Tuesday, October 13, 2009

IPL works, CL doesn't?

It may be just a trifle early to pass judgment on the Champions League -- the 20-20 tournament between top domestic teams from various cricket-playing countries. But I'll do it anyway. #FAIL! #FLOP! #BORE!

Are you watching it? Is anyone? Frankly, I watch it only in passing, if I happen to be channel surfing and there's a game on. Every time there's an ad break (and we all know how often that is), I switch channels and usually forget to come back! There's actually more interesting stuff elsewhere on TV!

So what's the problem, wasn't 20-20 the big new hit form of cricket? Aren't these teams the best of the best from the cricketing world? Why is it that the Indian Premier League works, and Champions League doesn't seem to?

The game is of course the same, the rules are the same. Three of the IPL teams are playing the CL. But the problem is the other 9 teams. They may be good, but they aren't interesting! Really, the Otago Volts? Or Sussex Sharks? Even with a couple of good players each, they're not likely to bring in the average T20 fan.

With the sheer amount of money in the IPL, each of the 8 IPL teams has a galaxy of bonafide international stars, some current, some recently retired, but all of them capable of drawing the crowds. Any IPL game has at least 5-7 such stars competing. Even the relatively poor performers like the Mumbai Indians have Sachin, Sanath, Bravo, Duminy, Zaheer... sure to get people to tune in! Then there's the attraction of seeing the youngsters -- at least two in each team -- whose occasional brilliant performance adds to the romance of the sport. A Manish Pandey scoring a 100, or a Dhawal Kulkarni graduating to the Indian team on the basis of his performance against the world's stars.

Which brings us to an observation -- the success of the IPL probably lies more in its star power than in the quality of the cricket itself. Of course the presence of great cricketers also ensures a high quality of cricket. But I'd wager that the CL doesn't suffer significantly in comparison, in terms of quality. It just lacks the star power in most games. So the audience for T20 seems to be more enamoured of stars than high quality cricket, or even close finishes.

I believe T20 leagues will flourish in the future. But these will mostly be domestic leagues. Within say, England, a domestic T20 league could become popular -- well, certainly draw more than the traditional 2 men and a dog! There's a long tradition of county rivalries, and enough identification with the English national players. Similarly, Australia, South Africa and the West Indies could well have successful domestic T20 leagues. India, by the way, probably cannot -- too many domestic teams, which means not enough quality.

But the real attraction will continue to the the IPL. There's probably no room in the calendar for yet another, month-long international T20 league, with stars from all the countries participating. By virtue of being the first mover, and having the financial muscle to attract all the top stars, the IPL has grabbed hold of the eyeballs. An abbreviated international tournament like the CL has little chance of success in the next few years. As a concept, it borrows heavily from European football of course, but it's too premature. Only when the domestic leagues are firmly established with each team having a solid, reliable fan base, can the CL concept be expected to draw attention. Till then, I'll wait for innovations like the 20-20-20-20 to fructify!

Saturday, September 19, 2009


Recently, Sachin Tendulkar suggested that 50-over ODIs needed a refresh, and proposed a two-innings contest with 25 overs per innings. Of course the idea is not new, but it has caught some attention because it came from Tendulkar, and because the T20 game has thrown doubt on the future of 50-over ODIs.

One thing is clear, the day-long, 50-overs ODI game is dying, and that's a good thing. It's been losing spectator interest for a while now, and has been kept alive only by gimmicks such as super-subs, powerplays and pulled-in boundaries. Even with these gimmicks, it's only the multi-nation tournaments (not even tri-series) that attract some interest. And of course spectator interest (and TV viewership) is necessary to commercially sustain the game. While cricket boards may still feel some obligation to support a loss-making Test version of the game, there would be no such obligation towards 50-over ODIs if they stop being commercially viable.

There is of course a potential successor to ODIs in the form of T20 cricket. At least for now, it has captured the audience and thus TV revenues are a given. However, T20s suffer from one big drawback -- less airtime. The typical T20 game only lasts half a day, and thus there is lesser airtime for TV to fill with commercials, compared to the day-long ODI. So T20 is only really viable, long-term, in the form of multi-team leagues or tournaments. With a league like the IPL or a T20 World Cup, you can schedule two games a day, not overlapping of course, and thus get more commercial time. But two-team country vs. country matches are not going to be viable for long. Of course the stadium will be full, but that's not where the revenues come from.

In this backdrop comes Tendulkar's suggestion of a two-innings, 25-over game. There are of course a few tweaks possible. Should a team start each innings afresh, or would the batsman dismissed in one innings be unavailable in the next? In my opinion, the team needs to have all its batsmen available in both innings. The attractiveness of T20s arises from the fact that each team has 10 wickets to 'spend' in 20 overs, and thus batsmen can take much higher levels of risk, compared to the 10-wickets-50-overs ODI game. Splitting the innings into two, without restoring the wickets, will only have the benefit of equalising the batting conditions for the two teams, to some extent. It cannot increase the pace of the game significantly. So it's best to emulate the T20 game and enable higher risk-taking. Secondly, it may not quite be feasible to cram in a 25-25-25-25 game in a day, given the added breaks between innings. So, a 20-20-20-20 game seems more reasonable, with a lunch break betwen the two T20s, and 10-minute breaks for the changeovers.

While we're at it, there could be more tinkering with field restrictions, etc. What if field restrictions are eliminated? Given the ability to spend 10 wickets, batsmen would likely still take nearly as much risk as the T20 game, but bowlers would be more likely to take wickets, and scores would be a bit less obscene. Some encouragement to the bowlers is necessary, otherwise attacking bowling will be an extinct art.

So, what does this mean to the traditional cricket lover, the Test match fan? This may sound like blasphemy, but this comes closest to a "mini-Test"... a "one-day Test", even! Certainly it won't have the range of cricketing skills that are on display in a good Test match. But the dynamics of a two-innings game would make things interesting -- a second chance, to make up for a first-innings failure; follow-ons perhaps... And this would open up a range of other possibilities -- such as a consolidated bowling limit across two innings. A bowler would be permitted to bowl 10 overs (or 8, or whatever) in the day, but not necessarily limited to 5 in each innings. So if a bowler was in the middle of a good spell, the captain might use him up in the first innings! Or on a Sri Lankan or Indian ground, the captain might hold back his main spinner for the second innings. If powerplays are retained, the captains would have the option to split them across innings as well. Let's say each team needs to have 8 overs of fielding restrictions, but the bowling captain has the ability to split these across innings arbitrarily. The range of tactical possibilities would certainly be broader than in the T20 format. And you wouldn't need multi-nation tournaments to enable the commercial viability of the game -- bilateral series would be quite feasible.

I think this is an idea whose time has come. ODIs have certainly gotten more predictable, or too dependent on the toss, with conditions favouring one side right from the outset. I would certainly prefer a future with Tests and "mini-Tests", and possibly no T20s at all!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Book review: Sachin is God!

Just finished reading an interesting, different sort of cricket book, with the somewhat unwieldy title of "If Cricket is a Religion, Sachin is God".

