Monday, August 24, 2009

Graeme Swann and orthodox off-break bowling

Graeme Swann is an underrated spin bowler. I haven't watched Swann in every innings of the Ashes, but i did watch him against India towards the end of 2008, and i watched some of his recent Ashes bowling.

What was striking about Swann's bowling was how much control he had over both flight, turn and most interestingly, pace. Michael Hussey might as well have been blindfolded playing him, for he wasn't picking the flight when Swann bowled round the wicket. Ponting in contrast was able to pick the flight much more quickly. Ponting is a superb player of spin bowling (notwithstanding his struggles against Harbhajan Singh's off-breaks in 2001), and his batting against Swann was a fine display of batsmanship against the orthodox off-spinner.

In Swann we see the core requirements of the classical off-break bowler, not only being met, but being mastered. The reason why i think classical finger spin has been on the wane, is because we have seen a number of bowlers who managed a few of these things, but not all of them. The doosra is a fancy variation, which i suspect is not essential to the finger spinner's success in Test Cricket. Bedi and Prasanna both never bowled a doosra as such, but they were masters of the basics. What are these characteristics then (for an right arm off-spinner)?

1. Unerring accuracy - by this i mean that the spinner must be able to bowl each delivery exactly where he wants to bowl it.
2. The ability to turn the ball - this does not mean that a spinner should turn every ball, but should be able to give it a rip should he require it.
3. A side-on action, which ensures that the bowler will get some drift away from the right hander.
4. An understanding of length and flight - this is key, for it enables the spinner to adjust his length and flight to each batsman.
5. The ability to bowl a well-disguised straighter one and to change pace without distinctively changing one's bowling action.
6. The ability to bowl both round and over the wicket at both left hander and right hander.
7. The ability to bowl long spells (say 20 overs).
8. The ability to withstand an assault.

Each of these is crucial, none are optional. If you think back on the large number of modest finger spinners in recent years - from Ramesh Powar to Monty Panesar to Sunil Joshi, you will find that they lack one of more of these crucial characteristics. A top class orthodox finger spinner in good form is at ease employing these traits. With the simplicity of his off break bowling, Swann has brought these basics to the fore. Sure he's likely to have off days, sure he's likely to lose one of these deliveries in the future (much like a fast bowler might lose his outswinger), but right now he has mastered them.

This also reveals why bowling in first class games is so crucial to the development of the finger spinner. Limited overs bowling leaves little opportunity for developing these basic abilities. More importantly, it leaves little scope for employing these subtlelties in any meaningful way. T20 even less so.

In Graeme Swann England have a complete orthodox off-break bowler. A time tested winner.

England win the Ashes, do better than they did 4 years ago

England have repeated their performance from 4 years ago in the 2009 Ashes and i must confess that the outcome of the Oval Test was not what i expected. In fact, as Australia reached 1/86 in their first innings in response to England's first innings of 332, i and most other people felt that England's effort up until that point had been expected sub-par. They had underperformed with the bat, and Australia seemed to have negotiated the new ball.

Stuart Broad changed all that by dismissing Ponting, Hussey and Clarke in the space of 14 balls. If ever there was a match winning spell, that was it. What scalps! Broad did so much damage so quickly in that spell, that with a space of half an hour, the Australian dressing room went from being very much in the game, to being rudely discarded from the running. It was here that Australia's all-time-great status was tested, and they didn't have wherewithal to dig themselves out of this hole. Would Gilchrist or Martyn or Waugh have produced an enthralling recovery? Thats an open question, but the point is, they did in their time. The current Australians couldn't. Marcus North and Brad Haddin couldn't. The English momentum was irresistable.

Much has been made of Flintoff's run out of Ponting on the 4th Day. But i think that counted less in the scheme of the Test Match contest, than it did as spectacle. In a purely cricketing sense, it was in essence a very tight run, and a fairly elementary error from Ricky Ponting, who was uncharacteristically caught ball watching. But it was Ponting, and it was Flintoff, and it broke a burgeoning stand. It reminded me somewhat of Javed Miandad getting run out in the World Cup quarter final in 1996 at Bangalore. Pakistan were behind in that run chase, but while Miandad was there, no India fan was willing to even consider the possibility of a win. In that game, a sober assessment might have meant that it would have been clear that the Miandad of 1996 was a mere shadow of his old world-beating self.

