Monday, July 28, 2008

Sri Lanka's propensity for records...

Just what is it about Sri Lanka and records? Granted that they have had reasonable success in Tests and one-dayers in recent years, but you wouldn't call them a world-beating side. They would appear to rely too heavily on Murali in the bowling department (and to some extent, Vaas), and Mahela-Sangakkara in batting. So their successes have been sporadic. And yet, they have this penchant for eye-popping performances, and setting records of all kinds!

Here are a few examples:
  • The highest Test innings of all time, their 952/6d against India in 1997, as well as the highest ODI innings of all time - 443/9 vs Netherlands.
  • Murali of course - highest Test wicket-taker of all time, 746 and counting. Murali will soon cross Akram to become the highest wicket-taker in ODIs as well.
  • Murali again - most 5WIs and 10WMs in Test history, and assorted other records stemming from his prolific wicket-taking (like most LBWs or whatever, too many to list).
  • Massive individual scores like Mahela Jayawardene's 374 and Jayasuriya's 340.
  • The two biggest partnerships of all time in Tests: Mahela and Sanga's 624 vs South Africa, and Jaya-Mahanama's 576 vs India.
  • The all-time best ODI bowling performance: ChamindaVaas' 8-19 vs. Zimbabwe.
  • Vaas' match above is also the shortest completed ODI ever - Sri Lanka "chased" down the target of 39 in about 4 overs, making it 20 overs in all in the game! The next two in the list of shortest games also feature Sri Lanka, beating Canada and Zimbabwe (again).
  • Sri Lanka have this propensity to absolutely destroy weak opponents. The lowest three innings totals in ODIs were all inflicted by Sri Lanka - in fact it's the same three matches referred to in the above bullet.
  • Chaminda Vaas' hat-trick off the first three balls of the match vs. Bangladesh in the 2003 World Cup.
  • Jayasuriya has an array of stunning innings in ODIs, the fastest 50 (17 balls), the most sixes in an innings (11) as well as career, and some of the fastest 100s as well.
For a country that is still young in cricketing terms, that's a terrific collection of achievements. Some of these are sheer bursts of brilliance, others come from longevity and maintaining performance over long periods. How do we explain that? It's not as if the average Sri Lankan is athletically or physically gifted (as you might claim for a West Indian). Nor do they have a particularly strong sporting culture and training systems (a la Australia), that I know of.

Does it have something to do with being regarded as "minnows" for a long time? Maybe that hurts your pride so much that when you get the chance, you absolutely make it count, rub it in - witness the 952/6d innings, when they went on batting and didn't bother to declare early enough to force a result. Or it is just coincidence that they've produced a small number of brilliant individual performers like Murali and Jaya who keep setting records? Does it have something to do with being an island nation, and the resultant implications on culture? Can we compare them with the West Indies, which has similarly had brilliant individuals, but also formidable world-beating teams?

I must admit I am not satisfied with any of these "explanations". Why hasn't New Zealand produced similar feats for example, despite being somewhat similar to Sri Lanka in many of the above respects? Or have they, except that they chose rugby instead?

I wonder if someone could do a thesis on this topic and enlighten us all :)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The good ol' days - live scorecards using 'dougie' and 'finger'

More reminiscences of the early days of cricket on the Internet...

Just as CricInfo was getting started, there was another revolution on the 'net, around the 1992-93 timeframe. Jacques De Villiers, a student in South Africa (and no relation to Fanie or AB, as far as I know!), wrote a neat little program called dougie. This was a cricket scoring program coupled with an Internet-wide score distribution system - well before the emergence of the web and browers. For those of us yearning for live score updates, it was positively a boon! Here's more on how it worked.

The dougie program worked in two modes - let's call them master and listener. A volunteer scorer watched the game, usually on TV, and operated dougie in master mode. The program had a command-line interface using which the scorer entered the 'events' on each ball, using short-hand commands. For example, if it was a dot ball, the scorer merely entered a '.' whereas if it was hit for a four, the scorer typed in '4'. There were similar commands for recording extras, the fall of wickets, a change of bowling, etc.

Of course, most users of dougie never needed to learn these commands - only the scorers did. Most of us were listeners. Now we used dougie in conjunction with the finger utility available on most Unix systems. The person who was doing the scoring would typically post to the Usenet newsgroup, giving us their address (, or whatever). The master dougie would internally keep track of the complete scorecard, including the bowling analyses, etc. and store a plain-text, nicely-formatted version of the scorecard in the user's .plan file. If I was only interested in an occasional update, I would run the command "finger", which fetches that user's .plan file and displays it on my screen. So I'd get to see the latest scorecard.

