December 10, 2011

A battle's on at the Bellerive!

As I start to write this (14:42 hours HKT), New Zealand are 127-3, which is an overall lead of 141 over their Trans-Tasman rivals Australia, in the second test at the Bellerive Oval in Hobart. Playing a game that is as antagonistic to his nature as it is to Sehwag, the Kiwi skipper Ross Taylor is unbeaten on 35 off a hundred deliveries, steadily taking New Zealand to some semblance of safety. In what has been New Zealand's most secure display with the bat on this tour, the doggedness and the determination that has so often characterised New Zealand teams of the past has thankfully returned, and is clear for all to see. It will be wonderful, therefore, if the New Zealanders can make their final innings with the bat on the tour a series-levelling one. But whether that happens or not today's play has been yet another advert to test cricket, coming in the back of Australia's series-levelling triumph versus South Africa at Johannesberg and the enthralling tied-draw that India and West Indies played out in Mumbai.


Although I joined live action only during the fading moments of the second session, I realised instantaneously that nothing had been 'fading' about the day's play. Dean Brownlie, the Western Australian who crossed over to New Zealand to give himself more chances of playing first-class cricket, might have been laughed at for saying yesterday that he considered 150 a good score. James Pattinson, with commonsense and the Australian bravado intact, had said that 150 is below-par on any type of surface. In the event, the New Zealander proved correct as Australia had been bowled out for 136 - reportedly their third lowest score against the neighbours, and yet another nadir for the troubled Australian batting line-up . The lead might have been greater had it not been for gritty lower-order efforts from Peter "thorn-in-the-flesh" Siddle and Pattinson, but New Zealand would have taken fourteen when the Australian innings started. At tea with all their wickets intact they led by 26.

The session that followed was test cricket at its subtlest and best. Under muggy skies the ball bounced over the stumps sometimes and kept low other times. And even if you had shut your eyes to the action, the first-rate descriptions from the Channel 9 commentary team (a post on whom will follow, another day) would have given you more than an adequate picture. Brendon McCullum left to a straightening snorter from Pattinson that pitched full, squared up the aggressor, got the edge and reached Hughes' at third slip, while Martin Guptill went to town flirting with a Siddle delivery that Boycott would have left alone even in his sleep only to see the edge taken by Haddin comfortably.

Then Ryder and Taylor resisted, the stocky man the more comfortable of the two, in spurts of attack as well as solid defence, and the diminutive skipper ungainly and ugly, playing across his front pad, opening himself too much because of his technique that compels the predominant on-sidedness of his strokeplay, but batting as if for the match and his life simultaneously. Edges were squirted to third-man, balls were left on bounce, Phil Hughes - ye, of great misfortunes currently - dropped Taylor at gully, a chance the young man may come to rue, and Ryder leant back on a front foot cover-drive through extra cover, majesty and elegance written in the stroke. And when it seemed like the Kiwis were on the road to safety, brilliance counterpunched them on the gut. Michael Hussey bowled a harmless leg side delivery, on which Ryder failed to get bat or pad. His front and back leg were switching places more in routine than as an effect of over-balancing, and Haddin whipped the bails off. A casual moment that appeared nonexistent had been converted into a wicket and Ryder was obviously stunned as he trudged back. It was ironic that Ian Healy who had castigated Haddin's keeping a week earlier was on air during the stumping. When Tony Greig asked him how much he would give for the stumping out of 10, Heals replied 10!

Kane Williamson arrived at Ryder's exit and played in a fashion that matched his test hundred on debut against India last year for composure if not style. Surprisingly, with Taylor playing the blocking game Williamson kept the singles and couples coming, putting bad balls away to the fence for good measure, releasing some of the scoreboard pressure his captain must have felt. Towards the end of the day the Sun came out, and it seemed like a congratulatory gesture from the skies to a New Zealand team that has done the hard work to get their noses in front from an impossible position, and will go into tomorrow with hopes of batting Australia out of the test. Ross Taylor apparently averages 77 whenever he crosses 30, and is presently on 42. But Taylor's conversion rate would not be Australia's only one worry.

There was one moment in the day which signified Australia's fall from greatness more than anything else, and it was befitting (or bitter, based on the view point) that one of Australian cricket's greatest and proudest sons provided it. Wrapped on the pad, this time by Tim Southee, the bat everywhere and mind nowhere, Ponting walked - just five to his name. The last time he batted at Hobart he had been dropped by Mohammad Amir on naught and had gone on to make 201, his last test hundred. There was no reprieve this time, nor a milestone as a consequence to celebrate it. After a sparkling performance with the ball and a brave and disciplined one with the bat on a day when the "test" in test cricket was on view for all to see, the Black Caps would be looking to put the issue beyond Australia's reach. They deserve no less. Daniel Vettori, the man whose services they would not have for a while, deserves no less either.

November 25, 2011

Dream Debuts, False Dawns and a Dwarfed Career

A few days ago I was having a chat with Venkatadri, with whom I co-author this blog, about how this year, particularly the last few weeks, have been great for debutante bowlers: Bracewell, Ashwin, Philander and Cummins have all had five-fors in their first test against different teams and under vastly different conditions. Promising, indeed, but little else for well-begun is not always half-done in sport. A great debut may be be either a false dawn or a ray of light obstructed by happenstance and competition as a career progresses. A case in point is Narendra Hirwani who after a famous debut against the West Indies in 1988 which yielded sixteen wickets, albeit on a dust bowl in Madras, played his last test in 1996 at the age of 28. In between his 17 tests had given him 66 wickets at just over thirty, while Anil Kumble was already on his way to being a colossus, at least at home. You can't blame Kumble for succeeding, nor can you blame Hirwani for not trying for there is little in the wickets tally to suggest he did not. Yet Kumble's rise was in every sense, unobtrusively admittedly, also the plummeting of Hirwani's stocks and perhaps in equal measure those of other aspiring spinners in the country at the time including the Kerala stalwart Ananthapadmanabhan who sadly did not get a game for India.

When I think of promises which have never seen the extended light of a fruitful day, a thirty-five year old spinner from Railways, who was with Middlesex for three county seasons and is currently with Somerset, comes to mind. If Murali Kartik had been in any other country, and, it is probably fair to say, started under any other captain than Ganguly, he might have received more chances, thereby allowing his career fairer room for success or failure, giving critics and experts more evidence based on which to judge him. In the event, a total of eight tests and thirty-seven one-day games does scant justice to his talent. The likes of Ravindra Jadeja, who until recently has had nothing to show for himself other than Shane Warne's glowing recommendations, have received more rope.

