Monday, October 27, 2008

What's a 'talented' cricketer?

A while back, I posted this article about batting class, and asked whether it matters any more in this age of slam-bang cricket.  A similar but somehow different issue is that of cricketing talent.  What constitutes a talent for cricket, and how do coaches and selectors / spotters go about identifying talented cricketers?

Make no mistake, talent is (or should be) the primary criterion for selection into an international side.  Once you're established in the team, then your performance as measured by statistics can certainly be used for or against you.  But if performance was the primary criterion, you wouldn't need good cricketers as selectors - a statistician, heck even a computer program would serve the purpose.  So what exactly is it that the selectors look for?

Now the answer will of course differ for the three disciplines of batting, bowling and fielding.  So I'll try and address them one at a time.  Let's take the easy one first - fielding.  A talented fielder is surely one who is athletic, quick on his feet, etc.  A catcher should have quick reactions, steady hands, and the movement of the hands to take catches should be smooth, not jerky.  Think of a Jacques Kallis in the slips, steady as a rock.  His hands always seem to end up in the right place for a slip catch.  A fielder in the "ring" should be able to quickly change direction, dive, hit the stumps from 25-30 yards out, etc.  No better example than Jonty Rhodes of course, or Ricky Ponting.   Some of these attributes can be learned with lots of practice (like hitting the stumps), but others are natural, and thus constitute fielding talent.

On to bowling.  Let's take fast bowling first.  A naturally talented fast bowler would probably have to have good build (and height), and the ability to channel his muscular strength into generating pace through the air.  He should have an action that lends itself to extracting bounce from the wicket as well.  Now actions can be modified over time with coaching, but if it comes naturally to the bowler, chances are that he'll be more successful than one who is coached.  Think of Michael Holding, or Alan Donald, or Dennis Lillee before his injury.  Natural born fast bowlers, not just in physique and action, but also in the mind.  Of today's crop, only Brett Lee and Dale Steyn seem to fit the bill.

What about swing bowling?  Why do some bowlers seem to get more swing than others, in the same conditions?  Here, it seems to be more about your action than any physical attributes.  The coaches can show you how to hold the ball, angle the seam, etc.  But eventually it comes down to the action that feels most natural to you.  Some bowlers automatically seem to find the right arm action, cocking of the wrist, grip on the ball, etc.  That's a naturally talented bowler.  Think of Irfan Pathan, before it all went awry.  Rhythm, and a clear head, also seem to play a significant role in swing bowling.  These are natural attributes as well, and can't really be coached.

As for spinners, many different techniques have been developed over the years for the different kinds of spin.  It appears to me that most of these are coachable, learnable, and thus don't constitute natural talent.  To some extent, rhythm in the run-up and bowling action plays a role.  But the imparting of spin doesn't appear to be a natural talent.  It is usually learnt and practised over years of junior cricket.  The great spinners (no better example than Shane Warne) manage to land the ball in the right areas, or flight it teasingly, or disguise the wrong 'un just a bit better than the ordinary ones.  There's of course the ability to out-think the batsman - to understand his mindset, predict his intent, and bowl accordingly.  But that's more of a native intelligence than bowling talent.

And now for batting.  As discussed in that earlier post, batting class is hard to define and yet easy to spot.  But there must be more to batting talent than class, because there are plenty of batsmen who were talented and successful, but you wouldn't call them classy.  There are plenty of examples of those, like Alan Border, Javed Miandad, or Ricky Ponting.  It seems to come down to instinctively making the right body movements when batting.  Of course you need the ability to pick up the bowler's length and line at (or very soon after) the point of release.  You need to pick the spinners out of their hand, or while the ball is in flight.  But I get the feeling that these things can be coached.

What cannot be coached is the response, once you've picked the bowler and made a prediction as to how the ball will behave on its way to you.  The movements of the feet - forward or back by the right amount, getting to the pitch of the ball or making room for a horizontal-bat shot, etc. - determine the batsman's success at tackling the delivery, along with things like the transfer of weight onto the correct foot (front or back) at the right time.  That's what gives you the right shot selection and timing.  The ability to play several different shots to the same ball is probably something that can be coached and practised.  If the mind is clear, and sharp enough, the batsman can process all this information and pick a shot to play.  The body movements that follow though, must come naturally and at the right time, down to fractions of a second.  Of the modern greats, Tendulkar, Ponting and Lara are good examples of this.  They're rarely caught on the wrong foot, making the wrong movements.

