Saturday, November 29, 2008

Cricket at CCI

On December 19th 2008, the Cricket Club of India, the cradle of cricket in India was to host its first Test Match in nearly 35 years. In 1973, the final Test of India's series against Tony Lewis's MCC side was played at the Brabourne Stadium. The game ended in a draw, with Farokh Engineer, Gundappa Vishwanath, Keith Fletcher and Tony Greig making centuries.

The Mumbai Test has been moved to Chennai by the BCCI, and if ECB and BCCI have their way, the Test Series will go ahead. The major negotiation is likely to occur between the English players and the ECB. Mihir Bose makes some cogent points in his latest blog post, but i wonder whether these arguments help or hurt in a situation like this. 

I hope there is some cricket at CCI on December 19. Even T20 will do.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Facing Up

At this point there is nothing left to say. Everybody i speak to has been glued to the TV for the past three days, taking in every morsel, rivetted by the macabre events in the city of Bombay. Who did it? What do we know? Where do things stand? What progress has been made? Who are "they"?

Everybody has an opinion, from the know-all pundits, to the agenda laden anchors, and everybody is very eager to tell us what they think. And yet, nothing new has been said in the past three days. Here in the US, there has been wall to wall coverage on every major news outlet, from the liberal news-aggregator HuffingtonPost, to the New York Times, to the Wall Street Journal, to every news network. And yet, nothing new has been said. India's myriad news channels have lived the story, covering every little turn, every little twist. And even they have had nothing new to say.

When the sun rises tomorrow morning, it will shine on the first day after 26/11. Bombay will carry in its most storeyed corner, a few bombed out buildings - the first in the history of free India. People will return to work, because for many in my city, the only other option is to starve. There will be investigations, and there will be recrimination and a tough Indian stance on this internationally. We will continue to call this "islamist terrorism", and that ancient religion will face renewed assaults - by those who continue to kill in its name, and by those of us who point fingers at it in response.

Whatever the problems between traditional Islam and modernity may be (and i am no expert), the only possible inspiration for such a crazily violent action that i can imagine, would be a horrifically perverted faith in Mogambo. There is no civilized logic to be found here, and it seems to me that it is futile to dig for it. What we cannot do, is to fall into this trap of blaming the muslims. Most of us, in our sane moments realize this, but it is troubling how easily we are willing to generalize on this front, how blithely we talk of "backlash".

This time we ought to act counter-intuitively, and as Suketu Mehta has so wonderfully distilled, run towards the explosion, not from it. We need think of something new.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Monday, November 24, 2008

If you are in Bombay...

at the end of November, do visit this exhibition of paintings by artist Nyela Saeed, Nov 26 - 29 at Kitab Mahal, DN Road.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Was it 4 or 6?

A small incident in yesterday's rain affected limited over's international caught my eye. It took place in the 10th over of England's run chase. Cricinfo has recorded the incident thus:

9.2 Yuvraj Singh to Shah, FOUR, low full toss outside off stump, Shah backs away and swings, getting the toe end of the bat on it and scooping it back over Yuvraj's head, Raina dives at long-off and in one fluent move parries the ball to Gambhir, running in from the opposite end, but misses him completely and gives away four ... Yuvraj starts laughing

Having seen that incident, i think Cricinfo's account is wrong - Raina did not parry the ball to Gambhir, he collected it and as he slid, underarmed it in Gambhir's direction. These fielders train to complete this kind of "tag team" fielding effort. Except, in this instance Raina's pass missed Gambhir completely and rolled into the boundary. I don't recall whether or not Gambhir's throw went over the boundary on the full, but if it did, the only question would be whether it would be an 8 and not a 6. The law as it stands suggests that the Umpire got it wrong when he awarded England with only 4 runs for the boundary, since England were in the process of completing their second run when the ball left Raina's hand.

Law 19(6): 
6. Overthrow or wilful act of fielder
If the boundary results either from an overthrow or from the wilful act of a fielder the runs scored shall be
(i) the penalty for a No ball or a Wide, if applicable, together with any penalties under either of Laws 18.5(b) (Deliberate short runs) or 42 (Fair and unfair play) that are applicable before the boundary is scored
and (ii) the allowance for the boundary
and (iii) the runs completed by the batsmen, together with the run in progress if they have crossed at the instant of the throw or act.

Raina's pass to Gambhir should count as a throw, for relay throws are exactly that - throws. I wonder if there is any precedent for this sort of thing.

Why was this not picked up by any of the commentators? The state of the game probably has something to do with that. It is also possible that the commentators were already so overwhelmed by the complications in the game (duckworth-lewis, powerplays, England's inexplicable early batting etc.) that they just gave this a pass. Had the game been close, it might have been interesting. England were awarded 4 runs for that stroke. If England's batsmen had already turned for their second run and Raina's throw had go directly over the ropes, England should have been awarded 8 runs for that ball.

If we're going to have all this fancy fielding (who's value is overblown i think), then we ought to keep a close eye on events like these.

A D/L Calculator

I found a Duckworth-Lewis Calculator online. We don't know what the "agreed par score" between the two captains is (or even whether it is infact the two captains who get together before the game and come to an agreement on this), but if you assume the par score, and if India don't bat another ball, then England will have to score 153 to win in 22 overs in their run chase. But, India are likely to bat for another 5 overs.

Shortened games do not favor India. Some old (September 2006) numbers for this decade show that India have the worst record amongst all the top Test playing nations in shortened ODI games.

The Englishmen must be pleased though, for if the next 27 overs can be played without interruptions, they will have to field for only 5 overs on the wet ground, after which they can bring all their enormous T20 experience to bear on their 22 over run chase.

On the flip side, India would have had 15 out of 22 overs in powerplay mode, while England will get only 8 overs. All very complicated.

I wouldn't be surprised if India set themselves some kind of outrageous target of scoring 70 in their remaining 5 overs or something.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Warne on KP

This is probably the funniest line to have found its way into Cricinfo's quote-unquote in recent times:

"If KP had done this book, he'd have put himself number one. He'd probably be numbers one to five just to cover all his skills."
Shane Warne's reply when asked whether Kevin Pietersen has gotten over the fact that he wasn't No. 1 in the list of top 100 cricketers in Warne's new book

Warne and KP are old friends from their time together at Hampshire in the English County Championship.

Making News

Rediff reports that M S Dhoni did not deny having threatened to resign during the last selection meeting over the selectors decision to replace RP Singh with Irfan Pathan. Cricinfo has the same story, but the Cricinfo Headline focuses on Dhoni's opinion of the leak which revealed that there may have been such an event in the first place.

