December 29, 2010

A Tasmanian Titan: Ricky Ponting!

Inspiration is often derived from leaders. But to construe inspiring as an objective of leading is to miss the point. And it is precisely in this context that followers of Australian cricket probably put Steve Waugh in the list of its greatest and finest captains even as Ricky Ponting is given his due grudgingly especially by followers of the Australian team outside of Australia. Those who compare Waugh’s tough but honest ways and Ponting’s victory-at-all-costs approach put the New South Welshman in the “fair” category and Ponting in the “unfair” category.

Ask any Indian, and he will swear by the senior Waugh twin’s name just as he will swear against Ponting. Sydneygate is just one of those nasty sporting episodes that went too far and any skipper would have been made to look like a goose: that Ponting refused to back down made him appear more so. Ponting (and in his company others) might have been wrong as South – and they have never claimed to be saints – but to fail to give the little Tasmanian his due wholeheartedly using the fairness argument seems to be a subversion of fairness. Indeed, this author believes firmly in fair play himself and can possibly never love Ponting. One should not however forget that sport owes its remarkable richness to the variegations of its characters.

And discounting the rise of Ponting from being Tasmania’s blessed but notorious prodigal son to the leader of the finest one-day and test teams in Australian cricket history is to miss an important chapter in all cricketing history. Every great has had a failing: Tendulkar’s has been, till recently, his inability to complete matches; Lara’s reportedly was selfishness; Bradman missed the immortal 100 as average by 0.6 but he missed it all right; Ponting’s crime evidently is that he has been ruthlessly single-minded in charge of world beaters who shared the vision with fixity. And it is a better crime than having a soft underbelly like some Indian teams of the past.

When Ponting broke through with 96 about fifteen years ago at the WACA against Pakistan, he was already touted to be one of Australia’s future greats. But not every young genius deals with early accolades with the shoulders of a giant like Tendulkar did. One of the reasons why the Indian Little Master is revered the world over has to do with the poise with which he has kept the extra-cricket elements he has received through cricket away from his game, thereby being wedded to it and it shows in his staggering consistency. Lara’s career which concurred with a period of petty politicking in Windies cricket that ultimately affected the players, however, swung between the sublime and the subterranean, often within the same series. Ponting’s issues were off the field. Alcohol is no alien to a Punter nicknamed so on purpose and did its job; the Australian skipper, I still remember, even got a black eye once. But rather than dilly-dallying like Jesse Ryder, the New Zealand left-hander who has himself dealt with issues relating to alcohol lately, Ponting came out, confessed his vulnerability, worked his way out of it, married a lawyer and took charge of his life. And as the new millennium arrived, Ponting’s fitness in the field and hunger for runs were already eliciting comparisons respectively with Jonty Rhodes and contemporary Herschelle Gibbs and Lara and Tendulkar. Some would die to be compared with the likes of those for just a day; Ponting has managed to keep the comparisons going, often rising about them, for a better part of his tremendous career.

His fiasco against the Turbunator in the epoch-making 2001 series in India, a place where he has not set the scores ringing, was an aberration and he made up taking toll of bowling attacks round the world making big runs when Australia needed it the most. Arch-foes England met a new Ashes champion, one who would by the play of irony be the first captain to concede the Ashes (possibly thrice) in several years, and had no responses but nor did the Indians. To sum up the World Cup 2003 finals was a no-brainer: Ponting (who was already skipper of the one-day team) launched a blitz that left India clueless. Harbhajan Singh was particularly mauled and revenge was sweet. And though India drew the historical Steve Waugh farewell series later in the year, Ponting was thick with runs becoming the first Australian since Bradman to score consecutive double hundreds.

Through the rest of the decade, leading upto 2008 Ponting played many other stellar innings besides pouching catches – at gully, the slips, point, and just about anywhere – he was not supposed to take and hitting the stumps with staggering consistency. The need to review Ponting’s runs assumes significance because it is said that a leader is only as good as his team. Half a Ponting would still have led Australia to the 2007 Ashes whitewash, the 2003 and 2007 World Cup wins or a number of other triumphs which I forget because of the consistency with which victories came for the Australian juggernaut. Messieurs Warne, Hayden, Langer, Martyn, McGrath and Gilchrist are not names that need to be led. But Ponting still towered in a team of greats by being the team’s best batsmen. That he scored his runs at number 3, played only in fourth gear and was still prolific meant that Ponting was the opposition’s most prized wicket, the noughties’ highest run scorer and world’s most prolific number 3 in terms of runs and second only to Bradman in averages.

And now the great run machine is on the wane; or perhaps as the soothsayers, naysayers and associates say, he has waned. It is hard to blame the factions from which those whispers come: after all, they have high-credentialled names like Ian Chappell. Grapevine and the media, and it is difficult to fathom whether they are different these days, say that Ponting may call time if they strip him of the captaincy. Ponting has an ego the size of the international batting colossus he has built but the problem is that the ego was fed by the very runs that fortified it.

The colossus sadly does not seem like Work in Progress anymore. Its construction struck everyone with awe and may soon stand “completed” for everyone to stand and judge. Ponting as the world and its uncle knows has never been a master strategist as a captain and his lack of runs have therefore been doubly accentuated. Unlike India where Dravid, another fabulous number three who seems to be going nowhere with his mind or runs, has managed to hold onto the wreckage, Australia will not give a magnanimous rope and Ponting who has emerged from and lived with the hardnosed system will know it better than most.

That his runs have reduced to drips when the rest of the batting line-up, barring to some extent Hussey senior, Haddin and Shane Watson, too is in introspection mode has made Ponting’s insipid run-scoring phase seem balder for not long ago did Ponting score those fine fighting half-centuries in India or the brisk 50-odd in the second innings of the first Ashes test at Brisbane. With Ponting staring at the third Ashes defeat as a captain and the first at home – and Ashes Echoes has it that neither is simply another dubious distinction to be forgotten with time like King Pairs or having a Chris Martin batting average –, the drought seems even more cruel especially as Ponting’s young opposite number keeps Trotting along, almost making it seem like the Aussie bowling is a feast for him. But such is the irony and ire that sport is ordained. To not await the destiny and deal closure speaks of prudence; to stay on, linger and change it is fortune that a few – like Tendulkar or Muralidharan – are blessed with; for the rest, the ending is grey and dragged out, a nostalgic reproduction of glimpses of a golden age rather than the spontaneous sunshine of fluency.

Only the most absurd optimist or skewed mystics who can make rains can prevent England retaining the urn at the end of the Boxing Day test. Even if that happens, there is no assurance Australia will win at Sydney; Perth last week already seems like a hyperbolic fluke and a rude joke played on the Australians. To cut it short, Ponting’s undeniably superb legacy as a captain is all but lost: he will be remembered not as the guy who supervised a 5-0 Ashes whitewash of England but as the man who lost the campaign thrice not least because the human memory is fickle and remembers only the most recent tidings. But Ponting’s batting legacy should not be lost in a heist of commonsense or bitterness. Whether the Sydney test is Ponting’s finale or the beginning of the end only time and selectors can tell.

Eventually, Ponting’s end will come. Steve Waugh once said that Ponting would overtake Tendulkar’s hundreds. To even spare a thought to that prediction evokes titters or tears now – as the case may be – but Waugh would not have foreseen either Tendulkar’s incredible second wind or Ponting’s simultaneous autumn. And armed with a technique that could charitably be described as grotesque, Ponting would not find his place in the list of the game’s graceful greats either. We have spoken enough of his charred legacy as a skipper and his lack of popularity as a player. All the same, Ricky Ponting’s cricket at its peak was aggressive, forthright and single-minded, qualities which characterise the Australian landscape. He may not be missed in due course even by the Australian team for dispensability is taken too literally in sport. And irrespective of when the sun sets over Ponting’s extraordinary career, the little Tasmanian’s membership in the company of the world’s greatest batsmen is a formality now as it has been for some years. Gainsaying his greatness – with or without a #Pontingface – would amount to the gainsayer’s being diagnosed with cricket’s own strain of partial amnesia.

December 25, 2010

Cricket in Hong Kong and a pre-Boxing Day Roundup!

There are so many things that are so quintessential about India that even when doses of these are lacking elsewhere we Indians find it quite unfathomable. Cricket is one such thing. Nine years ago when I visited Hong Kong, the SAR which had been taken back into the Chinese fold only three years ago did not know what cricket was. After searching for EA Sports’ 1997 Cricket Video game at more than five shops – in as many parts of town – my father and I came to the convincing and arguably only conclusion that even if they had it they would not know it because the locals reacted as if they did not know the name of the game. It might as well have been a game played by the insect breed called cricket. Coverage of cricket in the media was sparse: newspapers occasionally carried a report and the TV news next to nothing.

