Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Ricky Ponting's catching agreement

Ricky Ponting has re-opened the debate about the catching agreement that he had with Anil Kumble in Australia last season. He wants to revive it, and based on his comments, seems absolutely oblivious to the reason why it was scrapped. This is why the catching agreement fell apart. The most charitable way of putting it would be to say that it fell apart because Ricky Ponting did not seem to know the particulars of Law 32. At the time it was fairly clear that Ponting had claimed "catches" (i. e. appealed for them) even though there was sufficient, non-trivial doubt about whether or not these catches had been completed.

"Anil [Kumble] was the one who didn't want that [a pact on trusting the fielder's word] after the Sydney Test for one reason or the other," Ponting said. "To me it's like flogging the dead horse, to tell the truth. I go to every referee meeting before a series wanting to play the game like that, but almost every other captain in the world is not interested."

The catching Law itself has been made problematic by the interference of technology, because as it is framed today, TV technology is unable to clarify anything. Often, apparently clean catches are disallowed after referrals because there is no conclusive evidence. Equally, apparent bump balls cannot clearly be determined to be bump balls. As such, TV replays, even with super slow motion (1000 frames per second) remain unsatisfactory.

The solution is quite simple, and would simply involve a reversion to the old caught law, which stated that no part of the hand below the wrist could be in contact with the ground as the ball made contact with the hand in the process of the catch being taken. This would disallow an entire class of catches where fielders get their "fingers under the ball", often just barely. In addition, the current condition, that no part of the ball can touch the ground until the catch has been completed, should be retained. In such an event an agreement between captains about catches would be tenable, because it would be easy to judge whether or not a given claimed catch was in fact completed. But, as you probably realised while you were reading my previous sentence, this would also render any such agreement to be entirely redundant.

So even if you have two teams who understand the current Law (Law 32) perfectly well, and they trusted each other enough to agree to a catching agreement, you would still have contentious situations when it comes to really low catches. Ricky Ponting exacerbates the problem with his casual interpretation of the Laws, but even if he took things more seriously, and had more control of his instincts and those of his team in the heat of the moment, it would still not guarantee clarity on contentious catches.

It is tempting to suggest that Ricky Ponting ought to introspect about the fact that (by his own admission) no captain in world cricket is willing to enter into a catching agreement with him. But that is a seperate issue and is not going to solve the issue of catches. We can expect some contentious catches irrespective of whether or not there is an agreement. Given the current Law, such an agreement would be ill advised.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Irani Trophy Day 2 - Morning Session

What a session Rest of India have had so far! I watched some of it, and before i shut down for the day, felt i ought to tell you about it. The Delhi batting line up has an impressive top four - Gautam Gambhir and Aakash Chopra are probably the premier domestic opening pair in the country. Gambhir is currently India's first choice Test Opener, while Aakash Chopra has also played Test Cricket. Virender Sehwag is one of the best batsmen in the world, and Virat Kohli at number four is an upcoming batsman who is tipped to play for India soon. Kohli also had a superb Nissar Trophy game last week.

They were up against the best bowling line up in India (minus Ishant Sharma). The wicket was playing quite well and Rest of India had only a modest first innings score on the board.

Gautam Gambhir was out in the second over of the day to what he will consider a poor shot in retrospect. The ball was pitched well outside offstump on a good length, and Gambhir went after it on the rise, only to edge a catch to Rahul Dravid at slip. It was the stroke of a confident batsman, and it was a wicket for a good bowler who did the basic things right.

Virender Sehwag came in to bat and began confidently. Sehwag and the solid Akash Chopra were beginning build a stand, and Munaf Patel paid the price or coming in to bowl at two set batsmen and went for a few early in his spell, until he began to produce his stock line and length, on or outside the off-stump on a perfect good length. One of these deliveries straightened. Chopra, in the assertive mood that he was in, pushed firmly enough at it that it carried low, wide of Mohammad Kaif at second slip. Kaif probably saw it from the bowler's hand, on to the bat, and read it perfectly as it came off the edge. He made a very difficult catch look easy as he lunged fluently low to his right and held it with his right hand. Munaf Patel continued his good spell, getting one to lift at Virat Kohli, causing him to fend it awkwardly down the leg side, where Dhoni took a good tumbling catch.

By now Sehwag felt settled. He had watched Kumble carefully for an over or so, and was itching to take him on. In this, Sehwag erred i think, for Kumble was prepared for this kind of approach. There was something in the wicket (very little, but it is definitely not a true pata). Kumble began to vary his flight and his speed when he was bowling at Sehwag. There is a very thin line between being aggressive and being pre-meditated, and Sehwag crossed that line, fatally as it turned out. In the over in which he was dismissed, Kumble beat him in the flight almost every ball. The ball which he got out was probably not one where he should have gotten out, but Kumble played on Sehwag's intent and teased him out. The catch by Rahul Dravid was truly brilliant. Dravid effectively caught a well middled late cut, where Sehwag may just have been beaten by the line and the bounce a little bit - i felt it was just a little bit too close to him and bounced just that bit more than Sehwag anticipated.

Sehwag's dismissal is particularly interesting, because through out his innings, even though he was on top of things, he seemed to constantly looked to get even further on top. Sehwag never seems to conduct himself in accumulation mode at least until he is past a hundred, even though Rest Of India, like several Test fielding sides, were perfectly willing to spread the field to him early in his innings. I suspect that Sehwag's approach against Kumble was down to the fact that he percieved Kumble to be a threat to Delhi. This has worked against India before, where opposition batting sides, especially on Day 1 and Day 2 wickets have attacked Kumble early and gotten away with it. Sehwag overreached as it turned out.

Mithun Manhas then aimed a leaden footed square cut to a widish one from Munaf, and Dhoni took another good catch diving in front of first slip.

Rajat Bhatia and wicketkeeper Puneet Bisht played out a few testing overs from Kumble, Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan before the Umpires called for Lunch.

Delhi have squandered the advantage of having dismissed Rest Of India for a modest first innings score on the first day. If Rest win the next session as well, it will be an uphill struggle for Delhi from there. They will need to decimate the Rest batting in the third innings to stay in the game. Thats not the sort of thing you can ever bank on.

Guru Greg consults for the Aussies

Australia have hired Greg Chappell as an assistant coach for their tour of India. Guru Greg is still hated in India, mainly for speaking his mind and being impatient with the rubbish that the press kept dishing out to him. His time as the head coach of the Indian Cricket Team was a tumultous period with some rousing victories and some terrible defeats. He left in sad circumstances, unworthy of the great cricketer that he was in his playing days.

As this Indian Express editorial suggests, Chappell may have moved on, but some in India clearly haven't. This ridiculous editorial opines that Australia hiring Chappell amounts to a mind game! This India-Centric view - that anything that happens in the world of cricket is primarily with reference to India is indicative of an unhealthy amount of hubris amongst some people who participate in Indian Cricket. Australia are not "manic about mindgames". How about the simpler, more decent explanation - that they would like to be prepared as well as they can be, and feel that Greg Chappell with his close experience of India and the Indian team, can help their preperation?

In my view, thats a solid reason hire anybody, especially if you have the budget to do it. The irony of the Express editorial is that in issuing some sort of false warning, it falls prey to the same mindgames which it claims the Australians are playing! The justification given in the editorial is weak. I would counter by asking what it is that anybody can teach Rahul Dravid or Sachin Tendulkar or VVS Laxman, or Anil Kumble about playing anywhere in the world, that they don't already know? What can Gary Kirsten teach India's cricketers about playing in India? Besides, i have no idea what the IPL experience has to do with proper Test Cricket.