I sympathize with Dhoni here, for the whole success of a selection meeting (in terms of a rigorous process) depends on the possibility of candor in such a meeting. Im quite sure that some fairly direct arguments occur in selection meetings, not all of them collegial and polite. It is not an easy job. Dhoni is right when he says that 
"This is the pinnacle of the sport. We are selecting 15 guys for the Indian team...... There will be debates inside, and that information should not be put out in the media. If it is meant to come out, then I can say we might as well have the whole meeting telecast live on television. Nobody knows what was discussed except the eight guys in the meeting. And only they know whether it's the truth or not."
Like the Hayden story, this is just another bit of "news" which is easy meat for the news cycle. The truly courageous bit of reporting that needs to be done here, is the revelation of the person in that room (one of eight participants) who leaked the story to the Anand Bazaar Patrika. It could also be someone in the Board President's Office that may have leaked, for it is said that he was informed of this incident. If there were enough people like the unscrupulous Joe who leaked this story, we might know about every argument about tactics, strategy, selection, personal likes and dislikes and all other such disagreements which are part and parcel of running a team of highly talented, highly motivated, ambitious cricketers.

As such, Dhoni's offer to resign is noteworthy, but it is also noteworthy, that the selectors got their way, and that Dhoni didn't resign. This does not suggest to me that Dhoni backed off, but that the selectors convinced him about their decision. This is how these things are supposed to work. I see nothing exceptional here, even though i agree that offers of resignation do not happen every day.

Will the person who leaked the news to the Anand Bazaar Patrika be identified? Don't hold your breath.

Friday, November 21, 2008

In defense of Matthew Hayden

Mathew Hayden, in a moment of candor, referred to India as a "third world" country. That is apparently terrible, so let me offer the full quote here: "Often we find ourselves waiting with hands on hips for someone to face up or someone on the sight board to move away or some of those little frustrations happening with third world countries".

What part of that statement isn't true? Haven't we all seen policemen at cricket grounds in India with their backs to the crowd taking in every ball with gusto? Haven't we seen absolute and often hilarious confusion when the site screen has to be moved? The part of that statement that is a little bit off, is Hayden's apparent assertion that this stuff happens only in third world countries. As Peter Lalor points out here, sightscreen trouble is just as likely at Woollongabba as it is at Mohali. 

Is it more likely at an Indian ground than it is at an Australian ground (or English ground)? One could make a reasonable case to support such an assertion. After all, one only has to look at the absolutely bizarre events at the Kanpur ODI, where an ODI game was scheduled and played out, even though every single concerned protagonist knew that completing 100 overs in a day in November in Kanpur is impossible. The BCCI scheduled the game, the two teams in their infinite wisdom backed away from using lights (even though we have a day game played with a white ball), the Umpires, bound by ICC rules, reduced the game to 98 overs because 45 minutes were lost in an already short winter day! The Kanpur ODI was a gleaming example of the BCCI's spectacularly ham-fisted approach to things sometimes. And make no mistake about it, there were delays due to the sight screen more than once.

Does it matter though? Why are we so keen to take offense about trivial things? In acting all outraged about this supposed slight, how are we any different from Andrew Symonds - the millionaire cricketer, who complained about being racially insulted because a Punjabi Sikh from Ludhiana (may have) called him a monkey in the heat of moment in a pivotal period of the epic Sydney Test Match earlier this year? Symonds's claim, with every passing day, seems to me to be a bigger insult to people who actually face racial prejudice in their daily life and don't have Symonds's millions (and his fishing rod) to tide them over. Why do we feel similarly offended by Hayden's remark? Offended enough to be outraged and to feel slighted? I sincerely hope that this expression of outrage is merely a function of the perenially insatiated media cycle.

As a matter of simple fact, there is a great deal of truth in Hayden's off-the-cuff, unquestionably intemperate remark. Secondly, Hayden and the Australians in general have been wonderful tourists, easily the best among the non-subcontinental teams to visit India. It has probably been the secret of their success, the fact that they have sought to enjoy their tours of India rather than sit around and complain about everything (as some English players have done).

So if Hayden's only fault is that he was intemperate and indiscreet, then is he really worthy of our wrath? Consider these facts for a moment. In Mahendra Singh Dhoni's own home state, one in three persons (man, woman and child) is malnourished according to the National Family Health Survey. And Jharkhand is a rice-surplus state. See this factsheet for more. This story in the Hindustan Times is about a successfully implemented public distribution system for rice at subsidized rates in Jharkhand which is being used by 37 lakh (3.7 million) families in the state. The total population of the state is 269 lakhs, so about 30-40% of the families in the state (by a conservative estimate), buy heavily subsidized rice. That the public distribution system works is a fine thing.

So, the question persists. What are we so upset about? Was Hayden wrong? And even if it probably isn't his place to point to India and say "third world" (a term coined by a French anthropologist and historian Alfred Sauvy, inspired by the Third Estate of commoners in pre-revolutionary France), should we really be trying to shove Matthew Hayden back into the 1950's as some archetypal white man?

Mahendra Singh Dhoni put Hayden's comment in perspective. His response was pitch-perfect i thought, aimed at a rival sportsman and going to the heart of the matter. Dhoni said "The Australians have played all over the world, and their over-rate has been the same all over the world".

Hayden will absolutely get Dhoni's response, because it sticks the needle into the Australians (in a good, healthy, sporting way), about their overrates and what these overrates say about their decline as a cricketing power. Australia never had a problem with overrates in the early years of this decade when they were dominant, because teams never lasted long enough for overrates to come into play. The way the over-rate rule is calculated, if a side is bowled out in 30 overs, then it doesn't really matter whether the bowling side bowls 8 overs an hour or 15 overs an hour, because the game progresses (with 10 of the 40 wickets being taken). Overrates come into play when batting innings progress beyond 100 overs or so, and teams get into trouble most often when they have to bowl throughout the day, and well into the next. The numbers show that a overrates tend to be slower during long partnerships than they are when wickets are falling, once the appropriate accounting is done for the time taken by the new batsman to reach the wicket and taken guard.

So what Dhoni got at was, that Australia have struggled to bowl teams out in recent times - the very thing that is at the root at Australia's recent struggles, and the very thing that frustrates Hayden no end.

Unfortunately, Dhoni's discerning response has been clumped together with all the other shrill responses (in some cases from unlikely sources like Wasim Akram). Newspapers will doubtlessly use the readymade story about Hayden coming to "third world" India to play in the IPL.

It is a very strange paradox though - on the one hand we bemoan players who lack personality, on the other, when some players behave in a less than discreet guarded manner (and i don't mean this in a Shane Warne SMS sense), they get taken to the cleaners!

Mathew Hayden as one of the greatest opening batsmen of the modern era,  deserves better.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Did India beat England on singles?

Homer makes the case that India have beaten England because they have done better taking singles. It is an interesting argument and is supported by the great Australian coach Bob Simpson's observation (and the cornestone of his approach in his world cup winning campaign of 1987) that the side which is able to take the higher number of singles wins ODI games in the overwhelming majority of cases. I tend to agree with Homer's point about stereotypes, and visiting sides have often emphasized their advantage in the fielding department as well as the ability of their batsmen to take singles.

Where i differ, is that i would place the emphasis on dot balls and not singles. Bobby Simpson's assertion about singles, was in my view intended as an argument against playing dot balls and adjusting one's batting style to play as few dot balls as possible. So some extent, this is a stylistic issue. Some batsmen tend to be bigger hitters, and hence may take fewer singles. But mostly, it is a matter of being a more skillfull batsman.