There is whispered consensus, and unfortunately little else, that Kartik is a fine left-arm spinner whose services to the national cricket team have been lost to the winds of time and arguably the whims of a captain who in his prime could murder left-arm spinners of every kind with one eye shut. Whether Gangles really saw Karthik's potential to the team in the light of how he treated left-arm spinners is open to debate, but Kartik's performance in country cricket speak of a stellar performer. Not all his county wickets can be brushed aside as a result of Englishmen being traditionally poor players of spin. Incidentally, according to a Zaltzman multistat the England cricket team has had, in the recent years, the best batting average against tweakers. While the retirement of Kumble and Warne, and more recently Muralidharan, could have contributed to the statistical swelling, it may well be the case that the quality of batting against spin in English domestic cricket has genuinely improved. In this light, Kartik's continued exclusion from the national squad is even more troubling.

I am not very proficient at the nitty-gritty of spin bowling but it is clear enough for a keen enough eye that Kartik's bowling is a result of its strong basics: a clean, orthodox and beautifully smooth action, reliance on flight encouraged by a mind that is willing to attack and the ability to get good turn and bounce especially when the wicket offered something. Nowhere did the strengths of Kartik's craft come to the fore better than in the  consolation victory over Australia in 2004 at Mumbai where the Australians who had already completed a 2-0 rout to take a rare and famous series win in India were ambushed for 93 in their  pursuit of a modest but tricky 107. Kartik scalped four and befittingly, perhaps, Dravid skippered him in that game. Ponting promptly wrote a letter to the ICC about the state of the Wankhede pitch, which was admittedly appalling, but if someone could bowl the delivery that got rid of Damien Martyn as well as the one that got Ponting in the second innings of that match he cannot possibly be fluke's favourite protege, never mind the conditions. One more test appearance followed, against the Proteas at Kanpur also in 2004, and Kartik has not been seen in national whites since. Only the most ardent optimist would bet against Kartik not playing another test; but knowing the BCCI's selection committees - or not knowing them - one never knows.

In mitigation, Kartik's non-selection in the shorter formats might have had also to do with the fact that he brought no value addition to the side, a Ganguly-engineered criterion starkly evident in Dravid's having been asked to keep so that the Indians could play seven batsmen and four bowlers even on made-to-order pitches at home. Although Kartik was a gritty batsman on his day, as he showed in Mumbai again in a tense chase against Australia while partnering with Zaheer Khan who smote Brett Lee for a straight six on the way to victory, his days were few and far in between. His fielding was not poor, but in an era where the Mohammad Kaifs often clung to the team based on the sheer weight of the runs they saved and prevented through tigerish fielding and brilliant catching, not bad was just not good enough especially since the Indian outfield was already manned by men who did not have either  the arm or the feet  and very often both to stem the flow of runs in the death overs. Harsh and hackneyed as it may sound, Kartik was, perhaps, at the wrong place at the wrong time. In test cricket, however, where specialists in my opinion must definitely merit more consideration than floaters and fillers, Murali Kartik's continued absence has remained a mystery. What rankles me is that even while Harbhajan Singh has struggled and has been persisted with, until two months ago, Kartik's name has hardly been heard though wickets have come in by the dozens in country cricket for the Tamilian. Que sera sera?

Although Kartik's career, or lack thereof with the Indian cricket team, deserves attention by itself, my concern for it is also fuelled by my concerns over the career of a 25-year old left-arm spinner from Orissa who is currently in the national squad and who, in my opinion and that of many who know their cricket and a thing or two about good spin bowlers, should never have been away from it. Pragyan Ojha like Murali Kartik is cast in the classical mould of left-arm spinners, trading guile for the sparring dart, and willing to entice the batsmen to drive or loft even after being hit for a six. In fact, Ashwin's and Ojha's successes in the on-going test series versus the West Indies have been based on the age-old adage of spin bowling which made Harbhajan Singh the 'Turbanator' in the 2001 series against Australia, a fact which he seems to have forgotten because of the glut of T20 cricket he has played - give it air, let it spin and the pitch will do the rest! 

Ojha has already played five more tests than Kartik, has 55 wickets, turned only twenty-five the September past and has age and an astute and encouraging captain in Mahindra Singh Dhoni, who does not mind giving spinners the new ball, by his side. I just hope he is nurtured rather than neglected, and has a Vettori-like career rather than a Kartik-like one. When I see Ojha I see no less than 350 test wickets. While teams like Australia are struggling to unearth their next spinner, as it were, the Indians should be happy to have a attacking left-arm spinning option who will be around for a long time. I do not wish to hear or see encores of tales like Murali Kartik's doing the rounds in the future. The least the selectors owe Ojha, and every other  young cricketer worth his salt, is yardsticks for selection applied uniformly along with accountability.  But then again, there is little hope of anything, least of all fairness, when one is faced with a cricket board run by a businessman for whom his position is probably a trophy or an indulgence, which revels in power but treats responsibility like a teenager would treat hard work, leaves fellow boards dangling at its mercy over a number of important issues and looks increasingly like the notorious Big Brother in cricket's own version of 1984. I hope my hopelessness is wrong.     

October 19, 2011


After "monkey-gate" in 2007 comes "donkey-gate" in 2011. Despite their volatility, there cannot be two more different characters than Harbhajan Singh and Nasser Hussain. Having said that, I am frankly tired of the fuss made out of Hussain's remarks. To dilute the pointless rage a bit, here's a funny take on the issue - some fictitious reactions from real people who have a stake in Indian cricket.

Shastri's words accuses Hussain of one of seven sins; and an eighth - envy towards his own commentary: 

"Nasser Hussain is jealous of everything in Indian cricket - their former number one ranking, their present status as World Champions, the IPL, attractive (read ear-offending) new words that have been contributed to the Queen's Language like DLF-er, the BCCI's stand on the DRS, Mumbai cricket, Sachin Tendulkar and most importantly the way I say tracer bullet. All of Indian commentariat will take up issue against anyone calling Indian cricketers by name... beg your pardon, names!"

Navjot Sidhu as always delights us with his word play:

"You remember the 2002 Natwest final my friend? Two young Turks using their bats as if they were bazookas and the English team were terro...," - and quickly checks himself remembering Dean Jones' fate after calling Hashim Amla a terrorist on air - "terrace players on tiny little lanes in Tate Square?"  NJ  probably added that for alliteration but how a Square can have streets is beyond us! "Hussain's paying back through words now. But as they say," - as always Sidhu does not say who? - "a man who pays for deeds with words is like a mirror that does not reflect."

