Wednesday, August 27, 2008


I just made up that word... so I get to decide what it means! It means the love of stadia (or stadiums, if you prefer). More precisely, I'm actually referring to the love of watching cricket - or other games - in stadia, as against on TV. Somehow it just feels like a different game altogether when you're watching it in real life, and not just live.

I've heard these arguments in favour of TV coverage numerous times - the dozen viewing angles, the action replays, the statistics (or often, trivia), the "expert" commentary, the snickometers and Hawkeyes, and so on. And yet, watching it in the stadium gives me a much better feel for the game. The 360 degree view, the thwack-sound of willow on leather, the smell of fresh-cut grass, the excitement of a ball being lofted into your stand... TV coverage just can't convey these.

And so, I'm a stadia-phile. Truth be told, I haven't had the chance to see too many cricket stadia. I grew up watching cricket at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai of course. I've seen all kinds of matches there - Tests, ODIs, Ranji and Duleep games, and even a festival match between Kapil's Devils and Azhar's Army! In the early days, I used to sit in the West Stand - courtesy of free passes from one of the clubs to whom they are allotted. This gives you a view from square-leg or cover, which isn't ideal. But it does have the advantage that the stand is in the shadows during the hot Mumbai afternoon, unlike the East Stand where you get roasted! Later on, I watched a lot of games from the Garware Pavilion. Always tried to find a seat close to the player's enclosure above the dressing room. On more than one occasion, I was able to toss an autograph book over the fence to the players (Karsan Ghavri - my idol, Raju Kulkarni, etc.), to get their autographs!

Also had the chance to watch some games at the Brabourne Stadium next door, but only rarely - by the time I started watching cricket, the Wankhede had already been built. Nevertheless it was fun to see the Brabourne pavilion (much better looking than the Wankhede of course), the clock that was once smashed by an Ajit Wadekar sixer, etc.

Back in 1983, while still in school, I had the chance to watch an ODI at the Lal Bahadur Shastri Stadium in Hyderabad. We had travelled by train from Mumbai, to spend the Ganapati holidays with an uncle. The train reached Hyderabad in the morning. My uncle greeted us at the station, put us into his Ambassador car, and took us straight to the stadium! Unknown to us, he had arranged for tickets to this match between India and Pakistan - what a treat! By the time we reached the stadium, the match was about to start. As we were negotiating the lines to get in, up went an almighty roar from the crowd inside -- Kapil had got the wicket of Mudassar Nazar off the very second ball of the match! India went on to win that game comfortably, leaving me with great memories, and a small tinge of regret at having missed the first wicket.

Ten years later, I spent a week or so in London. It was my first visit to the U.K. There is, of course, so much to see in London. But I spent my first day in London visiting three "places of pilgrimage" - Lord's, the Oval, and Wimbledon! I had bought an all-day pass for the London underground (4 pounds, at that time), and used that to zip over from one place to another. It was great fun to visit these stadia. This was in the first week of October (1993), so the cricket season had just ended, and there was no cricket-stalking to be done! But that was a blessing in disguise, because in the off-season, you get to stomp around the entire ground, including the pavilions, the changing rooms, etc.

At Lord's, there is a guided tour available. An old (very old) MCC member took a small bunch of us around the ground, pointing out the various famous landmarks like the W.G.Grace gate, the Father Time weathervane, the then-headquarters of the ICC, etc., all the while chattering away about various incidents in cricketing history associated with Lord's. We also saw the museum with the original Ashes urn among (many) other memorabilia. But the highlight of the guided tour was walking through the Long Room in the pavilion, and the home & visiting teams' dressing rooms! It was amazing to be standing in the balcony where Kapil Dev and co. lifted the 1983 World Cup. The honours boards in the dressing rooms where every Test century and 5-fer is recorded... And the Long Room, with all the portraits of famous crickets of years past, and a selection of Bradman's bats. The old guide pointed out portraits of Larwood, Voce and Jardine and asked us "So what connects these gentlemen?" I immediately piped up, "Bodyline!", and the old member was suitably impressed - "The young man knows his cricket!". I almost replied with a "Pshaw" to that one, it was too easy :-)

After Lord's, the Kennington Oval - the home ground of Surrey CCC, and host to many memorable Test matches - is inevitably a bit of a letdown. For one thing, when I visited it, it had been renamed the "Foster's Oval", after the sponsor, a beer brand. You just don't do that to venerable cricket stadia! But there it was... Secondly, there was no guided tour there, and no entry to the pavilion itself. But I was free to walk around, and I did, breathing in the history of the place, replaying in my mind the grainy highlights of Chandra bowling out the English in 1971! There was also a cricket museum there, which was quite nice, and I was able to pick up some souvenirs.