That this is much ado about nothing is evident from the closing line - "When a man once picked by India for acclimatisation to the Australian way is, in turn, picked by Australia to know the India way, cricket has to be at an interesting juncture". There is no great insight here. That statement as such is hollow and means absolutely nothing.

The fact that the Australians have hired Chappell, is in my view entirely unexceptional. I don't recall the Australians getting all twisted about India hiring Greg Chappell to coach them, or hiring Bruce Reid as a bowling consultant in Australia in 2003-04, or even hiring Chappell himself as a batting consultant in Australia in 2003-04.

Both Reid and Chappell proved to be very useful for India on that tour. Chappell might prove to be equally useful this time around, not least because, whatever any upstart might say about him, he was a truly great batsman in his day and obvious really knows his cricket.

You could also argue that the one thing that Chappell couldn't manage in India was the transition to the post-Ganguly era. Given that Chappell himself sees this as a transition period for Australia, there is a possibility that Chappell's questionable man-management skills might lead to some tactless handling of some situations by him, which may haunt Cricket Australia for this choice.  If an Indian editorial suggested this, it would be a classic Australian style mindgame. But, as you can see, they haven't.

I actually think this appointment is as unremarkable as it is sound. Chappell has recently been appointed head of the Centre for Excellence in Brisbane. The current Australian Coach Tim Nielsen held this position before he became Head Coach of the Australian team. As such, Chappell and Nielsen are the two top Cricket coaches in Australia right now. Given how important this series is, and given how so many Australian players have not toured India before, but have probably been to the Centre for Excellence, inviting Chappell to tour with the Australian team for this tour makes a lot of sense. Tim Nielsen toured with John Buchanan when Buchanan was coach.

This is the build-up though. It is true that the Australian press tries very hard to soften up visiting teams to Australia even before they take the field. This is something of an Australian tradition, which goes back at least 60 years if not more (Len Hutton and Colin Cowdrey have both written about Hutton's encounters with the Australian press when he led England to Australia for the 1954-55 Ashes). If the Indian press wants to do the same, they ought pursue such an enterprise seriously. Editorials like this one from the Indian Express are neither here nor there.

Irani Trophy 2008 Day 1

Rest of India won the toss and batted first in the 2008 Irani Trophy match at Baroda today. They were bowled out for 252 in the post tea session. Delhi are currently 0/21 in their first innings with Akash Chopra and Gautam Gambhir opening the batting. Batting first has been a losing strategy in Irani Trophy games in recent years, with 7 out of the last 8 games being won by teams fielding first. In this edition however, it might be a slightly different story, with rain preventing serious work on the IPCL wicket for 10 days just before this game.

The two noteworthy dismissals of the day were those of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman. Rahul Dravid fell to the most exceptional delivery of the day, one which moved almost a foot from outside off-stump, giving Dravid no chance of meeting it. Dravid did not help himself by preparing to play back, instead of pushing out (this might just have gotten him outside off-stump). Dravid was dismissed on the 34th over of the day, and it seemed as though Ishant Sharma was getting appreciable reverse already. I say this because it is unlikely that the ball was still swinging conventionally in the 34th over.

The other noteworthy dismissal was that of VVS Laxman. This is not the first time this year that he has been dismissed trying to play that lofted sweep shot against the off-spinner. He plays it such that it is neither well-lofted, nor along the ground. I suspect that he means to play lofted, but he needs to execute better. For a world class batsman, he has gotten out too often to that kind of unforced error (a recent dismissal against Mendis at Galle comes to mind). Of course, given the way he plays, one ought to expect that he will commit more unforced errors than say Rahul Dravid or Jacques Kallis, but it is my contention that Laxman's success as a Test Match batsman has come about due to his ability cut down on these unforced errors. This has had the effect of sharpening his shot selection.

Given VVS's Irani Trophy record though, he will almost certainly make runs in the second innings. Thats the thing about the regular India Test players. If you look through the Irani Trophy records or even first class records in this decade, you will find that they have invariably been prolific.

The other noteworthy event of the day was Sehwag's decision to ask Aakash Chopra and Gautam Gambhir to open the batting. This, along with Rahul Dravid's decision to open the batting are both healthy signs, for they suggest that both sides are interested in winning the Irani Trophy game. Im almost certain that there will be some serious needle in the game, and there is nothing the Indian Test bowling attack will want more than to make sure that Virender Sehwag fails with the bat in this game. If Sehwag's Delhi beat the Rest Of India, i dare say that Kumble and c0. will never live it down in the Indian dressing room and will be the subject of endless ribbing from the Delhi players - Sehwag, Gambhir and Ishant. Regardless of what some "reporters" might say, this is a game which both sides want to win, and nobody is likely to place any selection related concerns ahead of that basic ambition.

Given that the wicket is likely to break up earlier than normal, Delhi's first innings becomes crucial. I suspect that tomorrow will be Virender Sehwag's day. He has put every bowling attack in the world to sword in recent years. I think one can say with confidence that he wants his turn against the Indian attack.

PS: Since when did the Irani Trophy become the "Irani Cup"? Would it be Ok to say that Australia won the World Trophy in 2007?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Rediff says Tendulkar doubtful for Australia

Rediff.com "reports" today that Sachin Tendulkar's participation in the upcoming 4 Test series against the visiting Australians is doubtful. Of course, Rediff offers no evidence to support this claim, other than the previously reported information about Tendulkar being advised a further week of recuperation, causing him to miss the Irani Trophy match.

Of course, there is Rediff's other little snippet about the Irani Trophy game being seen as a "selection game for the Australia series".

Im obviously puzzled. On what basis are the rediff reporters able to say that Tendulkar will miss the Australia series? It may well turn out that he does end up missing the series either partly or fully, why is Rediff able to put this story out with absolutely nothing to support it?

Someone once told me that putting the name of a top celebrity in a story makes viewers more likely to read it. Is this one of those stories? There is absolutely no evidence or reporting that is revealed by Rediff.com to support their claim. Even if Tendulkar does miss the series due to his recent injury, it will not improve the standing of this story. If you parse the words, you could argue that they are only saying "could miss the four-test series".

But seriously, that's news??

What will they print next? How about:
"Rahul Dravid could score a century in the 1st Test against Australia"
"Delhi victory in Irani Trophy doubtful"

Here is the link to the story: 

Saturday, September 20, 2008

A worthy choice...

Some discerning viewers have called it the finest Hindi film of their lifetime. Taare Zameen Par is a worthy entry for the Oscars.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Irani Trophy Preview

Delhi take on Rest of India for the Irani Trophy in Baroda on September 24. Sachin Tendulkar has withdrawn from the game on the advice of Paul Close, the physiotherapist at the National Cricket Academy. Curiously, no replacement for Tendulkar has been named. The selectors feel that since there are already 14 members in the RoI squad, there is no need for one. (Update: Since i wrote this post, Cricinfo has amended their story and reported that S Badrinath will replace Tendulkar. There is no correction, no reference at all to the old story!! I can find only this link which contains the original quote from Ratnakar Shetty)

A glance at the RoI squad suggests that the position taken by the selectors can be debated. The RoI squad as it was originally picked, consisted of 4 middle order batsmen - Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and Kaif, 1 opening batsman - Jaffer, 2 wicketkeepers - Dhoni and Patel, 3 spinners - Kumble, Harbhajan and Ojha, and 4 fast bowlers - Zaheer, Ishant, RP Singh and Ashok Dinda. The selectors have clearly decided that Parthiv Patel should open the batting for RoI along with Wasim Jaffer. I can see why Patel had to be picked, given his performances last season, but it is evident that the selectors don't think there is anyone compelling to be considered enough for the opening position apart from Gambhir and Jaffer.

