Tuesday, September 28, 2010

India begin transition year

Australia take on India in the first Test of a short series at Mohali this Friday, marking the beginning of the serious cricket season of 2010-11. In 2001, a "short" series consisted of 3 Tests. Today, if a series consists of three Tests, it is often called a "full" series. India will play three full series (in addition to the 2 Tests against Australia) in the next 12 months, in addition to the World Cup, ODI and T20 games. They host New Zealand for three Tests, tour South Africa for three Tests, and after the World Cup, tour England for 4 Tests next July. This will probably be the last 12 months in which we will see the Tendulkar-Dravid-Laxman trio playing for India in a Test. I know it's been said before, but unless Rahul Dravid finds a late second wind, much like Tendulkar has in the last 2 years or so, it is hard to see him retain his place in the XI.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Of Good Crimes and Bad: A Provocation

Who should a player in a team answer to? To his teammates and to the cause of his team? Or, on stray occasions, to someone who promises to line his pockets in exchange for a little performance on the side? Maybe an occasional run out, maybe an occasional no-ball or a day of horrific catching or an over played out as a maiden. The authorities in Cricket would like us to believe that this is a clear conflict between the pure and righteous sporting contest being tainted by illegal gambling interests. Players who entertain these interests, irrespective of whether it is by "fixing" the outcome of a game, or by having little side games of their own at stray moments, are beyond the pale. If keepers of the cricketing flame have their way, these cricketers are to be seen as devils - who belong far beyond the boundary.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

On the two tied Tests

The 1986 tied Test, it has been argued more than once, is one of the great forgotten Test Matches of all time. The short video in this post is about Umpire Vikram Raju's final decision, which brought the result about. It remains controversial to this day, but I tend to see this the Umpire's way. I think the Umpire was probably right in this instance, even though Maninder seemed to be absolutely sure about the inside edge and Allan Border at silly point suspected it. The grainy pictures are hard to decipher, but it seems to me that Greg Mathews bowled the quicker one and Maninder Singh was trapped plumb in front, his bat came down late on the ball. Whether it came down late enough to miss the ball, or whether it came down just fast enough for the ball to kiss the edge, we will never know. The only disinterested observer thought it missed the ball, and that is the best evidence that we have. While Allan Border suspected the inside edge, the other players around the bat didn't. Their appeal was as spontaneous as Maninder's show of the bat.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Tendulkar the Opener

Ananth Narayanan published a fine method of comparing batsmen and has now done so for comparing bowlers. I won't repeat his description here. I encourage you to follow his argument on his blog at Cricinfo. The gist of it is that the graph is designed so that the furthest spot on the top right hand corner of the graph would represent the most successful batsman.

I have for long felt that a lot of the time, conventional statistics don't do justice to a batsman's performance in both ODI and Test Cricket. For instance, VVS Laxman has, for most of this decade been regarded as being a somewhat lesser than the elite names in the game - those averaging over 50. VVS's career average has always hovered in the early 40s, though this year it has jumped to 47. This is despite the fact that in exactly 100 of his 113 Tests, VVS has batted in the middle order, and averages 50.6. This fact would show him in a different light, than a 43 average would. In the 2000s (Jan 2000 - December 2009), VVS made 6074 runs in 90 Tests in the middle order at an average of 50. Yet, at the end of the last decade, VVS's career average stood at 45.5. How much difference do you think those 5 runs make to how VVS was seen? How fair was that, given the fact that VVS never claimed to be a great opening batsman?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Gavaskar the ODI Batsman

