Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Book review: "Cricket Crusader", by Gary Sobers

For some reason, I really enjoy reading cricketers' autobiographies.  Biographies are good too, but when it's in the cricketer's own voice, it's special.  I have previously written a blog post about some biographies and autobiographies, and also reviewed several of them.

Just finished reading an autobiography of one of the very greatest cricketers of all time -- "Cricket Crusader", by Gary Sobers -- and it was a fun, educational read.  Sobers wrote this book around 1965 while he was still playing, at the peak of his career.  He played Tests till 1974, so the book doesn't cover his complete Test career of course.  But it gives great glimpses into his early years, the development of his cricket, his attitude towards the game, etc.

Sobers writes in an interesting, unusual style, mostly in first-person present tense.  And the language is lyrical, very evocative of the Caribbean.  It also appears quaint and old-fashioned at times!  This book is not a manual on how to play cricket, Sobers-style.  That's because he had already written another book in that genre -- "Cricket, Advance!".  This is a narrative, story-telling type of book.  Sobers doesn't fill it up with scores and statistics and dry recounting of events as they happened on cricketing fields.  In fact he consciously chooses not to supply exact scores and bowling analyses, saying that there are other sources for that kind of data.  He focuses instead on the thinking that goes into the game, his own as well as that of his peers.

The book is organized pretty much chronologically, starting with his days as a small kid playing "Lilliput cricket" in Barbados.  He describes how they play on any bare patch of ground, with knitted balls rolled in tar, on a 10 yard pitch, against underarm bowling.  The batsman actually bats on one knee, with one foot firmly anchored (else he could be out stumped)!  So he ends up playing lots of horizontal-bat shots, generating power using the wrists, arms and shoulders.  It's interesting to see how this influences their batting techniques when they graduate to 'proper ' cricket.  Sobers makes the point that, because it's a soft ball, you learn to play the ball from an early age without the fear of being hit.  Later in the book, he describes getting hit by a hard cricket ball for the first time, and how it changes him from a boy to a man.

The book goes over his graduation from local cricket in Barbados to the Test team, then going on various tours etc.  There is of course plenty of space devoted to his memorable moments in Tests, such as the record-breaking 365*, the tied Test in Australia, etc.  But equally, he tells stories from his days as a professional cricketer in England and Australia.  He talks about playing in the Sheffield Shield for South Australia, how they sponsored his knee operation, etc.  He is clearly deeply influenced by his time playing in the English cricket leagues (for clubs like Radcliffe and Norton).  He gives voice to the professional vs. amateur debate of that time, talking about the time when he and Wes Hall were debating whether to play for the West Indies (for a pittance), or play professional cricket in England or Australia.

Sobers uses the term 'world cricketer' a lot, to mean someone who has reached the 'world class' standard.  How he aspired to be one, how he learnt from his seniors in the West Indies team, etc.  How he doesn't "take his cricket to bed" at night...  He talks a lot about his captain Frank Worrell, the art of captaincy and man management, etc. There is an entire chapter devoted to his close friend and fellow Test star Collie Smith, the car accident that cost Smith his life (Sobers was the one driving!), and how the incident changed him.  He lovingly describes the pleasures (and the travails) of touring, especially in England with the unpredictable weather.  Some of it really seems quaint -- stories of daily exercise routines to keep fit, while on board a ship to Australia for example!

The book is interspersed with several nice photographs, not just from Test match action but also from the English leagues, tour games, etc. -- and a collection of statistics at the end which again features scores from league cricket.  Gives you a good historical perspective, in these days of jet-setting cricketers and IPL and Big Bash and...

Sobers wrote another autobiography much later in life... Now I can't wait to get my hands on that one!

Friday, December 30, 2011

Two great batsmen

Here are the career records of two great batsmen -- arguably, among the all-time greats.  These records compare favourably with the likes of Gordon Greenidge, Clive Lloyd, even Greg Chappell and Wally Hammond.

Player 1:

M  Inn   NO   Runs   HS   Avg   100   50
95  152   15    7877   217  57.49   29   31

Player 2:

M  Inn   NO   Runs   HS   Avg   100   50
90  153   17    7411  248*  54.49   22   33

So who are these two greats?  You won't find these numbers in the record books, because...