India have done more than merely negate the stereotypes that other sides have about them. There used to be this idea that India's batsmen couldn't hit fast bowling. Starting with Sachin Tendulkar, India's batsmen have demolished that myth as well. A serious argument could be made that this was not a stereotype, but was substantially true. Similarly, the observations made by visiting coaches about India's effort vis a vis singles, and ground fielding, have over the years descended into the category of a stereotype, but originally, were based on empirical data.

If you look at run scoring in terms of risk, then the single is the most low risk way of scoring runs, while the boundary has a significantly higher risk associated with it. If you further break down the act of taking a single, it has a number of parts to it. It involves playing the ball into an area which causes both the striker and the non-striker to agree that a run is possible. It follows, that the likelyhood of a single (i.e a non-dot-ball) depends on the availability of these areas.

A batsman who is more capable of the forceful stroke, is more likely to create these spaces for singles, because fielding captains would have to defend more. This ability of a batsman to force the fielding captain to spread the field, is in my view is a far more important factor than an individual batsman's ability to risky singles to the close in men. So better batsmen are more able to create opportunities for singles.

The old stereotype about India's batsmen was due in large part to the fact that India's batsmen were not always very good players of fast bowling. Gambhir, Yuvraj and co. are extremely good players of fast bowling, especially in the ODI context (this is related to the art of slogging). Their ability to steal singles, ought not to be overstated as a component of their overall expertise. In fact, it is probably wrong to say that Gambhir and Yuvraj are better batsmen because they run tremendously well between wickets. That has a marginal influence at best. It is their ability to hit the ball which makes them the batsmen they are.

In any case, the quick single seems to be an instinctive enterprise - its very success hinges on this fact (what commentators are pleased to call "mere eye-contact"). Ultimately, i think the number of dot balls is a measure not simply of a batting side's willingness to steal singles, but is a measure of the batting side's batting.

In most games, close ones and lop-sided ones, the side which produces the fewest dot-balls when batting probably wins. The side which bats better wins, and dot balls are probably a better measure of this than singles.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Duncan Fletcher goes to South Africa

South Africa have invited Duncan Fletcher to help with preperation for South Africa's upcoming Test tour of Australia. Fletcher did great things for England, but he also presided over England's 0-5 whitewash in the 2006-07 Ashes. The defeat in itself ought not to be placed at Fletcher's door, but the fact that England began the series with Steve Harmison bowling the first ball short and wide to second slip is something that Fletcher probably still thinks about.

Simon Barnes wrote this memorable article in the Times after that series.

Why would you hire someone like Fletcher after that last Ashes result? But then again, South Africa have had their share of crazy coaches recently (think Ray Jennings). And India did benefit from having Greg Chappell as their batting consultant in Australia in 2003-04 (or at least Sourav Ganguly did.. Tendulkar seemed to be on his own, Sehwag, Laxman and Dravid didn't seem to need any help).

I wonder what these consultants can do for teams, especially if they are parachuted in only occasionally.

But this does not augur well for South Africa's quest to beat Australia in Australia. 

Indore ODI - Yuvraj, Spin beat England

India played a superb all-round game to defeat England by 54 runs in the 2nd ODI at Indore yesterday. The victory was built on a magnificient, counter-attacking 134 run stand between two of India's best ODI batsmen in recent times - Gautam Gambhir and Yuvraj Singh. This was supreme limited overs batsmanship - a relentless multi-faceted pursuit of every possible run.

The game began early (9.00 am) on a slowish wicket which promised turn later in the day. There was some uneven bounce, and the early Indian batsmen seemed ill at ease against a four pronged England pace attack which looks formidable on paper. James Anderson and Stuart Broad are fairly archetypal swing bowlers - they don't hit the wicket hard, try to bowl full, and get the ball to swing, using the short ball to surprise the batsman. After Sehwag fell early playing on to his stumps (a sign that the wicket was not even paced), Rohit Sharma and Suresh Raina fell trying to force the pace against Broad. Theirs were classic new ball dismissals brought on by the conflicting requirements of forcing the issue in the first powerplay, and getting oneself set on a given wicket against a given attack. To England's credit, they gave the Indian batsmen nothing.

A couple of days ago, as i watched Gambhir and Sehwag dismantle the English new ball, i was telling a friend that i missed Tendulkar at the top of the Indian line up. I missed watching his little adjustments and the shrewd choices that he made in given conditions against the new ball. The key to batting against the new ball in limited overs cricket, is to not let the bowler bowl to his field, on the line and length of his choosing. Tendulkar would do this with subtelty moving across his stumps and playing the ball repeatedly square on the leg side, dragging the bowler ever wider of off stump, until he could line up a crashing square cut or cover drive at the width he had in effect forced the bowler to offer. He invented new strokes, such as the upper cut and the top-spin stroke played on either side of the square leg fielder (which he could play to a ball of any length other than a bouncer!). I missed watching all that, i was telling my friend. 

Gambhir seems to have one card to play, and it is a potent card, for he plays it expertly. For a dimunitive player, his game is based to an amazing degree on muscle. Gautam Gambhir believes in using his bottom hand to muscle good length balls through and over the in field. His opening partner, who is ironically more likely to be call a butcher, is much more strokeful - Sehwag is intent on timing and seems to be very interested in making the ball scream to the boundary. Gambhir is more interested in yelling at and cajoling the ball away from the fielders and towards the boundary. He is very much the manipulator.

Yuvraj Singh on the other hand, on his best days, looks like he was born to be a batsman. There is an equanimity about him which makes him seem oblivious to the extreme pressure he exerts on bowling line ups. If Gambhir works really hard to not let bowlers bowl the lengths they want to bowl at him, Yuvraj is quite happy to let them do so, and has a forcing answer to most lengths that bowlers might deliver. The telling stroke in Yuvraj Singh's armory i think, is not his pull shot (played anywhere from wide mid on to backward of square, depending on the line of the ball), but his ability to play the good length ball to cover, and even more impressively, to mid-wicket. His extra height helps him in this endeavour.

Yuvraj Singh and Gautam Gambhir also run brilliantly between the wickets, making them an awesome combination, and realising stands like the one we saw today. It is probably the most impressive bit of ODI batting by an Indian batsman since Tendulkar's hundred in the first final in Australia. Yuvraj's hundred at Indore was better than his whirlwind effort at Rajkot, as was Gambhir's innings at Indore better than his innings at Rajkot.

Yusuf Pathan demonstrated an astonishing ability to hit the long ball, of both pace and spin, and it brought him a ODI half century off 29 balls, to take India about 25 runs beyond their expected score.

