Monday, July 27, 2009

On the crassness of advertising in Cricket

A must read.
Money quote:
Cricket with its inherent rhythm of stops and starts permits the unobtrusive injection of marketing nuggets into the gaps. But the efficacy and feverishness with which these gaps have been filled are akin to the diligence of a concerned denizen furiously plugging holes in a leaking dyke, lest the game seep out.
In part Sriram Dayanand is doing what i have been accused of doing - viewing the IPL through the lens of normal cricket, and by the standards of Test Cricket. But he makes a persuasive case, because he seems to feel the encroachment of the IPL upon the mainstream of top level cricket.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Holding Game

It will decide the Ashes. In the first two Tests of this Ashes series, Australia have been unable to contain the English batting. Tests in England generally tend to be fast scoring affairs because the wickets are rarely slow and dead, but even so, controlling the scoring is key. Even if the innings scoring rate is likely to be in the high threes or low fours, it becomes crucial that a fielding side must be able to control the scoring when the conditions favor the batsman.

In the first two games, Australia have lacked the defensive bowler. Nathan Hauritz has been unable to bottle on end up, it has been too easy for the Englishmen to attack him at will due to his lack of variation. This is something the Englishmen could never do with Warne.

Ian Chappell argues in the Telegraph that Captaincy will decide the contest this time around. The jist of his argument, is that England have the better bowling attack and Australia the better batting line up, and so if Andrew Strauss gets defensive every now and then, he will concede the advantage to Australia. Strauss, according to Chappell, must always attack with Flintoff, Anderson and Swann, his three best attacking bowlers. I think it is more complicated than that. Flintoff is naturally hard to hit, and tends to be miserly even when he's not taking a wicket. So with a fairly standard Test Match field, Andrew Flintoff's overs can be taken to the bank as a win for England. He controls the scoring and tends to trouble the best opposition batsmen. With Swann and Anderson, a little more tact is required from Strauss as both can be attacked more easily than Flintoff. Swann might be used to buy wickets occasionally, but that means that someone needs to control the scoring at the other end, and this can't always be Flintoff.

So while Strauss needs to press his bowling advantage, this may infact be best served by defending well. Australia's middle order is experienced and accomplished, and is unlikely to fall for traps like defensive bowling and fielding. But they can be slowed down. As the batting line up which faces the superior bowling attack of the two, that will mean more pressure on the Australian middle order. Brad Haddin is a great help to Australia in the wicketkeeper-batsman's position.

In this Ashes contest, Australia are going to have to play the same game that India have been playing in Tests against superior bowling attacks (almost all overseas Tests in the last 15 years). They have depended on their batting to survive in games until an occasional opening appeared, through which they could press home their advantage. This means that the Indian batsmen tended to be very careful in their scoring. But it rarely worked when the opposition tried to kill the runs, until Tendulkar and co. learnt to play around these tactics and survive even longer.

England have a good attack, but im not convinced that it is good enough for them to play the sort of game that Chappell envisions. His analogy from 2005 is flawed in my opinion, because Ponting's decision to field first at Edgbaston in the 2nd Test, despite losing McGrath on the morning of the Test, was in my view taken in the mistaken belief that McGrath was dispensable - that it didn't matter that McGrath was unavailable, the rest of the Australian bowling attack was good enough to execute Plan A, which consisted of 6 batsmen, 4 bowlers and Gilchrist, seizing small openings like the conditions on the first morning at Edgbaston. Another way of looking at it, is that Australia were worried by the damage Steve Harmison had done on the first morning at Lord's, though this is less likely because Australia had dominated Harmison in all but that one Lord's Test upto that point, often on livelier wickets than the one at Lord's. Australia's problem at Edgbaston was their unabashed belief in attack, irrespective of the actual resources at their command. Chappell's implicit point seems to be to warn England about trying to sit on their lead.

It would be fatal for Andrew Strauss to believe that he has the bowling line up to attack no matter what the conditions. After all, it was only one Test Match ago that this same attack conceded 6/674 to this same Australian batting.

