Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Sourav Ganguly

Sourav Ganguly's career as a Test Match batsman has been in its twilight years for most of his career. He made his debut in England in 1996, 2 weeks before his 24th birthday. On June 22nd 1996 he made his first Test hundred, on debut at Lord's in what was Dickie Bird's last Test Match.

On his best days, his batting was marked by a fluency and an ability to time the ball which made you feel as though he was just having a gentle bit of exercise. The maharajah sobriquet may have less auspicious roots, but his batsmanship was princely. The contrast between him and Vinod Kambli (another left hander of whom much was expected) was striking. Kambli was in decline, and was struggling to stay in the India side, while Ganguly was flourishing against international attacks. With Kambli, you always felt he was trying too hard, that he was trying to hit the ball too hard, and running too hard between wickets. He would seem to mistime the ball and find the fielders a great deal. Ganguly by contrast was silken and looked completely at home against international bowling. He was able to pierce the gaps and even though his running between the wickets did have a touch of royal inertia about it, you never felt he was troubled.

Ganguly first began to get into trouble in the early 2000's against the short ball. Once he became captain, he found himself in the spotlight, unable to flourish any longer as he had under the shadow of Azharuddin and Tendulkar in the batting line up. The short bowling put increasing strain on his footwork and his fluency was the first casualty. Since that period in 2000, 2001, until he got dropped in 2006, the story of Ganguly's batting is one of uninterrupted decline.

As captain, he put himself in the firing line, often goading the opposition to train their guns on him. This undoubtedly helped his team, but as India prospered, Ganguly's batting became a mirror image of his style of captaincy. Ganguly was not the shrewdest captain, neither was he the most tactically aggressive captain. Given the bowling attacks at his disposal, he could hardly afford to be. His method in the field increasingly became one of fighting endless battles of attrition, as opposition batting line ups racked up huge totals with regularity.

Ganguly the Captain was under siege, and Ganguly's India reveled in the pressure of that siege. Ganguly the batsman however, shrank under the relentless pressure that the Captaincy exerted. His batting, shaken up by shortened length changed from the fluent strokefilled enterprise that it ones was, built on unhurried footwork and a superb eye, into a grim battle involving desperate defense and bold, educated guesswork. Especially in ODI cricket, Ganguly's innings increasingly followed a block-block-bang pattern. It was as if Ganguly's mind was full of what the bowler might want to do.

The numbers are there for everyone to see. In Tests between 2000 and his comeback in South Africa in 2006, playing against good opposition (Test playing nations other than Zimbabwe and Bangladesh), Ganguly averaged 31.8. Thats a statistic which would have seen him being dropped about three years earlier than he was had he not been captain. In One-Day Cricket, it becomes even more startling. Between 2000 and his comeback in South Africa in 2006, Ganguly averaged 33.9 against good opposition (the top 7 test playing nations). The evidence becomes even more damning. If you consider 2001-2006, the average drops to 30, and between 2003 and 2006 it drops to 25. Measured against his early career and his obvious potential, these numbers are heartbreaking.

These are not stray periods. This period, between 2000 and 2006 accounts for over half of Ganguly's total career. There is a school of thought which says that he was a truly great captain, who taught India to fight. Im not entirely convinced that he taught Tendulkar and Dravid and Kumble and Laxman and Sehwag to fight. I don't buy the "new India" myth at all. The record shows that the captaincy took its toll on Ganguly the batsman. It hurt his batting, and while Stephen Fleming can claim (rightly in my view) that he was entrusted with the captaincy too early in his career, before he had fully matured as a world class batsman (which he could have gone on to be if knowledgeable watchers are to be believed), in Ganguly's case it is clear that captaincy had a disastrous effect on his already world-class batsmanship.

I would go further and say that his particular brand of captaincy had a disastrous effect on his batting. Whether he was irreplaceable as captain in the years immediately after the match-fixing scandal, is a question worth debating. I would agree that his captaincy has been central to India's revival as a Cricket team after the lowly depths of 2000. He was the right man at the right time. But the decline in his batting was on account of his captaincy, just as his continued place in the side was on account of it.

Getting dropped was the best thing that happened to Ganguly, and the revival that we have witnessed since his return is merely testimony to the fact that the captaincy and all that it entailed is finally behind him. Ganguly looked more relaxed and more fluent on his return. He was also much slower on his feet than i remember him in his heyday. But international cricket was no longer a battle. It was a game and all Ganguly had to do was bat. He reached peak form not against Pakistan, but in England in my view.

What we have watched in the last 20 months or so, has been a little glimpse of Ganguly in his salad days, when he was nimble on his feet, and made meeting the ball well the most natural thing in the world. His ability to loft the ball remains unrivalled in the Indian line up.

The recent series in Sri Lanka, where he looked all at sea, as much against Murali as against Mendis, seems to me to have been an aberration. Cricketing obituaries are beginning to appear about Sourav Ganguly, but they seem to be inspired as much by the myth of the "big four" (in which Ganguly never really belonged for most of this decade as his batting record shows), as they are by Ganguly's advancing age. Never good reasons to write someone off.

The Ganguly of the nineties has emerged again. After spending a frustrating decade watching him struggle, weighed down by the unreasonable burden of the captaincy, it has been wonderful to watch him bat and not battle. I only hope that we can watch him for a few series more.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Trash Talk Bollywood Ishtyle

I came across this interesting adaptation of the wonderful Taare Zameen Par song, this time in Ricky Ponting's voice.

Its starts out promisingly in my view, but towards the end it becomes too corny and too predictable. It should have stayed about Ponting.

Having followed a bunch of cricket blogs over the past 8-10 months though, it does not surprise me at all that the Australian Captain has come in for this special attention.


India has seen a reversal of fortunes of sorts in this ODI series with two consecutive wins against a good Sri Lankan side. These have been unlikely results, especially after the batting show in the first game at Dambulla. Since then, it has been hard to fathom which batting line up has been more brittle - the well established Sri Lankan one, or the new Indian one. Zaheer Khan has been superb with the new ball, producing match winning spells in both games, and it appears that Praveen Kumar's wicket taking luck has held. Munaf Patel is a fine third seamer by any standards, and so far they have had the measure of the Sri Lankan top order.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni won an important toss and despite the fact that India have continued to lose too many wickets to the Sri Lankan new ball, a competitive score was posted. The captain himself played a superbly paced innings in the middle order and showed why he has a better batting average for any batsman in the history of ODI cricket with over 3000 career ODI runs barring Michael Bevan. Among those with a 1000 career ODI runs or more, only Pietersen and Hussey, both specialist batsmen have better averages that he does. Then the Indian bowlers took over.

I cannot help thinking though, that if Sri Lanka bat first and post a competitive score, the Indian batting line up will struggle similar to the Sri Lankan line up. This has as much to do with the inherent advantage of bowling under lights. I looked up the numbers on this, and if you consider only those games in which the world's top 8 teams have participated - India, Australia, England, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, New Zealand, West Indies and South Africa, then in the 678 day-night ODI matches which have seen results, 372 (or 55%) have been won by the team batting first. If you consider day games involving the same teams, then 649 out of 1351 (or 48%) have been won by the team batting first. If you look at India's record in day night games against the top 7 other teams, they have a 37-48 win-loss record batting first, while they have a 37-55 win-loss record batting second. Sri Lanka have a similar record. Batting first in day-night games against top opposition, they have a 45-41 record. Fielding first in day-night games, they have a 35-51 record.

Both India and Sri Lanka have shown a distinct preference for setting the target in day-night ODI games. So even though India lead the series 2-1 and have put Sri Lanka in a must win situation, given how brittle both batting line ups have been, it may just be a question of who wins the toss and grabs the chance to bat first.

If India do pull off a series win here in Sri Lanka, it will be one of their more creditable series wins. It will be an example of the sort of wins that are the signature of a successful team - the ability to win when the team is not playing well. It will also place huge question marks on the Sri Lankan batting. Kumar Sangakkara, arguably Sri Lanka's best player, has fallen to Zaheer Khan far too often in this series for it to be a mere coincidence. If Mendis had the wood on Dravid in the Test series, it is probably fair to say that Zaheer has had the wood on Sangakkara. He has trouble the tall Sri Lankan southpaw outside the offstump and beaten both the outside and inside edge of Sangakkara's bat regularly during this Sri Lanka tour. He seems to be able to find that perfect length, where Sangakkara is caught on the crease and is lured into pushing out away from his body. These are dismissals of a top class bowler, and since his come back in England, Zaheer has definitely bowled like one.