One broadly held view about Sunil Gavaskar is that he was an ordinary ODI batsman. Technique, patience, concentration and cussedness marked his play, not strokeplay. It's one of those self-perpetuating myths, and Gavaskar's solitary limited overs century (compared to his 34 Test hundreds) is usually the first bit of evidence offered, followed closely by his horrendous 36 not out in a 60 over game against England in the 1975 World Cup. The latter is used with great glee by the large number of Indian cricket fans who hated Gavaskar and other Bombay players purely because they were from Bombay and tended to hammer most of the domestic opposition most of the time. It led cricket fans (and even some cricketers) from smaller towns and lesser cricket centres to blame Bombay cricketers of being in a parochial clique! Gavaskar being an ordinary ODI cricketer is a dominant part of the narrative about Sunil Gavaskar in India, in much the same way that Nehru's many "faults" (his alleged affair with Lady Mountbatten, his peculiar brand of socialism, his idea of non-alignment) have led to independent India's greatest and most important statesman being the subject of endless abuse, especially from the urban middle class. My comparison of Gavaskar and Nehru is of course somewhat absurd, and so I make it only very narrowly by speculating that the facts have never gotten in the way of second-hand, self-perpetuating perception about these two men. My interest here is of course Gavaskar.

Gavaskar was probably one of the most accomplished strokemakers of his time. A prolific player of strokes all round the wicket, including the hook (an especially amazing achievement given that he had had almost no opportunity to practice it in his formative years), Gavaskar chose to abandon many of these strokes in the mid seventies in the interests of consistency, because, as he saw it, India needed that solidity at the top of the batting order. The results were spectacular. From the beginning of 1975 to the end of the 1979-80 season, Gavaskar played 82 Test innings (in 46 Tests) and made 4601 runs at 59, with 18 centuries and 19 fifties. He averaged 54 in India, 65 abroad, and 68 in the 4th innings.

He began to see his batting differently in 1980. He felt he could play more strokes now, given the new found solidity in the Indian middle order. Gundappa Vishwanath had been joined by other solid performers like Dilip Vengsarkar and Mohinder Amarnath. The signs were clear in the BCCI Jubilee Test at Bombay against England (this was Botham's Test, he took 10 wickets and scored a century), Gavaskar hit Peter Lever over long-on for six in the first over of the Indian innings. He played county cricket in Somerset in the 1980 season and did better in the limited overs tournaments than he did in the County Championship, and technical problems began to creep into his batting. He went through a rough patch in Australia in 1980-81 and in West Indies in 1982-83. In between he had a reasonably good series at home against England, but couldn't repeat his run scoring in England in 1982, a series which ended for him early in the final (3rd) Test with a broken ankle thanks to an Ian Botham sweepshot at short leg. But the belligerence continued, and Gavaskar's 29th Test hundred came at the Ferozshah Kotla in Delhi against West Indies in only 94 balls.

Gavaskar's record in ODI cricket is a peculiar one, because even though he played ODI cricket for 13 years, from 1974 to 1987, India did not take that format seriously until the early 1980s. Indeed, of the 103 ODI games that Gavaskar played, 56 came after 1984. Of his 3092 ODI runs, 1954 came from 1985 onwards. In the 56 ODI games that Gavaskar played since the beginning of 1985, he made 1 century and 20 half centuries and averaged 45, with a strike rate of 66. The next best Indian batsman in this period was Dilip Vengsarkar who averaged 40. No other Indian bat did better than 35.

Sunil Gavaskar was the mainstay of the Indian limited overs batting line up in it's first truly successful phase - from the World Championship of Cricket in Australia in 1985 to the end of the 1987 World Cup. One of the great ironies is that Krishnamachari Srikanth, who was considered to be amongst the most belligerent ODI batsmen in the game at the time (this was a fondly held view in India), averaged 28, and managed a strike rate of only 75! Kapil Dev did much better, averaging 30 and striking at 105. In fact, in that period, from the start of the World Championship of Cricket which India won in Australia, to the end of the 1987 World Cup which Australia won in India, only 7 batsmen averaged more than 40, and only 5 did better than 45 (min 1000 runs, 21 batsmen achieved this during this period). This list includes all the usual suspects - Richards, Miandad, Gooch, Gavaskar, Vengsarkar, Desmond Haynes and Dean Jones.

So for more than half his career as an ODI batsman (and over 2/3rds of the runs he scored), Sunil Gavaskar was one of the top ODI batsmen in the World.

