Monday, July 11, 2011

Dominica Is Baffling

There's been a lot of debate about the draw in Dominica. Siddharth Vaidyanathan has this compelling blow by blow account of the afternoon's play. The Cricket Couch argues that a win and a defeat were both equally minimally probable, while the draw loomed as a near certainty. Dileep Premachandran offers some perspective in the Guardian and reminds us that this was not the full Indian side. Andy Zaltzmann makes the pedestrian but essential argument about a problem with teams having the choice of calling off games. Samir Chopra argues that "true champions" show "the desire and the ability to respond to challenges, to find a way to transcend limitations and rise to the top of the game". I must confess that I have no idea what this platitude means. Neither do I understand the business about "guardians of Test Cricket" at the end. To me, it sounds like "I don't care about anything. I didn't see them go out swinging, so they are crap". It is nonsense, couched in acceptable language.



The Cricket Couch makes a point about the players character coming into question all too readily. This is worth thinking about for a moment. The standard defense here, is that it happened in the heat of the moment. For example Mohan Krishnamoorthy takes up the cause of the World's Number One Cricket Fans. It is not at all my intention to pick on Mohan here. I've made this argument before using another example. Comments like "Why offer a draw? Only losers decide to withdraw from a fight...", or  "Conservative is ok. I can live with that. Lack of Self-belief is what pisses me off! ", or "It doesn't matter. The idea would have been to play positive. Attitude is what matters to me". or "Expect major pwnage by the English media. But let's face it. A #1 team played with tail between legs." or "If they werent going 4 a win, why promote Raina? And what changed that mindset when he got out? Rabbits. Headlights.", or "To me HOW you play is more imp than winning. And finally, India showed little respect to the fans that were there", are fairly typical of this type of pseudo-critical observer. Whichever way you cut it, these are damning off-the-shelf character judgments, which, by definition, are only marginally concerned with any actual events. Hence, a team that decides to call off a run chase that has become improbable in the last hour of the fifth day of their third Test in as many weeks are "losers", with "tail between legs", rabbits caught in the headlights, have the wrong attitude, are disrespectful of the fans at the ground, and lack self-belief. This, about a team that is undefeated in Test series under its present captain. This, about a second string team. This, about a team that is by any standard, very successful. How these conclusions (which are professional as well as personal character judgments) are reached by watching cricket on TV, is beyond me. I must confess that I lack the eyes that see things like this.

It has nothing to do with seeing things in black and white. Neither does it have anything to do with being upset, as Mohan suggests when he accepts The Cricket Couch's argument. Implicit in that little segment is the essence of the Mohanesque view (which is fairly widespread) of being a Cricket Fan and supporting India's Cricket team. That fans get upset and say things which they don't mean. It is a more than a little ironic then, that he is so touchy about things being said in a "seriously acceptable and emotional manner". Also, is he then suggesting that people who watched and were baffled or could see some merit in India's decision, but didn't see the same character flaws that he did, are somehow colder, more distant, disinterested, less passionate observers? Because there is no equivalence between these two views. They are not created equal.

An impulse to make character judgments on the spur of the moment says nothing about any passionate interest in cricket or even in a particular cricket team. It has nothing to do with being a fan. It is simply a lazy, mediocre unwillingness to be a sporting observer. And it will happen again, the next time India suffer a batting collapse or fail to win. We'll continue to hear the same nonsense about "mindsets" and "attitude" and "courage" (or preening tails that are not between legs!) and "tenacity" and "respect for the fans". We'll continue to have armchair coaches and armchair psychotherapists and armchair motivational speakers who will repeatedly turn cricket into some silly testosterone fueled race. Committed peddlers of grievance are a contagious tribe. They peddle only because they care so much. Social networking has merely turbo charged all the concern.

But enough of this now.

There can be reasonable disagreement about whether or not India should have gone for it with greater abandon at Dominica. Should they have tried to play out another 5-6 overs? Possibly. But I think it is reasonable to defer to their judgment in these matters. They command this much on the basis of their accomplishments.

