Sunday, April 25, 2010

The game that never was

I write this as i'm watching the IPL Final. I watch as a skeptic and I will write as one. This is not live commentary, and will be available only after it is fully written, and not "live".

If you have a look at the line up of the Mumbai and Chennai IPL teams playing the IPL final, you will find two reasonably high quality outfits. Neither can match a top Test team for quality, but each is probably as good as a full strength first class side. Mumbai probably has the deeper bowling line up - Fernando, Malinga, Zaheer and Harbhajan Singh, while Chennai's two best bowlers are better than any in the Mumbai line up - Muralitharan and Bollinger. This is reversed in the batting. Chennai undoubtedly have the deeper batting line up, while Mumbai have Tendulkar. Chennai has the edge batting wise, while Mumbai probably has the edge (marginally) bowling wise. This means that Chennai should be favored in a big game. The general consensus however, favors Tendulkar.

As i write this the score is 127/3 in 16 overs in the first innings of the game. Chennai batting first. I was watching Zaheer Khan bowl to M S Dhoni and Suresh Raina, and found myself imagining these two line ups playing a 4 day final. It would have probably been the highest quality game played in India outside of a Test Match (and possibly the odd Irani Trophy match). Instead, what we have is a silly comedy of errors. Suresh Raina is playing an iconic T20 innings - chancy, made possible by fielding errors, with some spectacular connections and other near misses. Should Chennai go on to win, Raina's innings will be described in glowing terms, and the Raina-Dhoni stand (currently worth 68 in 5.3 overs, it's now 3/134 in 16.4) a match winning one. After all, this is a grand final, the "big stage".

The problem with T20 is, that there are so many errors forced by the extremely compressed format, that no amount of strategy can mitigate the effect of these errors. Suppose Chennai open the bowling with Muralitharan. Opening the bowling with a spinner is considered to be unorthodox. Muralitharan gets Tendulkar out in the first over, and Chennai go on to win. Will they have won because of the tactical move, or because Suresh Raina got away with as much slogging (and missing) as he did? If you actually think about it, how different is it for a spinner to bowl with a brand new ball as opposed to a ball which is six overs old (it is fairly common for spinners to bowl in the 7th over of a T20 game)? How much of a tactical innovation is it to open the bowling in a T20 game as opposed to an ODI game? In an ODI game a spinner could bowl begin in the 16th or 20th over of an innings and still comfortably finish his 10 overs. When compared with this approach, getting the spinner to bowl with the new ball is an innovation. As i write this, Chennai have opened the bowling with an off-spinner, who is dutifully bowling flat, fast and straight at the left hander Shikhar Dhawan. Compared to this kind of tactical innovation, what is the effect of all the chances that Suresh Raina took?

Here is a format which makes one type of cricketer look like a millionaire. It makes ordinary batsmen become match winners because swinging successfully six times out of 10 can make a huge difference. Of course, there are those who argue about the "science of slogging" etc etc, but the point is, that an attacking stroke is a risk - made exciting precisely because it is a risk - a bold response. Shikhar Dhawan, by the way just got out to a ridiculous waft outside off-stump at Doug Bollinger. He was making room to play it. Instead of his back leg going back and across, his front leg moved towards the leg side as he opened himself up to playing a forcing shot off the back foot. He had no choice. In the world of T20, it wasn't a bad shot, because in the world of T20, a batsman's worth is measured by how long he can hit the ball. In the world of actual cricket, it was a terrible shot.

Just as a square turner makes honest but ordinary spinners like Virender Sehwag and Michael Clarke look like world beaters, and a green, fresh wicket makes ordinary military medium pace bowlers look like Glenn McGrath, T20 makes ordinary batsmen look like Gary Sobers. The converse is also true. A really good spin bowler like Harbhajan Singh or Mutthiah Muralitharan may occasionally struggle on a truly bad square turning dust bowl, because they may turn the ball too far. You've also seen someone like Shane Bond struggle on a green top because he's too good, too quick, beats the bat too easily. The playing conditions - the wicket and the weather are typically taken to be quite important factors in determining the quality of cricket played. The format is just as much if not more of a factor, because the format frames the risk like little else can.