Some batsmen also appear to be better at placement than others.  Think of Saurav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid, especially in ODIs, in the 1990s.  Ganguly would usually be faced with a packed off-side field, and yet manage to find the gaps regularly.  The young Dravid would often play these wonderful looking flicks and drives, straight at the fielders!  Some batsmen just hit the ball in the right fashion, with great timing and all that.  Others seem to be able to use the bat to give direction to the ball.  Another example - contrast Sehwag's off-side strokes with those of his partner Gambhir.  Sehwag clearly places the ball into the gaps - his strokes, his arm, foot and upper body movements are designed to give direction to the ball (except when he's in his mad hitting moods of course).  Gambhir is more coached and thus more likely to find the fielders.

Aside from these physical aspects, of course there's also the mindset, the attitude, the psychology of the batsman.  I'm not really considering how a batsman responds to a particular team situation - whether he plays safe when the team is under pressure, or attacks when quick runs are needed, or picks certain bowlers to go after, certain fielders to pressurize.  While those attributes are important, they don't really constitute raw batting talent.  It's more about cricketing intelligence, and even if it can't be made intrinsic, it can certainly be coached.  So if I was a selector, I wouldn't give primacy to that aspect in picking talented cricketers.

Watching age-group or league-level cricket is great fun, because you can pretend to be a selector and look for the talented ones.  Now that's the "Cricket Stalker" in me talking :)

Monday, October 20, 2008

Are Test matches getting too predictable?

We've certainly heard, read and debated a lot about how one-day internationals are predictable, and how the middle overs have settled into a pretty boring pattern.  There are occasional attempts to shake things up, like the recent rule change allowing the batting team to choose one Powerplay, or compulsory ball changes, or the earlier experiment with substitutes.  All that tinkering with the rules hasn't really helped though, and I'm certainly losing interest in ODIs.  Twenty20 is more interesting not just because it's more action-packed (of necessity), but also because it's newer, and teams have not yet figured it out.

What about Test matches?  I know, it is almost a sacrilege to ask this question...  But are Test matches getting predictable?  Certainly, the variety of cricket on display in a 5-day encounter cannot be matched by the shorter forms of the game.  And there's no questioning the fact that Tests provide the real, all-round test of a cricketer's skills.  But when it comes to the pattern of play, things appear to be getting predictable.

"Win the toss and bat first" is almost an adage, and for good reason.  In most conditions, on most pitches, the first couple of days are the most conducive for batting.  Ideally, you'd like to occupy the crease for five sessions and declare with an hour to go on day-2.  You know the routine, pile up the runs, put the opposition's openers under pressure for a sustained hour of fast bowling, come back fresh on the morning of day-3, etc.  If you can pull it off, that formula does seem to work.  The only recent variation is that teams aren't enforcing the follow-on these days, whereas the earlier pattern would have called for the follow-on when available.

Note that the adage above starts with the toss.  A major role is thus played by Lady Luck.  In the case of teams that are well-matched, such as the Australia and India teams currently slugging it out in Mohali, this is quite unfortunate.  Note how the first two Tests have gone.  Australia won the toss in the first Test, batted, piled up 400-odd.  India were immediately under pressure, and it was only a rearguard effort by Harbhajan and Zaheer that kept them in contention in the Test.  Australia tried to put on some quick runs in the second innings and declared, setting India a stiff target.  This exact pattern has repeated itself in the second Test at Mohali, except that the roles have been reversed -- thanks to the toss!

It's true that the five days of play allow captains plenty of scope to experiment with tactics.  But overall, strategies don't seem to vary much at all.  Is this because the pitches are too similar?  Because the bowlers are too similar?  Because teams are too familiar with each other these days?  So, while it's still a pleasure to watch Test cricket in its details, perhaps it's losing out some of its charm as a game of strategy.  Even some tactics that were used often in the old days seem to be dying out.  How long has it been since a captain used an inverted batting order?  Or a 3-6 legside field?  When was the last time a team played with four/five pacemen and no spinner, or vice versa?  Perhaps we've made the stakes too high for teams to experiment... which is a shame.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Reflections on Ganguly's career

So, Saurav Ganguly's announced that he's playing his last Test series. Despite the protestations of shock and surprise from many quarters, this was clearly on the cards. Not so much because Ganguly wasn't performing well enough in Tests, but because of the ridiculous media pressure on him. More on the modern-day media and cricket journalism on another day perhaps. But it seems to me that Ganguly was 'pushed' by the media rather than the selectors, to take this decision.

