Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Does "class" matter?

When it comes to batting, there's this notion of the "class" of a batsman. Trying to define it is hard, like defining "obscenity" - and yet, you know it when you see it! You watch a batsman in action, even if it's in a minor game against not-too-challenging bowling, and you just know that the guy's got class. Names like Sachin Tendulkar, David Gower, Mark Waugh, Saurav Ganguly and Brian Lara immediately conjure up pleasing images of their flashing blades. Contrast that with batsmen like Geoff Boycott, Javed Miandad, Allan Border or even today's superhero Ricky Ponting. Absolutely nothing wrong with their career records or their influence on their teams' successes. Fabulous run-machines, each of them. And yet, they seem to fall short of the earlier group in some intangible aspect. If I had an hour or three to spend on watching cricket highlights, I know which group of batsmen I'd rather watch in action.

So what's a classy batsman? Our internalized definitions of class appear to be driven by textbook definitions of correct batting - but going beyond that, by a certain natural grace, fluidity of movement (of body and bat), effortlessness of execution, superb timing. Importantly, class appears to be a predictor of success in cricket. Most "classy" batsmen have done well over the long-term in their careers, and hence the cricketing saw "Form is temporary, class is permanent". So naturally, it's important for selectors to find and pick classy batsmen. Or is it?

Before wading into that question, a quick story from about 10 years ago. I watched a game at the Wankhede Stadium, between West Indies 'A' and an Indian Board President's XI. Didn't know many of the players by face, but I saw one Indian batsman struggling so much that I made a note in my diary - "find out who batted at #5 today, he doesn't appear to have what it takes (class)"! This guy spent at least an hour at the crease, scratched out 11 runs, and then got out tamely. Meanwhile, the guy at the other end was batting effortlessly - not scoring rapidly, mind you, but he just looked classy. I knew that guy - Amol Muzumdar of Mumbai. The next morning, I checked the scorecard in the newspaper - the guy at #5 was Vijay Bharadwaj, of Karnataka. These days he's on the coaching staff of the Royal Challengers of Bangalore, in the IPL. As you might know, Amol Muzumdar never played for India. Vijay B. was picked for a handful of Tests and one-dayers, did nothing of note, and was then dropped.

Now, granted that this was a very limited amount of evidence, but to me it was clear that Vijay B. would never be a long-term Test prospect. On the other hand, Amol M. looked the part. So what were the selectors thinking? Of course they picked Rahul Dravid and Saurav Ganguly ahead of Muzumdar for the Indian team, and no one can complain about those picks. But they also picked, and played, guys like Jacob Martin and Vikram Rathour! Looks like the selectors relied more on batting statistics than batting class...

To come back to the present, in this age of T20 cricket, does class matter any more? Success is coming just as easily (if not more) to batsmen who clobber the ball, as to batsmen who caress it. Even in Test cricket! Witness the likes of Andrew Symonds, Chris Gayle, Jacob Oram, Graeme Smith, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, scoring tons of runs in all forms of modern cricket. It is a given that the T20 version will dominate in future (unless they come up with an even more frenetic version). The vast majority of nouveau cricket fans are not even going to watch Tests. Where's the room for the classy batsmen in the modern game, then? They're not going to be as marketable as these boom-boom T20 stars. Of course there are some exceptions - Yuvraj Singh and Sehwag come to mind as classy batsmen who will do well in the new world. But these guys were brought up in an earlier era where class got its due. The new kids aren't like that. A Rohit Sharma is classy, but feels obliged to try (and gets out to) wacky shots like the Marillier scoop to fine-leg, even when his classy stuff is working just fine! These kids are growing up watching the limited-overs game. The air-time, the glamour, the adverts, the money are all going to the players who can do well in the TV-friendly versions of the game - that's an economic reality that won't go away.

