April 26, 2010

When Cricket Failed to Talk!

On Saturday evening, one of India's tallest champions - in every sense of the word - delivered ruthless final punches in a game that somnolent Deccan Chargers probably felt they were playing in their dream. Kumble returned figures of 4-16 to take Bangalore into their second Champions League appearance. A day later, another champion, this time a little one, braved a slow pitch, withering partnerships, split webbing, an over-expectant crowd and humidity - like he has done for twenty years - only to see his team squander it by twenty-some runs. Yet behind the scenes, the BCCI big bosses had prepared the kill and even sent the news. In a larger than life style, which the IPL Commissioner has almost made boring from his execution of the IPL over the last three years, Modi responded with a melodramatic speech. Chennai Super Kings had won. The tournament had once again seen stellar performances from youth and age alike. Yet as the dust settles on IPL-3, there is that inevitable feeling that sinks down the throat leaving in the process a sour taste in the mouth. Despite the star-studded action, one wonders if IPL-3 will be remembered for its cricket.

Whether Modi's ouster came at the right time or wrong time; whether it is intended as a purging act and warning signal for future office bearers or it is designed to protect the innermost sanctum - rumours and speculations are abuzz, expectedly - of the BCCI; whether one can even begin to think of, let alone talk about, ethics in an  event such as this which is as much show biz and glitz as it is cricket; and whether the demons of the year will be exorcised, or re-closeted and brought back in some form or we will get used to it; are all besides the point. The most hurting thing about the last two weeks has been the flashes of grey images, lurid headlines exhumed from the past and the leak of private text messages and emails triggered in the wake of the Kochi IPL team controversy. Shashi Tharoor, a rare kind of man in our times - or for that matter anytime - and in this country, had to resign. And now, Lalit Modi has been shown the door too, and one feels, the exit may not be temporary unless Modi can prove his innocence to his bosses at the BCCI.

A sport should indeed have its money, its patrons, its business and entertainment industry links and the razzmittaz associated with such connections, for to fail to tap those connections is to fail to understand that we do not live anymore in times when half-sleeved white-shirted men sent down 105 overs a day in six hours and fours were hit only to break the sleep-inducing pattern of dots. As well, NBA, Soccer and to some extent tennis - even though the latter is an individual game - have all benefited immensely from the monetary aspect which in a way feeds and is fed by the demand and popularity any sport holds. So why cricket should not have, to use Modi's own words an, "enviable international league" is a difficult position to defend even for the worst detractors of such a league. Having said that the more powerful of human creations become, be they administrative bodies, computers or events, the more the lines between entertainment and gambling blur and the more monopolistic or coteried the process becomes - and everybody including those who brandished proudly the "new baby" as it were are instead left holding a ghost of Frankenstein-ian proportions!

It is easy to stand outside the boundary line as an over-enthusiastic fan and castigate a captain's moves made at the spur of the moment; Keiron Pollard, had he only come couple of overs earlier, could have given Mumbai Indians the cup they probably deserved. Yet as a certain Navjot Singh Sidhu would say, "If ifs and buts were pots and pans, there would be no tinkers!" Similarly, it may be easy to pass judgments on what might have transpired behind the scenes over the last three years in the IPL. As fans, no doubt, we do hold a(n) (emotional) stake in the game we devote much of our time to and we are perhaps convinced in questioning irregularities ruling something we consider holy and dear. But over-reaction is not going to lead anyone anywhere let alone those stuck in the muck right now.

While most things behind Tharoor-gate, or if you will Modi-gate, remain vague as on date, one thing is clear and we should probably thank the recent series of controversies to have given us the chance to see it clearly: the game, as India's most-watched sport, requires more efficient and transparent administration. It it to meet this end that the top brass in any administration should constitute not only sharp and smart minds but also those possessed with a keen sense of integrity and accountability. Often, the success of any organisation, and the generalisation carries over to sport in general and BCCI - which is as much a body corporate as any these days - in particular, depends on the enmeshing of these qualities.      

On a related note, a friend of mine told me last night after the presentation ceremony that a tenth of IPL's annual budget can go a long way towards giving plenty of other money- and support-deprived sports in the country some much needed impetus. The problem owes its origins as much to partial amnesia as to the partisan treatment we mete out to cricket, its being our preferred pupil. Whenever problems of the magnitude that face IPL right now surface, we become all broad-minded and think of other sports. 

Come the next edition of IPL, whether Lalit Modi returns to his saddle or not, everybody including the sports minister may well have forgotten the imbroglio of the past. While on the one hand it is imperative on the part of cricket administrators to make the game, a monolith erected by millions of heartbeats, accountable, on the other it is just as important that sustainable development plans are chalked out for other sports. One step towards achieving the former is to stop politicians - especially current, insomuch as they hold some other important designation even if only in the opposition - running the game (Sharad Pawar as ICC President-elect frankly seems like a joke to me!). As for the latter, I only hope that some important people put their heads together and find some answers, and quickly, before we become an only-cricket nation from being a cricket-mad one.      