However, most of us were greedier - we wanted the live scorecard, continually refreshing itself! For that, we had to have the dougie program downloaded and installed on our machines. It was available for free via anonymous FTP in the form of source code, and we had to compile it on our machines. Now we'd run dougie in its default listener mode, and give it the Internet address (hostname and port number) of the master dougie. The listener would set up a connection (TCP) with the master, and hey presto, we'd have the latest, live, self-updating scorecard displayed on our screens! Every time the scorer entered a command into the master dougie, the command (just that '.' or '4' or whatever) would be relayed to all the listeners, who would then update their scorecards accordingly. So by transmitting a tiny amount of data, dougie could regenerate and display the live scorecard for many users.

Now dougie had even more tricks up its sleeve. Although those were early days of the Internet, there were still hundreds, if not thousands of users interested in following the scores live. If all of them had tried to connect to the master dougie, we'd have a resource problem - not enough network bandwidth at the master machine, not enough ports to connect to, etc. So Jacques et al. came up with a neat solution to that. The master would only support 4 listeners. When a fifth listener dougie came along, it would be told "sorry, the master's too busy, why don't you try one of my four children who are already connected?". Then that fifth listener would connect with the first child, and start getting live updates from it. Similarly, a sixth listener would connect to the next child. Whenever the master sent out an update to its four listener children, each of them would propagate the update to their respective dougie listeners (children), and so on recursively. Thus a hierarchical distribution tree was formed over time, keeping the load on any one machine/network in check.

Once in a while, the master would terminate all its connections (children). The effect of course was that the entire tree of listener dougies would stop getting updates. All of them would then race to the master, trying to reconnect. The first four - presumably the ones 'closest' to the master on the network, and not necessarily the same as the original four children - would become immediate children of the master, while the others would then reconnect via those children, forming the tree again. This way, a more efficient tree would be regenerated periodically, helping optimize the network usage further. I can tell you, it worked very well! I used to get seemingly instantaneous updates to the scorecard on my screen!

Later, the same dougie was adapted for use by CricInfo. In addition to generating those .plan files, it would generate an HTML page that would be available on CricInfo via the web. Also, the scorer using the master dougie could also type in "commentary" in addition to recording the 'event' that occurred on a specific ball. That commentary of course would also appear in the CricInfo scorecard on the web. Vishal Misra and Travis Basevi, two of my volunteer 'colleagues' at CricInfo, made lots of enhancements to dougie for this purpose.

Some derivative of dougie is still used I believe, to generate the scorecard and commentary you see today on CricInfo. So, a tip of the hat, and a heartfelt thank-you to Jacques for creating dougie!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Cricketing autobiographies and biographies

I'm one of those cricket nuts who can't get enough of the game... Even with all the cricket on TV, opportunities to watch cricket at the grounds, and playing cricket at home with my 4-year-old, I need more, more, more!

A great way to get that fix is to pick up a cricket book. There's a long history of great writing on cricket, by the likes of Neville Cardus, Jack Fingleton, John Arlott, Mihir Bose and so on. There are books on the history of the game, like the one by Mihir Bose on India's cricket history. There are books on specific series such as Fingleton's famous book on the Bodyline series, or Scyld Berry's "Cricketwallah" on England's 1981 tour to India. There are instruction manuals written by famous cricketers (like Don Bradman on the Art of Cricket, or Mike Brearly on the Art of Captaincy). There are books on cricketing cities, like Sandeep Bamzai's book on Bombay cricket called "Guts to Glory".

I generally devour anything I can find on cricket, but my favourite genre remains the (auto)biography. There's nothing like reading about famous matches in the words of those greats who helped make them memorable. And there's nothing like reading about the little on-tour / dressing-room incidents and accidents that reveal so much about the characters of our cricketing heroes.

