Saturday, November 28, 2009

New players and old

Test Matches at Brisbane and Dunedin yielded not unsurprising results. Australia beat West Indies by an innings, while New Zealand beat Pakistan by 32 runs. Predictably, the Dunedin Test has been called "Test Cricket at it's finest", on account of the high quality of fast bowling on show. A narrow view to be sure, but top class fast bowling is worth watching. Shane Bond and Mohammad Asif both made superb comebacks, while Umar Akmal and Adrian Barath have left experienced watchers in awe.

For a form of the game supposedly in decline (why this is thought to be so has never been adequately explained. Prevailing explanations do not stand up to serious scrutiny), it has been a very good week.

There appears to be a new racism in Cricket, practiced in the main by a few sub-continental commentators - where the dusty wicket is the colored counterpart of the antipodean and european 'fast bouncy' wicket . Of course, these commentators conveniently overlook the fact that the last time India played in Australia, the wickets were very flat, as they were in New Zealand. But then again, facts have never gotten in the way of stereotypes.

We have seen four good Test Matches in the last 3 weeks - runs, wickets, centuries, results. But more importantly, we may have witnessed the emergence of worthy heirs to the legacy of Inzamam Ul Haq and Brian Lara. I have not heard so much discussion about the quality of a new player's batsmanship from commentators in this decade, with the possible exception of JP Duminy and Kevin Pietersen. Very few batsmen have seemed as well prepared so early in their cricketing lives.

I hope they both go on to have memorable careers, just as i hope that Shane Bond stays injury free and Mohammad Asif stays Shoaib-free.

Friday, November 27, 2009

On the Kanpur Test

The Kanpur wicket was panned for being too flat, too placid. The sight of a fast bowler in full cry sending a ball hurtling along on the second bounce to the wicketkeeper before lunch on Day 1 makes many a pundit's blood boil. Here we go again! They say. Yet another flat track! Yet another disastrous visual to expose to the civilized, efficient global world of cricket, the incompetence and misplaced parochialism of our provincial wicket-layers.

And yet, India have managed 20 wickets here in three balls less than 150 overs. They used the massive weight of runs well. The Sri Lankans for their part wilted under the difficulty of not being able to score as freely as Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag. If a very concise assessment were of the Kanpur Test were to be made, it would be that India made the batting conditions look better than they were by seizing run scoring opportunities as well as conjuring ones that seemingly did not exist, while Sri Lanka made it look worse than it was by wanting to score in the same way that India did, despite finding themselves in a very different situation. A Test side from say 10 years ago (even the Sri Lanka side of 1997) might have made a better fist of it.

Nothing was more indicative of Sri Lanka's mood than Tillekeratne Dilshan's fairly silly stroke first ball. He chased a ball that was well down the leg side. Yes, the usage is proper. To chase a delivery is to play away from the body, to play at something that does not threaten the stumps, that does not even remotely threaten to threaten the stumps. And yet, Dilshan aimed an almighty hoick at it - not even a careful, speculative leg glance, but a violent assault that began with an immense back-lift and ended with an expansive follow-through. It is all very well for us to say of Dilshan (and of Sangakkara for that matter) that they were playing their 'natural game', but it is precisely this 'natural game' which must be transcended in a Test.

I take the view that early dismissals, especially first ball dismissals should not be viewed too harshly. In Dilshan's case though, it was not a case of him getting a good ball, or even a decent straight ball, but an ill-directed loosener (Zaheer seemed to bowl one at the start of every innings, in which his run up is like that of someone else performing a stylized imitation of his run-up), and he was not beaten in defense, but in attack! Even so, his dismissal was a lesser error of judgement than Kumar Sangakkara's first innings dismissal. The Sri Lankan captain was faced with a period of play where he was getting nothing to hit. Sreesanth and Zaheer Khan bowled to their fields - to a plan of keeping the runs, especially the singles, to a minimum. During Sangakkara's innings, he scored 4 singles in 51 deliveries from Zaheer Khan, and 2 singles in 37 deliveries from Harbhajan Singh.