At one level, it's just a biography of Sachin Tendulkar written by a couple of fans, and one might be tempted to dismiss it as a hagiography -- but it's not. It may read somewhat like a statistical analysis of his career, and those of his contemporaries. But it's much more than that -- the authors do a good job of bringing out the context to his achievements, both at the micro level ("he walked in at 14/2 with a first-innings deficit of 250 staring India in the face") as well as at the macro level ("he was probably battling not just his opponents but also some of his teammates" -- a reference to the match-fixing era). It reminded me a little of the Gavaskar vs. Richards, or even the same Tendulkar vs. Lara arguments we used to have on Usenet newsgroup rec.sport.cricket. But then the book also offers the occasional deep analysis of cricketing and social context, and an interesting comparison of Sachin's achievements with those of Vishwanathan Anand, the chess champ.

The two co-authors of the book, Vijay Santhanam and Shyam Balasubramanian, are both IIT + IIM-A graduates who describe themselves as big Sachin fans, but also "analysts". Both are of course followers of that religion, but they try hard to provide objective analysis. Starting with their analysis of Indian cricket fans and fanatics, and an attempt to explain why cricket has taken on a religious form in India, the book moves on to Sachin's career.

The 20 year career is neatly divided into phases -- the "wunderkind phase", the rise, the fall, and then the resurrection. Apart from bald statistics, the authors provide lots of quotes from cricketers, commentators and journalists. They analyse the criticism of Sachin by the likes of Ian Chappell, Sanjay Manjrekar and various Cricinfo columnists. They counter it with data, as well as opposing opinion -- for example, Ian Chappell's comments on Sachin's 241* at Sydney are contrasted with Shane Warne's, on the same innings.

The authors have made extensive use of Cricinfo's Statsguru to generate their data. One interesting phenomenon they seem to have uncovered is what they call "the thirty-three effect". Basically, around the age of 33 (give or take a year), many batsmen appear to undergo a drastic slump. This is usually preceded by a monster year or two, and equally interestingly, is followed by a reversion to mean. This effect is startlingly demonstrated using numbers for top batsmen like Gavaskar, Richards, Boycott, Sobers, Hayden, Dravid, Miandad, etc. Needless to mention, Sachin also suffered a slump around the age of 33, which also coincided with his injury problems.

Somewhat less surprising is the demonstration of just how critical Sachin is to India's chances of winning, of how rarely India win when he's out of the team. Again the authors use statistics to compare just how much Sachin has to lift his game for India to win -- how much higher his average is when India wins, vs. his career average. In contrast, the numbers for the likes of Ponting, Hayden etc. don't change a lot -- because they are ably supported by several teammates in the lineup. There is plenty more analysis, such as the performances of Sachin and his contemporary batting greats against Australia, or the Aussies against India, etc. In each case, using data as well as context, the authors demonstrate how Sachin is simply a class apart. The only comparable batsman in the last two decades is Lara, but he falls short of Sachin on consistency and adaptability. My only quibble is that the authors have perhaps focused a bit more on ODI statistics than Tests.

For a Sachin fan, it's fun to relive some of his great innings through this book -- amazing memories like the second-innings ton vs Australia at Chennai when he tamed Warne, and painful memories like the 136* at the same ground vs Pakistan, when India fell just short in the run-chase. Interestingly, there is no discussion of Sachin the captain, and hardly any mention of his bowling. The book is almost purely about his batting, and there too, it doesn't linger on his style, his technique or his range of strokes. It's all about data, team and social context.

The book ends with a touching story about one of the authors -- Vijay Santhanam -- who suffered a stroke, but willed himself into recovering in time to make it to an India match at the stadium in Mohali. There are also interesting personal anecdotes from the authors -- childhood hero worship, college hostel arguments, or changing hotels because they didn't have the cable channel telecasting the match!

All in all, a good read for Sachin fans (that's everybody, right?). The book is published by Harper Collins, and has a cover price of Rs.195.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Twoodies and One-tup catches

A lot has been written about local cricket in India, and especially Mumbai. Some good books include:
These books however tend to focus on the (loosely) organized cricket on the maidans, the storied cricketing grounds like Shivaji Park in Mumbai or the Maidan in Kolkata. There is another, somewhat different cricketing experience that many of us went through as kids -- gully cricket.

Maidan cricket is played in the traditional fashion -- 11-a-side, kids in whites (even if dirty), proper cricket equipment (even if dilapidated), an umpire or two (even if biased)... It's usually organized, with teams playing in some sort of league or tournament, representing clubs, schools or companies.

In contrast, gully cricket is much more ad hoc. The teams are formed by identifying two captains, who then take turns, picking from the available players until there aren't any left. Pity the poor sod who's the last to be picked! The rules are decided, or made up on the fly. Gully cricket has its own lingo as well -- probably varying from place to place. In Mumbai for example, we'd decide whether one-tup was out or not! What this means is that if a fielder takes a "catch" after the first bounce, the batsman would be out. This is often necessary while playing in limited spaces, or in gullies where regular catches are hard to come by! Sometimes we'd switch to "one-tup out" midway during the game, because it was getting dark and we wanted to get the game over with quickly!

The playing area is often wierdly-shaped -- kids will of course seize upon any available space to play! That also necessitates a creative definition of the boundaries. In our colony for example, our playing area had a very short boundary (literally, a boundary wall) on the off side, and a more acceptable boundary on the leg side. Reaching the off-side boundary therefore wasn't worth four runs, it was decided -- two was all you'd get. Hitting this boundary was termed as a twoodie, i.e. "2D", short for "two runs declared"! Depending on the distance, you could similarly have onedies and threedies! In the rare case where there was actually an umpire, he'd signal a twoodie just like a boundary, but with two fingers outstretched.

Another cricketing space in our colony was a small, concrete-paved square patch next to the local temple, with a small boundary wall all around it -- barely a foot high. We'd play underarm cricket (slow bowling only), one-tup out of course, with this strange rule designed to deter hard hitting -- a sixer that landed on the road around this square was perfectly legitimate (a sixdee?), but if it was hit too hard and went across the road into the adjacent garden, you were out! Certainly made for some wierd lobbed shots that needed accuracy. They had to be hit long enough to evade the fielders near the boundary wall, but not too hard lest they cross the narrow strip of road!

An outsider would come across more strange lingo... jaa, sirf played kar, for example. That's advice given to a young kid going out to bat in a tough situation -- go, just "played" it! No that's not just a grammatical mistake. I think it originated thus: in Test cricket, whenever a batsman played a good defensive stroke, the radio/TV commentators would say "That's well played, bat and pad close together, etc. etc.". I remember hearing that over and over again from Iftikhar Ahmed and Chishti Mujahid for example, the Pakistani TV commentators, during the 1978-79 series. Somehow, "well played" came to represent a defensive stroke, just keeping the ball out, and then got shortened to "played".