April 17, 2010

Wisden's Annual Awards - and a little more:

Let us give it to him. Or as my not so consensual cricketing buddy and co-author here might say, “We have all given him that, you are last in the line!” Admittedly, I take the envisaged rebuff quietly and with a straight face. Virendra Sehwag’s Wisden International Cricketer of the Year Award for the second time running is a tribute to the buccaneer from Faridabad and to what he has brought to world cricket in general and test cricket in particular. Sehwag’s run-a-ball double hundreds and more than a run-a-ball big double hundreds speak of a man whose quick hands, great gleaming eyes, concerted aggression and precise stroke play, which make for a hotbed of runs, do not in any way interfere with the coolness of the mind. Batting long requires focus; batting rapidly demands self-belief and phenomenal versatility in shot-making and Sehwag has managed both without letting rashness creep into his game through the backdoor.

Sehwag has been prolific and at his rapid best in the last two seasons

Consequently, one is probably tempted to say that on-song he would put two of the most belligerent yesteryear batsmen in Matthew Hayden and Brian Lara to shame. Sehwag may yet fail (but as his test record and an average inching towards Dravid’s shows it does not happen as often as oppositions have been expecting it to). Be that as it may, his failures will not come because of technique or lack of it, for he has never relied on it for more than a couple of minutes in every innings one would think. But if he gets a couple of starts in every series – which invariably means something close to a hundred at least at his strike-rate – something he has been doing consistently over the last two years, the Indian middle-order can come in and rub it into the opposition. That we have been winning more test matches and had time to bowl oppositions out is a tribute to the Daredevils' Mauler who is now a senior batsman in the Indian team.

Looking at the other five Wisden Cricketers of the year, I was a tad surprised even though the picks per se cannot be called 'controversial'. If anything, they seemed a touch 'parochial'! Graeme Swann who has indubitably had a dream year, Stuart Broad who has been Swann’s fast-bowling comrade-in-arms, England skipper Andrew Strauss whose old-fashioned doggedness (or is ‘doughtiness’ a better word for the way he always led from the front when the chips were down?) and cold and ugly but efficient runs were crucial in giving England the Ashes and Graham Onions – the Draw Expert, as I called him on twitter – are the ones from England to make up the list. Michael Clarke's successful Ashes even as he was part of an imploding ship and his lovely hundreds against across-the-boundary brothers in New Zealand make him the fifth in Wisden's list.

Michael Clarke overcame personal strains, the 'Pup' tag and some hostile
English fast bowling to score 448 runs at 64.00 during the Ashes 2009.
In a series where every other Australian batsman struggled or was inconsistent,
Clarke held fort. Promptly, he is one of the five Wisden's Cricketers of the Year!

While the inclusions themselves are very much deserving, the pro-Australian and –English selection by Wisden ‘perhaps’ shows that for the game’s canonical cricketing bodies the Ashes is bigger than a dinosaur on a cricket field and an England-Australian slow rubber on a grey afternoon at Headingley is much more of a headline-catcher than a Dale Steyn rout at Ahmedabad, Gautam Gambhir’s consecutive streak of half-centuries, consistent batting by A. B. De Villiers or the little Master’s second-coming. Now, now do not get me 'wrong' or become all greedy thinking that you have picked up some cheesy headlines from my post to disprove my lack of bias. (You don’t need to go that far: ask Venky and he will sing paeans, songs, ballads and posts about by unabashed bigotry when it comes to certain things!) Jokes apart, if you take my posts seriously at all that is, I was just offering a ‘view’ on the all-English-(one)-Australian selection for the Wisden Cricketers of the Year.

Swann (extreme left) and skipper Andrew Strauss (to his right)
were instrumental in getting back the Ashes urn.

And hang on! Before signing off, I would like you all to take a look at this man (I mean read him because he looks slightly better than I do in the worst of my dreams but writes miles greater than I do in the best of my dreams): Andy Zaltzman. Going by his blog, I assume his surname at least is partly or fully contorted or distorted or in plain man’s words modified. Take a look: he is simply hilarious.

April 11, 2010

An unsung champ and the IPL!

For an eighteen year career, he had to endure, and being himself in silence, the "non-turner" nicknames given by former bowlers who could not pick up half the wickets he did or who did not have half the commitment that he displayed. That after 619 wickets, he would still be behind magicians Murali and Warne is not meant as an offence but somehow always suppresses Kumble's contributions on the world scene. Surprisingly for such a fierce competitor on the field and such a nice man off it, which I think has been the problem, Anil Kumble has had more detractors than supporters and far less a fan base despite being such a giant compared to relative newcomers like Virendra Sehwag or Yuvraj Singh or even a Harbhajan Singh if you think of bowlers. However, enlisting numerical counts as evidence for greatness is a bit purblind and Kumble's relative anonymity on the world scene despite his grand achievements may be the product of his times, his own lifestyle and the fact that he was someone who appealed more to the mind than to the heart or the eye. An aesthetic pleasure he was not; a 'performer' - read 'actor' or rabble-rouser - he could never be; yet almost always he had a big heart and brought contributions to the team that go beyond just statistical measure.

