March 30, 2010

The meaning of 'now' - and Pakistan cricket!

   Mohammad Yousuf’s love affair with retirement, at least from the Pakistan cricket international outfit, puzzles me. And with his most recent statement the puzzle has turned into downright confusion and one does not really know what to say when a player as accomplished as Yousuf says he is “retiring for now!”And yet viewed against the larger backdrop of Pakistan cricket where chaos is the single constant inmate, the ‘now-ness’ of Yousuf’s retirement or for that matter a lot of things relating to Pakistan cricket does not come as a surprise.

   Let’s go back a bit in time. Yousuf’s hide-and-seek with the Pakistan Cricket Board, or viewed from the other angle the PCB’s hot-and-cold stand against Yousuf, and his now-I-will-play-now-I-will not participation in the breakaway Indian Cricket League has been more than adequately documented for cricket fans to see. Yet the simple fact is that Mohammad Yousuf, who it seems from recent tidings does not come across as a decisive individual, is only a plaintive representative – scapegoat may be a better word to use – of the pathetic times and the imbroglio Pakistan cricket finds itself inextricably entwined in. Even if senior players are responsible for a lot of on-field shockers in the recent times, the board's inconsistency and capriciousness in making decisions has not served Pakistan cricket well as observed through the rout our neighbours suffered at the hands of Australia.

   Peter Roebuck, writing for his column on cricinfo a few weeks back, makes an apt point about how the degeneration of Pakistan cricket in general and the tentativeness of everything attached thereto has to be regarded in the light of what Pakistan is as a country. For a long time, the people of Pakistan and its cricketers found solace and solidarity from the fact that cricket helped them live despite the volatility besetting their everyday life and even bridge gaps formerly inhabited probably by barriers. Yet part of it is only a hopeful optimistic mind’s rhetoric if not innocuous wishful thinking. For these are days when the organisational fabric inside Pakistan is tapering off unprecedentedly at several levels and it is hard to imagine how a country in eternal turmoil with itself can foster a solid sporting system albeit the talent has not run dry. As if all this were not enough, the terrorist assault against Sri Lankan cricketers in Pakistan in 2008 has made the country a ‘war zone’ as far as cricketers are concerned. Dispassionately observed, Life is more important than sport and while it is unfortunate for Pakistan cricket that teams do not visit the country for cricket the forceful unanimity of the position taken is only commonsensical. Zimbabwe exemplifies the case of another country whose inner political jingoism has reduced the national cricket team – and probably other sporting teams as well –to a level that former greats like the Flower brothers, Heath Streak and others would bleed to look at.

   Returning to matters more directly relevant to cricket, Waqar Younis’ vow to prepare a good Pakistani cricket outfit before the next world cup in the sub-continent in a year’s time is a statement of quiet confidence but little else (nor should it be taken as anything else). While Waqar who has played the game hard and at the highest level for the Pakistan team may be the most ideally suited person for the coach’s job all things considered, it remains to be seen what kind of respect, leeway and leverage the former Yorker specialist gets from the team and more importantly the board. I for one believe that a captain and coach are only as good as the team; and while an Imran Khan – the quintessential Pakistan captain – may be hard to come by every day, Shahid Afridi’s appointment as skipper somewhat puzzles me especially given the maverick mauler’s behavioral track record. But come to think of it, the PCB has very few options and one only hopes the board becomes a little more patient in dealing with Younis, Afridi and their men. After all, building a good team is not a progeny of a one-night stand. The Australian cricket team’s dominance that spanned close to a decade is a product of a movement started during Allan Border’s times in the late eighties. Also, being a good team requires more than just talent in the ranks and file but courtesy guys like Mohammad Asif, Umar Akmal, Saeed Ajmal, Salman Butt and others Pakistan do not start on Ground Zero as far as ability goes.

   To me the T20 World Cup defence and a semi-finals berth in the World Cup berth may be a dream too far for Pakistan given current circumstances, players looking over their shoulder to see if their positions in the team are intact – a scenario comparable to the New Zealand’s test team –, a new captain and coach and the forced exodus of quality players for reasons vindicated or not. But then you never know with Pakistan cricket which has always been a bunch of captivating conjurers and enthralling performers than ruthless and consistent practitioners of their skill. So while one wishes Pakistan cricket well, it needs to be remembered that the timeline given for the goodwill and efforts to reach fruition should be generous. If captains, players and coaches go out or are ousted every time a tournament or an important match is lost, one might as well replace players with hats or coins used at the toss.

