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 éclat 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.         

July 11, 2010

For one last time, Murali!

Umpires’ focus of attention – or more particularly Darrell Hair’s atavistic bête noir – cynosure of controversy, statisticians’ delight, performance colossus, wicket-taking machine, sheer genius... call him what you will but July 22, 2010 will see the last of Muttiah Muralidharan should the first test between Indian and Sri Lanka last the five days. And considering the kind of pitches one associates with Sri Lanka there is strong likelihood that the hawk-eyed and spring-armed offie may be in operation on the last day, trying to plot one final victory for his team like he has done so often this decade.  It is hard enough to imagine what world cricket will be with the third – and arguably the greatest – of the great spin trio gone, let alone wonder what sort of vacuum it would leave to Sri Lankan bowling. That Vaas, another stalwart though much underrated, is the second in the list of leading Sri Lankan wicket-takers in tests with 437 sticks less than Murali just gives an inkling of the epoch-making impact the wizard has had on Sri Lankan bowling. Behind and ahead of him in time steady performers seem like unseasoned dwarfs, such has been Murali’s influence.  

Through the noughties, even as Kumble wheeled away with the accuracy of an engineering metronome and Shane Warne prolonged the legacy of leg-spin bowling he had made very much his own, Murali simultaneously remained Sri Lankan’s most important player and therefore the butt of racist sneers (from various quarters) and an inordinate load of accusations against his action even by such well respected names as Adam Gilchrist. While it is unfortunate that Muralidharan and ‘controversy’ will go into cricket history textbooks together, it will be unfair to reduce an incredible average of a shade above 22, 66 five-wicket hauls and 22 ten-wicket hauls, or for that matter the prodigious ability to turn the ball on any surface, to a fortuitous biological deformity. It is as much as saying that if more English kids just stayed in the subcontinent, they would bowl spin like the quartet in the seventies. Yet Murali has braved it all, ever with the strongest support from the board and teammates – a pattern that began when Arjuna Ranathunga took his team off the field when Darrell Hair repeatedly no-balled Murali Downunder in 1993 – and fellow giants like Warne and Kumble who both hold Murali in tremendously high regard and rightly so.

One of those 43669 deliveries he has sent down 
Controversies, statistics and mastery aside, what Murali has brought to Sri Lankan bowling is not comparable even with the aggressive new face that Sanath Jayasuriya gave to their batting during and after the 1996 World Cup which the embattled Islanders won in convincing fashion. If modern fans adored their bowlers more than their batsmen and if Sri Lanka were the India of World Cricket, then it would not be unseemly to think of Muralitharan as a Sachin Tendulkar. Both little men have carried the support, passion and incantation of two cricket crazy peoples wherever they have gone and played. Both have been stoical and strong on the face of scathing castigation and emerged the stronger for their sincerity. And like all true champions, neither has allowed record book reams or their past glories to get to their head and remain humble to a fault. Undoubtedly, the last duel between Murali and Tendulkar will be well worth a cricket fan’s time as the two face off for the last time at Galle.

It is said about a lot of team sports, and by metaphorical extension about a lot of situations in life, that no individual is indispensable. Give Murali a hint that he might have become indispensable, he will grin like a school boy, those wide innocent eyes all focused on you, and say with that awkward Sri Lankan lilt in his English that it cannot be! But the thing is geniuses can hardly fathom what it is to be not them and look at them. One fact will not be denied, not even by Murali. As the veteran offie, eight wickets short of eight hundred, walks out for Sri Lanka for one last time in whites, an era will come to a close. That he may play the limited overs’ game till the 2011 World Cup gives cricket fans an opportunity to catch glimpses of the Muttiah magic. Yet for the purist cricket lover, Murali’s last ball in test cricket is likely to leave goose-skin if not a teardrop – for he is the last and by light-years the best of the greatest post-modern spinners. And world cricket will indubitably be poorer without him.  

PS: The cricinfo player database still lists him as Muttiah Muralitharan - a spelling that is no more used on his jerseys or scoreboards.