Andrew Flintoff Retires

The reaction to Andrew Flintoff's announcement of his retirement from cricket has been mixed. Some writers have noted the crass timing of Flintoff's announcement, coming as it does on the day that the English County Championship was still being decided on the final day of the season. Andrew Miller at Cricinfo goes so far as to observe that this was just another episode in Andrew Flintoff's tendency to milk his one undeniably great series performance - the 2005 Ashes. I have mixed feelings about these kinds of things. Reading excessively into what may well be a coincidence is unseemly, especially when it is a player's retirement that is at issue. Besides, is not the final day of the cricket season an appropriate time to announce retirement?

Andrew Flintoff was a fine cricketer. At his best, a brilliant, hostile bowler and destructive, clean striking batsman. The tragedy, as Andrew Miller points out, is that Flintoff was at his best for barely 3 out of the 11 years that Flintoff played for England. I think Miller is harsh on Flintoff's post 2005 career, but his point is well taken because the facts, cricket wise, are on Miller's side. The disastrous 2006-07 Ashes in Australia, when Flintoff took 11 wickets at 43 and made 254 runs at 28 in a 5-0 thrashing was possibly his last chance to make up for his ordinary early years and enter the elite group of the truly great players. Had Flintoff won those Ashes for England, he would have finished as an all-time great England cricketer irrespective of his career record.

As it happens, Flintoff finishes just shy of greatness. In many ways, his end, like his career has been one of uncertainty - an uncertainty enhanced by glimpses that promised Bothamesque virtuosity.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The all-time Indian XI

Cricinfo has published one. It is a fine team, and one that I agree with almost entirely. Apart from the great personnel, it has the added virtue of being very well balanced. The only criticism would be the absence of a third seam bowler. In batting order, it is as follows

Gavaskar, Sehwag, Dravid, Tendulkar, Hazare, Mankad, Kapil, Dhoni, Kumble, Srinath and Prasanna

Bedi would almost certainly have made it had Mankad not been available to bowl slow left arm. I'm sure this will be very controversial, but I would argue that Ravi Shastri is only marginally behind Mankad as a spin bowling all-rounder. Like Kumble, Shastri made himself the best cricketer he could be, and like Mankad batted in a number of positions in the batting order. Were it not for Mankad's massive influence on Indian cricket after World War II as an all round cricketer, and then as a professional cricketer and coach, and were it not for the deeply held contempt for Shastri the cricketer amongst the yuppie Indian cricket watchers, it would be a much more close run thing. Mankad was the better bowler, but Shastri was the better batsman. But Mankad was bestowed with greatness, while Shastri wasn't, despite having an overall record that compares on marginally better than Shastri. Geniuses like Vishwanath and VVS Laxman don't find a spot in this side either.

Two years from now, I predict that Zaheer Khan will have done enough to to take Javagal Srinath's spot in this XI. In my view he has already done enough, especially  since 2006, bowling India to series victories in England and New Zealand, something Srinath never achieved. But Srinath was very highly rated, especially in the late 1990s, notwithstanding ridiculous stereotypes about being a "vegetarian" fast bowler. He has a better career record compared to Zaheer, and probably always will, because Zaheer was a terrible fast bowler in Tests from about 2001-2006. I would argue that from 2007-2010, Zaheer Khan has bowled well enough to be considered the best Indian fast bowler of all time after Kapil Dev.

It is a measure of India's performance in the last 10 years or so that six players in the all time XI have played for most of most if not all of those 10 years. The current Indian side is the strongest India side of all time.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A response to Comments

I started composing a comment in response to the excellent discussion (a lesson for anonymous) that David, Mahek and Sridhar have been having in the comments to my somewhat mischievous post about Tendulkar's batting and batting in general in the T20 genre, but then felt it was better written as a post. I find the T20 format to be extremely contrived and boring. The comparison between baseball and T20 cricket is interesting and I offer some thoughts about this.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Tendulkar makes me tune in to T20 Cricket

I should have known better. I was watching England play Pakistan, but tuned in to watch Tendulkar open the batting for that ghastly team he leads from the Indian Premier League (Mumbai Indians... really?). Here's what T20 cricket does to a player, even someone like Tendulkar.