In the larger scheme of things as far as Test Cricket is concerned, this series result doesn't mean much. The next Ashes series in Australia will tell us something, for there England have a chance of making a serious dent. Right now, if you consider the 14 latest series Australia and England have played (home and away against each of the other 7 sides), it looks as follows:
(The list should be read as opponent, home result, away result)

Australia (14 played, 11 won, 3 lost):
England, won, lost
India, won, lost
South Africa, lost, won
West Indies, won, won
New Zealand, won, won
Pakistan, won, won
Sri Lanka, won, won

England: (played 14, won 6, lost 7, draw 1)
Australia, won, lost
India, lost, lost
South Africa, lost, won
West Indies, won, lost
New Zealand, won, won
Pakistan, won, lost
Sri Lanka, draw, lost

Based on this, the rankings in my view look something like this:

Team Total Tests Rating RANK Home Tests Home Rating Away Tests Away Rating Away Win Bonus In**
Australia 47 0.624 1 22 0.657 25 0.580 30.34
England 49 0.491 5 24 0.548 25 0.431 13.76
India 43 0.543 3 20 0.597 23 0.496 21.62
New Zealand 32 0.409 7 18 0.422 14 0.398 3.68
Pakistan 37 0.474 6 17 0.530 20 0.407 15.75
South Africa 42 0.550 2 21 0.552 21 0.540 16.96
Sri Lanka 34 0.495 4 18 0.571 16 0.407 19.00
West Indies 40 0.392 8 22 0.427 18 0.350 4.34
** Away Win Bonus In refers to the win bonus that accrues to a side which beats the given side playing in the given side's country. Hence, the value in the “Australia” row is the win bonus which accrues for beating Australia in Australia, and so on.

Australia's number 1 ranking is very much a legacy ranking at this point. However, as they showed in South Africa, they are not to be written off. England's away ranking has suffered in recent years. They have lost every single away series except South Africa and New Zealand in the last 4 years.

In the 2009 Ashes, the side with the better bowling attack won. Mitchell Johnson was a great disappointment for Australia. Ironically, his success in the England second innings at Headingley meant that Brett Lee didn't get a game at the Oval. Johnson had a moderate Ashes series. 20 wickets at 32.55 may not seem so bad. But what hurt Australia was that England took 4.01 runs per over off Johnson in the series. This is a full run worse that Johnson's career stats. In fact, if you consider his successful run starting with the 2008-09 home series against New Zealand and Australia, his economy rate is even lower - about 2.8. This may not seem much, but if you think about it, 10-0-28-1 from your lead strike bowler is not a bad return. 10-0-40-1 on the other hands, suggests that the fielding side is not controlling proceedings.

The other crucial difference between the two sides was Graeme Swann. 14 wickets at 40.50 in the series may look exceedingly modest, but in a generally fast scoring series, Swann's 3.32 runs per over meant that he could be used both in defensive and attacking roles by Strauss. He decieved more than one Australian batsman with his floater, and in a series dominated by the fast men (Swann bowled 170 overs in 5 Tests - a mere 34 overs a Test, compared to 280 overs in his first 5 Tests in India and West Indies), it proved to be a significant advantage for England. He offered Andrew Strauss and incisive option with the old ball, a luxury Ricky Ponting did not use. Australia's decision to go with Hauritz (10 wickets at 32 in 105 overs, a very good return for a spinner) hurt them.

England ended the season having discovered a new Test Match batsman in Jonathan Trott, just as they began it with the discovery of Ravi Bopara. It remains to be seen whether they have discovered a side which can win away from home. Andrew Flintoff's retirement will hurt England. He gave England's bowling an edge which Australia did not have in these Ashes. Its not the wickets, but the control that he exerts when he bowls.

England's 2009 Ashes win has been more convincing than their 2005 win. This time there were two convincing Test Match victories,won thumping defeat, one near defeat, and one genuine stalemate. Both England and Australia are weaker in 2009 than they were in 2005. This was not a clash to decide the unofficial World Championship of Test cricket. That series was played over the Southern Summer of 2008-09, and it ended in a stalemate. Australia have lost ground, but not much. But it is inescapable that they promise less than they used to. It is not at all clear that England promise much more than they have recently either.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Kesavan on the WADA debate

Mukul Kesavan has done what i thought i would never seen from a professional journalist or commentator in India. He has taken the opinions of two other mainstream journalists (Dileep Premachandran writing in the Guardian and an Editorial in The Hindu) and actually argued about them in a newspaper column. Its a must read.

Kesavan's closing argument is quite understated
Indians are so used to aspiring to global top tables where the place settings are decided by others, that we instinctively look sideways to see which fork the rest of the world is using and cringe when we see a desi using his hands. Well, we can stop cringing on behalf of Dhoni, Tendulkar, Yuvraj and the rest. They have a right to their opinions and they’ve earned, I think, the courtesy of disagreement, civilly expressed. And as risible as it might seem, a Wada testing regime that paid attention to the life experience of Indian sportsmen might be the better for it. Internationalism has no single point of vantage: the world can be viewed as comprehensively from Delhi as it can from Lausanne.
I hope the players hold firm. They have not indicated that they are against anti-doping regulation. They have merely objected to the means being employed. The opposition to their position has pretty much amounted to questioning their right to have a position at all. The merit of the respective positions is amply clear.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Superman! Again!! 19.19

Bolt's time for 100m was 9.58 and unlike at the Olympics, it didn't look like he was easing off as much towards the end. His 200m timing is 19.19, which is only 0.03 greater than if you extrapolated his 100m time over 200m. This one would think is the effect of distance, because you would think that the second 100m in a 200m race must be much faster than the first, simply on account of the running start.