March 26, 2010

On the UDRS:

The debate has been raging for a while among cricket officials and players alike. And it concerns UDRS which expands as Umpire Decision Review system, one of ICC's initiatives 'intended' to assist the on-field umpires on the one hand and more importantly ensure a level of fairness and consistency in the way decisions are handed out on the other. While the system has thus far been used only on a purely experimental basis with the agreement of the team captains in question like in the series earlier this year between England and South Africa, the future of the system remains clouded not just by controversy it has set off but also by the principles on which it is founded. Let me elaborate.

One of the greatest things about sport is the all-round human element associated with it which leads to unpredictability and therefore excitement. The very fact that live sporting contests attract more crowds than films and more attention than video game counterparts in XBox versions goes a long way towards consolidating live sport as one of THE favoured forms of entertainment for spectators worldwide. The very advent of something like a referral system suggests that those who are involved with the game - the officials, the players and in some sense the fans - are missing a crucial point. For all the adrenaline rush, colours and sounds, excitements and thrills and the money involved, a sport is still a sport and should remain one in the view of all those associated with it.

The necessity then for something like a referral system surfaces when every sports person's minutest fortune is scrutinised beyond justification (and compare) courtesy our incessantly bellowing friends at the media who themselves find it very convenient to watch six or seven replays - sometimes from several thousand angles - from the air-conditioned press or commentary boxes. Naturally, when some of these decisions turn out to be erroneous stones are pelt at poor umpires despite the charitable rhetoric, "The umpires get only one look!" The defenders of technology having awaited their turn patiently would assert that it is because they are in possession of "several angles" that they wish for them to assist the umpires and players and making the game fairer and better at large. However, the question begs to be asked: is the referral system capable of achieving at least some of the lofty ends it aims to achieve?

For starters, the system in its present form is a bit like a beta version of a software and its problems were fairly evident in the contests between South Africa and England. With a fixed number of reviews allowed for each team, ICC's aim is noble in that it aims to keep the human factor largely intact with technological advice sought by the players only whenever critical. But the indiscretion with which the teams used the same and the displeasure that followed when the teams still did not get the decision they 'thought' was justified showed that the URDS only compounded problems and did not mitigate complications on the field; not to mention the amount of time that is lost when most of these reviews are done. It seems prima facie to me therefore that the UDRS is rather an urgently sought arrangement which is a product of some obfuscated thinking. And the fact that it is "neither here nor there" as of now and places players and umpires on tenterhooks speaks against it.

Even if the referral system does not contribute anything to the game, it should not as an initiative stunt the game in anyway. But based on what we saw on-field in South Africa as well as opinions we have had from umpires, captains and some reputed past cricketers there is a fairly obvious possibility that the system may do just that. For starters, by "subjecting" a human decision to a review two signals are being sent neither of which is right in my opinion (and one cannot think of the chair umpire's call being revoked in tennis or the match referees red or yellow card contested in soccer): an umpire's confidence is less likely to be trusted and as a consequence more umpires may be led to being 'naysayers' since teams have a 'second appeal' anyway. The referral system proposed is surely not an outright insult to human judgment in sport but at least a strong enough threat for the same which is inadmissible. In a sense it brings back dissent against human decisions through the back door.

I say this because the 'human element' is what makes the game a great leveller. While I am at loggerheads with a lot of what the former Australian skipper Ian Chappell says, I find myself concurring totally when he opines that over a cricketer's career the good and bad decisions even out: at the end of the day as most objective minds will tell you, the columns have to tally and tally they do in cricket. To not allow that to happen naturally is a shame and is against one of the rudimentary premises - if not principles - on which the once Gentleman's Game is run. And where a player has been hard done by, more often than not it has little, if nothing, to do purely with wrong umpiring decisions.

