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.