When England replied, they sorely missed an enforcer at the top of the order. Their inability to find able replacements for Nick Knight and Marcus Trescothick is hurting them. They try to make up for this lack of ability with plenty of attitude, but not surprisingly, it isn't helping. It may have been just me, but i felt that if you leave aside Paul Collingwood and Andrew Flintoff, the rest of the England batsmen in these two games have shown themselves to be falling over each other to be Kevin Pietersen clones - that is in their demeanor. They seem to want to convey the same hyper-active urgency, as though they are too busy to think - contemplate may be a better word. Even when they walk down the wicket to pat a footmark, an exercise as much in gathering one's thoughts as it is in examining the wicket, it seems to be rushed. They all seem to move before the ball is bowled like KP does, and it doesn't seem to do them any good.

Even though India have played a superb all round game in the first two contests, we will know more about the relative strengths of these two sides only after we have a game where India bat second. Ishant Sharma is likely to return in place of RP Singh, who has looked rusty in these two games. His overall record also suggests that he has always been quite expensive (career econ. rate 5.3, compared to 4.84 for Zaheer and 4.6 for Munaf Patel). Given the fact that the bar has been raised by India's first choice bowlers in the last 8-10 months, it seems unlikely the RP Singh will find a spot in the squad if Sreesanth is fully fit.

The selectors will face a tricky situation if India win the third game as well. Do they then leave Tendulkar out for the whole ODI series, and persist with the younger players? The full strength Indian ODI side right now is the side which played at Indore, with Tendulkar replacing Rohit Sharma and Ishant Sharma replacing RP Singh. Will the selectors revert to this side? Or will they rest Yuvraj Singh and ask him to play a Ranji Trophy game in lieu of the upcoming Test series?

England have played reasonably well (as well as Yuvraj Singh has allowed them to play!) so far, and should probably not make large scale changes before they see how they fare in a game where they bat first. That will given them a chance to set the pace, instead of chasing the game as they have in the first two games.

India have taken an early lead in the series, but thats about all that it is.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Art of Slogging

The term slogging has two quite different, yet complementary meanings. The first, refers to a heavy blow, a hit made with great effort. The other meaning of the term refers to the great effort itself - the toil and the difficult labor that it involves. In Cricket too, the term has had two seperate meanings.

Traditionally, the term slog has been associated with the desperate batsman, swinging hard at a bowler, hoping against all hope to connect sweetly but giving himself a chance, that even if he didn't, he would have swung hard enough to send the ball a long way. It was beneath the skillful specialist batsman's dignity to slog. Slogging was "ungainly", "agricultural".

With the advent of limited overs cricket, and the accompanying shift of focus from wickets to run rates, batsmen have become less interested in protecting their wicket, and more on scoring quicker. The focus has shifted from the perfectly balanced forward defensive with the still head and the high elbow, to the forceful stroke with the still head and the firm elbow. This is not to say that basic defensive technique has become irrelevant. It is still absolutely necessary for Test Cricket. But, especially in the limited overs variety, the slog has entered the average batsman's repertoire as a deliberately practiced stroke, just as the reverse sweep has.

In some cases, there appears to be a meta-technique for slogging in general, just as there is a basic meta-technique for defense - a still head, a straight bat, and an effort to play as late as possible, as close to the body as possible. With the slog, batsmen seem to concentrate on balance, on a still head, and timing. The best sloggers move as little as possible before the ball is bowled (a trait they share with the great test match batsman) , and seem to pre-meditate only the intent, but not necessarily the actual stroke.

Back in the day, when Test Cricket was where the overwhelming majority of contests between bat and ball took place, the average batsman was well advised to spend most of his time working on his defense. Now, with limited overs cricket skewing the contest in favor of the batsman, the average batsman (goaded by the laptop toting international head coach or batting coach) is likely to spend his time relentlessly practicing the slog to midwicket, or the inside-out square drive, or charging the fast bowler.

Twenty20 Cricket has skewed this contest even further. It is no surprise then, that batsmen are less likely to get carried away in ODI cricket, than they are in Test Cricket. Virender Sehwag for example, is more likely to get out in a Test Match because the bowling is too easy for him causing him to play one stroke too many, than he is in an ODI game, where he will play out the good bowler (as he did with Flintoff at Rajkot) and go after the one bowler in the opposition that he thinks he can attack. The change in the powerplay rule, skews the contest even further in the batsman's favor. It seems to be designed precisely to enable this sort of thing.

Slogging is well and truly an art now. Batsmen have realised that it can be very effective in batting friendly situations. The great batsmen of the old days could probably bat as inventively as the Indians did at Rajkot, but the difference now is that most batsmen are learning how to play that way. This does not make them great batsmen. It is merely another step in the development of batting, aided by the sure and steady muzzling of the bowler in Cricket. Professional pad play became a skillful practice after May and Cowdrey used it so skillfully against Sonny Ramadhin in the late fifties. The accelerated evolution of the slog is limited overs cricket's gift to batting.

Slogging is truly an art now, and especially in limited overs cricket when the conditions are right, it can be a beautiful sight.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The new Powerplay Rule

The ICC has changed the already convoluted Powerplay rule. The fielding restrictions for the two 5 over powerplays after the mandatory first one of 10 overs length have also been modified to allow three fielders outside the thirty yard circle.

The new rule allows the batting side to determine one of the powerplays - a block of five consecutive overs. Should neither side exercise their choice, the powerplays will commence at the latest possible point in the innings in order for both powerplays to be completed.

Clause 41.2.5(e) of the ICC ODI Playing Conditions states that,
Should either team choose not to exercise their discretion, their Powerplay Overs will automatically commence at the latest available point in the innings (i.e. in an uninterrupted innings, one unclaimed Powerplay will begin at the start of the 46th over).
It should follow then, that in the event that both side fail to exercise their powerplay option, overs 41-50 in the game would be powerplay overs. No fielding side will want that. At first glance it looks as though this new rule is likely to squeeze the fielding side even more than it was in the old powerplay rule. Bowlers, whose 10 overs are already broken up into short spells, are likely to find that they will be bowling even shorter spells in the near future.

The new rule will doubtless introduce an additional layer of tactics into the 50 over game, but it only reinforces the inherent weakness of the limited overs contest, which dilutes the value of the wicket, and hence requires all these contrivances in order to prevent things from getting predictable. This new rule is just confirmation of the fact that the old rule didn't help.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Roebuck on Dhoni

Peter Roebuck continues his fascination with the mythical small town Indian cricketer in his latest mini-hagiography of Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Roebuck seems to see himself as some sort of tribune here, introducing Dhoni to the world, and in the process creating the Indian Captain as some sort of small-town superhero, thriving amidst apathy and even hostility, representing the triumph of the fearless explorer.

Clearly, the former Somerset captain turned Australian cricket writer is carried away here, as he inexplicably calls Dhoni "Obama in white clothes". Delicious as it sounds, it puzzles me, given that Roebuck also writes about Dhoni in an earlier paragraph that "Dhoni and his pals were growing up in ignored Jharkhand, in forgotten Ranchi, surrounded by each other, making the best of things, laughing a lot, enjoying whatever thrills and spills life had to offer". Now, Obama if anything, had a deeply complicated childhood, which he has written about with great skill in his first book. Roebuck's somewhat rockwellesque construction of Dhoni's small town roots offends me as someone who grew up in Bombay, and also had lots of fun! Roebuck's comments are a lot like Sarah Palin's ridiculous comments about "small town values" and "real America" and "fake America" (if you've even vaguely been following the election in the US, you'll know what im referring to here).