Then there was the "connection out" rule, for run outs. This came into being because you rarely have one full set of stumps in gully cricket, let alone two. So the non-striker's end doesn't have any stumps. They're substituted with either a brick or stones, or merely a pile of footwear! Now if there's a runout attempted at the non-striker's end, the "connection" rule says that you can collect the thrown ball and step on the brick/chappals, baseball style, to effect the dismissal. You've provided the "connection" between the ball and the stumps! Just as major-league baseball players (and their coaches) get into arguments with umpires about whether the connection was properly made, we'd have all sorts of arguments and the occasional fight too! Although of course, we knew nothing about baseball in those days...

I'm sure there were other such quirks that I'm now forgetting... I hope to be reminded of those when my kid grows up and starts playing some serious gully cricket! Till then...

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Munaf and a Kamran...

What is it with Indian pace bowlers? They seem to start off fast, but dwindle to fast-medium and then medium-fast in no time at all...

Take the case of Munaf Patel, who has just been dropped from the Indian ODI team. When he came on to the scene a few years ago, he was touted as the fastest bowler in the country. And he really was sharp - even after making it to the Indian team and playing a few Tests. I saw him rip out a couple of England wickets in a Test at the Wankhede, beating the batsmen with sheer pace.

What's happened since? Is it the coaches, who insist on line-and-length, and "hitting the right areas" all the time? Especially in the limited overs games, he's down to barely medium-fast pace -- in the 120s kph, occasionally in the 130s, when earlier he used to touch 140-odd/90mph.

Munaf is hardly the only example. If you go back in time, we've had bowlers like Raju Kulkarni and Abey Kuruvilla who were both touted as among the fastest in the country. Again, I've seen them live in action and I can attest to their pace. Years of toil on the Ranji circuit reduced them to medium-fast by the time they made it to the Indian team. So at least we can't blame the India coach / manager in those cases -- Ranji-level coaches, perhaps? Or just the sheer futility of attempting to bowl fast on dead pitches?

And what about Ishant Sharma? Is he going the same route? It may be wrong to judge him on the basis of recent performances in the (very) limited overs game, but he certainly seems to have stepped down his pace a few notches. Why can't they let him go flat out for four overs in a T20? The way a Fidel Edwards or a Dale Steyn do? It's not as if he was economical in his reduced version. He certainly was ineffective as a wicket-taker...

During the IPL, we saw a new, raw fast bowling talent on display -- Kamran Khan of the Rajasthan Royals. Eighteen-year-old kid, exerting every sinew and generating very good pace -- 90mph certainly. With a bit more muscle mass, he could go even faster. Of course he got into trouble with his action - but for once, I think it's probably clean. He seems to have the sort of hyperextension at the elbow that Shoaib Akhtar does. If you look closely, his arm is really bent backwards at the elbow -- almost painful to watch! Certainly not a blatant chuck like a Siddharth Trivedi for example.

Someone like Kamran really ought to be unleashed on unsuspecting opponents at the earliest possible opportunity. And not just in Tests, but also in ODIs and T20s, trying to blast out a couple of batsmen in the opening spell rather than keep the scoring down. Best not to make him slog through the Ranji circuit, sacrificing pace for accuracy, etc. These days Indian teams in all versions of the game tend to have three pace bowlers -- surely we can afford to pick one Kamran, one Zaheer (the seasoned pro leading the attack) and then a Munaf type if necessary to hold up one end?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Is Federer the greatest ever?

I know, I know, this is a cricket blog -- so who's Federer, you ask... But bear with me, this is indeed a cricketing article.

Roger Federer's French Open win has ignited this debate on whether he's the best ever tennis player. Even though the question admits to only two answers, there are many shades of opinion! There are those who insist that players cannot be compared across eras, and the only measure of greatness can be vis-a-vis contemporaries. So a Rod Laver or a Pete Sampras could lay claim to the greatest-ever title just as much as Federer.

Then there are those who say that greatness isn't just about results, but also style. A John McEnroe wasn't nearly as successful as these worthies over the course of his career, or even compared with contemporaries like Jimmy Connors or Ivan Lendl. But I know whom I'd rather watch on any given day...

And then there are those who dare to compare across eras... Tennis, like other sports, has not just evolved, but improved over the years. If you took a 25-year-old Rod Laver and pitted him against a 25-year-old Roger Federer (with the 60s-era racquets, say), who do you think would win? Certainly, Federer. Similarly, if you pitted a Jesse Owens (or even Carl Lewis) against Usain Bolt in a 100m race, I'm pretty sure Bolt would win. There are some types of sport where human ability has simply improved over the years, and so the modern greats are indeed the all-time greats. Athletics (minus the doping) and tennis would seem to fall in that category.

What about cricket? Has cricket improved consistently over the decades? Can we claim that a Sachin Tendulkar is 'greater' than a Don Bradman, or that Kumble is better than say, Chandra? I don't think so. Over the long-term, there's definitely an improvement in human physique and conditioning over the population, in statistical terms. But I'm not sure that this applies at the level of the greats in cricket. Is today's fast bowler necessarily faster than those from the 1920s for example? Or even back to Fred Spofforth and the likes? Probably not. The outliers in the 1920s were probably just as strong, and fast, as those we see today.

And that's just raw physical strength we're talking about, not skills. Cricket (at least, Test cricket) is dominated by skills rather than strength or other physical attributes. Is there any reason to believe that human skill levels have improved over the span of a century? Are today's carpenters more skilled? Or weavers? Or bowlers? I don't think so. Certainly one could postulate that today's "strongmen" are (a bit) stronger than those of 100 years ago. But the likelihood of the true outlier in terms of physical strength also having enough bowling skill to become a feared fast bowler in Test cricket, is minuscule.

It's similar with batting. You do see rare examples of fierce hitters like Andrew Symonds or Yusuf Pathan doing well in limited-overs cricket. But the true greats of the modern game aren't greats because of sheer power. Better bats have helped, as have helmets and other protective gear. But the primary thing that differentiates Sachin, Ponting, Dravid, Kallis... from the rest is their skill -- skill in judgment, concentration, timing, placement... skills that haven't improved over the decades really. And what about slow bowling? Certainly, improvements in the human body haven't contributed anything to the art of spin bowling.

So my contention is that it really should be possible to compare cricketers across eras. But one needs to be careful with using statistics blindly to make such comparisons. Test statistics are inevitably influenced by various factors outside of sheer skill. For example, a bowler's statistics have a dependency on his fielders' catching skills. A batsman's career stats depend on the quality of opposition he faced, and even on the quality of his own support cast. Was he always shouldering the burden of his team's batting, or was he one of several good batsmen? And for many of the oldies, the sample sizes are simply not large enough for statistics to be reliable. So many of them played barely one Test series a year, and had large gaps between series. Today's cricketers play far more, are more fatigued, but can benefit from highly productive streaks of form.

So it's best not to rely on statistics for comparisons across eras, but on visual evidence of skills. Of course there is very little Test cricket footage available up until the 1960s or 1970s. But there is a lot of cricket writing, news coverage, etc. that serves us reasonably well. And we should be justified in making some conclusions on that basis, such as, Tendulkar better than Vishy (just as an example), or Richards better than Lara, or Lillee better than Brett Lee (surely no one who has seen both can deny that!).

