Saturday, February 04, 2012

On Tests of Character

At the end of the 2nd days play at Dubai, Alistair Cook told reporters the following
"We have had our struggles on this tour and it is going to take some serious character from the top six to turn it around. I know we've got the players in there. But there's only so many times you can keep saying that - we're going to have to get out there and do it."
Cricinfo's report, written by George Dobell (a reporter with doubtful understanding of DRS, I'll explain why in a minute) is entitlted "England face test of character - Cook". In a recent story about DRS related problems, Dobell wrote the following: "So is the DRS flawed? Or is the problem with the individuals using it?" - a casual throw away question to end a modest paragraph which conveys only one thing - that Dobell does not have a clue about the DRS. The DRS is the "individuals using it", just as it is the technologies in it, and just as it is the relationship between the individuals and the technology using it.



But back to Cook and character. My suspicion is that this collection of words - "test of character" is a peculiar concoction cooked up in the word production complex that is the post play press conference.

What does it mean when Cook says that the rest of the Dubai Test will be a test of character of England's batsmen? What if England's batsmen fail? Does that mean they lack character? Or does it mean that they possess a bad character? Or does it simply mean that they will have shown themselves to be unable to bat well against good spin bowling? Why is it a test of character?

The phrase is very popular though. A quick search on google for the phrase "test of character" on espncricinfo.com returns over 1400 results. Everybody from Rahul Dravid to Mahela Jayawardene to Alistair Cook to David Lloyd seems to love the phrase.

In its most defensible form, I suspect it is short hand - a key phrase - to a complicated combination of things which can be roughly described as follows: Do you have the cricketing ability to play successfully against this opposition in these conditions? Do you have the concentration to perform what you know long enough to succeed? And finally, have you prepared well enough to be at your best when it matters - during the game?

At some point, this got turned on its head - 'character' came to be seen in results, not in the work that players demonstrate on and off the field. So, Rahul Dravid, who kept getting bowled, failed his test of character (I'm paraphrasing, and Siddhartha Vaidyanathan won't like that, but I hope he sees why it is fair). In that essay, Siddhartha asks us to set all cricket related inquiry aside, and tells us that something else (which he refuses to name in general) has gone missing. Others, he says, have called it "desire". He does say what he missed - Ganguly's "ballsiness", Laxman's "steely side", the Tendulkar avatar that shelves shots, Dravid's "over-my-dead-body efforts on a spiked pitch". Yet, Dravid took 88 deliveries per dismissal in Australia.

I was amazed by this, because I saw all of these things during the tour. They were there. The reason I say that "character" has come to be seen in results, and not in what the players actually do, is precisely because of observations like the ones in the previous paragraph. Would Ganguly have been "ballsy" if he had gotten out for 44 instead of 144 at Melbourne? Would Dravid have embodied the "over-my-dead-body" efforts if he had made 83 instead of 233 at Adelaide?

Will England's batsmen demonstrate a lack of character if they get bowled out for less than whatever they set set in the 4th innings at Dubai?

It is one thing for Alistair Cook to completely ignore the fact that there is another team playing and effectively say that the outcome of the Test depends on England's ability to show "serious character". But it is quite another for Siddhartha Vaidyanathan, who has followed India for 2 decades, and traveled widely with the team for many of those years, to totally ignore the fact that there was another team playing in the game.

For example, can he ignore the fact that in 2003-04, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne were unavailable, and that Brett Lee, Jason Gillespie, Andy Bichel and Brad Williams were all injured at some point during a Test Match in that series?

I saw plenty of "grit" or "character" or "desire" or "intent" (call it whatever you want) from India in Australia. What I also saw was declining ability. I also saw some amazing cricket from Australia.

Lets agree, for the sake of argument, the both Ishant Sharma and Peter Siddle are tremendously fit, and can bowl long spells, at least fitness wise. But when Siddle comes in at the end of the day and throws every last ounce of his strength into a spell, he produces the same immaculate line and length at greater pace. When Ishant Sharma does it, he loses his line and length - he can't even bowl to his field. There's plenty of grit and determination in both cases, but in Siddle's case, there is exceptional ability and preparation. Whats more, the Ishant Sharma of 2008 was better prepared and more capable of bowling accurately for long periods of time than the Ishant Sharma of 2011. Remember Virender Sehwag's famous suggestion to Anil Kumble - that Ishant was used to bowling long spells for Delhi, and hence could easily bowler an extra over. The Ishant of 2011 is less well prepared when it comes to bowling long spells than the Ishant of 2008.

After all, why did Siddhartha Vaidyanathan write that piece? It was an anguished response from a great fan to a bad set of results by his beloved team. I share that anguish. What I don't share is the frankly ass-backwards obsession with the quality that shall not be named, but be referred to by many names, most memorably - "bouncebackability" (itself discernible only by results - after all, how can one know when someone has bounced back, other than after they have done so?).

