Saturday, January 31, 2009

India win again

If the Dambulla run chase indicated that India are now winning games in situations where the odds are stacked against them, then the second ODI in Colombo revealed another quality of a truly great team - that they could win against good opposition without playing at their best. This has partly to do with Sri Lanka's indifferent form with the bat. But what India's batsmen have managed at least in the first two ODI's is to concede only three wickets (3/175) to Murali and Mendis in 40 overs. Of those three, Mendis got two in the slog in the 2nd game.

There was no stand out performance - Yuvraj Singh made runs and Ishant Sharma got wickets in the end, but there was no singular effort which could be called match-winning. This is the singular shift in India's cricket in what i will call the Chappell generation (despite his flaws, it was Greg Chappell and the Kiran More led selection committee who first built the Indian side around these players) - there is no longer any expectation that any victory must inevitably be built around 2-3 central figures in the side. Sourav Ganguly and John Wright tried to instill this, but their method was still built around one of the top 3 (Tendulkar, Ganguly or Dravid) batting for most of the 50 overs.

Things are going well for India. At some point they will lose a game or two. But the way they seem to have overcome the Mendis-Murali threat after the Test series in SL has been impressive.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Putting "country first"?

Thats what Cricinfo's headline for a story describing Michael Vaughan's decision to forego an IPL contract. I have little sympathy for T20 cricket in general and the IPL as a tournament, but this idea that to not make oneself available for the IPL is in some way "putting country first" is a bit absurd. The accurate description of course is that Vaughan put his Test Match career first, and felt that playing in the IPL would be detrimmental to his test match prospects. Test Cricketers are professional cricketers and recieve handsome annual contracts for representing their Test team. Playing in the IPL is no different than being an overseas professional in say County cricket. In fact, if seen in terms player wear and tear, it can be argued that it is less strenous than county cricket. A similar argument was made for Michael Clarke when he decided not to participate in the first edition of the IPL.

This narrative has been largely unchallenged. It is worth a second thought.

Bill Frindal RIP

Bill Frindall, the world's preminent cricket statistician and scorer passed away aged 69. My first memory of reading scorecards comes from Frindall's detailed presentation of the 1981 Ashes in this book. Do read this wonderful post about Frindall at The Old Batsman.

RIP.

Ratings Update - South Africa win 4-1

Earlier today i posted a ratings update to include South Africa's series victory in the 4th ODI at Adelaide and India's win against Sri Lanka at Dambulla. South Africa have just beaten Australia at Perth to complete a series victory to 4-1. 

India 0.560
South Africa 0.559
Australia 0.532
New Zealand 0.519
Sri Lanka 0.479
England 0.478
Pakistan 0.428
West Indies 0.417

I expected South Africa to take a lead in the ratings, but as it currently stands, the difference between India and South Africa is a rounding error. Just to give you an idea (and this is hard to generalize) as to how the match metrics work, if Australia had been bowled out for 149 instead of 249, the final rating would have been 0.561 - South Africa, and 0.560 India.

This is a potentially transformative period in ODI Cricket. For most of the last 2-3 years, the number 1 spot in the ODI rating has been Australia's and their rating has been above 0.6. Unless one team breaks away from the pack, there could be lots of movement in these ratings in the coming year with the number 1 spot changing hands quite frequently.

As New Zealand take on Australia, keep in mind that in the last 5 contests between these two sides, Australia have won 3 (the last 3) while New Zealand have won the other two (the two earliest games). So New Zealand have a lot to gain, where as the Australians could potentially drop down to number 4 if they lose.

As for India, they have now won 4 of their last 5 games against Sri Lanka. If Sri Lanka end up winning the series, or even if they win 2 of the next 4 games, it is almost certain that India will drop from their current number 1 perch.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Should Australia invite John Buchanan to return right now?

I hold that much of the so-called revolution that Australia are supposed to have brought about in Test and ODI cricket in the last 10 years was not a function of any path breaking theories that they devised about Test and ODI cricket, but had everything to do with the fact that they had so many accomplished champions in every department of the game in this time. Now, with the six players that i considered the lynch pins of Australia's outstanding Test Match success gone, i wonder if John Buchanan should be brought back by cricket Australia. If the coach is really important, then the super-successful Buchanan should be able bring Australia back to somewhere near the amount of success they had with Hayden and Langer and Ponting and Gilchrist and Warne and McGrath filling the their slots as all-time greats.

Just a thought.

India are the Number 1 ODI team in the world

For the first time ever in my ODI Ratings. A couple of things contributed to this - South Africa beating Australia, and India winning the first ODI in Sri Lanka. Its quite close, and could change easily in the next few games, but its quite a milestone if you ask me. I have been maintaining these ratings for about 5 years now (it's been that long!) and made some changes to the methodology (the last of these was in early 2006).

On December 31st, the rating was as follows:
Australia 0.578
India 0.543
New Zealand 0.520
South Africa 0.513
Sri Lanka 0.482
England 0.478
Pakistan 0.441
West Indies 0.415

Today (including the Adelaide ODI where South Africa wrapped up the series, and the Dambulla ODI)
India 0.560
South Africa 0.554
Australia 0.536
New Zealand 0.519
Sri Lanka 0.479
England 0.478
Pakistan 0.428
West Indies 0.417

India's best ranking using my methodology has been 3 before this. Australia have never ranked lower than 2. 0.560 is also India's highest ever rating since i started keeping this record. 0.536 is Australia's lowest record.

If South Africa win at Perth today, there is a chance that they will replace India at number 1.

But, this is an important milestone.

How times change

South Africa have rested their first choice opening bowling attack and the best all round cricketer in the world in the 5th ODI at Perth - against the team which has demolished all comers in the last 10 years.  I wonder what Jacques Kallis is doing today. 

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Deep thought

Mahendra Singh Dhoni gets it.

"It depends on the result of the first match. If we win, people will say we were fresh, if we lose, we were rusty" 
Mahendra Singh Dhoni knows there's no winning the first game of the Sri Lanka series
Jan 27, 2009

Its really simple - if the team wins, then they have the right "attitude", "intensity", "team-spirit" , "fill-in-your-own-psycho-gobbledygook". If they bat well and bowl well, theres a good chance that they will win.

Im fast beginning to think that quote-unquote is the best source of cricketing news and information on the internet. Its meant to be tongue-in-cheek - and as with political satire, often reveals the truth much more clearly then all sorts of fuzzy analysis.

India win Dambulla ODI in pathbreaking run chase

It is possible that the Dambulla wicket has improved steadily since the ground was first used for ODI cricket in 2001. But it has been notoriously difficult to chase targets, especially against the hosts on this ground. Sri Lanka's best run chase at Dambulla was 235 against South Africa in 2004. The best run chase by any visiting side against the hosts at this ground was 8/164 by England in 2007. Muralitharan has 33 wickets at 15.3 at this ground, by far his best return anywhere in Sri Lanka.

Given all this, it was surprising to see Mahendra Singh Dhoni choose to field on winning the toss even though Virender Sehwag was unavailable due to injury. Even though there is nothing in the record book to suggest that batting second has easier than batting first at Dambulla, history does suggest that Sri Lanka have been impossible to beat at this ground unless they suffered an abject batting collapse batting first.

This did not quite happen today, thanks to Sanath Jayasurya's 27th ODI hundred (his 7th against India). If the Sri Lankan reputation defending decent scores at Dambulla was not enough, this was another intimidating factor - of the previous 6 occasions when Jayasuriya had reached a century against India, Sri Lanka had won 5 times.

And then there was the threat of Ajantha Mendis.