With two evenly matched sides each with only moderately good bowling attacks, the way to force an error is to commit as few unforced errors as possible. Mitchell Johnson's performance is a case in point. To say that England have attacked him, is to miss the point. He has attacked too much himself and allowed England to put some rank bad bowling away. The bad ball is the most underrated thing in Test Cricket. Not only does it cost runs, but it costs the fielding side in terms of control and pressure. It changes the sub-text of the contest. England may rue the loss of Pietersen more than they think, and Strauss the batsman may be more important than Strauss the captain right now, for Andrew Strauss as things stand now, is England's best batsman.

Watson, Clark and MacDonald, atleast two of whom are sure to play at Egbaston, are just the players Australia need. With Brett Lee likely to return at Leeds, England's bowling advantage may evaporate. Then again, an in form Steve Harmison could change that.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Yet another catching controversy

As England have taken the lead in an Ashes series for the first time in 12 years, yet another catching controversy has erupted. Phil Hughes was caught by Andrew Strauss at slip and was given out, while Ravi Bopara was given not out following a referral after Nathan Hauritz claimed a catch. The incendiary personality of Ricky Ponting added further fuel to the fire. Ponting was at the nonstriker's end and instructed Hughes to stand his ground.

The controversy has apparently been settled. The explanation is both deflating and clarifying. In essence, Umpire Doctrove was certain that Strauss had completed the Hughes catch, while in the case of Bopara, neither Umpire was sure that the catch had been completed. The Australian contention is that had Hughes's catch been referred, a verdict in Hughes's favor would have been returned, as video replays were inconclusive.

Video replays are never going to provide enough information, because they involve the projection of a 3D video on a 2D plane. As a result, even with the benefit of a perspective projection, at those very short distances (such as between the ball when it first hit the hand and the ball when it then lodged in the fingers), it is impossible to get any perception of depth. The result is that the ball appears to drop to the ground, when in fact, it is probably falling away from the screen.

This is a well understood phenomenon. What is often misunderstood is the consequence of this lack of information. Even in cases where a TV Umpire determines that the catch that he sees on the screen has been completed, he is still doing so based on bad, incomplete information. Hence, even in cases where the umpire determines that the batsman is Out, the decision is no better than the decision from the on-field umpire.

So both the Out and the NotOut decisions, made by the TV Umpire are based on dubious evidence (except in cases where the catch is shin high or knee high!). The obvious problem lies not in the technology, but in the total break down of trust between the batsman and the fielders. No batsman can afford to trust the word of the fielding side (certainly not in a major Test Match contest). Even if a batsman is inclined to take the word of a fielder, the pressure from his own side and supporters will be too great, for they will point to an instance where an opposition batsman didn't act in the a similarly gentlemanly way and went on to make big runs.

As in the case of Hughes and Bopara, the "correct" decision, such as it is, depends on whether or not the onfield umpire can be certain that a catch is clean or otherwise. The minute an on-field umpire refers it upstairs, controversy is inevitable.

There are solutions to this problem. Some are well known and have been suggested for a long time. The most obvious one is to reinstate the old law, which stated that in order for a catch to be clean, no part of the hand below the wrist (i.e. the palm the back of the hand or the fingers), should be in contact with the ground when the ball reaches the hand. This change will favor the batsman. However, there are any number of rule changes which could redress the balance - reinstating the backfoot no-ball rule being the most obvious one. Rarely has there been a law which promises so much good, but has been set aside, mainly due to inertia.

A more radical solution to this problem would be to give the close in fielders place mats - astroturf mats. The fielders will definitely complain, but if the mats are sized correctly to accomodate a dive by the catcher, this would ensure that the fielder would always dive on the mat, thereby ensuring that background for the catch is a flat surface, and not grass. But this is a complicated solution and as such is quite impractical (even though impractical rules abound in the modern game - one only has to look at the new chucking law)

As things stand now, they are ripe for Ricky Ponting and his ilk. Like his predecessor Steve Waugh, im fairly certain that to the end of his playing days Ponting will continue to insist until he's blue in the face, that his Australians play 'hard but fair'. Then, once he has retired, he will, like his predecessor, admit that his Australians "got away with murder". Whats more, he will probably be convinced that he held both positions absolutely sincerely!

