight edge in the pace stakes with Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma leading their new ball attack.

Much like the current England v South Africa series, the Sri Lanka v India Series will be won by the side which is able to play according to the match situation better. Between two evenly matched sides, it is always the more professional side, which makes fewer unforced errors, which wins. Recent history suggests that Sri Lanka are extremely good at playing solid professional cricket, even if they may not be able to match the outrageous brilliance of a Sehwag. India's recent Test Match success has been due to the fact that they have played solid percentage cricket quite well. Their fortunes in Sri Lanka will depend on whether they are able to continue that trend.

Bowlers also deal with odds in Test Cricket, but in a different way as compared to batsmen, because bowler "make the play" in a sense. A batsman can only play the ball based on the line and length that the bowler delivers. The essence of good line and length is to find one where the batsman finds it difficult to get into good position to play the ball. The "good length" of course is one which is too short for the batsman to play forward, yet too full for him to play back. A "good line" is one which the batsman cannot leave with any confidence, while at the same time causing him to debate whether of not he needs to play. If a bowler is able to bowl a good line and length for a given wicket and given conditions and a given batsman's strengths and weaknesses consistently enough, his chances of inducing a fatal error of judgement from the batsman increase. Anil Kumble made a telling point while discussing his newly developed googly few years ago. He said "They pick it, but they still have to play it" - his point being, its still a well-pitched delivery. Occasionally a bowler will try a high risk delivery - like a widish half volley as a bait or a yorker or a bouncer, both of which could cost the bowler plenty of runs if he gets them even slightly wrong.

Successful Test sides are invariably masters at playing these odds and judging these risks. Thats what enables a side like South Africa, which is cannot match the exceptional talents of Pietersen, Vaughan and Flingtoff, to beat England. That they have done so in England, is even more creditable. If anything, India have an even tougher assignment in Sri Lanka.

This is a good time if youre a fan of Test Cricket.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Dhoni takes a break

With Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Dinesh Karthik, Parthiv Patel and a couple of other wicketkeepers who can bat a bit, India are not short of options for the Test Match wicketkeepers slot. This is quite a change from the dark days of Deep Dasgupta and MSK Prasad - the tail began and number 7 and really lived up to its name. As with most choices though, this is not an easy one.

Parthiv Patel and Dinesh Karthik are two extremely talent young cricketers - both identified in their teens as potential India players - Patel as a member of the Indian U-19 side, and Dinesh Karthik with his many Tendulkaresque appearances in marquee domestic games a few years ago. It has been the Indian way to pick a special player and make sure that he gets an opportunity to be tested against the best that India has to offer. Tendulkar was picked for the Rest of India side just before his selection to the Pakistan tour of 1989. He duly made a fine hundred, and Gursharan Singh, broken arm and all was encouraged to pad up at number 11, in order to give Tendulkar company so that he could reach his hundred. Dinesh Karthik did pretty much the same thing in a Ranji game against Mumbai - scoring a brilliant century when all others around him floundered. For Parthiv Patel, you could point to any one of his teenaged appearances for India as wicket keeper. These are tests - where prodigies are given the opportunity to show that they belong, and more often than not, the eagle eyed Indian selectors have been proven right in their choices.

Parthiv Patel began superbly, but his wicketkeeping deteriorated alarmingly and he needed an opportunity to work on his game. Dinesh Karthik has excelled every time he has had a chance, but he seems doomed to have to live in Mahendra Singh Dhoni's daunting shadow. Dhoni is a once in a generation cricketer - a maverick with his own technique, but with an uncommon ability to read a situation and adapt. He uses his immense strength very cannily and has proved a worthy occupant of the ODI Captaincy.

Dhoni's recent decision to opt out of the Sri Lanka Test tour is an interesting one. It is also a sign of the times. Dhoni is the ODI captain, but his position in the Test team is less than solid. Dinesh Karthik is technically more reliable with the bat than Mahendra Singh Dhoni is, and with his ability to open the batting, provides India with priceless flexibility. Karthik is also undoubtebly fit enough to keep wicket and open the batting.