Player 1 is Sachin Tendulkar (from d├ębut to May 2002*)
Player 2 is Sachin Tendulkar (May 2002* through December 2011)

* Note that the May 2002 cutoff is an arbitrary choice, to divide Sachin's career into approximately equal halves (by innings played).

Right up to the 1980s, until Gavaskar scaled the 10,000 run peak, an all-time great batsman would typically have 6000 to 8000 runs, an average in the 50s, and about 20 centuries.  Remember that Gary Sobers held the Test runs record (8032) for many years, Boycott went past and finished on 8114, and then Gavaskar took over.

By that measure, Sachin Tendulkar has had not one, but two great careers in cricket!  These days, most of his records that the media and fans focus on, are those related to his longevity -- 50 Test tons, 100 international tons, 15,000 Test runs, most Test 50s, etc.  And his longevity (and continued productivity) is truly amazing.  But what gets lost is that he would've been an all-time great batsman even if he had chosen to retire half-way through!

While this has been, so far, a purely statistical argument, you could set aside the weight of numbers and still make the case.  In his early years, Sachin was a significantly more attacking, aggressive batsman.  If you compared highlight reels of Player 1 and Player 2, you'd see that Player 1 essayed more of the 'raw' strokes -- cuts, pulls, hooks, and lofted drives, often dancing down the pitch to spinners.  We aren't even talking ODIs here.  He also had the most elegant drives of course -- cover drives and straight drives in particular.  And Player 1 was up against a terrific batch of fast bowlers -- Wasim Akram, Allan Donald, Curtly Ambrose, Waqar Younis, Craig McDermott, etc.  He still managed to score big, score rapidly, and score attractively.  What made it all the more remarkable was that he was so young (Player 1 started at 16, and 'retired' at the age of 29!).  But even if you ignore the romance associated with watching a  young kid take on the giants of the game -- both literally and figuratively -- one must concede that he had an all-time great kind of career.

And then came Player 2.  Clearly, Sachin adapted his game over the course of a couple of seasons in the early 2000s.  For whatever reasons (a more injury-prone body? a more cluttered mind? the match-fixing scars?), he felt that his batting approach needed to change.  The aggression was significantly toned down.  The mix of strokes changed -- fewer pulls and hooks and lofted drives, more glances and deflections to leg, newer delicate strokes like the paddle sweep, the upper cut, the punched drives, etc.  The beginning of the innings was more tentative and defensive.  Ironically, all this happened at a time when the Indian batting was at its strongest ever.  Sachin had great support in the form of Dravid, Laxman and Ganguly in the middle order, Sehwag at the top often providing great starts, a more resilient tail, etc.  Nevertheless, his methods proved successful -- not as successful as Player 1 to be sure, but then Player 2 was a 30+ year old suffering a spate of injuries through his career, playing a surfeit of cricket with more ODIs and T20s than Player 1 had to.  If Player 2 could have debuted at a more normal age (say, 22), one can imagine that the record would be even better.  His more cautious approach also resulted in bigger 100s -- more double-tons for example -- as well as more success for his team.  Clearly the India team with Player 2 was far more successful than that of Player 1.  So you can't really argue with his decision to change his batting style, after playing more than a decade at the Test level.

I would argue that Player 2 is also in the all-time great category, not merely a great batsman.  Those numbers were achieved over a large span of time as well as Tests.  They have been achieved against some great bowling too -- McGrath, Lee, Warne, Murali, Steyn, Pollock, Akhtar, etc.  They have included innings in tough conditions (e.g., that battle with Steyn and Morkel in South Africa), and in tough chases (e.g., the 100 vs. England in Chennai).  And while his batting may have become less aggressive, it has hardly become any less attractive to watch -- witness his recent innings in the first Test at Melbourne just this week.  He still pulls in the crowds; the crowds still leave or turn off their TVs when he gets out (well, in India at least).

So there you go, two great batsmen rolled into one!