Given the impossibility of implementing the law without any trust amongst opposing players, Ponting's prospective conviction is a self-fullfilling prophecy.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

England making history

England haven't beaten Australia at Thomas Lord's old ground in 75 years. The last time this happened was in 1934 when Bradman and O'Reilly and McCabe faced Hammond and co. In this game, England were greatly assisted by the rain. They batted first and reached 440, after being reduced to 5/182, thanks to centuries by Maurice Leyland and Leslie Ames, two of the best post war batsmen. By the end of Day 2, the game was in the balance. Australia had replied to England's 440 with 2/192. Bradman was gone, but much batting still remained. Then, on the Sunday, it rained. With the wickets uncovered, as was the custom in those days, Australia were left with almost no hope of survival. Hedley Verity destroyed the Australians in a single day, taking 14 wickets in the day. Australia were beaten by an innings.

It looks very likely that in 2009, England will beat Australia at Lord's. It's only Day 3 and England are already 521 ahead. What's more, it is the manner in which England have built this lead which is significant. 181 runs came in the final session of play in 31 overs. This has significance beyond this game. This is the sort of batting performance, which breaks shackles in players minds. England's batting line up will now be confident that they can match Australia with the bat in any situation. This has tremendous implications for how England will approach their upcoming Tests with Australia.

If England do go on to win at Lord's, it will change the complexion of the next three Ashes Tests. Much is at stake in the next two days. Australia will know this too. Im not at all sure what they can do about it.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Only Just! Cardiff Test - Day 5

The first Ashes Test Match at the home of Glamorgan County Cricket Club proved to be a great triumph as England escaped by the skin of their teeth on the final day. In the final analysis that rain saved England in the end, as about 57 overs of play was lost in the Test. But England batted for 105 to save the game - a truly superb effort.

All of Australia's bowlers did quite well, and given how well Nathan Hauritz did, it is hard to argue that they missed a fifth bowler. Might Warne have made a difference? I suspect that the mere presence of Warne as 12th man would have ensured an Australian victory. There may be some grumbling about Ricky Ponting's tactics. The last three English wickets played out nearly 40 overs - a testimony to the quality of the Cardiff wicket. But then again, the same Ricky Ponting played a masterstroke by bowling Michael Clarke late on the 5th evening at Sydney against India, and got three wickets in an over! There may even be some grumbling about the fact that Ponting delayed his declaration on Day 4 as long as he did - 635 might have been enough, some will say.

It sets up a thrilling Ashes series for sure. The 2005 series had a couple of games which went down to the wire - England won the first of these by two runs at Birmingham, and the Australian last pair held out for a draw at Old Trafford. Now Cardiff has produced another thriller.

Paul Collingwood cemented his reputation as a stodgy, phlegmatic English batsman in the tradition of Trevor Bailey and Cyril Washbrook (who once shared a famous rear guard action on a final day of an Ashes Test) with his heroic stonewalling. He batted for 83 overs for his 74 (faced the equivalent of 41 of those off his own bat), and like Ricky Ponting in Manchester four years ago, his dismissal about a dozen overs before close of play did not hurt the batting side.

There was much cheering for Andrew Strauss at the presentation. I don't think England are going to get anywhere in these Ashes if they keep having to applaud Monty and Jimmy's batting again. It was Monty and Jimmy's bowling which was the problem.

It ended with England 13 runs ahead, with their last wicket standing. It was inconclusive. But only just!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Cardiff Test - Day 4

The story of this Test Match

England: 30, 35, 69, 64, 56 and 37
Australia: 122, 150, 83, 125, 121

Unforced errors. The strenuous preperation against the English Lions seems to have helped the Australians.

England are faced with an uncomfortable last day, unless their native weather comes to their rescue.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Australia's Day

It began as a nightmare, but like a fine hollywood potboiler, ended like a dream. Australia conceded 99 runs in 17 overs at the start of the day to the English tail. 435 was a large score. Whats more, England scored at 4 runs per over - that holy grail in todays Test Match cricket - the thing English commentators from Botham to Willis to Hussein to Lloyd have repeated more often than anything else as the defining feature of the recent Australian romp in Tests. England had reason to believe at the end of their innings that they had well and truly put maulings by Australia's great Test team of the 2000's behind them.