Even if there wasn't, this policy of conflating Patel the wicketkeeper batsman, with a specialist opener, especially for a game like the Irani Trophy is puzzling. I can understand the selectors doing it in a Test Match, since it is a stop gap measure and gives the Test team more flexibility if Irfan Pathan or Parthiv Patel open the batting. But surely, the Rest of India side in the Irani Trophy doesn't need to make such a compromise in the interests of balance. Would it not be more valuable to see another specialist opener (Robin Uthappa and Ajinkya Rahane come to mind) being tested by Ishant Sharma and Ashish Nehra? Parthiv Patel is never going to be selected to play for India as a specialist batsman in any case. If they had to pick a stop-gap option, would it not have been more advisible to select a bowler who could bat a bit, instead of a second wicket-keeper? At least a bowler who can open the batting will give India the option of playing five bowlers against Australia without compromising on batting depth.

I suspect that the decision to go with Patel had to do with the pecking order that most selection committees invariably build up. There seems to be an unwritten order in which fringe players get their chance. Yuvraj Singh for example, long considered the batsman in waiting to take up a middle order spot the moment one became available, has been dropped down that pecking order, with Kaif and possibly even Badrinath moving up above him. Parthiv Patel's brilliant 179 against Mumbai in last year's Irani Trophy game may have something to do with his selection as well.

It should be a crackling game at the Reliance Stadium in Baroda. Delhi have warmed up nicely in their Nissar Trophy encounter againt SNGPL from Pakistan. They lost that game on the first innings, but when the game ended were sufficiently well placed to have made a serious push for a win had rain not intervened. Delhi ended the third day 384 runs ahead with 6 wickets in hand in their second innings, a solid position to be in in any four or five day game. Virat Kohli could ensure his selection for the Australia series with a solid Irani Trophy game after his 197 in Delhi's season opener. With Tendulkar's injury troubles, there might just be an open slot.

The Irani Trophy game has seen outright wins being scored by Rest of India in four out of the last five contests (2003 - 2007). The sole victory for the Ranji Trophy Champions came in the 2005-06 edition when Railways beat Rest of India at their home patch, the Karnail Singh Stadium in Delhi.

The best Irani Trophy game in recent years was the 2003-04 game when a full-strength Mumbai side took on a full-strength Rest of India side at Chepauk. Mumbai batted first and reached 297 powered by Sachin Tendulkar's 97. In reply, Rest of India, with a batting line up which read Bangar, Sehwag, Dravid, Laxman, Ganguly, Yuvraj, Parthiv Patel, were bowled out by Ramesh Powar, Sairaj Bahutule, Avishkar Salvi, Ajit Agarkar and Robin Morris for 202, giving the Ranji Trophy Champions a priceless 95 run first innings lead. In a Ranji Trophy game Mumbai would never have let an opponent off the mat from such a position, and in this game too, it looked as though the winning touch which Mumbai brings to its matchplay was at work, when Mumbai recovered from 6/115 in their second innings, having just lost Sachin Tendulkar for 50, to 244 thanks to Bahutule, Powar and Agarkar in the lower order.

Rest of India were set 340 to win the Irani Trophy and immediately lost Sanjay Bangar in the second over of their run chase. Rahul Dravid joined Virender Sehwag. Sehwag fell after his usual blitz against the new ball for a run a ball 36. Laxmipathi Balaji cam in as nightwatchman. The next day, Balaji and Dravid plodded on against some tight Mumbai bowling, adding 68 runs in 37 overs, before Balaji lost patience and skied a sweep shot out to Ajit Agarkar at square-leg. VVS Laxman arrived.

At 3/123, chasing 340, Rest Of India had plenty of work to do, and Mumbai, having killed the momentum of runs, were itching for the kill. VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid seemed to struggle at first, and spent 20 overs adding 57 runs. Then, VVS exploded. He went from 32(61) to 99(125) seemingly effortlessly before missing out on a century by one run, having added 168 with  Rahul Dravid in 38 overs - the last 111 of those runs coming in 18 overs. Laxman, great Test Match batsman that he is, enjoys a fearsome reputation in first class cricket, and it is innings like these where he was simply able to change gears and step out to Ramesh Powar and Sairaj Bahutule, who until then had kept the runs well in check, that are responsible for that reputation.

As someone who watched that 4th days play said to me, it was as though the wicket stopped turning once Laxman and Dravid started motoring along. It didn't matter who was bowling, what the match situation was; nothing!

Later that season, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman were to maul the Australian Test attack, and treat the Cricket watching public to a sublime partnership of 303 at Adelaide. Laxman was also to feature in a stand of 353 with Sachin Tendulkar at Sydney. That Irani Trophy game was in retrospect, just a little glimpse of the avalanche of beautiful runs that were to flow from Indian bats that season.

Mumbai were outclassed by VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid in that game. That was the only way Mumbai were going to lose after having played as well as they did. This year's Irani Trophy is similarly star studded, with both sides at full strength. Delhi is no Mumbai, but that man Sehwag is capable of anything.

Expect an epic.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Cricinfo's "Bad Boys"

Cricinfo has published an absurd list today. The list is a ridiculously oversimplified construction of cricket's "bad boys", and puts players accused of Match-fixing, of steroid abuse, players who went on rebel tours and players who were involved in bad behaviour in the same boat. These are clearly not equivalent crimes, indeed some of these are not even crimes. Hence the decision by Cricket authorities to ban and/or punish these players in each of these individual cases are not comparable.

As such Cricinfo's list makes very little sense.

On Bangladesh Cricket and "globalizing" the game

Bangladesh is Test Cricket's newest exponent. It is also, unarguably, the worst of all time. As of now, they have played 53 Test matches, won 1 solitary Test match, and most importantly, lost 47 outright. The slowest starting Test playing nation of the 20th century - New Zealand, also had just 1 solitary Test match win in their first 53 Tests, but they managed to draw 25 of those 53, while Bangladesh have managed to draw just 5. The comparison between New Zealand and Bangladesh is obviously problematic - we are comparing different epochs, a different commercial climate and a vast difference in the variety and quality of opposition faced by these two teams. It took New Zealand 30 years to play their first 53 Tests, it has taken Bangladesh less than 8. But Bangladesh's numbers a particularly troubling.

It was a matter of time before something gave in Bangladesh, and with the mass exodus of senior Bangladesh Cricketers as well as some upcoming ones to the newly minted ICL franchise - the Dhaka Warriors, it seems as though that time is upon us. What is interesting here is not the uniqueness of the Bangladesh situation, but of how familiar the reaction in Bangladesh, of the Cricket Board and Cricket Fans has been. Utpal Shuvro describes events in Bangladesh. There have been discussions about patriotism, there has been talk of lack of support from the Board - if you didn't know better, you could easily think this was taking place here in India.

The ugly beast that is franchise driven Twenty20 Cricket has reared its head again. Several senior Bangladesh players, led by former Captain Habibul Bashar "retired" enmasse from international cricket to take up places in the Dhaka Warriors outfit. The Bangladesh Cricket Board (BCB) has reacted sternly, rejecting the letters and banning the said players for 10 years! Now, Habibul Bashar couldn't care less about the ban, but several younger players, such as  those who recently went with the academy side to Australia and have now signed up for the ICL, will suffer terribly if the ban is implemented fully or even substantially.

