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.