A few years ago, it would have been unthinkable for any cricketer to skip a Test series in view of future ODI tournaments. Dhoni's decision has been called a bold one, but there are two sides to it - the first (and more important) issue is that of Dhoni's fitness and health. Given the workload with the IPL, ODI and Test Cricket, there is a real risk of player burnout. The other issue is a selection isssue - one of Dhoni's place in the Test team. If Dinesh Karthik establishes himself as a Test opener and wicketkeeper, it will be hard for Dhoni to return to the Test team. With Virender Sehwag's appointment as vice-captain of the Test team, the selectors have indicated that Sehwag is very much in the running for the Test Captaincy once Anil Kumble retires (and he undoubtebly will before the end of the decade).

The selectors face a pleasant problem of plenty, but as far as Dhoni goes, while this decision may be an indication of his well crafted priorities, it could yet set his career back. For even though people are beginning to question the relevance of Test Cricket, i don't think Dhoni's generation can turn their backs on it and still be taken seriously as cricketers.

I hope Dinesh Karthik makes the most of it.

Southpaw Openers

When Graeme Smith won the toss in the First Test at Lord's and put in England in to bat, he was counting on his successful pace attack to destroy England on Day 1 and set the tone for the series and the Test Match. His plans could not possibly have gone more awry. England declared at 8/593 late on the second day, after Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell made big hundreds to rescue England from a deceptively precarious 3/117 on the first day. As i write this, the South Africans are hurtling towards a follow on, despite Ashwell Prince's unbeaten 88.

The damage though, was done earlier. They say that the first session of the series often sets the tone for the rest of the series, and when Alistair Cook and Andrew Strauss returned to the Pavilion unbeaten at lunch, South Africa had been dealt a telling blow. The South African pacemen bowled less than 5 balls which would have gone on the hit the stumps in the first session of play. Morne Morkel, Makhaya Ntini and Dale Steyn were ineffective, precisely because they were unable to attack the left hander's stumps from their preferred over the wicket style of delivery. All three went round the wicket during the first session, and all three were wayward, and clearly ill at ease. Morkel in particular strayed down the leg side and the off side often, and hence could not exploit the helpful conditions to any useful degree.

Increasingly, Test Cricket has seen the dominance of left handed openers. Justin Langer, Mathew Hayden, Chris Gayle, Mathew Richardson, Andrew Strauss, Marcus Trescothick, Sanath Jayasurya, Graeme Smith and Gary Kirsten are successful left handed openers from this decade who spring immediatly to mind. The table below shows the dominance of the left handed opener in the current decade compared to previous decades (click on the image to see a full sized image)

Left handed openers have outscored right handed openers (and scored at a better average) for the first time in the current decade, even though right handed openers are still more prevalent than left handed openers.

This is no accident in my view. The steady mainstreaming of the front-on bowling action is largely responsible. The front-on bowling action results in two things which favor left handed batsmen compared to right handed batsmen. Firstly, front-on bowlers are less likely to swing the ball away from the right hander (hence into the left hander). Second, the front-on bowling action makes it harder for a bowler to get close to the stumps in delivery stride. Most (if not all) front-on bowlers deliver from a widish spot on the bowling crease. The combined effect of these two characteristics of front on bowlers bowling to left handers, is that front on bowlers are unable to threaten the left handers stumps. This takes bowled and lbw out of the equation for the most part, thereby greatly reducing the bowlers chances of dismissing the batsman. Bowlers who get a high percentage of bowled and LBW dismissals tend to be those who deliver from close to the stumps for which they must bowl with an action which is substantially, if not classically side on - such as Glenn McGrath and Stuart Clark.

This proliferation of left handed opening batsmen is being countered by a comparable increase in the number of left arm pacemen in Test Cricket today. Almost all top Test playing nations have atleast one left arm pace bowler today.

The first session at Lord's was a classic example of a pace attack consisting almost exclusively off front-on right arm pacemen found itself floundering in the face of two disciplined left handed opening batsmen. Andrew Strauss did not have to play at over half the deliveries bowled at him in the first session. Graeme Smith, a left handed opener himself, realized this - hence the heavy workload for Jacques Kallis.

This is one of the side-effects of the emergence of ODI cricket. Front-on actions lend themselves well to delivering restrictive, defensive lengths, where as side-on swing bowling is more attacking and hence easier to hit from the batsman's point of view.

The next generation of pace bowlers will have to be able to bowl as effectively from round the wicket as they can from over the wicket. This has so far been a skill reserved for only the very greatest of bowlers.