Eight years on, something seems to have changed. A local English newspaper called The Hong Kong Standard has on four of the last six days carried cricket-related news – from Australia’s and South Africa’s triumphs in their previous test matches against England and India respectively, to Tendulkar’s 50th ton in test cricket and return to the Indian one-day team to other bits of trivia. Admittedly, these news items are sometimes briefer than the blurb of a novel but there is something for those interested. The English news at 9:30 on TVB Pearl has also been airing cricket-related news including a few seconds of video clippings or images.

Whether cricket’s finding a place in the local news is a result of the game’s increased popularity among countries outside the nine test-playing ones courtesy formats like Twenty20 or an impact of probable requests from Indian and Pakistani populace in this part of the world or Hong Kong’s own interest in the game – what with its participating in the Asia Cup before the last one and the Hong Kong sixes’ tourney attracting its own share of ‘A’ teams from various cricketingly old parts of the world – is unclear to me and remains to be seen.

And what a season the ongoing one is for cricket too! I had predicted Australia to take the Ashes purely on the overwhelming merit of the robust argument that Australians at home are impregnable like India and South Africa. Pietersen, Cook and Company, however, made me do a pirouette only for Mitchell Johnson on a comeback trail – assisted by Ryan Harris – to give Australia a stunning series levelling victory at Perth. Whether the Perth victory has turned the series on its head only history will tell. From Australian teams of the past the Adelaide loss would merely have been an aberration and for English teams from the past the Perth loss might have been the putting-them-in-their-places summary ritual. But this England team under Strauss will emerge strongly after the stinker at Perth and the Australians though riding high will still have to play unrelenting cricket to regain the urn. With two tests to play and everything to play for, my prediction currently is on an English win or a series draw which would mean than the Britons would take the trophy back home.

As far as India’s performance at Centurion goes the lesser that is said the better. Surely, Dhoni has to find a way to win tosses for currently he finds it as impossible as making his batting appear attractive. The skipper’s most recent wrong call at the toss made sure that the first day of the series was touch-and-go death for the Indians especially against the likes of Steyn and Morkel. But there can be no excuses for getting bowled out for 136; if the much-vaunted batting line up had aggregated half its career average India would have still scraped 200. The bowling performance that ensued might have convinced everyone that a somnolent club side was bowling, only that it was the world’s No.1 side in the absence of one of its strike bowlers. The shoddy showing with the ball betrayed the unhealthy dependence there has been on Zaheer Khan at home and away since Kumble’s retirement three summers ago. After Amla, Kallis and AB De Viliers took toll on the generous Indian offerings, despite the second innings grit from the Indian top order, which was heartening to watch, Tendulkar’s 50th test century and Dhoni’s fine twin efforts – in my opinion his two best outings in tests alongside the match-saving and eventually series-winning second innings 78 he made at Lord’s in 2007 – the match was headed only one way and there it ended. Indians, everyone has been saying, lost another first test and have to play catch-up. But they did not deserve to win. In the meantime, another colossal Dravid achievement was written into the footnotes where it is probably likely to remain with other similar achievements half-forgotten, never to be tickled – his 12,000th run in test cricket. That he could not save the match for the side and got out with his tally on 12000 would have hurt him more than others but that is besides the point. As Harsha Bhogle rightly points out here is yet another case of Indian fans failing to recognise a champion because he has been content to perform and let the “performers” take the spotlight.

The Boxing Day test matches promise to be crackers. The one at the Melbourne Cricket Ground will be closely contested for all money but whether the match at Kingsmead (Durban) will be or not depends a lot on the mindset with which Indians look to the game. Zaheer Khan’s return bolsters the side but the other bowlers need to support Khan ably. And with Durban probably being the fastest deck in the world at the moment, the batsmen need to come good. Sehwag’s runs in the second innings of the previous test augurs well for we know that if he stays for any length of time the opposition will be on the back foot. But if India even fancies squaring the series, the team needs to do more than just depend on certain individuals and find out a way to blood into the unit the espirit de corps that was on display in Australia in 2003 and England 2007 and more recently against Australia at home and Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka. After all, great teams do not have One General for all crises, but several loyal footmen who can respond to the call at different times. All of India’s batsmen have rallied in the recent times. It is now a question of playing the game rather than the conditions or the names of opposition bowlers and hoping that Zak and Co can get twenty sticks in five days.

December 8, 2010

Why Ashes Exemplifies Test Cricket?

When aficionados of the game keep harping on the need for test cricket to survive, fans of the game’s most recent versions tend to disagree. And more often than not, they probably think that the support for test cricket is just the indelible quaintness of a few jobless old men who cannot change with changing times. But nothing could be furthest from the truth. Although the recently concluded test match between England and Adelaide was one-way traffic most of the way, and unusually against Australia which is becoming fairly usual of late giving Australian selectors a lot of headache, the primacy of a series like the Ashes and the passions involved in pursuing the elfin urn are unmatched in world cricket. And in more ways than one, the continued fanfare behind world cricket’s oldest and greatest rivalry suggests why test cricket is treated as THE pinnacle by cricketers and purist fans alike even if it is unarguably on the wane.

In 2005 Kasprowicz and Brett Lee almost took Australia home at Headingley from an impossible scenario only to see Geraint Jones pouch a low leg-side feather of Kasper to leave Australia stung and stunned. In 2006 three Australian giants – Glenn McGrath, Matthew Hayden and Shane Warne – sought the most supreme revenge: they aimed 5-0 and gave it to the Englishmen. Adelaide was what hurt most. After 500-odd in the first innings which was bettered by the Kangaroos, England collapsed in a third innings effort akin to Australia’s own three years ago against Ajit Agarkar and Company. England returned the compliments at home in 2008 but not nearly with the same kind of comprehensiveness with which Australia had done two seasons ago. Come 2010. Come Adelaide and Irony. Come Cook, Pietersen, Anderson and Bell. This time the men from the Isles ensured that they did not even leave a window ajar to tempt fate.The rest is silence as the Bard would say.

Ponting said after the Oval defeat in 2008 that he wanted his players to sit around and feel the pain as Strauss held the coveted urn. With an inconsistent batting line-up and his own form hitting different scales in the batting barometer and a bowling line-up that has looked more like an automatic bowling machine, Ponting’s burning desire seems to be headed nowhere but to hard rocks right now. But no one-day tournament or T20 affair is distinguished by such fierce ambitions. Ponting brought his men to India recently with the same firmness of thought as well but his team, with the exception of Watson and himself, let him down. BCCI’s own daft last-minute scheduling of test matches supplanting one-day internationals, something that would have been unheard of three years ago, betray a blatant intention to help India retain the numero uno ranking in tests. For once, a parochial end has crystallised into noble means which can only be good for test cricket. The upcoming three test battle between India and South Africa in the latter’s backyard is therefore more than just a contest between test cricket’s current number 1 and number 2. Based on the quality of the cricket that will be played, which as a test cricket fan I hope is excellent, the series like the Ashes will once again define the stature and significance of test cricket.

Despite lobbying for test cricket as proudly and as vociferously as I do, I can sympathise with test cricket’s haters and detractors. For starters, the game in its essence is still more to do with attrition than adrenaline and  attraction which characterise T20 and to some extent one-day cricket. Given that tastes are a product of our times, the dwindling lack of support for the game’s oldest format which dates back to more than a 120 years is hardly surprising. Furthermore, batsmen-friendly pitches are mushrooming all over the world: from Ahmedamad to Lahore to SSC to Adelaide Oval to Antigua there are grounds which are notorious for helping teams remain 1500-5 in the first innings if they want to keep batting. The growing insipidity of pitches coupled with the presence of uncluttered aggressors like Sehwag and the advent of a more swashbuckling style of playing which has been imported into tests as well from the shorter versions of the game has meant that the noughties was the most batsman-dominated decade since the post-war 1940s. How much ever one loves a Tendulkar or a Ponting or a Sangakkara, seeing runs amassed by the truckloads even as wickets come at a premium leaves one tired or at least to search for the remote controller to switch channels.

Such poor recommendations for test cricket apart, it is still the highest form of the game and arguably the most challenging and therefore the most gratifying. For me personally, the love of test cricket has to do with the parallels I have always been able to drawn between that and life. Fans from other sports, or for that matter of other formats of the game, taunt test cricket with the rhetorical question: which other sport is played over five days? The perception is that test match cricket is lazy and is watched and played by the supremely bored. However, I beg to disagree on the point.