India will be vary of the Sri Lankan top order though. So far they have successfully kept Jayasurya in check. Given his record against India (nearly 2500 runs at 36, with 6 centuries), and his record at the Premadasa (2225 runs at 40.45), they should expect at least one successful foray from the veteran Sri Lankan. As for their own batting, India will hope that Yuvraj Singh doesn't throw away his promotion to number three in the batting order and comes good at least once in the next two games.

Then there is the Mendis-Murali threat, which has not been to the fore in the last two games (even though they have taken wickets) mainly because India have been struggling at the hands of Kulasekara and co.

There are just so many potentially game-changing assets that both sides have. The brittle line ups and low scoring games just enhances the pressure and the opportunity for these potential match-winners.

At the end of the day though, notwithstanding great individual innings, it will come down to this for India - can the Indian pacemen outbowl Murali and Mendis? And can the new Indian top order keep Kulasekara and Vaas at bay?

It has been a week for reversals in international Cricket. South Africa, fresh from their Test Series win were defeated by Pietersen and Flintoff in the first ODI encounter, while Dhoni's India have taken an unlikely lead in Sri Lanka after losing the Test series there.

It remains to be seen whether this trend will continue.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Spit, Sweat and the Cricket Ball

Most teams these days have designated ball managers. Their task is to shine the ball and make sure that it is shined on the right side. Teams are usually extremely finicky about this and fielders who throw the ball poorly making it bounce unnecessarily usually find themselves at the recieving end of a verbal rocket from the bowler. Law 42(3) makes it absolutely clear as to the extent to which the ball may be shined legally.

3. The match ball - changing its condition
(a) Any fielder may
(i) polish the ball provided that no artificial substance is used and that such polishing wastes no time.
(ii) remove mud from the ball under the supervision of the umpire.
(iii) dry a wet ball on a towel.

The clause goes on to explain the procedure that Umpires must follow if they determine that the ball has been tampered during play.

Consider this quote from Marcus Trescothick, who was the English teams designated ball shiner in his days as an England opener.

"Through trial and error I finally settled on the best type of spit for the task at hand."
Marcus Trescothick in his autobiography recollects his role as England's chief ball polisher, and owes it all to Murray Mints

Aug 23, 2008

This is a quote which appears in Trescothick's autobiography. It obviously follows that Trescothick has used all sorts of other mints and candy and whatever else you can think of on the ball and after some random "research" determined that this particular brand of mints is most effective.

This has probably been going on for a long time. John Lever was accused by Bishen Singh Bedi of using Vaseline applied above his eyebrow to shine the ball. Imran Khan has written about having perfected the use of bottle tops in County Cricket to make sure the ball swings.

Michael Atherton was caught on camera rubbing dirt from his pocket on the ball. Rahul Dravid was caught on camera rubbing a lozenge on the ball. Dravid was fined 50% of his match fee by match referee Clive Lloyd for this incident in 2004. Lloyd claimed Dravid's act was deliberate, while the Indian team management actually suggested that it was a honest mistake! Atherton had it even worse. Not only was he fined 2000 pounds, but had to face calls for his resignation.

Yet, fielders have been rubbing mints flavored spit on the ball (chemically consisting of a lower concentration of mint, but definitely consisting of some mint) for years. The indignation about bottle tops and Sachin Tendulkar's use of the nail to clean the seam of the ball, something which must be done under the Umpire's supervision, but Tendulkar didn't, has been quite apparent, with Match Referees taking initiative based on Television footage. Yet, even with this type of "tampering" - that of acting on the material of the ball with something sharp, has been carried out in spirit before. Ajit Wadekar the Indian captain would just rub the ball into the turf to kill the shine and make the ball ready for the Indian spinners.

So does Marcus Trescothick's proud disclosure about his mints, suggest that Rahul Dravid and Michael Atherton are owed an apology? The entire Australian team comes out lathered in white war paint, is it anyone's claim that all the spit and sweat that they is absolute pure? What difference does it make if the sun screen touches the ball accidentally, or the lozenge is used on the ball by design? As far as the ball is concerned, its all the same.

This ball tampering thing is one of the great sites of moral outrage in Cricket. Have you ever wondered that Cricket accepts the fact that batsmen don't walk, but is absolutely outraged if someone in the fielding side tries to help a hapless bowler by rubbing some candy on the ball and then shining it off on his trousers? My mother thinks its disgusting, but surely, thats no reason to call the latter a cheat, and the former a tough competitor.

I understand that the law is the law, but in this instance, Marcus Trescothick's discussion of his exploits as England's designated ball manager are a clear and proud proclamation of the fact that he was perpetually and relentlessly breaching Law 42(3). How do we know that when he put his hand inside his mouth to collect "spit", his fingers didn't actually collect some of the candy stuck to his tongue or his teeth?

Yet, we see this outbreak of moral outrage at ball tampering when someone is caught, when the point is that everyone is tampering with the ball one way or another - either with candy or with sun screen. Of course, i have read players saying that sun screen is not very effective, as if that makes is less illegal!

Ball tampering as an issue has proven to be quite explosive though. Inzamam Ul Haq completely lost his mind at the Oval in 2006 and refused to finish a Test Match that his side was almost certain to win because Darrell Hair thought Pakistan had tampered the ball.

Maybe they should change the law to define ball tampering as the act of damaging the ball using any sharp, foreign object. Maybe they should make sun screen and vaseline and candy legal, because whether the ICC likes it or not, it is already being used regularly on Cricket balls.

Changes needed in the Rules of Cricket at this time

The rules of Cricket have seen a lot of upheaval in the modern era. The game today is probably unrecognizable from that which was played before the Second World War, when Bradman and Hammond and Verity and Hobbs graced the great cricket grounds of the world. While records have been broken, and more top teams have come to the fore, the game as a whole has become more acrimonious, with too many grey areas in the laws being exposed too often. The Referral/Review system recently on trial in Sri Lanka is the latest, and possibly most significant change to the rules. It threatens to change the game fundamentally, altering the relationship between the players and the umpires.

This relationship has always been in peril, and has steadily deteriorated over the past thirty or forty years. Many years ago, "walking" was the norm. Then came the Australians with their ridiculous bit of quasi-logic about the umpire being there to make a decision. They eschewed walking, not realizing that it actually increased umpiring errors, because umpires were bound to get some caught behind decisions wrong. The review system, given how it is designed is merely the latest avatar of this betrayal of trust which came about because walking became unfashionable, a sign of a lack of desire to win even! Now, the sports governing body has basically allowed the players to question the umpire's decision, all under the guise of using technology to get the obvious decisions wrong.

The use of technology is one of the great debates in the game today. Of course, the obvious fact of the matter is, that most of the technology is dubious, because it is not designed to help umpires. Most of the "technology" was developed to aid TV Companies in their coverage. So, there is no technology available to the umpires, and yet, there is this grand discussion as to whether technology should be used in Cricket. The absurdity of using technology was brought home by this review system, where 39 of the 48 reviews requested were for LBW's, which by definition are "in the opinion of the umpire". The technology used was not used to help the Umpire form his opinion, it was used to tell the umpire whether or not the opinion he had initially formed was definitely wrong. The technology used was a gimmick, not that could not have been achieved simply by using replays and the basic mat which marks the width of the stumps. The graphical illustration of the path of the ball just looks good on TV - whats more, it marks an unnecessary additional step in the simulation.

Let me take a moment to explain this. When video is captured on film, it is in the form of discrete images taken of a continuous live event. So by definition, there is a loss of information, because you are able to capture only some part of the event, and not all of it. When you see it on TV, this is the only loss of information that you are seeing. But when you see a simulation of the video, its one further step removed - something, which can not be as accurate or more accurate than the simulation. It is no surprise then that hawkeye has been found to contain an error of about 5 mm . A stump is about 3.5 cms in diameter. So the error inherent in hawkeye is about 1/7th the width of the stump. So none of the situations where hawkeye shows the ball clipping the stumps or the bails is reliably recorded. Thats why hawkeye was not used in the referral system.

