Sunday, March 17, 2013

(Atleast) Two Ways of Seeing Cricket

We often see what we want to see in the world. Sport, especially episodic, team sport which provides scope for community and time for reflection, is one area of life in which we do this more often than we realize. India's cricket fans are as one eyed as any in the history of popular team sport. Test Cricket, more than other sports, provides opportunities for different people to see different things in the same game. I will suggest here that there are two basic ways in which seeing sport works.



First, there is the way of seeing which I will call the aspirational view. At any given point in the game, there are many possible approaches (at least on paper) that one's team can take. At their simplest, these involve how much risk a batsman or a fielding captain should take to advance his or her team's cause in a given match situation. That cricket teams are made up of different kinds of players - some more equipped and willing than others to take those kinds of risk, makes this kind of aspirational thinking easier.

Second, there is the way of seeing which I will call the empirical view. At any given point in the game, each team is trying out a certain approach (out on the field) and it obviously follows that one's own team has chosen one too. The empirical view involves an effort to first figure out (a) what is being attempted, and (b) how well it is being attempted. This can be done, in my view, without any consideration to the scoreboard. Scoring rates matter less than trying to understand how the player understands and measures risk in a given situation.

The armchair general finds more comfortable room in the aspirational view. The fan should, I propose, find more joy in the empirical view. Armchair generalship is admittedly fun. I find myself doing it sometimes. These are usually occasions when I get carried away with exciting Indian run chases in limit overs games. My generaliship is usually focused on wondering why a particular pair of batsmen didn't take chances against a particular bowler, given the number of overs left from other bowlers. On one memorable occasion, India were chasing a huge score (330 or so) against Sri Lanka at Hobart and happened to play out a few overs from the spinner Rangana Herath relatively quietly - they pushed singles and twos and didn't hit a ball in anger, taking 6-8 an over. I remember fretting, wondering why Gautam Gambhir and Virat Kohli were going so easy on the spinner when they knew that Malinga and Kulasekara had overs in hand and would bowl out within the 40 overs or so in which the target had to be achieved. Angelo Mathews too had been allowed to get away with a few cheap overs. The result was that India had gone from needed 160 in 20 overs to qualify, to needing 106 in 11 overs, with the prospect of 6 of those coming from the lethal Lasith Malinga.

I was wrong to fret. Malinga bowled the 30th over of India's innings, and conceded 15. Kulasekara bowled the 31st and it went for 18. Perera was brought on to let Malinga change ends. When Malinga bowled from the other end, his 16 deliveries went for 42 runs. 24 deliveries at the other end went for 48.

My armchair generalship was off.

In Test Cricket, when the faux competitive juices are not flowing quite so freely, I find myself more willing to see whats going on. The 4th day at Mohali was one such example. After Shikhar Dhawan's outrageous blitz on Day 3, India went into Day 4 121 behind Australia's score with all 10 wickets standing. That changed very quickly on the 4th morning. Dhawan went in the 1st over of the day and Pujara followed when the Umpire missed an inside edge which should have saved the batsman from the LBW decision that otherwise looked very plumb. Sachin Tendulkar joined Murali Vijay at the crease with 18 overs to go for the 2nd new ball.

Michael Clarke attacked Tendulkar early. Vijay, while he had been in for a long time, had never threatened to score at any pace against any bowler other than Nathan Lyon. Tendulkar faced the early bowling with some aplomb. Here, Clarke decided to change tack. He was loathe to take the new ball against two set batsmen, with India only 2 down. He decided to playing the waiting game. He positioned run saving fields and bowled his two most reliable run saving bowlers - Doherty and Henriques, in tandem with a soft old ball.  When Xavier Doherty came on to bowl in the 80th over, Tendulkar and Vijay had made 58 runs in 17 overs of batting, taking India closer to Australia's total in a risk free manner. In the hour before lunch, Clarke and India's batsmen engaged in a game of patience, each waiting for the other to give in. Clarke was waiting for Tendulkar or Vijay to lose patience and take a risk to score a boundary against a run saving field. Tendulkar and Vijay waited for Clarke to take the harder new ball which could be scored off more easily.