What I'm watching right now is a classic illustration of this last point. Tendulkar is facing Bollinger. Doug Bollinger is probably one of the best fast bowlers in the world right now (39 Test wickets at 23.15, 33 ODI wickets at 21.87, an Asif like beginning) and Tendulkar has played him superbly - properly. The conditions are not unplayable, so you would expect this. Tendulkar is reading the line and length, getting behind the line of the ball, improvising intelligently (not recklessly) by manipulating the line and length with his footwork, without committing fatally to anything. A high quality contest, with both players playing a top quality game. Yet, in the context of this particular match, 20 overs a side, Tendulkar has nothing to show for his skill. Might he have achieved more if he had thrown caution to the wind and consistently aimed pre-meditated scoops, upper-cuts and slogs at Bollinger? Probably. At least some of these would have gone to the boundary. He would probably have missed a few as well, may be even gotten out to one. The result would have been different from 3 not out in 7 balls faced. Could have been 15 out in 7 balls faced. But it would have been ordinary cricket, with the ball flying unintentionally to various parts of the ground.

It is in the rare moments when the batsmen are not completely on top, are swinging and missing, that the sillyness of T20 cricket is on show, for this is the time when the desperation is really made visible. Cricketers are sly beings. It is only in the unrelenting scrutiny of a Test Match contest that an outside edge for four will bring a wry smile on the face of a batsman - some semblance of humility and sheepishness - a honesty of accounting. In a T20 game, if you watch a chinese cut and then look at the batsman, his face will tell you that he meant it. A bowler in a T20 game will celebrate a wicket achieved through a lucky catch off a screaming square cut with the same enthusiasm as a brilliant stumping off a floater. In a Test Match, not so much. There is such a thing as a bad ball. The value that the Test Match places on the account the player gives of himself, the account that it draws from the player, builds great players. Tendulkar has become Tendulkar because of this scrutiny. Because he had to learn to work out a method to survive a full session against Curtly Ambrose on a lively Sabina Park wicket even though he was unable to read Ambrose. He made 12 runs in that session, but he didn't throw it away, and was honest enough to admit that he didn't have a clue. The contest gave him something - the satisfaction of having survived. The contest made it clear to all viewers what was going on - it revealed something about both Tendulkar and Ambrose.

Where are the opportunities in 20 overs for players to give accounts of themselves as cricketers? Are we interested in these accounts? You could argue that this is a very good question. But i think it's a very bad question, because the answer to me is obvious. Yes we are interested in these accounts, because we are interested in the superstars that emerge as a result of these accounts. We are interested in Tendulkar.

This is what you are missing in this IPL final. Muralitharan, Tendulkar, Dhoni, Bollinger, Zaheer, Malinga, Fernando, Harbhajan, Hayden - all top quality players. Players who are being wasted here. You get Muralitharan, but he's there for only 4 overs. 4 fraught overs where he's desperately hoping that some young punk won't connect a slog sweep. Zaheer Khan, so numbed by the mindless slog that he doesn't even look at a batsman after he's mis-hit him to the square-leg boundary. The batsmen have it better. Tendulkar can at least try to play 20 overs, just like Hayden. For high quality middle-order ODI batsmen, this is probably least alien. But what are they playing against? It matters. The quality of these players is known to us because it mattered in the contests they played in.

The IPL is not a cricketing innovation. It is show business masquerading as sport, run by people who don't understand the difference, or are willingly oblivious to the difference. It has the same shallowness of show business. It is the two-minute sound-byte version of cricket. It is cricket in which Suresh Raina bowls a ball half-way down the pitch to Sachin Tendulkar, get square cut to the backward point boundary, and then has a look on his face which says that Tendulkar is really too good. What's more, the commentators tell you that too - "all class" is the typical account at such times, "you can still play properly here". Really? For a short and wide half-tracker, that an ordinary weekend club cricketer would have square-cut for four nine times out of ten? Nobody points out that it was a bad ball of course. People are surprised that Tendulkar didn't try to club it to mid-wicket!