The point im trying to make is, that all these ideas about using technology and involving the players (by using referrals) have limited effect, because 1. the technology is non-existent, and 2. once the players are involved, it becomes a sort of a contest between players and umpires.

There are several simple rules changes (in most case they are not even changes, but are a return to old and eminently well thought out rules) which may prove to be more effective than any of this technology. These rule changes are aimed at the increasingly damaging ambiguity of some of the rules, exacerbated by inadequate technology and their contribution to the deteriorating equation between players and umpires.

1. A return to the backfoot no ball rule. The backfoot no-ball rule requires that no part of the back leg (the left leg for a left arm bowler) should be on the popping crease, i.e the back leg should always land behind the stumps at the bowlers end. The frontfoot noball rule was put in place because a number of bowlers ended up bowling from almost 20 yards. Now, with the batsmen ascendant, it is time to change back. It will also give the umpire at the bowling end much longer between checking for the no ball and focussing attention to the batsman's end.

2. A fair catch should be one where no part of the hand below the wrist is touching the ground when the ball lands in the hand or while the catch is being completed. This was the rule earlier, and will eliminate this perennial problem of determining whether or not the fielder got his hands under the ball. The technology has proven to be completely useless in this area.

3. In the case of switch hits, the batsman should be liable to being given out LBW's to balls pitching outside his leg stump. The switch hit is fine, but it can't be a free hit. Don Bradman is supposed to have suggested that LBW's should be allowed for balls pitching outside off stump as well as leg stump. Currently, the law allows LBW's to be given when the ball pitches outside off stump. It can be argued that when the batsman switches hands on the bat, his "off" and "leg", especially for the purpose of the LBW law is reversed.

4. There should be no bouncer restriction in Test Cricket. Anything that is above the head when the batsman is in normal standing position should be a wide, but anything upto the batsman's head should be allowed. The notion of intimidatory bowling should be left to the Umpire's discretion. This business of signalling to the batsman and bowler that the bouncer in the over has been delivered is silly.

On the use of technology:

The best case scenario would be for the use of the TV Umpire to be limited to only run outs and stumpings. If the point of the referral system is to eliminate obvious errors, then it is quite clear to me, that the person in the best position to identify obvious errors is the third umpire. If the referral system is to be made permenant, it should be with the following changes -

1. Batsmen can request referral of LBW decisions ONLY in the case of inside edges. This can be enforced by ensuring that this is the only thing that the third umpire checks on replay based on a batsman's request. The batsman should not be allowed to make referrals based on his instinct about whether or not the ball would go on to his the stumps, or whether or not it pitched in line with the stumps.

2. The third umpire should be able to speak to the umpire's on the ground on his own initiative if he feels that the umpires on the ground are making an obvious mistake, be it with respect to an appeal or with respect to something as simple as a five ball or seven ball over.

3. If the referral system is to be used, every Test match should include 4 Elite Umpires and not three. There should never be a non-elite panel third umpire. Elite panel third umpires may be from the host or visitor nationalities.

Cricket needs to restore the authority of the umpire and reduce the influence of commentators and TV companies and their technology by reverting to common sense rules which are easily implementable. Cricket cannot afford to risk the authority of the umpire.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Usain Bolt - Greased Lightning

200m World Record in the Final at the Beijing Olympics

200 metres in 19.30 seconds
100 metres in 9.69 seconds

Both from a still start.
In the shorter race, he raced only about 75-80 metres, basically cruising to the line.
In the 200m, he was running into a slight headwind!

He makes all the cliched adjectives used to describe explosive athletes come to life.

The commentary is very nice too.

Munaf Patel fined

Munaf Patel has been fined 75% of his match fee by Referee Chris Broad after he was charged by the four umpires - three Sri Lankans and Umpire Doctrove of a Level 2 offence under the ICC Code of Conduct. Munaf has been found to have breached the famous clause 2.8 - "using language that is obscene, offensive or of a seriously insulting nature to another player, umpire, referee, team official or spectator."

There are a number if interesting linkages and issues here. First the trivia - Clause 2.8 was in the news first thing in 2008, when the Indians complained that Bradley Hogg had used abusive language against them during the Sydney Test. Mike Procter, in a bout of incompetence even by his low, permissive standards, charged him with making a racist offensive remark (much more severe offense)!

The more serious linkage, is that the Umpire in question is Umpire Gamini Silva, whom the Indians have had a problem with earlier on this tour. Even though this Hindustan Times story seems to have misunderstood the referral process (the third umpire does not overrule the on field umpire, he answers specific questions which the umpire might have in order to help the on field umpire ascertain whether or not there is compelling evidence for him to reverse his decision), it does report, as have many others, that Gary Kirsten and Anil Kumble did visit the Match Referee during the Galle Test Match about the referrals. Gamini Silva had earlier ruled in favor of Thilan Samarweera in a run out referral that looked Out.

Somehow, this history on this tour, with Umpire Gamini Silva and the perception in the Indian camp that he ruled in favor of the Sri Lankan side on every call that he percieved to be marginal, does not seem unrelated to this outburst from Patel. For a player who has in the past been accused of not trying hard enough (a silly accusation, which lay couch potatoes in the press should never have made), this is now a visit to the other end of the spectrum. Gamini Silva's decisions as third umpire were problematic as all the available evidence suggests, and when two players with over a hundred Tests each go to the referee to discuss those decisions, there is clearly a considerable body of opinion which is skeptical of Umpire Silva's competence. Given that he was the third umpire and not an on-field umpire, this question of competence can be framed in terms of bias. It is also unclear in this instance as to why the charge was brought by all the four umpires - especially the third and fourth umpires. What did they hear that the commentary team did not?

Given the Umpire involved, and the player involved, this leaves me with a bad taste. The implications of this offence are that Munaf Patel is now effectively on probation. Even though the referee system has improved tremendously since the dark days of the nineties, it would be much better if the formal charge brought by the Umpires against a particular player is published, as are the proceedings of the hearing.

Hopefully the BCCI will reimburse Munaf Patel for the amount of his fine. Since Chris Broad has not imposed a suspended ban, that should be the end of the matter.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Big Four - An Unnecessary Project

Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly have been the most stable middle order in Test Cricket in this decade. The epithet "Big Four" though, has been attached to them, through no fault of their own. If you remember, for many years, it was the "Big Three" (excluding Laxman). When it became apparent the Ganguly (Test average 36 against good opposition in the period 2000-2008), was not quite living up to this exalted tag, but VVS Laxman was, it quickly became the big four. Once Ganguly returned to the Indian Test team, for most of 2007, the Indian middle order did well.

The downside of this epithet, is that many people probably see it as a shield protecting these middle order batsmen despite weak performances. The struggle against Mendis and Murali has thrown a harsh light on the aging Indian middle order and changes may be in the offing. The worst thing that can happen, is for these changes to be seen as managing the end of these illustrious careers.

The reason why Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and Ganguly have occupied the Indian middle order for much of this decade, is that they have been the best middle order batsmen in India during that period. The reason why Tendulkar walked back into the Indian side after every injury lay off, is because he's the best available number 4 batsman in India when fully fit, or even when 80% fit.

In the next couple of years, this may not be the case anymore. As Tendulkar and co. slow down, a number of the younger batsman might be able to compete with them and have a chance. Thats how the selectors will have to view it. And to be fair to the selectors, that is how they have viewed it. Sourav Ganguly was dropped because he wasn't making runs, and he didn't look like making runs - for whatever reason. Yuvraj Singh played in his place, and in the single most disappointing batting show from an Indian batsman in recent memory, looked completely ill at ease in the West Indies in 2006. That was where he failed to seal his spot in the Indian Test middle order. With Mohammad Kaif, his Test Match form was never a problem. His temperament and his ability to play a long innings was never in doubt. But his ODI form dipped so alarmingly, that he has since found even Ranji Trophy batting to be a hard slog. Then Ganguly returned, and didn't look back, until he showed signs of tapering off in the second half of the Australian tour.