Cricket in general may involve less athleticism than, let’s say, football or tennis but success in test cricket involves as much a battle of wits as guts and over long periods of time. A team that wins a session cannot afford to be complacent; and a team that has been steamrolled one-day cannot afford to have hangovers when they walk into the field the next day for to do so would be to seduce ruins. This is similar to everyday life where as someone said: success is not final, failure is not fatal, it is the will to go on that counts! Nothing exemplifies the point in sport better than test cricket and perhaps Tour de France, both requiring sustained endurance, focus and application of skill. When the skies are overcast and the pitch has a sprinkling of grass, the batsmen ought to be smart enough to give the first few hours to the bowlers as Gavaskar said. And when the pitch is flat and the sun is shining, the bowlers need to think on their feet, cut down on pace, conserve energy and maintain discipline. The upshot is that test cricket involves more than just outwitting and outlasting your opposition over longer periods of time; it also entails wrestling conditions on a regular basis and hence the tag “test”.

Michael Bevan was – and probably remains – unrivalled in the one-day game as a finisher but the fact that he is never mentioned in the same breath as a Tendulkar, Ponting, Waugh, Lara or an Inzamam has to do with the records the latter players have in the game’s long format. The Honours’ List at various stadia in England highlights bowlers who have taken five-fors in tests but not, to my knowledge, one-day cricket. While this is not intended to depreciate the value of cricket played in coloured clothes under floodlights, which has definitively more entertainment value and is required to take the game to territories beyond the boundaries within which it is currently played, it says something about the continued prestige test cricket holds among the Establishment and players.

The worrying signs are, however, obvious. For every Ashes series or an India-Australia contest or a series in New Zealand or South Africa, there are a number of pointless test series that are played out under shockingly batsman-friendly conditions. India-Sri Lanka cricket meetings have become more like bet matches between suburban neighbourhoods. It is therefore not a joke when someone says that these matches hold no spectator interest which is important for the survival of test cricket. Cricket boards in countries like India, Pakistan, West Indies and Sri Lanka have to take a call on some of their test match grounds and pitches: sorry, no cricket fan in his right mind can take a 750-5 anymore even if his own team is batting. Furthermore as Harsha Bhogle said on twitter recently, test cricket needs to be played in centres which have a longstanding tradition of cricketing culture and appreciation for the game: Bangalore, Chennai, Kolkata, Bombay, New Delhi and Kanpur are some places in India that come to mind. One-dayers and T20s can be given to the other centres. This way test cricket is ensured its share of interested attendees but every important city – and its cricket board – gets its share of cricketing entertainment as well. So much can be done if responsible minds do some brainstorming and apply their thoughts to actions. This is integral if test cricket needs to do more than just survive as a residue in the subcontinent.     

November 27, 2010

The Week of the Old-fashioned!

There is something logic-defying about a Virendra Sehwag blitzkrieg, imagination-spurring about a Brian Lara coup, religiously quintessential about a Sachin Tendulkar ton, incredible about Ricky Ponting’s sense of occasion and endearing about V.V.S Laxman’s rearguards. But what might recommend Michael Hussey and Dravid one would think amid their more illustrious peers? That both men look dashing into their thirties and may still be MTV icons and heart-throbs of girls is not the kind of recommendation I am talking of. And yet in the week that has gone by (or is going by with today) both Michael Hussey and Rahul Dravid have shown with their sterling 190s how invaluable they are to their teams. As Sunil Gavaskar once famously said you bat foremost for your team and it is your team-mates’ applause that drives you at the end of the day. In case we had forgotten, this week clarified yet again why Dravid and Hussey are rated highly in the dressing room even if not by fickle fans and pressure-ridden selectors.

Apart from the fact that Michael Hussey is a left-hander and Dravid is not and that Dravid is over two summers older than the senior Hussey, there is not much that separates the two men. Their nicknames too say as much. One is both famously and infamously called The Wall for his over-my-dead-body style of playing the game. The other is referred to as Mr. Cricket for the meticulous manner in which he prepares before each match. Both rely on a tight defence to guard their fortress. And yet once they feel that their team is in the zone of safety, they unfurl a repertory of strokes which are a treat to watch and which sometimes make you wonder whether if they are two different batsmen at different stages in their innings. The point that is missed by many, conveniently or engulfed in the brightness of the other stars, is that Dravid’s solidity and Hussey’s workmanlike style lend great balance to batting line-ups punctuated with strokemakers par excellence. Skippers, fellow batsmen and journalists have said as much and not without reason.

Before their 190s this week, both men had a Damocles’ Sword hanging atop their head. To surmise that they themselves were unaware of it from the way they played – Dravid with calm discipline and Hussey with rich freedom – shows some superficial thinking on the part of the spectator. The clouds of pressure have not quite been burned away by the forceful sunshine of their backs-to-the-wall efforts. If anything, they have gone somewhere for the time being and may yet return soon enough. Dravid had, and still has and will till he retires, the likes of Cheteshwar Pujara at his heels. I am not too sure about the Australian bench but I am sure someone like Usman Khwaja picked in the long Ashes squad would make Hussey sweat over his position.

Dravid’s match-winning 191 at the Vidharba Cricket Academy which admittedly came against a decent and disciplined but not extraordinary New Zealand bowling attack and Hussey’s 195 against a potent England bowling battery that has put Australia in a commanding position at the Gabba may or may not have ensured security for Dravid’s and Hussey’s berths in their respective elevens. But coming as they did on the back of heavy criticism from the media, an extended run of poor form and probably a personal lack of confidence as well, the two gentlemen’s marathon efforts will be remembered for showing us yet again that even sport cannot besmirch human endurance and that form is temporary whilst class is permanent.

One other classical batsman, who ran dry just about the time Dravid did after the tour to England in 2007, has also been amongst the runs. Jacques Kallis has in fact unlike Hussey and Dravid been prolific lately, peeling off hundreds with the same kind of consistency, predictability and calm majesty with which Tendulkar has done – again – over the past fifteen months, narrowing the gap between himself and Ponting in terms of number of centuries. With an average in excess of 55 after close to 140 tests, a vastly improved strike rate and a few more years left in him, Kallis still has the time for a few more marathons and magnum opuses. Hussey too has a couple of years in him. As for Dravid I feel questions will be asked after every tour especially if he does not get big hundreds.

Be that as it may, Hussey and Dravid have both served their countries with remarkable consistency. However, when they call time both Hussey and Dravid will be remembered for their squeaky-clean image, the transparency and competitiveness, a rare combine in modern cricket or for that matter sport, with which they played the game. Their numbers may be less glossy compared to some of their most illustrious peers, but that is often because they played for the team and played in a manner that might make their peers’ swashbuckling business a lot easier and a lot more glamorous. Obviously devotion to the team and sincerity cannot be captured by statistics. At least, not yet.

November 12, 2010

Haider's Disappearance - a Wake-up Call for World Cricket?

I would not want to be a cricket fan in these turbulent times. More specifically, I wouldn’t want to be a Pakistan cricket fan, for every time a small ray of light seems to be afoot something happens that sets it back by cricket’s equivalent of light-years. We thought that the comedy of errors involving the bans, re-bans, lifting of the bans and re-lifting of the bans was the worst that could happen to cricket in a country that has been more or less ravaged by political turmoil ever since I was old enough to have an indelible memory.

Then came the winless tour to Australia where one can safely say – even without attempting to be deliberately rude – that the Pakistan cricket team threw away the Sydney test after being utterly dominant for the better part. Kamran Akmal’s wicket-keeping – which led no less a man than Wasim Akram to ask Akmal about his goal-keeping – was particularly picked on but apart from Salman Butt who made a hundred in the series nobody deserved to speak a word. As if the team performance was not demoralising enough, coach Aaqib Javed’s comments rubbed salt into the wounds but can probably be in hindsight appreciated as a foreboding to the eruption over spot-fixing that followed quickly like night follows day.

If the (had-to-be-easy-but-became-difficult-yet-well-deserved) win against Australia on neutral territory at Headingley (Leeds, England) seemed like just the facelift Pakistan cricket required, the spot-fixing controversy that ensued during the test series versus England made short work of any points of inspiration to be garnered from there. In between Shahid Afridi decided, once again, and one hopes once and for all (given the PCB's seemingly sacrosanct right to call people from retirements if not their graves!), that the longer version was not up his alley. What was most devastating about the match-fixing chaos was two of Pakistan’s most promising cricketers, heralded by everyone who saw them as the country’s future – Mohammads, Asif and Amir, the latter all of nineteen summers – along with their captain Salman Butt were implicated by the News of the World. All through the tempestuous waters, the PCB chairman Ijaz Butt far from trying to appear even remotely like a responsible captain of the ship has (forgive me the profanity) emerged the butt of jokes from cricket-haters and Pakistan cricket detractors alike courtesy his general lack of commonsense  and control over his tongue in especial. To think that the latter almost led the one friend Pakistan cricket has had in ECB (and its chief Charles Clarke, who also (the last time I heard) leads the ICC Review Committee in charge of reviewing the possibility cricket resumption in Pakistan) to turn hostile speaks volumes about the precariousness and daftness surrounding Pakistan cricket and Butt’s administration (strictly in that order of priority) today.