I wonder if the slow (!) time can be put down to the curve that the athletes are required to start on...


100m 9.58
200m 19.19

The Bradman of athletics!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Indian First Class teams sidelined in Champions League

The year 2009 has already seen 5 weeks of T20 Cricket run by the IPL. Now, we have something called the "Champions League T20" which will be held from October 8 - 23 in India, featuring first class teams from all over the cricketing world. New South Wales and Victoria from Australia, Trinidad & Tobago from the West Indies, two ECB teams (which will probably be scratch selections by the England selectors), Otago from New Zealand, the Cape Cobras (Western Province) and the Diamond Eagles (Orange Free State and Griqualand West combined), and two IPL teams from India.

Now, all these sides, except the IPL sides and the English sides are first class teams. Its great for the first class competition because first class players get to travel to India and play (albeit only in some silly T20 cricket). The ECB has decided not to send the winners of the 2009 T20 competition in County Cricket and send two scratch teams. The question is, why doesn't BCCI do the same? Why are IPL teams taking the place of proper first class sides?

It gives rise to some ridiculous situations. For example, if Kevin Pietersen gets selected for one of the ECB sides and also gets picked by the Royal Challengers Bangalore (a truly comical name if you ask me), then the ECB side is considered to be his "home" team, while the IPL outfit is his "away" team. Should Pietersen decide to play for IPL team and not for the ECB side, then the IPL side must pay the ECB $200,000 US as compensation!

All this is happening at the cost of India's first class sides, which have been excluded by BCCI from this money making opportunity. If this is a truly an international tournament, then isn't it being suggested that the IPL sides represent India in this tournament? Since when did the IPL sides become Indian teams? Wasn't the IPL explicitly separate from BCCI? If the IPL and Lalit Modi were to hire a bunch of ex-cricketers, call them 'National Selectors' and select a 'Test team', could they concievably challenge BCCI selected teams?

Further more, it is worth noting that with the CL tournament, international T20 (be it IPL, World Cup or Champions League), involving the best cricketers in the world has already taken up 9 weeks in the year - half eating up an off-season month and the other hald in the thick of cricket season.

9 weeks is the equivalent of the full Ashes tour. So suddenly, the best cricketers in the world are now spending the equivalent of a full Ashes tour every year, playing silly 20 overs a side games.

My point is not that this is T20 overkill, it is that this is a T20 takeover of Cricket as we know it.

It's a shame.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Cricinfo picks an all-time England XI

So far they have thought about openers, middle order bats, all-rounders, wicket-keepers and fast-bowlers.

I have never understood the regard that England held Mike Brearley in. He was supposed to have "a degree in men", but it never really amounted to much, other than the 1981 Ashes (which, it could be argued were largely won Botham's back). He captained England in 9 series despite it being absolutely clear that he would never make the England line up on his batting alone. In fact, all his success can be traced to great performances by the amazing Ian Botham. Brearley never led England against the West Indies, and the one time he took England to Australia against a full strength Australian side, they got thumped 3-0. Brearley's contention for an all time England XI is quite bizarre, especially when Hutton, Illingworth and Vaughan would be available to captain England. Hutton and Illingworth, along with Mike Gatting are the only England captains to have won the Ashes in Australia since the Second World War. If Brearley makes the opener's list on account of his captaincy, im quite surprised that Ray Illingworth didn't make the allrounder's list based on his captaincy. May be Illingworth's heavyhanded efforts as selector/coach/boss in the 1990's counted against him.

Tom Graveney is another great batsman who seems to find no favor with England's 'selectors' even now. David Gower makes a middle-order batting list that Graveney doesn't! Colin Cowdrey is another interesting case. Some of Cowdrey's most phenomenal efforts came opening the batting for England.

The most glaring omission though is that of Godfrey Evans. Keep in mind that he kept to Laker, Lock and Wardle, as well as to Tyson, Trueman, Statham and Bedser. He stood up to the wickets to Bedser and may be even to Bailey. No other English wicketkeeper, it could be argued, was tested by such varied bowling.

They haven't picked the spin bowlers yet, but im confident that Derek Underwood will feature in the list, as will Tony Lock, even though Lock was a chucker and admitted as much (Cowdrey has a moving account of this in his autobiography). I hope im surprised.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Superman in Berlin!

He's 22 years old.
The greatest athlete in history....

Dravid returns to ODI Cricket

India one-day squad: Sachin Tendulkar, Gautam Gambhir, Rahul Dravid, Suresh Raina, Yuvraj Singh, MS Dhoni (capt/wk), Yusuf Pathan, Harbhajan Singh, Praveen Kumar, Ishant Sharma, Ashish Nehra, RP Singh, Amit Mishra, Dinesh Karthik, and Abhishek Nayar

Virender Sehwag has not been picked due to injury related issues. Rohit Sharma has been dropped, which is a little bit of a surprise to me. As Cricinfo's article says Sharma had a bad series in the West Indies. He made 15 runs in 3 innings in the ODIs there, before which he made 43 runs in 3 innings in the T20 games. The second part of that statement makes me wonder about this decision. I really hope that the selectors didn't base their decision on T20 Cricket. Sharma is a class player and stands out among his peers. His record in first class record suggests this as well. Even though this may sound absurd right now, i actually think he's a better batsman than Suresh Raina, much like Rahul Dravid was the better batsman than Ganguly at the start of their career.