Besides, there is nothing in Dhoni's history which suggests anything as dramatic as what Roebuck constructs for us. M S Dhoni was selected for Bihar Under-19's at age 17, and again in the next season, when Bihar U-19's reached the final of the Cooch Behar Trophy. This final against Punjab was actually a fairly famous game. M S Dhoni  scored a few runs, but the game is remembered for Punjab U-19 racking up 839, with Yuvraj Singh making 358. Dhoni had done well enough in his second year with Bihar U-19 to earn a spot in the East Zone U-19's for the Zonal U-19 Tournament - the C K Nayudu Trophy. The same year, Dhoni was also selected for the Bihar Ranji Trophy squad (Jharkhand didn't exist at the time), and did reasonably well in his first season. He made his first first class hundred against Bengal against a fairly good attack (S S Paul and Utpal Chatterjee, both of whom were selected to play for India at some point). 

After steady performances in the Ranji Trophy, Dhoni was also included in the East Zone Deodhar and Duleep Trophy sides, since the first choice East Zone wicketkeeper was often on national duty in those days. However, in the final of the 2003-04 Duleep Trophy, he was picked ahead of Deep Dasgupta and opened the batting for East Zone in that game, scoring a blazing half century in a challenging 4th innings run chase (East Zone made 349 all out chasing 409, Dhoni made 60(47)). That was a memorable Duleep Trophy final. It was extremely competitive for the most part, even that 4th innings target for 409 was due to a North Zone 3rd innings of 400. Yuvraj Singh made a century in each innings for North Zone, while East Zone somehow managed to lose the game after reaching 264/3 in their run chase!

This 2003-04 season brought Dhoni selection to the India A side for a tour of Zimbabwe and Kenya, where the games were to feature a Pakistan A side as well. Dhoni had a prolific series, which ensured that it was a case of when and not if he would play for India.

Does that strike you as the story of your average carefree youth from a forgotten part of India? It doesn't to me. To me, it sounds very much like the story of an extremely focused, gifted young cricketer who came up through a very mature age-group and first-class system.

Roebuck seems to be very taken by this mythical small town hero trope. It is not without merit, but facts ought not to be ignored. My point here is not so much to differ from Roebuck's view of Dhoni, but to point out the risk (to Dhoni) of attempting a Roebuck like attempt to play God, for not only does it raise the bar for Dhoni (one article by itself may not, but these articles tend to feed on each other and the cumulative effect may be significant) unrealistically, but it also sets him up spectacularly for the fall, which Roebuck will doubtlessly cover gleefully.

Some of Roebuck's attempts at squaring the circle are quite breathtaking. He is for example unable to decide whether the same "ruthlessness and daring" which he sees in Dhoni's captaincy isn't a "shortcoming" in its actual manifestation (Dhoni's bloodyminded use of an exclusively run saving ploy when Australia batted on Day 3 at Nagpur). The "single-minded leader prepared to stand his ground come what may", whose methods "served India better than the game". These cannot be good traits, and yet be "shortcomings" at the same time.

Roebuck ends with his usual sage spiel about "Test Cricket is the greatness of the game", after having spent the previous paragraph trying desperately to stuff Dhoni's captaincy in his own narrow little box of that same label. After completely meaningless paragraphs like "To him it is a job as much as a game, a profession as much as his passion. And he came to cricket as Dhoni the man, not Dhoni the boy cricketer. He plays hard because he lives hard. He fights to the last because Ranchi boys do not quit or cry. He plays a ruthless game because with every bone in his body he wants to win, because that is how games are played back home.".. and so on and so forth, the end comes as a relief more than anything else.

I really do hope Dhoni is as disinterested in the written word as Roebuck claims he is. It is best that he be spared this gauzy outpouring.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

An eventful Series

There is so much to discuss about this series - The Indian captain retired, another former captain also called it a day, a new fast bowler emerged, an old off-spinner emerged (sort of), and a very serious breach of the law went unnoticed by Chris Broad.

On that last point, i think Broad's (non) decision, when taken in and of itself, is reasonable, because the matter was handled by Aleem Dar on the field of play. However, given the history of the ball tampering issue, this, to cynics is Exhibit A of some sort of closet racism and/or open double standard in favor of the Australians. In matters like these, a statement from the referee would go a long way.

But we have more momentous things to discuss. Sourav Ganguly played his last Test Match, and has had a successful Test series by any standard. He made his first Test hundred against Australia in India in this series, and also made his first golden duck against them. In the first innings of this same Test match, he came within 15 runs of emulated Greg Chappell (who scored centuries in his first and last Test Match). There was a little bit of the old fire on the last day - a minor incident to be sure, but one which captured Ganguly like little else can in my view.

Harbhajan Singh was struggling against the two southpaws Matthew Hayden and Michael Hussey, as he often does against left-handers (more on this in a moment), and Ganguly was fielding at deep cover. A ball was hit to him and the batsmen were ambling across for a single. Ganguly was all action, swooping down on the ball and flinging it back to the bowlers end. A despondent Harbhajan had taken his eye of the ball, and was dragging himself back to his bowling mark. Ganguly's return (though characteristically gentle in its arc) reached the bowling end, Harbhajan sensed this and turned to watch the ball roll past him, and onwards to one overthrow to the Aussies. Harbhajan remonstrated with Ganguly, throwing his hands up, generally displeased with the state of the world. Ganguly let out a bellow in response, inflicting upon the despondent bowler, the full measure of his legendary umbrage. Ganguly was in the right of course, Harbhajan should not have taken his eye of the ball and made sure he was at the bowling end to collect the return.

In that little instant, we saw the gist of Ganguly. His intense, unflagging involvement with events on the field. Indeed, if there was such a thing as a spiritually brilliant fielder, it would be Ganguly, just as Jonty Rhodes was a genuinely brilliant fielder. This unyielding intensity was the cornerstone of his success as a captain. It was also a factor in his alarming decline as a batsman during his captaincy. His success on his return to the Test squad in late 2006 only reinforces this idea. Freed from the pressures of things beyond his control, Ganguly became a happier and more successful batsman. It is ironic that he is much more effective and dependable as a middle order Test Match batsman at the time of his departure than he was for half of his career in the Indian side. But most of all, it is fitting that in his last Test Match, India completed their most decisive series victory against their toughest rival in recent times (the most decisive series victory against that foe by any Test team in 20 years).

300 Test wickets on, Harbhajan Singh remains a modest bowler to left handed batsmen. Against right handers, he is able to bowl without inhibition from both over the wicket and (to a lesser extent) round the wicket. He can attack the stumps and is generally able to force the batsman to play him off the front foot. When bowling to left handers, especially from round the wicket, he has a tendency to drop it short, and isn't able to attack the stumps as effectively. This is counter-intuitive, because "to attack the stumps" does not just mean bowling a ball which will hit the stumps, but making the batsman play at something because it may be heading towards the stumps. The statistics suggest that like most spin bowlers (and to a greater extent than most spin bowlers), left handers are more prolific against Harbhajan Singh than right handers.