This in itself is not unusual for a Test Match innings. Gautam Gambhir's 51 singles in 129 deliveries from the three Sri Lankan spinners is the exception, not the rule. But it seemed to bother Sangakkara. He felt compelled to go hard at the ball at the slightest opportunity. I have been wondering about India's ploys against Dilshan and Sangakkara. They bowled at Dilshan's body with three men on the boundary at Ahmedabad and bowled very straight at Sangakkara, more or less cutting off the off-side as a scoring area for him. The ploy against Dilshan didn't work at Ahmedabad, and i suspect that was because it was put in place at the outset, instead of letting Dilshan face a more conventional new ball before moving to the set piece against him. The ploy against Sangakkara worked like a charm.

The Sri Lankan captain seemed quite unhappy at being shackled to his middle and leg stump, with nothing to cut and nothing to cover drive. His frustration found expression in the flailing slap he unleashed at one that Sreesanth (possibly accidentally, possibly deliberately) flung fullish and wide outside off-stump, only to have the ball glance his inside-edge and then glance the leg-stump. The pundits may claim that the Sri Lankan captain's elegant drive was thwarted by the ball misbehaving off a sub-standard wicket. But there was no chance of Sangakkara ever middling that ball - indeed, it should be considered the batsman's sheer good fortune to see that ball even trickle away in the general direction it was aimed in. The angled blade is the give away. It was not a cover drive. An orthodox cover drive is itself an inherently risky proposition - the bat must part company with the pad, leaving a 'gate', and the ball must be met 'blind', trusting the line of the ball. In the really well balanced version of the stroke, the ball is met 'under the eye'. This does not mean that the batsmen watches the ball literally on to the bat. Rather, it means that the batsman leaves a final precise judgement of the ball to the latest possible moment. In Sangakkara's case he was on one knee, nowhere near the line of the ball. The bat came down at an angle - neither vertical nor horizontal. A few years ago, this would have been immediately identified as a serious technical flaw, as the current India coach will testify from personal experience. It would have been described as a "chop" or a "slap", not a drive. Sangakkara aimed a top spin forehand at that ball, rather than a drive - a stroke more suited to the vaguely oval shape of the tennis racket, than to the more somber, lean rectangular blade of a cricket bat.

Yes batsmen have played those strokes - Sangakkara himself has played it successfully before. But it remains a chance, in much the same way a brilliant hook shot for six remains a chance. Risks are invariably more likely to come off when things are already in your favor. Gambhir and Sehwag were scoring quickly, but they were always playing within themselves - the short single stolen with the ball well within the confines of the in-field being the feature of their stand, as was precise footwork against the spinners. In Sangakkara's case, that stroke he aimed at Sreesanth's lure was nothing short of a hail mary - a stroke aimed in desperation.

It is hard to understand what the desperation could have been. It was not as though Sangakkara was being starved of runs (he was scoring at fairly standard Test Match pace). Neither was it the case that the Sri Lankan captain was getting consistently beaten. He was simply not being allowed to play his game - score his runs in his preferred way. And that seemed to bother him. The cases of Sangakkara and Dilshan are examples of tactics teams will apply against specific batsmen. For Sangakkara, the ploy was to bowl at the stumps, on a fuller rather than shorter length, forcing him to limit himself to playing the ball straight, to mid-wicket or to square leg, with the area well covered by the field setting. It worked. In Dilshan's case at Ahmedabad, it was to use an in-out field of sorts, and pound him with the short stuff from time to time. It didn't work. What's more, it caused India to waste the new ball in the Sri Lankan first innings. Dilshan made a hundred anyway.

It will be interesting to see how India approach Dilshan and Sangakkara at CCI next week. The wicket there is likely to be quicker and bouncier than Ahmedabad or Kanpur - make stroke making easier, as well as offering something to pacer and spinner alike. Muralitharan, Mendis and Herath for example, are likely to be completely different propositions there. These are a vagaries of Test Match battle.