First ball of the second over, Sachin Tendulkar was facing a bowler named Ian O'Reilly, someone who he has probably never seen before in his life, and without even having a look at him walked right across his stumps to a perfectly reasonable straight delivery. It was an outrageous ploy. I have rarely witnessed a greater show of contempt for the bowler or bowling in general. He was out plumb LBW, but Tendulkar's mediocre batting was bettered (if you will) only by Ashoka de Silva ('Ashocker' as he is sometimes called by disgruntled observers), who inexplicably ruled him not out. The umpire probably thought that if someone like Tendulkar plays a ball to leg, it's probably going down the leg side. Alternatively, he may have thought that Tendulkar got outside the line of off-stump. He was wrong on both counts. If Tendulkar played like this in a Test Match, he would probably be dropped for the next game! It's a measure of his contempt for the format that is willing to play like this.

Mukesh Ambani looked on from the stands. Ambani is Tendulkar's "owner". He paid millions of dollars to watch Tendulkar play like this, and is probably going to make millions of dollars irrespective of how Tendulkar plays.

Tendulkar may go on to make runs in this short innings, and he may blast the bowling around like he's having a net, but it's not really cricket.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Sunil Gavaskar, Melbourne 1981

In 1981, Sunil Gavaskar almost conceded a Test at Melbourne (a game that India eventually won) in an apparent fit of anger, that has subsequently become Exhibit A in the Case against Sunil Gavaskar. I wrote about this incident once before. I revisit it here in the light of Devendra Prabhudesai's biography of Sunil Gavaskar.

This episode at Melbourne in 1981, and this series in general has fascinated me endlessly. Sunil Gavaskar led India to it's greatest overseas Test performance (in my view) at Melbourne in 1981. This is a strangely underrated series, considering the opposition - Greg Chappell, Kim Hughes, Allan Border, Doug Walters, Rodney Marsh and Dennis Lillee, all of them among the most important names in Australian Test Match history. The team included three Australian captains, one of their best post war batsmen - Walters, who was especially successful in Australia, their greatest ever fast bowler and one of their most celebrated wicketkeepers. India have won series overseas in New Zealand in 1967-68 and 2008-09, in England in 1971, 1986 and 2007, in Pakistan in 2003-04, in West Indies in 1970-71 and 2005-06, but they've never won a series in Australia or South Africa. People often talk about Gavaskar's 13 Test hundreds against the West Indies, but they rarely mention his 3 centuries in Australia against Jeff Thomson (he made a 4th against a Queensland side including Jeff Thomson in 1980-81). Thommo had suffered a horrific injury against Pakistan in 1976-77 (in Australia), but by his own account in his autobiography returned from that injury bowling at least as fast as he used to before, if not faster. His figures in the period after the injury (1977-1983) are pretty much the same as his figures prior to his injury. 1977-78 was a series overshadowed by the Packer episode.

The series result for India in 1980-81, a 1-1 tie, was especially astonishing, given the unusual tactical plan concieved by Gavaskar. For an Indian captain, in 1981, to rely on seam and not spin as his primary weapon, is quite brilliant. Gavaskar played defensively in the second Test at Adelaide, after India had lost the first, purely because he felt that India would have a chance at Melbourne, with Karsan Ghavri and Kapil Dev sharing the new ball, supported by Dilip Doshi. India survived by the skin of their teeth. And so it proved.

This incident, which occured in the Indian second innings at Melbourne, is usually explained as Gavaskar losing his temper, because he had finally made a few runs against Dennis Lillee. The incident is accompanied by some of the finest, most gracious commentary you will ever hear, from Bill Lawry. That Rex Whitehead was a terribly incompetent Umpire is fairly clear. He stood in only 4 Test Matches and 14 ODIs in his career as an international umpires (three of them in that series against India in addition to the Melbourne Test of the 1982-83 Ashes, which England won by 3 runs). Whitehead also umpired only 15 First Class Matches in his career.