Yet somewhere along the line a non-partisan cricket lover, a pure-minded Pakistan cricket fan or a young cricketer who has worked his life to break into the national squad would have felt hopeful. After all clouds brought in by human avarice and vulnerability will clear as they do not have any finality about them; nor do human predilections. But Zulqarnain Haider’s disappearance from the the Pakistan cricket team in Dubai last week and reappearance in London earlier this week has almost put paid to that innocent feeling of hope. Unless of course what is happening in Pakistan cricket is the enactment of a page-turning novel about the underworld, cricket, Pakistan and match-fixing; or contemporary Pakistan cricket is just an attempt to take reality television to a different plane; or Zulqarnain Haider is a mor(t)ally disturbed dreamer or fidgety attention-seeker with the recent melodrama being in extremely poor taste especially considering the condition Pakistan cricket is already in. The first two possibilities are just jokes and the last seems far from true given that Haider since the fighting 88 in his first test – half of the match fee from which he dedicated to Imran Khan’s cancer hospital – has struck everyone as a gritty and committed young man with his heart in the right place.

The writing is on the wall and not merely on some crappy walls in boardrooms in the buildings where the PCB sits but across the world where administrators holding a stake in the game’s welfare meet to discuss cricket’s biggest challenges. If Haider’s revelation about the death threats against him and his family is any true, it then puts the ICC, (a body corporate which most people tend to think is a sitting duck anyway in front of perversely powerful cricket boards like the BCCI,) which has had a hot-and-cold relationship with the PCB (or perhaps it should be said that the PCB has had an iffy relationship with the ICC!) in a peculiar and not very enviable position. Spot-fixing, match fixing or fixing an entire series is one thing; it might make the larger unenlightened audience look at the sport as cheap and as another source of easy money and those who have played the game with utmost integrity look at themselves as geese. But if playing the game involves keeping one eye around for strange people at strange places all the time, ones who may go to any extent to not leave you and your family in peace, it is a challenge of a different magnitude and one the game has not hitherto thankfully come face to face with. Most importantly, problem of life and death based on the ‘supposedly’ fleeting fortunes on the cricket field should not be brushed aside Haider’s problem or Pakistan cricket’s problem. It is at once the problem of the entire cricket-playing fraternity and therefore the ICC.

Over the next few weeks, or more likely months, the merits of Haider’s first press conference after the Dubai disappearance will assume extraordinary significance. For the sake of cricket, and that of an impressive young man with a young family, one hopes that the people in high places see this conundrum through to its logical conclusion. Haider’s own life in this period albeit he has thus far, expectedly, played safe in not implicating any fellow cricketer in Pakistan, is going to be lived on the tenterhooks of questioning and the internal battle to choose between being loyal to (Pakistan) cricket and reveal whatever he knows – so nobody else goes through such torment – or consider his and his family’s safety as the end alls (or balance both). One thing is for sure: you would not want to be in Haider’s shoes at the moment. I also agree with Kamran Abbasi when he says that what Haider  needs at the moment is understanding. Over time, the important task of trying to get at the truth can be pursued for whatever it is worth.

In the larger context, I sometimes wonder if the events we are witnessing today with a sense of pallor are the product of too much professionalisation of sport, which should before and after everything remain a source of entertainment to those who play and those who watch it. Spectators swarm in numbers to watch a Sehwag, a Muralidharan, a Shane Warne or a Brian Lara even though each of these modern greats has had human vulnerabilities or sporting flaws because these are entertainers who play the game only in the spirit of sport, no more, no less. But the goings-on in Pakistan cricket, the maddening love for high-scoring thrillers and therefore flat pitches – which is fed by and feeds into T20 cricket – the devaluation of 50+ averages and the unremitting foray of businessmen into cricket positions with the unabashed view to get pole position for their businesses have left a sour taste in my mouth. Perhaps, the madness is inevitable; perhaps grandstanding is the new mantra for success; perhaps illegit money, so long as you don’t get caught as writer Sujatha might say, isn’t different from legally earned money; perhaps the pandemonium in the game today is an extension of the general pandemonium surrounding our lives which is a product of our time. Be that as it may, it is a shame that one of Pakistan’s brightest stars in the recent troubled times is coerced to stay away due to dangerous circumstances. To be sure, the game will overcome those who try to devalue and sell it through the backdoor. But then, even if Haider returns to it, it may never feel the same again for life is, and has to be, admittedly larger than this game many of us love.

Click here for cricinfo's coverage of the controversy as it has unfolded thus far.

November 1, 2010

Cricket, this November!

As I get busy and take on my final responsibilities with regard to completing my dissertation, the cricket world gets busier as well come November. Two test series beginning at opposite halves of the month and played in different hemispheres are the focus of this post. Yet more than just timelines and geographical locations separate the merits of the test series in question. While the Ashes which begins on November 25 at the Woolloongabba in Brisbane (Australia) is set to be a humdinger, unless a fairly good England team proverbially invents ways to capitulate Downunder like they have generally done, the India New Zealand three-test series that will get over even before the Ashes begins is the sort of arrangement that has left everyone tearing their head apart at BCCI’s seemingly learned ineptitude in scheduling games. That New Zealand especially on current form, or lack of any, is hardly the sort of opposition India would want to face upto before a hostile test series in South Africa in December has been sufficiently debated by experts and rightly so.

But given that the two series are going to be played according to schedule, one has to look at them closely. As regards the India-New Zealand series, I would be disappointed if the home team who beat Australia 2-0 a couple of weeks earlier does anything less than achieve the same score line. Among other things, the series will give the Indian batters a chance to boost their averages and someone like Dravid who is probably short on confidence to get back to big runs on grounds which will not assist the Kiwi attack too much.

New Zealand who were outplayed – and that still seems like an understatement – by Bangladesh to go down 4-0 recently, albeit in a one-day tournament, will hope to play hard and wind up the year on a respectable note. It may however not be that easy for the Vettori-led Black Caps especially against a first choice Indian team which is likely to be fielded for the first time in several months. I agree with Geoff Boycott when he says that New Zealand is going to struggle for a while because barring the skipper and to some extent Ross Taylor and Brendon McCullum the team lacks superstars who can inspire magnum opuses. But given that the New Zealand team has always been more than a sum of its parts – and arguably been the best representatives of cricket as a team sport – I would not be surprised if they turn in a fighting performance. Davids slaying and Goliaths falling are after all very much part of the glorious unpredictability of sport. That any amount of resilience may not prevent an Indian victory this around is a different issue altogether. But the harder New Zealand play the better it is for the Indians who will look prepare mentally for the showdown in the Protean land later this year.

Coming to the Ashes, the pre-series gamesmanship has already begun with John Buchanan saying things about Pietersen who in turn retorts and calls the former a “nobody” and Shane Watson chipping in with his dose of unsurprisingly Australian gyan about the English bowling attack. And as one of those old-fashioned cricket lovers, I find all this a bit daft and extremely tiring. However, I expect the actual cricket between the two teams this time to be a lot closer than it has ever been in Australia’s backyard since my birth, no matter what the players from the two teams, experts, commentators, journalists, your-or-my-next of kin, Andy Zalzman and others have to say in the build-up to the series.

Even if the Australian quicks are likely to exploit better the home conditions which may disadvantage James Anderson and Finn – as Watson was wont to point out – who rely on swing, Australia’s batting line up given its recent hot and cold showing may concede a little bit of the advantage back to England because of its growing brittleness. Although the conditions Downunder are very different, Watson and Ponting will be looked up to hold the batting together given their performances in India. The sub-par performances of Michael Hussey, Michael Clarke and Simon Katich and Marcus North’s inconsistency will obviously worry the national selectors. But Ashes is almost a cricketing religion and if two of the four can inspire themselves and step upto the plate during the long series Australia will be well-served. England on the other hand would love to get the supporting actors early hoping that it becomes too much for Ponting to handle. And I liked the look of Tim Paine in India: he seems to be a good old-fashioned keeper without Haddin’s footwork or Gilchrist’s audacity but he seemed to make up for it with grit. It would be interesting to see if Australia picks him or Haddin if the latter is fit.