The Kanpur Test has revealed much. It was great to see the senior fast bowler - Zaheer Khan, doing the disciplined leg work of keeping the batsmen quiet, of bowling doggedly to a plan and sticking with it. But such is the contest, that it allows the great player to counter and even destroy such well laid plans. The game changes with every passing over. The great thing about it is, that the contest between bat and ball is organized such that bat or ball can negotiate a trap simply by not falling into it. It does not require an active counter at all times.

The reason I am quite excited about the CCI Test Match, is that Sri Lanka undoubtedly possess the firepower in their ranks to force victory there. It will be up to India to avoid the trap that the Sri Lankan captain so fatally fell for in the Sri Lankan first innings at Kanpur. For Sri Lanka, the error to be avoided will be the dropping of one of the three spinners. Dhammika Prasad should return in place of Angelo Mathews. Sri Lanka have to win, so they should play 5 bowlers. But it would be a folly to leave out one of their three attacking, wicket-taking spinners, simply because they got thumped on Day 1 at Kanpur.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Sreesanth's return

5/75 were flattering figures for S Sreesanth on Day 3 at Kanpur. Two wickets off inside edges from aggressive strokes and another off a short and wide delivery which the Sri Lankan wicketkeeper flailed at, only to get a touch to Dhoni. Paranavitana also played at a widish one. Only Herath was beaten in defense.

But thats the game. On other days Sreesanth might beat the bat at regular intervals. He bowled better in the second innings and bowled many more good deliveries than he did in the first. Sri Lanka have played him very poorly. In general the Sri Lankan batting, under the pressure of a massive Indian score has been a far cry from their batting at Ahmedabad when India scored 220 fewer runs and Dilshan got them off to a great start. Ahmedabad was also an easier wicket (even compared to the Day 1 wicket at Kanpur).

The notable thing about Sreesanth's return was the absence of histrionics - of gratuitous displays of aggression, of excessive efforts at calming himself. He was still just as desperate (as his reaction at being denied a very good caught-at-the-wicket shout early in the Sri Lankan 1st innings showed), but it didn't seem to cause him to bowl rubbish. He appeared less interested than usual in getting in the batsman's faces. One hopes that these was not merely an artifact of this being his first game for India in a long time.

That augurs well for India. The Third Test will be played at CCI in Bombay. The wicket there will offer much more assistance to the pacemen than either Motera or Green Park, even more than the Wankhede wicket would have.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Vote! Vote! Vote!


The Indibloggies awards are decided by a popular vote once a shortlisted is prepared by selected reviewers.

Please vote for Gappa in the Humanities category (Q. 4). The quality of work in this category is very high, with more and one published authors and professional writers (very very good ones) being nominated.

You will find this blog listed in the sport category (Q. 10), along with 5 fine sports blogs, and FakeIPLPlayer.

VOTE!

You will need an email address (but no registration) to vote and then to confirm the vote.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Some Blog news

I have been away from my blog for the last three months on account of events in the real world. However, i could not resist returning here on November 15 2009 to mark the completion of Sachin Tendulkar's 20th year as an international cricketer.

I was looking through some site related hit statistics today, and learnt that Cricketing View has received yet another nomination from Indibloggies (Sport) for the year 2008 (2006). I was even more pleased (but not at all surprised) to learn that someone i know very very well also received a nomination, in a far more significant category (Humanities).

Several other worthy blogs have been nominated in the Sport category. I must confess that i could not help but be amused by the nomination of FakeIPLPlayer in the 'Sport' category.

Congratulations to all nominees.

The last 40 minutes

This post is about the last few overs of the Ahmedabad Test - when it had turned "meaningless" for a number of discerning observers. Sachin Tendulkar was 87 not out at the beginning of the last hours play on the 5th day. VVS Laxman kept company. India were effectively 6/59 with 15 overs left in the day. The chance of a Sri Lankan victory had more or less evaporated. For serious viewers of Cricket, this Test Match had been yet another disaster. A "dull" draw. A typical account speaks of "another boring session of meaningless cricket on a dead wicket". Such an account will also speak of "one of Muralitharan's worst performances in his career", simply by offering his figures for the second innings as evidence. There is no discussion of what he did wrong. Was he inaccurate? Was he tactically at fault? Was he unable to bowl at a particular batsman? Was he unable to bowl from a particular angle (over or round the wicket)? Was he unable to turn the ball as viciously as usual? The assertion is thus technically true, but also quite meaningless, especially since the report is not about the statistics related to the game, but is a session-by-session bulletin.

