December 29, 2010

A Tasmanian Titan: Ricky Ponting!

Inspiration is often derived from leaders. But to construe inspiring as an objective of leading is to miss the point. And it is precisely in this context that followers of Australian cricket probably put Steve Waugh in the list of its greatest and finest captains even as Ricky Ponting is given his due grudgingly especially by followers of the Australian team outside of Australia. Those who compare Waugh’s tough but honest ways and Ponting’s victory-at-all-costs approach put the New South Welshman in the “fair” category and Ponting in the “unfair” category.

Ask any Indian, and he will swear by the senior Waugh twin’s name just as he will swear against Ponting. Sydneygate is just one of those nasty sporting episodes that went too far and any skipper would have been made to look like a goose: that Ponting refused to back down made him appear more so. Ponting (and in his company others) might have been wrong as South – and they have never claimed to be saints – but to fail to give the little Tasmanian his due wholeheartedly using the fairness argument seems to be a subversion of fairness. Indeed, this author believes firmly in fair play himself and can possibly never love Ponting. One should not however forget that sport owes its remarkable richness to the variegations of its characters.

And discounting the rise of Ponting from being Tasmania’s blessed but notorious prodigal son to the leader of the finest one-day and test teams in Australian cricket history is to miss an important chapter in all cricketing history. Every great has had a failing: Tendulkar’s has been, till recently, his inability to complete matches; Lara’s reportedly was selfishness; Bradman missed the immortal 100 as average by 0.6 but he missed it all right; Ponting’s crime evidently is that he has been ruthlessly single-minded in charge of world beaters who shared the vision with fixity. And it is a better crime than having a soft underbelly like some Indian teams of the past.

When Ponting broke through with 96 about fifteen years ago at the WACA against Pakistan, he was already touted to be one of Australia’s future greats. But not every young genius deals with early accolades with the shoulders of a giant like Tendulkar did. One of the reasons why the Indian Little Master is revered the world over has to do with the poise with which he has kept the extra-cricket elements he has received through cricket away from his game, thereby being wedded to it and it shows in his staggering consistency. Lara’s career which concurred with a period of petty politicking in Windies cricket that ultimately affected the players, however, swung between the sublime and the subterranean, often within the same series. Ponting’s issues were off the field. Alcohol is no alien to a Punter nicknamed so on purpose and did its job; the Australian skipper, I still remember, even got a black eye once. But rather than dilly-dallying like Jesse Ryder, the New Zealand left-hander who has himself dealt with issues relating to alcohol lately, Ponting came out, confessed his vulnerability, worked his way out of it, married a lawyer and took charge of his life. And as the new millennium arrived, Ponting’s fitness in the field and hunger for runs were already eliciting comparisons respectively with Jonty Rhodes and contemporary Herschelle Gibbs and Lara and Tendulkar. Some would die to be compared with the likes of those for just a day; Ponting has managed to keep the comparisons going, often rising about them, for a better part of his tremendous career.

His fiasco against the Turbunator in the epoch-making 2001 series in India, a place where he has not set the scores ringing, was an aberration and he made up taking toll of bowling attacks round the world making big runs when Australia needed it the most. Arch-foes England met a new Ashes champion, one who would by the play of irony be the first captain to concede the Ashes (possibly thrice) in several years, and had no responses but nor did the Indians. To sum up the World Cup 2003 finals was a no-brainer: Ponting (who was already skipper of the one-day team) launched a blitz that left India clueless. Harbhajan Singh was particularly mauled and revenge was sweet. And though India drew the historical Steve Waugh farewell series later in the year, Ponting was thick with runs becoming the first Australian since Bradman to score consecutive double hundreds.