For England, Kevin Pietersen’s form is admittedly a cause for eyebrow-furrowing concern because he is the sort of talismanic character – like his one-time skipper Shane Warne at Hampshire – who can decide the issue in favour of his team with two masterpieces at crunch situations in a five-test rubber. But it would be unfair to focus too much on KP because during the previous Ashes in England he was merely a spectator after the horrible paddle sweep that took the cricketing world by storm. Andrew Strauss who stoically led England to the urn in 2009 was also the best batsman for the hosts in that series. There is a sense of the blue-collared worker than a batsman about him – and Paul Collingwood who would be looking to return to his gritty ways – which makes him go about his grafting in the middle with unobtrusive but efficient dullness denied to the more flamboyant and gifted. Like his opposite number, Strauss too would, however, need support from other batsmen. The skipper’s opening partner Alistair Cook would probably want to show the world that his mid-forties average is not one for the world to titter about and there can be no better chance than the Ashes to prove this. Some say that Jonathan Trott is perhaps England’s answer to Rahul Dravid and his exploits at number 3 thus far merit the comparison and performances in Australia will only enhancing that reputation. Matt Prior has come a long way with his gloves and his batting has always been in a good league but England will hope that Prior would not have to get involved in too many rescue acts. Collingwood is a key man in the English middle order and his form is important. Although a nudger, the Durham chap brings solidity to the middle order and calm to the dressing room. I do not see Ian Bell getting a place in the eleven unless someone gets injured.

The picture is clear: neither the English nor the Australian batting line-up has trounced oppositions in recent times, so it will come down to which bowling attack can tear the wall when it spots a crack. Mitchell Johnson, Douglas Bolinger and Ben Hilfenhaus will be more than a handful in familiar conditions (and if Nathan Hauritz gets some wickets, it is a bonus!) For England Stuart Broad with his pace and carry is likely to be the numero uno in the quicks’ department. I, however, concur with Shane Warne totally when he says Graeme Swann will play a significant role for England in the series. With his natural aggression, unnatural for a spinner, his number 2 ranking in tests and the confidence from a surfeit of wickets in the last two seasons behind him, you can rest assured that the Northants off-spinner will at least not bowl as flat has Harbhajan Singh has been doing in recent years even if he does not end up with four five-fors in the series.

Even forgetting the weight of history, which England has neither carried very elegantly nor dumped over the years, it may be difficult for the Englishmen to force a triumph because the series is played in Australia. Post-Border Aussies have always been the most resilient lot even when not at their peak and have always found ways to get into winning situations – and win from there – especially at home. It has little to do with form and lot with mindset. If England needs to turn the tide, they need to be working overtime in all departments: bat aggressively, bowl clinically, convert half chances into catches and not think defeat. My prediction though is for a 3-2 or 3-1, Australia. 2-2 may be a welcome result for both teams. If England wins, we can all be elated and stupefied and bid goodbye to one of the great run machines of the modern era, Ricky Ponting.

October 11, 2010

The Wall near the Door!

After writing a lengthy birthday tribute for one of my life’s greatest inspirations, my Father, I am a little depleted physically and mentally. Yet I do not want to shy away from recording these observations here tonight. I hope I am terribly wrong and so is my best friend Sid – and you cannot find two men who take Rahul Dravid’s game to heart more than we do. For both of us, Rahul’s batting represents a symphony set in an ethereal pitch, a symphony that evokes an emotional response containing deference, delight, gratitude and perhaps even love. But to discern that symphony being ground to the status of something like a hackneyed tune in a broken gramophone hurts – quite literally like a broken heart – and hurts big time. What is baffling is that one would have expected a sensible guy like Rahul to pick an opportune time to go and one feels that has come and gone. Seeing him bat in the last two series, I feel like he is already on borrowed time – not the best thing to say about a prodigious number 3 or one’s greatest idol, but the facts are there for all to see.

In Sri Lanka where Dravid’s defence was still working solid, commentators said he was finding ways to get out. Indeed, there was one freak dismissal to Suraj Randiv and an umpiring decision that could have gone either way. But the signs of sunset were there, not writ in stone or sounded prominently, but they were there, cooed subtly like the whispers of a grey breeze bringing in the long night. In sport, like in most other fields that test if not make human character, body language bears as much eloquence as the actual deeds in the middle. As Dravid walked back to the pavilion at the P. Sara Oval after being bowled I could see (and I admit it is subjective) something other than the disappointment of failing his lofty standards yet again. The handsome face was drained of colour and one could spot in it the faintest traces of weariness.

People who have seen Dravid in his prime would swear that seeing him get out in a similar way or to a certain type of bowling or delivery in a succession of innings is as rare as seeing Sehwag defend for an entire over, which of course is the cricketing equivalent of spotting a Halley’s Comet or understanding Einstein’s equations. But in this series, the Comet has been spotted, Einstein’s ghost has been awakened and the Wall has been breached three times out of three by: (a) a left-arm pacemen (twice to Bollinger in the last test); (ii) deliveries going across the off-stump; and (iii) strokes played away from the body – in attack or defence. Warning signs wouldn’t you think especially for a man who when in his zone used to give the impression that he had an additional eye on his back focusing on the off-stump? Writing on the wall (and no cheesiness in the use of this expression), in fact, Sid and I would say.

Cricket is a cruel game even though it may not seem as cruel as football or tennis because rapidity is often mistaken to be the mother of all sporting strains. As Peter Roebuck writes, fine sportsmen who go past their primes still linger around in the hope of one more magical hour or a half or even a minute for their ticker has been tuned to expectation, performance, consistency and winning. It is like hanging on in a relationship even though it is taxing because the tussle is familiar while getting out entails encountering alien emptiness. Gooch might have scored more than half of his test runs after his fortieth summer including a majestic 333 against India at Lord's but he is an exception. Tendulkar at 37 may be the ICC Cricketer of the Year after a dream year. Tendulkar is Tendulkar anyway and I wonder at times if he had immortality at heart alongside bat in hand when he first faced up to a bowler. But sport levels. Even Sir Donald – the greatest of cricketers – had to settle for an imperfect 99.94.

The rest of the sporting fraternity comprises mere mortals, some more skilled than others, a few more resilient than the rest and a lot who remain in the fringes – ask Badrinath – but once their present turns past everything ceases to be irrelevant for old deeds are forgotten at the sight of a new kid in the block. Change is no foe to sport, in fact, sport thrives on it. At the end of the day everyone has to step out of the dream, look at the sun, understand that it is time for others to live the dream and walk away. Mind you, it is difficult in general to walk away as you will hear men and women who have slogged with sloth behind thankless cubicles tell you that they find it hard to retire. It is even tougher in competitive sport. It requires mental clarity, firm will, the assurance from those who keep you grounded outside of your game’s nadirs and zeniths that all is going to be fine and some luck which can go a long way towards setting up a good if not a fairytale ending. Steve Waugh’s farewell was befitting as he set into darkness doing what he used to do best – play a combative knock which saved Australia his farewell test at Sydney. Comparisons between Waugh and Dravid are  quite natural but when it comes to retirement, (my friend as well as) I feel that Dravid has already missed doing a Steve Waugh.

Even if Rahul Dravid only comes up with single digit efforts in the rest of his test career, even is his catch aggregate remains on 198 and even if he is booed by a nation’s fickle crowd which has done it to him in the past, the admiration Sid and I have for the man will not dwindle. For it is a faith, a sort of fondness transfused into our bloodlines and is non-negotiable. But the muffled titters and mockery will hurt especially when he could have gone on a high at so many points during the last year or so. Fact is he deserves to go on a high. India may be brittle without Dravid in South Africa but even with him I do not see the middle order getting fortified. That is wishful thinking based on a record book which aside from statistics is just history. In any case, Dravid's performances in South Africa may be at best described as lukewarm.  His increased uncertainty outside off will be spotted and ruthlessly exploited by Steyn, Morkel and company. For the first time in the last fourteen years, I must say this: it is better for the team to feel insecure without the cushion of 11500 runs than carry the baggage of a frustrated legend. The door is ajar. And it won’t be long before others force it open for such is the order of sport and the ordainment of time through the offices of age. And we hope Dravid calls time in his own terms before that, forthrightly and confidently, exactly the manner of his forward defence which will be an enduring memory of the man that cricinfo refers to be among the last classical test batsmen.

October 5, 2010

A Humpty Dumpty Test Match

    October 1- 2010 was the day when “Endhiran” released and people crowded for 2am show to watch it. Meanwhile, the test series between Australia and India started abnormally in a quite manner in Mohali. Australia started off on high with Watson and Ponting putting together 141 run partnership. When it is an Aussie-Indian clash you expect the balance to be topsy-turvy. Its like the Humpty dumpty who sat on the wall. This one didnt disappoint one bit.