And yet, Dhoni and co. made it look easy. Dhoni himself is fast emerging as one of the most astonishing ODI batsmen of all time. He is not recognized as such yet, and given his role as a specialist wicketkeeper, it is understandable that his record may not have caught the eye in the way that Pietersen or Hussey's records might have. Having batted in the middle order, and have so far produced almost 4000 ODI runs at 47.5 (this is currently the third best of all time for batsmen having scored at least 3000 ODI runs), Dhoni rivals (and possibly even surpasses) Adam Gilchrist as among the greatest wicketkeeper batsmen in the limited overs game.

This was an impressive victory. The victory of a very very high quality side. I suspected before this series began that India would miss Harbhajan Singh and that Sri Lanka would exploit the inexperience of the young Indian spinners. Sri Lanka did that to some extent (Ojha and Pathan went for 1/84 in their 17 overs), but the one amazing thing about this side in the last 12 months or so has been that no player has looked indispensable.

There will be a few bad games for sure, but what we have seen in the past 12 months from Dhoni's team has been truly exceptional. They have won in places and situations from where it has historically been difficult for teams to win, and they have done so often. That is the surest sign of quality.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Ponting's Diary and an Indian Express Story

I first saw this quote at Homer's and subsequently found this Indian Express story about it. The headline in the Indian Express story is typically idiotic (i couldn't find a better word), because not only does it completely misunderstand what Ponting is saying (and this is the Indian Express's fault and not Ponting's fault in any way), it abuses what Ponting says. I know that Ponting is not popular in India, and he has been criticized even on this blog for his actions in the matter of the catching agreement in the Sydney Test a year ago.

Ponting did not say that India's success is due to luck rather than skill, he said that shorter forms of the game allow batsmen to hide technical flaws which are exposed more readily in Test Cricket. He further criticizes T20 cricket for being about luck. In both these matters, his position is eminently reasonable, and i suspect that even Dhoni and Yuvraj with agree in principle with what Ponting is saying (though they may not appreciate that he presents the Indian T20 success as an example).

Old readers of this blog will recall these posts about T20 cricket where i discuss issues of chance, risk and their role in the contest between bat and ball. And please don't tell me that T20 and Test Cricket are "different". Of course they are different. Im interested in describing how they are different, and my assertion is that in shorter games (in ODI's and even more so in T20), the contest between bat and ball is heavily skewed in favor of the batsman, because it reduces the value of a dismissal, thereby reducing the risk associated with dismissal. This leads to the batsman taking more chances, thus introducing a greater role for "luck" in deciding the outcome of an act.

Thats all that Ponting is saying and its a reasonable point. The examples he offers are debatable but nevertheless not out of place (have you watched Dhoni bat on a seaming wicket?). He's absolutely right that Yuvraj Singh in particular thrives in limited overs cricket but gets found out at Test level simply because his technique hasn't stood up so far to the more searching examination of Test Cricket. Michael Bevan would be another example of this type of batsman. Even if his choice of example is less than tactful, his basic point is a good one. A similar argument could be made within Test Cricket itself, where it could be reasonably argued that a batsman like Ponting who batted in a superpowered batting lineup with a great bowling attack to keep the opposition runs down as well (in the great Aussie side earlier in this decade) never found himself in the same variety of match situations that say a Lara or a Tendulkar might have found themselves in because they played in a side with much weaker bowling attacks (and thus batted against larger totals almost all the time) and less complete batting line ups. So, Ponting hasn't been tested in Test Cricket in the same way that Lara or Tendulkar have.

I realize that lots of people who have seen their team being mauled by the awesome Australian side of the last few years is very pleased to see Ponting's current Australian side struggle, and basically feel able to laugh at anything Ponting says and does (he's suddenly a terrible captain, an uninspiring presence who backs failures, he's not doing anything right). This in my view says more about us than it does about him. Playing the man instead of the ball is never a good idea. It leaves us open to all sorts of charges including that of downright stupidity.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sehwag on Batting and some Duleep News

Virender Sehwag has been featured quite frequently on Cricinfo's quote-unquote. This is his latest gem:

"I try to hum songs, bhajans, Sai Baba bhajans, Kishore Kumar songs, especially those pictured on Amitabh Bachchan, till the bowler is about to deliver. I try to sing songs as perfectly as possible in order to keep my mind completely uncluttered." 
Virender Sehwag has a unique way of keeping focussed at the crease
Jan 25, 2009

That he feels that bhajans on the one hand, and say Khaike Pan Banaraswala on the other are equally useful is wonderful. Its easy to see now why Virender Sehwag plays like he does. He has a superbly tuned value system.

Speaking of value systems, the absolutely astonishing decision by the South Zone side led by VVS Laxman (though im not sure if VVS was on the field on the last day, he was absent hurt in South Zone's second innings) to let Central get away with a draw brings the format of the Duleep Trophy into sharp focus - because teams have no incentive to play for an outright victory once they have secured the 1st innings lead. At the very least, there should be detailed interviews of all the parties involved to determine what the point of playing that last session was. It appears that the only thing that everybody was staying on the field for was the possibility of Mohammad Kaif making a hundred.

As it is, India's domestic cricketers play very little first class cricket - when even in this, half the games are reduced to being formalities on the last day, the system needs an overhaul. I wouldn't be too critical of the players in this specific case, but playing the Duleep Trophy on a knock out basis is pointless. The T20 obsessed BCCI needs to pay serious attention to this, because this is where the serious cricket is played.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Rating for Batsmen in Test Cricket

In a recent post, i critiqued the ICC's Ratings method for batsmen. I found that while the ratings methodology is fairly sophisticated, it uses some criteria which seem problematic, namely - the result of the game and the quality of the bowling. On the face of it, these appear to be important criteria, but as i have discussed earlier, neither criterion is within the batsman's control. As such it is unfair to penalize any batsman in a rating based on some statistical construction which suggests that he may have faced inferior bowling to some other batsman. The other problem with the rating is in how it is calculated - the scale of 0  to 1000 is arbitrary, and there is no indication whether the difference between a rating of 875 and 900 is the same as the difference between a rating of 850 and 875. Finally, the criteria considered seem to measure the same thing over and over again. For example, the difficulty of scoring runs is measured both through the difficulty of the bowling and through the match total. Obviously, the match total can come about because rest of the batting may be out of form. The consideration of the match result favors players playing in stronger teams, because these teams are more likely to win.

Having criticized the ICC's ratings method, it is only fair that i should stick my neck out and present my own rating. In this post, i will describe a batting rating methodology for Test Cricket which measures how successful and how valuable a batsman has been in Test Cricket. This to me seems to be a reasonable to measure the "best". I consider three factors:

1. The career aggregate for the individual batsman.
2. The career batting average of the individual batsman.
3. The percentage of his teams runs that the batsman contributes.

These are the three basic parameters which between them completely measure the success and the value of a any given batsman to his team - How many runs the batsman makes, how prolific the batsman is and how significant are these runs to the team.  This third factor is important, because the goal of any batting side in a Test Match is to build partnerships - this is easier to achieve if there are 7 top class batsman, than if there is only 1 top class batsman and a number of other lesser ones. Therefore, it is more difficult for the batsman in the weak batting side to make runs than it is for the batsman in the strong batting side. The runs are more significant and more valuable for the weak batting side as well.

In any given population of batsmen (say all Indian batsmen), if a batsman has the highest batting average, the highest run aggregate, and contributes the highest percentage of runs to his teams total score, then this batsman is the "perfect" batsman within this population. All the batsmen in that population are ranked on a scale for each of the three criteria, ranging from the lowest to the highest. Any individual batsman's rating for each criterion, is the ratio of his record for that criterion to the highest number. So any Indian Test batsman score for batting average is the ratio of his batting average, to the highest batting average for any Indian Test batsman. Similarly, the same is calculated for the other two criteria.