For 15 overs (over 80-94), Tendulkar and Vijay waited. On a couple of occasions, Vijay left his crease to attack Doherty - once for a boundary, another time for a six. In those 15 overs, Tendulkar went from 25(36) to 37(80) - making 12 runs in 44 balls. Those 15 overs also took India from a deficit of 59 to a deficit of 24. Unfortunately, Tendulkar was out in the final over before lunch to a rare well pitched delivery from the occasional leg spinner Steven Smith. It was one of those dismissals which happens from time to time in Cricket.

Mathematically (this isn't my opinion, but simply arithmetic), the difference between taking 50 runs in that hour and 35 runs in hat hour (which they actually score) is not large. 15 runs is a matter of 2-3 good overs, which Tendulkar or any reasonable international batsman should be able to find quite easily.

Nevertheless, the sight of Tendulkar actually playing cautiously, with the score reading about 360/2 on the 4th day of a Test seemed to upset a lot of people. There was a lot of stuff going around on the twittersphere about how Tendulkar had gone into his shell - how he had stopped trying to score. It is as though these people were not watching the game! There is a difference between "not trying to score runs" and "not willing to take risks to score runs". Could Tendulkar have tried to loft the ball over the top? Of course! He's done it many times over. Why then, did he insist on playing the ball along the ground? Why did he continually try to pierce the gap whenever something resembling a half volley presented itself? This, to me, as a tactical question seems to be very interesting. As a question that says something about Tendulkar's character as a competitor, it is also interesting. It was, to me at least, an interesting insight into how Test players assess time in a Test Match.

Yet, the general consensus was probably echoed by Sidharth Monga (who, in my experience is far more sporting and fair minded than most fans) on Cricinfo's ball by ball, when he wrote just after Tendulkar's dismissal - "They will take lunch now. I am surprised they didn't see the over through. Anyway, Australia's session, was this. They have slowed India down considerably. India inexplicably didn't try to make the pace because they can't possibly lose this game from here on. Anyway, that's India for you. Let's see how they go in the middle session."

My sense, at the beginning of the 4th days play had been that India would spend most of the day building a lead, and that if they didn't lose wickets in a heap, they would be able to, through 2-3 substantial stands, be able to build a lead about about 150 by the last hour of play. I felt that scoring 250 in 5 1/2 hours against an Australian attack that would try and save runs and use the old ball a lot on the 4th day pitch, would be a good effort. I had no doubt that Dhawan's scoring rate was in no way par for the course.

Giving an hour to the Australian bowlers - an hour in which they were willing to give India 30-35 risk free runs (or 50-60 risk laden runs), seemed to me to be a careful strategy. It had nothing to do with fearing defeat. I don't think India (or any good Test team) play, especially at home, by constantly worrying about losing. But they do play professionally.

Many people have asked, would other teams play this way? Yes they would have, and yes they have. At Perth in 2012, South Africa played Australia on a fast scoring WACA pitch. After two low scoring 1st innings, Hashim Amla and Graeme Smith took off at rollicking pace in the 3rd innings of the match. They added 178 in 153 balls for the 2nd wicket, after which Jacques Kallis (37 in 65) and Amla added 81 in 116 balls. South Africa were 287/3 in 52 overs when AB de Villiers joined Hashim Amla (batting 135 in 127), with an hour to go for lunch. South Africa went to lunch at 320/3 in 66 overs. Amla, who until then had scored at better than a run a ball, and AB deVilliers, arguably among the two or three most lethal stroke players in the world today, played out the hour before lunch - 14 overs, for 33 runs. This, when South Africa were already 349 ahead when Kallis was dismissed. This, on a WACA pitch which had since flattened out into a stroke making paradise.