Cricket may end up becoming a left-hander's sport if swing bowling does not experience a revival.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Some things never change

Im back in Bombay for a while, and was reading the Indian Express this morning after many months. In recent months, especially after Dhoni took over the ODI captaincy, i have noticed that there have been very few critical stories about individual players. It seemed as though the press had overcome their obsession with scoops (think back to the Chappell era and the 2007 world cup) about how a given player isn't working hard enough, or doesn't get along with some other player or something similar. I thought the press had finally realised that the Indian Cricket team consists of human beings, who, like their counterparts in other organisations have individual personalities and consistently reaffirm the social nature of the human animal by disagreeing and arguing with their teammates.

In today's Indian Express, i saw the following headline - "Irfan not giving 100 percent: Sekar", and i thought to myself - here we go again, here's yet another story about a rich, pampered superstar slacking off according to the press. Many newspaper readers, who read merely the headlines and don't read the story, because they may not have the time to do so, may be forgiven for believing that this is exactly what this story is about. I read the story with trepidation, half expecting some bollywood starlet to pop up at some point as the reason for Irfan Pathan's distortion - after all, this was T A Sekhar, the coach at the MRF Pace Academy, and Irfan's go to guy when he's in technical trouble.

The details of the story where not quite the juicy titbits that i expected they would be (based on the Indian Express's blaring headline). This is the exact quote from Sekar in the story:

"I think he is yet to recover from his injury (side strain). It was reflected in his bowling in Pakistan. Maybe the injury factor was there at the back of his mind and it prevented him from giving his 100 percent".

"And when you are not going full throttle, it's difficult to get the maximum out of your bowling".

"It is very different from the last time. Back then, he had gone away from the basics and we worked to get the basics right."

"This time i think there is a lack of effort. Then again, injury might have played a role in it as it is preventing him from making the pivot".

In response to a question about the timing of Irfan Pathan's return to the playing XI in the Asia Cup, Sekar said:

"Im not at liberty to comment on that. Irfan knows his body, he only is the best judge. From what appeared to me, his body was not permitting. He was trying extra had and, in the process, was losing his swing and zip".

Make of that what you will. T. A. Sekar's quotes (or atleast those of his quotes which the Indian Express reporter has chosen to include in his story) could be spun in almost any way. This gist of this story is that Irfan Pathan's coach from MRF thinks that Pathan's poor show is because he lacked confidence and form due to the fact that his injury hadn't healed completely when he was asked to join the playing eleven.

There is some much more to Irfan Pathan's selection - his value as a batsman comes into play. Thats why he got picked as the 5th bowler. Irfan faces an interesting dilemma in his career - his batting is becoming more and more valuable, especially in the limited overs game, there by making him a unique commodity for the Indian selectors. This gives him less time to work on his bowling, as he is expected to perform with the bat as well. The dispiritingly flat wickets in Pakistan were probably not the best place for Irfan to make his comeback either.

But these are details - and headlines are not about details. But surely, they are also not about misleading the reader! Not only that, the headline is spectacularly contradicted by the last lines in the story, where Sekar suggests the Irfan is trying too hard!

But then again, even the slightest opening to suggest that Irfan Pathan isn't giving his best is too tempting to resist i guess. Some things never change.

Comparing Batting Line Ups

The Indian Test and ODI batting line ups of today mark two distinction generations of Indian batting. The celebrated Test line up - Sehwag, Tendulkar, Laxman, Dravid and Ganguly have scored 105 Test hundreds between them came of age in the late nineties and has shone throughout this decade. The ODI line up, built around Yuvraj Singh, Virendra Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar (when he's available), with its emphasis on tomorrows batsmen - Raina, Sharma, Gambhir, Uthappa etc. has produced some good results, but is still prone to batting collapses like the one we saw in both recent ODI finals and indeed throughout the CB series in Australia, where, but for Tendulkar's brilliance in the crunch league game against SL and the two finals against Australia, India might have been wondering about the future of its ODI side, and Dhoni's job might have been in doubt.

The striking characteristic about India's Test line up in recent years has been that it has produced percentage cricket. Lets leave Virendra Sehwag out of this for now, for his i believe is a unique story which i will get to in a moment. The huge innings have eluded India's batsmen middle order. There haven't been any storied 180's or 220's from Tendulkar or Dravid or Laxman or Ganguly recently. The only innings that comes to mind was Sourav Ganguly's 239 at Eden Gardens against Pakistan on a flat pitch in a drawn game. The recent successes - at Johannesburg, in England and in Australia, have been about playing percentage cricket with the bat. Taking whatever runs are available, playing within ones means - with extreme discipline and to a careful plan. It is batting embodied in innings like Tendulkar's 82 at Trent Bridge and Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman's innings at Perth. I would suggest that even the innings at Sydney showed the same careful blend of natural instinct and execution of prepared plans.

