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...