An hour of consolidation is easy to make up. It is not uncommon in Test cricket, even, or especially from positions of strength.

The value of Tendulkar and Vijay's caution was apparent when India lost a number of wickets to the new ball very quickly, because the ball moved late off the seam, and Ravindra Jadeja, MS Dhoni and R Ashwin are not the most technically proficient players against the new ball. Australia got a couple of lucky breaks in the pre-lunch session which cost India about 50 runs in the end I would say. They got Pujara to an LBW that wasn't, and they got Tendulkar against the run of play at the stroke of lunch.

Unlike at Perth, India were playing on a slow wicket, they weren't ahead in the game, and Clarke was willing to sit back and defend, instead of attacking for the wicket with the old ball.

After the flurry of wickets with India barely ahead in the game, it was left to Virat Kohli and Bhuveneshwar Kumar to rebuild. They did so admirably, using the same careful, professional approach that Tendulkar and Vijay had used earlier in the day. That the young Virat Kohli played with such patience is an encouraging sign for the future.

I will end by addressing the logical fallacy in the argument which goes - "Why don't they take more chances, its not like they are going to lose". The logical fallacy there is - chances are taken to score runs, not to risk winning or losing. The only time where taking risks or more chances is rational is when the runs are not necessary - but are a bonus. From the point of view of winning the Test Match, if we leave aside quixotic ideas about declaring behind (India are 2-0 ahead remember?), getting to 500 was necessary. If the lead/deficit didn't matter, then yes, it wouldn't have matter how they played. But it does matter.

If the lead matters, then those arguing that Tendulkar and Vijay should have taken more chances are left with only one point to make - that Tendulkar and Vijay didn't realize it, but they could have easily taken more liberties than they actually did. Here, I'm think it is reasonable to trust the guy with a 197 Tests and the guy with a century to his name on the said pitch (made at a strike rate of less than 50 runs /100 balls) overs the armchair generals.

If all you are going to do is look at the score board, see 216 runs in 74 overs, and say "that's 50 runs short" simply because you expect a certain run rate, then you are basically missing the cricket in its entirety. Perhaps Test Cricket would be more fun if we actually watched it, instead of trying to play it in our heads while it is already going on on the ground.

2 comments:

  1. Very interesting post Kartikeya.

    This was nicely put - "If all you are going to do is look at the score board, see 216 runs in 74 overs, and say "that's 50 runs short" simply because you expect a certain run rate, then you are basically missing the cricket in its entirety. " and I agree with it completely.

    However, I disagree where you say [the slow batting]it had nothing to do with defeat. Even in his post match interviews, MS Dhoni indicated that they were not really desperate to win and rather thinking of playing safe. So, defeat was definitely on their mind.

    Example - https://twitter.com/chetannarula/status/313633576702861312

    No doubt that these people have much more knowledge than armchair critics like us, but I would much rather like a captain/team which plays to win each game rather than being happy with series win, particularly at home against an opposition who have lost to us on last two visits.

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  2. Well, the Dhoni comment needs to be understood in context. He was talking about the 4th innings chase & why he left it till the last 14 balls & chose not to take earlier risks. You ve got to look at how the team played the 5th day, its clear they were going for the win. 1)Look at the over-rate when India was bowling - It was well above required & was clearly meant to give their batsmen more time. 2)The new ball was taken almost immediately. 3) Look at Vijay & Sachin's strike rates which was much higher than their avg for the series.
    As far as the slow batting is concerned, the fact is India is playing with a weakened batting order & also Ashwin seems to be out of form(!). This is borne out by the collapses in the last 2 tests after the huge partnerships. Even at Chennai, it was only Dhoni's innings which was the difference. Not even during India's rise to no.1 when Sehwag & Sachin were in prime form & backed by a solid batting order, did they try to play 5 bowlers. This decision to play Jadeja is a huge risk & is meant as an aggressive move to take 20 wickets.

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