The Bangladesh situation is an important insight which ought to temper pipedreams about "globalizing" cricket. Bangladesh's problems come down at the end of the day to one simple fact - they can't win. Even more importantly, they can't even compete. In the eight years since they became a Test playing nation, Bangladesh have played 53 Tests and 108 One Day games against their fellow Test playing nations. They have won 1 Test and lost 47. In One Day Cricket, they have won 19 out of 108 games, losing 87. Of those 108 games they have played 29 times against Zimbabwe and hold at 15-14 edge over them. So their record against the top 8 Test playing nations in ODI cricket since they acquired Test status is - Played 79, Won 4, Lost 73. The Zimbabweans have not distinguished themselves in this decade by any means. They have played 180 ODI's against their fellow Test playing nations, and won 34 of them, losing 142. Leaving out games against Bangladesh, Zimbabwe's record reads - Played 151, Won 20, Lost 127.

That Bangladesh have been competitive against Zimbabwe is obviously because Zimbabwe have slipped, rather than any improvement on Bangladesh's part. After 50 Tests, and 108 ODIs, Bangladesh beating any of the top 8 Test playing nations in any form of the game is still considered a tremendous upset. Bangladesh sent a side to compete in the Duleep Trophy a couple of years ago, and that side got hammered by the weakest Zonal sides in India.

My point is this - globalizing the game deals centrally with building more competitive teams. So far, in this decade, Cricket has in effect lost one side (Zimbabwe), despite having added Bangladesh to the ranks of Test playing nations. Nobody even pretends that Zimbabwe and Bangladesh can seriously compete with any of the top 8 Test teams, either home or away. With neutral umpires, Bangladesh don't have the luxury that Sri Lanka did in 1985-86 when their home umpires helped them win Test matches against India and Pakistan. Even here, i am being uncharitable to Sri Lanka, because even by 1985, three years into their Test Match adventure, they had shown great promise, nearly beating a strong Pakistan side at Faisalabad.

In their first eight years in Test Cricket, Sri Lanka played 29 Test matches, and their batsmen made 19 Test hundreds in those games. These hundreds were made by 9 different batsmen. By contrast, in their first 8 years, in 47 Test matches, 7 different Bangladesh batsmen have made 11 Test hundreds between them (not counting tests against Zimbabwe to make it a fair comparison). If you are looking for competitiveness, Test hundreds are probably the best measure of this competitiveness, because the nature of Test Cricket is such that batting big keeps you in the game and keeps the opposition from winning.

That in a nutshell is Bangladesh's problem - they can't compete at the level of the top Test playing nations. I disagree with those who say that Arjuna Ranatunga made Sri Lanka a top Test playing country. He was important without question, but the basic ability to play was already present. If you looked down the Sri Lankan line up of say 1985, you would find a serious middle order there with the stylish Roy Dias accompanying Duleep Mendis and Arjuna Ranatunga - batsmen with batting averages in the mid-thirties. Compare those with the record of Bangladesh's best batsman - Habibul Bashar. Bashar averages 29 against good opposition, Ashraful averages 25, while Nafees averages 27.

The average Sri Lankan team score in a Test innings in the 1980's was 242. This accounts for their first 8 years in Test Cricket. The average team score in a Test innings for Bangladesh, in their first 8 years is 180.

At this point, i think i have driven home the point that in their first 8 years, try as they might, Bangladesh cannot compete in international cricket against the top tier teams, while a side like Sri Lanka, in its first eight years showed enough quality to justify their promotion to Test Match status. This has nothing to do with leadership or team spirit or anything else, for if there is one thing that is true in Cricket, it is that there is limitless scope for an individual demonstrate his skills and ability. Just ask Andrew Flower or Heath Streak, or even Shivnaraine Chanderpaul or Sachin Tendulkar (in portions of the 1990's). Mohammad Ashraful is a sub-standard Test Match batsman because he hasn't yet demonstrated the basic ability that any Test batsman worth his salt must have. Merely possessing the ability to play every stroke in the book is obviously not sufficient.

The problem Bangladesh face is a difficult one. When playing international cricket against a top level side, the opposition is too good for their players. When playing domestic cricket at home, the opposition is poor. Only Zimbabwe at this point in time are comparable to Bangladesh in terms of ability.

The problem is complicated even further by the nature of the various Cricketing contests. Bangladesh will not be taken seriously as a top Cricketing nation unless they are able to compete at Test Cricket. They will not become competitive at Test Cricket by playing Twenty20 or ODI's, and learning to play that game. The ever increasing focus on limited overs cricket, away from first class four day cricket, which, like it or not, is the best breeding ground for solid, high quality cricketers, is not helping Bangladesh.

Players as poles apart as Virender Sehwag and Steve Waugh will tell you that they are where they are because they learnt their trade in the first class game - playing on bad wickets, on good wickets, being run gluttons and running up mountainous scores. Even before he played Test Cricket, Virender Sehwag already had a first class innings of 274 to his name. The highest first class score by a Bangladesh batsman in 2007-08 was 168. Imagine how the Bangladesh Cricket fraternity must have felt when the South Africans visited and Graeme Smith and Neil McKenzie both reeled off double hundreds against the best bowling Bangladesh could throw at them.  The highest first class innings in the 2008 First Class season in England was 270, while in the 2007-08 season in Australia it was 306, in New Zealand it was 268, in Pakistan it was 300, in Sri Lanka it was 285, in India it was 319, in South Africa it was 218, while in West Indies it was 208.

These are not coincidences, neither are they one-offs. What they reveal is a basic strength in the first class cricket in these Cricket playing nations. The general quality of first class bowling attacks in all these nations is superior to that in Bangladesh, which tells you something about the quality of batting. While bowling is central to succeeding in first class cricket, it is batting which drives the quality of first class cricket. Bowlers cannot know how good they actually are unless they come up against the best quality batsmen possible.

Bangladesh's two most celebrated batsmen are Habibul Bashar and Mohammad Ashraful. Bashar has a career best first class score of 224, but a first class average of 33, while Ashraful has a best first class score of 263 to go with a first class average of 30. Both Ashraful and Bashar have played at least as many if not more Test matches than they have played first class games (42 Tests in 84 first class games for Ashraful, 50 Tests out of 87 first class games for Bashar). If you isolate Ashraful's first class batting, his batting average is still only 35. This is the most gifted batsman in Bangladesh. There is little doubt that Ashraful can bat, the problem is that he doesn't most of the time.

This just illustrates how difficult it is for a new team to break into Test Match cricket, and how important a solid first class set up is to maintaining quality at Test Match levels. The challenge for Cricket in the face of Twenty20 Cricket is twofold. First, established Test playing nations have to ensure that their first class setups remain robust and prolific (in terms of number of games), even if domestic twenty20 tournaments emerge as major money spinners. Second, if Cricket is to grow, and if we agree that any serious expansion would involve the development of new Test playing nations, then Cricket needs to show foresight and investment for the long term (and by that i mean 50-75 years) by encouraging serious cricket of the long form variety in a handful of nations and building up the equivalent of first class cricket in those nations.

The only thing which justifies Bangladesh's presence in top level Cricket, is the popular enthusiasm for the game in that country. Of course there are those who will argue that we should leave everything to the market - that the future of cricket is best decided by the volume of the audience and sponsorship, but that does not guarantee quality. Thats where the corporate/commercial crowd (and by this i mean those who believe in a market fundamentalism of sorts) has it backwards. Twenty20 is successful because of the superstars created by tough, legendary Test Match battles. What draws an audience is the promise of high quality cricket. Now, you can create an artificial illusion of quality, but i suspect that this has a limited shelf life.

At the end of the day, you have to have teams that can play. Bangladesh have demonstrated how hard it is to build those teams.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Moral Victories - rethinking the Draw

As the Nissar Trophy game moves into its third day, Delhi have more or less overcome the advantage of having a conceded a 132 run first innings deficit to the visitors SNGPL. Virat Kohli continued his good form to reach 91 not out to add to his 52 in the first innings as Delhi reached 1/242 (Akash Chopra 93*, Sehwag 37) after having dismissed the SNGPL line up for 266 in their first innings.