In recent times, this has been the one bogey that India have faced. If you consider all the left-handed batsmen who have scored at least 500 runs against India in this decade, their cumulative batting average is 36, while the same for right-handed batsmen in 31. If you look down the list of the top left-handed middle order batsmen of this decade, almost all of them have been successful against India, right down to Michael Hussey most recently. The only middle order batsman who's measure India have had, at least to some degree has been Kumar Sangakkara, and that is is large measure due to Zaheer Khan. Hopefully, Amit Mishra can rectify that, for he should be quite effective against left handers as he will have the rough outside the left handers off stump available to him, especially in the second innings of a Test Match. His dismissal of Michael Hussey at Nagpur was not unusual for a 5th day wicket anywhere in the world.

Ishant Sharma becomes more impressive with each passing day. For a 20 year old fast bowler, he is a captain's dream. His most astonishing characteristic, is not his pace, or the movement that he gets both ways, or his ability to bowl long spells. It is none of these things, as impressive as they are. It is his stunning accuracy. For a front-on bowler, it is quite amazing how rarely he drifts down the leg side, or drops it short outside off-stump. You could count on the fingers of one hand, the number of times that an Australian batsman has been able to execute a full blooded square cut against Ishant Sharma. At the moment, he is like a superbly tuned V6 engine. He's not quite V12, cos he's not in Lee's class pace-wise, but he doesn't need to be. If there has been another fast bowler like him in an India shirt, i have not to see him. The most meaningful statistic in Cricket in my view, is a bowler's Test Match bowling average. A low average is impressive, and the key to a low average is the ability to command respect from batsmen - to be able to make them want to see you off. Tall fast bowlers tend to have an advantage in this regard, for they extract more bounce than their shorter counterparts. Over the last 7 Test Matches, Ishant Sharma has gone for less than 3 runs per over. He still needs to work on bowling to left handers (he's a better bowler against right-handers in my view), but 15 wickets at 27.06 against an Australian line up which includes Ponting, Hayden and Hussey, on some very flat wickets is a world class effort. Just for perspective, 5170 runs were scored in this series at 41.3.

India have just defeated Australia more decisively than any team in the last 20 years. The last time Australia lost a Test series by a margin of at least 2 Test Matches, was in the Frank Worrell Trophy series of 1988-89 in Australia, when they lost 1-3. The last time Australia lost a series by a margin of 2 Test Matches, without winning at least 1 Test themselves, was in 1983-84, also in the Frank Worrell Trophy in West Indies, which they lost 0-3. The last time Australia faced a rout of this magnitude on tour, was in Pakistan in 1982-83, when Greg Chappell and Dennis Lillee and skipped the tour. The magnitude of this result in terms of the history of Australian cricket is evident in the following statistic:

If you consider every single Test tour Australia have ever made, then the only occasions when they have lost at least 2 Test Matches in a tour (discounting the Packer era), without winning a Test Match themselves are the following - 

1886 in England - Lost 0-3
1890 in England - Lost 0-2
1905 in England - Lost 0-2
1969-70 in South Africa - Lost 0-4
1982-83 in Pakistan - Lost 0-3
1983-84 in West Indies - Lost 0-3

In all other tours, Australia have either won atleast one Test Match themselves, or lost the series by a 0-1 margin when they have lost series.

For Ricky Ponting, who went into this series as Australia's second most winningest Test captain, and as their most successful (winning 75% of Tests that he led in, compared to 72% for Waugh), it must have been a galling experience.

Australia remain formidable though, and still possess one of the world's best batting line ups. They should beat New Zealand next month. The twin series against South Africa which follow, will test them. All this while, England will watch with anticipation as they prepare for the 2009 Ashes. By the end of that series, we will know the fate of the current Australian era.

India on the other hand, seem to have completed a near painless transition to MS Dhoni, who promises much as a captain and as a wicketkeeper-batsman (his less than perfect effort on Day 5 at Nagpur notwithstanding). There seems to be bench strength in every department of the game, and things are looking up, even as the Moses generation gives way to the Joshua generation (to use an Obama trope) for India.

This was an intriguing series, fought at classical Test Match pace, with interesting individual battles and tactical manouvres. That it was not acrimonious like the series in Australia last season, is probably why some viewers have felt let down by the percieved lack of competitiveness. This is no bad thing if you ask me.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Nagpur Test, Day 3 - Control

Ian Chappell wants lawmakers to look into one sided fields. Thats how well India did on the third day of the Nagpur Test Match. Australia made 8/166 in 85 overs on the day, after making 2/189 in 49 overs on Day 2.

The plan itself was not a novel one - it has been tried by plenty of sides (for example by Australia and England against Tendulkar) and has worked before. It is the sort of tactic which can look silly very easily, if the bowlers are not absolutely disciplined. Sachin Tendulkar for example, has faced this tactic quite often in his 19 year career. Simon Katich's first encounter with it seemed to stop him dead in his tracks, he made 11(70) on Day 3 after making 91(119) on Day 2. Michael Hussey fared slightly better, making 45(126) today to his 45(103) on Day 2. India successfully broke the momentum of the Australian innings, and have produced a lead which looked unlikely at the start of the Day.

This was aggressive cricket - India gave Australia absolutely nothing. It takes genius to break out of this kind of tough tactic. I remember Sachin Tendulkar walking across his stumps and playing Mathew Hoggard (bowling to an 8-1 field) wide of mid 0n repeatedly in an innings about 8 years ago. I also think that India's strategy would not have been as successful had Ponting or Hayden been at the wicket.

From here, it is India's match to lose.

Update: India's tactics clearly have the punditocracy in knots. Read this Cricinfo article, where the days play is described as "absorbing" and "[not] in the best interests of Test cricket" in pretty much the same breath!

Friday, November 07, 2008

First Gilchrist, now Ponting - the question of racism in the Sydney Test Match

I guess it is not remarkable that books by players who participated in the series in Australia earlier this year discuss the events surrounding the Sydney Test Match in detail. What is remarkable, is the element of revelation which is implicit in these offerings. Take Ricky Ponting's Captain's Diary for that tour, as excerpted here on Cricinfo. Ponting writes,
"On the night after we made our on-field report about Harbhajan, I had a phone conversation with a senior member of the Indian touring party, who asked me straight to drop the complaint,"
Why is this news? Why is this some sort of conspiratorial revelation? Didn't the Indian Captain, Anil Kumble make it clear that he himself (there can't be a more "senior member" of the side than him - he was captain! - unless Ponting is referring to the Indian team management) spoke to Ponting after the incident?
"On the other events so far, I can only say that I spoke to Ricky that day and having heard from Bhajji and Sachin before that, I was convinced that there had neither been any racist remark made, nor intended. I asked Harbhajan why he started it and he said he hadn’t, Symonds did and goaded, he responded. But he insisted he made no racist comment.
Ricky, meanwhile, was just not willing to listen, nor see my point. When I offered to apologise as Bhajji’s skipper, it was only to smooth things over. At no stage did I admit that he had made a racist remark, in fact, I said he had not.
Unfortunately, these days, when someone apologises, it is seen as either a sign of weakness or an admission of guilt. I am neither unnerved nor are we guilty. In the larger interests of the game, if an apology could help build bridges and smooth things over, then it is better made than left unsaid because of egos."
If Ponting did mention this conversation in his published diary, why is his subsequent conversation with a "senior member" significant? Is it because this "senior member" was ambiguous about Harbhajan Singh's guilt?