Then came Katich and Ponting. Phil Hughes and Simon Katich, an unlikely Australian opening pair at the start of the year, saw off the new ball. Hughes fell to England's best bowler, but then Ponting and Katich, two senior professionals, made the most of a fine 2nd day wicket. Australia are still 186 behind and could easily still concede a first innings lead. They have to bat last and so they must aim at a non-trivial lead. In a first innings of 400+ that should be at least 50-75 runs. But over the first two days, Australia have made fewer unforced errors than England. As a result, despite having lost the toss and the chance to bat first, Australia, even with their less than world-beating bowling attack find themselves reasonably placed after 6 sessions of play.

Needless to say, the first session tomorrow will be crucial. It will be upto England to make the play. But with two batsmen with hundreds to their name, England will be unable to go into an all out attack. England have another choice. They could play it like India did at Nagpur in 2008. Australia reached 2/189 in 49 overs by the end of day 2, after India had made 441 in their first innings. Michael Hussey and Simon Katich were well set. In 53 overs on Day 3 from the start of play to Tea time, India conceded 91 runs. As a result, they were able to break the Australian momentum and have Australia 6 down by Tea. They eventually gained a first innings lead of 86.

India effectively slowed down the game. They bowled 53 overs in 4 hours instead of 60. This is a very risky strategy. The rule about overrates has been put in place so that teams cannot deprive the opposition of making progress by delaying the game. However, slow overrates don't matter if the bowling side bowls the batting side out. So, if a bowling side bowls the opposition out in 40 overs, but takes 4 hours to bowl the 40 overs, there is no penalty. But if a bowling side takes 6 hours to bowl 60 overs and hasn't bowled the side out, then the captain of the bowling side is in deep trouble. If Australia had managed to wait India out and remain say 3 down at Tea time instead of 6 down, Dhoni would have been in deep trouble. This is actually a reasonable rule. Because the only way to make progress in a Test Match is to complete the 4 innings - which is typically accomplished when 10 wickets fall in each innings. Thats why you will find, that a bowling side, which starts bowling say 30 minutes after Tea on one day, and finishes bowling at tea time on the next day (having bowled the opposition out), rarely gets into trouble with the match referee for overrates despite having a very slow overrate (maybe 11.5, 12 overs per hour) on paper.

This is a hard nosed professional strategy, which is very hard to execute. It is one thing to bowl your overs slowly if you don't know what youre doing. The bowling side could be conceding 4.5 runs per over and bowling 12 overs an hour. This almost always means that they are being outclassed - that the wicket is very flat and the outfield is very fast. But it is quite another to slow down the game deliberately. It takes a high quality side to actually execute this successfully. In fact, i would say that it is one of the essential abilities of a top quality test side. It is one of the most potent ways of controlling the game when the conditions favor the batting side.

England could attempt this. They have in the past, most notably in India in 2006. Will they try this tomorrow?

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

It's On! Cardiff Day 1

336/7. A beguiling score on the first day of a Test Match. 7 wickets suggests that barring significant bad weather, a result is very likely. 336 suggests that the batting side did have its moments. The basics of the day look sound. What i mean by that is that there appear to have been none of the himalayan miscalculations of 2002-03 when Nasser Hussein won the toss and fielded at Brisbane, lost Simon Jones to a horrific injury, let Australia reach 2/364 (Hayden 186*, Ponting 123) and didn't recover until the Ashes had been lost, or any of the dramatic events of 2005, where Australia won the toss as batted, were dismissed in 40 overs for 190, and returned to reduce England to 7/92.

England will look at scores of 30, 35, 69, 64, 56 and 37 and wonder what might have been. Australia will look at 7 wickets and be quitely satisfied, having been asked to field on the first day of the Test Match. And yet, this score suggests that England will end up with a satisfactory first innings score - one in the 350-375 range. The 7 dismissals indicate no real pattern. They are a mixture of good deliveries and some injudicious batting. A Test Match number 3 batsman would be very disappointed if he were to go having spooned a catch to point off the slower ball. Kevin Pietersen, well, it can happen. He's still England's best player, and his stroke was not much worse than Alistair Cook's, but it will definitely be remembered longer than Cook's.