The highlight of Day 1 was a lower middle-order hattrick by 27 year old Imran Ali. He took 6/52 in the Delhi first innings, and was aided by his opening partner Asad Ali who took 3/32. Delhi were bowled out for 134. Ashish Nehra was amongst the wickets when Delhi bowled, but Ishant Sharma had an expensive opening spell. It is interesting to see that the Delhi pacemen go for about 4 runs per over in the SNGPL first innings. Delhi have since responded by scoring at nearly 5 an over in the third innings of the match.

The game seems to be evenly poised at the moment. We have little to go on in this, the first game of the season. Early season wickets can be a tad unreliable. Even though SNGPL have to bat fourth, Delhi will feel more comfortable if they are able to declare and set a target for SNGPL, rather than being bowled out. If you look at the history of Test Cricket, sides which declare and set fourth innings targets have almost never lost Test matches - not unless the targets were set by a desperate side which was behind in the series. In the first innings, Delhi collapsed from 2/90 to 10/134. It remains unclear whether this was merely a one-off or whether it indicates a clear gulf in quality between the first four, and the other seven (all of whom are regular Delhi players but have never seriously threatened the Indian batting line up). SNGPL have to bat last, and while that may not matter as much on Day 3 and Day 4 as it does in a Test match (on the 5th afternoon say), Delhi have a fairly good pace attack.  Time is also a factor in this game. With six sessions of play left, and given the fact that 74 overs were possible on Day 1, while the full 90 overs were played on Day 2, Delhi will have to account for possible stoppages due to bad weather in assessing their declaration and/or scoring rate.

The rules of the Nissar Trophy are not clear, but if it is awarded on first innings basis, then Delhi will have to force an outright win from here. The fact that they didn't lose a wicket just before the end of play on Day 2 may prove to be more important than we might think if they go on to win.

A word about the coverage. It is striking to me that Cricinfo is providing live commentary of the One Day triangular series between India A, New Zealand A and Australia A, but not of this Nissar Trophy game featuring Sehwag and Misbah and Ishant Sharma. Do you seriously think that viewers in India are more interested in Australia A v New Zealand A? I suspect that it is indicative of the almost reflexive judgement that four day games are boring, while limited overs games are not. The Nissar Trophy certainly did not suffer from a lack of star power.

The usual reason for this is that four day games last four days, and there is still no guarantee of a result. This argument is a stupid one (thats the best and most appropriate way of putting it), obviously there is the guarantee of a result, it is just much more intelligent and sophisticated than mere winning and losing. The Draw is the most interesting result in all of sport, precisely because it does not suggest that both teams were equally good in the game. It says that the one side was better than the other, just not sufficiently better to be declared a winner. So a 4 day game between teams' A and B can actually have 6 possible results:

1. Team A wins
2. Team A better than team B, but not enough to win
3. Team A and Team B both equally placed
4. Team B better than team A, but not enough to win
5. Team B wins
6. Team A and Team B tie.

The third result and the 6th result in that list is the rarest of the six possible results, and not surprisingly, these two results are the ones which indicate equality.

This is also why i disagree with artificial agreements about declaring the winner on the first innings to be the winner. Apart from reducing the incentive for the side with the first innings lead to play for the outright win (especially in knock out games like semi-finals, or in this Nissar Trophy game), it also renders all the cricket that is played after the first innings are completed to be irrelevant, as long as the side leading on the first innings does not go on to lose the game. A better would be to measure the state of the game after every delivery and offer points in league games like the Ranji Trophy super-league based on the six possible results listed above.

The points system could still be suitably biased in favor of outright wins. This will ensure that there will be no nonsense spouted about moral victories. A possible points distribution could be

1. Outright win - W:5, L:0
2. Being ahead in the game at the end W - 3, L: 1
3. Being dead even (draw) - W: 3, L: 3
4. Tie - both sides get 4 points.

In most games, distributions (1) or (2) would apply. This is probably how most games end. I wonder how Test Cricketers may see this.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Satire September 13th

This is the opening segment of Saturday Night Live on September 13th. The brilliant Amy Poehler continues as Hillary Clinton, while Tina Fey, a former head writer at SNL plays the VP candidate from Alaska, Sarah Palin. Note the supreme resemblance between Tina Fey and real Sarah Palin.

If you even vaguely follow political news coverage you will realize how superbly written this segment is.

Friday, September 12, 2008

A West Indian Champion

The Guyanese have been stellar partners in the West Indian cricketing adventure. The most successful West Indian captain ever - Clive Lloyd hails from Guyana, as does the first West Indian bowler to take 300 Test wickets - the off spinner Lance Gibbs. These two, and many others have tended to be quintessentially West Indian in their approach to the game.

Shivnaraine Chanderpaul is an unlikely West Indian Cricketer. If you, as a cricket freak, were confronted by one of those IQ-test style questions asking you to pick the odd one out from the Guyanese quartet of Clive Lloyd, Rohan Kanhai, Alwin Kallicharan and Shivnaraine Chanderpaul, purely on the basis of 15 minute compilations of their individual batting styles, it would be an easy decision. Chanderpaul over the years has shown himself to be the most unorthodox and almost stubbornly inelegant batsman of his generation. He has also, as of today, outscored all his storeyed Guyanese predecessors in Test Cricket.

The diminutive southpaw, just named the ICC Cricketer of the Year for 2008, is the very anti-thesis of the great West Indian batsman that is etched in the public imagination. West Indian batsmen are supposed to be powerful, lightning quick, with an unmatched eye to complement a free spirit. The caricature of the quintessential West Indian batsman has been etched over the years by willow-wielders like Everton Weekes and Gary Sobers and Vivian Richards and Gordon Greenidge and the outrageously gifted Brian Lara. These were batsmen to be feared. Everton Weekes and Gordon Greenidge were widely regarded as the best exponents of the square-cut in their respective eras. Sobers, Richards and Lara could do almost anything they pleased. Not only did it look brilliant, it almost invariably came off. What you are most likely to remember about Chanderpaul, is his unconventional stance and his crab-like defensive crouch.

He made his Test debut at his home ground in 1994 against the visiting Englishmen. He was 20 years old, and considered to be one of the brightest young batting prospects in the Caribbean. The West Indies fielded first, and inspite of Michael Atherton's fighting 144, England were dismissed for 322. A West Indian line up which read Haynes, Richardson, Lara, Arthurton, Adams, Chanderpaul, then set about the English bowling to pile up 556, which was enough for Curtly Ambrose and c0. to deliver an innings victory. Chanderpaul himself made 62 on Test debut, but in a little glimpse of what was to become to story of his early career, merely seemed to glide in the wake of Brian Lara's blistering 167 (made in 210 balls in just over 4 hours with 25 fours and 2 sixes).

Chanderpaul struggled to convert starts in the 1990's. Indeed, in the first eight years of his career, which included his first 51 Tests, he reached a half century 25 times in 85 innings, but extended that to a century on only two occasions. His batting strike rate was agonizingly low - 40 runs per hundred balls, the sort of strike rate that an out of form Rahul Dravid specializes in. There was never any doubt that he could play, but little, if any evidence that he would live up to his early promise.