Since this is a cricket blog, I won't go into my Wimbledon visit the same day - suffice it to say that as a tennis fan too, that was yet another wonderful experience, albeit without the strawberries and cream.

I lived in Delhi for almost 6 years, but somehow never managed to watch a game at the Feroze Shah Kotla. The Kotla has such a poor reputation for spectator comfort/convenience that I never really felt like going. Now that it's being rebuilt, one can hope that those issues will go away. I'm now based in Pune, which sadly doesn't host Tests. So I'm waiting for the next opportunity to watch a one-dayer at the Nehru Stadium here. What I've seen of it from the outside isn't particularly promising, but if the cricket is good, it may be worth it!

Friday, August 22, 2008

"Ground" Realities

Many of us grew up playing cricket on whatever open spaces we could find, no matter how strangely shaped. In previous posts (here, and here) I had referred to cricket being played on concrete walkways, apartment-building terraces, and even baseball diamonds. There is enormous variation in the shapes and playing surfaces, and it prepares the young cricketer for anything!

Fans of Sunil Gavaskar must surely know that his early cricket was played on a narrow, rectangular strip of ground next to his apartment building (in Chikhalwadi, Mumbai). That forced the kids to play as straight as possible, and perhaps that's why Gavaskar was the master of playing in the 'V'. Also, the ground-floor apartments had glass windows, and any hits in the air could smash the window panes - which taught the young Gavaskar to keep his strokes along the ground!

In contrast, a lot of West Indian cricketers play their early cricket on the beaches of the Caribbean. Strokes hit along the ground don't travel too far in the sand, and the only way to score runs quickly is to hit them in the air, avoiding the fielders as much as possible. That may explain why Viv Richards was a master of the lofted shots. Alternatively, you had to be a Clive Lloyd type of batsman, who would bludgeon the ball with such force that it would reach the boundary even on a sandy beach!

In the old days of uncovered pitches, England had its share of great spinners as well as batsmen who could tackle spin bowling. The English cricket season is during the summer months, when it seems to rain much of the time! As a result, the county grounds would be grassy and soggy, and the pitches would be "sticky dogs". There are many examples of two spinners opening the bowling in Tests in England, because of these conditions. English and Australian spinners enjoyed great success in Ashes Tests in those days.

My own little experience with "ground realities" made me a predominantly on-side batsman. The ground in our colony had a reasonably good playing surface, but the pitch was skewed to one side of the ground, with a boundary wall close by. As a result, the off side was very small - barely 20 to 30 ft - so that there were no "boundaries" on the off side. If you hit the ball to that boundary wall, you just kept running and it was almost impossible to get more than 2 runs.

The on side was quite large, and dotted with several fruit (chickoo) trees that were about 15-20 ft tall. Given the constricted off-side, many of us ended up as "specialist" on-side batsmen! We'd play with open stances - not side-on, but with shoulder pointing to mid-wicket, almost. At the slightest hint of a short ball (plenty of those, at our level), we'd try and hook or pull the ball onto the spacious on side. Of course we also had to ensure that we cleared those fruit trees, else the ball would simply fall to ground somewhere near square leg or short mid-wicket, where a fielder was invariably stationed. So we never learned how to "roll the wrists" and keep the hook/pull shot down, but we certainly honed our ability to play the bouncer and capitalize on it!

The downside was that our off-side game was badly underdeveloped. I was never able to play the square cut or square drive reliably, for example. Never got the timing right. Although the bowlers tried to restrict the batsmen by bowling on the off side, we'd just step across and hoik the ball to the on side. The long-off boundary was just about the only scoring option on the off side, so we did get plenty of practice at the lofted shots, especially against the (few) spinners. But inevitably, due to our open-chested stances, we'd end up pulling the lofted shot to long-on or deep mid-on.