Kris Srikkanth is, well, Kris Srikkanth:

"Arrey yaar! I am the Chief Selector, not the team manager - yes, yes Chennai Super Kings won the last IPL and will win the next one too. Anirudha is a class player, man. This Naaser," - pronounces it acutely like the name of an actor from the south - "bhaai no, when he was a boy he was fond of Chepauk but after going to England...," - and as always jumps topic without giving us a clue - "Yes, yes to call any Indians a donkey is not right yaar especially when we have Tendulkar who has scored a double-hundred." Some journos try to inform him that SRT was not in the ODI team in England but Kris has a call - either a fake one or from N. Srinivasan.

Lalit Modi tweets:

"As fmr bs of IPL I'd v hd Swn, Brd, Ck playing. Husn wunt hv cld us Dada not donkey." Mr. Modi. One clarification: even if you were the boss of IPL, you didn't pick teams, or did you?

N. Srinivasan (after his call with Kris Srikkanth):

"Bearing in mind the professionalism we want to bring to the running of the board and the team, we have just advised everyone in the selection committee, team coaching committee, present and past and future, team and organised groups of fans to never issue press statements. We will definitely conduct a lexical and legal enquiry into Hussain's use of the offending word," - Mr. Srinivasan is too uppity to even bring himself to say it -"but we continue to be in consensus over the fact that the team's performance in England requires no investigation, that the ICC is right in removing the mandate on DRS and that Gideon Haigh is... never mind. We also do not have any conflict of interest," concludes the BCCI President heading to a court hearing. 

We just hope James Sutherland, CEO of Cricket Australia, does not hear Srini speak; he's quite elaborate as it is.

Viswanathan Radhakrishnan (cricket host and expert, Neo cricket):

"It's incredible isn't it how the Indians, the World Champions, have sl...umped to no. 5 and England have played some outste...nding cricket haven't they?" Arun Lal tries to say something but Mr. Radhakrishnan goes on. "However, the question is: is Nasser Hussain justified in claiming that the Indian team... has... some..." Fans wonder why there cannot be a blackout like the one in the Sky studio.

Shahrukh Khan, part-time actor, owner KKR:

"Heyyyyy, hey, hey, chill guys. I am Bollywood's Baadshah and I say every Indian in the Indian team is a superstar. Take KKR...," tapers off remembering that KKR's most successful player has been Jacques Kallis. What is with South Africans and other countries? ;)
Mandira Bedi:

"Ajanta Rahane," - ma'am that's Ajinkya -"what a player he is! I cannot understand how Hussain can call Indian players donkeys." Indeed, just like we do not understand how you have been allowed to host or co-host cricket-related shows for so long.

Barkha Dutt:

"Gentlemen, the point is at a time like this, when the Indian team was already facing a huge crisis such as the loss of key players, the loss of number 1 ranking, the loss of the World Cup gloss," -strictly in that order it appears - "and, of course, the 4-0 loss in the test series, was Nasser Hussain morally right in calling Indian fielders donkeys? We will first go across to our cricket correspondent in Chennai..."

Rajdeep Sardesai (threatening the glass panel on TV screens as always):

"We have completely run out of time. The verdict: 88 % says Hussain was wrong 11.5 % says maybe and .5 %... well. Mr. Hussain... you owe... the aam aadmi, the commoner in the street, the fans across the country shouting whenever an Indian takes a wicket or a catch," - well that was the point of Hussain's comment wasn't it? -"you owe them an apology. On that note, it's goodnight."

Rahul Dravid:

"Look there's not much you can do about it. We just have to go there and do what we are good at and let the others do their job. I dropped a few dollies myself in the test series," - smiles -"and we have to work really hard on our fielding. I sometimes wish fielding is like batting, it would help me concentrate more."

As diplomatic as ever, Dravid does not mention either Hussain by name or the donkey remark. After a polished statement, he signs off with a repetition of his success mantra.

Dravid's fellow test debutant of sixteen years ago and these days a refreshingly honest voice in the commentary box, Sourav Ganguly is precise - but confuses his pronouns as usual:  

"That's the Indian team at its worst. This is Hussain at its best!"

h. i. s Dada, "his", not "its".

Nothing in Indian cricket is every complete without a gig and/or a word from our Prince from Kerala. This is what Santhakumaran Sreesanth had to say repeating his famous line, and in the process giving the former English skipper some advice:

"Silence is the speech of the spiritual seeker. I hope Hussain goes to the Himalayas or Dharamshala to get some inner peace. After all, even the great Tamil superstar Mr. Rajnikanth does it!" 

October 1, 2011

Akhtar's book (and why BCCI is wrong again!)

After a vacation of sorts from this space, during which time I did pen paeans for Dravid elsewhere (among other things for fear that if they were penned here my lovely friend, co-author and critic would ambush me!), Shoaib Akhar's Controversially Yours and the media circus surrounding it has given me something to write about. In this connection, I find myself mostly in agreement with Kamran Abbasi when he says Akhtar is the victim of his own inferno, despite his lines that hardly veil his attempts to show Indian batsmanship as second to others'. More on that though for another day.

The former Pakistani paceman from 'Pindi has evidently said in his book that Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid are not match-winners in their own right. As far as statements in general go and as far as Shoaib's words, not very different in consistency from Shahid Afridi's retirements or Ijaz Butt's decisions, go, that is hardly a shoulder-high bouncer let alone a beamer. Others have said similar things in the past and truth is seldom judged by the loudness of the chorus anyway. But what made the Indian spectators, BCCI, the fans and their uncles - and also Wasim Akram - irate is the reference to "fear" in the eyes of the little master at a test match in Faislabad. As absurd and foolhardy as the claim seems, lifting it out of context and aggrandising Akhtar's stature as cricket's primordial bete noire is a media stunt intended either to make the book sell or to attract more prime time viewership given that there is no bigger idol in India than SRT. Thus what should have been treated as a joke, an attention-seeking ruse or at the very least a rather parochial opinion has been blown out of proportion. I can bet that half of the bandwagon, comprising media personnel, ex-cricketers, garrulous cricketing pundits and others participating in opinion polls, would not have even seen the book cover before delivering their "expert" opinions on the matter.