This began to change when India toured the Caribbean in 2002. As has been the case with many with left handed batsmen before him who came upon the Indian bowling attack, Chanderpaul seized the moment and reeled off three centuries in five Tests. He hasn't looked back since. His herculean batting recently against all opposition is merely a happy continuation of whatever it was that he discovered about himself in that series against India. Since that series in 2002, he has made 5067 runs at 58.24 in Tests. In recent series he has produced 442 runs at 147 against Australia, 247 runs at 82 in South Africa and 446 runs at 148.66 in England. Only Ricky Ponting, Mathew Hayden and Jacques Kallis have made more Test hundreds since 2002 than Shivnaraine Chanderpaul (17).

The numbers are impressive, but it is their context which sets Chanderpaul apart from the rest in this period. Unlike South Africa or Australia, the West Indies have spent the last 6 years establishing themselves at the bottom of the Test Match table. The West Indies batting, if you leave out Chanderpaul and Lara until his retirement, has been frail and unreliable. Ramnaresh Sarwan and Chris Gayle are good players, and indeed to possess all the stroke making qualities of their illustrious predecessors, but they haven't quite established themselves as Test Match batting bankers - like Dravid or Kallis in their prime. Given good weather and a good batting track, there has never really been a guarantee that the West Indian batsmen would put up a big score. Chanderpaul has more often than not stood alone. He has made about 15% of his teams runs (5067 out of 35141) during this period. Since Brian Lara's retirement in November 2006, he has made 1265 runs at 105, which amounts to 20% of his teams runs in that period.

His batsmanship is not easy on the eye, but he is one of the most complete strokemakers in cricket today. He can play every stroke in the book against both pace and spin. He may not embody the qualities of the West Indian batsman of the popular imagination, but he does embody the qualities which made the West Indians the great champions that they were.

The building blocks of the West Indian success were not lightning strokeplay and pace like fire. The West Indies won because their best players - Richards, Greenidge, Haynes, Lloyd etc. had superb defensive techniques and could play long innings. They won because their bowlers could bowl more accurately than they were given credit for. Curtly Ambrose was nearly impossible to hit (economy rate 2.30) because he could bowl a mean length endlessly. They won due to their solid prose, not due to their rousing poetry.

Chanderpaul's game is built similarly on a solid defense. The strokeplay is adequately varied and extremely competent. Make no mistake about it - he has an exceptional eye and as his ODI record suggests, can play blazing innings when they are needed. He made a Test hundred in 69 balls against Australia at his home ground in Georgetown, Guyana in 2003, and in a stunning demonstration of his range made an underrated 104 a month later as the West Indies successfully chased 418 in the 4th innings to win the final Test of that series at St. John's Antigua.

To the interested watcher, he is quite a marvel. His stance has changed over the years, from a conventional side-on stance to one which is almost completely front-on. And yet, if you see a picture of Chanderpaul when he actually to meets the ball, it is almost always one which exudes model correctness. The ball is met under the eye, the bat is invariably straight and the head is very very still.

From hitting a six off the last ball to win a One Day game, to scoring a 4th innings Test hundred in a World Record run chase, Shivnaraine Chanderpaul has done it all. He is today one of the most accomplished, respected senior statesmen in the game.In approach, as well as in temperament, Chanderpaul is very similar to the great Zimbabwean southpaw Andrew Flower. Unlike Flower however, this West Indian champion has inherited a daunting legacy. It says a great deal about him, that by the time he is done, he will reside comfortably amidst his brilliant predecessors.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A beatable Australian side

Australia have announced their Test squad for the tour of India in October-November of this year. It is almost the same squad which played against India in Australia earlier this year. In what some will see as poetic justice, the two members of that Australian side who got into trouble - Brad Hogg and Andrew Symonds, will not be on the tour which some Australian players view as their "everest". Bradley Hogg has retired, while Andrew Symonds has evidently gone fishing.

At first glance, it is striking to see just how much the Australian side has changed. Only four members of the 2008 party have played Test Cricket in India before - Hayden, Ponting, Katich and Clarke. Katich is currently in India as Captain of the Australia A side. Four of his colleagues from that squad will return to India with the Test squad - 36 year old leg spinner Bryce McGain (an IT professional who turned professional cricketer at age 35, made his first class debut in 2001-02), two left arm pacemen - Peter Siddle and Doug  Bollinger, and the off spinner Jason Krejza. Krejza's first class record suggests that he is the least fancied of the Australian bowlers and that he can also bat a bit, with four first class fifties and a batting average of 24.

This Australian side has a peculiar balance and the make up of the squad, with Shane Watson being picked, suggests that Australia may play five bowlers. Simon Katich has forced his way back into the Test team by scoring over 1500 runs in the 2007-08 First Class season un Australia. Katich offers Ricky Ponting some flexibility. He has opened the batting for Australia in ODI cricket, and i would not be surprised to see him open the batting with Hayden, thus allowing Australia the luxury of playing Shane Watson and Brad Haddin at 6 and 7 respectively, followed by four specialist bowlers.

In the bowling department, it is unlikely that Australia will play two spinners, unless the wicket is a rank turner like the Mumbai wicket of 2004 was. The four specialist bowlers are likely to include Lee and Clark and one of the three left arm pacemen. Mitchell Johnson was steady with the ball in Australia earlier this year (16 wickets at 33.12) and faded as the series progressed.

For once, it is possible to suggest that atleast on paper, India and Australia look reasonably evenly matched. India are not hopelessly outmatched in the pace bowling department, and even with Kumble showing clear signs of aging, India still have the edge as far as spin bowling goes. Mahendra Singh Dhoni will have to bat above his Test Match ability to match Haddin (5637 First Class runs at 41.14 with 10 centuries and 32 half centuries).

India will need their middle order men to fire, and their bowlers to bowl consistently well at the Australian batsmen. At this point in their careers, there are no secrets to be learnt by India about Ponting or Hayden or Katich or Clarke. They have all played plenty of Cricket against each other. The one battle that i am keenly looking forward to is the Australian new ball attack's method against Virender Sehwag. I suspect that it will be Clark and not Lee who will pose the most potent threat to the Najafgarh Nugget.

This is probably the last series in which Tendulkar, Laxman, Dravid and Kumble will face their fiercest adversaries. It would be nice if they could sign off with a series victory.

The Cricket Season begins

The 2008-09 Cricket season begins in earnest with the Nissar Trophy, played between the national champion sides of the previous season from India and Pakistan. This year, the Ranji Trophy Champions Delhi will host SNGPL. The final of the Quaid E Azam trophy was played between Habib Bank and SNGPL, and SNGPL became the first office team other than Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) to win the premier First Class Tournament in 1989-90.

Misbah-Ul-Haq starred in the final for SNGPL scoring 64 and 161. Mohammad Hafeez, the Pakistan opener and off spinner captained the side and will lead the visitors in the Nissar Trophy game. The Delhi side is at full strength - led by Virender Sehwag, with Gautam Gambhir, Aakash Chopra and Mithun Manhas forming the nucleus of a strong, experienced batting line up. Ishant Sharma (declared fully fit by the NCA physio) and Ashish Nehra will lead the new ball attack, and in all likelyhood will be supported by Amit Bhandari. The Habib Bank side that they faced had Younis Khan, Shahid Afridi and Hasan Raza (at one time known as the youngest Test player ever at 14 years and 227 days. This claim was later withdrawn by the PCB).

The SNGPL bowling attack is led by Samiullah Khan, a left arm pace bowler who comes into this game with an impressive first class record (209 wickets at 19.53). He has been on the fringes of the Pakistan side for a while now.  He will be supported by Asad Ali and Imran Ali, both fast medium bowlers with an impressive record in the 2007-08 season.