The most unheralded member of the big four is VVS Laxman. The press constantly creates doubts about his place in the side. Then members of the press style themselves as his "advocates", pretending to wade into the tide of public opinion which might result in his ouster from the Test Team. I don't think the Indian selectors take any note of public opinion in their selection decisions. They don't even bother to answer questions from the press on selection issues and i think they are absolutely right to do so. Why would it be silly for VVS Laxman to be dropped from the Indian middle order? In the last 8 years, since his conversion as a middle order batsman, Laxman has made 4836 runs at 49.85, not counting runs against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. He has done better than Tendulkar in this decade against top opposition. Every third innings he has played has been worth 50 or more (40 scores of 50+ in 113 innings), while for Tendulkar the same number has been 35 scores of 50+ in 113 innings. Only Ponting, Yousuf, Chanderpaul, Inzamam and Kallis have been more consistent than VVS in this decade. Tendulkar and Laxman have scored nearly the same number of runs as well.

The one thing which the selectors will have to take account of though, is the whole question of retirements. If Tendulkar, Laxman, Ganguly and Dravid are fit and available for selection, then they ought to be considered just like any other player, as they have been all along. But if they chose to retire, or if they notify the selectors about retirements, and if this happens all at once, especially for two out of Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman, then India may well be in a soup. So far though, no there is no indication to this effect.

If the ODI side is anything to go by, the selectors have "managed" that transition superbly. But here's is the thing. It was easy there, because Yuvraj Singh and Mahendra Singh Dhoni had already arrived as superb ODI batsmen. Besides, it became superb because Gautam Gambhir has matured into a superb ODI batsman. If a Captain is as good as his team, Selectors are as "good" as the options they have available to them. For all his brilliant ODI batting, Yuvraj Singh has not been able to cement his place in Indian middle order. He let Sourav Ganguly back in, and the old pro seized the chance.

The problem then is not really one of what to do with Dravid and Tendulkar. The problem is one of replacements being available, and being worthy successors. There will not be a paucity of opportunities for these new players to come good. Giving a new player a fair trial has been the mantra in recent years, but if a new player is to prove that he belongs at the international level, it is more likely to happen sooner rather than later. Marvan Atapattus are a rare phenomenon.

The Big Four then, are an unnecessary project - a creation of a personality obsessed fickle media, which claims to "celebrate" sportsmen, often trampling all over the sport in the process. The narrative about Sourav Ganguly's career is a case in point. Peter Roebuck regurgitates this narrative. The Gangulean myth would not have been possible without the runs that Dravid, Laxman, Tendulkar and Sehwag provided, and the wickets that Kumble, Harbhajan and an assortment of pacemen provided.

There are more serious problems with the Test team though. The opening position seems to been well manned for now. But the spin attack is huge worry, mainly because once the spin quartet was finished in 1978-79 in Pakistan, if you discount Anil Kumble in 1990, and Harbhajan Singh in 1998, there hasn't been another spin bowler in the last 30 years who has looked like taking wickets in a Test Match on a regular basis. In the pace bowling department, there seems to be a pool of fast bowlers, but none of them have really emerged as threatening world class bowlers along the lines of Akram or Waqar or McGrath yet.

The other seven position are far more important to India's Test Match prospects, and they are far from settled. Ironically, it is the wicketkeeping and the opening batting - two areas which remained such bogeys throughout the Wright and Chappell periods, which look most secure today.

Distractions such as the Big Four are something India can ill afford. The four players themselves are easily the most reliable, and most level headed cricketers you could find. The problems still lie with the bowling.

Monday, August 18, 2008

In a Spin

Even though i must admit that i don't enjoy watching India being thumped (a rare phenomenon in recent years), i have to say that the last few weeks have been very pleasurable ones as a cricket fan. On the cricketing front, Ajantha Mendis has emerged as a potential superstar - a Malcolm Marshall to Muralidharan's Andy Roberts. Whats more, he has emerged while Murali is well and truly a great bowler, at the peak of his powers. Further more, his bowling action is pristine, beyond reproach, unlike Murali's. He possesses variations, and the ability to turn the ball both ways already, something which Murali worked on for five tough years in international cricket before he mastered it.

Mendis could not have a better role model than Murali, for Murali is the complete bowler. Variations are one thing, an understanding of line and length and flight and footwork are quite another. Mendis will have to learn all that to if he is to surpass Murali. For all of Murali's variations, it is his extraordinary ability to wheel away over after over, on good wickets, against good batsmen and not only keep them honest, but also beat them fairly regularly, which is the secret of his success. One dismissal in the recent Test series stood out. In was Murali getting Sourav Ganguly stumped. He had Ganguly in a bind for most of the series. The Bengal southpaw's footwork is not as nimble as it used to be he was lured out of his crease into a defensive prod by one which Murali tossed up from over the wicket. It started out as though it would pitch harmlessly on off stump, but it curved teasingly towards middle and leg luring Ganguly's searching prod. It fell just short of a good half-volley length, as if held on the string by the maestro and spun gently past Ganguly's by now mangled blade. Ganguly had been drawn out, only for Prasanna Jayawardene to whip off the bails and leave the former captain flummoxed and comprehensively dismissed.

There is more to it than just flight. It is this engagement which a spin bowler has with a batsman, when he knows he's trapped him even before the ball has been bowled, which is at the root of all this. It is as though the batsman is entranced by the spell that is being cast. It is this enticing, deadly grip which great spin bowler can have on batsmen. Warne and Murali, classical as they are, are masters of creating it.

That is what Mendis will have to learn. For eventually, batsmen will figure out the one which turns from middle to off, and even though it will still be very difficult to play (the secret of that delivery is the superb length and pace at which is delivered - the batsman has to be committed forward), they will be able to play it. Once that happens, Mendis will have to entice batsmen. His current ability to blind them will not stay with him for ever. There will also be the occasional batsman, like Sehwag, who will not care what Mendis is doing. Such a batsman is prone to leave a bowler helpless, and Mendis will have to learn to bowl through these periods as well.

But lets make no bones about it, as an emerging bowler, Mendis is breathtakingly brilliant. He is better prepared and more able than any bowler - fast or spin, to emerge in the last 20 or 30 years. I can think of only Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis who were as good, as early in their careers.

Sri Lanka are in for exciting times, and if they can find a solid opening batsman or opening pair, they could very quickly become the team to beat in international cricket, for with Mendis, Murali and Malinga, supported by the steady, wiley Vaas, they have a bowling attack that in its originality and in its wicket taking gifts is probably unrivalled amongst todays Test teams.

Opposition teams are going to have to think differently to tackle this Sri Lankan attack. In ODI cricket, they possess a wicket taking ability which is quite astonishing. They went for 5 years without losing an ODI game having made 250 or more batting first when Murali was playing, in the early part of this decade. That was built on one great bowler - Murali, and a number of other disciplined bowlers, backed by brilliant fielding. Now, with this attack, Jayawardene is blessed with a wicket taking arsenal that gives him the edge almost anywhere in the world.

India probably missed a trick, both in the third test and in the ODI series selection. I wrote in a preview of the third test, that it would probably be a mistake to drop Dinesh Karthik (especially given that Parthiv Patel was the available replacement - no guarantee that his keeping would be superior to Karthik's), simply because Karthik had had a chance to look at Mendis, and would therefore make a better fist of playing him than Parthiv Patel might have. As it turned out, Patel fell LBW to Mendis twice in the Test Match, for a total of 15 runs in 45 balls.

Thinking along the same lines, i think India missed a trick, by not including Rahul Dravid in the ODI side when the opportunity arose to name Sachin Tendulkar's replacement. India are going to need a solid middle order against Murali and Mendis. Some anchor around which Yuvraj Singh and co. can bat. I appreciate the desire on the part of the selectors to turn the page and look for young blood. I also agree, that any new player who comes along is going to have to solve the Mendis mystery for himself anyways. But in this instance, i think there was a case to be made for including, Dravid, if not both Dravid and Laxman in the ODI side, because they have had a good look at Mendis, and have played him better than most towards the end of the series.