This table is made up of all Indian and Australian Test batsman who have scored at least 1500 Test Runs (this is a basic number of runs which a batsman must score before he can enter the rating list). In addition, i have also included Brian Lara, Jacques Kallis and Gary Sobers. The final "Rating" in the table for each player is the simple sum of the players score for each criterion - aggregate, average and percentage contribution to the team total. My rationale is best explained by comparing the first three names on that list - Bradman, Lara and Tendulkar.

When Bradman retired, he had the highest run aggregate, the highest batting average and probably the highest percentage contribution to his teams score (a whopping 25% - note that this is measured by considering the batting average against the average cost of 10 wickets in terms of runs). This would mean, that when he retired, he had a perfect rating of 3.0. In the years since he retired, many batsmen have played more games than he did, they have scored more runs than he did, value of Bradman's runs to Australia. Australia average 393 per innings when Bradman played, and Bradman contributed 100 of those runs. Thats why Bradman is still head an shoulder ahead of the next batsman in the ratings. Sachin Tendulkar has been more prolific than Brian Lara, but Lara's runs have come in a significantly weaker batting side. Thus Lara has been more valuable to the West Indies, than Tendulkar has been to India. Ricky Ponting has been more prolific than either Tendulkar or Lara, but he plays in a strong Australian side and as such is less central to Australia's success than Tendulkar or Lara have been to India's or the West Indies success.

A batsman's rating can be calculated at any stage of his career provided he has made at least 1500 runs in his career. This rating methodology is also responsive to world records - a world record aggregate would change every batsman's rating because it would change the maximum. If you have two retired batsmen, their rank will never with respect to each other, but their rating will as newer players come along and play more than they do. While a batsman is playing, it is theoretically possible for him to reach the number 1 spot in these all time ratings.

Thus, this methodology allows us to do everything which the ICC's player rating does, and more - it helps us judge a player at any point during his career, as well as at the end of it and also place his position in history.

Do tell me what you think

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Barack Obama and the Hindus

Barack Obama referred to "Hindus" in his Inaugural speech today. He has always included the hindus whenever he referred to the world's religions. This sets him apart from other western (especially American) politicians who invariably refer to Christians, Jews and Muslims, but never to Hindus. It is an interesting recognition from Obama of a statistical fact. It also tells us something (albeit something only very minor) about his world view.

In fact, i found that no American president has referred to the hindus in inaugural speeches yet. 

Saturday, January 17, 2009

On Thomas L Friedman

Read this article about the famous New York Times columnist who is probably read by more people all over the world than any other single journalist. Apart from the one error about his house being 114,000 sq. ft. (its actually 11,400 sq. ft), this is a devastating critique, both of Friedman's position and his Friedmanisms.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The ICC's Player Rankings

The ICC player rankings suggested that Matthew Hayden is the 10th greatest Test batsman of all time. This was possibly the least noteworthy finding of the ratings. The low ranking of Sachin Tendulkar and even Brian Lara makes has made them deeply unpopular. So much so, that even the Times of India has been moved to publish an editorial comment about the ICC's ratings. In "When Statistics Lie" the Times has commandeered the proverbial kitchen sink (full of used utensils i might add) at the ICC, at statistics, at rankings and even obliquely at a few players who had the misfortune of being favored in those rankings.

Unlike the ICC Team Ratings for Test Cricket and ODI Cricket, the ICC Player Rankings to the best of my knowledge were once the PWC Cricket Ratings which were developed by PriceWaterhouseCoopers after the former England captain Ted Dexter floated the idea. In the move from  PWC to the ICC, it appears that a detailed methodology page which i remember having gone through in detail seems to have been lost. It has been replaced by an amazingly shoddy FAQ which answers unserious questions in a haphazard manner. If you wanted to know what variables are considered by the ICC's ratings, then you would have to search long through that sorry FAQ and at the end of it still remain unsure as to whether or not you have a complete list.

The first chatty answer in the FAQ reads thus -

"Think of the Reliance Mobile ICC ratings as a system for identifying the players who could be selected for an ICC World XI if it was picked today. Take a look at the latest top tens, and you should find that most of the players at the top would be candidates for your current World XI. The ratings have often been described as a measure of form, but this is a simplification. A form rating would only look at what a player has done in (say) the last year, whereas our ratings take into account a player's entire career - though they put more emphasis on what he has done recently."This is in response to the question "What do the ratings measure?". The answer suggests that the ratings measure current form, while keeping in view longer term performance. Further, the ratings also claim to take into the quality of the opposition.

If i remember correctly, the PWC Ratings also took into account whether or not a Test innings was played in a victory, defeat or draw. This is dubious, because victories and defeats are a function of a side taking 20 wickets. The time honored wisdom about Test Cricket is that bowlers win matches, while batsmen can at best set them up. Whether the result of a game should be considered while measuring the quality of batting is itself a deeply debatable issue.

But the criticism of the ICC Rankings is welcome even if it is mis-stated. The problem is not with statistics per se, or with the enterprise of deriving rankings and ratings as a whole. The problem with the ICC's official rankings is that there is little or no respect for the actual statistics involved. Even the question of objectivity is not particularly important in my view, for it ought to be a given that any statistical model will answer only those questions that it was designed to answer. With great databases like Cricinfo's statsguru available to anybody who wants to use them, lots of very nuanced questions can be studied.

The problem with the ICC's ratings is that their claim of measuring the "best-ever" is refuted in the answer to the first question in their FAQ - which suggests that their method is designed measure form primarily and reputation only secondarily. It is very hard to measure the "best ever", but i must admit that it is very tempting to try and measure it. I have tried it in the past based on partnership statistics. Please read this post, the statistical table would be different today because a number of players records are different). I have built ODI batting statistics based on a this multi-variable measurement. Some months ago, when Sachin Tendulkar was in terrible form i decided to see how consistent he had been over his career compared to a few other players, and found that if we considered consecutive 10 Test match snapshots, and then made the assumption that an average of 30 or less over 10 Tests would be absolute failure for a batsman of top quality, that an average between 30-50 would amount to an average return, and an average of 50 or more would amount to a normal performance for a top quality batsman. I found that if viewed over the length of their careers, Tendulkar had upto that point been the most consistent of all top class batsmen.

Recently, i extended this study. Donald Bradman played 80 innings in Test Cricket, scoring 6996 runs at a batting average of just below 100. He made 29 Test hundreds. I decided to look at each batsman who has made more than 29 Test hundreds, and took their career in the form of splits of 80 consecutive innings. The first split would be from innings 1 - 80, the second from 2 - 81 and so on. I wanted to find out how close to Bradman these batsmen got in run making terms if i considered their best 80 innings splits (and not just their first as in the case of Bradman). The chart below is quite interesting. Jacques Kallis and Ricky Ponting have gotten closest to Bradman statistically.


These are the only two players to have achieved a batting average above 70 over 80 consecutive innings in Test Cricket. The percentages above are the percentage of total number of 80 innings splits in which the batting average (Av) exceeded a given value. This like many others is a measure of consistency. My point in presenting this table as it is, is that i hope it will be read in its entirety - that the fact that Tendulkar and Waugh have played 40 innings more than Kallis and Ponting will be significant. 

The problem with the ICC Ratings is that they are shoddily presented, with a flippant air, as if we are supposed applaud the fact that they have used some "sophisticated" statistical measure to arrive at them. The ratings are worthless not because of the results that are presented, but because the results are presented without basis. Ideally, you would want the ICC to present a specific example of how the statistics are calculated. They should explain what factors are considered and why. They should explain why certain factors may have been considered but ultimately set aside.

