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....