ODI games in Sri Lanka are rarely high scoring 300 run affairs, where the game is decided by which batting side is able to better bully the opposition bowling. Bowlers have to be watched on Sri Lankan wickets, especially at Dambulla, a notoriously low scoring venue. The value of someone who could score a fighting 70 in 100 balls here cannot be overstated.

India will hope that some fighting middle order bats emerge for them in this ODI series. Rohit Sharma and the embattled Badrinath with have to tame the monstrous mystery that Mendis is fast threatening to become, if India are to compete. India cannot match Sri Lanka in the bowling department. Not without Ishant Sharma, and not while they play the amazingly lacklustre Irfan Pathan, who's bowling has gone alarmingly down hill after a brilliant 2004 and 2005.

The only silver lining i guess, is that Sri Lanka don't quite bat like they used to a few years ago.

India have made a conscious decision in the past year or so, to look beyond the Dravid generation. The obvious hope is that India will find the next Dravid. They will never have a better chance to find out if their current batsmen have the mettle. For if India's new batsmen can unravel the Mendis mystery, i think it will be safe to say that they will have proven that they belong in international cricket.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

After Bindra, its Saina Nehwal

Just read this story about Saina Nehwal's final match at the Beijing Olympics. Some reporter actually asked her whether she got complacent!!! What kind of question is that? Consider Nehwal's interesting and illuminating comment about not being able to judge the drift - something which tells you a bit about the sport, that question is just plainly crass and disrespectful. Nobody expects journalists to be polite, and to not ask difficult and pointed questions. But they ought not to make fools of themselves.

On the drift question, i watched Nehwal's first game, and remember noticing her judgement of the line. Shuttles which were less than an inch out were judged by her to perfection - everything she let go, was Out. It must be quite a complex task to judge drift in large arenas with high cielings and air-conditioning, especially when the drift is bound to vary on different courts within the arena, maybe even on different sides of the same court. Experienced players probably deal with this better than others.

Yet, the best we can do is ask her if she was complacement. Its a wonder she didn't whack that journalist really hard with whatever was at hand. But she's too polite and too sincere to take offense, even to the most offensive offering from the press.

I mean really... was she complacent!!!!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Sporting Bindra, Unsporting India

Abhinav Bindra gave an interview to DNA India after his winning effort at the Beijing Olympics, in which he basically underlined the fact that the Olympic medal was just one moment in his life, and that in his sport, the difference between winning and losing is so miniscule, that some luck is inevitable to success. I think it is an important and non-trivial distinction - that between wanting to be better at something relentlessly, and wanting to be an Olympic Champion. The former is an aspiration, the latter is a reward. The overwhelming narrative about Abhinav Bindra has focussed on his ambition and his success against the odds (tremors, a tampered gun). This narrative misses the point and in constructing a bollywoodesque hero myth, does Bindra serious injustice.

The whole point of Abhinav Bindra's success, as revealed in his interview, is that he wants to be the best shooter that he can be - that he's obsessively interested in training and working hard, enjoys the tough training regimens and has basically committed his life to his sport. The Olympic Medal or the World Championship Medal (both of which he has won now) are merely the biggest prizes on the way.

This is not unique to Bindra. There is a difference between focussing on a given contest when it is at hand and bringing the entire might of ones powers to it, and aiming for it obsessively - coveting the prize. The point of being a sportsman is not being Olympic Champion, the point is to be the best sportsman you can be. Because we don't seem to understand that, we are unable to respect those athletes who have qualified for the Olympics but may not come away with podium finishes. I have read more than one news article in the last couple of days which says something to the effect that "Indian athletes have a habit of not performing when it matters". That is not only rude, it is also hopelessly misguided.

There is a whole other aspect of this whole issue which has been written about ad nauseum, and Dileep Premachandran has this version of it. It refers to unprofessionally run Sports Associations which makes a complete pigs breakfast of managing and helping athletes compete at the international level. But that is a bureaucratic problem, and as such is not too difficult to solve.

What is far more important, as Rajaraman points out, is our view of sport and sporting ambition. Cricketers who wake up in the morning in distant suburbs in Bombay and make their way to dawn training sessions on the maidans in town don't do it thinking about playing for India at every stage. They do it because they love playing the sport. What does this mean? It means that there is inherent value associated with participating in sport - serious, organized sport, which contributes to the sport as well as to the sportsman. Schools cricket is competitive in Bombay and children who are serious about Cricket move to better Cricket schools, in order to pursue better Cricket. A very famous Cricketer once moved from IES English in Bandra to Shardashram Vidyamandir in Dadar in the mid-eighties, so that he would be able to play Cricket. A illustrious friend of his travelled 50 kms a day to study at the same school so that he could play good cricket as well. Both went on the perform well for Bombay and India. They did this not because they were driven by the ambition to play for India, but because they were interested more immediately in playing Cricket, and in being as good at it as they could be.

We have to stop this medieval, feudal practice of showering winners with gold and cash, for it reveals a very poor attitude towards the sport. All these agencies which have been falling over each other to announce cash awards to Bindra (these awards range from the absurd to the downright silly), should stop and think about the other Indian athletes at the Olympics. Instead of giving the money to Bindra, they ought to contribute it to a corpus of some sort which athletes can dip into if they want to go somewhere to train or buy expensive equipment. Bindra's wikipedia page provides the following summary of the awards that he has won:

Bindra was rewarded by various Indian state governements and private organizations for his achievement. These include the state governments of Punjab - Rs 10 million (approx. $250,000),[18] Harayana - Rs 2.5 million,[18] Maharashtra - Rs 1 million,[19] Karnataka - Rs 1 million,[20] Tamil Nadu - Rs 0.5 million,[21] Madhya Pradesh - Rs 0.5 million[18] and Chattisgarh[22] Other organization that rewarded Bindra includes Chandigarh civic administration - Rs 0.5 million,[18] BCCI - Rs 2.5 million,[22] Indian Railways - lifelong free pass for Bindra & one companion in First AC[22], Spicejet Airways - lifelong free flight ticket to Bindra[22] and Samsung - Rs 2 million.[7]and Bihar Government Rs.1.1 million - Rs 0.5 million.

The states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh have absolutely no connection with Bindra. Neither does Amitabh Bachchan. Bachchan has infact gone one further, by drawing attention to his silly World Tour in the process. Everyone wants a piece of Bindra right now. Nobody really cares about the other Indian athletes at the Olympics, neither is anyone really interested in the sport that Bindra competes in. Im pretty sure that none of the luminaries in question will be able to write or speak one coherent paragraph about the sport of shooting.

In short, nobody really cares about sport. Everybody cares about the winner. In doing so, they contribute nothing to the sport - indeed they undermine it at every turn. They are no different from those misguided souls who burnt effigies of Indian cricketers after the world cup, for to them, as to those vandals, Sport is merely a site of prestige - it has nothing to do with joy or skill or excellence.

The bureaucracy, associations, etc etc are all secondary issues as far as im concerned. There is a reason why Cricket is a thriving sport in India - because it is played on the streets, by middle class kids with proper bats and balls, and by poor kids with make shift stumps and handmade balls. Because interest in cricket goes above and beyond India winning or losing. Because Ranji Trophy Cricketers can make a living playing domestic Cricket in India today. In such an atmosphere, it was a matter of time before India's bare fast bowling cupboard was filled up. The BCCI manages Cricket quite well, but Cricket thrives in India because it thrives in communities.

Thats where other sports have to gain a footing. Otherwise, all we will have is parasites like Amitabh Bachchan clinging on to Abhinav Bindra's golden, wearing back.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Olympic Gold

Congratulations to Abhinav Bindra on his Olympic Gold Medal winning effort at the Beijing Olympics. More on this later...

Sri Lanka clinch series

Sri Lanka won the third and final test at Colombo by 8 wickets to clinch the three test series against India, repeating their performance from 2001. India lost this Test Match on the first innings, despite having had the benefit of winning the Toss. Looking back, it is hard to name any one factor which was the difference between the two sides, but if one were to insist on pointing something out, it would be that the Sri Lankan bowling had an enormous edge, in terms of two astonishingly good spin bowlers, both of whom could turn the ball both ways. I don't remember the last time a Test team could boast of such a spin attack. Saqlain Mushtaq and Mushtaq Ahmed for a brief period after Saqlain had perfected his doosra and Mushtaq was still a force to reckon with come close, but even there, it was mainly conventional spin. It is a measure of the resurgence of spin bowling, that the doosra is now considered a conventional delivery, and most international batsmen pick it.