Lastly, marginal LBW and caught-behind decisions are the ones most likely to come under the scanner should the UDRS be adopted. But as things stand, the ICC core panel already comprises great umpires who get most of their decisions spot-on even without assistance. And these are names like Billy Bowden, Daryl Harper and Simon Taufel who are held in pretty high esteem by players round the world. While soaring media attention - read -'pressure'- in the game might be one of the factors instrumental in the hiked umpiring standards, to bring the media in the form of technology even more into human umpiring would, in my opinion, be an overkill. For all we know, we might be left beholding a Frankenstein rather than a facility. And that is not a baby anyone would like to hold. Let's hope the investigation headed by the West Indian legend Clive Lloyd and his team returns with good findings and sensible proposals.

PS: For a more pragmatic, if more progressive, view on the UDRS read Roebuck here on The Hindu dated March 27, 2010.

March 20, 2010

The curious case of the Mongoose Toothpick

The Mongoose Bat was making a lot of noise before the IPL started. Now it is making right noise of the ball hitting the bat rather the ball hitting the stands and the sight screen.
When a certain Matt “the monster” Hayden walked onto to field with a normal bat everyone was disappointed that they didn't see the mongoose for the 3rd straight match in row. But in the Match against the Delhi Daredevils, no daredevilry could stop Haydos from using the mongoose and slaying the bowlers. He smashed 93 of 43 balls with 7 sixes and 9 fours with his tooth pick like bat which is really a WMD (Weapon of Mass Destruction)

Why is this Mongoose so talked about?

As you can see the handle of the Mongoose is lot longer and the main part of the bat is shorter than a conventional bat. However the overall length of both the bats are more or less the same. When you play with a conventional bat the ball very rarely hits the upper part of the bat. The meatier part of the bat is the middle part of the bat. That is why coaches say play the ball in the middle of the bat. What happens in a Mongoose is the ineffective part of the bat is done away with. There is no bottom or top half of the wood which is ineffective. So the whole of the bat is like the middle of the bat. The Edges are also thicker and so edges would fly of the bat. The bat also complies with all laws of cricket regarding bats.

If the Mongoose is the better bat why cant we use it in all forms?

A Shark cannot survive out of water but a crocodile can. The conventional bat is like a crocodile and has adapted to various changes and can survive in all forms of cricket. While the mongoose is like a shark it can only be used on flat decks to play T20 cricket. The lack of top and bottom of the part, which gave it the advantage, leads to its downfall.
The main purpose of the top and bottom not being effective is to make the ball die. While playing Test cricket or ODI cricket or even T20 cricket on a lively track, one needs to defend certain deliveries which hit high on the bat and to make it die. If the top is as sweet as the middle, the ball will hit the bat and lob up in the air and you are a goner.
The argument against what I have said is that people hardly defend in a T20 hence the flaw is minimal.

If you a take a look at Hayden’s innings you can notice most of the balls he hit, were full or good length. It seemed like Hayden was controlling the bowlers’ mind and making them bowl full length deliveries. The bounce in the pitch was unexplainably pathetic. When spinners bowled short, the ball didn’t raise even knee high. It remains to be seen how the mongoose copes up with bouncing balls.

Hayden wisely chose the right time and place to use bat and Hats off to him for that. Perhaps this bat might be a tactical tool rather than bat.

March 19, 2010

An unlikely English hero!

    Sachin Tendulkar remains an exception in our time and despite his unassuming claims to the contrary we assume that he is larger than the game. Elsewhere there are greats but not immortal stars and in those places cricket remains, and fortunately, a team game. One team that has impressed me over the last several months with their test cricket is the England cricket team in whites currently skippered by Allistair Cook in Bangladesh and otherwise led by an able and rather coldly efficient – perhaps even ugly – if not inspirational Andrew Strauss. In recent memory, they have gone onto take back the Ashes and levelled a series in South Africa (within a space of a half year); saved three test matches with the last wicket standing; and played as a unit and shown more than just belying promise we are used to from England teams of the nineties and the oughties. What’s more this has been a time when their best batsman Kevin Pietersen has suffered from an oddly extended form slump. But in someone else, England has found an unlikely hero and his contributions run through won and saved causes.