In a subsequent post, I'll use this compare-across-eras justification to indulge in the armchair critic's favourite pastime -- picking "all-time greatest XI" teams! Till then....

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The IPL -- a traditionalist's view

Are you a traditionalist? Are you one of those (like me), who cringe when they see a crude slog across the line being applauded merrily by the crowd, just because it went for six? You may be wondering what to make of the second edition of the Indian Premier League, which is starting today...

Twenty20 has become popular because it found the magic balance between cricket and entertainment. It attracts the vast majority of cricket fans, who have grown up on 50-over cricket, and also attracts a separate set looking for quick-fix entertainment -- the likes who might otherwise spend an evening watching a Hindi movie or a couple of TV serials. T20 is not too long and can be scheduled in the evening hours, so it doesn't require the "investment" of a day off from work or school. The off-the-pitch hype and hoopla, the cheerleaders, the fireworks, the music, all that is designed to please the entertainment-seeking crowd.

Furthermore, the fact that a team has all 10 wickets to "spend" over just 20 overs alters the risk-reward equation fundamentally. This makes the game more action-packed, and games are also closer-fought (or so it seems) because the variance of scores is likely to be significantly less than in the 50-over version.

Now the IPL is all this and more. It inherits all these attributes of the T20 format, but goes well beyond that because of the nature of the team composition. The obvious thing is of course the mix of international players representing an Indian city-based team. The fact that these players are usually from different countries, and have sparred (sometimes viciously) on opposite sides, adds spice to the mix. But there's more to it. There are the "local stars" -- the well-known Indian cricketers turning out for their "home" cities. And then there are the "local unknowns". The biggest innovation of the IPL in its first season, in my opinion, was the rule that insisted on two local players being part of every playing eleven. That really helped generate a measure of curiosity in each game, and led to the discovery of players like Dhawal Kulkarni, Manpreet Gony, Swapnil Asnodkar, Ashok Dinda, etc.

As a traditionalist, I used to try and watch as much domestic cricket as I could -- Ranji, Duleep games -- to try and spot the promising youngsters who had never made it to TV coverage. These kids are typically well coached, their cricket is "correct", and they have the freshness and enthusiasm of youth. The IPL now gives us the chance to see the young talent, thrown into the deep end against mega stars.

But the traditionalist still can't help but cringe at some of the strokeplay on display. Crude slogs are crude slogs, no matter what the risk-reward equation. Note however that the shortened game has given rise to a lot of non-crude slogs, if I may coin that phrase. The clean hitting of a Yusuf Pathan, Andrew Symonds or Freddie Flintoff, the hustle of a David Hussey, Kevin Pietersen, or Gautam Gambhir, and the pure, blissful, correct strokeplay from the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Yuvraj Singh or Rohit Sharma... what's not to like??

Certainly, the traditionalist who loves to watch a sharp bowling spell has reason for complaint. The notion of a "spell" all but disappears in the T20 format. And the freedom of the batsman to take more risks leaves the bowling figures in tatters... or so it might seem. I believe that, given the reality of T20 risk-reward, we just need to recalibrate our expectations. In the old days of ODI cricket -- the 1970s and 80s -- a good bowler was one who went for under 5 and over. The very best managed to break under 4 RPO in fact. We have already recalibrated to expect much higher run rates in ODIs -- a career RPO under 5 is rare these days. Similarly, we might have to account for say, a 7 RPO in T20s as a good achievement. Note also that this will vary as usual with the conditions. So the second edition of the IPL is likely to produce lower scores than the first, because the South African venues will help the bowlers to a greater extent. This just makes wickets more likely, given the same level of risk taking by the batsmen. Or if the batsmen ratchet down their risk meters, they'll inevitably score less. Either way, aggregate scores should fall.

Now of course this is based on the assumption that pitches and conditions will be somewhat helpful to the bowlers. The Bullring at Johannesburg is always flat and full of runs, but the other pitches should encourage the bowlers. The saving grace is that the organizers didn't get a lot of time to prepare the venues -- so the pitches won't have had the life rolled out of them, hopefully!

Interestingly, the first IPL season, despite all the big hitting and batting exploits, produced more new bowling talent than batting talent. This may be because the T20 format makes the merely good batsmen look nearly as good, and as productive, as the true greats. But it's the bowlers who can stand out with a good performance amidst the mayhem being inflicted on their brethren. With the batsmen intent on hitting, small deviations off the pitch or in the air, subtle changes of pace, shortening of the length, or the surprise bouncer, all can get batsmen into trouble and reward the good bowler.

A traditionalist will never agree that the T20 (or even ODI) version of the game can provide the same, rounded test of talent, skill and temperament as the Test match. But you have to admit, it's fun to watch, and more practical to watch! I'm certainly looking forward to more of this entertainment and sport khichadi in the next few weeks, in what would've been the off-season for the Test game anyway!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Madness of Sehwag

"Let him play his natural game", they say about Virender Sehwag... "That's the only way he can play", etc. Is there such a thing as a natural game? Well yes of course, there is. Some batsmen are naturally attacking, some are naturally defensive, and others' games lie somewhere in between.

Rahul Dravid for example, sets out to defend his wicket at any cost, and score runs only when a clear opportunity presents itself. He is unhurried at the crease, his body language is not particularly expressive, and he doesn't worry about the run rate, or a perceived domination by the bowlers. Note that all this has nothing to do with batting technique, although Dravid of course has immaculate technique as well. But a Shivnarine Chanderpaul bats in the same manner, with a very nontraditional technique.

Sehwag's mindset at the crease, and the resulting body movements, are aggressive. You can sense that he's constantly looking for opportunities to score -- off every ball -- these days. He wants to dominate the bowlers mentally as well as in scorecard terms. Anything else is unsatisfactory from his point of view. Kevin Pietersen is perhaps the one other Test cricketer with an equally aggressive natural game and mental setup.

Sehwag's dismissals in the second Test vs New Zealand triggered a bit of a debate on whether batsmen should stick to their natural game, or be expected to adapt to the situation. Rahul Dravid said for example that batsmen need to play according to the needs of the team. Harsha Bhogle, in his regular column, disagreed, citing the sheer performance and results of a Sehwag or a Pietersen.

It's curious however to note in this context, that a batsman's natural game doesn't necessarily stay static over the course of a career. The obvious modern-day example is Sachin Tendulkar. He spent the first half of his career as an aggressive, dominating batsman. But then, even though his ability or skill didn't drop off, he switched to a less risky style that isn't any less attractive in its execution, and interestingly, isn't any more productive than the earlier version. And it's not as if Sachin appears to be curbing his natural instincts these days -- this is his natural game now. Something similar happened with Sunil Gavaskar, but much earlier in his career. He was an aggressive batsman in his early years, but the team's fragile batting forced him into cutting out risk. In "Sunny Days" he talks about how he consciously cut out the hook shot for example. Much of his career came to be associated with his natural defensive game, but that wasn't his natural game as a youngster. And then towards the end of his career, he did try to revert to an attacking game -- that amazing 100 against the West Indies, or the World Cup century against New Zealand, for example.