Once the Nissar Trophy is done, the next first class game on the agenda is the Irani Trophy. Delhi will take on the Rest Of India side at Baroda. This promises to be a sizzling game with many match ups to look forward to. Ishant Sharma will line up the Indian middle order, while Zaheer Khan will come up against Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir. With the news that Sreesanth is also likely to be fully fit in the next week or ten days, India are in the happy position of having no real injury worries at the start of the new season. This is important, especially if you think back to the 2004-05 Australian tour to India, when the Indian middle order was decimated by injury. With the Irani Trophy game and the A team tri-series, India should be well prepared to regain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy this time around.

The First Class season itself should be interesting with the BCCI augmenting the allowance of three "guest" players per Ranji Team with an overseas player who has played atleast 10 Test or 20 One-Dayers. This last bit seems to be a classic Gavaskarean touch.

All in all, much to look forward to.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

More Snark about the selectors

Ajay Jadeja quoted at Cricinfo

"We'll have a new bunch of jokers very soon." 
The BCCI is to appoint a new set of national selectors shortly, and Ajay Jadeja is put in mind of a famous Mohinder Amarnath utterance 

Sep 8, 2008

Where is this coming from? Arrogance of it is truly breathtaking. This is a guy who was banned for 5 years for connections with the whole match-fixing saga! He appealed against the ban, and then failed to show up for the hearing in the court!

And why does Cricinfo think its a noteworthy quote?

Monday, September 08, 2008

Smoke Signals

The outgoing Selection Committee chaired by Dilip Vengsarkar has signalled a shift just as the outgoing Kiran More led committee did two years ago. Sourav Ganguly has been left out of the Rest-of-India side for the upcoming Irani Trophy, which promises to be a star studded encounter. The selectors are moving at the right time - at the start of a new season, and have sent out the right signal to the right player. It probably came as no surprise to the former Indian captain who has accepted the decision according to reports. Im most glad that this news was conveyed to Sourav Ganguly by one of the selectors.

The knives have been out for India's long serving middle order, christened the "big four" or the "fab four" from time to time even though at no time in the last 8 years have India had all four middle order batsmen at their best at the same time. For most of this decade its been Dravid, Laxman and Tendulkar delivering big runs along with the brilliant Virender Sehwag. In the last 12-15 months Ganguly seemed to have returned well, before his form fell away in the second half of the Australian tour and then in Sri Lanka. Consider this though - for all his bad form since he returned from the West Indies in 2006, Rahul Dravid's Test batting average against good opposition (not Zimbabwe and Bangladesh) is the same as Sourav Ganguly's batting average against the same opposition over a period of 6 years (2000 - 2006). It remains to be seen if Dravid can recover his form. However, the important runs that he has made in Australia and his hundred against South Africa probably helped him keep his spot ahead of the Bengal southpaw. He is also generally viewed to be in a different class of batsman altogether compared to Ganguly.

Even considering these harsh facts, there is no occasion for derisive commentary, even if it masquerades as a lighthearted quip. This is just one example. It is no surprise to me that the same people who feel "humiliated" when India lose a Test match are also most likely pass the most contemptuous flippant remarks about our best sportsmen. There is some bizarre notion of "hold our head high" associated with winning at international sport. I mean seriously, what is all this so called support worth if it does not inspire courtesy when the subject of our support is not doing well? Misguided accountability freaks who hold that cricketers ought to be discarded and replaced liked spare parts from a Maruti 800 miss the whole point about quality and class.

As it turns out, the selectors have made their move, and it is a timely one if you ask me. That they are not thinking in terms of any grandiose, wholesale generational shift is evident not just from the decision to drop only Sourav Ganguly amongst the senior men, but by the decision to invite Wasim Jaffer to open the batting for Rest-of-India. This is only because the first choice pair at this time - Gambhir and Sehwag, will open the batting for Ranji Trophy Champions Delhi. But the selectors have clearly signalled that they still view Wasim Jaffer as the next best option.

The same freaks i referred to in the paragraph before the previous one are also most likely to think that the national selectors are fools. This is a popular, persuasive idea, because by defnition the selectors must disappoint all but 15-20 individuals (whom they select). Contrary to most people, i think the Vengsarkar selection committee has done a fine job in its two years. When it came along, in the heated atmosphere of Chappell Era, it had no choice but to revert back to experience for the World Cup. The selections after the World Cup have been fine ones as well - the England tour was a success and when the One-Day team showed signs of revival, but still lost the NatWest series to the hosts and Dravid resigned, the selectors reverted back to new players. The appointment of Mahendra Singh Dhoni as captain has proved to be a masterstroke and India have won tournaments and series in Australia and Sri Lanka in the past year.

The selection of Irani Trophy team and the India A side is characteristic of this selection committee - measured and even slightly cautious. I suspect that the next committee will go along with the Vengsarkar committee decision about Sourav Ganguly. The smoke signals have been sent out.

Meanwhile, lets watch the circus of the press and the freaks play out.

Measuring Batting Greatness - II

I've finally put together all the data to illustrate the rating method described in my previous post. Im posting two results here. In the first one, i've considered every batsman's record exactly as described in the post. In the second, i have not considered the career aggregate as a factor, instead i have set a minimum cut off of 5000 runs for players to qualify. Please note that i began with the players who had already made Mr. Narayanan's list. I added Kevin Pietersen and Mahendra Singh Dhoni to this list, because they have records comparable to Michael Hussey's. In the second list, Zaheer Abbas, Greg Chappell, Hussey, Dhoni and Pietersen have been left out as they did not / haven't yet scored 5000 career runs.
This is by no means a comprehensive list for players with more than 5000 ODI runs (admittedly an arbitrary number). I should probably added Shivnaraine Chanderpaul, Gary Kirsten, Damien Martyn, Andy Flower and possibly Yuvraj Singh to this list. Among those with over 7000 ODI runs, Atapattu, Ranatunga, Stephen Fleming, Nathan Astle and Saleem Malik do not feature in this list.

I have considered Tendulkar as a special case and listed him twice - once with his overall career record and in his avatar as opener. I chose to do so because Tendulkar has played over 100 games as non-opener which brings his career record down amongst the mortals (albeit only to the high aristocracy) of ODI cricket. His record as opener (13k runs at 48) is quite bradmanesque.

Ratings considering career aggregate (click here to see full size table)

Ratings ignoring career aggregate (minimum career 5000 runs)(click here to see full size table):

Note the difference made by the partnership-difference (i.e the difference between the runs per innings for the batsman and the runs per innings for his partner). Ricky Ponting and Mathew Hayden in particular seem to enjoy very high quality batting at the other end (not surprising when you consider the Australian batting line up). Sachin Tendulkar does too (nearly 28 runs/innings), but he scores an astonishing 45 runs per innings as opener. Only Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Zaheer Abbas have achieved a runs/innings figure of 40 or more.

Infact, what the figures suggest is that Gordon Greenidge and Zaheer Abbas, more than any other batsmen of their era (even if you count Richards) might have achieved phenomenal records had they played in the 1990's and 2000's. Greenidge made 5000 ODI runs in about 125 innings. If you grant him 300 games, which is about the number that a player of Greenidge's stature would play in a career today, Greenidge would have easily topped 10 or 11,000 career runs.

Also, have a look at the uncanny similarity between Inzamam and Javed Miandad's career records. They were similar batsmen who played similar roles in the Pakistan middle order. Inzamam proved to be a worthy successor to Miandad.

Note that Dean Jones ranks higher than any Australian batsman (except Bevan) in both rankings.

The great Brian Lara features in the top 10 in both rankings. His Test Match batting overshadowed his One Day batting, but he was easily one of the top 5 ODI batsmen of his generation. He played 52 games as opener and scored 2166 runs at 46.08 with 5 centuries and 15 fifties. These 5 centuries included 3 sizzling hundreds against Wasim and Waqar at venues as varied as Kingsmead, Sabina Park and Sharjah, and that breathtaking 111 in the World Cup quarterfinal against South Africa (Donald and co. in 1996).