VVS Laxman is the perfect example of the triumph of preperation and disciplined execution when allied to natural gifts. VVS still plays all his signature strokes. His natural, stylish gait is untarnished by the discipline that has guided him in recent years. In the immediate aftermath of his epoch making 281 at Kolkata, this sublime Hyderabadi batsman went through a frustrating period - he would get starts, but throw them away. He went 18 innings without scoring a hundred. Since then, he has buckled down, and become more choosy. Pundits call it shot selection. Thats one way of looking at it. Another way of looking at it is in terms of discipline and preperation. He thought about how he would build his innings - about how he would approach certain situations - such as batting with the tail, or facing a particular bowler, or a given match situation, and played accordingly. His 79 in the second innings at Perth was a masterly display of discipline. He batted in partnerships with Dhoni and later in a priceless stand with RP Singh to steer India to a match winning lead on a lively Perth wicket against a top quality attack. It must have been tempting for him to take on more responsibility himself and take greater risks. It is said that the history of the world is the story of the victory of the heartless over the mindless. Percentage batting is exactly that. It is not about glory, not about playing outrageous strokes just because one can play them. Success in international cricket must come from putting into practice all ones talents, not about putting them on display.

VVS has been criticized for his batting (especially with the tail) is certain quarters, as has Tendulkar. The usual canard about "selfishness" gets thrown about. Selfishness in a batsman is an excellent trait, when allied to team interest, and Cricket is a sport where there need not be contradiction between the two - if selfishness is cast as constructive self-preservation, it can be an international batsman's greatest ally.

The bottom line is - that careful, percentage batting, but players who can obvious play differently if they wanted to, has yielded results in practice, and isn't just a good theoretical idea. That is what India's young batsmen must learn. They must learn to weigh risks and play the situation and the ball, and not their own unfettered, unconcerned free will. Suresh Raina for example, would find that pulling a spinner from the stumps, early in ones innings, especially when the run-rate doesn't demand a violent stroke, off a bowler about whom much as been said in the team meeting (as Dhoni has told us) is an arrogant response to a given situation. In Yuvraj Singh, India has a batsman who is able to combine his awesome gifts with an ability to read a match situation. He has shown himself to be a master at biding his time, and picking a time and bowler of his choosing to make his play. That is why he is one of the top ODI batsmen in the world. Interestingly enough, even Yuvraj has not mastered this art of playing the situation well enough in Test Cricket, where he has fallen before he faced his 100th ball in all but five of his thirty six Test innings so far.

Many have explained this away as a matter of a generational shift in style and approach, but it isn't that. Virendra Sehwag, who bridges the two generations in more ways than one, is a unique adventurer - one who negotiates the wafer thin line between self-restraint and unfettered expression with apparent nonchalance. Yet, his best, and most successful innings have come when he has retained restraint. On rudderless, unhindered days, Sehwag's innings are not actually innings, but at flights of kamikaze fancy, flirting, teasing ceaselessly with dismissal. His effort in the final of the Asia Cup was one such effort. These are invariably losing efforts, for even if Sehwag has license to kill, he must surely pick useful targets. His ability to create strokes is best used in alliance with a well formed game plan, especially now, that he is the senior batsman whose approach rubs off on his younger colleagues.

Sehwag is important to India's batting fortunes, for just as Sachin Tendulkar bridged the generation of Azharuddin and Vengsarkar and that of Ganguly, Dravid and Laxman, Sehwag must guide India's batting for the next 10 years. I would argue that Tendulkar's influence on the Indian batting has been profound - in the way India's batsmen play fast bowling, and in the way the current Test line up approaches a Test innings. Sehwag will do the same. What we have seen in the case of India's current ODI line up, is the influence of Sehwag, but not a complete understanding of him.

A prudent approach in the Asia Cup final might have dictated a careful negotiation of Murali and Mendis, even in the powerplays, to stay in the game after Sehwag and Yuvraj fell in the same over. This seemed to be Dhoni's approach, but his colleagues failed follow his lead. There was just a whiff of arrogance to India's effort, which is understandable in the context of the absolute superiority of bat over ball in the tournament till that final game. But it is what seperates a champion side from other equally gifted sides - and it is what seperated India and Sri Lanka at Karachi.