  Indians came back well with Zaheer making good use of the art he had mastered, reverse swing. The biggest bore was the rate at which the Aussies were scoring the runs. The usually aggressive Aussies played like they were scared for their life. The RPO of the post tea session on Day1 was 1.43. Now imagine sliding a hacksaw through your neck and thats what it felt like.
  Once again on Day 2, the Aussies took charge and piled up the runs and ended up with a 1st innings total of 428 despite Zaheer’s fiver-for, thanks to Tim Paine and Mitchell Johnson scoring 92 and 47 respectively. India did get off to a good start with yet another Sehwag blitzkrieg with a better than ‘run a ball’ 59. Dravid and Raina gave good support to Sachin scoring 77 and 86 respectively. The match was back again in India’s hands but the fans had a heartbreak when Sachin fell 2 short of yet another 100 with that Australia took the upper hand bowling out India for 405 and Mitch picking a five-for.

  The Aussies got off to a good start with an opening partnership of 87 runs. This time the runs came much quicker. Watson once again was the top-scorer with 56. A tall lanky Ishant Sharma, who was swatted off in the 1st innings came out of the ashes baiting 3 wickets in a spell, all big fish. Zaheer once again cleaned up the tail. The wickets of Hauritz and Hilfenhaus were dream deliveries, even top order batsmen would have nightmare facing such deliveries. The way Zaheer Khan is bowling with the old ball, he would be asking for “Second Old ball due” at the end of 80 overs. 215 was not a tough target for the Indians, considering this was team which chased big totals in the recent past. Advantage once again shifted to Australia when India were 55/4 at the end of Day 4.

Day 5 didnt start off on a good note with India tottering at 124-8. If this match was played between some tom,dick or it would’ve been over, but hey this is IND Vs AUS. Ishant Sharma camped the same crease where the top order batsmen were jumping to short deliveries of the Aussie Fast bowlers, on a wicket which was pretty tough to play short pitch bowling. Laxman despite his back problems, batted with silken touch. Ishant Sharma and Laxman took India to within 11 runs of the target from a hopeless position. There were many tense moments after Ishant was adjudged LBW when he wasn't and Ojha wasn’t when he really was LBW. Ojha and Laxman held the nerve and took India through to their “closest ever test win” with Laxman remaining unbeaten on 73. Yet another time the Aussies were stoven by Laxman. Ishant who started as a villain at day 1 conceding too many runs became a hero in a span of 5 days at the end of the test match. At the start of Day 5 everyone were screaming for Sachin, after all the hype it was a quite and Very Very Special Laxman who drew the “Laxman Rekha” for India.

Australia would be really down after losing such a close test match. They would need a lot to bounce back after this. It is really a shame this is just a 2 match series. The Match also marked Zaheer’s achievement of picking 250 test match wickets. I was jumping in joy not because India won but because i witnessed one of the greatest test matches ever played and that too between two evenly matched teams with a lot of “setting the cat among the pigeons” moments.

September 27, 2010

Champions League T20 - A Post-tournament Insight

  On a certain September 10th, when the rains were pouring down here in India, the “Cricket Monsoon” had started elsewhere in a land far away from here in South Africa. The two IPL teams, Mumbai Indians and the Bangalore Royal Challengers were touted to be the favorites of the tournament. How could they be more wrong?  There has not been and still is not a great history of favorites actually ending up as the “Champs” The only team that I can remember of doing that are the Australians. The Opening match was a slap in the face with the Lions downing the Mumbai Indians. Perhaps that set the precedents of the tournament. The teams in this tournament can be grouped under three heads; chumps, also-rans (Name courtesy @diogeneb)and champs.

   The Chumps are like “hmm” “ah” “oh” just fillers. This tournament certainly proved they dont belong to this stage. Lets start with the Guyanese who lost all of their matches. They might have fancy Indian names with mutations like ‘Devendra Bishoo’ et all  but they did not have any fancy batters or bowlers. Along with them are the “Central Stags” who were tied with the Guyanese for the ‘Top Chump’ perhaps we need a super over to break the tie. The Stags looked absolutely pathetic against even mediocre spin bowling, let alone top class spinners. The sorry tale is that the Central Stags are just a reflection of what New Zealand cricket is right now, totally dried up. Wayamba 11 aren't far behind, in my eyes they are equally pathetic. They have ended up 3rd in the chumps list only because they beat the Central Stags.

There are teams who were 'also-rans'. Barring the 3 chumps, the rest of the 7 teams can beat each other on any given day. These teams just couldn’t replicate their domestic form to make it to the semifinals of the tournaments.  The lions, Bushrangers and Mumbai Indians just couldn’t bring their ‘A’ game. Bushrangers were pretty unlucky to not make it to the semis despite winning 3 of their 4 matches.

  Usually only the best teams make it to the Knock out stages of any tournament. Beyond that it is purely how the team performs on that day, previous performances hardly matter. The classic example would be the Red Backs. They have pretty much won everything in their league and ended up loosing just one in the semis to be sent ‘Down Under’. RCB were also unlucky to lose Kallis in the league stages and then Steyn in the middle of the semifinals. Yesterday the SA champions and IPL champions locked horns and we all know who won it. No wonder Warriors are under the Kings. It wouldn’t be an understatement if i say they were the 2 deserving teams.

  Many players came to fore in this tournament like Davy Jacobs, Aaron Finch, Michael Klinger, Colin Ingram and Dan Christian. You can really see the dominance of CSK if you look at the ‘Top Scorers’ and ‘Top Wicket Takers’. Three of the top five wicket takers and 2 of the top run scorers are from the Super Kings. Also both of M.Vijay and R.Ashwin top their respective charts. To notice that both have been brought up in Chennai brings a sense of pride and happiness that donned the pretty much the same streets I do.

One highlight of the final for me would be when Vijay went past Davy Jacobs’ tally of runs. Davy Jacobs ran to Vijay during the overs break to congratulate him on beating his tally *RESPECT*. That is the showcase of Sportsmanship of the highest order and hair raising moment for every true cricket fan. I wish Davy Jacobs a great career ahead. People like him are gems when you see no balls being bowled to stop batsmen from scoring centuries.

Yellows seems to dominate the cricket world like anything. Not long ago the Australians were marching rampant. Chennai Super kings have fallen into that bracket with 1 runners up, 1 semifinal, 1 IPL title and 1 champions of Champions title. For me CSK carries Chennai’s no nonsense approach to its cricket. Perhaps one of the least controversial, devoid any fights and a very cohesive and consistent unit. If any team carrying those qualities wins, it certainly makes me happy. The fact that is is CSK just makes it special. The sad part is that, yesterday was the last time they will play as an unit together, thanks to IPL’s decision of including  2 more teams a fresh auction. For me they will be remembered as The Invincibles, everything they touched turned golden yellow. Period!

September 25, 2010

A Preview of the Upcoming India-Australia Test Series:

Some weeks ago, or may be it is months – I am not sure given that I have done very little that is non-phonological during these queerly dark ages as far as entertainment is concerned – Peter Roebuck wrote how the upcoming India-Australia test series may be a faint encore of the type of cricket these two nations have produced over the last decade. Given that Roebuck has the predilection, like yours truly often does, to get such things wrong, I hope and wish he is wrong again. Nonetheless, there is more than a grain of lingering truth in the journalist’s words.

The two test series that kicks off next Saturday is not about a contest between the top-ranked test team in the world and a resilient outfit that can still be world beaters although for the sake of appearances it looks like that. Rather, it will be a time-filling dress rehearsal between one team which got the saddle of being the best by the inexplicability of default statistical logic and another which prepares to take on in its own backyard arguably the strongest England team to have visited those shores in years. That way, there is more for Australia to take out of this short series. For India, it will probably be a question of: “Will Harbhajan Singh once again regain something like his lost form against the Aussies who bring out the best in him?” “Will Laxman again be very, very special?” “Will Tendulkar leave Ponting even farther in terms of hundreds?” “Will India continue their stay at number one for a little while before the bubble collapses one night?”

Personally, this series still induces just enough excitement for me as I am one of them rare breed of test cricket lovers who have been outnumbered, outstripped and outflanked by the followers of the game’s youngest sibling – namely T20 cricket. Also, the prospect of seeing Rahul Dravid bat again in a home series, especially after his deplorable outings in Sri Lanka where he “found new ways of getting out”, is more than just a consoling thought. Add the fact that Zaheer Khan, my favourite Indian bowler among those playing now by a distance, and Gautam Gambhir are back in the team, the side promises to be a balanced one that can retain the Border-Gavaskar trophy the Indians took in 2008 after a 2-0 triumph, one of the rare one-sided series these two teams have played out in the last eleven years. (Cheteshwar Pujara’s selection is another enthralling prospect and although he may not make the eleven with Raina in silken touch, there is one guy who may splice the Indian middle order in the years to come).