I wonder how the West Indies might have fared had Lara stuck to opening the batting like Tendulkar did for India. I suspect we might have had 2 men at 15k plus runs right now, and Tendulkar might well have been second.

With lists like these, some of us are usually interested in the top slot, some others are interested in the positions of particular players. I like making and reading lists like these, because they provide a broad framework in which can hold lots of interesting clues if you're willing to look for them.

Measuring Batting Greatness

A few months ago Cricinfo published some superb data related to Test Match and ODI batting partnerships, which i used to prepare this method for measuring the value (greatness as far as im concerned) of a batsman in Test Cricket.

Batting in Cricket takes place in pairs. I have for long felt that partnerships must somehow figure in measuring batsmen. The data published by Cricinfo above helped me produce those ratings. I have since used that basic idea to develop a measure of an ODI batsman's value. Since i only have access to Cricinfo's publicly available statsguru database and user interface, i will describe the method and offer an illustration of the method comparing Sachin Tendulkar and Vivian Richards. This detailed analysis at Cricinfo blogs suggests that these are the two best ODI batsmen of all time. I will return to Cricinfo's methodology later in this post.

I consider five factors in assessing the value of an ODI batsman

1. Number of partnerships/innings
2. Batting Average
3. Batting Strike Rate
4. Difference in Runs/innings for batsman and the batsmen at the other end
5. Aggregate runs

Numbers two, three and five are fairly standard measures. Batting average and batting strike are two one-dimensional statistics which describe the consistency and speed of scoring of a given batsman, while the aggregate describes the longevity of a batsman, there by providing a glimpse into the batsman's ability to deal with different types of bowling over the years.

The partnership data is a crucial addition towards making a complete assessment. The point of batting in ODI cricket is to score as many runs as possible, as quickly as possible and bat for as many overs as possible out of the total available (usually 50). A high number of partnerships per innings could merely suggest that the rest of the batting in that player's side is weak. This in itself is valuable. A high difference value reflects well on a batsman. What makes it especially valuable is measuring this along with the usual statistics such as aggregate, strike rate and most crucially batting average.

The fourth statistic is the most complicated one to calculate. Ideally i would like to use batting average for both the batsman in question and the batsmen at the other end (a single average for all the batsmen at the other end). What i have used here is the runs/innings scored by the batsman in question, and the runs/innings scored at the other end (this equals the total number of runs scored at the other end while the batsman in question was at the wicket divided by the total number of wickets conceded). So, if in a given innings a batsman has batted with 4 different partners before he was dismissed, the runs/innings at the other end would be calculated by dividing the total runs score at the other end by 3. If a batsman bats with only one partner, then the runs are the other end are naturally used as they are.

I weigh each of these factors equally. I have found no reason to consider one more important than the other. However, the way i count them is a little different. I don't count the individual batting average, but measure it in relation to all other batting averages. The best batting average is counted as 0.000 and the lowest is measure as 1.000 (this would be a 0.00 batting average if the entire population of ODI batsmen is considered). Similarly, the highest partnership difference is measured as 0.000, while the lowest (this could be negative) is measured as 1.000. This is done for all 5 statistics.

As an illustration of this idea, please look at the table below (please click here to see it full sized)
The batsman with the lowest cumulative rating is the most valuable batsman in this rating.

The analysis at Cricinfo considers the following 8 factors and assigns arbitrary weights to each. I must confess that i have an aversion to applying arbitrary weights because they cannot be justified. I view weighing factors equally as a fair way of taking things into account when there is no compelling reason to consider one factor as being more significant than another. I think it is far better to build a few highly significant factors and weigh them equally, rather than to consider lots of factors and then have to say one is more important than the other.

That said, i think the factors used by the Cricinfo analysis are worth looking at. They are as follows:
1. Total runs scored (TRS) 
2. Batting Average (AVGE) 
3. Runs per Innings (RPI) 
4. Strike Rate (STRT) 
5. Quality of bowlers faced (BOWQTY) 
6. % of Team runs (TRPER) 
7. Wins achieved - Absolute number of wins (WINS) - Win % of matches played (WINSPER) 
8. MOM awards received/frequency (MOM).

The post at Cricinfo has a very clear and concise description of how each factor is calculated and weighted. The first 4 factors are standard and i use them as well in whole or in part (factor 3).

The Quality of Bowlers faced measure, looks very persuasive at first glance, but if you actually think about it, it is quite problematic. The quality of bowling to some extent is a measure of the quality of batting that is facing it. Using a bowler's career statistics at that point (which is what i assume is being used and not the bowler's statistics at the end of his career) would be problematic, before the statistics of bowlers tend to fluctuated wildly over their first 50-100 ODI's. Besides, the batsman does not choose the bowlers he faces and hence should not be rewarded or penalized specifically for this factor. For example, Adam Gilchrist and Mark Waugh never opened the batting in an ODI against Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie. This does not make them less great in my view, neither does it mean that Waugh's 40+ average is worth less than a similar average from an Indian or Pakistani batsman. The quality of bowling is adequately taken into account by considering the run aggregate (longevity, variety of bowling), batting average (consistency) and strike rate.

Similarly, the % of wins is another measure which i would not consider while measuring individual batsmen or bowlers, even in ODI cricket, because it cannot be proven that victory or defeat was the responsibility of any one player. Even if a given player scored all the runs or took all the wickets, he would still have to endure other batsmen facing up occasionally, or other bowlers bowling from the other end, not to speak of all the fielding that would need to be done. Therefore, considering victories or defeats is not necessary and is probably unfair. For example, Adam Gilchrist played in Test match winning teams in 73 out of his 100 odd Test matches, an astounding statistic. It is also irrelevant towards measuring Gilchrist's value as a batsman. It is evident that some players are more important than others when you look at the victories achieved by some teams (Jayasurya for Sri Lanka, Tendulkar for India, even Gilchrist for Australia to some extent), but that does not mean that the reverse (that they win games for their sides) is equally true. This statistic is merely a measure of their batting ability relative to others in their side, something which is considered using partnership statistics.

The percentage of team runs statistic is also problematic, because the batsman should not be responsible for what happens when he is not at the wicket. Measuring partnerships is a much better way of considering the value of the batsman relative to his team.

Partnership data needs to be considered when individual batsmen are assessed, because thats how the game is structured. A batsman's value is ultimately a measure of his ability to score lots of runs, consistency and quickly. His value is also a measure of his performance relative to other performances while he is at the wicket. Since most batsmen near the top of the aggregate and average charts play against all available top quality opposition during their careers, it is reasonable to assume that this provides a fairly well-rounded measure of a batsman's value. 

The batsman closest to perfection would be the one with the best average, best aggregate, best strike rate, have scored the highest fraction of runs while he is at the wicket and tend to stay at the wicket longer (in terms of fall of wickets at the other end) than other batsmen.

The method proposed and illustrated in this post can be modified suitably for Test Cricket as well. One would probably want to discard strike rate from the Test Match version because the data maynot be available for many great batsmen and also because the information gleaned from the strike rate can be adequately acquired for Test Matches purposes by measuring partnership share.

I will develop this for a few other batsmen. If some of you can point me to partnership statistics (the Cricinfo partnership summary for individual batsmen works well, but i would still need to take that data for each individual batsman and modify it), it would help me considerably. Ideally this statistic should be calculated for each batsman who has batted in ODI cricket and has a finite batting average for the results to be truly meaningful.

Here are some of my other posts on Cricket Statistics