Some players go in the other direction. My impression is that Sehwag for example, was not as aggressive in his early years. Even when he started opening the innings, he was reasonably watchful in the early overs, letting the ball go, or playing (and missing!) defensively quite often. But these days, he needs to slam the ball out of sight, at least once in an over. I think his bat speed has also increased... where he earlier used to time the ball sweetly and send it to the boundary, these days he smashes it with power (and usually, timing as well). It appears to me that a streak of madness has crept in.

Reminds me immediately of Mohammad Azharuddin. While he was never a defensive batsman, he started his Test career as a reasonably watchful player who would build an innings, and then pepper the boundary boards. In the latter half of his career though, there was that streak of madness, trying to hit the ball rather than charming it to the boundary like he used to.

For what it's worth, I think Rahul Dravid is right. The great batsmen aren't just naturally gifted -- they have the ability to adjust their game to the playing conditions, to the opposition bowling, to the team's situation, etc. And the very best are the ones who do all that while still playing attractively. Sehwag is a freak, in the nicest possible sense of the word. Freakish enough to score triple hundreds while batting in this state of madness! But his recent batting raises question marks over his place in the pantheon of Indian greats -- he just doesn't seem as well-rounded a batsman as a Gavaskar or a Tendulkar. Or to take a less intimidating comparison, how does one compare him with a VVS Laxman? Laxman is aggressive, attractive in his strokeplay, and nearly as productive. But he also has control, which Sehwag appears to lack. Laxman can play with the tail, play defensive innings when required, play aggressively while being selective about balls to hit. I think Sehwag had that ability, but has lost it. If he can recapture it, he'll be more consistent, more successful overall, and no less attractive to watch. Here's hoping he can do that...

Friday, March 27, 2009

Notes on the New Zealand series

India's New Zealand tour has gone to plan, so far, for the visitors. If you ignore the T20 result, which is mostly a lottery in these early days of that form of cricket, India have done better than could've been reasonably expected. A comfortable win in the ODI series, and a comprehensive win in the first Test, have demonstrated that this Indian team is easily better at touring than its predecessors over the years.

One factor that has certainly helped is that the pitches haven't been 'deadly' like on the previous tour. But they certainly haven't been "flat tracks" as some reporters have claimed. Flat tracks are what you get in India (or these days, the West Indies), which are just rolled mud. The ball doesn't deviate off the pitch, and doesn't rise above knee height, on those pitches. The pitches this season in New Zealand have provided a fair amount of assistance to the seam bowlers - some movement off the pitch, and certainly some bounce, especially with the new ball. That has helped India's seamers make early inroads into the inexperienced NZ top order. But as soon as the ball loses its hardness (not so much its shine), that assistance disappears and the pitches become quite benign. I suspect that the pitches are quite hard, resulting in the ball getting softened up quickly.

Swing hasn't been much of a factor so far -- not surprising considering that neither team possesses a genuine swing bowler. Zaheer Khan comes closest to that description, but he's primarily a seam bowler who can exploit reverse swing rather than the conventional kind. But there's no Jimmy Anderson or Irfan Pathan in these sides. Certainly we haven't seen any significant swing beyond the first few overs. I wonder if this is partly because of the way teams "take care of" the ball these days, hoping for reverse swing later. They keep the shine on one side of the ball, and the other side becomes rougher and heavier. Until reverse swing kicks in, this makes it hard to get conventional swing. In more innocent times, teams would work hard to keep the shine on both sides of the ball, and that'd keep the swing going for 15-20 overs at least. These days it doesn't seem to last 10 overs. In any case, the genuine swing bowler seems to be a disappearing species.

Coming to spin bowling, it's been a disappointment so far -- and I say that despite Harbhajan's performance in the second innings of the first Test. The pitches have actually been pretty responsive to the spinners. But the quality of spin bowling overall has deteriorated so much that a Vettori is considered the best left-arm spinner in the world these days, and a Harbhajan probably the second-best offie! Vettori is a smart cricketer all right. He does his best with his control over line and length, and clever changes of pace and angle of delivery. But the classic spinner's armoury of flight and spin is missing! Harbhajan too has lost hit bite these days. On hard, bouncy pitches like these he ought to have been deadly. He does generate a nice swerve in the air, but the zip off the pitch is missing, the big turners aren't in evidence, and I've hardly seen a flighted ball! These days the radar gun reveals changes in pace all right, and the commentators have been demanding the slower ball from Harbhajan, in the 80-85 kmph range. But it's not just the slow pace! Where's the flight? The ball really needs to come down from above the batman's eye level. It's just basic, that sort of trajectory makes it harder for the batsman to judge the length, leaving him unsure whether to move forward or back. And then you need to put plenty of rpms on the ball make it dip, making it even harder to negotiate. Neither Vettori nor Harbhajan has made this happen. Today's spinners grip the ball so deep in their hands that there's no way they can impart a lot of spin. The limited amount of spin they do get is due to the wrist movement rather than the traditional snap of the fingers. As I write this, I'm watching Harbhajan get clobbered by the NZ batsmen in the second Test, which just drives home the point.

The batting, on the other hand, has thrived, prospered, flowered... Sachin Tendulkar's innings in the first Test was superbly constructed, and he just doesn't play an ugly shot, ever (well, almost never). His natural movements are so graceful that even his defensive strokes are bliss. And Jesse Ryder is a wonderfully talented young batsman (we already knew that about Ross Taylor). Just another in a long line of left-handers to torment the Indian bowling over the years! Remember Shiv Chanderpaul, Matt Hayden, Andy Flower, even Jimmy Adams? Or going further back, Clive Lloyd, Allan Border... The list goes on and on. India seems to have a penchant for letting lefties have monster series against them. Ryder now has a fifty, a century and a double-ton in three innings of this Test series, not to mention his big scoring in the ODIs before. And he's such a pleasing batsman to watch, with the fluidity and non-violence of his strokeplay, which still scoring at a good rate. He's also displayed a maturity that one wouldn't have expected of him, given his chequered personal history. Coming in with his team in dire straits (twice, now), he's played less aggressively than his natural game, let other batsmen (Vettori and Taylor) dominate the scoring, and gone serenely.

Amazing how Dhoni's presence or absence seems to affect the fortunes of the Indian team, though! He skips the series in Lanka and we're promptly thrashed (credit to Mendis too, of course). He skips this second Test, and New Zealand promptly post a huge first innings total and put India under pressure. He's a talisman, although it's hard for the rational person to say something like that! Hard to find any causality other than the vague effects on morale and mindset of the players.

We're less than half-way through with this Test series, and although it has not necessarily been gripping cricket so far, it now promises to be a good contest. The Indian batting needs to be tested under pressure, and although I'm confident they'll prevail in the end, it'll be interesting if they are forced to follow on in this second Test.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

When Mumbai's batting ran amuck...

Given the long and storied history of Mumbai/Bombay cricket, and especially its batting prowess over the years, the title of this post might not immediately suggest a particular game! But I'm referring to one particularly awesome display of Mumbai's batting might -- a Ranji trophy semifinal against Hyderabad during the 1990-91 season.

