Friday, March 16, 2012

On (Personal) Milestones

It is a divide as old as the game itself. It is best encapsulated by this tweet that appeared on my twitter time line today. There must be hundreds, if not thousands of others like it. It says
Incredible achievement by Sachin Tendulkar but obsession with personal milestones is holding back India as a team. They lost the match.
I have little doubt, as I suspect do most people that the fact that he was chasing his 100th 100 weighed on Tendulkar's mind as he made his way past 50 at Mirpur yesterday. While, as Tendulkar said, the wicket did slow down, and the bowling was reasonably tight in the powerplay (where singles are not available easily because the field is up), it is also intriguing that despite the fact that Tendulkar and Kohli were already well set and in a long stand by the 20-25th over, they did not take the batting powerplay until they finally had to between overs 36-40. Having watched Tendulkar for over a decade now, had this been any other innings, he might have taken bigger risks and chased the big shot more readily in the first 40 overs.

The one over that tells the story of Tendulkar's innings more than any other is the 34th over of India's innings. It was delivered by Mashrafe Mortaza and Tendulkar played out a maiden. Except that he didn't "play out a maiden" in any conventional sense. He didn't block everything. Here is how Cricinfo recorded it:

33.1 Mashrafe Mortaza to Tendulkar, no run, 78.9 mph, taps it down towards mid-off and refuses the single
33.2 Mashrafe Mortaza to Tendulkar, no run, 78.1 mph, pushed to Shakib at mid-off again and this time he has to scamper back, sign of nerves finally?
33.3 Mashrafe Mortaza to Tendulkar, no run, 78.9 mph, clipped hard down to mid-on and he can't pinch a single here
33.4 Mashrafe Mortaza to Tendulkar, no run, slashed and just short of point! Nervy moment for Sachin, well stopped in the end
33.5 Mashrafe Mortaza to Tendulkar, no run, 79.3 mph, gets on the front foot and pushes it to cover
5 dot balls...
33.6 Mashrafe Mortaza to Tendulkar, no run, 78.6 mph, and it's a maiden! Clipped hard to mid-on, he's trying to get it away but can't pinch the single

The field was up. And Tendulkar played each ball of its merits. When it was there to cut, he fairly flayed it. The last ball was clipped hard to mid on from outside off stump. It was a maiden which was a victory for the bowler. It was a maiden despite Tendulkar, not a maiden of choice. This is a crucial difference. It is why anybody who actually watched the game should be hesitant when confronted with the "he slowed down" argument. He slowed down on the scorecard yes, but it was a matter of things not coming off, not of him not trying to score runs. The difference is essential.

What does a batsman do at such a stage? In another innings he might have taken the powerplay immediately in the next over, or possibly even taken it in the 30th or 31st over. But this was not just another innings. This was his best possible chance to reach his 100th 100. He had gotten close before since his 99th. He reached 83 against Pakistan in the World Cup Semi Final, 91 against England at the Oval and most poignantly, 94 against West Indies at Mumbai.

Tendulkar was cautious, perhaps too cautious.

The opposition between playing for oneself and playing for the team has been thrown about widely after yesterdays match. Would the match have been safe if India have made 20 more runs? Probably. But Tendulkar's diagnosis of the wicket turned out to be quite accurate. Bangladesh's run chase of 290 was quite unconventional. Normally, the sort of wickets on which 290-300 is chased down afford the chasing team the ability to go hard against the new ball, score at 6 an over for the first 20 overs, reach 200 by the 35th or 36th over, and then, even if the team has lost 4-5 wickets, its a question of one substantial stand at a run a ball to chase down the remaining 100 runs in the last 15 overs. This was the pattern when India chased down 300 against England at Mohali in 2011, when Sri Lanka chased 283 at Hobart this year.

Bangladesh were 166 after 36 overs. They needed 124 in the last 14, about 9 runs per over. They got them easily, thanks to a couple of front foot no-balls, a flurry of full tosses, and generally ordinary length bowling.

Cricket is a strange sport. It is an individual sport - where one bowler bowls to one batsman at atime. The other 20 players wait. What the bowler does and what the batsman can do in response - this is what decides the game. It is also a team sport - individuals rarely win games on their own. It is said less often, but is equally true I think, that individuals also rarely lose games on their own.

Cricket is about putting the self before the team. It is about not making mistakes oneself. Now, in the Mirpur ODI it could be argued that Tendulkar's approach could have been different. But it could be argued, in my view with much greater force, that the bowlers could have been more accurate.

After all, the bowlers get to begin the play, and the fielding captain gets to set the field according to the play.