Makes me wonder whether Sourav Ganguly played his early cricket on a similar ground, except with a non-existent on-side!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The TV Referral System

The India-Sri Lanka series has just ended, and apart from the cricket proper, a major source of interest was the trial of the TV referral system. So what's the verdict at the end of the series? Is it good, bad, or ugly? A few thoughts and observations...

First of all, the most common criticism of the referrals have been that they take too much time. And they do, but I think this criticism is misplaced. Time wasn't a major factor in this Test series at all -- none of the Tests went into the fifth day. And that's probably true of most Tests these days. So I'd wager that in most cases, referrals won't result in a draw for lack of time to complete four innings.

Are referrals boring? Certainly not for TV audiences, who get to watch the slo-mo replays and Hawkeyes and snickometers and guess which way the TV umpire will go. And since most grounds these days have giant TV screens, the spectators in the stadium won't mind those couple of minutes of tension either.

Are referrals useful overall? Ah, now that's a tough one. Tony Greig, doing the commentary on TV, harped on the point that the right decision was being made in the end. Going by the letter of the Laws of Cricket, that's probably true. Assuming that the technology is reasonably accurate, the TV umpire should be able to make the right decision - which incidentally includes applying the benefit of the doubt, if any, in favour of the batsman. Even the letter of the Law requires that. But is that really happening overall?

Now both sides have an "equal opportunity" to challenge an umpire's decision. But notice the pattern of the successful reviews - almost all of them have overturned an umpire's "not out" decision, thus favouring the fielding side overall. There were very few cases of a batsman being wrongly given out, successfully challenging the decision. Most of the batsman-initiated challenges failed to change the decision, even in the case of LBWs. That in itself tells us something - that umpires tend to get the "outs" correct most of the time!

So what the reviews are achieving is to reverse the umpire's "not outs", most of which were LBW decisions. Those were "not outs" in the first place because the umpire gave the benefit of doubt to the batsman, as he should. It's particularly tricky for LBWs, because the Law is pretty complex. The umpire has to be convinced that the ball would have gone on to hit the stumps, hasn't pitched even marginally outside leg, etc. And if the impact was outside the off stump line, the umpire has to judge the batsman's intent - whether he meant to play a shot or not. Given this Law, and the history of its application over the decades, we have come to expect relatively few LBW appeals to be successful. And that's partly because of the nature of the game-play itself. After all, the batsman has to stand somewhere, and can't be expected to keep the ball off his legs every time. The Law probably came into being to stop any blatant attempts to guard the stumps using the pads rather than the bat. It shouldn't be used as an excuse to get a wicket, just because the ball happens to hit the batsman's pad. Some of the LBWs given after review in this series were so marginal (e.g. pad-bat in that sequence, or height-wise just clipping the bail) that it's hard to claim that the right decision was made in the end.

Some would argue that it's about time the bowlers got some help against the meatier bats, the bouncer restrictions, etc. But by practically eliminating the benefit of doubt using technology, the referral system is altering the game at a fundamental level. In the traditional game, if a batsman is wrongly given out, that's it, his innings is over, no second chance. If the batsman is wrongly given not-out, tough luck for the fielding side, but they have plenty of second chances. If the referral system is adopted, this fundamental nature of the game changes (a little, at least). It will have an impact on batting techniques in the years to come. And in the process, it's not solving a real problem. Did we have an outcry among the bowlers because their appeals were being wrongly turned down? Not that I know of. Did we have an outcry among batsmen because they were being wrongly given out. Yes, for time immemorial. Even if you consider the latter a problem, the TV referrals aren't needed to solve that. Just having TV replays provides enough evidence that the batsmen have no cause for complaint.

Referrals also have an insidious side effect - loss of respect for the authority of the umpire. It's essentially giving the player the right to challenge the umpire's decision, and that can't be good for the larger game. Outside of international cricket, there will be no TV coverage and no referrals. But the kids learn from what they see on TV, and make no mistake, they will learn that it's okay to challenge the umpire.

The use of a TV umpire in itself is okay for line decisions, bump balls and the like - but the decision whether to call upon the third umpire should rest with the on-field umpires. TV referrals have been tried and junked in other sports like American football. I'd suggest doing the same in cricket.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Mendis the Menace

It's been fascinating to watch the Indian batsmen battle Ajantha Mendis (and Murali, lest we forget) over the first two Tests in Sri Lanka. Mendis has had amazing success against a batting lineup that is often said to be the best against spin bowling. Does this mean Mendis is on a different plane altogether, or is it due to his being new and freaky? I'll explore this question in this post.