Through the rest of the decade, leading upto 2008 Ponting played many other stellar innings besides pouching catches – at gully, the slips, point, and just about anywhere – he was not supposed to take and hitting the stumps with staggering consistency. The need to review Ponting’s runs assumes significance because it is said that a leader is only as good as his team. Half a Ponting would still have led Australia to the 2007 Ashes whitewash, the 2003 and 2007 World Cup wins or a number of other triumphs which I forget because of the consistency with which victories came for the Australian juggernaut. Messieurs Warne, Hayden, Langer, Martyn, McGrath and Gilchrist are not names that need to be led. But Ponting still towered in a team of greats by being the team’s best batsmen. That he scored his runs at number 3, played only in fourth gear and was still prolific meant that Ponting was the opposition’s most prized wicket, the noughties’ highest run scorer and world’s most prolific number 3 in terms of runs and second only to Bradman in averages.

And now the great run machine is on the wane; or perhaps as the soothsayers, naysayers and associates say, he has waned. It is hard to blame the factions from which those whispers come: after all, they have high-credentialled names like Ian Chappell. Grapevine and the media, and it is difficult to fathom whether they are different these days, say that Ponting may call time if they strip him of the captaincy. Ponting has an ego the size of the international batting colossus he has built but the problem is that the ego was fed by the very runs that fortified it.

The colossus sadly does not seem like Work in Progress anymore. Its construction struck everyone with awe and may soon stand “completed” for everyone to stand and judge. Ponting as the world and its uncle knows has never been a master strategist as a captain and his lack of runs have therefore been doubly accentuated. Unlike India where Dravid, another fabulous number three who seems to be going nowhere with his mind or runs, has managed to hold onto the wreckage, Australia will not give a magnanimous rope and Ponting who has emerged from and lived with the hardnosed system will know it better than most.

That his runs have reduced to drips when the rest of the batting line-up, barring to some extent Hussey senior, Haddin and Shane Watson, too is in introspection mode has made Ponting’s insipid run-scoring phase seem balder for not long ago did Ponting score those fine fighting half-centuries in India or the brisk 50-odd in the second innings of the first Ashes test at Brisbane. With Ponting staring at the third Ashes defeat as a captain and the first at home – and Ashes Echoes has it that neither is simply another dubious distinction to be forgotten with time like King Pairs or having a Chris Martin batting average –, the drought seems even more cruel especially as Ponting’s young opposite number keeps Trotting along, almost making it seem like the Aussie bowling is a feast for him. But such is the irony and ire that sport is ordained. To not await the destiny and deal closure speaks of prudence; to stay on, linger and change it is fortune that a few – like Tendulkar or Muralidharan – are blessed with; for the rest, the ending is grey and dragged out, a nostalgic reproduction of glimpses of a golden age rather than the spontaneous sunshine of fluency.

Only the most absurd optimist or skewed mystics who can make rains can prevent England retaining the urn at the end of the Boxing Day test. Even if that happens, there is no assurance Australia will win at Sydney; Perth last week already seems like a hyperbolic fluke and a rude joke played on the Australians. To cut it short, Ponting’s undeniably superb legacy as a captain is all but lost: he will be remembered not as the guy who supervised a 5-0 Ashes whitewash of England but as the man who lost the campaign thrice not least because the human memory is fickle and remembers only the most recent tidings. But Ponting’s batting legacy should not be lost in a heist of commonsense or bitterness. Whether the Sydney test is Ponting’s finale or the beginning of the end only time and selectors can tell.

Eventually, Ponting’s end will come. Steve Waugh once said that Ponting would overtake Tendulkar’s hundreds. To even spare a thought to that prediction evokes titters or tears now – as the case may be – but Waugh would not have foreseen either Tendulkar’s incredible second wind or Ponting’s simultaneous autumn. And armed with a technique that could charitably be described as grotesque, Ponting would not find his place in the list of the game’s graceful greats either. We have spoken enough of his charred legacy as a skipper and his lack of popularity as a player. All the same, Ricky Ponting’s cricket at its peak was aggressive, forthright and single-minded, qualities which characterise the Australian landscape. He may not be missed in due course even by the Australian team for dispensability is taken too literally in sport. And irrespective of when the sun sets over Ponting’s extraordinary career, the little Tasmanian’s membership in the company of the world’s greatest batsmen is a formality now as it has been for some years. Gainsaying his greatness – with or without a #Pontingface – would amount to the gainsayer’s being diagnosed with cricket’s own strain of partial amnesia.