Statistics in Cricket can be very interesting. The interesting part however lies in the method - for different methods reveal different ways of describing quality. They ought to be presented with care and in all their detail. The ICC have done neither.

Mumbai win 38th Ranji Trophy title

Mumbai bowled out Uttar Pradesh on Day 5 of the Ranji Trophy to win the final by 243 runs. They did it the Bombay way by first grinding the opposition out and leaving them in a hopeless situation at the end of Day 4. Uttar Pradesh couldn't win the Ranji Trophy and had little to play for. It appears that they play as though they had little to play for. Mohammad Kaif  made 72 in this second innings even though he played 5 balls fewer than he did in scoring 33 in the first innings. Bhuvneshwar Kumar capped of a fine individual performance with 80. He made 121 in addition to 6 wickets in the match.

It was a fitting game to complete an unbeaten tournament for Mumbai. They were never in danger of losing the final after the first session of play.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Ranji Trophy Final - Day 4

I expected that Bombay would not make a generous declaration on Day 4, but have shown themselves to be particularly bloody-minded in this final. Once they had the first innings lead, Bombay batted for 127 overs in their second innings, reaching 367 all out at the end of Day 4. I expected that Bombay would declare sometime in the post Tea session and the dismissal of Rohit Sharma for 108 (his second hundred in the match, im sure he really made Mohammad Kaif's day!) would have been a good time to declare. If this were a Test Match, a declaration might indeed have been affected.

There is much hand wringing about first innings leads determining results, and while it is interesting that Bombay didn't choose to bowl on the 4th evening, it will be disappointing only if they don't try to win tomorrow. The first innings lead is actually a fairly good indicator of where a 2 innings game is headed. Of the 1330 Test Match which have not been Draws, 1143 (or 86%) have been won by the side which took the first innings lead. If you think about it, this Ranji Final is the perfect example of why the first innings lead is a good way to judge which side has done better (more so that UP's win over Tamil Nadu), because the first innings were completed on Day 3. When Bombay began their second innings, UP had enough time, provided they were good enough, to win the game. What the play on Day 4 suggests, is that UP have not been good enough to stop Bombay from going further ahead in the game, let alone making any sort of comeback. They still have a chance to put up a good show tomorrow, but it is fairly clear that they have been bested over the first four days.

The question then is whether or not Bombay have done enough to merit being called the Ranji Trophy Champions. In this instance there is little doubt that they have outclassed UP over the first 4 days of this game. But is it enough to be deemed champions? The BCCI has determined that they will accept first innings leads as sufficient evidence for declaring a winner. If we were to use a boxing analogy, this can be seen as a result on points instead of an outright knockout. This is actually an accurate reading of the Draw as a result in the 2 innings game, for a Draw does not suggest parity at all. What the BCCI could do however, is to change the rules and say that in the Ranji Trophy Final, unless there is an outright result, the Trophy should be shared.

In many ways, im not surprised that Bombay didn't declare once the lead had gone past say 425. That is how Ranji Trophy cricket is played, and that is how Bombay play their cricket. Generosity doesn't come into it. They had to fight hard though - they lost 6/111 in the first part of the day before "way too lucky" Rohit Sharma scored a classy hundred emulating the ailing Sachin Tendulkar (vs Punjab, 1994-95)in scoring a century in each innings of a Ranji Trophy Final. In that game Mumbai took a 1st innings lead of 313 and then extended it to 832. The overarching tactic in knockout games has been to get ahead in the game and then do everything possible to deny the other side a way back into the game. This is philosophically different from Test Cricket, where the overarching objective is to force outright victories - thus making the quality of bowling attacks of primary importance.

This is why the great point of interest, especially in Ranji games involving Bombay in recent times has been that of one or two batsmen from the other team who have been a devastating form coming into the game trying to out-bat the Mumbai batting machine. In 1994-95 against Punjab it was Vikram Rathore supported by Navjot Sidhu, in 1999-00 against Tamil Nadu it was Hemang Badani supported by Robin Singh, in the final in 1999-00 it was VVS Laxman supported by Azharuddin. In nearly every instance, Mumbai have prevailed, often by the skin of their teeth as they did in the 1999-00 semifinal against TN (Tendulkar made 233 not out and led Bombay from the depths of 4/127 to 10/490 chasing a TN first innings for 485). This season, a similar challenge came from the young Saurashtra Prodigy Cheteshwar Pujara backed by the veteran Sitanshu Kotak. The status of Pujara, VVS, Badani and Rathore is not dissimilar to the status of the many great non-Australian batsmen who faced Australian sides. Most of these instances, as lone battles were doomed failure against the Australians. The only consistent challenge to Australia came from those sides that had many batsmen who could make runs against them.

Day 5 will most probably see Mumbai wrap up their 38th Ranji Trophy Championship, hopefully with an outright win.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Ranji Trophy Final - Day 3

Zaheer Khan demolished UP in their first innings taking 7/54 to give Bombay a possibly decisive 157 run first innings lead on Day 3 of the 2008-09 Ranji Trophy Final at Uppal. Mumbai have extended that lead due to a century opening stand between Wasim Jaffer and Vinayak Samant to 287 at the end of the day with the opening pair still batting. With two days left in the game, Mumbai well ahead in the game. A UP comeback from this position would be a truly historic effort.

It is very likely that India will now play
three tests in New Zealand instead of the originally scheduled two. Given the form he is in, Zaheer must surely have thought back to India's last tour of New Zealand and the wickets prepared for those Tests. One of the things Zaheer lacks in Test Cricket is a few impressive bowling analyses. He has bowled consistently well in Tests since his comeback in South Africa in late 2006. Of late he has become a truly world class seam and swing bowler. 2009 should bring him a few 5 wickets hauls, for today he is definitely a significantly better bowler than his Test bowling average of 34.04 suggests.

This effort in the Ranji Trophy final is a fine effort. He will have the opportunity to play some more first class cricket in the upcoming
Duleep Trophy, which should attract all the first team talent. Sadly, it will be played on a knock out basis this year instead of the usual league format, leading up to a final. With all the first choice India players available for this tournament, this should be a terrific edition of the Duleep Trophy.

In this Ranji Trophy Final though, barring some astonishing turn around which will have to involve UP bowling and batting out of their skins and Bombay playing the poorest couple of days of cricket in their history, it appears as though Bombay will win the 2008-09 Ranji Trophy super league title - their 38th win and their 8th win in the last 16 years. I just hope that Mumbai push for the outright win tomorrow. If they choose to engage in "batting practice" and do something crazy like batting until they are dismissed in their second innings, then it will be the saddest cricketing decision by a captain since Greg Chappell told his brother to bowl underarm in that One Day game all those years ago.

I don't think it will happen. Don't expect a generous declaration though. If they aren't bowled out, i expect they will play on till they are 500 in front before declaring.

With the Duleep Trophy being truncated this year, it will be worth seeing how much cricket the average first class cricketer in India gets to play in single season. It is quite inexplicable that India should have one of the shortest first class seasons in Cricket (in terms of matches per team), despite being the most potent market for cricket in the world.
This is a format i proposed last year, which would bring the opportunities for the average Indian first class cricketer in terms of innings on par with the average County Cricketer.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Matthew Hayden - One of the most successful batsmen of all time

Matthew Hayden was possibly the most overtly disciplined batsman in the great Australian team that he played in. He made 1000 Test runs in a calender year for 5 consecutive calender years - a feat unmatched in Test Cricket. These five years formed the heart of his Test Match career. He played 66 Tests from 2001-2005 and made 6366 runs at 59.5. His front foot play is rightly acclaimed and he was a classical hard wicket player, but in my view the one stroke that defined his approach to batting was the sweepshot. Hayden played a peculiar, cultivated sweepshot, where his bat came down from over his shoulder and almost swatted the ball into the ground towards the leg side. I have rarely seen Hayden get out to that stroke, but it is in the development and then the bloodyminded execution of that stroke that we see the essence of Hayden's batting. 