Rohit Sharma's record is quite modest to be fair. He hasn't made an ODI half century since his 58 at Karachi against Pakistan on July 2, 2008. Since then he has played 18 ODI innings, and scored 6 not out innings. In those 18 innings he has made 249 runs at 20.75. Clearly not good enough for a specialist batsman.

Lets look a little more closely at these 18 innings. 10 of the 18 innings were played at number 6 or lower in the batting order. In these he started his innings in the 38th, 14th, 20th, 35th, 41st, 47th, 41st, 38th, 48th over respectively. Sharma's lower order play has been fine. What emerges about his play is that he kept performing well lower down the order, and then when he was given the opportunity to bat up the order on occasion, he fumbled it. Whether he has been given enough opportunities to bat up the order is debatable. Whether he would have benefited from, and ought to have been given a certain number of chances at say number 4, and been told that this would be his position in the batting line up, also debatable. Many players say that it helps to know what one's batting position is going to be.

In some sense, Sharma is a casualty of the success of the side. The success has meant that Dhoni did not have to invest a certain number of innings in Sharma, giving him a long enough rope to establish himself. The floating batting order and the tremendous form of all the other batsmen meant that Sharma was never going to be needed as such. That he failed the handful of serious opportunities that he got (even amongst those, there was more than one occasion when he fell to Mendis early in his innings), hasn't helped. Rohit Sharma's predicament is similar to Mohammad Kaif's.

What would be really interesting would be to know what the selectors think about Sharma at this point. Too many people have said too many good things about him for him to be just another fringe India player. In that sense, it is actually good to see that he is being replaced by Rahul Dravid, and not by some other young player. I think too much is made of the idea that the Indian middle order needs bolstering. Unless the selectors have detected early signs of a collective form slump (much like the slump in 2006, where Dhoni, Raina, Yuvraj and Dravid all lost form at the same time), and are moving to head it off, i think Dravid's is purely a recall of a class player.

The more interesting selection is that of Abhishek Nayyar. Will he compete with Yusuf Pathan for the all-rounders slot? Or will they both play? Given that Dhoni is captain, Dinesh Karthik is an absolute necessity. Harbhajan Singh and Amit Mishra make a good spin bowling pair.

The fast bowling line up is disappointing. I would always pick Munaf Patel ahead of RP Singh in ODI games. Patel has more control, more pace and a better yorker. RP however is the sort of bowler who must exasperate opposition line ups - he looks ordinary, he is ordinary, but he tends to get lots of wickets to rubbish deliveries. There is a lack of class in the fast bowling line up in Zaheer's absence.

But its a good team all in all.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

What woes against short pitched bowling?

This is a narrative about the current Indian batting line up that has crept up in recent times. The return of Rahul Dravid to the limited overs side is being explained by pointing to it. I fail to see why this has become a problem right now. I think it can be traced back to one T20 game and a couple of ODI's in the West Indies. It is dubious to make any observations about a batsman's ability to play short pitched bowling based on T20 cricket. I recall that India won that series in the West Indies.

Playing short pitched bowling isn't much of a problem for any of the current Indian players. Slogging it is a problem. But then, slogging any type of bowling is a high risk enterprise. Besides, which Indian players are we talking about? Suresh Raina and Rohit Sharma can both play short bowling reasonably well, especially when they are not pressed to aim hooks at anything they can't aim a lofted drive or square cut at. Which other players? Gautam Gambhir? Given his Test record against teams which have some fairly good medium fast to fast bowling, i think its silly to include him in any such narrative. Sehwag? Well, Sehwag has successfully resisted convention for the most part of a decade, and i suspect he's going to continue to do so. Yuvraj Singh? Now there's someone who can actually hook and pull quite well, and does so on a regular basis. Dhoni? The man averages 50 in ODI Cricket! Tendulkar? Now there we might have a genuine problem. After 19 long years a crippling technical shortcoming may have been identified.

So which batsmen have the problem? And what woes are we talking about? This is a dubious argument any which way you look at it.

The possibility of Dravid's selection is a different matter altogether. I don't think he's a good replacement for Sehwag, for obvious reasons. If he's being selected to bolster the middle order, then its a good idea. Im not convinced he's the best man for that job right now either. He's a great player though, and he's in the pool of available replacements, i can see why the selectors might pick him.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Sharda Ugra on Drug Testing - A Response

Sharda Ugra has a typically concise account of the drug testing issue in which she addresses all the emerging rationales for and against India's Cricketers being dragged under the WADA umbrella. Security, invasion of privacy, a nuisance, and the little matter of Cricket at the Olympics. She points out that the NBA is not a signatory of WADA, but that its professionals still compete in the Olympics. I think this may have something to do with the supreme star power that LeBron James promises the Olympics. In essence, i think it is about the NBA's clout.