December 25, 2010

Cricket in Hong Kong and a pre-Boxing Day Roundup!

There are so many things that are so quintessential about India that even when doses of these are lacking elsewhere we Indians find it quite unfathomable. Cricket is one such thing. Nine years ago when I visited Hong Kong, the SAR which had been taken back into the Chinese fold only three years ago did not know what cricket was. After searching for EA Sports’ 1997 Cricket Video game at more than five shops – in as many parts of town – my father and I came to the convincing and arguably only conclusion that even if they had it they would not know it because the locals reacted as if they did not know the name of the game. It might as well have been a game played by the insect breed called cricket. Coverage of cricket in the media was sparse: newspapers occasionally carried a report and the TV news next to nothing.

Eight years on, something seems to have changed. A local English newspaper called The Hong Kong Standard has on four of the last six days carried cricket-related news – from Australia’s and South Africa’s triumphs in their previous test matches against England and India respectively, to Tendulkar’s 50th ton in test cricket and return to the Indian one-day team to other bits of trivia. Admittedly, these news items are sometimes briefer than the blurb of a novel but there is something for those interested. The English news at 9:30 on TVB Pearl has also been airing cricket-related news including a few seconds of video clippings or images.

Whether cricket’s finding a place in the local news is a result of the game’s increased popularity among countries outside the nine test-playing ones courtesy formats like Twenty20 or an impact of probable requests from Indian and Pakistani populace in this part of the world or Hong Kong’s own interest in the game – what with its participating in the Asia Cup before the last one and the Hong Kong sixes’ tourney attracting its own share of ‘A’ teams from various cricketingly old parts of the world – is unclear to me and remains to be seen.

And what a season the ongoing one is for cricket too! I had predicted Australia to take the Ashes purely on the overwhelming merit of the robust argument that Australians at home are impregnable like India and South Africa. Pietersen, Cook and Company, however, made me do a pirouette only for Mitchell Johnson on a comeback trail – assisted by Ryan Harris – to give Australia a stunning series levelling victory at Perth. Whether the Perth victory has turned the series on its head only history will tell. From Australian teams of the past the Adelaide loss would merely have been an aberration and for English teams from the past the Perth loss might have been the putting-them-in-their-places summary ritual. But this England team under Strauss will emerge strongly after the stinker at Perth and the Australians though riding high will still have to play unrelenting cricket to regain the urn. With two tests to play and everything to play for, my prediction currently is on an English win or a series draw which would mean than the Britons would take the trophy back home.

As far as India’s performance at Centurion goes the lesser that is said the better. Surely, Dhoni has to find a way to win tosses for currently he finds it as impossible as making his batting appear attractive. The skipper’s most recent wrong call at the toss made sure that the first day of the series was touch-and-go death for the Indians especially against the likes of Steyn and Morkel. But there can be no excuses for getting bowled out for 136; if the much-vaunted batting line up had aggregated half its career average India would have still scraped 200. The bowling performance that ensued might have convinced everyone that a somnolent club side was bowling, only that it was the world’s No.1 side in the absence of one of its strike bowlers. The shoddy showing with the ball betrayed the unhealthy dependence there has been on Zaheer Khan at home and away since Kumble’s retirement three summers ago. After Amla, Kallis and AB De Viliers took toll on the generous Indian offerings, despite the second innings grit from the Indian top order, which was heartening to watch, Tendulkar’s 50th test century and Dhoni’s fine twin efforts – in my opinion his two best outings in tests alongside the match-saving and eventually series-winning second innings 78 he made at Lord’s in 2007 – the match was headed only one way and there it ended. Indians, everyone has been saying, lost another first test and have to play catch-up. But they did not deserve to win. In the meantime, another colossal Dravid achievement was written into the footnotes where it is probably likely to remain with other similar achievements half-forgotten, never to be tickled – his 12,000th run in test cricket. That he could not save the match for the side and got out with his tally on 12000 would have hurt him more than others but that is besides the point. As Harsha Bhogle rightly points out here is yet another case of Indian fans failing to recognise a champion because he has been content to perform and let the “performers” take the spotlight.