So far, it's been a typical IPL game. Ordinary cricket made inevitable by the straitjacket of the format, masked by the screaming and fawning of sundry commentators and Navjyot Siddhu. Tendulkar's innings so far has been like a subversive antidote - he has played properly. He has improvised without being suicidal. That is unlikely to be enough. He wants to win, and he will be forced into suicidal stroke play at some point. But everytime he improvises, but can't avoid watching the ball right on to the bat, the great man strikes a blow for decency and seriousness, and Sport. Like just now, on the last ball of the 14th over.

And he's out. Even in the stroke that he got out to, there was that tension - the unwillingness to be stupid coming up against the manufactured fierceness of the required run rate. He had the grace to concede honestly that he had made a misjudgment. He obviously did not purposely give that catch. If you think i meant that, you should probably stop reading. But Tendulkar did not made bad batting mistakes. His head didn't fall back, he tried to get to the pitch of the ball, and he took a knowing risk - to clear the long off fielder - tried to hit with the spin. And no, it was not a "chip" as cricinfo's commentator is telling you. It was a supremely well timed drive. The shortness of the follow-through was because it was played slightly inside out, try and play an inside-out drive and get your follow-through over your shoulder and see what I mean. It was just not lofted enough to clear the man. It happens sometimes. As opposed to Raina, who aimed a large number of cross-batted slogs irrespective of whether the ball was there or not, connected a few, miscued a few others into space. Tendulkar was out because he played a very skillful shot even though the bowler saw him coming and adjusted his line. He timed the ball, he middled it, he was well balanced when he played the ball. But circumstances required that he try something suicidal. It's hard for a high quality player like Tendulkar to get used to the idea of committing batting suicide.

In the cricketing economy of 20 over cricket, it is probably better to take a chance than not. And that for me is a problem. Whichever team wins today, did they really win?


  1. Good post.

    You have put across with clarity and eloquence many of the things that trouble and annoy me about the format that I wouldn't have been able to zero in on as well, let alone express.

    Thanks for the ammunition :-)

  2. Dagalti,
    I'm glad you enjoyed it.. do keep visiting.


  3. A couple of points.

    Obviously the fundamental nature of T20 cricket is different from first-class cricket, but it is surely going too far to describe it as not even sport. (You don't say this explicitly, but you almost do.)

    Also, the use of a spinner in the first over is now quite common - it happened over 20 times this tournament.

    Will they have won because of the tactical move, or because Suresh Raina got away with as much slogging (and missing) as he did?
    How is this different from any other contest? Is a close Test match won because of astute field placement, or an innings in which a batsman was dropped several times, or because of a bad decision by the umpire? Obviously the answer is that every event contributes to the result.

    Undoubtedly luck plays a much larger role the shorter the format (to the point where I think it's silly to have a single final, as opposed to a longer US-style playoff series), but it is always there, in any sport. If everything was a repeatable skill, then the better team would win every game, and that doesn't happen.

  4. I disagree that the T20 format is by enlarge a hit / miss game, if I understand the premise of the article. Condensing the 5-day format to 1-day and further to half-a-day, doesn't essentially mean the same strategies / mind games apply. It did take more than a decade for teams to devise separate strategies for the 1-day format when Australia / Newzealand and England started playing a lot of it in their domestic circuit. A lot changed when South Africa and Srilanka entered the arena, so, that was almost 20 years after the first 1-day game was played. I'd think T20 is probably going to take a few more years to be able to stand on its own.

    I am not saying that the current format is the final answer, but, I do believe this "innovation" is trying to solve a problem. That is to increase viewership. To take cricket to other countries, and, if it requires that it should be packaged in a way they can appreciate, so be it.

    If the true essence of cricket is only clever hour long mindgames to get a batsman out, the 1-day format shouldn't have evolved too.