Friday, June 17, 2011

The New Definition of Talent

Harsha Bhogle has initiated a debate on talent and how to define it, in his article today in the Indian Express (also available on CricInfo and possibly other media outlets). He not only redefines talent, he has even given a formula for it! Or at least, the headline writers at IE have... And it is:

"real talent" = ability x hard work + consistency

To me at least, this is a new term he's inventing... "Real talent" is what he'd like to use, to gauge a sportsman, because it is a good predictor of "success" -- now there's another term that begs a clear definition! But going by what he writes in the article, he's interested in seeing talent converted to results in terms of metrics such as runs scored, wickets taken, matches won, and even career longevity. What he then proceeds to prescribe, are the prerequisites of success, but he labels those as talent. Therein lies my disagreement. We can keep those two terms separate and agree that talent isn't a pre-requisite to success.

Harsha references Malcolm Gladwell (from "Outliers") in saying that 10,000 hours of practice, in other words, "hard work" can make someone shine in any chosen field -- whether it's Bill Gates coding away, or Bradman hitting a golf ball, or Agassi hitting 2500 tennis balls a day, or Kirsten's now-famous throwdowns to Sachin Tendulkar. This is in keeping with the Protestant work ethic that dominates our current thinking, whether in middle-class families or in management books. And who can argue against hard work, and maximising your chances of success via that route?

But is that really talent? Can't we make space for those who are truly special in some ways? Who may or may not be successful by traditional measures? Harsha uses the example of Rohit Sharma -- how his strokes make you go "wow". I've written about talent and class in the past, using older examplars like Gower, Mark Waugh, Ganguly... You could take examples from other sports, like Federer in tennis, Jordan in basketball, Messi in football. The point remains the same -- these players are special in some way. It's their natural grace, their fluidity of movement, apparent effortlessness, their uncanny knack of timing, the lack of brute force -- all of those and more, combine to make you go "wow". A Rohit Sharma or a Yuvraj Singh belongs in that category. A Jonathan Trott or Ricky Ponting does not.

Now absolutely, that "class" does not guarantee success at any level of cricket. I believe the examples of Bradman, Tendulkar etc. are misleading -- they were both talented and hard-working. But their stupendous achievements owe a lot to their talent, not just to hard work. A Gower or Ganguly racked up great records (successes?) despite their aversion to hard work. Tendulkar might not have had as long a career, with as many records, but he would've gone down as an all-time great batsman even if he hadn't done all that practice with Kirsten. Hard work is admirable, sure. But talent is what makes you go "wow", lets you enjoy watching the sport.

Society today worships success to an inordinate extent. We value hard work and material returns over creativity and its attendant risk of failure. If an author writes a great novel but fails to find a publisher, he may be labelled a failure. But is he any less talented for it? A programmer may develop a great application, but his startup may "fail". Is he any less talented as a programmer? And a cricketer may play graceful, pleasing cricket, but not rack up enough runs to make it to the top. His game may not be seen by as many spectators as it might have, with hard work or luck or a godfather. But is he any less talented for it?

History is replete with examples of talented cricketers who underperformed relative to their talent. What does that mean? Doesn't it mean that they had as much talent as some others who achieved success, but didn't capitalize on it? Talent may need to be allied with hard work to achieve consistency. On top of that, you need some luck, and often the right contacts, to achieve success. But even in the absence of all these supporting factors, talent doesn't vanish -- it's there for all to see!

I call myself a "cricket stalker" for a good reason. There are some, perhaps many of us, who like watching cricket because it's a beautiful game. Not because we follow a particular team or player, and want them to win every time. Not because we want to see lots of runs scored, or wickets taken. Just for the sheer beauty of the proceedings. And you can find that beauty in a lower-division club game too, not just in international cricket. Talent, whether in batting, bowling or fielding (but I admit, mostly in batting) is what attracts me as a spectator. Just as beautiful prose is what makes a book worth reading, often, not the message contained therein. Please do leave some space for cricket as art...

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Allure, and the Pitfalls, of All-time XIs

It seems like the season for "All-time XIs" has returned with a vengeance, thanks in no small part to CricInfo's series of country-specific XIs, followed up with a World XI. This is really the armchair cricketer's ultimate delight. What better way to indulge your fantasies than to cook up a couple of all-time XIs and imagine (or even better, simulate, perhaps with book cricket!) a game between them?