The match was played at the Wankhede stadium at the fag end of the domestic season. It was late April, and already very hot. The great thing was that the Indian team was idle, so the stars were able to turn out for their Ranji teams. Mumbai had the services of Vengsarkar, Sanjay Manjrekar, Tendulkar and Kambli among others. Hyderabad didn't boast of such riches, but they did have two Test spinners in Arshad Ayub and Venkatapathy Raju, and a third spinner Kanwaljit Singh who was perhaps unlucky not to play for India.

Mumbai won the toss and proceeded to grind down the Hyderabad bowling on day 1, despite the early loss of the openers. Dilip Vengsarkar scored a 100, and Sanjay Manjrekar had made his merry way to a big score (in the 190 range, if I recall correctly) by stumps. Sachin Tendulkar had just joined him at the crease.

Day 2 was a Thursday, and I was a final-year college student... I decided to play hookey and go to the Wankhede. And what a fine decision that turned out to be! The Mumbai batsmen lit up the stadium with their strokeplay, and scored close to 500 runs in that single day's play! Absolutely no uncultured slogging either... after all, it's Manjrekar, Tendulkar and Kambli we're talking about.

In the morning session, it was the young 18-year-old Sachin Tendulkar who hogged the strike and the limelight, carting the Hyderabad bowlers all over the place. I particularly remember a couple of lofted on-drives off the spinners, where he hardly seemed to hit the ball -- and yet, the ball cleared the boundary for six. Sachin was already in the Indian Test team of course, and a sizeable crowd had turned up to watch him and Kambli bat.

Sachin's innings though was short-lived. Having sped his way to 70, he holed out to the bowling of Ayub. Enter Vinod Kambli, without quite the swagger he acquired after his India debut (two years later). He picked up right where Sachin had left off, and proceeded to dominate the bowling even more thoroughly than Sachin had. Sixes and fours on a regular basis... Meanwhile at the other end, Sanjay Manjrekar was proceeding serenely (or so it seemed, in contrast to the Tendulkar-Kambli duo). He passed 200, 250, and then the triple ton. Sanjay was a particular favourite of mine, being from the same school in Bombay. And of course his batting was always a delight to watch, even when he was deadbatting the most innocuous of deliveries! This innings though was special, with strokes flowing freely and smoothly, and without any of the violence at the other end.

Eventually, Manjrekar fell to a tired shot, having made 377 -- the second-highest first class score by an Indian, behind only the famous 443* by Babasaheb Nimbalkar. I thought Mumbai would declare at that stage with 700+ already on the board. But they had been scoring at such a hectic rate that there was plenty of time in the match. So they piled on the agony, with Raju Kulkarni swinging the bat around with gay abandon. Eventually, they declared after passing 800 (and got a few more runs tacked on as penalty for slow over rate).

I was sitting at the pavilion end in the Garware stand. Next to me was an elderly gentleman who was obviously a regular at the Wankhede. Once a Hyderabad player misfielded a drive badly, and let the ball through his legs for four. I did a LOL, err... laughed out loud, and the old man promptly scolded me! He said I should understand the plight of the Hyderabad players, having been in the field for so long, and at the receiving end of such a thrashing. I enjoyed that thrashing nevertheless!

The match ended in a draw, and Mumbai progressed to the final by virtue of the first-innings lead. But it wasn't a "dull draw" really. Hyderabad fought well to score nearly 500 in their turn, with their warhorse M.V. Sridhar scoring a big ton. With little chance of a result, Mumbai didn't enforce the follow-on and proceeded to thrash the Hyderabad bowling all over again, scoring nearly 450 at 5 runs an over! Kambli scored another rapid ton, and Sachin thrashed his way to 88. Sadly, I wasn't able to play hookey and watch this repeat performance :) But certainly, I went home that day having seen Manjrekar create history, and having had yet another glimpse of the prodigious talent of the Shardashram twins.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

New Zealand, The Final (?) Frontier

India embarks upon a rare tour of New Zealand this month, and the team has just been announced. In the old days, whenever India toured Australia, they would also tour New Zealand. Of course travel was much tougher, so if you'd already travelled all the way to Australia, might as well hop over to New Zealand and play a few games there. These days, the cricket calendar is so crazy, and driven by marketability, that we don't travel often enough to that lovely country.

Truth be told, New Zealand might be seen as the final frontier for this Indian team. They have proved themselves capable of winning Tests (and even series, in some cases) in Australia, South Africa, England, West Indies, Pakistan, and now Sri Lanka as well. But New Zealand has always been a tough tour. Even before this tour, no less a person than Sachin Tendulkar has gone on record saying that, perhaps to manage expectations. This is despite the fact that New Zealand is a pretty weak team overall. Their top-order batting has been struggling for ages now, although their lower order (with the likes of Oram and Vettori) has bailed them out regularly. Their pace bowling doesn't appear threatening, in the tragic absence of Shane Bond. Their spin attack of Vettori and Jeetan Patel is competent but hardly one to run through an Indian batting lineup. And yet, we quiver at the thought of a Test series in New Zealand.

The reason is simple -- the Indian batting is simply untested in the conditions that prevail in New Zealand, conducive as they are to seam and swing bowling. Knowing their strength, and our weakness, it's clear that the pitches will be grassy and moist, like they were on the last Indian tour. These days, batsmen don't get to play on such pitches at all. Pitches in India were never seam-friendly of course. But even in the West Indies, England or Australia, pitches are increasingly batsman-friendly, due in no small part to the demands of one-day and T20 cricket. So I'd suspect it's not just Indian batsmen who would struggle on New Zealand pitches.

So, does this Indian team have it in them to conquer this final frontier? I think so. The bowling is not a concern really, with the likes of Zaheer, Ishant and Munaf Patel perfectly capable of exploiting the seaming conditions. But that's never been a problem in New Zealand really. In helpful conditions, even "ordinary" bowlers can produce the wickets. Back in the 1980s for example, Chetan Sharma and Roger Binny had done well in England. Venky Prasad did superbly in South Africa in helpful conditions, as did Sreesanth more recently. No, it's really the batting that's going to be tested.

Now my prediction is that Rahul Dravid will reclaim that sobriquet of "The Wall" -- he's perfectly equipped technically to succeed in seaming conditions. Laxman is a bit less certain of his off stump, but he's still likely to dominate the bowling. I think he will enjoy the relatively gentle pace of the current New Zealand bowling. Sehwag is likely to struggle -- he does not enjoy playing the moving ball at all, and generally succeeds because his sheer talent at hand-eye coordination bails him out. In seaming / swinging conditions, he will be sorely tested. Much the same can be said of Yuvraj Singh. If Yuvraj is lucky, he'll come into bat at #6 with a decent score on the board and the ball having lost its shine. But I don't expect him to particularly shine on this tour.

That leaves Gambhir and Tendulkar among the top-order batsmen. Gambhir is untested in these conditions. In his early days, he was clearly susceptible outside the off stump, and often got out nicking the ball to the slip cordon. However he seems to have tightened up his technique considerably, so he stands a good chance of surviving the new ball. And given his current streak of form, if he does so, he will cash in nicely. Certainly, he looks a better bet in these conditions than Wasim Jaffer, whose natural movements leave him susceptible to the moving ball.