As always, Harsha Bhogle's tweets on September 26 about Akhtar's book breathed commendable moderation and commonsense. I completely agree with Mr. Bhogle when he says that Akhtar, much like you and I and the rest of the world, is entitled to an opinion albeit "[he] is not a saint". I also tend to concede that there is, in our part of the world, an almost tetchy wait to feel offended and at the slightest of provocation we get ready to hurl our verbal repertoire against any opinion that is in discord with our own. Admittedly, a headline like "Akhtar says Sachin feared me" is not something that will go down well, even as an opinion, in a cricket-mad nation like India. And yet when Tendulkar himself said that it is beneath his dignity to respond - a response arguably as clean and firm as his back-foot cover drive - I fail to understand the ambient fuss.

Of all responses to Akhtar's remarks, what surprised me most, however, was BCCI's demand for an apology from him, as if his remarks have hurt the reputation of a young tyro, or have devalued and brought down Dravid's and Tendulkar's colossi of runs overnight, or have hurt BCCI's fiscal underbelly. From a board which does not allow its selection committee (or coach) to be accountable - by gagging its members from speaking to the media - whose selection committee does not know the difference between a raw fledgling and an emerging player, or even between a fit and an unfit one, which thinks there is no need for an inquiry into the Indian team's zero-international-win debacle in England recently, and which acts holier-than-thou at the slightest sign of governmental or other interference when its internal structure seems more daunting than the notorious iron curtain, the reactions to a controversial character's rants and the demand for an apology are as befuddling as they are amusing. If BCCI's response is out of anger, and there is little to suggest that, the anger is as misplaced as its priorities are. No wonder the board is headed by a hardliner whose interests in cricket seem like a mere extension of his business interests. 

I am not making a case for Akhtar or his book. However, the fact that we spend loads of vocal decibels, paper and new media space and television hours on a remark made somewhere in a book is quite annoying even if the tendency is not new and may be a sign of the times. I will close with yet another remark made by a former player about Sachin Tendulkar a few years ago in his autobiography titled True Colours: the  substance of it was that Tendulkar would never be around for "shake hands" whenever India lost a game. We could have said, "I see" or politely interjected with a "So what? He plays only to win which is not criminal!". Instead, we and our media again blew the issue up, throwing in the reference "loser" for good measure and attributed it to the author who, at least in my opinion (even with his flaws during Sydneygate which he acknowledges and which he provides an unapologetic perspective on), is among the fairest gents to have played the game: Adam Gilchrist walked - and not just his talk - and we blamed him for his observations about "our" Little Master. I would in no way liken Akhtar to Gilchrist - or their books to one another - but the upshot is this: if every response we have to an opinion is coloured deeply with our own -isms (among them nationalism), how is it that we feel self-righteously fair in criticising others for their opinions, the way they play the game or their lack of sportsmanship?

The jury, Ladies and Gentlemen, is still out.    

August 3, 2011

No.1: who cares?!

Sourav Ganguly is a passionate man, if his playing days, the Lord's shirt spin and the way he got into the face of Australian teams and Steve Waugh are anything to go by. Off the field, however, those close to him claimed that you could not meet a man of greater equanimity: if you took the reactions of the Kolkata fans to Ganguly's being dropped as representative of reactions from Ganguly's own cricle, you are bound to get his personage wrong for Bengal is a passionate state and had to wait several decades to get its own superstar. Why am I saying all this? Because the man formerly referred to as the Prince of Calkootta is the one former cricketer who has got his reactions to India's bruising defeats to England dead right: accept it and move on!

I don't mind admitting pride over Team India's number one status in test cricket  - I am prouder of it than the 2011 World Cup victory - despite my recurrent emphasis on the fact that the ranking arrived by default and that it has been sustained not by ruthless greatness but by coming-back-from the debris performances characterised by basic grit. Great teams do not thrive on playing catch-up, though; they just happen to be better at catching up as well should it be required. None of this is to insult the contributions made my present and past greats in ensuring that India has built up a strong front at home and overseas in the last ten years. It is only to put things into perspective - the perspective that when the focus is on the process, as the Australians like to belabour and often rightly, other things will follow. That is exactly the perspective that is missing in the reactions to India's two consecutive defeats down in England. What is sad is that past players, who you would expect not to be drawn into superficiality, make a mockery of themselves by drawing the ranking into everything they discuss - including DRS - and leave out the question marks behind the dismal performance. The reverse pattern would be better recommended.

If Dhoni's own observations over what he felt went wrong after Lord's still had a hint of humour about them, the post-Nottingham responses seemed more like excuses from a brilliant leader who was expecting sympathy. But what could the poor man do? Being hamstrung by your premiere fast bowler's hamstring injury, not having your first choice opening firm - only to see the other half also ruled out by contingency - and having to respond to questions from an eccentric media about your own form with the bat (and less notably the glovework) can affect the blithest of spirits. But therein lies not the answer, but more questions, questions which I am sure Messrs. Srinivasan and others at the BCCI will not have Duncan Fletcher - or others - answer directly.

Does the over-reliance on Zaheer with the ball - and a lesser one on Sehwag with the bat, never mind four others average over 45:00 in that most enviable of line-ups - itself say something about how the Indian cricket is still a constellation made of some bright stars, at best, never mind the rankings? Dhoni says injuries do happen - we know that! We also appreciate - as much as a non-player can - that a fast bowler's craft entails by many counts the most tangled use of the body in sport, but why is it that fitness regimes elsewhere are better ? More to the point, why is our bench strength invariably second-grade and why is one other swing bowler - someone like R.P. Singh - not travelling with the team when we have taken a substitute keeper?  A more telling question - and it had better be - is why does someone like Sehwag need to 'show himself up' for Delhi Daredevils before he undergoes a surgery but miss two important tests? This is in pathetic, sometimes shameful, contrast to how Michael Clarke and Mitchell Johnson have opted out of the Big Bash League in Australia to focus on getting their country's test team perform better. (If there is something that does not look the eye as far as Indian players are concerned, such as volitional priority towards your franchise - or worse, compelled priority -, then the powers that be have some answering to do). We in India are used to excuses and when a player passionately says, "Nobody would demean playing for the country," we accept it. But is the passion in the words translated into action, the planning and the prioritisation of one's time and fitness? Is a Pragyan Ojha or a Rahane getting the right sort of signals from the behaviour of seniors? I leave this case here.