Like many others of my generation in India, my initiation to cricketing autobiographies was via Sunil Gavaskar's "Sunny Days". It was written surprisingly early in his career, around 1975-76 if I remember correctly -- only 5 years since his debut. But it had me hooked. Apart from all the on- and off-field incidents that we never saw (no TV coverage), it was great to read about his early years, his participation in University cricket and other local tournaments, etc. Of course I went on to read all his subsequent books - Idols, Runs 'n Ruins and One-day Wonders. He stopped publishing in the book form after One-day Wonders, unfortunately, although he regularly writes columns in newspapers, and is of course often seen and heard on TV as a commentator. Somehow it's not the same as reading an autobiography.

Since then, I've been picking up autobiographies wherever and whenever I could. David Gower's autobiography was one of the best reads, very well written. Geoff Boycott's autobiography is, like his commentary on TV, blunt and entertaining. I also enjoyed the dreaded West Indian fast bowlers Michael Holding ("Whispering Death") and Malcolm Marshall ("Marshall Arts") revealing their art and psyche. The very contrasting Erapalli Prasanna ("One More Over") and Sandeep Patil ("Sandy Storm") are wonderful to read, not necessarily because of the quality of the writing, but because they were such giant-sized childhood heroes to me. Another childhood hero Kapil Dev was however a bit disappointing when it came to his writing (or ghost-writing).

On a somewhat different note, I remember reading "The Burning Finger", the memoirs of an Indian Test umpire (M.V. Gothoskar, if I remember correctly). Again, great to read about the game from an umpire's perspective. Similarly, a popular radio and TV commentator of the 1970s and 1980s, Fredun DeVitre has written a very entertaining book called "Willow Tales", a collection of anecdotes contributed by several cricketers.

I'm sure I'm forgetting several other biographies and autobiographies that I've read over the years. Which ones are your favourites? Do leave a comment to recommend a good cricketing book.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

When Kapil's Devils played Azhar's Army

The 25th anniversary of India's World Cup win in 1983 has recently brought that team, usually referred to as "Kapil's Devils", back to the limelight. Of course some of them have remained in the public consciousness all through, for various cricketing and non-cricketing reasons - Kapil himself, Gavaskar, Shastri, Vengsarkar, Kirti Azad, etc. But it was good to see others like Mohinder Amarnath, Sandeep Patil, Kiri and Balwinder Sandhu being feted and showered with gifts. The BCCI-organized function was a nostalgia-inducing event for those of us who had followed the 1983 Prudential Cup closely. Kapil spoke wonderfully at the function, with anecdotes and insights into each team member as he called them up on stage.

This event reminded me of a game I had watched at the Wankhede Stadium in April 1999 - just before the 1999 World Cup in England. It was a friendly match organized for charity, and for wishing the Indian team luck. The game was between "Azhar's Army" - the Indian team selected for the world cup, and "Kapil's Devils". It was very well attended indeed - something like 30,000 fans thronged the Wankhede, mostly to see the 1983 team back together. It was a day/night game, the first D/N game I'd had the opportunity to watch from the stadium.

The event started off in spectacular fashion, with a helicopter landing inside the stadium! Kapil and Azhar emerged from it, waited for the helicopter to take off, and then did the toss in the centre. Azhar's Army batted first, and Kapil & Sandhu opened the bowling. Kapil still had a bit of pace, and bowled a few short ones. But overall, it was clearly a festival atmosphere and the bowling was friendly. Azhar's team racked up 292/4 in their allotted 35 overs, at more than 8rpo. The star was of course Sachin Tendulkar who made a quick century and ended up 115* off just 98 balls. He was at the peak of his powers then, and the Mumbai crowd was absolutely in love with him.

The 1983 team batted quite well in their reply. Several of them had retired not too long back from first-class cricket - Kapil, Sandeep Patil, Vengsarkar, etc. But Gavaskar did not bat, which was a disappointment for the Mumbai crowd. Of course he was nearly 50 years old then, and hadn't played first-class cricket for a dozen years. The team ended up scoring 202 in their 35 overs, but no one in the stadium really cared about the result. It was good fun to see the oldies again after a long time... Kapil making a few rear off a short length, Mohinder trundling in as usual, Patil tonking the bowling, Vengsarkar unfurling some cover drives, and Srikkanth doing his antics in the field!

Apart from reviving the 1983 nostalgia, the event served its charitable purpose well - Rs.20 lakh each were given to the families of Raman Lamba (who had died recently of a head injury sustained while fielding in a club game in Bangaldesh), and Ramnath Parker (who had been in coma for a long time then).

After the game, I wrote up a "match report" for CricInfo... and a Google search reveals that it's still there :)