The draw in Dominica has baffled, because it involved that rare Test Match run chase - a chase against the clock. Samir Chopra offers the Karachi Test of 1978 as an example of a game that was won by a side that wanted to win or something. What he doesn't tell you, and what he could have found out very easily because Cricinfo published a story about this which is linked on the very same page that he linked in his article, is that India's captain, Bishen Singh Bedi was trying, in the words of Karsan Ghavri who played in that game, "to buy wickets, especially that of Imran". Asif Iqbal and Javed Miandad stole a lot of runs from India's fielding (circa 1978-79). Further, the ground and the wicket had been quite fast scoring. India scored at nearly 3 an over in their first innings, while both Pakistan and India scored at about 3.5 in the second and third innings (again, consider the fact that this was 1978, an era in which scoring rates were slower than they are these days). Pakistan also played an attack dominated by fast bowling. Imran Khan, Sarfaraz Nawaz and Sikander Bakht bowled the overwhelming majority of their overs on the final day. What does that suggest about the nature of the wicket? What does the scoring rate in the game suggest about the nature the outfield? I wasn't born when the Karachi Test was played, but I very much doubt that Bedi and Chandrasekhar resorted to bowling outside the leg stump into the rough or anything of the sort. Karsan Ghavri is probably wrong when he says that Pakistan never intended to go for the win (see Wisden's Match Report), but many other factors were involved in the success of that run chase. Besides, a 47 over run chase has to be approached differently from a 24 over run chase.

If stray anecdotes are going to be offered to justify the position that India should gone hell for leather in the 4th innings at Dominica, and that the fact that they didn't do so is some kind of character failing, then do have a look at what follows.

Here's a list of 4th innings run chases of at least 100, sorted by scoring rate. There are some brilliant run chases against the clock. The West Indies chased 173 against India in about 25 overs at Sabina Park in 1983. This run chase by England at Port Elizabeth in 1949 is even more exciting. It was a 4 day Test with 8 ball overs, and England reached 174/7 in a run chase, which, even with those overrates (365 8 ball overs were bowled in 4 days), lasted less than 24 8 ball overs. England chased down 125 against India in 59 minutes and 20 mandatory overs (a total of about 35 overs) on a "fast ground" according to Wisden, who described England's ask as a "simple task", with 8.2 overs to spare. Australia won a remarkable victory at Adelaide in the 2006-07 Ashes, a victory made possible by England having being bowled out for 129 in the third innings in 73 overs. The target there was 168 in 36 overs. Australia won with their normal batting order - Hayden, Langer, Ponting, Hussey, Martyn and Clarke. India chased down 190 in 47 overs (target achieved in 37) against Zimbabwe at Delhi in 2000. Rahul Dravid was not out 70 in 91 balls in the end. Richie Benaud's Australians chased down 122 in just under 2 hours at Lahore in 1959. Benaud promoted himself to number 5 to ensure the run chase. Ricky Ponting's Australians were set 287 in 76 overs by Graeme Smith on the final day of the series in 2006, in a desperate attempt to restore parity in the series. Smith was trying to win the game, and hence had no opportunity to kill the run chase when it became clear that he wouldn't take 10 wickets. South Africa won an exciting victory by 3 wickets with 3 minutes to spare against England at Old Trafford in 1955. They were 0-2 down in the series. That Wisden Match Report is worth a read. England successfully chased 209 in the final two sessions against Bangladesh at Mirpur in 2010. They also chased down 163 in the final two sessions of the match at Lord's a few months later. Australia made 198/3 at over four and a half to the over to beat South Africa in a timeless match at Sydney in 1911. In another timeless match at the Sydney Cricket Ground in 1898, Australia raced to 276/4 at over four and a half to the over against England. It was a dead rubber and the hosts had already won the Ashes 3-1! Pakistan chased down 117 against the clock at Lahore against New Zealand in 1955. England won an exciting victory in the final Test at Karachi 2001, when they chased down 176 in 44 overs to break a 0-0 deadlock. The victory came in near darkness. The Wisden Match Report has plenty of details about Moin Khan's desperate delaying tactics. The 40 odd overs apparently took nearly 4 full hours to bowl! On one famous occasion at Port Of Spain, Trinidad, Gary Sobers declared the West Indies 2nd innings closed at 92/2 on the 5th day in an effort to break a deadlocked series, leaving England 215 in 165 minutes, despite missing Wes Hall, and then Charlie Griffith due to injury. He was burned in effigy after that game. West Indies won a great series levelling victory in the final Test at Adelaide in 1982, chasing 236 in four and a half hours.

India were set 180 in 47 overs, at 3.82 runs per over, and as the above examples, which are taken from the 69 total occasions on which a total of at least 100 runs has been chased down at 3.82 runs per over or faster, show, there is something far richer and more complicated than simplistic nonsense about "champion teams" at work here. Some fairly modest teams have chased down these totals. The substantial majority of fast run chases did not occur against the clock. I count only 7 chases in the 180 range and above that could be said to be against the clock, and each of these demand their own narratives. There are series situations, playing conditions, quality of the opposition, the approach of the opposition and many other factors.