BCCI's handling of test cricket raises a different issue. While the Indian board's sudden enlightenment to play more tests since two years ago is a welcome sign for test cricket in the country - and test cricket as a whole what with India being modern cricket's Mecca - the reason for this shift in priority is as parochial as it is wrong. The wrongness comes to the fore precisely when the weather becomes rough. It is clear for all intents and purposes that the BCCI wants Team India to maintain the no. 1 status - but it is commonsense, let alone reason, that that can happen only if we win games. With the sort of scheduling (that always includes the IPL!) the Indian players have - and how some are free to take breaks - we are going to find it difficult to barely stay in a test match against good teams in alien conditions let alone win any. I may sound hyperbolic. The apocalypse has not yet come; but it may well do so sooner than later (and this is regardless of the timing of the stalwarts' impending retirement).

Ultimately - I say this as a cricket fan as well as someone who knows a bit about what people generally feel - I would prefer to watch a Team India that is up for a scrap, one which can fight for 140 overs in an attempt to bat 160 and still lose, rather than a team which is top of the tree because of accident, coincidence, its captain's nouse (and good fortune!) and the deteriortation of other teams in the circuit. It is the spirit with which a team plays its sport that reveals its nature and workings.

Australia have not been "harassed" even on their worst days, which is a sign of a good team, until their recent Ashes campaign - a coincidence that their opposition, too, was England? I think not! - because doggedness has been their trade mark for decades. Flair (the other spelling would do just as well!), as Sangakkara said in his glorious MCC Spirit of Cricket Lecture, is the signature of cricket in Sri Lanka. It is that - or any - spirit which, by its absence, was appalling about India's cricket in the tests at Lord's and Nottingham. But one unlikely figure, who might not have been even in the frame for this series two months ago, quietly infused whatever spirit he was capable of into his seemingly one-dimensional game. He may never be the heartthrob of female fans or threaten the sleep of test batsmen but men like Praveen Kumar bring value to a team that can never be counted or commodified. He has got wickets to show for himself, too. A few others could learn a thing or two about lifting for the occasion from the young man, the praise for whom is always accompanied by the irritating phrases "despite his lack of pace" or "in England he'll always bowl well." May be, the pundits are right but cricketers with a will have a way of succeeding anywhere and the heart they bring to the game enriches it in a big way. Besides, If cricket has to be made up only of Steyns and Shane Warnes, it will be a game for the elite in terms of talent. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth as cricketing history shows time and again. And as for now, nothing could be less important than India's number one ranking. If imagining that it is lost would inspire them to fight without a cluttered mind, it is just as well.  

July 26, 2011

BCCI's power and cricket's health!

Although there might have been inklings earlier, the Mike Denness incident in 2001-02 demonstrated the Board of Control for Cricket in India's augmenting control in international cricket . The match referee, Mike Denness, who was officiating the India-South Africa series in South Africa imposed match bans on prominent players including Harbhajan Singh and the then Indian skipper captain Sourav Ganguly. Controversy turned into outrage as Tendulkar was in the lengthy blacklist, too, having been accused of ball-tampering. BCCI wanted another match referee for the final test of the series at Centurion but ICC stood by Denness. The United Cricket Board was caught in a fix but decided to support the BCCI (headed by Jagmohan Dalmiya at the time!) and so Denness was forced to stand down in the final test. The Indians did not fare all that well and given the besetting storm the lukewarm performance was only to be expected and ICC declared the test unofficial. Some said - and I agree - that the match referee's punitiveness went overboard. "isms" were traded as always, "racism" figuring prominently: in some sense, it was brutal irony that all this was happening in South Africa, which had been admitted to international cricket only ten years ago following a couple of decades of exile due to the Apartheid policy. 

Six years later, another conflict arose - again in the Southern Hemisphere, this time the locale being Australia. On the third day of the New Year test at Sydney (2008), the Bhajji-Symonds "monkeygate" erupted and the series would never be the same again. After the Sydney test, the sour moods turned downright rancid: Steve Bucknor, with a history of umpiring errors against India, had committed  howlers which everyone believed had turned the test in favour of the Australians. But Bucknor was not the vortex of Indian malediction. Michael Clarke who had hit the ball clear as daylight to slip earlier in the match had not walked but went onto claim a dicey catch of Ganguly who was batting like a dream in the second innings as India tried to save the test on the last day. "Integrity" came into the equation when the umpire asked Ponting who raised his finger as if to say Clarke had taken it cleanly. A few overs later, Ponting claimed a catch of Dhoni - which seemed like a "bump ball" - and though it was given "not out", India could not bat out Clarke's left-arm spin and went 2-0 down in the series. Anil Kumble said, "Only one team played in the spirit of the game" , a reportedly spontaneous reproduction of a line right out of the Bodyline closet. Ponting's headstrong churlishness at the press conference did nothing remotely to mitigate the rift but only exacerbated it. Peter Roebuck called into question Australia's  win-at-all-costs mindset, referring to the Sydney win as their ugliest performance and calling for Punter to be replaced as captain. In the meanwhile, Tendulkar was called onto testify at the Harbhajan hearing (after the latter had been handed a three-match ban which the BCCI appealed against)- and all hell broke loose. Cancellation of the tour was on everyone's lips and so was the status of BCCI beneath the veil. A series with India, member boards of the ICC know, brings a lot of money and goodwill. It is safe not to defy the BCCI. The series continued, more mutedly: India famously won at Perth - Adam Gilchrist's reflections on how the Aussies felt during the Perth test, as well as leading to it,  makes for an insightful, and arguably balanced, read for Gilchrist is a fair man - and the teams drew at Adelaide. While what happened at Sydney should not have and it infuriates me to this day - make no mistake about it - BCCI's "now-we-will, now-we-won't" tactics were clearly those of a domineering giant manoeuvring an ally using strength, subtlety and innuendo, analogous to the moral high ground U. S of A takes in issues of global importance. 

Around the same time, Zee and a group of former cricketers, among them Tony Greig, Kapil Dev and Dean Jones, were at the receiving end of BCCI's wrath as Indian cricket's governing body not only declared ICL  "unconstitutional" but also reportedly "influenced" (perhaps more than just that if Lalit Modi's recent comments are to be believed) other boards which also players contracted with the ICL. With the emergence of IPL - a child of BCCI's status, Modi's brains and the business world's glitz and money - the ICL was all but in the grave. Soon, it was buried. People who speak today of how IPL has given "opportunities" to youngsters must remember that it was ICL which was created with the intention and that IPL built itself on the debris, or at least the marginalisation, of ICL. 