During the last couple of IPLs, Kumble has just given an inkling of how age is not a bar on personal excellence or leadership. In South Africa last year he was consistently amongst the wickets and though his wickets tally has come down this year surprisingly - considering that this IPL is played in India - neither has the keenness suffered nor has the tenacity flagged. That he is still going at below six an over (and is the most economical bowler at this year's IPL) is testimony to the man's accuracy - 'metronome' is a word you would have to associate with the engineer from Kumbala. Against KKR for instance Kumble went for ten in the first over but gave away just seven in the next three. Beat that miserliness - one is forced to say! Kumble's success in the game's shortest format is as much a product of the man's unstinting ways as it is of the batsmen's respect for him. That he still earns it from the opposition itself speaks volumes for the man's stature in the game. How can we forget the world that stood still when he said, "Only one team played in the spirit of the game..."

I always equate Tendulkar to a genius and Kumble to the most persistent versions of hard-worked reality: it is not to depreciate the scale of Sachin's achievements or to think of Kumble's feats as mechanical results. Both men have been colossal heroes on the field and great gentlemen off it. And even if the world does not, Sachin has always celebrated Kumble - for there's one quintessential Indian champ who realises the value of another.      

April 8, 2010

How to Switch bowl? And cricketers look-alikes

This video describes how to deliver a "switch bowl" like a "Switch hit" Who said cricket was a Batsmen's game - courtesy Adidas

Here are some personalities who resemble some cricketers

1. Albie Morkel and James Mcavoy


2. Yuvraj Singh and Abhishek Bachhan


3. Tim Bresnan and yours truly ( this is called driving an auto in a cycle gap Big Grin

Ok i believe you guys enjoyed this post and the video. See you people until next post. Leave thoughts on the above.

April 6, 2010

When in doubt, go for spin!

As the Indian Premiere League edition three reaches the business end, the question has become significant again because of the answers given by the batters so far. And the answers have been far from convincing. While seasoned quicks like Malinga, Zaheer Khan and Chaminda Vaas are among the top bowlers of the tournament, the list also has the likes of Amit Mishra and Pragyan Ojha, two individuals who if groomed properly will represent India for many years to come. Add the spin triplet to the list – Kumble, the most miserly campaigner in the tournament, Murali who has been his native foxy self and Shane Warne who proved yet again against the Deccan Chargers why he is still special –and bring in Daniel Vettori who has now rejoined Delhi and Murali Kartik who has bowled beautifully for the KKR and Harbhajan Singh who is arguably the best T20 spinner going around the world, and you will know good spinners will thrive in all conditions and in all formats.

So what is it that makes dem breed of tossers, as it were, click even on flat-as-bare-plains pitches surrounded by greasy outfields and alluring short boundaries? Part of the answer lies perhaps in the question itself: in extremely batsman-friendly conditions the margin for error for a spinner in particular is minimal and therefore he is likely to bear more punishment from the dominating bats – mongoose or crocodile! The flipside though is it is precisely when a batsman looks to attack the spinner do the percentages of a spinner’s getting a wicket augments. Mishra, Vettori and (in particular) Ojha can owe much of their limited overs’ success to their ability – and perhaps audacity – to toss the ball up and invite the false stroke from batsmen. It only goes to show that the time for age-old virtues is not up yet though they may seem so.

However, to owe all of spinners’ success to batsmen’s error of judgment – although that in itself is a ‘tweaker’s’ greatest success the way I see it – is to underestimate their skill and overestimate the percentage of looseness to be found in modern stroke play. Mind you, while there are sloggers dime a dozen going around, there are still people possessed with fine technique, a great cricketing brain and/or who hit the ball cleanly: David Warner, Murali Vijay (of late), Rohit Sharma, Yousuf Pathan to name a few candidates from the IPL. One needs more than just the fortune of a false stroke from the likes of such batsmen to get their wickets; one needs skill accompanied by subtle changes – in spin, pace and bounce – if not to get them out at least to wear them down which might produce a wicket at the other end. Anil Kumble this season has been a case in point for the Royal Challengers from Bangalore.

So sceptics and batsmen who think themselves as being born to destroy spinners’ careers might have to wait quite a long while before spin comes to, if at all, die a natural death. As of now world spin is in good hands in both the hemispheres. There are good off-spinners and left-arm spinners; a good leg spinner somewhere will bring the balance back to world spin bowling if ever it was lost. In the meanwhile, let us delight in watching more batsmen done in by the dip, flight, pace of the pitch or a couple of inches of awkward bounce. When in doubt then, as they say down under, go for spin. And something will give…