He averaged 59 against India - Australia's toughest opponents during Hayden's career. Compare that record with Ponting (47), Martyn (49), Gilchrist (28), Mark Waugh (33), Steve Waugh (42), Justin Langer (40), Michael Clarke (46), Michael Hussey (53) and Michael Slater (28). He made nearly 1900 runs against India and his success was built on two outstanding series which in essence bookended his illustrious career. His first great performance in Test Cricket came in India in 2000-01, and his last great performance came against India in Australia in 2007-08. In the highly charged atmosphere of the series, where observers in India claim (with some merit) that but for the umpiring at Sydney, India might have won the series, they forget one crucial factor - the batting of Matthew Hayden. Hayden made three centuries - at Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide, all of which went a long way towards ensuring that Australia won the series. Hayden's century at Sydney was one of his best efforts in Test Cricket.

Hayden formed one of the most successful Test opening partnerships of all time with Justin Langer. Langer and Hayden are one of only three pairs in the history of Test Cricket to open the batting in a Test match more than 100 times (the other two are Atapattu & Jayasuriya and Greenidge & Haynes). Matthew Hayden is unique in that he features twice list of the top 10 most prolific batting partnerships of all time in Test Cricket. The pair of Hayden and Ponting was if anything even more potent than the opening pair of Hayden and Langer, and have added atleast 50 in 38 out of their 76 partnerships together in Test Cricket. Desmond Haynes and Sachin Tendulkar are the only others to feature in that list twice in the top 10. 

Hayden preferred to start at the non-strikers end, and averaged 55 in the 144 innings when he did so. When he had to take first strike (this happened 40 times in Hayden's career), his average dropped to 34.43. Most batsmen favor a particular innings in a Test Match - most are great first innings players. Hayden is notable for the fact that his average in the first and second innings of games is nearly identical.

Only Tendulkar amongst those batsmen who have made 30 Test hundreds (an illustrious list - Hayden, Ponting, Lara, Tendulkar, Kallis, Gavaskar and Steve Waugh) or more has reached this milestone in fewer innings than Hayden. Hayden made his 30 Test hundred in his 167th innings in his 94th Test Match, Tendulkar did so in his 159th innings in his 99th Test. This is is not simply a function of the sheer length of these players careers.  Of the 37 specialist batsmen who have played 100 Tests, only these 7 men have reached 30 Test hundreds or more, and of these three, all but Waugh, Lara and Kallis made their 30 Test before their 102th Test Match.

I am usually skeptical of qualities such as "presence" at the wicket, and "imposing authority" and things like that which people who talk and write about cricket tend to discuss at length but the only time in all the cricket that i have watched that i seen some empirical evidence to support this idea of an imposing presence (batting wise, not body language wise) was in the first 15 overs of the 2003 World Cup Final. On that occasion, it was Hayden and not Gilchrist who led the way.

Consider the background for that game if you well. India's bowlers had done superbly in the tournament until that point, especially in the run up to the Final against England, Sri Lanka and New Zealand. The conditions at the start of play were favorable to fast bowling, and Australia had been put into bat in this context. The ball was seaming off the wicket and swinging in the air, and the one thing India's bowlers would need to do was to pitch the ball up outside off stump. Hayden's front foot play in that innings, especially a couple of early drives which he played on the rise past mid-off inspite of the swing forced Srinath and Zaheer Khan to shorten their length. In doing so, they played into the Australian openers hands. Hayden's front foot play in my view won that game for Australia very early in the day.

Hayden leaves with a Test average of 50 and an ODI average of 44 - an outstanding record by the highest standards. He has been considered a batting bully by some observers, one who made hay in an extremely strong team against bowling attacks which for the most part contained no great fast bowlers. While there may be some truth to the observation about the quality of fast bowling that Hayden faced (his record in England doesn't help him), there is no denying the fact that he has unquestionably been a great batsman for Australia. . After Warne and McGrath, it was the Australia top 3 of Hayden, Langer and Ponting which formed the fulcrum of their strength. Now only Ponting remains. It was noted before Warne and McGrath retired that Australia would find them hard to replace. Now we may find that the opening pair of Hayden and Langer will be similarly hard to replace, and their loss may prove to be similarly costly for Australia.

Hayden's retirement in many ways completes the end of the Australian Empire. While he was in the side, it was clear that Australia had the best in the world against the new ball.

Farewell, and well played!

Monday, January 12, 2009

More funny commentary

May be its just me, but whenever i visit Cricinfo to check the score of the Ranji Trophy Final, something happens on the field which gets gets described in a very dubious way by the commentators. This morning Rohit Sharma once again edged a ball and it fell short of the slip fielder. Sharma has had plenty of luck in this innings due to dropped catches, but this is what the commentators had to say
96.2 P Kumar to Sharma, 1 run, edged and he survives again!! Rohit has been way too lucky in this innings. He prods at a good length ball on the off stump, the ball moves away a touch late, he gets the outside edge that falls well short of first slip
What does "way too lucky" mean? Who decides that a certain amount of luck is Ok, but a certain other (greater) amount of luck is not? There's a difference between saying "very lucky" and "way too lucky", they mean completely different things. Its not as if he's gotten the benefit of umpiring errors. The UP captain has dropped a couple of sitters! 

In the meanwhile the "Bombay Duck" has so far been at the wicket while Bombay have added 71 runs for the 7th wicket.

Ranji Trophy Final - Day 1

The story surrounding this Ranji Trophy Final has been Bombay's unhappiness with a BCCI rule for these games which says that if the first innings of a game is not completed, then it is not the first innings lead, but the net run rate of the sides which matters. This rule is worth discussing, for it appears to be quite bizarre. Nevertheless, the Bombay Ranji Trophy captain Wasim Jaffer's claim that he was "surprised" is still ridiculous - a bit like Shaun Pollock's misreading of the Duckworth-Lewis chart in the 2003 World Cup.

As the decided underdogs UP (with an average age of about 22) should be sentimental favorites in this Ranji Trophy Final, especially as the game is against Bombay. They were finalists last year as well, and as such no one with a heart could possibly root against them (unless he or she was a well entrenched Bombay supporter). UP have some phenomenal performers in their ranks, including the 22 year old Shivakant Shukla who batted for 13 hours and 41 minutes against Tamil Nadu in the semi-final to ensure that UP got the first innings lead. This is the second longest innings in the history of India's first class cricket, and the 4th longest of all time. Incidentally the longest innings in first class history (just short of 17 hours) was recorded by Rajeev Nayyar in a game which epitomises everything that is wrong with the Ranji Trophy. J&K were bowled out for 249 in 88 overs in that game. In reply Himachal Pradesh batted 255 overs (!) for 567. At that pace, they would have found it hard to win even in a Test Match!

Day 1 of the Ranji Trophy began with Bombay worrying about this rule that they didn't know about. They were quickly disabused of this fear, for Bhuvneshwar Kumar the 18 year old right arm medium pacer had reduced Mumbai to 4/55 within the first session of play. Rohit Sharma and Abhishek Nayyar led a chancy and most uncharacteristic recovery and Bombay reached 6/297 at the end of play. It is quite striking that Bombay began the game worried about this rule which stipulated what would happen in case of an incomplete first innings, while UP won the toss and elected to bowl first. Whether this decision was because they saw the name Z Khan in the Bombay ranks, or whether they felt their best chance was to bowl Bombay (playing with 5 bowlers) out cheaply while they had some help from the wicket is an open question. Their day might have been much better had captain Mohammad Kaif not spilt two routine slip catches off Rohit Sharma. The talented Mumbai middle order batsman ended the day on an unbeaten 113. Sachin Tendulkar and Wasim Jaffer made 423 (619) between them against Saurashtra and only Jaffer was dismissed (for 301). In this game, they made 1(29) between them and both were dismissed within the first session play.