For the Australians, the rookie and the veteran alike, there is a point to prove. Ponting himself would want to do more than just that. Undoubtedly, one of the run machines of the decade and the greatest players of the modern era, Ponting’s sub-twenty-five average in India does not quite become of a player of his class. As a captain, who has been widely criticised as having ridden on the back of a great team without exceptional leadership skills, Ponting has to conquer the final frontier too, one which Steve Waugh failed to do despite his most intense bids and one which the Australians did way back in 2004 under Adam Gilchrist as injury kept Ponting out of the two matches that Australia won to take an unassailable lead. Michael Clarke expects big things from his captain and I hope he is right for the sake of Australian cricket. Clarke himself is a transformed batsman in test cricket these days, if his Ashes exploits last year are any indication, and with the likes of Hussey, Katich and Watson he would like to forge a strong batting combine to help his captain in the conquest. Although Australians are thin in the bowling department, with Mitchell Johnson, arguably their spearhead, wavering between Herculean and pedestrian, one can expect them to raise their game against a tough opposition when the stakes go up.

After all is said and done, the outcome will still be hard to predict not despite but because both teams are far from playing their best cricket. In terms of consistency and ruthlessness, England followed by South Africa has been playing the best cricket in all forms of the game for some months now. Under those circumstances, the focus of an India-Australia series can for a change be on the actual cricket and not on whether one team is the undisputed the leader and the other a rightful successor. Right now, both teams are miles away from the Holy Grail. The cricket between them, however, may be as exciting as it has been at Kolkata, Adelaide, Nagpur, Sydney, Perth and Mohali over the decade because it is always a challenging task to play India in India and it is always daft to write off any Australian team.

So as spend the week eating into the workload left for my submission, I will also wait for the umpire at the popping crease to call play. And just for the fun of it, I would say it is likely to be 1-0 India.

August 5, 2010

Has the Wall cracked?!

As the India-Sri Lanka three series rubber, which in hindsight can be called quite literally that, reaches the business end with an Indian interest surprisingly remnant in the last two days,  I am contemplating the swan song of one of my favourite cricketers ever and my favourite batsman to have ever played the game. Swan song, some may ask, because Rahul Dravid himself has not quite evinced any interest of retirement? Yet sport is as metaphorical an agent of human destiny as any other where a practitioner's end foreshadows him. So, as Sachin Tendulkar's second coming - or is it third? - continues with staggering consistency and keeps putting the master beyond Ponting's and everybody else's grasp among other things, Dravid's half century-less series which may well conclude that way does give me that lump-throat feeling of truth as I had pointed out on twitter. And it is not at all about the number of runs he has scored which can vary with good fortune or lack of it. 

Sample this. Venue: Sinhalese Sports Club (a.k.a bowlers graveyard these days). Sri Lanka has mauled the Indian bowlers in getting to 642. Vijay and a marauding Sehwag have put on 165 for the first wicket. Enter Dravid, plays eighteen balls for 3 and then plays back to one that's only slightly quicker, by no stretch of imagination a Goliath-slayer so to speak. Gets adjudged LBW beyond a smidgen of doubt. In an innings where every other Indian - barring Harbhajan Singh - would get off the mark and reach double figures, Dravid's end was uncharacteristic and dismal considering the pitch but sadly betrayed the only technical defect that he arguably has, playing round the front pad, which lets him down when he is out of touch. Fast forward to the post-tea session on Day 2 of the final test at the P Sara Oval. Dravid strokes some silken drives through extra-cover and down the ground to get to a rapid 23. And then he plays slightly back to a ball he should have been forward to. The ball would take half of leg stump and Simon Taufel does not give those not out even in dreams within a dream! A finely blossoming innings done in - again by playing round the front pads.

For a casual onlooker, Rahul's dismissals within a space of a session under ten days may not ring any bells. But for someone like me who has followed his career closely as a cricket aficionado as well as a fan of his batting, these successive dismissals suggest something that has been, in cricketing circles, unheard of as far as Dravid is concerned: they were an action of replay of each other, the variables being the pitch, the bowler type of the bowler and the umpire who gave the verdict on the two occasions. After fourteen years and 140 odd tests Dravid remains a keen student of the game and he himself would know exactly what I am pointing out. Is it a mere coincidence? If it is not, is it Dravid's physical reflexes which are abandoning him (for the mental side of his game hardly becomes casual and remains one of his greatest assets)? 

Even the gritty forty-four in the second innings of the crucial test at Galle ended with a casual - read unDravid-like - airy flick on the leg side. That the dismissal triggered a batting implosion heralded by retiring giant Murali will go into Sri Lankan cricketing lore forever. What if Dravid and Tendulkar had survived the night and batted the next morning? Perhaps, we might have saved the test match and the series would still be love-all. Yet sport just like life cannot take more than just cold wisdom from the teachings of hindsight.  

While a lot seems to have gone on in the Wall's cricketing career since his return from that inopportune injury he sustained in Bangladesh earlier this year, an effect that time allied by a challenged and therefore desperate mind is able to concoct when the going gets to thwart your sanity among other things, only four innings have in reality gone by without his scoring a hundred. Yet this glorious game, often abominably reduced to reams of statistics, is more than just numbers. Dravid himself understands that better than others who may get carried away by the lovely but sometime superficial contours of statistical Manhattans. Which is why the mode of his recent dismissals becomes such a stark signal begging - if unwittingly - the question: has the wall cracked to the extent that even innings displaying qualities of great fight will be seen no more?

The last time I asked that question was sometime in the December of 2008 when everybody, including the likes of my dearest friend Siddharth and me, was preparing to give the Wall a half-sighed half-smiled farewell. He already had ten and quarter thousand runs then and twenty-five hundreds. What followed was satisfying for a Dravid fan: a fluent 136 against England at Mohali, a consistent although ton-less tour of New Zealand, and three more hundreds. Along the way, Dravid has gone past 11,000 test runs, crossed Allan Border, returned from another injury and looked solid before returning to the pavilion to singular mistakes which Dravid would own up to.

One more innings remains for Dravid and India in this series, and going by the way the match is shaping up it may be a match-winning - and series-winning - innings or a match-losing outing. So often in the past, Dravid has stepped up to the plate in crucial last game scenarios: Jamaica 2006 and Rawalpindi 2004 come to mind instantly with the freshness of today's dawn. Even as the realist in me wonders if Dravid has the capacity to bite the bullet, quell the jangling nerves and do an encore that gave him the tag Mr. Dependable, the undying romanticist in me, that will love Dravid irrespective of whatever he accomplishes or does not accomplish henceforth, hopes for a miracle. With a two-test cameo series against Australia in the offing, Dravid may well be looking forward for substantial runs against the previous decade's Indian arch-enemy in tests too for it could be his last battle against them. 

But as Peter Roebuck rightly says: there are only so many battles left in a man. Perhaps, Dravid's reserves of resilience are at their dregs. You could say that whatever Dravid has been since he warded off two seasons of woeful form are a bonus! Tendulkar remains a genius and merits no comparison with anyone else on any given batting criterion, even those yet to be invented, unless the criterion goes simply by the surname Bradman. Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara, Manish Pandey, Rohit Sharma, Badri and others are chipping away in domestic cricket, their runs becoming a fusillade at various position in the Indian batting line-up. Dravid's own position at 3 is not as strong as it used to be. But for what it once was, and for a very long time, Dravid's name in Indian cricket will remain synonymous with dependability, dedication and depth. 

That he will always be remembered as a foot solider and not as a commander or a general is not an embarrassment and is sometimes, in fact, irrelevant. It stands for whatever Dravid has stood for, through victories at Rawalpindi, Headingley, Kandy, Kingston, Perth, Kolkata and Adelaide, draws at the Oval, Port Elizabeth, Johannesberg and Hamilton and heart-breaking losses at Durban (1996), Karachi, Barbados, Sydney and elsewhere. It stands for a sportsman who has made the most use of his abilities and pushed the boundaries of limitations manifold more than anybody including he would have expected and a man who more often than not challenged the best out of himself when the team was down for the count. Pride, performance and forthrightness have driven Dravid on the field making him a Steve Waugh-like champion. And humility has kept him grounded as a person off it. 


July 31, 2010

The SSC saga and a malediction for bowlers!

So, the test match at the Sinhalese Sports Club is finally over. Save Rahul Dravid and V.V.S Laxman who would be cursing themselves for having missed an opportunity to escalate their averages and century counts, all the other batsmen enjoyed themselves, combining for close to 1500 runs for the loss of just seventeen wickets which is less than two bowled-out innings. And if Randiv never returns to play test cricket again, I will not blame him, although being a Sri Lankan I am sure he would be strong enough to treat the pitch at SSC as an aberration probably prepared by someone who carries psychological scars from his past inflicted by bowlers. And as the test series moves to P Sara Oval which is also located in Colombo, one wonders if the contest will get any better. Well, at this stage, it looks like even the concrete front yard of my house will be better for bowlers than SSC.