I found it most interesting, after a last day where India were not out of trouble even at Tea time. I do not believe that quality sport is played only when the game is on a knife edge, where every breath each player takes could prove decisive. In fact, i don't think 'excitement' such as it is, has anything to do with winning and losing. A great innings is a great innings irrespective of the result.



The contest in the last 40 or so minutes of the Ahmedabad Test was about 13 runs. It was a fairly simple contest - trivial even. The game was not really in the balance. Tendulkar's innings up to that point had been a quiet one - 87 circumspect runs (albeit with a few expansive moments , like when he stepped out to loft Murali over mid-on just after Tea). But in the quest for those 13 runs we saw why this was a Test Match, why these runs were not trivial, and why the participants are top quality sportsmen.

Kumar Sangakkara employed a unapologetic defensive ploy, aimed at denying Tendulkar runs or the strike. He had his fast bowlers bowl wide of off-stump to an 8-1 field, and had Herath bowl over the wicket into the rough with a 3-6 field at the other end. The bowlers performed this task with a bloodymindedness that is especially noteworthy given the deflating match situation from Sri Lanka's point of view (Sri Lanka have never won a Test Match in India, and had a 332 run lead and 120 overs to dismiss India for the win). Herath gave the batsmen nothing to cut, nothing over-pitched, no full tosses. He varied his pace, and didn't make a fool of himself by occasionally bowling too wide. Welegedara was slightly less skillful - he bowled a couple that were deemed too wide, but even in his case, his willingness to follow a tactic and his ability to execute it is admirable. The same goes for Angelo Matthews. Each of the three Sri Lankan bowlers bowled well in the best sense of the word - they bowled to their plan. It was a skillful display. Of course, you may think it's silly to talk an essentially negative bowling display up, but bowling is basically about bowling the ball especially where you want to bowl it, with the pace and trajectory that you want, so that the batsman plays it according to the field you have set for him. The genius of the great bowler lies in knowing this basic art so well, that he can then go on to transcend it and weave a magic spell - make the ball talk. Herath, Welegedara and Mathews are not great bowlers, but they are worthy Test Match performers.

Tendulkar's response was not a surprise. He has seen this tactic a number of times. I doubt whether there's anything he sees in a Test Match nowadays that he doesn't already know very well. His position was a delicate one. He had expressly refused the Sri Lankan Captain's offer to call the game off - an acceptance of the fact that Tendulkar and Laxman were unlikely to be separated in time for Sri Lanka to be able to blast the required runs. Now he had everything to lose, and only a Test hundred to gain. Having already reached the mark 42 times, his approach to a situation where a 43rd century was a possibility says something about his professionalism and about the secret behind his 30,000 international runs. Tendulkar did nothing rash. His method was to wait for the one opening which he might put away for a few runs. It involved watching everything carefully. There were no hard hands. No mis-hits. No slashing square cuts which trickled away to backward point, or wild swings which flew to third man. Instead, there were leaves galore. Sri Lanka were going to delay and delay and delay, and let Tendulkar reach for those last 13 runs. In response, Tendulkar waited and waited and waited, and picked his deliveries and his spots as precisely as my grandmother used to pick sweet oranges from the fruit seller's cart. It was mainly careful taps into the outfield, except on two occasions. First, he played Angelo Mathews from 12th stump outside off to backward square-leg - not only was it not a sweep, but it was such a superbly timed glance that it went for four! The second was a cover drive played on-the-up to yet another good-length, wide offering. The balance had to be seen to be believed. It was the perfect cover drive, played on the rise, on the move! It was such a respectful demolition of the textbook that Boycott, Gavaskar and Achrekar could have only smiled.