And finally, Tendulkar. The man has proved his ability again and again, over the years. He made those two 150s in Australia not too long ago, to shut up a lot of the critics. How long ago was that "Endulkar" headline now? And yet, and yet... despite being a big big fan of Sachin, I have to admit to nervousness over his chances in New Zealand. These days, his mindset is so completely different from those glory years. He doesn't look to dominate the bowling, and plays the survival game at least for the first 50 runs. And he doesn't survive often enough, for his talent. Look at how Brian Lara played right till his retirement. Or for that matter, Sanath Jayasuriya still does, at the age of 39. They simply trusted their ability and their bodies more than Sachin seems to. Survival isn't a great strategy on pitches where the ball seams both ways, and even innocuous bowlers like Nathan Astle or Gavin Larsen pick up wickets. I think Sachin really ought to try and dominate the bowling, but I'm almost certain that he won't attempt to. Make no mistake, in a 3 Test series, he will still succeed a couple of times using his strategy. And that might be good enough for the team to pull off a win or two, especially if a couple of the other batsmen have good series. But somehow it's less than satisfactory for old fans of Sachin like myself, who have been watching him from age 15 (I saw his Duleep debut at Wankhede, where he scored, no surprise, a century).

Having said that, I do believe that India this time around have the bowling firepower, adequate batting, and thanks to Dhoni, the belief, to win in New Zealand. It may not be generally seen as a great achievement, but I do think it will be fabulous if we can pull it off.

Notice that I've said nothing about the one-dayers or T20s. Now those formats just don't test the batsmen enough, so we might have a relatively easier time there - although New Zealand do have a decent team now, having just proved that against Australia. But ODIs are just not interesting enough these days, and T20s are starting to seem all-too-familiar, so I can't bring myself to be excited about those games. It's enough to read up a match report in the newspaper, or follow the game on CricInfo. But the Tests will be really interesting, and watchable ball-by-ball on TV.

Here's looking forward to alarm clocks going off at unearthly hours in the next month!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

India's batting -- who's next?

My previous post speculated that we have seen the Golden Era of Indian batting, with the likes of Tendulkar, Sehwag, Dravid, Laxman and Ganguly.  This era is clearly ending, so it's natural to wonder -- and worry -- what next?  Or more properly, who's next?

An inevitable side-effect of a successful team with several greats is that a whole generation (in cricketing terms) finds itself shut out of the team.  In the 1960s and 1970s, India's spin quartet of Bedi, Chandra, Prasanna and Venkat was so well-established that their competitors on the domestic scene totally missed out on Test cricket.  The likes of Paddy Shivalkar, Rajinder Goel and V.V. Kumar would have walked into most Test sides of their day, barring the Indian side!  Dilip Doshi was unlucky as well, since the early part of his career overlapped with Bedi.  By the time he made it to the Test side, he was on the wrong side of 30.

A similar situation has prevailed with the Indian batting over the past decade.  Quality batsmen like Amol Muzumdar, Hemang Badani, Badrinath, Yuvraj Singh and Mohd. Kaif had little or no opportunity to play Test cricket.  Yuvraj and Kaif at least got plenty of opportunity to show their wares in the limited overs game, but as they themselves will aver, that's not "the real thing".  Now that the spots are opening up in the Test batting order, Kaif, Badri and co. are the lost generation -- too old to be considered long-term prospects for the side, and too young to be forgotten totally.  They'll probably soldier on in domestic cricket for a few years, but are hardly likely to have Test careers worth speaking of.

So, who then can India look to for the future?  Limited-overs cricket, and domestic cricket, have thrown up several names.  How suitable, and ready, are they for Tests though?  Consider Suresh Raina for example.  Still only 22, he's certainly a candidate for the long term.  He's proved himself to be a useful performer in the one-day format, but does he have the ability to build long innings?  That remains to be tested.

The same might be said of 21-year-old Rohit Sharma.  Until this domestic season, he had done practically nothing of note in the first-class game.  However, two things go in his favour: (1) His performances in this year's Ranji trophy, including a big double hundred and a 141 under pressure in the final, and (2) his natural talent!  Just watching him play for a brief while makes it obvious.  The fluidity of his movements at the crease, the timing of the ball, the smooth follow-through, and even his graceful fielding, all point to a natural-born cricketer.

Another batsman with potential is Virat Kohli.  As a limited-overs batsman, I think he's a shoo-in for the future India side.  He has also started his first-class career well, with some good knocks for Delhi.  His technique seems a bit loose currently, and he hasn't really been tested on bowler-friendly pitches.  But of course he's very young, so there's hope that he will learn to adapt to the different forms of the game, at the highest level.

Notice that all these candidates are naturally aggressive batsmen, brought up in the era of ODIs and T20s.  Would any of them be able to play a sheet-anchor innings?  Who can replace The Wall in the Indian lineup?

If Dravid goes soon, India will need a short-term, stop-gap replacement for him.  None of these kids can play that role against top-class pace bowling, in bowler-friendly conditions.  I'd suggest falling back on a couple of tried-and-tested performers -- Aakash Chopra and Wasim Jaffer.  Both of them are openers, and can move down to #3 without breaking a sweat.  Both of them have Test experience and maturity on their side.  They're not young, but they do have 3-4 years of cricket left in them.  And if form deserts one of the openers, they'd be ready and willing to step in there too, at short notice.

In the longer term though, Cheteshwar Pujara seems like a strong candidate for the job.  He's only about 21 currently, and has just had a barnstorming season of domestic cricket.  The biggest positive is that he's shown the ability to play the long innings, piling up huge double and triple hundreds.  However his technique and temperament has not really been tested yet.  His home ground of Rajkot is famous for its placid pitch.  And the only time he came up against a strong pace attack (vs. Mumbai in the semis), he failed.  Sadly, big Ranji performances aren't a reliable indicator of batting talent -- remember the likes of W.V.Raman and Raman Lamba scoring multiple triple-tons in Ranji/Duleep matches?  So, some question marks remain, but Pujara's clearly a great prospect.  Taking him on some India-A tours will help.

Apart from these, there are a few other young batsmen clamouring for the selectors' attention -- the likes of Ajinkya Rahane, Shikhar Dhawan and Tanmay Srivastava.  So overall, I'm not too worried by the upcoming end of the Golden Era...  While these guys won't be as good as Sachin, Dravid, Laxman and Ganguly right away, the future of Indian batting seems to be in good hands.

Friday, January 16, 2009

A Golden Era for India's batting?

India is currently enjoying a rare period of all-round strength in the batting order -- a Golden Era, perhaps? The openers, Sehwag and Gambhir are performing consistently, and the middle-order is dependable. The retirement of Saurav Ganguly has not been keenly felt, because there was a ready replacement (especially for home Tests) in Yuvraj Singh. Nor has the poor form of Rahul Dravid hurt India badly, with Sachin and Laxman making runs. Even the lower order starting with Dhoni has been contributing handsomely, with the likes of Harbhajan and Zaheer scoring important runs.