You may well ask at this point - do I see Cricket mechanically? Do I not see the poetry of grit or determination or what-have-you in cricket? Of course I do. I saw it in Peter Siddle's ferocious spell at the end of Day 2 at Melbourne, a spell in which he dismissed Tendulkar and turned the Test Match. It was a sight that could not but raise your spirits if you are cricket fan. Siddle threw everything into that spell at the end of a long hot day. But such was his mastery, that he rarely bowled a bad ball. There were no square cuts, and no little free-hits to square leg for the batsman to get off strike. Ball after ball after ball, the best batsman in the world was made to defend his off stump. Ball after ball after ball moved one way, the next the other. It was a gritty display - it helped Australia bounce back. It could so easily not have. The ball that dismissed Tendulkar could so easily have been a couple of inches fuller, and caught the inside of Tendulkar's bat, harmlessly hit the pad and died. Siddle would have gone wicketless, India would have ended the day at 214/2, but it wouldn't have made Siddle's spell any worse.

I saw it in Tendulkar and Gambhir, shutting shop, desperate to survive to start the next day's play at Sydney. They scored no runs for an hour. There was Tendulkar in his shot shelving avatar. There was Gambhir battling his (recently acquired) instinct of poking at balls off a length outside off stump, and ignoring everything he could ignore. I saw it in Rahul Dravid, pushing out ball after ball, probably knowing that he was going to be just a little bit late, but never throwing caution to the wind, never trying to hit his way out of trouble. There was grit, plenty of it.

India lost because they did not have the ability to counter Australia's bowling as a team in those conditions, or the ability to counter Australia's batting in those conditions. They did not lose because they didn't try, or because they lacked character.

Similarly, I'm sure Alistair Cook knows that England have been losing because they have been found out technically by Pakistan's spinners - they can't read Ajmal from the hand, and Rehman's nagging accuracy has been bothersome. It is not because they lack "character".

It is not England's "character" which will be tested in the 4th innings at Dubai (as much as it turns the whole thing into a nice human interest story), it is their ability to bat in Test Cricket against spin bowling that will be tested.

What these results show is not the fact that players lack character, but the fact that Test teams are not, by and large, good enough to beat other teams in foreign conditions. Every team is strong at Home, and not so strong Away from home. Nothing illustrates this more than the astonishingly indifferent shot Cook played in England's first innings at Dubai. It was a poke to nothing, away from the body, with no hope of getting any serious runs (may be a single if it went far enough away from point). It was the sort of shot that one would not expect Alistair Cook to play. This is the same Alistair Cook who was leaving the ball so immaculately, even at the end of the day after having batted all day, during his 294 at Birmingham against England.

What matters is concentration, preparation, ability - both to play and to read a game. And in these matters, the margin of error is extremely small in top level Test Cricket. What may not be such a big problem against West Indies, is going to be fatal against Australia or England, especially in Australia or England.

That is the cricketing story. It is amazing what they do to this in the word production complex that is the post play media briefing.

8 comments:

  1. "word production complex" ROTFL..

    Most press conferences are bland.

    I like Dhoni and Sehwag.. Also Ashwin..these guys speak their minds.

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    Replies
    1. Excellent post, bringing a lot of much-needed perspective to the agonized (and sometimes over-the-top) reactions to the Indian team's performance in Australia (and England)

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  2. After reading your comments in that Sidvee post, I knew you would come up with one like this. But Karthikeya, you cannot just ignore the "intangible" qualities mentioned by him. And just like "talent" and "skill", some sportsmen have it in them naturally and some of them acquire them through experience. Not everbody have it in them. When things are going your way "concentration, preparation, ability" would certainly help. But when the going gets tough (Perth), when we knew that we would be losing the series, I expected a fightback. But what we saw was a surrender.

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  3. And what is the classic example of this bouncebackability? They say the 2001 kolkatta innings by RD and VVS. So people have come to expect that sort of innings every time when India is put to follow-on particularly when dravid or VVs walks in to bat. For me the mathematical probability of producing such an innings is so low it is even irrational to expect that to happen again. What we have easily forgotten in the 2001 is the fact that Aus were so good to put us on follow-on on our own backyard and an improbable once in a life time event occured to save India. But that cannot be a benchmark to assess the team and player's characters so to speak.

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  4. Perfectly written. Agreed with you when you had commented on Sidvee's post and do so again. It is very hard for us to judge character and fight from the outside and pass a judgement.
    However, in another context, can we sit from outside and pass a judgement that players making big money in the IPL will not have the motivation to try and do well in test cricket ? Can we say with any degree of certainty that the financial side of IPL is what will prevent India from having a good test team in the future ? Or is it because the players in question are not good enough ? I bring this point based on the conversation I had with you on twitter yesterday. Thanks.

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  5. There is some reason to believe that will be the case. The point is not about choices players will make once they get IPL contract, the point is about how new players will be developed in their formative years.

    A First Class player or a Test player takes about 10-12 years to develop. Already, we're seeing reports of coaches being asked to develop pinch hitting skills at an early age and not basic defensive technique. Aakash Chopra wrote about this a couple of months ago.

    If the IPL is worth so much money, why would anyone work towards being a Test player? The pool of players trying to be Test players is likely to shrink, the quality of FC cricket is likely to go down even further.

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  6. Very well put KD.

    Remember having a twitter conversation with and Homer a long while back. Even then, we discussed how judging any players' intent and effort is way too complex. I did read Sidvee's article on bouncebackability and though like him, I too wanted results, but it was clear that we were less able to adapt to conditions and hence lost badly.

    It sure is the test of ability and not "character" as players put it. But if captains come to post-day media conferences and say it will test their ability, it would not give the best signal to the team. They probably like to believe that they already have the ability and put it done as test of "character". Of course, I am just guessing here but this seems like a possible explanation.

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