December 23, 2015

An Apology for Compelling Draws

Outside the ambit of painting and, perhaps, the art/science of seduction, the word 'draw' gives the impression of something dragged out, much like an overlong film about the flora found in deserts. A typical draw in a game of Test cricket also creates the impression of elaborate pointlessness, especially among the game’s newest fans, introduced to it through the T20 format; its fiercest detractors; and those who view the current health of cricket, rightly, with Argus-eyed skepticism. Sometimes, though, one is made to wonder if draws alone are responsible for all the ills afflicting Test cricket and that a farewell to them will ensure instant revivification and a broader acceptance among fans of the game’s 125-year-old format. Two different frames of reference suggest that the latter is a simplistic view. First: the cause for the waning popularity of the game may be located as much in the zeitgeist of the day – with its unapologetic emphasis on instant gratification – as in the results a five-day contest produces (more on this another day). Second: even if results are a cause of concern, not all draws can be condemned with the charge that they are curtailing the future of Test cricket.

The draw that the South Africans attempted earlier this month in Delhi, for example, deservedly drew a lot of praise from various quarters—the captain and Manager of the opposing team included. On the other hand, it did also attract the sardonic barbs of at least one writer. According to the former, South Africa’s ultra-defensive batting (which has spawned the lexical monstrosity 'block-a-thon') symbolised, among other things, the commitment of peripatetic cricketers to their national whites and to Test cricket in an era of domestic T20 leagues, garish clothes and slog-fests. The latter, however, holds that South Africa’s approach represented a futile exercise because the series was already lost. My own opinion of South Africa’s second dig in Delhi dovetails with the views of the former, and I think it made for compelling Test cricket while it lasted.

South Africa’s obdurate batting was fascinating to watch because it reduced and exalted cricket to its very essence—a contest between bat and ball (ceteris nearly paribus). Obviously, the speed of the scoreboard was such that it might have even driven a Yogi to lose patience, but that was incidental to the drama; whose main players were two vulpine and skillful spinners, a ring of close-in fielders and three fine batsmen, their stage a pitch that gave no freebies and rewarded mindful persistence. With each ball delivered and each delivery safely met, one could witness a substantial and substantive dialogue between two equal adversaries, the lines (and lengths) occasionally veering into sub-text to keep the more discerning aficionados honest. The theatre lasted for close to nine hours and while the final act showed an Indian win, who is to say that a draw would have reduced the value of the gripping contest that preceded it? To do so would be to succumb to the convenient trap of hindsight.

Admittedly, not every draw or attempted draw keeps bums on seats. The worrying trend is that for every draw that enthralls and thrills lovers of Test cricket, there are four which make them wonder whether the Sun will set upon this Time-honoured five-day sporting spectacle of substance, style and subtlety, just as it has on the Empire that birthed and propagated it around the Commonwealth. Indeed, the writing has been on the wall for a while and the stakeholders of the game – players, umpires and match referees, cricket boards, journalists and fans – must quickly come up with strategies to reduce the number of drab draws that currently frustrates Test cricket. Draws should not be altogether eliminated, however, because their elimination would kill a congenital aspect of Test cricket: playing for Time.

Now, ‘playing for time’ is not an anachronism 'favourited' by grey-haired ladies and gentleman who take up the cudgels for what they believe is cricket’s purest format. Even three summers ago, Francois Du Plessis, in the company of his boyhood friend Abraham De Villiers, future-skipper Hashim Amla and others, batted for fourteen minutes short of eight hours and retired undefeated on 110 to the dressing room at the Adelaide Oval after facing a small matter of sixty-two overs and four balls. On debut. Just for the record, neither South Africa nor Australia won that Test match. A year and few weeks later ABD and FDP were at it again, and almost surmounted a fourth-innings Mt. Everest against India at the Wanderers—the ‘almost’ a riveting 'no result'. While thinking of thrilling 'no results', England’s three last-over heists (in December 2009, January 2010 and March 2013) should not be forgotten, as they deserve pride of place in the Hall of Fame of Draws. Nor are English ninth-drops lone specialists in hanging for dear life till the last mandatory over is bowled, as their Sri Lankan counterparts showed, against England, at the HQ in June 2014.