It may well be true that classy batsmen are born, and not made. The danger however is that most of these born classy batsmen will end up abandoning their classy strokes for the slam-bang-wallop stuff that fetches the fame and the success in T20. If you have heavy bats, short boundaries, field restrictions and hobbled bowlers, why would you need to play classy cricket? Why bother to time the ball nicely, place it perfectly? Just crash it through, or over, the field. The crowds seem to love that as well...

Friday, May 9, 2008

Cricket on a Mount(ain)

In India, it's almost a cliche to say that you can find cricket being played at the unlikeliest of places. We play on the streets, we play on beaches (not as common as in the West Indies though). We play on apartment terraces and balconies - and yell out to passersby to chuck the ball up four floors, when the inevitable "sixer" lands on the road below. We play in temple courtyards and cause worshippers to pray even harder than usual. We play in school corridors - only during breaks, of course! But sometimes, we even surprise ourselves.

I had one such surprise in store, during a trip to Mount Abu in Rajasthan - a pretty little hill station it was then, around 1983-84. I'd gone there with a large group of friends and relatives, perhaps some 25-30 of us - we'd driven up there from Mumbai in a bus. It was a somewhat strange choice for a vacation spot, because this was around the end of December - peak winter! Mount Abu was cold - very cold, by our Mumbai standards. One of the nights we spent there, the temperature actually dipped below freezing, and the Nakki Lake in Mount Abu actually froze. As kids of course, we didn't particularly care. And who knew that there were lakes in Rajasthan (always associated with "desert"), especially lakes that froze!

So, we were strolling around the little town, making our way to the usual sightseeing spots - the lake, the Sunset point, etc. And wonder of wonders, what do we find? A cricket ground! This "Mount" actually has sufficient flat space for a cricket ground! Even more amazingly, there's an actual match going on at the ground, and it's a "proper" cricket match played in whites, with full gear, a scorer and the usual tiny scoreboard near a makeshift pavilion.

The "cricket stalker" in me is instantly in action! I forget about the usual "sightseeing", this is the sight most worth seeing after all - willow on leather, nice grassy field, chilly winter weather! While my companions went ahead to Sunset Point or wherever, I stopped and found a nice spot from which to watch the game. Nothing remarkable about the game itself, but I do recall that one (Sardar) bowler bowled particularly well, getting some swing and picking up wickets. The standard of play was quite competent, about the level you'd expect at Shivaji Park in Mumbai. In Mount Abu, Rajasthan! What a treat for a cricket stalker (even if my friends thought I was a bit strange).

Much later, I discovered another cricket field on another "mount" - well, at a hill station anyway. The place is called Chail, in Himachal Pradesh state, and it has a cricket ground adjacent to what used to be the Maharaja of Patiala's palace (now a hotel). This is touted as the highest cricket ground in the world, at an altitude of more than 2000 metres. Unfortunately, it's more of a tourist attraction than a cricketer's paradise, so there was no cricket to "stalk" the day I visited, at least. The ground is surrounded by tall trees, which are infested with pesky monkeys! So if you ever go there, hold on to your bags and purses, because those monkeys will grab anything they can get!

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Lefty Idols

As a Mumbai kid growing up in the 1970s, there's no question about who was the biggest cricketing idol - Sunny Gavaskar, of course. But being left-handed myself, I was naturally drawn towards emulating left-handed cricketers.

Think of the India team of the mid-70s through the 80s. Clearly, its strength was its batting especially after the advent of Vengsarkar and Mohinder. The batting stars however, were all right-handed - Gavaskar, Vishwanath, Vengsarkar, Mohinder, Sandip Patil, and later Azhar. The bowling didn't have any stars or even consistent performers other than Kapil Dev. The spin quartet was already on the wane.

The only lefty who stood out at the time was Karsan Ghavri, and I quickly adopted him as my idol. At one time, he was the only Indian pace bowler other than Kapil, to have 100+ Test wickets. In addition, he was a fairly competent #8 batsman, thus bordering on all-rounder status. Most importantly to me, he was a fighter who never gave his wicket easily. I had the pleasure of watching his highest Test innings, a score of 86 against Australia at the Wankhede Stadium. He had a rollicking partnership that day with Syed Kirmani, and smacked three sixes during that innings - one of which landed very close to where I was sitting (in the West Stand). What more could a fan wish for?