What is most stunning about Ajantha Mendis is his temperament. That he is able to call upon all his variations at will, and yet bowl with an excellent line and length is very impressive. He seems to know what pace he should bowl at, at least in Sri Lanka. His great Test will come when he goes overseas, where his variations might not turn as much, and hence the pressure on him to beat the batsman in flight will be much greater. But what a beginning! It is safe to say that Mendis is easily the most impressive bowler to have arrived on the scene in living memory. With Murali at the other end, he could not ask for a better cushion from which to launch a career which will threaten all of Murali's records, wherver Murali ends up.

India's spin attack had a touch of predictability to it, even though both spinners bowled well. The difference was that Mendis and Murali were able to attack the stumps at all times, while especially with Harbhajan Singh, he was bowling for caught dismissals, especially against the Sri Lanka left handers. This is mostly because the Indian spinners are well known around the world, and there is hardly a batsman going around, who has not faced them for a longish period of time. Anil Kumble has dismissed 364 different batsmen in Test Cricket (Murali has dismissed 392 for his 756 Test Wickets). This terrific Sri Lankan spin attack meant that unless the Indian new ball pair had a match-winning series, India would have almost no chance of winning.

As it turned out, Murali (21 wickets at 22.23) and Mendis (26 wickets at 18.38) out bowled Harbhajan Singh (16 wickets at 28.12) and Kumble (8 wickets at 50). Not only that, Vaas, who had a modest series with the ball, still ended up with 5 wickets at 44, which compares reasonably with Zaheer Khan's 8 wickets at 44 and is only slightly worse that Ishant Sharm's 6 wickets a 35.50. The batting of the two sides, in the final analysis was not that far apart. Five of the Sri Lankan top six average 40 or more in the series, while three of the Indian top six managed the same.

Rahul Dravid showed some signs of revival towards the end of the series, while Tendulkar didn't get a score in six attempts despite looking untroubled for the most part. When you consider that he reached 50 in the first innings in each Test Match in Australia (an unrivalled feat for a visiting batsman there in a series of three tests or more), Tendulkar's show was disappointing. Sourav Ganguly's show if anything was even for disappointing, because he didn't even look like getting a big score until the last innings. He kept getting beaten in the flight by Murali, something which points to slowing reflexes (something which is true of all four in Indian middle order).

This series will give the Selectors some food for thought. It remains to be seen if they are able to replicate their masterly management of the transition in the ODI side, in the Test Team. The ODI team (minus Tendulkar who has been ruled out thanks to the elbow injury he suffered in the third test) faces its sternest examination yet - facing Sri Lanka and Mendis in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka are a tough Test team in Sri Lanka, but as an ODI side, they are a truly great team at home. They have a 50-15 record in Sri Lanka in this decade, and if you remove the Minnow games, then against the other seven top Test playing nations (Bangladesh and Zimbabwe are excluded), they still have a 36-15 record. With Mendis and Murali in their ranks, the Sri Lankan ODI side has just gained another dimension. This will be Dhoni's greatest Test, made that much more difficult due to Tendulkar's absence.

A rout is not out of the question in the ODI series. The Test series has not proved to be a rout only because the Indian Test team is basically a high quality (if ageing) side. I suspect that Sourav Ganguly will be the first of the old guard to be left out of the Test team.

It's that time again....

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Tactical use of the review

When Mahela Jayawardene opted to have his LBW decision reviewed, it convinced me that allowing batsmen to question an umpires decision is not only unnecessary, it is also dangerous in the long run. Consider the circumstance - Jayawardene was sweeping early in his innings, he fell over playing the shot - was off balance, was beaten in the flight and the drift, and yet, felt confident enough to question the umpire's decision, merely because he assumed that it was a normal off-break.

That is the very definition of the term dissent, and if batsmen are to be allowed to question decisions, there ought to be consequences for them for asking frivolous questions. Jayawardene's decision to review had less to do with the actual decision, than it did with his status as the most important batsman of the side, and with the match situation. There was absolutely no way Jayawardene could have had any inkling as to where the impact was what the ball was - the sweep, playing in front of, and across the front pad, is invariably played more or less "blind". Whats more, Jayawardene was completely off balance.

There was an arrogance and cockiness behind that review request, which has to be checked if the review system is to retain the umpire's authority at least to some extent. In the long run, it will probably be best if the batsman is taken out of the review system altogether. If Trevor Bayliss's point about the reviews giving the bowlers some respite is to come true, then it will probably be best if batsmen are not involved in anyway. The review can be seen as an extension of an appeal from the fielding side.

Sri Lanka did survive a couple of close decisions both due to (P Jayawardene) and inspite of reviews (Samarweera). In both cases, i think the review process worked well. The Samarweera LBW looked out, but it is not possible to say that the replays presented compelling evidence which would have required Umpire Benson to reverse his decision. For example, if Umpire Benson ruled not out merely because Samarweera got a very good stride in, then the point of impact would not have mattered.

There is another aspect to these reviews, and that is the behaviour of the onfield umpire. Especially with Umpire Benson, i got the impression, that a couple of times (especially the Jayawardene catch), he seemed to given an out decision, just in case, knowing fully well that it would be reviewed.

There is another issue with the structure of the review system. When reviews are carried out in say American Football, the umpire makes a statement at the end of the review explaining what was reviewed, what decision was reached, and why it was reached. In the case of this Colombo Test, what you have is a bunch of talking heads on TV who are speculating blindly about why a certain decision was taken. Waqar Younis went so far as to suggest that Mark Benson didn't give the Samarweera LBW simply out of stubbornness. This kind of speculation is worthless, and it comes about because the the review process is largely a black box. Nobody knows what the on-field umpire has asked the TV Umpire. Nobody is privy to the actual deliberation between the umpires. I doubt whether even the fielding captain is privy to it, even though umpires seem to have been explaining reviewed decisions (especially the not out ones) to the fielding side.

This aspect of the review will probably come under scrutiny as well when this trial series is completed. As far as the series goes, it's quite evenly poised. Sri Lanka have to bat fourth, and that would normally make India favorites at this stage. But India's middle order has never looked so brittle. Whats more, with Sangakkara still at the wicket, Sri Lanka could still build a significant lead.

We have six more sessions (it should be over in 6 sessions, unless India's batsmen find second wind from somewhere) of gripping Test Cricket, and exasperating reviews to look forward to.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

India at the Beijing Olympics

Do read this post by G Rajaraman about India's athletes at the Beijing Olympics.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Referrals Revisited

Two test matches on, we have seen about 25 referrals for catches and LBW's, the two modes of dismissal which invite reviews. In my previous post about referrals, i pointed out that player involvement seems unnecessary in order to achieve the goal of the referral system, which is to eliminate obvious umpiring error. The other point i made, was that given the design of the system as it currently stands, the focus seems to be on the appearance of fairness, rather than on being accurate and correct.

The referrals that we have seen in at the Sinhalese Sports Club and at Galle have met been partially successful. In some cases, detectable errors with close catches have been corrected ( for eg. Tendulkar in the second innings at SSC), in others, some surprising LBW decisions have been reinforced by replay evidence (Samarweera in the 1st innings at Galle). None of this is due to any inherent merit in the referral system in my view. This system basically enables the fielding captain or the batsman to require the on-field umpire to refer a decision he has made for review by the third Umpire who has access to various replays. Surprisingly, Hotspot, the most reliable technology in measuring close catches and bat-pad catches is not being used by the third umpire. The TV Cameras too are those installed by the TV Broadcaster (based on the ICC's specifications) and are not customized to enable a good view of events at the wicket. It is also not clear whether the third umpire is able to request replays as and how he may want to see them, or whether this is decided by the TV producer.