India have themselves chased down larger totals at least as fast, when the clock was not at issue, thrice in the last three years. They chased 387 against England at 3.92 per over at Chennai in 2008, 207 against Australia at 4.6 an over at Bangalore in 2010, and 258 against Sri Lanka at 3.76 an over at Colombo in 2010. Then there was the chase at Mohali in 2010, the one at Delhi against Pakistan in 2007, the one at Kandy in 2001 and the one at Adelaide in 2003. This is not a record that suggests that this side repeatedly falls short of greatness. Rahul Dravid played in all those run chases, and VVS played in most of them. If they agreed that the one at Dominica was beyond reach, then I'll at least take their judgment very seriously.

As for the World's Number One Cricket Fans and their fellow arbiters of Champion Status, do I need to tell them where they can go? This is probably not an acceptable suggestion. But I find the casual character judgments, couched as they are in posh language, and based as they are on absolutely zilch, to be far more substantially and seriously offensive.

Until next time....

5 comments:

  1. You should have published this before the 5th day. In which case Dhoni would have called off the chase when WI were all out.

    You miss the point. Or the one I think is more relevant than what you and the posts you mention talk about.

    And that point is, can Test cricket afford to give teams an option of "walking off"?

    Whatever numbers you dig up to defend India, the truth is two great Indian batsmen "walked off" in bright sunshine and millions of expectant viewers across the globe were left unconvinced.

    I think people are entitled to criticize India, because essentially they are also questioning the rules in test cricket that allow India and West Indies; to do what they did

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  2. Brilliant article.

    It does get irritating when all these internet fans assassinate Indian team's character. The memory is so short that his was same captain who made a bold declaration in last Test.

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  3. I hear a lot of talk about 'guardians of cricket' 'the Aussies would never have done this' and other such illinformed, misguided comments.
    I reckon that India has in fact turned out to be much better 'guardians of cricket' than they are being given credit for.
    For example look at the vituperative outpourings in response to 5 of the first team not making it to WI. People who spout such ridiculous talk no doubt want India to be 'like the Aussies', send their best squad, crush WI 3-0 and 'make a statement'.
    Look at what India did, the first team stalwarts correctly judged that this was a task well within the capability of their replacements and opted to rest and thereby gave a chance to the youngsters. The newbies got a taste of Test cricket, playing on bowler friendly wickets and eventually ended up winning in ALL THREE forms of the game! I would rather take this 101 days out of a 100 than have the full strength team tour WI, decimate WI 3-0 and allow supporters to indulge in some ritual chest thumping about how 'ruthless' the team is and how they now have the 'killer instinct'.
    The seniors action in resting has served India's, WI and indeed Test crickets cause better. This has played a big part in providing a competitive series.
    I just don't understand some of the so called fans. When Aus used to send their first team to most countries and thrash the teams in the Tests these worthies would moan that they would like to see a contest. The result of the Aussie bloodlust for winning Test matches was that the team is in the doldrums for not having given youngsters a chance and merely concentrating on playing for records by hammering weak teams, using a sledge hammer to crack a nut so to speak.
    And here we have the Indian team resting the seniors, giving the youngsters a chance, winning in ALL THREE FORMS of the game and yet are being castigated thoughtlessly! Mind boggling.......

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  4. Neville FernandesJuly 12, 2011 6:49 AM

    I followed the match through Cricinfo's live scoreboard online. Which means i did not see any live footage or had any clue about how easy/hard it was to score runs. My sense was that it was not a pitch where you took a chance to try to win the game if you did not have enough time. I don't think the Indian team is made up of heroes. They are admirable men who have learnt to work as a team and the team has been winning games. In my opinion, it was a good tactical decision by the Indian team to not try and win this particular test.
    By the way, this view is after an interesting experience that convinced me that India did the right thing. I thought India started its fourth innings on day four (don't ask me why). So when i saw the target and the time we had,I thought India would easily reach it by the next day. The challenge, then was really for Dravid and Laxman to just not lose any wickets and leave the target to be achieved the next day. To my shock, when i checked the score at 5.15pm, I was surprised to see that it was actually day 5 and the match was drawn. This clearly tells me that the Indian team did the sensible thing. There just wasn't enough time on this pitch to play to win.

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  5. Neville FernandesJuly 12, 2011 9:04 AM

    ...and just because the twenty 20 era has shown how a bunch of runs can be scored in 15 overs, should this influence test cricket?

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