There was some Simon O'Donnellesque commentary from Cricinfo on Day 1. Abhishek Nayyar was out LBW for 99 immediately after UP took the second new ball. This was followed by Sairaj Bahutule (amazingly enough, promoted ahead of Ramesh Powar) going first ball. The next line in Cricinfo's ball by ball commentary read -
 "And look who's come - It's the "Bombay duck". Ajit Agarkar comes in. Bhuvneshwar on a hattrick"
I say it was O'Donnellesque for i found it to be just as misplaced and ignorant as Simon O'Donnell's unbelievable comment about Sourav Ganguly in 2003-04, that the India captain was "not known for his ability to loft the ball". Ajit Agarkar is a terrific lower order player in Ranji Trophy Cricket, unlike his efforts in Test Cricket. He average 41.4 in this Ranji season and has made over 200 runs already. His First Class batting average is 32.7. Not surprisingly, Agarkar ended the day on 21 not out having safely negotiated the new ball.

It has been an error prone day from UP, ironically from their most experienced player and captain. When Mohammad Kaif looks back on this final, if UP do go on to lose it, he will see look back on those two chances of Rohit Sharma (and another instance where Kaif was standing too wide at first slip and the ball went harmlessly past where first slip might have been) and wonder what might have been. The first of those chances came before the Mumbai score had passed 100. Sharma and Nayar added 207 for the 5th wicket, which going by this rather bizarre statistics page on the Bombay Ranji Trophy website appears to be only the 4th double hundred stand for Mumbai against UP.  Going by this it also appears to be a record for Bombay against UP.

That stats page is a bit hard to believe though, for when i looked down the list 5th wicket stands to find out the best one against UP, i found that Amol Muzumdar and Omkar Khanvilkar added 119 for the 5th wicket against UP at the Wankhede Stadium in 2005-06. But just below that, i also learnt that Dilip Vengsarkar and Sachin Tendulkar added 118 for Bombay v Delhi in 1983-84! This would be some achievement, even for the great Tendulkar for he was 10 years old at the time.

Having been put into the bat, the 37 times champions will have reason to be pleased at the end of Day 1.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Ranji Trophy Final

The Ranji Trophy Final is underway at Uppal. Mumbai playing Uttar Pradesh at Uppal. UP have won the toss and elected to field first. As i write this, Wasim Jaffer - triple centurion against Saurashtra has been dismissed early. This is UP's second straight Ranji Trophy final appearance, and their third in the last 4 years. Mumbai are unbeaten this season. RP Singh returns for UP, while Sairaj Bahutule replaces Amol Muzumdar for Mumbai.

Should be an interesting game, especially given the fact the UP have decided to bowl first.

Kevin Pietersen calls the ECB's bluff

Too often institutions take it upon themselves to cut an individual down to size because they percieve some kind of threat to their existence and their authority from that individual. "We can't have this sort of thing", "You can't go about doing this sort of thing". What they're saying is, that we're going to keep doing this our way, and how dare you put something forward which we didn't already think of!

Typically, these institutional assaults find loyal allies in the press, who readily take up such vague entities as "senior players" or "the team" (not to be confused with the simple group of 11 individuals who are members of a team) or "officials", and invest in them a great deal of authority. "Senior players" were divided about Pietersen's performance as captain. When something like this is said, there's a certain smugness on the part of the reporter - I know more than im telling you, and I can't tell you the specifics, but trust me on this. Even former players are not exempt from this kind of thing. You would think that they of all people would be especially mindful of the individual's position vis a vis the institution, but consider
this report from Angus Fraser, the former England fast bowler.

Watching Kevin Pietersen, England's recently resigned captain, meet, greet and interact with likes of Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison and the other team-mates who failed to give him the support he thought they should is a must-see event.The
uber-narrative of the recent events is that Pietersen didn't get along with Moores, and felt that Moores was holding England back. Pietersen, true to form, decided to do something about it and spoke to the ECB about Moores. The ECB "researched" the matter, and found that many senior players didn't share Pietersen's reservations about Moores. Furthermore, Pietersen's own reputation amongst his teammates was lukewarm. As a result, Pietersen "jumped before he was pushed" and resigned from the captaincy, while Moores was sacked because his position had become untenable. What complicated matters in this case was that the ECB had given Moores the authority to select the captain after Vaughan and Collingwood quit the job.

This account of the situation has just been
smashed to smithereens, for Kevin Pietersen has just pointed out that he was told that he had resigned! Furthermore, his understanding when he was told he had resigned (a little bit like Russian Generals committing "suicide" on having failed Stalin in World War II), was that Moores had been retained. Pietersen revealed that not only had he not resigned (as per the correct usage of that word in the language), but that Flintoff, Collingwood, Harmison and Andrew Strauss all told him that he shouldn't resign. So while the ECB may be right about the team's view of Moores, they've been completely exposed about their claim that the players didn't support Pietersen. The man they have now appointed captain himself supported Pietersen!

Meanwhile, all we hear is the media going to town about Pietersen's ego, and how that was getting in the way of his relationship with his teammates. This is easy to do. Pietersen is an easy target, and the charge is easily made about him. But it is also the lazy thing to do. It seems clear that the ECB has dug a fairly deep hole for itself in this matter, now that their claim about Pietersen's lack of support from his teammates has been exposed as being untrue. Further, the very fact that they chose to reveal this alleged finding publicly ought to raise serious questions about their conduct.

But institutions such as the ECB are elusive targets, villainywise. And so, we will continue to hear about team unity and how the England dressing room will be divided into factions. What we won't ever find out is who in the ECB made the absolutely unforgivable lapse of undermining the Captain of England by putting it out that he didnot have the backing of his team.

In this, the ECB could learn a thing or two from BCCI, an organization which is ceaselessly vilified for being unprofessional in the way it does business and clumsy in its communications with the public. In the aftermath of India's all too brief 2007 World Cup campaign, the BCCI made plenty of noises, but never did they undermine either Rahul Dravid or any of his teammates.

If England do underperform in the coming months (and in the 2009 Ashes), it will not be because the players don't get along with each other on account of Pietersen's actions. It will be because the players would have lost confidence in the ECB, for it has shown no compunction in throw one of them under bus, mainly for speaking his mind. And lets keep in mind that for all their talk of insubordination and the observation that Pietersen issued ultimatums while on holiday in South Africa (why that is relevant is beyond me), Pietersen actually did the responsible thing and presented his case privately to the board, and did not make it publicly.

This whole case reeks of significant abuses of its position by the ECB. But of course, Pietersen's ego is a story made for the press. So the ECB is likely to get away with this. And Andrew Strauss is going to end up in the West Indies as the most sheepish captain in modern day cricket. Whats more, he has been assigned to captain the limited overs side - a side in which he has not merited a batting spot since England's Super Eight's World Cup game in Barbados on April 21 2007 - a game in which Straus made 7, and Kevin Pietersen made 100(91) to lead England to a 1 wicket win chasing 300 against the West Indies.

If that doesn't indicate mixed up priorities on the part of the ECB, i don't know what does.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

The ECB, the Coach and Kevin Pietersen

Update: Make what you will of this, but Geoffrey Boycott points a finger at the ECB in this matter. Ironically, Kevin Pietersen was compared in this context to Geoffrey Boycott by the Times columnist Simon Barnes.