Even though England are reasonably placed at the end of Day 1, they will sense a huge missed opportunity. They won the toss and batted, and Australia, without Lee, did not possess the bowling firepower to threaten them. Yes Mitchell Johnson can be genuinely quick as Andrew Strauss found out, but compared to McGrath, Gillespie, Fleming & Warne, this was an attacked that should have been sent on a minor leatherhunt on a day like today. Even if Pietersen's mode of dismissal may not have been much worse than Cook's or Bopara's, the timing of his dismissal was crucial. It meant that England lost 4/142 in the last session of the day. With hindsight, i think they will say that they would have taken 1/90.

So England didn't have their best day, and yet ended the day with a respectable score on the board. This suggests that Australia don't have the firepower of yore, and despite their superb results in South Africa where they bowled out the South Africans for 220, 291, 138 and 370 (chasing 546) to seal the series, they will have to work hard for their wickets in England. The series will be won the the side which makes the fewest unforced errors, since neither side seems to have the firepower to blast the other side out in short order (Flintoff and co. may prove me wrong, but it would be very dramatically at odds with the formbook).

Australia have already made one wise selection. The inclusion of Marcus North at number 6 (leaving out Andrew MacDonald, who i thought would be central to Australia's strategy with the old ball in the absence of a crack spinner), means that the visitors have stuck with their time tested strategy of picking 6 specialist batsmen plus a wicketkeeper. North has made 24 first class hundreds in his career so far, and has played for no fewer than 5 English counties.

Unless Australia perform worse with the bat than they have with the ball, it looks like we might have a thriller in the offing at Cardiff. I know its only Day 1, but i have a feeling about this.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Wimbledon Finals format

Roger Federer beat Andy Roddick 16-14 in the final set to win his 6th Wimbledon title and 15th Grand Slam in all. This game was a good example of why artificially shortened formats are not a good idea. Wimbledon has it right i think. They adopted to innovation of the tie-break many years ago, but decided that the final set would still be decided in the traditional way.

Over the years they have been vindicated time and again.

This is Federer's 15th Grand Slam title in 7 years. Bradmanesque!

Friday, July 03, 2009

Dhoni the batsman

178 cricketers have played ODI cricket for India in the 35 years that India have been playing ODI cricket. Of these, only 10 players have made 4000 or more career ODI runs for India. Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dravid, Azharuddin, Yuvraj Singh, Virender Sehwag, Ajay Jadeja, Navjyot Siddhu, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Krishnamachari Srikanth. Every one of these 10 other than Dhoni played as specialist batsmen. None of them (with the possible exception of Tendulkar) have matched Dhoni's astonishing versatility as an ODI batsman.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Two warm up games for the upcoming Ashes

Who is getting the better deal here?

The Englishmen are facing a Warwickshire XI which looks quite weak, at least on paper, while the Australians are facing a strong England A side. The visitors, by virtue of their warm up schedule, the opportunities that many of their players have gotten in county cricket this season, and their fortuitous early exit from the T20 World Cup, find themselves in a position where they are as well acclimatized as they could hope to be. This test against the English Lions is a strong one. The Lions bowling attacks comprises of bowlers who have all played Test Cricket and are on the fringes of England selection. The batting, even though it is less impressive (i suspect that had Michael Vaughan not retired, he might have found himself in that Lions middle order), comprises of a Test player or two as well.

Not surprisingly, while the Australians are merely holding their own, the England XI have steamrolled the Warwickshire XI so far. The England Test Match attack rolled the Warwickshire batting over for 102, with James Anderson taking 5 and Flintoff taking 2. Alistair Cook made a century for the England XI, and Ravi Bopara is on his way to one as well. For the Australians on the other hand, Michael Hussey made a fighting hundred against a good attack. Simon Katich made an attacking 95, and most importantly Brett Lee ripped through the Lions top order after a fine opening stand of 172 between the Lions openers Denly and Moore.

It seems to me, that the biggest beneficiaries this week are the Australians, the England Lions, Warwickshire (almost and second XI) and the England Ashes squad. In that order.