Cricinfo gives a rather funny nickname to the man who is a character: “chin” – and he is not a quickie who sends thunderbolts to batsmen at day and terrorises them in their dreams at night. In fact, he belongs to the group of them bowlers who Geoffrey Boycott may call ‘dibbly dobbly’ or ‘lollypop’ depending on his mood which chooses his slang. The last of its kind in England was an eternally old-looking man from Glamorgan who tried his best but never lived to be a match-winner, Robert Croft. Off-spinner he was, and if you want to look at a match-winning one England have had, you should go back to the Illingworths. Not that England has had a great deal of recent success from spinners anyway and god knows they have had a humungous pipeline of left-arm finger spinners; Phil Tufnell promised and briefly delivered before he walked into the sunset; Ashley Giles was reduced to bowling outside the leg stump to Tendulkar and the cheers Monty Panesar used to receive have gradually faded and so perhaps – temporarily one hopes – as his craft. And that’s when Graeme Swann chose to have fun. And how well he has had it!

   At 79 wickets in seventeen tests, the now Nottinghamshire (former Northamptonshire) thirty-one year old has probably the second best wickets per match tally behind talented quicks Mitchell Johnson and Dale Steyn both of whom have well over 100 wickets. His fifth and sixth five wicket hauls in the recently concluded test against Bangladesh have taken him to second in the ICC ranking of test bowlers. And in case you were wondering Swann is some Fairytale illusion England has found, here’s more: he is also third in the list of all-rounders and with close to six hundred runs at thirty-three per innings Swann who bats number 8 or 9 for England deserves every bit the ratings he has received.

   Yet for Swann – fondly called by a journalist as a bit of a joker in the pack – the numbers do not tell the entire story and it therefore becomes significant to study his performances in the context of the two difficult series through which he has plied his trade as an off-spinner and lower order bat. Swann’s consistent wicket hauls, crucial runs and most importantly big heart in the Ashes and during the series in South Africa speak much about their significance. If you isolate Swann’s performances against the two finest teams of his time in recent times, you will see that he has picked up almost four wickets per match, which is good by a spinner’s standards especially in non-helpful conditions, and his batting average is still in the low thirties close to his career average indicating, if anything, that he has not been intimidated by the opposition. Further if Swann’s first innings 85 – his highest test score to-date and the highest in the England batting order for that innings – in Centurion perhaps helped England save the test later with Ashes heroes Panesar and Anderson at it again, Swann was himself ‘on the bridge’ unbeaten when Onions and he pulled another last over draw out of the hat a match and victory later at Newlands, Capetown. If his bat which had no extended business denied victories which were rightfully in the opposition’s to grasp, his simple mastery with the ball ensured England arguably two of their most famous victories in the last five years – the Ashes one at Lord's, England’s first against Australia at the HQ of cricket in over seventy years and an innings-and-ninety-something thrashing of South Africa at the bouncy Protean backyard Durban as Swann returned with nine sticks in the match.

   Having been sorted out aptly by Surrey’s Ally Brown who hit young Swann’s loopy off-spinners for sixer after sixer during the latter’s debut for Northamptonshire in 1998, Swann has come a long way. Thankfully, he has not tinkered with his craft too much and not tried to imitate the more sophisticated and reputed off-spinners of his time. Instead with traditional flight, slower pace and a bit of guile – which probably has also to do with his tinsel town boy image as well as opposed to that of a sportsman – he has allowed the ball to spin and fooled batsmen memorably into playing the wrong shot or leaving ample daylight between bat and pad for the ball to spin through. How can we forget the ball with which he got rid off Ponting at the Oval?

Any off-spinner would be proud to have dismissals of that kind in his bagful of batsman’s scalps!

   After an initial hiding in international cricket, Swann’s second coming has been nothing short of extraordinary for him and England. Let alone the fact that Swann now shares with legendary Jim Laker the record for the most number of times a bowler has taken a wicket in the first over of a new spell, Swann has probably done enough to be England’s frontline spinner in the years to come and to be considered a rare “match-spinning” bowler they have had in years. With the England team possessed with a more assured batting line-up and variety in the pace department, Swann may just be the sort of foil England will continue to appreciate as they try to win more matches against the better teams. And at 31, Swann is perhaps taking one day at a time. And why not? Perhaps the light-hearted blonde man from Nottingham may facetiously tell his grandkids: Sachin and I both had our second comings at the same time and our teams benefitted immensely. Joke or not, most people would not be able to find fault with that. And the way Swann is going, England will hope he would collect more on-field lore for posterity before he hangs up his boots.