This was not an outrageously high quality 40 minutes of play by any means, but it was terrifically revealing of the mindset of these professional international cricketers - of what they value and what they are interested in. It revealed a conception of time in a Test on the part of Tendulkar (and also on the part of the Sri Lankans), which is lost on most commentators (interestingly enough, even when they happen to be distinguished former Test players). It was like Michael Jordan 3 seconds out from the buzzer, making those three seconds seem like eternity. How counter-intuitive is it? That when someone is trying to simply deny you runs, you don't try to beat them every ball, but wait them out?

This is admittedly a trivial example, but if those 13 runs, and those 40 minutes, where nothing was at stake were so revealing, think about how much there was to watch in Gambhir's century, or in Sehwag's half-century or in Jayawardene's monumental 275. How can it be meaningless? How arrogant is it on the part of viewers, to claim that they are cricket fans, and at the same time dismiss out of hand Test Match cricket simply because the ball isn't flying off the surface, and the next ball isn't going to give them hope that their side will win?

As long as there is a contest in which the main event does not involve batsmen taking indiscriminate chances with nothing to lose, there is game on in which the participants can realistically attempt to deliberately shape an outcome.

But you have to actually watch to find out what's going on. I enjoyed those 40 minutes. They gave me yet another little memory about Sachin Tendulkar, they helped shape my view of how the Sri Lankan's approach their Cricket. Test Cricket is like a classical Raag - a basic structure in which the creative musician can improvise endlessly, and the interested listener can engage endlessly. Even the interludes are illuminating.

Friday, November 20, 2009

On Pitches and Tests

Everybody is constantly trying to explain the demise of Test cricket. The success of T20 cricket is explained away by pointing to the alleged fact that Test Cricket is not a contemporary sport - that it does not belong in these times. The evidence offered for this, is that people don't watch Test Cricket in the stadium (6 hours a day, 5 days) in the same numbers as they watch T20 games (3-4 hours) or ODI's (7 hours). There is plenty of evidence to counter this. People are obviously interested in Test Matches. If they weren't, every single news portal worth it's salt on the internet would not be touting it's "live", "ball-by-ball" coverage of Test Matches. TV channels would not be vying for rights to Test series, companies would not be willing to sponsor Test matches, and advertisers would be unwilling to pay good money for billboards, patches of grass, action replays. Even as the death of Test Cricket is being prophesied, everything in it that can be commodified is being commodified. But the most common refrain is that "dead pitches are killing Test Cricket".

No other issue seems to raise the heckles of pundits more than that of the pitch - that patch of turf on which the stumps are set, and on which the ball lands before it reaches the batsman. This, so far, is a natural surface - constructed, but constructed from clay, bricks, earth and water, with grass planted on top. The process of preparing a pitch requires time - it cannot be be shortened and it cannot be indefinitely extended. It requires certain kinds of weather - too much rain hurts pitch preparation, as does too little. Thats why pitches are peculiar to certain kinds of cricket grounds.

But pitches do not define how cricket matches pan out - the cricket played on them does. Pitches are obviously not trivial, but neither are they the sole determinants of outcome. There is endless discussion about what constitutes a good pitch, and the standard answer is that a good pitch is one which offers assistance to pace bowlers in the first part of the game, and spinners in the second half, while offering the batsmen the opportunity to score runs (i.e possess enough pace and bounce so that strokes can be played fruitfully). These mythical pitches don't exist. It is the Cricket that is played on the pitch which defines the pitch.

Let me explain that with the example of the pitch for the Ahmedabad Test. It has been panned as a 'dead pitch'. Unfit for Test Cricket. Mahendra Singh Dhoni, whose bowlers got hammered on this wicket, was unhappy with the wicket. Kumar Sangakkara, whose side held the upper hand for most of the Test Match, was not as unhappy with it.