In the next few weeks, im looking forward to a couple of battles - Michael Vaughan against the in form South African pace attack of Ntini, Steyn and Morkel, and that of India's middle order against Murali and Mendis. That will be worthy Test Match Cricket - deliberate, skillfull, but at its very core, a quest for the possible.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Dhoni on Mendis

Mendis's wickets in the Asia Cup Final:

As Mahendra Singh Dhoni pointed out in the press conference, they were unable to pick Mendis. It also seems as though there might have been some pre-match jitters about facing Mendis. This is an example of video analysis being counter productive. The video gave them just enough information to tell them that he would be an unknown quantity, and a potential problem. This probably dictated their mindset in the run chase.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

A batsman's tournament, a bowler's victory

Sri Lanka have all but won the Asia Cup after Ajantha Mendia produced a dazzling spell of spin bowling to demolish a rampant Indian batting line up in the final of the Asia Cup. For the first 58 overs of the game, India were racing along. The bowling had done reasonably well inspite of Sanath Jayasurya's customary finals ton against India, to restrict Sri Lanka to 273. Ishant Sharma produced wickets with the new ball, and had it not been for Sanath Jayasurya, India might well have been chasing something in the region of 170-180.

The game turned with the introduction of the Ajantha Mendis. Mendis has been christened a "mystery" spinner very early in his career, and his first class and list A record bears this out.
He has an extremely impressive bowling average in both forms of the game. Mendis seems to basically be an off spinner, who is able to turn the ball both ways off the front of his hand. Note the position of the middle finger in the picture below. Here is a description of the same.
So far Mendis has bested the West Indians, Pakistani and now Indian line ups. Mendis seems to be a fastish off spin bowler, and specialist batsmen seem unable to pick him. M S Dhoni showed one way of playing him - off the back foot, reading him off the pitch. Mendis did not turn the ball square in either direction in this game, but i would wait to see him bowl on a worn wicket with an appreciable rough. Left handers especially might find him unplayable. On quicker wickets (like those down under), where it is more difficult for batsmen to play spinners off the back foot, reading them off the pitch, he might be a handful as well.

It is fitting that an Asia Cup which has been an uninterrupted triumph of bat over ball should be decided by one devastating spell of absolute domination of ball over bat. The Indian middle order did not seem to pick Mendis (Sehwag didn't even try - he seemed intent on murdering everything from ball one this innings and had reached 60 in the 9th over of the innings in the process!). To be fair to the Indian bowlers though, they did put up a better show than they have in other games, al though it has to be said that this Sri Lankan batting is not as deep as the Pakistan batting (Kulasekara, Chamara Silva and Kapugedera are no match for Shoaib Malik and Misbah Ul Haq as ODI batsmen yet).

Mahendra Dhoni can be forgiven for choosing the field after winning the toss, given the way this tournament has gone (and given how India's run chase was going until Mendis struck), inspite of the fact that sides batting first have won twice as many finals as sides batting second in this decade. Indeed, 273 was the sort of run chase which might have been accomplished in a more old-fashioned way and one might argue that Sehwag as the senior batsman should have played a more responsible hand. But Sehwag is Sehwag. He made 348 runs at an average of 70 and a strike rate of 143 in the tournament, and he will argue that his approach was quite successful.

All in all, congratulations to Sri Lanka and especially to Mendis. Not only has he won the Asia Cup, but has now created enormous interest in the upcoming Test Series in Sri Lanka. It will be interesting to see how Sehwag, Tendulkar, Dravid, VVS and Ganguly fare against the twin spin attack of Murali and Mendis. All of them seem to pick Murali from the hand, but Mendis offers the old champions a fresh challenge, one they will relish.

I hope Sri Lanka pick Mendis for the Test Matches. It will be a contest for the ages, especially if the wickets suit spin bowling, for that will make Kumble and whichever spinner is picked to partner him quite a handful. The Sri Lankans play Anil Kumble quite well, but on helpful wickets, he's still a master.

There is a glimmer of hope for Cricket yet!