What seems to emerge from Gilchrist and Ponting (as publicity for their books) is this apparent belief that Australia were screwed at Sydney, never mind the ridiculous inquiry conducted by Procter (which even Judge Hansen damned with faint praise in his final judgement).

The whole "don't do it again" side of this episode is the most bizarre aspect of it. This allegation of "racism" is bothersome, because it is serious. Does something become a racist taunt simply because Andrew Symonds says it is racist? Let's assume for a moment that Harbhajan Singh did call Andrew Symonds a monkey. Is Symonds's association of that term with racism the fault of the members of Harbhajan Singh's race? Isn't there a difference between Harbhajan calling him a monkey and a white man calling him a monkey? Would it be the same if a fellow Australian with a West Indian heritage called him a monkey? Would that be racist too? Is Symonds claiming some sort of equivalency between Sikhs and the white man?

These are extremely loaded questions, and very complex ones. I do not claim to have an answer to these questions. Neither am i suggesting that simple yes or no answers to these questions suffice. But the one thing that has bothered me about the whole Sydney affair (as aspect which i had refrained from writing about so far) is the fact that everybody seems to accept with absolute certainty that Harbhajan Singh calling Andrew Symonds a monkey would be a racist comment.

And so what if Symonds had explained to Harbhajan Singh once before that being called a monkey was especially offensive because it held racist connotations for Symonds? Doesn't the fact that Symonds actually had to explain this to Harbhajan Singh itself suggest that he understood that Harbhajan probably didn't intend it in a racial way the first time?

Is it seriously the Australian claim, that something Harbhajan said in the heat of the moment, was absolutely and deliberately an intended racist epithet, simply because Symonds may have told him it was so? Doesn't such a claim completely trivialize the serious and offensive nature of racist behaviour - where racial epithets become racial epithets, precisely because they carry with them all the antecedent hostility of one race towards another? Is it seriously the Australian claim that the Sikhs of Ludhiana, Punjab bore any meaningful and consequential (in any serious socio-political sense) racial hostility towards Australians of West Indian descent?

As far as the incident itself goes, isn't there also the small matter of an agreement between Symonds and Harbhajan that they would not talk to each other on the field? Didn't Symonds himself break that agreement first?

Even this discussion on this post, couched as it has been in one question mark after another, is one which i make with a great deal of trepidation, precisely because i consider it to be an absolutely serious charge, not merely because it was made so publicly about an Indian cricketer, but because as someone with some experience of living in cosmopolitan, multicultural environments all my life (just like many of you readers), i am especially mindful, and interested in understanding the idea of racism and prejudice.

Nobody apart from Andrew Symonds heard him say it. Nobody apart from Andrew Symonds was able to recall a single other word that Harbhajan Singh supposedly said to Symonds. So it is far from clear as to whether or not the offending term was actually used. So, maybe Ponting and co. might want to be more humble about their righteous claims.

Nagpur Test, Day 2 - An old problem

The first two days of the Nagpur Test have put forth the illusion of the bat dominating ball, but 12 wickets have fallen compared to 7 over the first two days at Delhi, 10 at Bangalore and 14 at Mohali. This has been a fast scoring Test Match so far, something which always makes it more likely that there will be a conclusive result. 

The feature of this Test Match so far has been the handling of the spinners by both captains. Ricky Ponting had the weaker spinners on paper, and continued to demonstrate very little faith in the spin bowling ability of Cameron White (who ironically has played all four Test Matches, and was picked ahead of Jason Krejza). Krejza on the other hand, was Ponting's trump card, and kept on bowling well despite being mauled by the Indian batsmen. 8/215 do him perfect justice, if only because he was attacked, quite successfully by the the Indian batsmen, but for his part, kept imparting tremendous turn on the ball without flagging. The Indians were able to attack him because he had very little variation to complement his basic offspinner. However, in Krejza's favour was the fact that most of the attacking strokes against him came off the front foot or off the lofted sweep or paddle, indicating that for the most part, if he erred, he did so on the fuller side. This is always a good sign for a spinner. 

Compare Krejza's efforts to Mishra and Harbhajan, and if Katich and Hussey play for a substantial period on day three, observe how frequently they are able to get on the back foot against the two Indian spinners. Once a batsman is allowed to get on to the back foot, a spinner has almost no chance of getting him out in any way other than LBW (an unlikely dismissal given the extra time a batsman has to adjust to any misbehaviour of the wicket).

This is why i think Dhoni's decision to open the bowling with Harbhajan Singh was a wrong one. Harbhajan is not particularly good at bowling against left handers from round the wicket, and given that Australia had two left handed openers, this was a significant disadvantage to the Indian off-spinner. The decision to promote Harbhajan seemed to be prompted by Jason Krejza's success - which came against right handers due to the rough created by Mitchell Johnson's follow through. For Harbhajan, from round the wicket against the left handers, the foot marks were not available - he wouldn't be able to threaten the stumps if he aimed at the footmarks outside off stump. He also has one other problem which surfaces if the wicket is not a rank square turner - he tends to bowl from very wide of the crease because his run up is straight and not between the umpires and the stumps when he's bowling round the wicket. This creates a tremendous angle on any delivery which Harbhajan pitches within the line of the stumps.

This Test Match will hinge on the amount of time Hussey and Katich can stay at the wicket, for the Indian spinners will be completely different bowlers against right handers on this wicket. The fast bowlers will have to deliver for India early on Day 3.

Monday, November 03, 2008

On Anil Kumble

When it was suggested to Winston Churchill that it might not be a good idea to finish a sentence with a preposition, his response was "This is the sort of English up with which i will not put". In a superb eighteen year career, Anil Kumble's has been a comparable response to the spin bowling orthodoxy which insisted that it was absolutely paramount that a spin bowler turn the ball as much as possible.

Any discussion of Anil Kumble's cricketing life must began with this astonishing reality - that he barely turned the ball. Of course, its not quite as simple as that, for he did give it a rip, delivering top-spinners and googlies, with the occasional leg-break which turned just enough to beat the width of the bat. He bowled faster than the classical leg spinner, and was also more accurate than the classical leg spinner. Anil Kumble was a unique spin bowler, just as Lasith Malinga is a unique fast bowler. This i think has been an under-appreciated point, especially in recent years.