If the wicket was dead and flat, and hard - why was nobody able to generate any reverse swing? Why was nobody able to kill the runs and create pressure? Why was nobody willing to actually use tactics and methods to try and control the game, rather than wait for some classic outswinger to find edges to an unimaginatively plonked slip fielder? When people complain about the 'dead pitch', are they not implicitly trivializing the role of the cricketer? Is it reasonable to argue that the pitch was somehow useless because India conceded 7/760 and Sri Lanka conceded 14/838 in the Test match. Why did India begin to bowl to Tillekratne Dilshan with three men on the boundary, after having produced 426 all out, with only a short pre-lunch session to be played? Why did Ishant Sharma keep drifting on to the pads? That had nothing to do with the pitch. Why did Harbhajan Singh keep bowling long hops with alarming regularity? The way India bowled, they would have conceded 500+ on most wickets. Why did Sri Lanka bowl with amazingly defensive fields on the last day, even though only one side could have won the game at that point? An amazing 563 singles were scored in 435 overs over 5 days. By comparison, this game at Kolkatta between India and Pakistan in 2005 produced a result, and produced only 351 singles in 413 overs.

How do we decide as viewers that a particular wicket is 'dead' or 'placid'? We determine it by watching the cricket that is played on it. If the batsmen are easily middling the ball, if bowlers are not able to hurry the batsman, or demonstrably defeat the batsman's judgement for an extended period of time, then we assume that the batsmen are "on top". Surely, this has to do with the quality of batsmen and the quality of bowlers as well. A batsman can be on top if he regularly gets leg stump half volleys, or half-trackers outside off-stump - most club-level batsmen middle those deliveries regularly, let alone Test players. Let us then consider the batsmen and bowlers on show at Ahmedabad. Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene are all top class batsmen who have repeatedly proven their worth against high quality bowling. By contrast, with the notable exception of Mutthiah Muralitharan and a lesser extent Harbhajan Singh (and a still lesser extent Zaheer Khan), the bowling attack on either side can make no such claim.

Furthermore, it is well understood, that bowlers produce pressure and exert control in pairs - the bowling has to be tight and 'good' from both ends for extended periods of time, for the fielding side to be able to control the contest. With Harbhajan Singh and Ishant Sharma both in the midst of a bout of lacklustre bowling form (in Ishant Sharma's case, it appears to be a more serious matter), India were never able to exert that pressure. Neither were Sri Lanka, except for the first morning, when Chanaka Welegedara did well with the new ball. Given that they were bowling at top quality batsmen, is it not reasonable to expect that on anything other than a decidedly bowler friendly wicket, they would struggle?

Limited Overs cricket - like ODIs and T20, favors the batsman over the bowler by introducing restriction after restriction on what bowlers can bowl, how much they can bowl, where they can bowl and what fields they can bowl to. Does this affect the relative development of batsmen and bowlers? Does this affect the 'accuracy' of bowlers? Does it affect their mindset - from 'attacking' to 'trying-not-to-get-hit'? Does this change the way they bowl? Does this produce little shifts in their bowling techniques (actions), which have deep consequences when they come into Test Matches and end up having to bowl for an entire session? Has the advent of T20 and ODI cricket reduced the amount of first class cricket these bowlers are playing in their formative years?

The answers to all these questions are far from obvious. Any serious answers offered are also hard to measure. But it ought to be clear, that pitches alone are not the dominant arbiters of the cricket played in a Test Match. In recent years though, attempts to commodify pitches - to determine what pitches are good and what pitches are bad, have intensified. Teams which lose games complain about "sub-standard" pitches, as do teams that fail to produce results (Sangakkara's Sri Lanka are an honorable exception) and teams which are favored to win, but fail to force a win, or fall behind (as India did at Ahmedabad). The "quality of pitches" has become a convenient distraction which enables a simplistic, extremely reduced discussion of the cricket that was played in the Test Match. For that is what we seem to want - to reduce everything to manageable, soundbyte-sized packages of entertainment - so that they may be easily judged.

Ahmedabad was a very interesting Test Match, if you were actually interested in watching the cricket that was played. Take for instance the last 40 minutes or so of play - where India were for the most part out of danger, and the question was whether Sachin Tendulkar could reach a hundred. The story of how he got there, and how Sri Lanka tried to prevent this is worthy of a post of in itself. Tendulkar, Sangakkara, Laxman, Herath, Welegedara, Muralitharan and Mathews gave accounts of themselves as Cricketers and professional sportsmen in those 40 minutes, at the end of 5 full days, which are definitely worth discussing.