The Boxing Day test matches promise to be crackers. The one at the Melbourne Cricket Ground will be closely contested for all money but whether the match at Kingsmead (Durban) will be or not depends a lot on the mindset with which Indians look to the game. Zaheer Khan’s return bolsters the side but the other bowlers need to support Khan ably. And with Durban probably being the fastest deck in the world at the moment, the batsmen need to come good. Sehwag’s runs in the second innings of the previous test augurs well for we know that if he stays for any length of time the opposition will be on the back foot. But if India even fancies squaring the series, the team needs to do more than just depend on certain individuals and find out a way to blood into the unit the espirit de corps that was on display in Australia in 2003 and England 2007 and more recently against Australia at home and Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka. After all, great teams do not have One General for all crises, but several loyal footmen who can respond to the call at different times. All of India’s batsmen have rallied in the recent times. It is now a question of playing the game rather than the conditions or the names of opposition bowlers and hoping that Zak and Co can get twenty sticks in five days.

December 8, 2010

Why Ashes Exemplifies Test Cricket?

When aficionados of the game keep harping on the need for test cricket to survive, fans of the game’s most recent versions tend to disagree. And more often than not, they probably think that the support for test cricket is just the indelible quaintness of a few jobless old men who cannot change with changing times. But nothing could be furthest from the truth. Although the recently concluded test match between England and Adelaide was one-way traffic most of the way, and unusually against Australia which is becoming fairly usual of late giving Australian selectors a lot of headache, the primacy of a series like the Ashes and the passions involved in pursuing the elfin urn are unmatched in world cricket. And in more ways than one, the continued fanfare behind world cricket’s oldest and greatest rivalry suggests why test cricket is treated as THE pinnacle by cricketers and purist fans alike even if it is unarguably on the wane.

In 2005 Kasprowicz and Brett Lee almost took Australia home at Headingley from an impossible scenario only to see Geraint Jones pouch a low leg-side feather of Kasper to leave Australia stung and stunned. In 2006 three Australian giants – Glenn McGrath, Matthew Hayden and Shane Warne – sought the most supreme revenge: they aimed 5-0 and gave it to the Englishmen. Adelaide was what hurt most. After 500-odd in the first innings which was bettered by the Kangaroos, England collapsed in a third innings effort akin to Australia’s own three years ago against Ajit Agarkar and Company. England returned the compliments at home in 2008 but not nearly with the same kind of comprehensiveness with which Australia had done two seasons ago. Come 2010. Come Adelaide and Irony. Come Cook, Pietersen, Anderson and Bell. This time the men from the Isles ensured that they did not even leave a window ajar to tempt fate.The rest is silence as the Bard would say.

Ponting said after the Oval defeat in 2008 that he wanted his players to sit around and feel the pain as Strauss held the coveted urn. With an inconsistent batting line-up and his own form hitting different scales in the batting barometer and a bowling line-up that has looked more like an automatic bowling machine, Ponting’s burning desire seems to be headed nowhere but to hard rocks right now. But no one-day tournament or T20 affair is distinguished by such fierce ambitions. Ponting brought his men to India recently with the same firmness of thought as well but his team, with the exception of Watson and himself, let him down. BCCI’s own daft last-minute scheduling of test matches supplanting one-day internationals, something that would have been unheard of three years ago, betray a blatant intention to help India retain the numero uno ranking in tests. For once, a parochial end has crystallised into noble means which can only be good for test cricket. The upcoming three test battle between India and South Africa in the latter’s backyard is therefore more than just a contest between test cricket’s current number 1 and number 2. Based on the quality of the cricket that will be played, which as a test cricket fan I hope is excellent, the series like the Ashes will once again define the stature and significance of test cricket.