The Umpire's incompetence is no excuse for Gavaskar's behavior. This is the accepted view, one which Gavaskar himself agrees with. He has said more than once that he considered his own behavior unforgivable. But it has always fascinated me. What drove a proud man, with iron discipline, so much self-discipline, that he successfully put away a number of attacking strokes in cold storage between 1975 and 1980, simply because his team needed him (Gavaskar average 59 with the bat between 1975 and 1980, made 18 Test hundreds and 35 50+ scores in 47 Tests - 82 innings, average 65 Away from home and more than 50 against all 5 Teams he played against), and a fanatical devotion to cricket, to snap like that? And what does it tell us about him?

Some perspective on the decision should help. This was a particularly acrimonious series, in which India were accused of performing like "second-raters" by Ian Chappell (Times Of India, 1981), who went on to say that "there is no need [for Australia] to be a provider of gifts to every cricketing country that comes begging at our doorstep". This was particularly rich, since it was India which had virtually saved Test Cricket in Australia by touring in 1977-78 with the Australian Cricket Broad was severely challenged by Kerry Packer. Rex Whitehead remained a sticking point, and the Australians didn't help either. Lots of great achievements got sidelined in the acrimony. Dennis Lillee went past Richie Benaud's aggregate of 248 Test wickets at Melbourne, India won a Test Match after conceding a lead of 182, despite having two spinners - Doshi and Shivlal Yadav, bowling with a broken toe, and the leader of the attack, Kapil Dev reduced to batting with a runner thanks to a calf muscle injury.

Richie Benaud believed that Gavaskar got an inside edge according to Prabhudesai. Gavaskar's biographer also reveals that Syed Kirmani almost walked off earlier in the game after Shivlal Yadav had bowled Allan Border round his legs, only for Rex Whitehead to consult his square leg umpire to find out whether Kirmani had broken the stumps with his gloves. This was after India had already claimed the dismissal! Prabhudesai writes about Gavaskar's actions
"He had completed about one-fourth of the walk back to the pavilion when his ears were alerted to an association drawn by one of the Australians between him and a part of the female anatomy. It was then that Kirmani's walk-out threat of the previous day flashed across his mind. Something snapped."
Dennis Lillee has been on the record suggesting that Gavaskar lost it because he had not scored runs against Lillee until that point. Here is where something essential about Gavaskar's character and temperament is revealed. Lillee was right. According to Prabhudesai, Gavaskar was desperate to score runs against Dennis Lillee and his lean patch in that series up to that point had been eating away at him. Gavaskar also knew that he might never get another chance to play against Lillee. He had finally crossed 50 against Lillee on a terrible wicket, and Whitehead's erroneous decision was too much for him to take.

The more I think about it, the more I think that this Melbourne episode was amongst Sunil Gavaskar's greatest moments (maybe not his happiest) as a Test Cricketer. It bared him to the cricket watching public as a desperate competitor of the highest quality. Lillee's disgraceful behavior is often forgotten in this episode, but then, this is precisely the sort of superiority that Gavaskar was foremost in fighting. He made modern Indian cricket and it took all his cussedness and all his brilliance as a batsman and all his pride in wearing the India cap to do so. At Melbourne, it was in full bloom, warts and all. Bill Lawry's immediate comment when Gavaskar began to walk back was to say that "the man who has walked so often in this series, very annoyed with that decision" is worth noting.

Gavaskar wrote about a question he was asked by an Australian reporter after this Test Match (Prabhudesai, SMG, p 255).
I was asked...., 'Now that you have failed in the Tests would you call yourself a great batsman?' Taken aback by the query, because I had never bothered to grade myself, I did manage to ask him why he asked that question. His reply was, 'Since you didn't score on hard, bouncy pitches you cannot be called a great batsman!' 'Fair enough', I said, though I did not care to inform him that on my previous tour of Australia I had three centuries against Jeff Thomson and co. on the same pitches. But I did tell him that if the criterion for a great batsman was to score on hard bouncy pitches, then by the same token, the criterion for a fast bowler to be called great should be him capturing wickets on slow pitches. He agreed with that, but when I queried whether we should then call Dennis Lillee a great fast bowler because he had just taken a couple of wickets on the slow pitches of Pakistan, he said, 'No, Dennis is an all-time great fast bowler. That was just a bad series for him'!
Sunil Gavaskar, The Sportstar, 9 February 2002
This is why Sunil Gavaskar was essential. Why the modern Indian Cricket team would have been impossible without him. Why he remains the greatest Indian Cricketer ever.