The response to Ms. Ugra is simple. Her argument is essentially that everybody else has signed up, whats our cricketers problem? What bothers me about this is that it follows a dubious argument. It goes something like this:

Some sports have a huge doping problem.
The credibility of the greatest sporting events in the World, like the Olympics, depends on atheletes not being on dope.
Hence WADA - a global, multi-sport response.
Cricket is a Sport.
Therefore Cricket should sign WADA.

What i find deeply ironic is that the very same critics who have in the past argued that India's cricketers can't match up to their South African counterparts in terms of speed, power and agility are now absolutely certain that the cricketers should sign up with the new WADA inspired ICC Anti-Doping code!

Does Cricket have a serious anti-doping problem? Do we know enough about it? Is the WADA code appropriate for Cricket? What types of cricketing performance can be enhanced by doping? Fast bowling - possibly, but even there, aren't we making the mistaken assumption that fast bowling is all about power and strength? Can atheltic performance as it relates to cricket be actually improved using drugs? This is important, because unlike the racing sports, the measurement of athletic performance is far more subtle and indirect in cricket.

But these are all peripheral questions. The proposed system is fundamentally unjust to the sportsman, because the WADA system has effectively made it so that anytime you see any sporting event on television, like say that Swimming World Championship, you're looking at potential cheats who have been kept in line only because of the good offices of WADA, and not a great sportsmen. Doping at its core is an ethical issue. That being so, the WADA regime ought to be a problem. The very existence of an invasive anti-doping regime in sport ought to cause us to loose all hope of sport being clean. In the upcoming 2012 Olympics in London, there will be only two types of athletes - those who have been caught using performance enhancing drugs and those who haven't. WADA is a watch dog. It must surely miss at least some dopes. Even if it is the best solution at hand, it is still bound to be imperfect. We have no way of knowing that it is sufficiently perfect.

The one thing i don't understand is how intelligent people actually seriously ask 'why do you think you are special' - as if the ethical concerns surrounding WADA are all settled. It bothers me no end that should the WADA regime come into place in Cricket, the next time i watch Sachin Tendulkar bat, im going to wonder whether he's been tested! Will the WADA regime effectively test cricketers? That is far from certain.

Whether or not Cricket should be in the Olympics is irrelevant to this issue. Im amazed that people don't find it problematic that Cricketers can be tested at zero notice any day of the year, irrespective of whether they are on tour with India or not. Im amazed that nobody is bothered by the possibility that testing with zero notice necessarily entails additional surveillance. What form with this surveillance take?

To use Sharda Ugra's example of Airport Security for a little while longer, how often will the WADA regime test the cricketing equivalent of a 90 year old lady, simply because she comes up for a random test on the computer?

I dont think the problem with the anti-doping code is limited to the so-called whereabouts clause and the security and invasion of privacy concerns that follow. It is much more fundamental, for it relies on the asssumption of guilt until contrary evidence is found.

Even if we assume that cheating is part and parcel of Sport, to assume that all sportsmen could be cheats defeats the whole point of sport. Doesn't the WADA approach do just that?

There is finally the inconvenient ethnic question. Doping is not and has not been a global problem. It has been a Western problem (and a Second World problem). It has not been a widespread cricketing problem. Why should cricketers be measured by the same standard as sportsmen from other sports (like Cycling in Europe) are? For example - English and Australian Cricketers come from highly accomplished sporting milieus. Their fellow countrymen are some of the greatest cyclists, swimmers and footballers in the world. Would it not be fair to assume that they would have easier access to the the medical technologies of illegal performance enhancement than say Virender Sehwag or Rohit Sharma? Would it not be fair to say, that on current evidence, the USA and England and Europe and Australia and Russia are the places where these technologies are devised? This being the case, why should India's cricketers suffer the standards of intrusive testing as English and Australian cricketers? After all, didn't we see India's cricketers bearing the brunt of the match-fixing issue since the bookies were typically from the sub-continent, as was the big money?

My point is, that if we are going to assume that every player is potentially guilty, then surely there is scope of differentiating the likelihood of guilt as well. The same statistical approach could be used.

Suppose we have a player who comes from a very traditional family and has been brought up to distrust western medicine and believe in ayurvedic cures (i assure my western readers that ayurveda is a thriving and widely followed body of knowledge about health and wellness in India). Why should he be measured by the same standards that are applied to Shane Warne? You might say, well, in that case, he will always test negative and be in the clear. Sure he will. But why should he be tested in the first place? Isn't he being tested precisely because Shane Warne is quite likely to use a diuretic, mostly because his doctor advises it, because his doctor's (distant) colleagues and pharmaceutical industry clients invented it? A diuretic which happens to be banned by a sporting watch dog?