It's not as if Ganguly will count as one of the all-time greats in Tests - he probably wouldn't even make it to an all-time Indian Test XI, as a batsman alone. If at all a place is found for him, it would have to be for his captaincy. As a captain, in all forms of the game, he stands head and shoulders above other Indian captains in history. Even above the likes of Gavaskar, Wadekar and Kapil, who can point to equally significant victories. That's because Ganguly was that rare combination of a smart tactician and a fine leader of men (a Gavaskar and Kapil rolled into one, sort of). Besides, at least on a few occasions, he also led from the front with bat in hand. That he wasn't called upon to do so more often was his good luck - having the likes of Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and Sehwag in his batting lineup. But his ability to get the best out of his team was unmatched by anyone in Indian cricket history. Youngsters and peers alike responded to his leadership, and as a result, India became an achiever in both forms of the game.

How does one evaluate Ganguly the batsman? The usual descriptors have appeared in the media since his announcement. God of the off-side. One of the greatest batsmen in one-day cricket. Clobberer of spin bowling (especially left-arm spinners). And of course, lalloo against the short ball! He was indeed all of that, and more. Some amazing natural batting talent, mixed with a few weaknesses - those weaknesses made him seem more mortal, and yet made sure we got to see his guts. He never really overcame these weaknesses - he continues to be uncomfortable against the ball headed for his ribs or helmet; he continues to give the occasional catching practice off good-length balls outside the off stump. But he delivered the runs despite these weaknesses. He'd cream one through the covers, get hit on the helmet next ball, but play a spanking pull to midwicket off the next short ball.

Ganguly faced less of a challenge in one-day cricket, with its bowling and fielding restrictions, and he ended up as one of the all-time greats. His record speaks for itself. Of course for true connoisseurs, the real test is Test cricket, where a pair of fast bowlers can bowl in tandem for an hour, or a spinner on a fifth-day crumbly pitch can attack with four men around the bat. And here too, the numbers speak volumes. Ganguly was a fine batsman, no doubt. But a Test average of 41-odd, in an era where the greats (Tendulkar, Ponting, Kallis, Dravid) averaged in the 55-60 range over equally long careers, means that Ganguly cannot be bracketed with these peers. Of course averages cannot be the sole criterion for greatness. We'd certainly make exceptions for Lara and Inzamam, who retired with averages well below that 55-60 range. But 41 is a long way away...

Ganguly is a good example of a modern-day player who benefited enormously from the popularity of (and frequency of) one-day cricket. Given the volume of cricket played these days, a Test series failure can be quickly forgotten if it's followed by good one-day performances. Also, the success (of self and team) in one-dayers can easily rub off on subsequent Test performances - by improving the player's confidence level, for one, and reducing any worries about his place in the team. Another player who might have thus benefited, if only he hadn't shot himself in the foot, was Vinod Kambli. Again, an extremely talented left-handed batsman, with similar weakness against the short ball. He was however selected and dropped so many times from the one-day team that he never got that confidence back. And he was never picked again for the Test team after being dropped with a Test average of 54!

Ganguly's departure will create an open slot in the middle order, probably at #6 (with Laxman moving up to #5). Much has been written about how there are no contenders for this slot, and how Ganguly has hung around only because there are no replacements. That's poppycock, frankly. Dravid and Ganguly were totally untested when they made their debuts, replacing a seasoned batsman like Sanjay Manjrekar. In contrast, today's potential replacements have had lots of exposure to international cricket - even young kids like Rohit Sharma and Suresh Raina, not to mention the "lost generation" of Yuvraj Singh and Mohd. Kaif. In terms of talent, they don't come across as inferior to Ganguly at all. Whether they have the mental strength to emulate (or surpass) Ganguly in performance, we'll only know when we throw them into the deep end. Yuvraj and Kaif have been given several chances in Tests, although not necessarily in decent spells. They've been frustratingly inconsistent. But there certainly is plenty of bench strength with kids like Sharma, Raina and Virat Kohli around.

So, as Ganguly bids goodbye, I have some great memories - so many lovely cover drives that just blur together, the shirt-twirling performance at Lord's, the 144 at Brisbane, a 90-odd to chase down a tricky target in Sri Lanka... But the most fun memory of Ganguly, and one which illustrates his cheeky, naughty nature that so aggravated Steve Waugh and others, came during the 2003 World Cup. Ganguly had a contract with news channel NDTV for brief interviews after each match. Now NDTV is an English language channel, and the interviewer asked every single question in English, but Ganguly gave every single answer in Hindi, leaving the interviewer nonplussed! I don't know, it just made me smile :-)