Back in 1994-95, when Usenet was still usable, the newsgroup rec.sport.cricket saw a sustained frenzy of all-time XIs. The leader of the pack then was a respected poster called John Hall, who kicked things off by posting a series of "alphabet XIs" -- e.g., the "A Team" comprising of players whose names start with A, and so on. Not quite 26 of them, because some alphabets got combined to get to critical mass (e.g. the QXYZ team), but great fun nevertheless. Must have taken an enormous amount of research. He followed that up with teams from each decade in which Test cricket had been played, which was another tour de force! Of course, as soon as each team was posted, it drew in the rest of us on rec.sport.cricket, with our own "expert comments" on John's sins of omission and commission!

Naturally, no two posters could agree upon an entire XI, but that is almost besides the point. The allure is in reliving the careers of these all-time greats, debating their relative merits, etc. As a bonus, many a thread also spun off from these topics into discussions of the personalities and careers of those involved, especially the relatively lesser-known cricketers who made it to the all-time XIs because of these artificial constraints of alphabets or specific decades.

There are of course pitfalls in making these sorts of comparisons across generations. One argument goes that the relatively recent players, whom you've had the chance to watch, follow, perhaps even idolize, are more likely to make the grade than earlier ones whom you have only read about. On the flip side though, older players tend to be romanticized with the passage of time. History mostly records their successes while glossing over their failings; hagiographies abound.

Modern players are exposed to a wider set of playing conditions -- far more venues, varying equipment, with/without floodlights, with/without umpire reviews, bowlers using slower balls, doosras etc. -- that didn't exist in the old days. The oldies however had to deal with uncovered wickets, and that too in places like England with fickle weather! They didn't have protective helmets and arm-guards. They had to travel long distances by ship, train, buses... Flip again -- the fielding standards, and on average the catching standards, have improved dramatically. So the oldies might have got away with snicks through the slips etc. that they wouldn't, today. Or would've got boundaries for what would only be a single today...

With so many contradicting signals, how can the armchair cricketer even begin to compare cricketers across eras? Clearly, a direct comparison of statistics doesn't seem fair -- we don't know whether these factors cancel each other out. The written word is also unreliable -- whether it's the cricket correspondent covering a Test match, or an autobiography, or a book like Sunny Gavaskar's "Idols"...

I believe the closest we can get to an objective comparison is if we compare statistics within the same 'era'. This of course requires a clear definition of eras in cricket, and then identifying contemporary cricketers whose careers substantially fall within that era. This was relatively easier in the early days, when the World Wars provided some natural delimiters for eras, and several careers were terminated by those wars. In more modern times, perhaps we can identify two eras based on the teams that dominated those years -- the West Indies era (1970s and 1980s), and the Australian era (1990s and 2000s). Many careers don't fit nicely into those eras though -- a Bishen Bedi, or an Alan Border, for example.

Nevertheless the relative performance of a player, when compared with his contemporaries of the same kind (bat/bowl/keep/allround/captain), seems to be the only reasonable yardstick of greatness, and thus, selection in an Alltime XI. In batting for example, a Test average of 50 was considered the yardstick of greatness during the 1970s-90s, and possibly earlier as well. The very best batsmen of those years -- Sunny Gavaskar, Greg Chappell, Viv Richards, Javed Miandad -- reached and sustained that mark. Very few others were able to sustain a 50+ average over a long career. That benchmark seems to have shifted up by 4-5 points in recent years. Today's greats are all in the 54-57 range -- Sachin, Ponting, Kallis, Mike Hussey, et al. Dravid and Lara are lower, but probably dropped off from that range. Clearly we cannot claim that all of today's greats are significantly better than those of the 1970s (and a 4-5 point difference in batting average is significant!). Thus it makes sense to compare only with contemporaries whose careers overlapped for the most part.

All that is fine for a scientific, or statistically defensible exercise in selecting an Alltime XI. But, all said and done, it's eventually a very personal, emotion-riddled flight of fantasy! So who's to quibble with the critic who prefers a Dravid to a Vishy, or someone who selects a Dhoni ahead of Kirmani as his keeper? To each his own, and the more the merrier, and I'm all out of cliches now!