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Zimbabwe retain full member status

Zimbabwe retained full membership of the ICC as a result of a compromise brokered at the ICC Meeting in Dubai, where by Zimbabwe have withdrawn from the international Twenty20 event in England next year, in return for having retained full membership. The compromise was brokered by Sharad Pawar according to Cricinfo.

In an earlier post, i argued that Zimbabwe should not be kicked out of the ICC. My reasoning was that there was no unanimity in the reasons for throwing Zimbabwe out. Dilip Premachandran makes a similar point much more forcefully in presenting an Indian view of the situation. His argument is that the morality argument does not play well in India, mainly because there is deep suspicion about western double standards with respect to human rights. To illustrate his point, he raises Darfur, Tibet, Guantanamo Bay, the invasion of Iraq, the rule of Forbes Burnham in Guyana (it is interesting to note that if the same morality had been at play, we might have been deprived of Clive Lloyd, Alvin Kallicharan and a host of other brilliant Guyanese cricketers), Pakistan's numerous trysts with military dictatorship, and the terrible irony of the fact that the African nations summit which considered censuring Robert Mugabe, invited him as a guest, and was hosted by Hosni Mubarak.

Premachandran makes a forceful argument, one which is likely to reduce all the sanctimonious moralizers in England and Australia to a feeble "but its not the same thing". In my view though, Premachandran undermines his whole argument by stating the obvious - that the ICC's decision was a compromise, and hence was somehow unworthy of a governing body. Compromise is invariably necessary when there cannot be a meeting of the minds involved - it requires concessions, and a withdrawal from original positions. Western double standards are essentially compromises made on account of interests.

If the ICC's consideration of the matter can be criticized, it is because they did Cricket a disservice in the arguments that they considered. In my view, Robert Mugabe's methods ought not to be discussed at an ICC meeting, any more than the issue of Kashmir should be discussed there. It is none of the ICC's business. If at all Zimbabwe was to be stripped of full member nation status, it should have been because they have a very weak cricket team which is clearly not good enough to be a Test team (much like Bangladesh). This would have been a discussion of cricketing interest. Such an argument would have been stronger, and a more difficult one for the BCCI to counter, because the fact that the Zimbabwe is a weak cricket team is beyond dispute. However, it has to be said that the ICC has already effectively dealt with this question - nobody has played Test Cricket against Zimbabwe for almost three years.

The problem with the ICC meeting in my view was not there were compromises made, but that the arguments were irrelevant to Cricket, on an issue where an extremely consequential argument about cricketing standards which would have impacted the future of Test Cricket could, and should have been made. The sobering thing here, is that just as the ICC is not equipped to deal with the political methods of Mr. Mugabe, one doubts whether the members at that table in Dubai were equipped to discuss the future of Test Cricket.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Bowling continues to disappoint...

The Asia Cup will be won by the batting line up which proves to be indestructible, or by the bowling line up which is able to survive a 50 over innings without getting hammered. It has come down to this reality in this tournament. The wickets have been so flat, that the contest between bat and ball has been non-existent. It has become a contest between bat and bat, or bat and clock. The bowlers seem to make up cannon fodder, and judging by the quality of India's fielding, it seems like they know this. Fielding is a exercise in waiting to bat, or in waiting for the game to end.

Cricket has long defined "bad wickets" as wickets which are bad for batting. Maybe the time has come to define bad wickets and good wickets in terms of how much of a contest between bowler and batsman they afford (format permitting of course). India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have all scored 300 runs to win a game in a run chase.

The one interesting thing to look forward to in a final, is that in this decade, teams batting first in finals are twice as likely to win than teams chasing in finals. It remains to be seen if the additional pressure of a final would bring with it some help for the fielding side.

Gary Kirsten and Venkatesh Prasad have their hands full with the Indian bowling attack.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Elliot-Sidebottom and Sporting Character

Gideon Haigh writes about the recent Elliot-Sidebottom episode during the England-New Zealand ODI series, where the bowler Ryan Sidebottom crashed into the batsman Grant Elliot, bringing him down mid-pitch, after which the English fielders executed the run-out and Paul Collingwood claimed it, resulting in Elliot's dismissal, and judging by Haigh's article, a sense of queasy unease. After all, this is the England Captain we are talking about, not the Australian captain or the Indian captain, or even the West Indian captain. Here is the video of the event. Note the commentary - Nasser Hussein and Ian Smith (i think its Ian Smith, though if it were Martin Crowe, it would be even more entertaining)