The last time India had such a solid batting order was probably in the early 1980s, when the Gavaskar-Chauhan pair could be relied upon to do their job, and we had the likes of Vishwanath, Vengsarkar and Mohinder to follow in the middle order. Plus there were regular lower order contributions from Kapil and Kirmani, with gutsy support from Ghavri or Binny. It's a bit sad that ever since Gavaskar retired, India have hardly had a stable, reliable opening pair. In the 1990s, when the middle order was solid (Manjrekar, Azhar, Sachin) the openers were inadequate. And when once in a while the openers did well, the middle order let the team down. This was especially true in overseas tests, leading to the depressing away record in the 1990s.

Which brings us back to the present... The current batting order is clearly solid, but India is in danger of losing three of those middle-order stars in quick succession. Dravid can be relied upon to demostrate his class, and his value to the team, in the upcoming away matches. But he clearly doesn't have too much cricket left in him. The modern-day game doesn't respect the Test specialist, and Dravid has reverted to being one, like his early days. Laxman is in a somewhat similar boat. He keeps demonstrating his value in almost every Test series he plays. But all too often, there are long gaps in between where he's inactive, out of sight, and therefore out of mind. Although he may have plenty of cricket left in him, I fear that the establishment (and that includes the captain and coach) won't be too kind to him.

Sachin is in a different boat -- if he wants to, and if his body allows him to, he can still play all the versions of the game, at the highest levels. But I see signs that his hunger for the game is waning. He now plays mainly for the team, not for the enjoyment of the game. The team needs him to play various roles, with bat in hand and without, on the field and off. And so he does. It helps that India is winning consistently -- that keeps him going, because he didn't have this kind of experience for much of his career. If, in a year or two, he sees that the team no longer needs him as much, I suspect he'll quit. His mentoring job will be done. Observing him during the Ranji trophy final was interesting. He seemed to be somewhat disconnected from the Mumbai team, and certainly not as involved in the proceedings as we're used to seeing. I suspect he's starting to feel the generation gap now, and the motivation is waning.

So I believe this Golden Era of Indian batting is going to end soon, and we're going to have to fill several holes in the middle order. Might as well mention that Sehwag is also on the wrong side of 30... There certainly are a few promising batsmen around, and I'll discuss those in a follow-up post soon.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Is cricket a team sport?

There appears to be a serious dichotomy in modern-day cricket. Over the past few decades, top-level cricket has become a serious, professional team sport. The origins of this professionalization can probably be traced to the Kerry Packer led World Series Cricket, in the 1970s. Before that, in most cricket-playing countries barring England, the game was not a lucrative career alternative, even for Test players. The Packer revolution changed all that.

Now consider that there are probably a hundred million (more?) who play the game of cricket regularly. Of these, how many can be termed as professionals, i.e., those who earn a full-time living playing the game? Probably no more than a few thousand -- clearly, a minuscule minority of the players. Now that skewed ratio in itself doesn't imply a dichotomy in the game. Football (soccer) and basketball probably have similar ratios. But the dichotomy in the game of cricket arises from the different manner in which the game is played by amateurs vs. professionals. Perhaps a more accurate categorization would be recreational players vs. competitive players.

So what is this dichotomy I'm talking about? One way to think about it is, whether the players treat cricket as a team sport or an individual pursuit. At the professional level, as also in competitive leagues such as inter-office tournaments (like the Times Shield in Mumbai) or inter-club tournaments (like the Kanga League), cricket is clearly a team sport. It is generally played for the primary purpose of winning. If the players can enjoy themselves in the process, well and good. If not, too bad. They're getting paid for doing a job, after all. Now in order to achieve the goal of winning, the players must play as a team, with all the attendant sacrifices of the individual self to the team goal, etc.

Contrast this with recreational cricket, the kind that you and I play - or used to play, more accurately, in my case! - with the neighbourhood kids. The focus in such cricket is typically, squarely on the self! If I fancy myself as a batsman (most kids seem to), I would probably do my best to get the strike and keep it! If I'm a bowler, I would keep bowling for as long as the guys will let me. A bowler gets replaced when someone else really wants to bowl, not necessarily based on some tactical decision. In recreational cricket, you enjoy the game by virtue of doing what you like doing, not what the team happens to need at that stage.

Is this a bad thing? I don't think so. Certainly, it doesn't quite impart the lessons in life that kids need to learn. But hey, the recreational cricket field isn't necessarily the place for learning all of life's lessons. Those are better learned in competitive cricket (or any other sport, especially a team sport). If kids manage to have a good time playing the game in recreational mode rather than competitively, so be it.

Now I'm about to make an even stronger statement - cricket, in its basic form, is inherently more of an individualistic sport than a team sport! Fundamentally, the game pits ONE batsman against ONE bowler, at a time. A batsman succeeds almost purely due to his or her own ability to bat. Similarly a bowler succeeds by his ability to get the batsman out - although for several of the modes of dismissal, he does benefit from the presence of his teammates as fielders.

Consider the game from first principles. Bowlers bowls, batsman hits. Bowler aims to get the batsman out by hitting the stumps or inducing a catch. Batsman aims to score runs by hitting the ball as far from the pitch as he can, and running until the ball is thrown back. Fielders aim to stop the ball and throw it back towards the stumps, as quickly as possible. That's the basic game, with 'bowled', 'caught' and 'run out' being the fundamental modes of dismissal. Everything else is progressively derived from that foundation. For example, the LBW dismissal is necessary only to deal with the blatant use of the pads to avoid the 'bowled' dismissal. Most of the other dismissals, and Laws, have been layered on over time primarily for use in competitive cricket. Is 'timed out' ever necessary in recreational play, for example? Laws dealing with rolling the pitch, or using a new ball after 80 overs, etc. are only needed in the competitive game.

Now most competitive players start off in recreational mode as kids, like everyone else. They need to change their game, inculcate the team spirit, the winner's attitude, etc. along the way. The few that succeed in doing this, in addition to having natural talent of course, make it as professional cricketers. But somewhere deep down there is still the innate sense of playing an 'individual' game. That's why individual statistics and records are so integral to top-class cricket. That's why centuries and five-wicket hauls are given so much importance in judging a player's career. Cricket's sibling baseball is very similar in that respect - if anything, it's even more statistics-laden than cricket! Compare cricket and baseball with say, football or volleyball. The conclusion is obvious - some games are inherently, fundamentally, individualistic games even when played in a team setting. Others are inherently, fundamentally team games.

Perhaps we expect a bit too much team spirit of our international stars. Perhaps it's not quite right to declare on a batsman in the nineties (or 190s, as Sachin Tendulkar fans will doubtless point out!). Srinath did exactly the right thing by not attempting to get a wicket when Kumble had a ten-fer in sight. And Manoj Tiwari needs to be severely chastised for denying Badrinath a century, by deliberately bowling wides! Of course sometimes the individualistic streak can extend to selfishness - Boycott was accused of that, for example, especially when it came to running out his partners! But in most cases, I believe the quest for individual glory is acceptable because it's intrinsic to the game, and thus, usually contributes towards team goals anyway.