Anil Kumble's make up as a spin bowler must have a lot to do with his original ambition of being a fast bowler. That his bowling arm is higher than most orthodox leg spinners, is no surprise. His success as a bowler was down to his accuracy, and his ability to bowling tirelessly all day. He could outlast most batsmen if he didn't deceive them. His early success came because batsmen, and especially tailenders could not come to terms with his unorthodoxy. They played him like an orthodox leg spinner. This was a ploy doomed from the outset, for given the speed of his bowling, the most potent weapon a batsman can have against an orthodox leg spinner - the ability to step out and loft the ball, was fraught with difficulty. Kumble would bowl wicket to wicket, and unless a batsman settled in on a good wicket, would ultimately reduce the batsman to prodding and block his way to a close in catch or an LBW. In his early days, Kumble's bowling was about metronomic accuracy, bounce off the wicket, and a lethal faster one. 

Towards the second half of the nineties, batsmen figured out a way to play Anil Kumble. The mantra was to play him as a seam up bowler who basically moved the ball in to the batsman. This was a successful play against Kumble. Batsmen were also getting used to facing Anil Kumble. He needed to reinvent himself, and did so by modifying his bowling style - bowling slower through the air, and adding a more orthodox googly. He was never a sly spin bowler in any classical sense. Instead, he was uncompromisingly competent. His bowling can be summed up by something he said after the 2003-04 tour to Australia about his newly developed orthodox googly. He said "I think they pick it, but they still have to play it". Even though he was bowling differently in the second half of his career, he was at his core, the same bowler.

This change in approach dovetailed nicely, or was prompted by (take your pick) a change in India's Test Match playing commitments in the 2000's, compared to the 1990's. The 1990's was the decade of Anil Kumble's absolute dominance in India. He was to India, what Muralitharan has been to Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka in this decade. Overseas, Kumble was panned for not being as effective, but the telling fact of the 1990's was, that with 101 wickets at 38.21, Kumble was India's most prolific and most effective bowler overseas in the 1990's. Srinath took 85 wickets at 35, but he was a fast bowler! In fact, Kumble has also been India's most prolific wicket taker in overseas Tests in the 2000's, but has had better support (Zaheer Khan 136 wickets at 32, Srinath 43 wickets at 31, Pathan 73 wickets at 25.57).

This has been the abiding reality of Anil Kumble's epic eighteen year career as a Test Cricketer. Consider the fact, that from the time Kumble made his debut in England in 1990, the best Indian Test bowlers after him have been Harbhajan Singh (299 wickets at 30.96), Srinath (236 wickets at 30.49) and Zaheer Khan (188 wickets at 34.11). Anil Kumble has been responsible for one in every four Test wickets taken by an Indian bowler since his debut. He finished his career with one Test cap more than Kapil Dev, bowled in 9 innings more than Kapil Dev, and took 185 Test wickets more than Kapil Dev, at an identical bowling average. He took 5 wickets or more in an innings 35 times (only Murali, Warne and Hadlee have done it more often).

The comparison between Kumble and Warne is instructive. Warne was the better leg spinner without doubt, but consider this. Warne took 5 wickets in an innings 37 times in 273 innings for Australia, had a career bowling average of 25.41, and took at wicket every 57 balls. Anil Kumble took 5 wickets in an innings 36 times in 236 innings for India, had a career bowling average of 29.65, and took at wicket every 66 balls. Kumble and Warne had nearly identical economy rates, and despite having bowled in 37 fewer innings Kumble bowled 145 more deliveries in Test Cricket than Warne did. This statistical disparity has a lot to do with the amount of support both enjoyed at the other end. For one thing, the lack of support at the other end meant that Kumble ended up bowling on average 29 overs per Test innings, compared to Warne's 25. In India, Kumble has invariably enjoyed quality spin bowling support at the other end (Raju, Chauhan, Harbhajan), and the results are evident.

This, in my view is the enduring fact of Anil Kumble's career - he carried a weak Indian attack for most of his career, and did it in a way that no other bowler amongst his contemporaries anywhere in the world (with the exception of Muralitharan) has done.  He may have led India only in the last 12 months of his Test career, but if it is true that bowling wins Test Matches, then he has been India's de facto leader in Test Cricket for most of his career.

619 is a lot of Test wickets, and any Indian bowler who surpasses Kumble's tally will be a very very tired man at the end of it. The greatest tribute that coming generations of Indian Test bowlers can pay Anil Kumble, is to ensure that no single Indian bowler should have to carry the Indian Test Match bowling attack the way Anil Kumble has had to carry it, for it is unlikely that there will be another as uncompromising as the tireless champion from Bangalore.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Anil Kumble retires

These is a precious period if you are Indian and you follow Cricket. I have little to offer by way of a post right now, and i leave you with this

When he retired from ODI cricket, i wrote looking forward to watching him on top of his run, his earnest eyes set, the red cricket ball being flicked with his wrists as though it were an extension of his person. Kumble prepares himself in his studied, deliberate manner as the batsmen faces up - the close in men waiting to pounce. It is in this moment, that India play their best cricket. It is a moment delivered by Anil Kumble.
For eighteen great years....

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Delhi Test, Day 4 - Australia line up an epic comeback

By batting well over 5 sessions in their first innings, Australia have created a situation which is common in high scoring games where the first innings occupy the bulk of the Test Match - the side batting first cannot win the game any more. The only side which can win, is Australia.

Imagine for example, that 43/2 is reduced to 175 all out by the mid-day drinks break tomorrow. That leaves Australia 212 to get in about 40 overs. There is only one side which can win that contest - the batting side. India have almost no chance of bowling Australia out in 40 overs or so.

As it stands now, it is India who have no option but to play for a draw, while Australia are in a position where they can hope to steal a narrow victory late on the 5th day. For that, India will have to collapse, and Australia will still have to score a substantial 4th innings to win, but its quite possible. The Australian batsmen have accomplished the important task of staying with the Indian first innings score. Now they need someone to bowl the spell of his life.

But Australia will need more than the gushing mush that emanates from their side when Michael Clarke is in action - Cricinfo reports this nuggest - "Trust yourself, Puppie," chirps Haddin as Clarke goes around the stumps". That sounds like alarmingly Mathew Prioresque psycho-gobbledygook to me.

India have been poor in the field in this game. Overall, one would have to say that the Australians played better than India in this game, even though their bowling failed in the first innings. Their fielding saved about 30 runs in the Indian first innings, and the Indian fielding, through dropped catches and the like, conceded about 15-20 extra runs. A 36 run lead could have been a 80 run lead, and the game would have looked slightly different (though not substantially so). Quality of fielding does help at the margins in Test Cricket, but i am not persuaded that ground fielding is ever a decisive or even substantial factor in the outcome of Test Cricket. The quality of catching obviously is, and the Delhi performance in  is anomalous for India in this regard.

In a Test Match where bat has dominated ball for all 12 sessions of play so far, it could take just one session of ball dominating bat for us to go to Nagpur all square. That Ponting chose Clarke and Katich as his first choice spinners is not promising from Australia's point of view. But then again, Virender Sehwag did get a five wicket haul when India bowled..