More recently, BCCI's ludicrous wrangling with the ICC over the use of UDRS has once again shown who is the boss. Although it was reported after the meetings in Hong Kong that a compromise has been reached, I am not clear what the compromise is: if using it piecemeal like in the present series between India and England - only for catches not for LBW's - is that compromise, it is befuddling. While Ian Chappell  expressed disappointment, and rightly so, after the meetings at Hong Kong at how ICC panders to the requests of the BCCI and how its directive to de-politicise the game is solid in principle but absurd anyway - Chappell must have been thinking of BCCI, PCB and Sri Lanka cricket - Harsha Bhogle has indicated that BCCI's hesitancy over the DRS is not totally ill-founded. While Harsha is right - and so is Chappell - what cannot be dismissed is the fact that BCCI's power is seemingly doing more harm to the running of the game than good. Arm-twisting - read "threats of cancelling tours" (there are always ways to address issues diplomatically!) -, muffling voices - BCCI's treatment of Lalit Modi when everybody knows that BCCI's own house is far from clean - monopolising viable markets - read the IPL - and stalling important decisions - read "the DRS deadlock" - are definitely not healthy offshoots of the power BCCI wields.    

It does not seem to be just the BCCI but also Indian cricket in general these days that is triggering controversies: a side-note will clarify that statement. After the first test at Sabina Park between India and West Indies last month, the Indian captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni made an interesting remark about (allegedly Daryl Harper's) umpiring in the test saying that he'd have been in the hotel long ago had the right decisions been made. Dhoni has not been the fake professional type, so that remark can be dismissed as an amusement. In the second test at Barbados,  Dhoni had allegedly walked to Harper and said, "We have had problems (including, evidently, Harper's third official warning to debutant Praveen Kumar for running on the pitch at Sabina park, which meant Kumar could not bowl for one half of West Indies' first innings) with you before, Daryl..." a remark which could once again be interpreted anyway and one which Harper took offence for. Harper did not stand in the final test of the series at Roseau, which would have been his final test anyway as a test umpire, and has since indicated that Dhoni should have been punished even for his original remarks which Harper had considered inappropriate. While I don't agree with Harper on the call for punishment, I think anything that threatens an umpire's presence should be firmly dealt with to set the right precedent. Dhoni should have, at the very least, been reprimanded. Moreover, I think Harper was well within his rights to warn Kumar - debut test or 150th, rules are rules. Just because Indian cricketers, or Asians and West Indians to be more general, have borne the brunt of sanctions in the past while Englishmen and Australians have got away by far, it does not mean the former have the right to seek to redress the balance in offhanded ways. One may say: what's wrong with Indian cricketers giving it back? No problems - except that umpires, who in some sense "balance" the vagaries of the game, should not be the targets of ripostes. Call me old-fashioned but that is against the very premise on which the gentleman's game is founded.
The second has to do with the suspension of the Sri Lankan T20 league this year, the reason being BCCI's objection to allow its players to participate on the grounds that a private party, not Sri Lanka cricket, contracts players in that competition. If the grounds of objections are true - to be honest, they seem murky - I would have no issues but even if they are not I would not be surprised given BCCI's "handling" of the ICL, DRS etc.

Finally, the mutilation of the Future Tours Programme provides a compelling instant of BCCI's lobbying powers at ICC meetings. While many have welcomed the fact that India does not need to tour countries like Zimbabwe and Bangladesh (for a while) as good for both parties involved, Ian Chappell (in the same article linked above) is right in believing that the parameter, then, should apply to all good test-playing nations. The compromise with the BCCI seems to have, however, been struck to achieve balance elsewhere - on DRS and other issues. But what do you expect when ruthless business-minded gentlemen like N. Srinivasan - who owns an IPL franchise, is the President of the TNCA (does Srini, as he is fondly called, have partial amnesia towards the phrase/clause conflict of interest, or is he for all practical purposes immune to it?) and sits with Duncan Fletcher in the latter's first press conference as India coach to ensure that the BCCI's sacrosanct stances are towed at all costs - head the BCCI and politics-steeped persons like Sharad Pawar sit at the top of the ICC? However, Mr. Sambit Bal, editor cricinfo, finds it convenient to oppose John Howard's candidacy for ICC vice-Presidency on ethical and moral grounds. I don't agree with Gideon Haigh's one-sided Asia-bashing on the subject either and while Mr. Bal has a point is it just Howard supporters who got "the wrong end of the stick?" Is Sharad Pawar an inspiring ICC leader, is N. Srinivasan a great cricket administrator (even if he may be a good cricket administrator with a mind par excellence) and is Kris Srikkanth's son an emerging talent because Kris is Chief Selector at the moment? (poor young man, how 'split' must he be feeling?) Come on Mr. Bal, let us have some moderation, for a change, without its being coloured by contrived, or worse, compelled, loyalties .

For many young - those in their teens and twenties - fans of my generation seeing the Australians defeat team after team in the noughties created both a sense of ennui and anger. It is human impulse to want to see the Goliath slayed. India consistently played David and South Africa and England followed suit although by the time the Australians were comprehensively conquerred at home their powers had waned a good deal. I am sure non-West Indians who saw the marauding teams from the Caribean between the 1970s and mid-nineties felt the same way about their teams getting beaten, too. If monopoly on the field is an affair that cannot be tolerated, then monopoly off it needs to be immediately eradicated because it has far-reaching implications for the good of the game wherever it is played. BCCI's unbridled powers in cricket, which on the evidence of the last ten years are self-serving, manipulating and coffer-filling (most of the time), are far from good for the global game. If someone says it is, then I can probably try defending PCB's "decisions" and Ijaz Butt with a perfect forward defence.      

July 24, 2011

Between Kingston and Lord's - a Dravid fan's perspective:

After Dravid scored that gritty, but arguably ugly, 112 at Kingston barely a month ago, against a West Indian attack that was potent in patches but not powerful overall, I followed the comments' threads on Dravid-related articles out of curiosity: one gentleman - or may be a young lad, as it seemed from the tone - suggested that it was becoming a habit of Dravid's fans to come out of the woodwork whenever Dravid scores and stay silent when he (often, evidently) fails. Not that it is a crime for most fans tend to do that but the observation got me thinking. For a moment, my loyalty, too, seemed to cringe and I felt guilty for being such a blind adherent to Dravid's craft. That the 112 won in India the game - eventually the series - was forgotten. Maybe, that's what Dravid is- a man who needs to reprove his worth, and does not mind doing so, even to those who know better, time and again. The day he has done enough reproving, he would probably walk away. That, too, is Rahul Dravid.