It is peculiarly and uniquely true about cricket that the team is as strong as its weakest link. Every single member of a cricket team has to perform as an individual, and only as an individual. There is no escape. If a bowler can bowl only 4 decent balls an over and loses focus, line and length for the other two, is a severe liability.

It is in this light that the broad cultural comment about "obsession with individual landmarks" should be considered. Individual landmarks are possible only if the individual can perform at a certain basic quality. The so-called Bombay school (whose great voice is Sunil Gavaskar), with its obsession with centuries stems from this basic understanding. Khadoos as an attitude comes from this iron desire to not make a mistake.

If Tendulkar had been a bowler, he would have been like McGrath or Steyn. What makes these bowlers is not just how they bowl their best, most lethal balls, but by how upset they are when they bowl a bad ball - a ball that is not appropriate to the field that is set.

On balance, I think the so-called obsession with individual landmarks is a healthy one. Give me a high quality batsman who cares about reaching a century and then carrying on well past it, over an apparently selfless batsman who takes ridiculous, ill-judged risks all too readily simply because, in the remote chance that they come off, they will benefit the team, any day of the week. Most opposing teams would prefer to face the latter as well.

The same cannot be said about our obsession with these landmarks. There hasn't been a game that India has played that has passed without some comment on the possibility that Tendulkar might score his 100th.

Tendulkar says he plays according to the situation. This is true if you examine the evidence. His approach at Hobart from example - where the wicket was flat and the bowling was modest, and a century could have been had easily, Tendulkar went hammer and tongs, until he was dismissed LBW walking across his stumps against Malinga, trying to exploit the fact that fine leg was up.

This has been true over 23 years and 763 international games hasn't it?

The normal Tendulkar would have played differently from the one we found at Mirpur yesterday. He admitted as much. I thought after the innings, that he hadn't batted particularly well. I've seen him bat better in more difficult conditions. But this shortcoming was of a different kind than the bowlers shortcoming. I must   resurrect my most succinct metaphor for India's problems - Tendulkar's failing was the MA Exam level failing, the bowler's failings were 8th standard high school exam level failings. Both these failings occured in an MA exam level (albeit an easy MA Exam) international contest.

Good for Bangladesh to have exploited a weakness. It says something about the quality of India's bowling, that Bangladesh's captain alluded to it before the Mirpur match.

Such is cricket.


  1. Amazed at the extent to which people go to defend sachin's slow century.A batsman makes his first 50 of 61 balls and takes almost 80 to make his next 50 cant be said to be uninfuenced.And to attribute it to slowing of the pitch is ridiculous to say the least.

    Remember a particular full length floated ball to which we went back and almost squatted.He has always been circumspect and conservative when he approaches a milestone and yesterday was no different.

    Whats this point about "not blocking" the 34th over?.If a batsman plays in a way such that he is heavily influenced by the impending milestone,he is clearly being selfish and conscious about his milestone.

    It doesnt mean that he should actually play a dead bat shot to prove that he is being conscious of the milestone.On a normal day,tendulkar would have tried to do something different(not necessarily rash) to get a run.

  2. You will have to decide your opinion properly first.At one point of the article,you defend his low approach attributing factors like slowness of the wicket,etc,then defend his search for the milestone and again return back to defending his approach and it goes on.Ultimately,you have ended the article putting the blame on the bowlers.

    I agree that the bowling is crap but you seem to use it at times to mask dhoni's ineptness as a captain and now today the game's result.

  3. Having an iron will as to not commit a mistake is a virtue which should align with the virtue of putting team first for cricket is a team game.If both the virtues dont go hand in hand,the batsman/bowler allows his self-obsession to affect the team especially in a limited overs game.

  4. If Sachin would have played a bit faster, if 20 more runs on the board etc..Even though we had 20 runs on board, Bagladesh would have adjusted run chase in proportion? Had we lost without Sachin's century, we'd have found a new scapegoat, no?

    What if Virat, Gautam scored another 20-30 runs, what if bowlers took wickets, what if MSD was a tad more imaginative on field...what if.....

    Just too many if's and but's..

    It's sometimes easy to make thesis after the match. At times so called 'personal milestone' (which was a more hype, created by everyone but Sachin) can actually make even a wordclass player can bog down. Afterall Sachin isn't a Robot where every purpose/objective like team/perosnal milestone has separate compartments for storage in it's 'chip'. Are we so perfect in out personal lives so that we seek perfection from Sachin's innings all the time?

  5. well I do not deny that Sachin Tendulkar has merits, I also think that Cricket is a players game, not only one single player game