Each of the aforementioned Test matches is a classic and deserves to be called as such. Bidding adieu to draws would mean the assignment of such matches to the musty files of history—a treasure trove of nostalgia, and a graveyard of hope, at least as far as sports is concerned. Obviously, there is no assurance that Test cricket will continue to conjure up exciting draws if the result lives to fight another day, but that is beside the point. The point is rather that a draw is just one of four possible conclusions to a contest! Conversations should, therefore, focus on the quality of the contest and cutting the list of possible results by one would do little to improve it. The point is also that the dogged pursuit of a draw, when the circumstances so dictate, does not make other results impossible. Examples abound of teams planning to bat time and winning or losing. My own favourite draw in recent memory is the one that India ‘achieved’ against the West Indies in 2012 (yes, in that match where Ravi Rampaul and Darren Sammy were booed at Mumbai for postponing Tendulkar's 100th Test hundred to another day): the match scores of the two teams were tied after the last mandatory ball had been bowled, and first-innings centurion Ashwin refused a second run even though he could have half-Ranatunga-ed it. There is a tragicomedy (or comic tragedy) for the ages. Beat that.  

September 12, 2015

Stumps, Mr. Watson!

Shane Watson would not have made a great friend to Sherlock Holmes. Unlike the master-sleuth’s partner in crime, John, Shane comes across as a brash man lacking, inter alia, in discretion – a certain asset in the art of deduction. Yet it is the man’s candour that keeps one from questioning whether, as Watson said about his retirement from Test cricket last week, he has truly given his best to the long form of the game. Watson’s numbers in Tests are there for all to see, and they speak of an underachieving all-rounder, undone often by a fragile body and at times by a clouded mind. In Watson’s case the numbers may even tell the best part of his story, but that part, shorn of emotion, undersells the man significantly; for, Watson, despite what he promised and what he delivered (or did not), was all about emotions – the ones he exuded, and the ones he provoked.
My first memory of Watson is from the curtain-raising edition of the IPL 2008, in which Watson batted and bowled his way into the Australian team, besides playing a significant role in Rajasthan Royals’ – a team of unfancied rookies, though captained by a certain Shane Keith Warne – tile triumph. Since then, I have watched Watson smash attacks to smithereens in the shorter formats, for Australia and for Rajasthan Royals, and have been awestruck, like others, by the power and the straight lines which characterize Watson’s hitting, especially straight down the ground.  If only Watson had figured out a way to wed his power with some discretion – that word, again – his would have been a story of ‘what he did not achieve’ rather than ‘what he did.’
Even as it stands, Watson’s story in the game’s most prized format is not to be trifled with. Many a sub-continental country would blindly select an all-rounder who averages 35 with the bat and under 35 with the ball whenever he is fit (and so did Australia). Nor have those averages been accumulated by attritional play, as suggested by his last two Test centuries. Back in 2012, with the urn already in England’s kitty, Watson batted over a day to produce a masterful 176 – his best returns in a Test innings. When England returned to Australia to defend the urn a year later, Watson showed off his repertory of aggressive strokes in the second innings of the third Test at WACA, as he galloped to 103 off 109 deliveries, after Warner’s hundred and a first innings lead of 120 runs had given Australia a decisive advantage. Watson’s 176 may be wished away as a personal average-boosting affair on a traditionally fine batting turf, but his Perth counterattack cannot be as easily discounted. To Watson’s detractors, his London and Perth tons may betray a mind that buckles perform under pressure. That theory is as convenient as it is shallow, though, given Watson’s relative excellence in T20s and ODI cricket for nearly a decade. Alternatively, those two centuries may be taken to showcase a man who performs at his best when there is no time to think.
If Watson underperformed with the bat, he frustrated with the ball. Seventy-five sticks in fifty-nine matches do scant justice to a talent that took 6-33 against South Africa in the blink of an eye. Injuries did play a significant role in restricting Watson’s bowling, but Watson would probably be the first to admit that, like any other all-rounder in the game, he was only half a batsman whenever he did not contribute with the ball (which, unfortunately for him and Australia, was far too many times in the past four summers). Neither injuries nor his temperament, however, came in the way of his being a fine slip fielder: Watson’s 45 catches in 59 Tests may not say much about his catching prowess, but his ‘safe as houses’ seldom shelled a catch.
When they did, that expression was back on Watson’s face –  the expression that he wore time after time when DRS indicated that he had been given out correctly after all; the expression that suggested that he was fighting a lone battle against the opposition, the world and, in all likelihood, himself.  That expression becomes very relevant in assessing Watson’s career because it spoke of a ‘Watto’ who had tried and failed… AGAIN. It introduced to the crowds, for a few passing moments, a man who had sought (and been denied) personal satisfaction, amid the fickle rumpus of adulation and opprobrium. It framed a gifted athlete with an incorrigible body and a mind that was not swift in telling his hands to play around the front pad in swinging conditions. It spoke of Watson at the close of play – a handsome face wrinkled by the vagaries of a great game.