A number of things were wrong about the test match just concluded at Colombo, not the least of them being a surface that did not offer anything more than slow turn which barring Dravid everyone, including Mithun and Ishant Sharma, had time to tackle. Yet to blame SSC singly for hosting such drab test matches is to be purblind and willfully ignorant of grounds like that around the world. The Motera at Ahmedabad comes to mind and so does the Antigua Recreation Ground in the West Indies; the most recently played tests at both these venues produced results not far more or less insipid than the mind-numbing draw we witnessed at SSC. With the lone exception of Karachi, pitches in Pakistan too are flat, but at least they offer expected if not extravagant turn on the fourth and fifth days of a game. The Oval in London and the Adelaide Oval have also been batting havens for years but these pitches at least have true bounce given that they are in England and Australia and with occasional help from the weather bowlers at least have (half) a chance. In India, Sri Lanka and the West Indies when the summer is at its peak and batsmen are in full flow, there is absolutely no respite for bowlers let alone relief. It is precisely in these inhumane contexts that an extra layer of grass or a slightly less hard pitch may give the toiling bowlers a window of opportunity. 

As it is, test cricket is losing ground to its youngest sibling in the game, the T20s, and a number of detractors of the games longest version, including my shrewd co-author friend here, think that test cricket’s status as the game’s foremost format is but an artifact of unimpeded history and little else. If test matches like the second one between Sri Lanka and India become the norm – not that contest-less run fests are just exceptions, which is a cause for concern – then the game’s governing body can kiss goodbye to the format sooner than they may anticipate and focus full time on marketing the game played under floodlights, with glitzy jerseys and with a lot of ├ęclat even if with comparatively less demands on substance. This is not to say that I despise the game’s newest format or that it is corrupting the game or even that it is superficial. If the game needs to spread globally, for instance, T20s are the only option. Even as an ardent fan of test cricket I am sensible enough to admit and understand that the game’s coffers and traditional values are situated in different places. So each format has its own raison d’ etre and is required for the meaningfulness of the game overall. But what I regret is the rapid dwindling of crowds in test match cricket as evidenced during the test at SSC. 

I had written earlier as well that if ICC is really, not just academically and rhetorically, interested in salvaging test cricket as a format, let alone as the most preferred one (a status which I believe it has already lost!), pitches are an area that the governing body should bring under its broad aegis. I am not too sure if there already is a pitch-related ICC committee, and if there is I do not see what it is doing. There is a touch of irony too in that when it comes to high-scoring games which end in predictable one-hour-before-close, not last ball, draws, we protest vociferously but the sonority fades soon enough. But when one ball rears up awkwardly like it did at Ferozshah Kotla, everyone goes gaga about it and fifty experts speak about how dangerous it is for batsmen to have such pitches! I am not encouraging pitches like those prepared at Kotla for the one-day game against Sri Lanka and India that was later abandoned. Sir Viv Richards Stadium in Antigua and Sabaina Park in Jamaica have also hoisted test matches over the years that have had to be called off barely an hour into the game because the pitches were underprepared. But the point is if some pitches are considered unsuitable for playing because they are a threat to batsmen’s physical well-being, then the pitches we have at the Antigua Recreation Ground, Sinhalese Sports Club, Ahmedabad and Faislabad should be considered unsuitable too because they are a threat to bowling itself. To relegate the latter form of unsuitability as an epiphenomenon just because it is less tangible than the possibility of physical injury betrays a want of commonsense and equanimity from those who are supposed to safeguard the interests of the game, which lay among other things in there being a contest between bat and ball.

While the sub-continent continues to host matches which are played in conditions that remain hell for bowlers, Pakistan’s last test match against Australia at Headingley and the ongoing one against England at Trent Bridge show how keeping the bowlers in the game interested is the only – commonsensical – way to ensure results in test cricket which in turn may bring more crowds to watch it. Indeed, one cannot expect groundsmen in India, Sri Lanka, West Indies or Pakistan to get the same sort of wherewithal that pitch curators in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa or England get; the opposite case is true too. It is needless to say that weather conditions play a part and these are beyond human control. But the fact remains we can still prepare pitches that give something for the bowlers. The Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore is a great example. Nobody even presumes that it is like Perth or Gabba; it does not need to be. But the wicket always has something in it for the quick men, at least first thing in the morning, is beautiful to bat on once you get your eye in and offers appreciable but not threatening turn during the last day and half. 

At the end of the day, it is balance between bat and ball that one asks for, not a historical reversal where batsmen get repeatedly shot out for less than 250 nine times out of ten. I prefer low-scoring thrillers to high-scoring ones any day, but that is not the point. Getting a five-for or a hundred and fifty in tests, both should entail some effort in the game’s toughest format. If five-fors happen once in ten games but double-hundreds come around every fourth innings, there is something fundamentally wrong about the equation. This is precisely what has been happening for years, at least in countries known to produce flat pitches, and unless corrected soon, the plague may come to haunt the very heritage of test cricket in these parts of the world.

July 17, 2010

India Sri Lanka Test Series: Preview

So once again Sri Lanka takes on India on the cricket field. As someone – I do not remember whether a friend or a cricket journalist – recently said India-Sri Lanka contests are becoming a bit like bet matches between two close-lying neighbourhoods in a city. The last test match the Emerald Islanders played was against the Indians, late last year and after that the two teams have taken on each other in a number of (partly futile) One-Day internationals, including the finals of the supposedly coveted Asia Cup. Now the attention turns to the longer version again with the first test of a three-series rubber beginning in Galle tomorrow (July 18, Sunday).

As I had already discussed in my previous post, the greatest significance of the match will arguably be that it will be Muttiah Muralidharan’s final test. As the veteran off-spinner stands on 792 wickets, the local crowd would be keen to see if their country’s greatest cricketer can get to 800 and add one more feather to his overcrowded cap. If Murali takes at least eight in the match at an economy rate we have come to associate with him (barring the last few test matches), then Sri Lanka may take a 1-0 lead in the series. That is exactly what Murali and the Sri Lankan team and fans will want.

For India, the challenge represents yet another opportunity to correct one of three blemishes in the country’s status as the world’s No.1 ranked test team: they have not beaten Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka. Should the Indians pull this one off, they will then be left with the task of beating the top two teams of the last decade in their own backyards – South Africa and Australia. It is however sensible not to get too far ahead of oneself and look at this particular series as yet another opportunity to win abroad.

While the Indians have the batting wherewithal, the bowling attack is surely hamstrung by the absence of India’s premiere bowler – both in sub-continental and pace-conducive conditions – over the last two years, Zaheer Khan. As Harsha Bhogle quips this may as well mean that 50% of India’s bowling attack is gone which speaks volumes about Zaheer’s role as India’s bowling vanguard in recent years but also suggests something of the extreme reliance placed on him by skippers. However, indispensability in thought is a crime in life and particularly in team sport and Zak’s absence represents a chance for his replacement(s) to step up to the plate. Even if Indians pick the best squad from the resources they have, picking up 20 wickets in Sri Lanka is going to be a huge challenge especially if Harbhajan Singh and his spin partner do not contribute significantly.

The batting line-up that continues to be one of the most-vaunted batting line-ups in World Cricket too did not give a good account of itself in the preparatory match against the Board President’s XI where the Indians were out-batted and out-bowled. Apart from Gambhir’s solid hit at the top of the order, which proved once again that he is India’s emerging Mr. Consistent in all formats of the game, Yuvraj Singh’s breezy hundred was a positive. Nonetheless, Yuvraj’s inclusion over Pujara who has been in sublime form as evidenced by his exploits for India A in England recently smacks of the same kind of ineptitude that BCCI’s selections generally involve. While it may not be a great idea to read too much into a solitary tour game, the fact that they gave six wickets to Mendis – who menaced them the last time they were there –in the first innings may be a little unsettling for the visitors.    

I do not like to pick verdicts especially before even the first ball has been sent down in a series. But it is clear that it is going to be a battle of two bowling attacks in attritional conditions, one under-par and the other with a lot of potential but which has not seen much of test cricket lately. The bowling attack that performs better is likely to win the series as both batting line-ups are studded with fine players, tons of experience and plenty of runs.  My hunch though is Sri Lanka may just take the series 1-0 or (if all the pitches are result-oriented) perhaps 2-0 or 2-1. As usual since the Indians are at the other end, I hope I am wrong. We will know in four weeks’ time.