The one area where the experience of Galle and SSC has shown the referral system to be a real positive, is with respect to LBW decisions. These decisions are still made by on-field umpires, and unless compelling evidence is presented which causes the umpire to reverse his decision, then the decision is not overturned. A surprising number of LBW's have been reviewed, and in only one instance (Dravid, 2nd innings, Galle) was it not clear what the compelling evidence was that caused Umpire Doctrove to reverse his decision. The review system could work really well for LBW's, for LBW's are by definition "in the opinion of the umpire". Therefore, it would seem reasonable to allow the players to ask the umpire to re-think his opinion, if they have enough reason to disagree with him. It would probably help if the players, if they were allowed to ask the Umpire why he thought he gave a decision not-out (in the case of the fielding captain). Thats where an LBW decision can become a point of debate, for a not-out LBW decision (unless the batsman has hit the ball) must necessarily be because the umpire think that it wouldn't have gone on to hit the stumps, or that he thinks it pitched outside leg-stump.

One modification to the review system in the case of LBW's could be to allow the fielding captain to ask the umpire why he's given a particular decision not out, and then have the review based on that. If at all a review is to be included in cricket in the long run, it should atleast serve the purpose of improving communication between the fielding side and the umpire. So, for example, if an umpire gives a decision not-out and explains if asked by the fielding captain, that he thought the batsman got a good stride in, and that the ball had a long way to travel and hence it couldn't be established beyond reasonable doubt by the umpire that the ball would indeed have gone on to hit the stumps, a sensible fielding captain may decide to refrain from asking for a review. But if the Umpire says "i think he hit it" and the fielding side is reasonably sure that the batsman didn't, then a review might enable a correct decision.

Currently, whats happening is that the review has become a tactical tool of sorts. At 400/5, a captain is prone to seek a desperate review for a long shot LBW against the last recognized batsman, while at 100/2, a captain with one early unsuccessful review is less likely to use another review for a marginal decision. That in my view completely side-tracks the point of the review system.

In the case of catches, especially low ones, the law is hopeless, not because the technology doesn't exist to judge catches (which is what every commentator usually says), but because the law for catches as it stands is silly. The only satisfactory solution to the problem is to revert back to the old law for a fair catch which said that if any part of the hand below the elbow (palm, fingers) is touching the turf when the ball lands in the hand and before the fielder gains complete control of the ball, the catch is not a fair catch. Given that cricket is played on natural turf, with a grass cover on the outfield, it is almost inevitable that at least one grass will touch touch some part of the ball at the moment of impact which is bound the squeeze the fingers/palm into the ground when the low catch is completed. No technology is ever going to satisfactorily establish a clean catch as the law stands today. Taking the word of the fielder is useless, because the fielder has absolutely no way of knowing whether or not any grass touched the ball when he was catching it. As it is, most times, the fielder is not looking at the ball as it lands in the hand when it's that low. Given how infrequently these low catches come about, its probably best to disallow them altogether by reverting back to the old law.

If you leave aside the LBW, the referral system does not require the involvement of the players on the field at all. Once the fielding side makes an appeal, the system should automatically bring the third umpire into play, shadowing the on-field umpire's decision. As a catch is made, the no-ball decision should be cross checked by the third umpire without any prompting from the field, whether or not a no-ball call has been made. This problem too could be mitigated by reverting back to the old backfoot no-ball rule, giving the umpire more time to concentrate on the batting end. Why the ICC does not make this eminently reasonable choice is beyond me.

LBW's apart, the referral system is gratuitous, and given the poor technology (a point which most proponents of the use of the technology almost always miss, offering some airy fairy remark that the "technology will eventually be available"), does not provide any significant improvement in the conduct of the game given the long delays that we have seen for referrals. Knowing the ICC though, it is entirely likely that they will come up with something crude like time limits for third umpires to review decisions and consult with on-field umpires.

The three reviews per innings limit has intrigued me. The simple criticism of this invariably is - what if a captain has used up three reviews and is then faced with a blatantly wrong decision which he's unable to get rectified. There is probably some statistical basis to the number three, but there is also probably some expectation, that eventually, as things settle down and the system matures, there will be fewer referrals - especially for marginal LBW decisions. Eventually, they probably expect to reach a situation where a honest captain will never run out of reviews.

In the perfect world, a system like this wouldn't be necessary. People would be willing to live with Umpiring errors, and players would not use silly, demonstrably nonsensical logic like "you get some bad decisions sometimes, why not stand when you nicked it and try and get some bad decisions in your favor". When one puts it like that, its obvious why the logic is stupid. By not walking, the players are actually making it more likely that mistakes will happen, and not less likely. By not walking, they're also demonstrating a lack of trust in the umpire's competence (most players probably have a healthy disregard for this anyways). In the perfect world, this wouldn't be the case. In the real world (ours), if a review is at all necessary, the involvement of the players (batsman, fielding captain), should be limited to LBW's, and even there, the main necessity for dialogue is between the fielding captain and the umpire. The fielding captain should have more than just a "not out" from the umpire on which to decide whether or not to request a review.

The rest of it is just window dressing - a spectacle for commentators, with no real improvement in decision making.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Colombo Test Preview

The deciding Test Match of India's tour of Sri Lanka will be played at the P Saravanamuttu Stadium in Colombo from August 8. The series is evenly poised and has proceeded along the lines of the previous series between these two sides in Sri Lanka. In that series India lost the first test in Colombo, before winning the second at Kandy, only to lose the decider by an innings in Colombo. This time around, the deciding Test match will be held not at the Premadasa Stadium, but at the older P Sara ground. Tendulkar and Kumble have both played at this ground in 1993. This ground hosted Sri Lanka's inaugural Test Match in 1982. Test Cricket returned to this ground in 2002, when Australia played Pakistan.

Since 2002, the P Saravanmuttu ground has hosted a number of notable Test Matches. The Australia - Pakistan Test match was played on a true wicket, and the rampaging Australians predictably won the first innings against a young, inexperienced Pakistan side, taking a first innings lead of 188. The Australians were working their way towards an insurmountable lead, when Shoaib Akhtar ran through them like a hot knife through butter with a blindingly fast spell of bowling. Left with 316 for a win, Pakistan fell 42 runs short, being all out for 274 after having been 4/230 at one stage. Shane Warne took 11 wickets in the match.

Stephen Fleming made 274 at this ground when New Zealand toured last. South Africa have lost a Test match here despite setting Sri Lanka 350 to win in the 4th innings. Mahela Jayawardene made 123 and Sri Lanka sneaked home by one wicket.

The three significant Test matches at this ground suggest that the P Sara wicket is different from the normal Sri Lankan wickets - it lasts longer, and 4th innings batting is realistically possible. India will have to consider this history, as well as current pitch conditions as they find them in making their selection for this game. With Harbhajan Singh taking 10 wickets at Galle, they will be loathe to play 3 pace bowlers and the lone spinner. They could however consider making a bold move and selecting five specialist bowlers. It will leave them thin in the batting department, but given the form of the middle order, leaving Sourav Ganguly out is hardly likely to matter. If the wicket offers some seam movement, Munaf Patel would be a fine addition to the Indian pace attack.

The trickiest decision India face, is that of the wicketkeeping position. Dinesh Karthik has had a rough series so far and has made a number of catching and stumping errors. His collection has been scratchy, and he looks less than sure behind the stumps. If Dhoni were available, there would be little doubt as to what India might do. Parthiv Patel's wicketkeeping remains untested. He's also shown himself to be an irritating customer as far as the umpires are concerned in the past. All this apart though, the most important factor is the batting. Dinesh Karthik's only (and fatal) problem with the bat has been his inability to pick Ajantha Mendis. There is no guarantee that Patel will pick Mendis. If he's unable to do so, he's liable to being even more of a walking wicket than Dinesh Karthik. The Indians will have to decide who has the better chance of scoring runs - Dinesh Karthik's who has struggled, but who has atleast had a look at Mendis and Murali for four innings now, or Patel, who will come in cold to face the most potent spin bowling combination in recent memory. I suspect that the Indians will stick with Dinesh Karthik.

For the Sri Lankans, the search for an opening pair to replace Jayasurya and Atapattu continues. They will also look for a more threatening new ball bowler to partner the steady Vaas. If the P Sara wicket is as true as it has been in the past, Mendis will be tested as well. If he can't get his variations to go off the straight on the harder, truer wickets, he will has to rely on beating the batsmen in the air rather than simply off the pitch. It will also give us a true measure of how much he really turns the ball.