Now that I think of the gentleman's comments once again, in the light of Rahul's hundred at Lord's today, I feel pleasantly amused and mildly annoyed. Chris Tremlett is not Curtley Ambrose and Stuart Broad is not Malcolm Marshall - and in any case cross-generational comparisons are at best quirky and at best silly figments of collective imaginations: how else can you explain an all time ICC World Test XI that has no place for Sobers, Hadlee or Muralidharan but has (with due respect to them) Sehwag, both Lara and Tendulkar, and Kapil Dev? - but the English bowling attack is arguably the second best going around at the moment and at home they can be more than a handful: scoring a hundred against them - never mind he is 38, never mind the pre-match hype and never mind the history associated with the Lord's which can stifle the most seasoned of veterans, for he is Dravid, the blue-collared workman "whose to only do, never question" - when everybody fell around him speaks of, cliched as it may seem, class of the highest kind. Yes, IF Swann had pouched him at slip on 42 - then what? Contact Navjot Sidhu, please.

From the articles I have glimpsed so far, the ones released soon after the 3rd day's play at Lord's, the theme that I'd expected to emerge has damnably emerged though the structures and words used vary: "while everyone expected the little master's hundredth, it was Dravid..." Sachin Tendulkar got a standing ovation, accentuated by the expectation of a 100th international hundred but it was Dravid who scored the 100th hundred - putting Laxman's, Tendulkar's and Dravid's tallies together." Even a pundit like Jonathan Agnew - or may be because he is a pundit he needs to satisfy the hoi polloi - while praising Dravid's accomplishment has to juxtapose his getting onto the Honours' Board at Lord's with Tendulkar not teaching his 100th ton! Why on EARTH?! Sachin Tendulkar may be the next best since Bradman, or even better if some quarters are to be believed, but does it mean every fine batting performance has to refer to Tendulkar in some way? It is worse than hearing Gavaskar, Shastri and Manjrekar together in the commentary box when Tendulkar is batting - or more often when he is not! It still makes no difference to them.

I don't have a problem with the great man (and I can liken a 100 international hundreds at best to having many phonology papers published, which manifests the scale of his imminent achievement by not even fitting it into my imagination!), but for once I shall refrain from being diplomatic and say that I DO have a problem when someone contextualises a Dravid achievement in terms of something else - Laxman's artistry, Sehwag's savagery, Ganguly's elegance, Tendulkar's genius... the list never seems to end. As it is the man's performances are mostly overshadowed by stastistics and greenhorns whose cameos have the sparkle his sturdiness in the middle lacks, so let us cut him some slack at least when he truly stands head and shoulders above the rest. It is good to know I am not alone, though, in saying this. A girl expressed similar sentiments to the espncricinfo commentary team and thankfully it was published. Alec Stewart, without getting into the argument, celebrates Dravid's achievement as that of a fine cricketer's and a gentleman's in a tweet. In this context, I recall another write-up. Two years ago when Dravid made a 177 in a Day against Sri Lanka at Motera, after India were 69-4, Jarod Kimber wrote a delightful piece about how Dravid has always been the man behind the man, how it may have to do with the essence of Dravid's own personage - and how he, Kimber, has a problem with it. I have a problem, too.

I have not, in gloating about Dravid's chips-are-down hundred, forgotten that this test match has still a lot of cricket left. Drawing it will require a mighty dig - of the Athertonian kind - in the second innings from India. But in the hullabaloo, fuelled slightly by the comparative tendencies mentioned above, I have forgotten two things: Dravid's innings was more fluent than any of his recent hundreds and a throwback to the Halcyon Days of 2002-2005 when the extra cover drive, the on-drive with a straight bat through mid-wicket and the forward defensive competed for immaculateness. A particular shot stays in memory: Anderson pitched full, the ball swung, Dravid opened the face of the bat and the square-drive (it's been ages since I saw Dravid play the stroke, going down on one knee!) cantered along the carpet to the fence, for what was the first of the latter's 15 fours. The other thing is the small matter of Dravid's surpassing Ponting in the list of test cricket's highest run-getters (if only temporarily) during the course of his century.

If India does lose this test, it will only be the second time in twelve years that a Dravid century will have not helped in a draw or victory. Many cricket teams would woo such a batsman; we take him for granted. The gap Dravid will leave may not be impossible to fill, for human beings are indispensable, but it will be difficult at the very least . Let us acknowledge at least that much for a man who is only behind Anil Kumble in the number of tests he has one won for India and behind nobody in terms of that inspiring whole-hearted dedication he brings to his job. The acknowledgement is long overdue.

July 3, 2011

Towards the 2000th test: Test Cricket and Life!

No where is test cricket more like life than in the lack of a standard recipe for success or an assumed reason for failure in it: for every elegant Ramprakash and flamboyant Kambli who has performed below credentials at this level, there has been a 'nudgy' Collingwood and an ugly Chanderpaul who has punched above his weights. The only thing that links the Waughs, Mark and Steve, is their bloodline; if anything the less 'talented' senior twin endured longer to be counted into the league of greatness, a courtship whose culmination though seemingly destined had to be worked hard for. Anil Kumble did not need to turn it like Murali and Warne to be a match-winner and sneak in - albeit a distant - third in the list of test cricket's all-time highest wicket takers. But when men with half Kumble's numbers are revered, we ought to acknowledge what Anil has done. Dale Steyn and Glenn McGrath could not be further apart, but ask any top-order batsman whether he'd like to face the two together: and if the reply is in the affirmative, he's probably had a slip of the tongue, is perhaps out of his wits, has taken the competitive spirit too far or does not know cricket.

Not that variety is a trend recently unleashed by the game's original and most hallowed format - one that outsiders and fans of the game's sibling formats alike frown upon. Malcolm Marshall was not possessed with the height of his illustrious colleagues, Holding, Garner and others, but he used the lack to become skiddy and even more dangerous. Today he's reckoned to be amongst the most complete fast bowlers the game has ever seen. And even before the famed Indian spin quartet shared the spoils in the 1970s and 1980s, it was actually a West Indian by the name of Lance Gibbs who became the first spinner to go past 300 wickets. From a land that would produce fast bowlers who personifed "terror and thunderbolts", Gibbs is deservingly a legend, one whose numbers remain untouched even today by spinners from the Caribean. Then there is the fairytale of a man from the Land of the Long White Cloud, which has arguably not had a matchwinner of his likes before or since: Sir Richard Hadlee's brisk swing bowling was not just poetry in its curves and prose in precision but also yielded 431 wickets in 86 games, a record only Muralidharan might want to tease. That Kapil Dev - even allowing for the fact that he was born in the sub-continent - took 34 more games to get there puts Hadlee's colossus in perspective. Nobody (until Dale Steyn) has come even remotely close in terms of consistency; and there has perhaps not been a more befitting knighthood in the game with the exception of Sobers. (And we are not even hinting at what Sir Richard was capable of with that bat!)