Privacy and more importantly individual dignity are far more fundamental than any global sporting regime. India's Cricketers should oppose the proposed ICC Anti-Doping code.

Monday, August 10, 2009

India's Cricketers and Drug Testing

The ridiculously invasive WADA Drug Testing Policy is being contested by India's Cricketers. The objections raised by Harbhajan Singh and co. are reasonable ones i think and any right minded, free thinking individual ought to be deeply skeptical of both the implications and the practical requirements of WADA's rules.

Mukul Kesavan has a
detailed account of this issue on Cricinfo. His argument boils down to this -
So while I'm convinced that cricket needs drug testing (specially in the IPL epoch, when the monetary pressure on cricketers to recover from injury is enormous), it isn't clear to me that WADA's new Big Brother regime is the only way to go. It's certainly wholly contrary to the Indian instinct to extemporise leisure. But this is bigger than the Indian players, the BCCI or the ICC or cricket. A code that makes your professional livelihood contingent on ambush testing the year round, seriously threatens a player's privacy.

The rationale for a player making himself available every day at a particular time is that there are sophisticated drugs that don't show up after a day. WADA can't give the athlete even a day's notice for fear that he might time his intake so that the drug's effects wear off before the appointed hour. But what if someone invents a performance-enhancing drug that vanishes from scientific view in, say, 12 hours? A player could avoid detection by taking it 12 hours before the snoops are due. Going by the logic of WADA's testing regimen, players will then be required to set aside testing slots at eight-hourly intervals to forestall cheating. That way lies madness: a sporting life organised around and haunted by inquisitorial ghosts.
I would go even further. The WADA's drug testing regime is downright draconian, because apart from all the ridiculous rules about scheduling and notice, implicit in the ICC Anti-Doping Code (pdf), is the assertion that any Cricketer is assumed to be guilty of being a cheat until proven otherwise. On what grounds will the ICC test players? As Cricinfo's excellent low down of the story informs us, players "are nominated for random testing based on their ICC rankings".

What does this mean? Would a player be hauled up for a random drug test simply because he shot up in the rankings? Why the ICC player Rankings? The methodology for devising those rankings is not published, but is available upon request. There are several issues in the ratings not least among them is the fact that they rely on match results to judge individual players. This will result in players who play for winning sides more than others. How exactly will the ratings be used?

The ICC has a further requirement in their anti-doping policy where by a player has to inform the ICC in writing that he or she is retiring. Further, if the player decides to come out of retirement, he or she must write to the ICC again saying that they are coming back. This is absurd. The ICC does not employ these players. How can they unilaterally require such a thing?

Whats amazing to me is that this essential problem with the WADA/ICC approach has been almost completely overlooked. Security, the Indian attitude to leisure etc. are all secondary issues in my view. At it's core, the anti-doping regime is not merely invasive, it promises to shackle anybody who is an international cricketer. Im amazed that English and Australian cricketers have accepted it so readily.

The threat of doping is real, but surely Cricket should not have destroy the village in order to save it. Besides, does this one-size fits all regime actually work? Is it necessary for Cricket? The WADA system exists because there are large multi-national, multi-sport events like the Asian Games and the Olympics. Cricket ought to device its own system, independent of WADA. The argument that WADA is the only legitimate system is absurd. How can the same anti-doping regime be applicable to both individual sports like athletics and tennis and team sports like football and cricket? Besides, didn't the Cricket system work? The anti-doping regime used in Cricket before the ICC signed on to WADA in 2006 did a good job in identifying drug cheats, or even (in Shane Warne's case) in identifying players who had technically violated the rules. It is in the implementation of the penalty that individual boards are in trouble, as they can be easily subject to a lot of local pressure.

Surely the ICC can work an anti-doping regime into its Code of Conduct - give match referees something useful to do and be responsible for. Tendulkar and Dhoni have raised some misgivings, but Harbhajan Singh has hit the nail on the head. In the past few days, the anti-doping issue has become the latest wedge between Cricket and other sports in India. Many of the other sports fall squarely within the WADA regime, while the Cricketers actually have the clout to have their say. The BCCI listens to its Cricketers. And the Cricketers, more power to them, seem to have actually taken the trouble to carefully read what they are being asked to sign.

Cricket needs to find its own way of dealing with the issue of doping - one tailored to the specific conditions that Cricketers operate in. What about Cricketers who play for multiple teams, like an IPL team, a County side and an international side? Would playing in the County championship count as "out-of-competition" or "off-season" as far as the India Test team is concerned?

There are several such questions, and i suppose some of them are being addressed behind closed doors. But given the reaction of the Indian Cricketers it appears that they are as much in the dark as you and I. I hope the BCCI continues to back the players.

The Langer Dossier

Quite apart from the totally pompous denotation of the thing as a "dossier", the more i read it, the more i find myself thinking - why was this secret at all? There's absolutely nothing in there that could be regarded as any more than idle armchair observation. These are the sort of things that have been discussed ad nauseum on commentary when England have played Tests and ODI's in the recent past.