Another memory of Ghavri is from a Duleep Trophy game at the Wankhede. Ghavri was opening the bowling for West Zone, and facing him was Pronob Roy of East Zone. Pronob was the son of India opener Pankaj Roy, and at that time was a rising star - he soon went on to play for India himself, although he didn't last long.

In those days, Duleep trophy games attracted a crowd of a few thousand (well, maybe a couple of thousand) at the Wankhede. I was among them, this time in the North Stand. Ghavri was bowling from the Tata end, i.e. running away from us. In the otherwise silent crowd, this one guy started a chant of "Booooooooooowled" and a few of us joined in, keeping up the "ooooooo" throughout Ghavri's (loooong) runup. And wonder of wonders, Ghavri went right through Pronob Roy's defence and had the most spectacular type of "clean bowled" that pace bowlers dream about - the middle stump going cartwheeling back towards the 'keeper!

After the evening game of cricket at the local playground, I used to run back home - but not quite "run". It would be an imitation of Ghavri's runup, with left hand pumping up and down holding an imaginary ball, and culminating in the leap and delivery! In the imagination of course, the ball would always fox the batsman and crash into the stumps, or take an edge and land in the always-safe gloves of that other hero - Syed Kirmani.

In the prime of my Ghavri-idolizing days, my hero was taken away from me - he was dropped from the Indian team, and I blamed nasty selectoral politics of course! Although he hung around for a while in the Mumbai team, and later became a successful coach (he was always a street-smart cricketer), he never made it back to the limelight, sadly.

So, I needed a new lefty hero, and I found one around that time in Ravi Shastri - not quite as satisfactory, because he batted right-handed of course. But to this day, when I bowl left-arm spin, I do a fair imitation of Shastri's action! More on Shastri some other day, though...

Tuesday, May 6, 2008


Just kicking off the first post on this blog... the umpire's called "Play!", so I'll start by introducing myself, and this blog.

I was born and brought up in the spiritual home of Indian cricket - Mumbai. Little wonder then that I ended up as a devoted cricket player and fan. In addition, I like to think of myself as a "Cricket Stalker" -- I stalk cricket! Whenever and wherever I get the chance, I watch cricket. Of course there's plenty of it on TV these days. But I prefer the multi-dimensional experience of watching it live -- at a stadium, at a maidan, even on the streets. TV gives you instant replays from multiple angles, it gives you Hawkeye and Snickometers and Hotspots and radar gun readings. But it isn't (yet) capable of conveying the true thwack of wood on leather, the birds-eye view of the field from the ground level (as the players see it), the smell of freshly-cut grass in the outfield. And the economics ensure that you don't see what happens between overs, the grizzled veteran batsman educating the youngster at the other end, the fielder at the boundary chatting with the spectators, and so on. There's an altogether different charm in "being there".

I've had the pleasure of "being there" for momentous (or at least, memorable) performances in cricketing history, and for completely unrecorded ones as well - a magic ball that cleans up a batsman in a club match could be just as memorable as Shane Warne's "ball of the century". A big hit by a Sandip Patil in the nets at Shivaji Park could be just as awesome as any sixer he hit in international cricket - more in fact, because of the sweet sound of tinkling glass at the end of its majestic trajectory!

So, this blog is about the ruminations & reminiscences of a cricket stalker. I've been stalking cricket since the mid-to-late 1970s, and I hope at least some of you will have memories from that era that I can refresh. But I may also be occasionally moved to write about the modern game, and about the early days of CricInfo (of which I was a co-founder). "Real-life" dictates that the opportunities and, I must admit, the ability to play the game are greatly diminished these days - but for those of you who aren't thus encumbered, "Play!"