Despite lobbying for test cricket as proudly and as vociferously as I do, I can sympathise with test cricket’s haters and detractors. For starters, the game in its essence is still more to do with attrition than adrenaline and  attraction which characterise T20 and to some extent one-day cricket. Given that tastes are a product of our times, the dwindling lack of support for the game’s oldest format which dates back to more than a 120 years is hardly surprising. Furthermore, batsmen-friendly pitches are mushrooming all over the world: from Ahmedamad to Lahore to SSC to Adelaide Oval to Antigua there are grounds which are notorious for helping teams remain 1500-5 in the first innings if they want to keep batting. The growing insipidity of pitches coupled with the presence of uncluttered aggressors like Sehwag and the advent of a more swashbuckling style of playing which has been imported into tests as well from the shorter versions of the game has meant that the noughties was the most batsman-dominated decade since the post-war 1940s. How much ever one loves a Tendulkar or a Ponting or a Sangakkara, seeing runs amassed by the truckloads even as wickets come at a premium leaves one tired or at least to search for the remote controller to switch channels.

Such poor recommendations for test cricket apart, it is still the highest form of the game and arguably the most challenging and therefore the most gratifying. For me personally, the love of test cricket has to do with the parallels I have always been able to drawn between that and life. Fans from other sports, or for that matter of other formats of the game, taunt test cricket with the rhetorical question: which other sport is played over five days? The perception is that test match cricket is lazy and is watched and played by the supremely bored. However, I beg to disagree on the point.

Cricket in general may involve less athleticism than, let’s say, football or tennis but success in test cricket involves as much a battle of wits as guts and over long periods of time. A team that wins a session cannot afford to be complacent; and a team that has been steamrolled one-day cannot afford to have hangovers when they walk into the field the next day for to do so would be to seduce ruins. This is similar to everyday life where as someone said: success is not final, failure is not fatal, it is the will to go on that counts! Nothing exemplifies the point in sport better than test cricket and perhaps Tour de France, both requiring sustained endurance, focus and application of skill. When the skies are overcast and the pitch has a sprinkling of grass, the batsmen ought to be smart enough to give the first few hours to the bowlers as Gavaskar said. And when the pitch is flat and the sun is shining, the bowlers need to think on their feet, cut down on pace, conserve energy and maintain discipline. The upshot is that test cricket involves more than just outwitting and outlasting your opposition over longer periods of time; it also entails wrestling conditions on a regular basis and hence the tag “test”.

Michael Bevan was – and probably remains – unrivalled in the one-day game as a finisher but the fact that he is never mentioned in the same breath as a Tendulkar, Ponting, Waugh, Lara or an Inzamam has to do with the records the latter players have in the game’s long format. The Honours’ List at various stadia in England highlights bowlers who have taken five-fors in tests but not, to my knowledge, one-day cricket. While this is not intended to depreciate the value of cricket played in coloured clothes under floodlights, which has definitively more entertainment value and is required to take the game to territories beyond the boundaries within which it is currently played, it says something about the continued prestige test cricket holds among the Establishment and players.

The worrying signs are, however, obvious. For every Ashes series or an India-Australia contest or a series in New Zealand or South Africa, there are a number of pointless test series that are played out under shockingly batsman-friendly conditions. India-Sri Lanka cricket meetings have become more like bet matches between suburban neighbourhoods. It is therefore not a joke when someone says that these matches hold no spectator interest which is important for the survival of test cricket. Cricket boards in countries like India, Pakistan, West Indies and Sri Lanka have to take a call on some of their test match grounds and pitches: sorry, no cricket fan in his right mind can take a 750-5 anymore even if his own team is batting. Furthermore as Harsha Bhogle said on twitter recently, test cricket needs to be played in centres which have a longstanding tradition of cricketing culture and appreciation for the game: Bangalore, Chennai, Kolkata, Bombay, New Delhi and Kanpur are some places in India that come to mind. One-dayers and T20s can be given to the other centres. This way test cricket is ensured its share of interested attendees but every important city – and its cricket board – gets its share of cricketing entertainment as well. So much can be done if responsible minds do some brainstorming and apply their thoughts to actions. This is integral if test cricket needs to do more than just survive as a residue in the subcontinent.