So why was it a secret? Well, it was not. Even though im speculating, there can be no other explanation. Nothing in that dossier is stuff that could not have been said by nearly anyone who has watched England play recently and has a rather one-eyed view of things. A lot of it is standard Australian "toughness" fare. ("toughness" essentially says 'we're tougher than them. make it count'. Steve Waugh used to call it mental disintegration) What's even more interesting, given the amount of money these coaches make these days (with Buchanan as their flag bearer), is why Tim Nielsen passed it on to his players. The less damaging explanation of the leak from Justin Langer's point of view is that some Australian player leaked it! I half hope that Shane Warne's sly wrist was involved somewhere in the leak!

The content of the dossier is pure BS. It has no real analysis of any kind, neither is there any corroboration for any claim. Now, Langer would argue that the fact that he was the author, with his playing experience, that would be corroboration enough, but then its stupid isn't it. Brett Lee and Ricky Ponting have played for Australia longer than Langer has. Nearly every single member of the Australian Ashes squad has played in England before. It's not as though there is an Iron Curtain between English and Australian cricket, one that requires a spying operation.

Australia's Ashes players could have and almost definitely did hear everything Langer said in his memo from nearly every former that they had a conversation with, English and Australian!

The focus of this story should not be on the contents of the memo, it should be on what sort of person would write it, what sort of coach would pass it on as good information. There is evidence of Langer seeking to insert himself into the 2009 Ashes before. He claimed he would be interested in playing the Edgbaston Test before laughing off the claim a couple of days later.

The focus of this story should be Justin Langer and his juvenile attention seeking desperation.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Langer Leaks

Justin Langer sent Tim Nielsen an email. It leaked. In this story, Langer is quoted as saying
"I just spoke to Tim and he was disappointed that it came out like this. But I'm the one who has got to live here. What backlash there is, I guess time will tell."
So, Langer sends Nielsen an email, and it leaks. Yet, both are disappointed that this happened. Put yourself in either of their places - it wouldn't be the two of you against the world, it would be "why did he rat on me".

Besides, Langer's so-called memo seems to contain no state secrets. As Ricky Ponting says, he's played against these players much longer than Langer has and can read his opponents as well as Langer can. So the Langer memo, it could be reasonably argued, was prepared to be leaked, I would think by Justin Langer. Its a classic attention grab, coupled with Langer's alleged Ashes comeback, that Langer himself nixed after dropping the idea that he may play the third Test.

So there's evidence the Langer can't keep himself away from things, and there's also evidence to suggest that the so-called memo contains useless publicly available information which was already available to the Australian Cricket team. Justin Langer is the FakeIPLPayer of the Ashes series.

Australia race ahead in Ashes

Australia won in less than 3 days at Headingley to level the 2009 Ashes 1-1 with only the final Test at the Oval remaining in the series. Being holders of the Ashes, in less than 72 hours, Ricky Ponting has gone from being behind in the Ashes to pushing England to the brink. It will be England under the hammer at the South London ground and not Australia. However, if there was one ground in England where the hosts would want to play a must win game, it would be at the Oval. England have Pakistan, West Indies (twice) and South Africa (twice) in 9 Tests here in this decade.

It is a high scoring ground, but in 2008, the highest innings score in England's 6 wicket victory over South Africa was 318. India made 664 here with Anil Kumble reaching his maiden Test hundred in 2007 to seal series victory.

England are severely handicapped, what with Flintoff and Pietersen both out with injury.

Despite the narrative of this series, Australia have had the better of the series so far. After 4 Tests, they are essentially 1 wicket short of retaining the Ashes. If we compare the two drawn games - Birmingham and Cardiff, i think it is fair to say that but for the stoppages, Australia would have won both. They needed 1 wicket at Cardiff, and were effectively 262/5 at Birmingham. Birmingham would have been close had there been no time lost, but in a chase of 300-350, I would always favor the chances of the side fielding fourth. In this, the 2009 series is amazingly similar to the 2005 series. England won in 2005, but did so by the skin of their teeth. They celebrated that win in a manner which suggested that they had destroyed the Australians, but if you think about it, they won the Ashes by 2 runs. It was a very close run thing as the 2-1 outcome suggests. The 2009 series is similar.

What we are seeing in the English press is the effect of unrelenting Ashes thumpings for the best part of an entire generation. Any time they don't get thumped, they view it as a triumph. The Oval Test will be the most important Ashes Test Match England have played in a long time. More important than the 2005 Oval Test. For it will reveal whether England view themselves as the realistic cricketing equals of this relatively modest Australian Test side, or whether they are still caught in their fatal inferiority complex.