The saddest words that a cricketer or a captain can say in public are to the effect that he is confident that his teammates support him. That is what Andrew Strauss didn't
say in his press conference after being named England captain. As such Strauss's thoughts were well articulated and his words well chosen. 

The press has had a field day about this issue. I suspect sometimes that they like nothing better than a whiff of division in the ranks - any ranks. In a completely unrelated context, here's another story about an alleged parting of ways - the actual story does not support the headline at all. It seems to be the first requirement for a story - a parting of ways, a disagreement, dissent, a tiff, call it what you like. I must confess that i tend to be extremely skeptical of press reporting about Cricket especially when they claim that a crisis exists somewhere. There is something intensely self-serving about the press (which is interested in circulation) telling us that there is a crisis (which is supposed to make us extremely interested, thereby increasing their circulation).

With an organization like the ECB involved, the job of the press is even easier! Just think about what happened with this Kevin Pietersen - Peter Moores issue. As i understand it (from reading the press sadly, those are my only sources), Pietersen was upset about the non-selection of Michael Vaughan for the tour of the West Indies, while Peter Moores wanted Vaughan to be excluded. Moores got his way with the selectors, and Pietersen, who was already less than satisfied working with Moores, decided he wanted to discuss it with a higher authority - in this case Giles Clarke, a businessman who studied Persian and Arabic, then worked for a bank (its funny how everybody who went to a fancy university can work for a bank irrespective of what they studied there), then became a successful liquor retailer, and as a natural progression, given his capacity as a cricket enthusiast, is now the Chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board (not unsurprisingly, abbreviated to the ECB, and not EWCB).

It is not clear whether any communication actually occured between Pietersen and Clarke, but the ECB in its wisdom, instead of letting Giles Clarke (the liquor guy) given Pietersen an audience, did some snooping around of its own, and found that in fact, Pietersen did not have the full support of his team - some of his teammates felt Peter Moores was a good coach, some others felt he wasn't. It turned out that the whole team didn't support Pietersen as captain. It was then that the ECB (led by the liquor baron) decided to cut Pietersen down to size, by revealing publicly, that their research had shown that Pietersen lacked the support of his team! I believe the appropriate phrase is that the ECB threw Pietersen under the bus. By revealing this, the ECB left itself with no option but to dismiss both Pietersen and Moores.

Given all this, i suspect that the ECB was looking for a chance to get rid of both Pietersen and Moores, and that this episode gave them the perfect pretext for doing so. They have duly replaced the South African bred Pietersen, with the South African born but English bred Andrew Strauss. This works for all concerned it seems.

But does it? Whose side was Strauss on? Pietersen's or Moores'? And how many English players support Strauss as captain - since this was the question which doomed Pietersen? What might cause the rift to heal? When it is said that players don't support Pietersen, or that they don't support Moores, what does it actually mean? Does it mean that they don't like Pietersen or Moore's style of functioning? Or does it means that they don't like these two individuals as people?

How much does this have to do with the fact that England have not had good results in 2008 - they lost at home to South Africa and then lost to India in India in both Tests and ODI's. The narrative about this sequence of events has been that the tactless Kevin Pietersen tried to throw his weight around after just six months as England captain, and has had his wings clipped. But i fail to see how any of what Pietersen did (based on what has been reported in the Press) was tactless. What was he supposed to do once he felt that the coach was not doing very well at his job?

The point about rifts in the team is dubious, as it is most times when such rifts are reported without there being actual direct quotes from players. It is unlikely that they would exist if England was winning. The readers are expected to believe that the same set of players (who disagree with each other, because they have different views of Pietersen and also of Moores) are likely to get along once Pietersen and Moores are out of the picture. This is obviously dubious.

The real story here is that the ECB has been caught napping. They didn't know what was going on in their side, and once they saw Pietersen taking some sort of intiative, they felt they had no option but to clip his wings, merely to protect their own authority. This construction of Pietersen as a loud, prima donna is very convenient for the ECB right now. If Kevin Pietersen's asking "What did i do wong?" or "What else was i supposed to do?", then those would be very good questions, to which the ECB will have no good answers.

I don't believe this will have too much effect on how England perform in the Ashes. This will depend largely on the form of Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen. England don't have any other players (with the possible exception of Steve Harmison) who are good enough to be consistent match-winners against any top international side. Bell, Cook, Strauss, Anderson etc. are good players, but they aren't the explosive world beaters in a Sehwag or Pietersen mould who can bend the course of a Test Match at will. England's large squad of coaches were all present in full force through out this year. Peter Moores (Head Coach), Andrew Flower (Batting), Ottis Gibson (Bowling), Richard Halsall (Fielding), Mark Garaway (Asst. Coach, Analyst), Craig Ranson (Physio), Mark Saxby (Massage Therapist) and Mark Wotherspoon (Doctor) all came to India, along with a media manager, a security manager and an operations manager. Mushtaq Ahmed was supposed to join this group as a spin bowling coach for the Test Matches, but i don't know if he came in the end. So England had a support staff of 11 (12 if you include Mushtaq) for a squad of 15.

The simplistic description of this episode, which hinges on casting Kevin Pietersen as an out of control captain serves the ECB, for it covers up for their own lack of assertiveness. If KP hadn't asked to speak to Giles Clarke, the ECB would never have found out that KP was not a completely popular captain. By throwing their captain under the bus like they did, they haven't helped anyone, least of all English Cricket. Given that they are the ECB, this ought to worry fans of English cricket.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Australia's Sydney touch

What a day it was! When Ricky Ponting put his finger up signalling that Jacques Kallis was out caught and bowled by Andrew McDonald (who himself wasn't sure whether he had taken it cleanly), it took my mind back to last years game at Sydney. The 2009 Sydney Test was not quite as stunning as that one, the wicket was definitely not as good, but the contours of the game were not dissimilar.

Australia were in trouble early in their first innings, before Michael Clarke rescued them while the wicket was still playing well. Australia then bowled well, and once the wicket began to break on Day 3, South Africa 9/202 (on Day 3) and then 10/272 on Day 5. The final margin of victory - 103 runs, was less than Australia's first innings lead. Needless to say, those runs that Australia made while the wicket was still good proved to be priceless. In that respect, this was in many ways like a Test match from the sub-continent.

The one area where South Africa were disappointing, was when they bowled in the third innings. Matthew Hayden rode his luck, played a few great shots, a few ambitious ones which came off, and by the time he was dismissed, Australia had momentum and South Africa were forced to defend runs instead trying to take wickets.

Ponting's actions during the Kallis dismissal will invite much scrutiny, especially if Cricinfo's commentary is accurate about the fact that he signalled that he thought it was Out.

Australia won the dead rubber to reduce the margin to 2-1, but the fact remains that they were comprehensively beaten in the first two Tests in this series. Once South Africa got ahead at Melbourne, they didn't let Australia get back into the game. The same can be said about Perth, where Australia were bowled out for 319 in their second innings when the wicket was playing beautifully. The measure of that achievement by the South Africans can be seen by the fact that they made 414/4 in the 4th innings, and the Test Match was over in 404 overs out of the scheduled 450.

The limitations in both attacks were brought to light in the series, and both sides missed a world class spin bowler in their ranks. Part of the reason why the tail wagged so much for both sides was because of the lack of variety in the attacks.

Jean Paul Duminy was find of the series. South Africa won it quite easily in the final analysis. However, the return series will not be easy for South Africa. Australia will be back with a vengeance, with Brett Lee likely to return to full fitness. If Stuart Clark can also return to the scene of his triumphant debut in March 2006, Australia will have a strong bowling attack. Matthew Hayden has not been in good touch, but i would be quite surprised if he wasn't picked to go to South Africa.