A couple of examples of Dennis Lillee's general attitude to things

Possibly the only instance of a player being kicked by another player on an international cricket field:

Fighting the great injustice of not being allowed to use the alluminium bat by flinging that very bat wildly:

Monday, September 06, 2010

Age matters

I hope Haroon Lorgat's view prevails. To say that age or experience does not matter when determing guilt is stupid. It would not hold up in any court of law, but what's more, it is a cruel, evangelical, ahistorical view of justice and penalty. In my view, no further argument is required. I can see why someone in the Pakistan non-playing staff would want to take such an insanely hardline view, and I hope it is evidence not of continued petulance and defiance from the multi-mouthed Pakistani cricket establishment, but of an acceptance of the fact that they need to get their house in order. To do so by making harsh examples of a few players is to take the short-sighted short-cut. One which is doomed to failure. Pakistan are going to need to invest in a young team and a committed team management for a longish period of time, bring some stability to the team by giving a captain a longish run, and let things heal through good honest cricket. Being a wandering side is not easy, and some stability in management and selection will help.

Age matters in all things, be it crime, justice or success. To believe otherwise, is to deny the possibility of History and put ones faith in miracles. This is typically not a winning strategy.

On Devendra Prabhudesai's biography of SMG

Devendra Prabhudesai's biography of Sunil Gavaskar (SMG: A Biography of Sunil Manohar Gavaskar, Rupa & Co., 2009) is a wonderful book. A literary critic could produce an insightful essay comparing Prabhudesai's work on Gavaskar with Purandare's work on Tendulkar (Sachin Tendulkar: A definitive Biography, Roli Books, 2005). The latter seemed to me to be rather hagiographic, albeit rich in detail. The amazing thing about Prabhudesai's work on Gavaskar, is that even though many of the stories and episodes in Gavaskar's long career have been discussed in print before by Gavaskar, his contemporaries and their commentators, Prabhudesai is able to turn the narrative into something greater than the sum of the individual stories.

Friday, September 03, 2010

How much power should the ICC have?

This is the central question in the politics of cricket at the moment, thanks to episodes like the failed nomination of John Howard (formerly Prime Minister of Australia), spot-fixing and UDRS. It has always been something of a foundational question, given that Cricket is a truly international sport - nation states (or a confederation in the case of West Indies) compete against each other, with the International Cricket Council being the umbrella body constituted by the participant national boards.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

4th innings bowling

Anantha Narayanan has post on Cricinfo's stats blog about 4th innings bowling performances in Tests. Mr. Narayanan uses some statistical criteria (quality of opposition, quality of wickets, runs scoring in the match on the whole, just to name a few) to detemine this list. Do have a detailed look at this post and others on Mr. Narayanan's blog. The comments section of this blog is probably the finest comments section i have seen on any blog. Mr. Narayanan takes the trouble to respond to each individual post, making his moderation of the comments not just a matter of accepting or rejecting comments. I enjoy reading his posts and have have commented on these posts occasionally.

In the comments section, Mr. Narayanan acknowledges a performance which he missed in his original list. Bobby Peel's 6/67 in the Sydney Test of 1894, which England won after following on. It's an astonishing end to a high scoring game, where Australia made 586 and England made 437 following on after being bowled out for 325 in their first innings. Australia collapse from 113/2 on the 5th evening to 166 all out when play resumed on the 6th morning. This is, as Mr. Narayanan rightly acknowledges, an astonishing bowling effort. But I doubt whether his statistical model can be properly applied here, because of this important fact revealed in the Wisden Almanack's report of the Test:
At the close of the fifth day 113 had been scored for two wickets, and the match looked all over. Drenching rain in the night, however, followed by bright sunshine, completely altered the condition of the ground, and Peel - well backed up by Briggs - proved so irresistible that the Englishmen gained an astonishing victory by 10 runs.
A statistical model with takes into account the overall bowling average for the match is not properly applicable in this instance. Just some of the perils of statistical analysis.