April 6, 2014

The problem with belief

In a recent piece that focuses on the weight given to a sports person's temperament by commentators, Ed Smith -- yes, that most wonderfully articulate and most logically persuasive of cricket writers -- accentuates the need for "more scepticism when it comes to pronouncing judgment on a player's mind." And following South Africa's defeat to India yesterday my friend (Siddhartha) and I were talking this morning about the Proteas' fall at another major hurdle in yet another major ICC tournament. During the conversation, the question of the South African cricket team's belief -- that is, its apparent lack thereof -- came up.

Two related questions followed the question of belief. Can on-field performance reflect self-belief , or, in the case of team sports, the belief of a group of individuals in a collective cause i.e. the team's triumph? If the answer to the first question is yes, then to what extent is that reflection of belief in performance accurate? A problem is immediately apparent: 

If one possesses reasonable knowledge about a team and uses its established confidence (or diffidence) as the point of departure, the team's performances can in some way be  thought of as following from, among other things, its system of beliefs. On the contrary, if performance is used retrospectively as a portal into a team's inner workings, one is at best left with conflicting guesses, which do not seem easily verifiable or reconcilable. The application of the ghastly/absurd ("cross out one of the words based on your allegiance") c-tag to describe the South African short-format teams of the past two decades is, in its way, a concerted attempt at deducing a team's psychological moorings from its outward show; or, which is worse, reducing the former to the latter. 

Such deductions are also simplistic from a factual point of view. While espirit de corps, closely allied to a team's sense of collective belief , can translate into phenomenal performances on the field, as dramatically highlighted by Australia's recent Ashes-winning team coached by the beer-laden effervescence of Darren Lehmann, it can just as quickly go wrong as a resurgent Team India found out on tailor-made dust bowls in the home Test series against England in 2012. South Africa's own Test teams have occupied the unenviable strategic territory between the clinical and the ruthless in recent times - their recent Test series loss to Australia was their first series loss in years - so it is difficult to contend that there is a lack of belief that strangles South African cricket teams in general. Nor can a lack of belief be said to suffocate just the short-format teams because, unlike England, Australia and to some extent India, South Africa did not, till recently, field very different teams in different formats. Besides, inspiration - or to use the antiseptic term, 'momentum' - does count for something in sport, so it is likely that the successes of the South African Test team only spurs the other South African cricket teams to perform better. 

The prolonged hoodoo at critical periods of important ICC events is, however, unarguable as facts generally are, and one wonders why. My own explanation for it is that the South Africans get so keen beyond a point in these events that they start playing - into - the context too much, rather than just the next delivery (easier said, I know). It is in fact well-known that obsessive attention towards something can hamper performance just as much as scatterbrained focus does. Sachin Tendulkar's reported (non-)pursuit of his hundredth international hundred offers a remarkable and recent case in point. The milestone must have affected him in some way as the eventual struggle to get there against a middling team hinted. Compare, now, this undoubted master's struggle with masterful innings played - by him and others - on the ground, but also, simultaneously, in the 'zone': a fuzzily-defined (if not ill-defined) psychological space where a batsman is alone but not lonely; is focused but relaxed; unconsciously trusts his muscle memory, honed by years of experience and training, to respond appropriately to whatever is bowled to him; and attacks and defends clearly but without any conspicuous statement of intent. 

My hunch is that teams can be in the zone too, like India were reportedly in the latter half of the World Cup 2011, or the Australian teams of the last decade seemed to be almost all the time. Perhaps, the South African team's zone crumbles in front of the urge to make history when they start staring at the trophy of a major tournament. What deters them most therefore is that they want the prize too badly; not that they are somehow scared of it as normally assumed. This jinx is bound to end, however, like all jinxes do. When it does, I will not be surprised to learn that relaxing, rather than tightening up, helped; that letting go turned the tide. 

February 19, 2014

On batting rearguards

Written on February 17, 2014. 

There is something about batting rearguards that justifies the 'Test' in Test cricket. Never mind that cricket is a lopsidedly batsman-friendly game these days (minus, thanks be to, Mitch Johnson and Dale Steyn), never mind that grounds are becoming smaller as boundaries are brought in closer and never mind the quality of the opposition's bowling attack; for to bat is to face up to the six (or seven) possible dismissals possible every delivery: that is 1080 possible dismissals in a 30-over session  and 3240 in a day. While numbers in general reduce the spirit of sporting feats to the perfectly ground grey sheen of history, the numbers a batsman keeps at bay as he tries to remain undefeated foreground the (routinely) monumental nature of his task.