A great series to look forward to in South Africa.

On a "challenging" declaration

Ricky Ponting set South Africa 375 to win in the 4th innings in 116 overs. Cricinfo's headline for this reads "Ponting tempts SA to chase a miracle" - a non-headline headline if there ever was one. If Ponting tempted SA to chase a miracle by setting them 375 in 116, then Sri Lanka really dangled the carrot in front of Bangladesh by setting them 624 in 150 overs! They might have set them 800 in 90 overs and killed any chance of Bangladesh winning. Just over 10 years ago, Mohammad Azharuddin set Australia 348 to win in 107 overs, the same target that was set by Allan Border in the 1986 tied Test. Those were sporting declarations. Setting a side without its first choice opening batsman a total which has been achieved only 5 times in nearly 2000 Test Match in over 130 years, is hardly "challenging". When youre side has already lost the series, it doesn't really matter.

This business of chasing the number 1 spot, is deeply overrated in my view, because there is a series in South Africa in a month or so, where South Africa will get three more chances to either cement the number 1 spot, or let Australia return to the number 1 spot. Having seen how determined Australia were when they came to India in 2004-05 for "the final frontier", that will be a series to watch.

The view in the Channel 9 commentary box was that the declaration was a fine one (not surprisingly - with the Australian 12th man in that box). Ian Chappell is one who is always interested in sporting declarations. I decided to look up his record as captain in making declarations. I found 7 instances where Ian Chappell, as captain of Australia had the opportunity to make a declaration in the 3rd innings of the match. The targets he set the opposition were 451, 405, 400, 333, 319, 261 and 234. There were other occasions when Australia bowled 4th in a Test Match, but these were games where they were bowled out in the 3rd innings. There could be some instance among these, where there might have been an opportunity to declare earlier, but i haven't gone into that as this would be entirely speculative. Chappell captained Australia in 30 Tests in all.

Australia didn't win the Test at Nottingham where Chappell declared with a lead of 451. England batted out 148 overs to save the Test Match (Tony Greig ended with 36* (144)). Chappell set England 405 to win at Adelaide, a Test which Australia won by 163 runs. Dennis Lillee took 4/69 in the 4th innings. This was a dead rubber as Australia had already won the Ashes by the time the Adelaide Test came along. Chappell set England 400 to win late on Day 4 at Sydney during the 74-75 Ashes. Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson and Ashley Mallet bowled England out for 228. Chappell set England 333 very late on the 4th day of the 1st Test of the 74-75 Ashes. England were bowled out for 166 with Jeff Thomson taking 6/46. 

Chappell set the West Indies 319 on the 5th day at Port of Spain, Trinidad in the final Test of the 1972-73 Frank Worrell Trophy. Australia had already won the series 2-0, and yet, they made 72 runs on the 5th day before declaring 319 ahead. West Indies had 69 or so overs to survive and duly did so, losing 5 wickets in the process. In the first Test of that series at Sabina Park in Kingston, Jamaica, Chappell set the West Indies 261. This was a token declaration late on the 5th day. This was actually a fairly interesting Test Match. Chappell declared the Australian 1st innings closed a 7/428 (off 157 overs). The West Indies replied with 428 all out (124 overs). Australia then batted 82 overs to make 2/260, and the West Indies batted out 33 overs making 3/67. Australia began the 5th day at 0/96, so there does not appear to have been any great delay. In all 397 overs were played in that Test.

Chappell was able to make one more declaration at Bridgetown, Barbados during that 1972-73 series, again late on the 5th day when the game was pretty much dead. West Indies batted 19 overs in the 4th innings. Australia spent the 5th day going from 1/84 to 2/300, as Ian Chappell compiled his second century of the match.

Bear in mind, that between 1948 and 1970, a 4th innings chase in excess of 300 had been accomplished 3 times in 22 years, and a run chase of 250 or more to win had been accomplished 8 times in those 22 years.

There is no evidence of any sporting declaration made by Ian Chappell, where he gave the opposition a chance. Neither should we expect there to be. Test Matches are not to be gambled away with quixotic declarations. Gary Sobers learnt this the hard way at the Queen's Park Oval in Port Of Spain, Trinidad in 1968, when with the series deadlocked at 0-0, Sobers set England 215 to win in about 55 - 60 overs on the 5th day. England went on to win the Test and the series, and there were demonstrations in the streets against the West Indian hero.

It is no surprise then that we don't see Chappell setting any opposition line up 300 to win in 4 sessions, because that would be really sporting! 

This idea of a tempting declaration is a commentator's creation. The urge to gamble from the safety of the commentary box must be great. The only factor in a declaration is a captains assessment as to whether there are enough runs for his bowlers to bowl the opposition out on the 5th day. Sourav Ganguly showed us at Kolkata in 2001, that setting Australia 384 in 75 overs, and giving them almost no chance of going for the runs worked in his favor, because they had nobody who could knuckle down and block for a session (Hayden and Gilchrist were dismissed trying to sweep from the stumps on a 5th day pitch!). No captain is going to dangle carrots in front of the opposition unless he's reasonably sure that the opposition won't get the runs he sets them.

Im fairly certain that when Kevin Pietersen declared the England innings closed at 9/311 on that Chennai pitch, he felt he had more than enough runs to play with. That was not a sporting declaration by any means, and it was nearly identical to Ponting's declaration at Sydney. Indeed, the whole premise of a 3rd innings declaration, is that the side bowling 4th is well ahead in the game in the first three innings, and feels that the rest of the game is best spent playing the final  innings of the game, and would be wasted if spent in further developing the lead.

So what factors go into a declaration? A declaration is an indication of a captains assessment of the pitch, the opposition batting line up (their ability to score at a given pace), his own bowling line up, and the amount of time that he feels he will need to take 10 wickets on a 4th innings pitch. What has happened in the game upto that point in it, is also a useful indicator in predicting what might happen in the 4th innings. Thats why Perth and Chennai were such amazing results (Chennai more so than Perth in my opinion, because Perth was still a superb batting wicket on the 5th day, while Chennai was not. Perth was also a higher scoring game overall). Going by all the indicators listed above, the fielding captains - Pietersen and Ponting were proven emphatically wrong in those two games.

Ponting's declaration at Sydney is a measure of his view of his bowling attack more than anything else. He also obviously feels that 375 is many more than South Africa are capable off given the nature of the Sydney wicket. Australia have found it hard to take 20 wickets in this series, and have done especially poorly in the 2nd innings of game (SA have made 4/414 and 1/183 in 4th innings before this game). Might he have given his bowlers a cushion of 25 runs more? May be. But then again, might he have given his bowled 10 overs more to bowl in the 4th innings and set South Africa 330 instead of 375? An argument can be made for that as well. Australia have shown on Day 3 that they can shut down the scoring rate on this pitch by bowling straight - and that gives Ponting something to fall back on. At any rate, chasing 300+ on the final day is difficult, because it means making 100 runs or more in each session of the day. This has been achieved in 6 out of the 12 innings of play in the match so far.

Id say Ponting's made a fairly safe declaration. Whats more important is how far ahead in the game Australia were at Tea on Day 3, and how much leeway Ponting had in making his declaration. With only 9 wickets to get in all (Smith will bat, but basically bat one handed), it was an easy declaration to make.

But this is the wrong way to look at declarations. A declaration is the best indicator of what a captain thinks about the state of play. So the question is not whether or not the declaration was made at the right time. The question is what the timing of the declaration tells up about one captain's view of the state of play.