There is an argument to be made for preparing one type of pitch instead of another. By the same count, there is also an argument to be made for leaving pitch preparation to the local groundsman - in the interest of diversity, just as there is an argument to be made for preparing fast, bouncy wickets if you like to watch medium pacers bowling like Jeff Thomson, for placid roads if you want to watch Anil Kumble bat like Steve Waugh. Commentary about the quality of pitches in Test Matches, is actually an argument for a certain type of archetypal Test Match. Such commentary misses the whole point of Test Cricket - that it is a Test. Flat pitches are part of that Test, as are the kinds of pitches which Harbhajan Singh once memorably described as "gardens".

As far as the demise of Test Cricket is concerned, the emasculation of the bowler due to the emergence of new forms of the game which position the bowler as a second class cricket-citizen, is doing more to contribute to any perceived demise than the quality of pitches. Bowlers and Batsmen produce the quality of the pitch as much as the pitch produces the quality of the cricket. By arguing for a standardization Test pitches (by claiming that there is such a thing as a "good" pitch), we are hastening the demise of Test Cricket.

Monday, November 16, 2009

A tangle of tactics

Gideon Haigh observes that Australia's defeat in the 2009 Ashes was not considered to be the defining event in the cricket world that it ought to have been, in part because there are now three formats which have nothing in common, and which compete for the attention of the same spectators, and which produce only endless confusion.

Money quote:
Administrators keep insisting that the three forms of cricket are cosily complementary. Actually Test cricket, one-day cricket and Twenty20 hang together like an Italian political coalition: because of slight momentary convenience rather than innately long-term coherence; in the free market of entertainment, they are more naturally destined to compete, even to cannibalise one another, searching out the same broadcasters, the same sponsors, and many of the same fans. Already, it seems, countries are more precisely calibrating their ambitions. India, certainly, is contemptibly marginalising Test cricket, hosting its first five-day match of 2009 in November, and leaving Eden Gardens without a Test match for two years. None of which bodes well for the future of international cricket in the face of the rivalry from soi-disant "domestic" Indian Premier League and Champions League.
We could extend Haigh's analysis even further. The quiet shift in the measurement of "good" Cricket from any effort to measure the quality of the cricket itself to a measurement based on who is willing to pay for what, is disturbing. Yet, true believers in the doctrine of the market (and it is as much a doctrine as socialism can be said to be a doctrine - the market is not 'non-ideological' in any sense), think this is a good idea - that this is for the betterment of the game. Of course, they are not to be asked to explain themselves.

But even more disturbing is the infiltration of the T20 experience into Test Match tactics. Let's take the first few overs of the Sri Lankan innings in the Ahmedabad Test. We witnessed the twin disasters of a promising new ball bowler - Ishant Sharma, frayed and destroyed by limited overs cricket, bowling like a hen-pecked husband and along with his more measured partner seeking to employ inexplicable tactics against a scratch Sri Lankan pair. Zaheer Khan's first over was ridiculously ill-conceived. It consisted of one good bouncer, one ball one a good line and length, and 5 other wasted deliveries. And this was not bad bowling. This was what he meant to bowl! I fear that all this was based on Tillakaratne Dilshan's reputation as a noted T20 slugger. Dilshan did not disappoint. He kept swinging - but he was swinging not at the good line and length that Welegedera produced consistently both on the first and second morning, but at seemingly worried bowlers.

Commentators talk this stuff up as "unorthodox tactics". Surely, the burden of the proof is on the unorthodoxy, not on the well understood time-tested policy of bowling a good length and making the batsman play. If the wicket is flat, what exactly is going to be gained by testing the middle of the pitch, or bowling half volleys with the new ball with a cross-seam?

And what is this fear of Dilshan based on? On a batting average of 37 against good opposition? On one good Test Match against a depleted New Zealand attach at Galle, and on another good innings at Lahore in a Sri Lankan score of 606 all out? I can't imagine that an experienced think tank like the one the Indian Test side possesses would fall for this sort of thing. Is it then a question of Dilshan's efforts in T20? If so why?

