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.



5 comments:

vccric said...

One correction.The next test is at P Sara Oval and not Premadasa.
Yes.The pitches in the sub-continent,especially India and Pakistan,are lifeless.This is also one of the reasons because of which,I believe,that our bowling has gone haywire.In the last 3 years,except for New Zealand,we have not toured any country outside the sub-continent.Imagine the plight of our bowlers having to bowl on these dead tracks.Only Zaheer Khan among the Indian bowlers has been able to adjust well.Even have gone from worse to worst,they were bad before barring Anil Kumble.
But on the contrary,it makes me wonder what if Yuvraj had played in place of Raina.All it took for the match to head for a draw was for India to avoid the follow on.This became possible only because of the positive intent of Raina.It made even Tendulkar play with relative freedom.To sum it up,Raina gave a fresh lease of life to this immensely experienced batting line-up,so much that they might have gone far beyond the saturation point.I,for one,am not suggesting that we need to drop the experienced ones.Also I am sure that Yuvraj would not have done a half decent job.We might as well have followed on and also lost the game.I would not pass a verdict on Raina as a test batsman,as there have been a few cases in the past of a player scoring a hundred on debut and getting lost.This though would not happen in his case,as he is sure to get a decent rope.He has to prove himself in pacy,seaming,bouncy conditions as a test batsman.At this moment he is a better candidate than Yuvraj.But still,for me,Manish Pandey is the deal at no.6.Let him be back among runs and then he can be given an internship with the test team.
As for the next test,I would play Mishra for Ojha.

Uncle Srini said...

Vccric,

Thanks for another detailed comment and also for pointing out the error in the venue for the last India-Sri Lanka test match. Shall make the necessary correction!

I agree with you with respect to whatever you have had to say about Raina. He was positive enabling Tendulkar to bat at his own leisurely pace but yes as you rightly point out it is too early to judge Raina, not simply because debut centuries may or may not be reflectors of an individual's prospective longevity but also because the century came on a pitch where most domestic batsmen could have scored a hundred if they did not play a rash stroke!

But I am not too sure if I agree with your take on Manish Pandey. My observations about him are limited given that I have not followed much domestic cricket lately. Firstly, I am not too sure if Manish - or for that natter even Raina in the long run - has got it in him to bat at number 6 and shepherd the tail. It is a crucial position, one which is fortified by Dhoni's presence at 7, but one which requires someone with some flexibility. Seeing him in the recent IPL - although it is a different ball game - I am not sure if Pandey is ready yet. Further, he is just 20 and it will do him no harm doing a couple of more years in domestic cricket. He is a hugely talented chap, as is Pujara, and I am sure their chances will come! I agree with your take on Yuvi too, only that I am sterner that you: he needs to go back and work on his technique if he ever needs to play test cricket. At the moment, he does not seem to have it - simple as that!

The more curious observation in your comment for me was the call to axe Ojha: but why? Because he is the number 11 in the team? Why not Harbhajan Singh, the world's leading wicket-taker in tests at the moment who has not nearly lived up to the reputation of being Kumble's successor? I personally believe - and this assessment has come over three seasons - that Ojha is the best spinner on the land at the moment (better than Harbhajan yet and I do not go by pure stats!). I know form is temporary and class is permanent, so let us hope - for his sake and India's - that Bhajji finds form soon. In the meanwhile, I would gamble bowling Mishra and Ojha in the next match! It would at least send Bhajji a strong signal, something which I believe he has needed for sometime!

Fast bowling IS a concern in Zak's absence as we spoke earlier too. Batting too is going to be a problem in a couple of seasons which is precisely why I pointed out in my previous post - as well as elsewhere - that the no.1 ranking we have now is in flimsy grasp. Anyone can take it. England and South Africa look the best test teams on current performance. And I am sorry to say we have not played nearly like the champion side we are supposed to be this series: a key bowler short, bad pitch is all fine... But we were woefully short in the first match, at Galle, where it mattered. Great teams always start well - and we lost another test from the first test syndrome!

vEnKy said...

I am delighted that i quit watching test match between SL and IND. Tests will die if this continue. I couldn't bear even a 1/2 an hour of play. PAk vs AUs test and PAk vs ENG makes for better view this stupid test match. I would personally not watch the 3rd test.

vccric said...

When we talk of Indian spin bowling,what comes to my mind is the India vs Pakistan test match in Bangalore in 2007.Anil Kumble had to bowl seam-up to get 5 wickets,but the match still ended in a draw,with India needing just 2 more wickets for a win,due to bad light.While bowling seam-up and taking wickets is a tribute to Kumble's innovative mind and the single-minded dedication,so much that he resorted to an entirely different type of bowling in the pursuit of winning a match for India.I am sure,Harbhajan will never come up to this level.Also,this match,in many ways saw the beginning of the decline of Indian spin,which can be revived only if Harbhajan happens to bring in a positive attitude to his bowling,or we find another spinner who has that wicket-taking mindset.If Harbhajan's bowling is in good health,that will help solve the problems of Ojha and Mishra,I am sure of it.But I doubt whether Dhoni will even venture into thinking of dropping Harbhajan for the next test.
One thing that has got me thinking and left bewildered is the way our captain handles spinners,including his lead spinner.He treats them as stock bowlers in tests.I have rarely seen him having fielders around the bat.He will have only a slip and a forward short leg.this is hardly attacking.Fielders around the batsman will play on the batsman's mind.
You are right about Yuvraj.He is at best a shorter format player.

Uncle Srini said...

Venky,

To each his own! :D The test at Trent Bridge is poised for a brilliant finish after Prior's hundred especially if Pakistan make a good fist of their chase.

vccric,

Couldn't agree more w.r.t Kumble! :) The man might not have turned the ball match but he was a champ in thinking, words - a la Sydney - and action, the last being suggested for instance by the fact he bowled seam-up in that match. I remember it too! :)

Good observation that about MSD's handling of spinners - yes there seems to be a reluctance to use them as attacking options. But I think it is still too early to judge him as skipper though nearly two years have passed because he is still relatively young in terms of the acumen one can glean as a captain! :)