If you look at the Indian batting, two of its pillars - Dravid and Laxman - have built their reputations on conquering fast bowling rather than spin. Add in Yuvraj Singh, although he's hardly a regular in the Test team. In the past, spinners like Saqlain Mushtaq and Murali have had the measure of these batsmen. Dravid and Laxman have struggled badly in this series especially against Mendis, never sure whether to stretch forward or play off the backfoot. Whatever plan they had for tackling the M&Ms, it hasn't worked.

Sachin, Sehwag and Ganguly are of course very, very good against spin and Gambhir is proving that he belongs in that company. Ganguly hasn't quite shown it in this series, but Sehwag and Gambhir have scored freely against M&M, and Sachin has looked comfortable. So, overall, it must still be said that the Indian top-6 are the best lineup against spin bowling in the world. Which brings us back to Mendis the menace.

What's special about Mendis? It's that never-before-seen bowling action, the carrom-flick delivery, but it's also the variety. In the past I've often wondered, why doesn't an off spinner try bowling the occasional leg spin (with the conventional wrist action), or vice versa? Sachin Tendulkar does it, once in a while. Easy enough to pick, sure, but wouldn't it add to the uncertainty in the batsman's planning? Everything you're taught about technique, hitting with the spin etc. has to be rethought if the bowler can't be slotted as an LBG, SLA or whatever.

That's what Mendis has achieved. Apart from his carrom-flick ball which moves either way, he bowls a conventional off spinner and a finger-action googly (a la Kumble). These don't just spin in different directions (or go straight on occasionally), there are also small variations in pace. Even if you can pick him out of the hand, you're still forced to do it every single delivery! Imagine the levels of concentration and application that demands of the batsman. In contrast, with most left-arm orthodox bowlers you know which way it's going to turn, and you only have to watch out for the arm ball from round the wicket. With LBG bowlers, the googly is only used as a surprise weapon once in a couple of overs, so again the batsman can set himself to play leg-spin, with variations only in line and length. And similarly with off-spinners, it's only a rare few who can bowl the occasional doosra; most of the time, you know it's going to turn off-to-leg.

Mendis' carrom ball is his real novelty, and doubly so because he can get it to move both ways. Listening to the commentators, it doesn't seem that they have figured it out either. The one thing I've noticed in the slow-mo replays is that the seam position seems to matter. When the seam is reasonably upright, it seems to move like an off-break; when it's almost cross-seam, it spins from leg-to-off. But I haven't seen enough replays to mark a definite correlation with the seam position. I'm sure the video analysts of most Test teams are hard at work already. So it's possible that it's only a matter of time (and enough video evidence) before the batsmen get some help in tackling that ball.

Old-timers talk about how, when India's Prasanna and Venkat would bowl their off-spinners, the ball would make a whizzing sound on its way to the batsman. That's because they didn't merely roll their fingers over the ball. They gripped the ball on the seam, like a seam bowler might, with forefinger and middle-finger on top and the thumb underneath. And at the point of delivery, they'd impart lots of rpms on the ball with a mighty snap of the fingers. Apart from imparting spin, this had the effect of generating a nice loop or drift (depending on the arm action). Most of today's spinners don't do that, and are consequently less effective. Mendis and Murali don't either, but their actions are totally unconventional anyway.

Anyway, that was a digression... So, even if the video evidence yields some results, Mendis will remain difficult to tackle simply because of his variety, his four different deliveries, all bowled regularly (and not just as an occasional surprise weapon). His real achievement is not in developing four different deliveries - Shane Warne will claim that he had many more - but in having such control over all of them as to bowl them at will. The LBG bowler often struggles to pitch the googly on the right line and length, and often gets it woefully short or down the leg side. Not so with Mendis. His control over line (almost invariably within the "mat") and length (rare short balls) is wonderful. He still hasn't been really tested of course - bowling on a totally flat pitch, going through a long series of wicketless overs, or being attacked by batsman willing to use their feet. If he can retain that control and variety in adverse conditions, he will continue to be successful in Test cricket. Of course, these days a lot happens in cricket between Test series. How he fares in the limited overs versions of the game will have a bearing as well. But that's a topic for another day...