Why is it Ok that so many half-volleys and half-trackers being delivered by perfectly good bowlers in the first 10 overs of a Test Match innings on a flat pitch, with three men (no less) on the boundary, against a batsman who averages 37 in good quality Test Cricket? Is it merely bad bowling? I don't think so. It's a deliberate tactical ploy, and as such is inexplicable. Has not T20 Cricket thoroughly corrupted the first 14 overs of the Sri Lankan innings of this Test Match? In contrast to the high quality of play that we saw on Day 1 - where the ball was swinging, it was hitting the middle of Rahul Dravid's bat, where Dhoni's judgement of the situation was supreme, and where Muralidharan's off-breaks were dipping and had to be watched carefully even on a first day pitch?

The automatic assumption that simply because someone is willing to shell out massive amounts of money for 20 overs a side cricket, that something is "wrong" with Test and ODI cricket is the most inexplicably unquestioned assumption in contemporary cricket writing. The T20 mentality it seems, is beginning to permeate the Test Match arena as well. The refusal to treat Dilshan like a normal opening batsman is inexplicable - until you consider the influence of T20 cricket.

Haigh is closer to the truth than he thinks - T20 is cannibalizing Test Match play itself.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Tendulkar and Cricket

"The greatest Indian alive!"
Thus did India's greatest left arm bowler of any kind acclaim Sachin Tendulkar. This will be among the many notable comments and events from 20 illustrious years that we will relive this November. All his great innings; his near solitary championing of India's cause through most of the 90's, to his role as a wise elder in Dhoni's current side; his stunning equanimity in the face of fearsome pressures and expectations on and off the field; his seemingly unquenchable enthusiasm even at age 36. We will hear profound and beautiful words about each of these. From his precocious 114 at Perth in 1992, to his brilliant 169 at Cape Town in 1996, to his heroic 136 at Chennai in 1999, to his scholarly 241 at Sydney in 2004, to his triumphant 103 at Chennai in 2008, there is much to relive and celebrate. I have not even begun to mention his unrivaled mastery of the limited overs game. In the company of his great friends and fellow champions like Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, Anil Kumble, VVS Laxman to name just a few, he has scripted a successful era for the game of Cricket in India, both on and off the field.

And yet all these achievements are but symptoms - far from inevitable ones, but mere symptoms nevertheless, of something much deeper. Has there been a more epic romance in Indian life in the last 20 years than the one Tendulkar enjoys with his beloved sport? It is this deep love affair, which i think underlies the runs, the results, the astonishing calm and patience, the completeness of his game. Sachin Tendulkar's very being has been completed by this game. Others have loved Cricket, but Tendulkar has claimed greater requital than anyone else. George Washington Carver* once wrote that "Anything will give up its secrets if you love it enough". Tendulkar shares deeper secrets with the game of cricket than most of us will ever know.

What we have seen for twenty years are merely the runs. When Tendulkar decides to stop facing up for India the runs will stop. But the romance will doubtless continue. There will be others who may court this magical game in the future, but will the game be the same when the man leaves?

Until then, watch as carefully and quietly as you can. You may just hear a few whispered words, and not just the crack of wood on leather.

*The quote is from George Washington Carver, a famous African-American botanist, who was once dubbed a "Black Leonardo" by Time Magazine, and not from George Washington the President.

Writing about Tendulkar

On November 15, 1989, Sachin Tendulkar made his Test Match debut for India against Pakistan at Karachi. He batted in his first innings on the second day of that game. India were in trouble at 4/41 replying to a Pakistan score of 409 all out. Twenty years later, that tentative debut bat has blossomed to the tune of nearly 30,000 international runs and 87 international hundreds. Those who write about Cricket have written about the man for most of those twenty years. This milestone presents yet another challenge to writers about cricket - to say something about the most talked about cricketer of all time, that may shed new light on this exceptional phenomenon. Here are a few notable attempts.

India Today (a detailed compilation)