That the deciding Test is going to be played at P Saravanamuttu is ultimately in India's favor, especially if the wicket is similar to the ones used in recent Test Matches at the ground. I suspect it will be pace and not spin which will be India's trump card in the decider.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Sehwag - an All Time Great Indian batsman

Virender Sehwag is the ultimate amateur. He plays cricket as a sport, not as a job, and by his own admission is unencumbered by issues such as pressure. From the Sehwagian viewpoint, Cricket is a game to be enjoyed - runs are to be plundered, and batsmen are to be teased or foxed or blasted out. The Najafgarh nugget embodies this outlook in every move he makes on the field. Not for him the high left elbow and the sober, mechanical drive. Not for him any artificial exaggeration. The drive is played with gusto. The ball is met with a clean arc of the bat and is hit as hard as Sehwag can hit it. The backlift and the follow through are absolutely natural. Watching Sehwag in full cry makes one wonder how it could possibly make sense to bat any other way.

Sehwag's batting is characterized by clean hitting. Even though he plays blazing strokes, very rarely does he make mishits. If you take away his annoying habit of playing a logic-defying suicidal stroke every now and then - the type of stroke which has cost him about 20 runs in batting average, he's a dream batsman. No other batsman that i have seen has put top class bowling attacks to sword as frequently as Sehwag has. You name every successful bowling attack in recent times, and Virender Sehwag has blasted them. McGrath and co. came to India in 2004 - Sehwag took 155 off them. Shoaib and c0. are his favorite whipping boys, now Murali has felt the lash of the Sehwag bat. Dale Steyn and co, in the midst of a dream season spent a day being whipped by Sehwag at Chennai. Eleven straight centuries of 150 or more, all scored in less time than it takes normal batsmen to inch to hundreds.

Virender Sehwag is the most astonishing batsman to emerge in this decade. Kevin Pietersen comes close, but for sheer versatility, pace of scoring and ability to produce huge scores, Sehwag outshines just about every other batsman. He says he modeled himself on Tendulkar, but i think Tendulkar would give anything to be able to play an innings like one of Virender Sehwag's best. Sehwag is not as classical as Tendulkar and possibly isn't as sure against good pace bowling on wickets which offer some seam movement, but if quality is measured by the ability to produce big runs quickly and often, then Virender Sehwag has no equal among his contemporaries.

This is a good time to write a post like this, for after innings like the one he played in the first innings at SSC, one is too distraught at all the waste to do justice to the man. If the pantheon of great modern Indian batsmen all this while included Gavaskar, Vishwanath, Tendulkar and Dravid, i think it is time to add Virender Sehwag's name to that list.

If you can brace yourself for the odd shocker, when you watch Virender Sehwag, you're watching one of the greats of the modern game.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Sri Lanka v India, Galle Test, Day 4, Morning Session

Nine wickets fell in the morning session on Day 4, underlining the value of India's superbly performing opening pair and the runs that the batsmen put up yesterday. The Indian Express this morning had its usual facetious headline - "Smells like team spirit" - as if team spirit is measured in terms of success! But such banal commentary is par for the course in newspaper coverage in India, and the rare article like Pradeep Vijayakar's in the Times Of India about playing spin bowling a few days ago is the exception rather than the norm.

Gambhir and Sehwag in this game have underlined what ought to be obvious to anybody who watches Test Cricket closely - that the new ball is worth plenty of runs in Sri Lanka, especially given the hosts pace attack. Even with Lasith Malinga present, the hosts seem to view pace merely as an lead-in to the main show - Murali. Vaas is a canny bowler, but he has repeatedly shown that he's better with the older ball than he is with the new one, especially now that he has lost a couple of yards in pace. That's precisely why Sehwag's first innings dismissal at the SSC (and Gambhir's to a lesser extent) were so problematic. The other highlight of yesterdays play, apart from Sehwag's blazing belligerence, and Gambhir's inch perfect judgment of length, was the batting of Tendulkar and Dravid. The measure of this batsmanship has to be taken in light of the fact that it is extremely difficult to start against Mendis and Murali - to very good spinners, on a wickets which though slow, offered some turn and variable bounce. Dravid fought as hard as i've ever seen him fight and willed his way past his first twenty runs. He was clearly disappointed when the Review caused the decision of the on-field umpire to be overturned.

Mendis and Murali continued their mastery over the Indian tail. Tendulkar, Gambhir and Sehwag are the only Indian batsmen who are reading Mendis currently. Gary Kirsten and Anil Kumble, in promoting Ishant Sharma ahead of Zaheer Khan sent a prompt message to the senior fast bowler that his shot in the first innings was not on. Mr. Sharma, though he blocks with great interest, showed that his judgement of the tight run left much to be desired. In the end though, India would have felt that 306 was a satisfactory lead.

Now, it was the Sri Lankan batsmen who were under pressure. They faced an Indian pace attack which seemed to find a extra yard of pace for the short spell before lunch. Zaheer bowled an immaculate length for the most part, and three of the four catches were taken. Mahela Jayawardene was beaten by the extra bounce and pace which he failed to control in playing his cut shot. That was the biggest wicket of the morning, and Rahul Dravid's reaction on having completed the catch at gully said it all. Dravid is easily India's best ever close catcher, and possibly one of the best of all time (176 catches in 125 tests is testimony to this). Fielding first and third slip and then at gully, both unnatural positions for him, he seemed to react feelingly to the Jayawardene wicket. The only other time i remember him so worked up was when he completed his century at Eden Garden's against Steve Waugh's Australians in 2001.

Despite the fact that Sri Lanka have unearthed a phenomenal spin bowling talent, and despite the fact the Murali is still in great form, India are in ascendant in this Galle Test. From an ageing side, it has been a fine show. For the neutral observer, the value of the toss and putting runs on the board on the first day (and Sehwag's phenomenal batting) must be the highlights.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Sri Lanka v India, Galle Test, Day 2

India fought back in the post-tea session of play on Day 2 of the Galle Test. The wicket offered some turn, and decidedly more bounce than the SSC one, and once the ball got older, it became harder to score. Kumble and Harbhajan Singh first checked the scored after the new ball pair had put in yet another sub-par effort, with Ishant Sharma being especially lacklustre. He has been quite inconsistent on this tour, and his inexperience is showing. Had it not been for the largesse of the third umpire who seemed to look long and hard to find the slightest bit of doubt in a run out appeal against Thilan Samarweera, Sri Lanka might have been in deeper trouble.

Sri Lanka have to bat fourth in this game. India will desperate hope for a lead. The number of runs scored in this game is such that every single hour of play from here on is crucial. For India, the best case for them would be to wrap the Sri Lankan innings up before lunch time tomorrow, and then make sure they are still batting by the end of the day.

Both umpires appear to be fairly conservative about giving LBW's, leading to both Sehwag and Jayawardene getting the benefit of the doubt today. Both times, the Umpires got it right, and in both cases the referrals were made by players, who did not have the benefit of better information than the umpires, and therefore no real basis on which to make the decision. Eventually players will realize that Umpires are not going to reverse LBW decision unless there is obvious, compelling evidence which points to an obvious error (such as an inside edge, or ball pitching outside leg stump).

The game is on a knife edge right now. One would have said that India are ahead simply because Sri Lanka have to bat fourth and it looks like the wicket might wear earlier than expected, but India's middle order is vitally short on confidence, and should Sehwag fail, India will be under immense pressure, especially if Sri Lanka reach 300 tomorrow morning.

Harbhajan Singh seemed to take a few overs to get into his bowling stride. The fact that he had two left handers to bowl to worked in his favour because he could bowl defensively against them outside their off-stump for a while. This kept the batsmen quiet, and allowed Harbhajan Singh to bowl himself into some sort of rythm. It should come as no surprise that Warnaweera's wicket came after a ten over spell where only 16 runs were scored. Even though Kumble went wicketless, he kept the batsmen honest.

The pressure is on Sri Lanka, but in captain Jayawardene, they have the perfect man for the situation. Tomorrow will be a decisive day.