On paper, there is nothing to suggest that England should not be able to put up enough runs on the board to place Australia under pressure. They need to play percentage cricket. Not try to score at 4 runs per over, but to dig in and stay in the game. Not try to dominate, but to play good solid error free cricket. They don't need to fall into the trap of feeling that they need to make all the running. They can match the Australian bowling attack on a good day (i say this knowing that England don't have Flintoff and Australia have Clark) and they will need a break and it will come their way. They must be in a position take advantage. This series is where it is because of two innings - Australia being bowled out for 215 in the first innings at Lord's, and England being bowled out for 102 in the first innings at Headingley. Those were the two decisive openings. England did offer Australia another opening on the 5th day at Cardiff, but Australia couldn't strike the final blow on that final day.

Somehow i doubt that England will play this way. I hope they do. We will witness a great Test Match if they do.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Watch these two strokes

I've posted this video before, but do watch these two strokes starting at 1:43 and 8:07 in this video. These are classical, supremely orthodox strokes, but another man could not even dream of beginning to learn to bat like this. Both are frontfoot drives, but in conception and practice it would be an insult to merely call them frontfoot drives. They are the strokes of a genius.

The risk is huge in both instances. In the first he's hitting a good length ball on off stump back past the bowler, in the second, even though he's playing with the spin, he's playing from the rough!

The man is a magician. Since that innings in 2001, he has built on his God given ability and developed into a Test Match master craftsman. Peter Roebuck has written a superb article about the ordeal that top level cricket can be when a player is not in good form or has been encountering a rough phase. VVS has been through all that and has come through at the other end a wiser, and in my opinion even more brilliant Test Match batsman.

We do not realise just how special the current Indian middle order is - how much accomplishment is packed therein. There is no shortcut to this accomplishment, it must all be acquired out in the middle, in full view. It has. It has been our privilege to watch these players.

Lets hope they will play for a few more years. I now understand how people must have felt when Vishwanath and Gavaskar retired.

England in trouble

Have England just thrown away their hard earned Ashes lead? Australia will retain the Ashes with a 1-1 series result and barring a dramatic turnaround, they should go into the 5th Test 1-1 from here.

It suddenly looks very grim for England. They have lost their 2 match-winners - Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen, and theyve been bowled out for 102 on Day 1 at Headingley. Australia end the day 94 runs ahead with 6 first innings wickets standing.

Peter Siddle got 5 wickets when Australia bowled, but the damage was done by Stuart Clark who took three wickets in the morning session, but more importantly, bowled his 10 overs for 18 runs. In the morning session had figures of 7-4-7-3. I keep stressing that it is the 7 runs which is the central fact of Clark's bowling.

Unless Australia have a meltdown, they will retain the Ashes from here.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Classic Corporate Media has a story today entitled 'Tendulkar hits back at Buchanan'. The story is dated August 6, 2009 and forms the third headline of the day. The gist of the story is that Sachin Tendulkar has disputed John Buchanan's observation that Tendulkar doesn't play fast bowling as well as he used to. The quotes attributed to Tendulkar are fairly petulant, and given his legendary restraint in public are not without newsworthiness.

But here's the rub. Buchanan made his observation "before India's 2007 tour of Australia" according to the rediff story. This being a cricket story, this is an inaccurate reference, because India toured Australia in 2007-08 and not in 2007. The two are used in Cricket to refer to two seperate seasons in the playing calender. But that apart, why is Tendulkar responding to this 2 years later? Rediff doesn't think this is worth asking and doesn't even pretend to address it.

Further more, Rediff does not tell us anything about the interview in which these remarks were made. If it was an interview with Wisden, when was it conducted? What issue does it appear in? What question was Tendulkar responding to?

Besides, if Rediff is actually seriously interested in two expert opinions about Tendulkar's batting technique (Buchanan's and Tendulkar's), should they also not refer to all the runs that Tendulkar has since the start of that 2007-08 Australia tour till date? 5 Test hundreds in 17 Tests, 1484 runs at 51.17.

But to expect that is to miss the point. Rediff's story is designed to garner eyeballs. Tendulkar and Buchanan must feature in the title and the story itself must be short and simple. Nuance and detail are optional extras. The story is not aimed and your or me, it is aimed at someone who is only distantly acquainted by Sachin Tendulkar and only knows Buchanan as some kind of demonic Australian coach.

A friend of mine who used to work for Cricinfo once told me that they found that if stories were short and had names of players in the title, they got more hits. Rediff clearly knows this very well. This is a prime example of what i meant in my post about Cricket and the Media - high on celebrity, low on detail, a clear, stark narrative 'Tendulkar hits back at Buchanan', and we have a winner.

That the story inside is weak and hollow is besides the point, the click has already been made.

This 'Tendulkar hits back' theme recurs from time to time in the media. In 2008, 2007, 2008, 2004, and 2005. If you look through those, it doesn't really matter whether he's actually hitting back. Its the idea of Tendulkar hitting back which seems to possess an almost enduring allure. The details of the specific situation are irrelevant.

Rediff has taken this to a new level. If you think about it, this story is about Tendulkar's response to some unknown question in an interview to a cricket publication about an observation that John Buchanan made two years ago. Why is this even on Rediff? Because Tendulkar in the headline sells, as does Buchanan. This is only slightly better than spamming.

Update: The Wisden Interview is here. Do read.