As much as the numbers a batsman generates with the bat, it is the numbers he does not generate that puts him at the forefront of all Test cricket, in my opinion. No wonder we old-fashioned aficionados of the game love the guy who can carry his bat, the bloke in the lower middle-order who can defend like his life depended on it, or the frail-looking tail-ender who is still game for a bloody good scrap: it is a romance that fetes the almost physical will of bloody-mindedness (over and) against the inexorably boring press of brain-generated odds. As fans of this glorious game of essentially slow rhythms and subtle music that is an acquired taste - (what can football fans who mock us possibly know about lengthening shadows as a tired fast bowler runs into bowl to a batsman on 94*?) - we may embrace the fast food excitement of an IPL night, the high-strung nationalistic passions triggered by a T20 international, the creativity and genius unveiled in a one-day seven-for or double-hundred and a team's collective stamina revealed in a World Cup triumph. However, what we find most delicious is the anxiety and suspense generated by a batsman (or two batsmen), as he walks to square leg or does some gardening on the pitch, before resuming his battle with eleven players, the field placements, the weather, the pitch, the overall context of the game, his own body and mind and, from to time, the very expectant or very hostile ground. To bat, therefore, is to be blind to everything but the next delivery, just as to live is to not think too much.

Watching McCullum (281*) negotiate every next ball over the last five sessions, I am sure that New Zealand fans and keen-eyed neutrals have experienced at least some nervously knotty moments in their tummy. While I have not seen a ball of the Kiwi skipper's knock, which indeed inspired this post, news of it made me reminisce about other back-from-behind batting masterpieces which have become legends in my memory. Topping that very personal list of mine are two innings played under vastly different conditions, contrasting in style and substance (of runs and outcomes), but united by a sense of context. Laxman's 281 at Kolkata 2001, as almost every Indian cricket fan knows, denied Steve Waugh his final frontier and heralded an all-time great Test series and, later, a fascinating rivalry for the rest of the decade. While I cannot pick out one standout stroke from Laxman's innings - a difficulty writers tend to experience while trying to describe any Very Very Special canvas - I remember its (apparently) relentless elegance belying the steel of the wrists (and heart) that worked it, as it took the game out well beyond the follow-on context within which it was wrought, and took it beyond Australia's reach.

Six years before Laxman performed his fluent Houdini act in Dravid's gritty and generously perspiring company in the coming heat of a March day at the Eden Gardens, Michael Atherton, who also preferred grit over grace but displayed both on his day, had defied Donald, Pollock and Brian McMillan at the aptly-nicknamed 'Bull Ring (which would turn out to be the locale of Dravid's own maiden hundred) before returning to the dressing room, 185-starred. While Athers' tour de force did not help England reach the target of 479 that the Proteas had set for them, it saved England the Test.  Atherton himself, having opened the batting, had batted for thirty seven minutes shy of two days and had faced 492 deliveries in producing a modern-day classic of sound defence (and very Kipling-esque stoicism). I did not watch a single ball of the innings - and have not found any video footage of it - and so, with the dramatising powers of imagination, it grows ever more fascinating in my estimation.  

Having mentioned a knock I watched live and another that was played during my time, I must now mention what in my opinion is the greatest rearguard of all: Hanif Mohammad's 337*, the sort of innings that can inspire in a young child, as it did in me, a slightly unhealthy obsession towards Test cricket (and an even more insane aptitude to draw parallels between that and life especially when the chips are down). The innings, as cricinfo informs, came late in the 1950s against a West Indies side that included the likes of Sir Garry Sobers, Alf Valentine and Roy Fredricks, at Kensington Oval in Barbados. Before being asked to follow-on, Pakistan had replied to West Indies' 579 with 106 (all out). Opening the batting in the second dig as in the first, Hanif Mohammad batted for thirty minutes shy of a thousand and saved the Test, easy peasy (as the Iron Man would say). No innings known to me can better describe a recently popular, if paradoxical take, on cricket: "that it is a team game played by individuals."

Neither Hanif Mohammad, nor V.V.S Laxman, nor Michael Atherton came close to matching their (respectively) match-saving, match-winning and match-drawing rearguard efforts during the rest of their careers: no sir!, not in terms of runs, deliveries faced, or hours battled. On triple hundreds, the late Peter Roebuck memorably wrote that "it is the work of a lifetime expressed in a single innings." Perhaps, one could say the same about a rearguard, as evidenced by the fact that there are not many batsman with more than one triple-hundred (Lara, Gayle, Bradman and Sehwag excepted) or one backs-to-the-wall opus (Faf Du Plessis, take a bow) to their credit. Perhaps, a definitive peak betokens a clear descent. Be that as it may, Brendon 'Baz' McCullum has the great chance of turning a rare rearguard into a rarer third innings triple hundred as the final day gets underway at Wellington. Rest assured, I shall cheer for him; and so, I am sure, will Martin Crowe, who missed the feat by a run at New Zealand's capital city against Sri Lanka, and who has waited twenty-three years to see a New Zealand batsman register his name in the illustrious 300 club.