Batsmen would not want to be forgotten. After all, even in this day and age of flat pitches, batsman-friendly bowling rules and Virendra Sehwags, the bloke with the willow gets but a single chance. It is as unfair as it looks but so is life. You might have weathered a two-hour tempest of bouncers and outswingers, but may then end up hitting a rank long hop down the throat of the only man stationed at square leg - more out of convention than imagination - just like you may end up having an inopportune foot-in-the-mouth moment your friends and foes will never let you forget. You can mutter all you like - but only in the dressing room lest a ban should be imposed or the match fee docked. A batsman's vigil and its (anti)climax are life at its ironic (and arguably iconic) best: hard work is only part of it, one must have enough in the tank and mind to sustain the good ensured by the toils. Even that is not enough sometimes if fortune, regardless of its gender, decides to intervene: a generally fine umpire may not hear an inside edge that's loud as thunder and give you out. Like in life, you have to take it on your chin hoping that it evens out at the end of the day as Ian Chappell says. In many cases it does, in some cases it does not. The aggression found in the games of those like Sehwag and Sir Vivian Richard itself embodies those fortunes and misfortunes, simultaneously not making a fuss of either. The Tendulkars and the Laras impose themselves on what seems like a written script, trying valiantly - in attack or defence - to change their destiny and that of the men around them; not for them the resigned walk into the sunset because passiveness is a sin in the hall of greats. For guys like Laxman, Mark Waugh, Carl Hooper, Jayawardena and (I am told) Rohan Kanhai art is the finest means and the highest end where context has to often take a hike. And for those in the mould of Steve Waugh, Viswanath and Gavaskar every innings is like a fort that would be relinquished only over their dead bodies. For men like Boycott who obsessed about rising above their ranks, hours at the crease, like writing for some writers, fed into and fed off the ago. And magnanimously enough for a game that indulges these days in seeing the scoreboard run berserk, the Haydens and Sehwags have not made the Husseys and Dravids dispensable, which is the beauty of test cricket. Sir Donald Bradman was above them all, to the man. Some say Dr. W. G. Grace and Sir Jack Hobbs might have come close. Enough said, the little man from Adelaide remains the world's greatest cricketer - by a distance.

All-rounders are the most colourful breed of them all, more so because who qualifies as one seems to be a never-ending debate among fans, experts, journalists and cricketers alike. Is it someone who can scythe through sides with the ball and get a few runs with the bat? Or is it someone who can bat like a dream and bowl well enough to break partnerships? Are we not then being unfair to the Gilchrists, the Andy Flowers, the Matt Priors and Dhonis who, when they do not have their gauntlet in their hand, have pulled their teams out of trouble, forced the pace or saved a test match? Sir Garry Sobers and Jacques Kallis have been the finest in the illustrious club of those who could bat and bowl, their value to the game as a whole evidenced by the fact that no other cricketer has scored over 8000 runs and picked up over 200 wickets at over 50 (let alone 55) and under 35 respectively. Present-day New Zealand and West Indies may construct an entire team around a Kallis or Sobers, if they had one, but Daniel Vettori who recently called time on his role as New Zealand captain has been a pretty good all-rounder himself if we rightly shed the bias that tweakers should not be considered as incumbents in this particular list. Among the trio of Kapil Dev, Imran Khan and Sir Ian Botham who graced the game around the same time, the Englishman was probably the most complete all-rounder; yet both Kapil and Imran shared Botham's fierce hitting abilities as well as the precious skill to swing the ball. Imran - or Pakistan sides under him - should also be credited for giving reverse swing to the world, but for which test cricket in the sub-continent would be dead as death, an art whose left-arm practitioner and master at once was Wasim Akram, another fine character who may just make the all-rounder's spot - and more than just in today's Pakistan team.

Come the first test between India and England and test cricket would be two thousand matches old. And the prospect cannot be more mouth-watering for the showdown will be at the Head Quarters of Cricket, Lord's: one of the top two bowling attacks in the world, and in form, against the best batting line-up in the world. Can Anderson's out-swinger work wonders against Dravid and Laxman? Can Tremlett target Tendulkar and get him out? Will Kevin Pietersen, still not in the best of nick, turn things around and decide the issue in favour of the Union Jack? Will Ian Bell's dream-like run of form be thwarted by Ishant Sharma or Harbhajan Singh with the ball? Is Zaheer Khan going to call English batsmen, like a teacher calls rolls, and pick them up like he did last time India were there? Regardless of what happens, test cricket has already given the game's purists, aficionados and historians enough to cherish, deliberate, debate and come to terms with: from Bodyline to the post-26/11 Chennai test between England and India, from Warne's ball of the century to Lara's 400 not out, from Ambrose's routing of Australia and England to McGrath's "precise" hat-trick, from the great Australian and West Indian teams of the past to the wristy masters from the sub-continent, from ribs threatened by great fast bowlers to men who have bowled with bandaged jaws, we have seen shame, dedication, magic, flamboyance, aura, accuracy, arrogance, artistry, intimidation and courage. There have been deaths and near deaths too, and cricketers coming back to play for their country in the most challenging format after surving bomb blasts.

There will be those who think that watching a game for five days can only be a fool's idea of sport. May be, but no other game comes close to life more let alone mirror it (so Monsieur Shaw can, for a change, go and have cake). And because of that reason no game has brought, or can bring, character to the forefront better: over five days, you need everything from physical stamina to mental strength to commonsensical application to knowing when to relax and when to concentrate in order to survive and succeed. Not to forget a certain sense of equanimity if after five days you lose - and lose by a close margin like Australia did at Headingley five years ago. Converts are not sought, for test cricket is not a Faith. Beyond the wins, losses, draws and rare ties, it's a way of life. In its own way, as cricketers and cricket pundits might tell you, it is life.

June 27, 2011

A Fortress to Storm!

Fifteen years have gone but as with nightmares in general this one seems like it happened yesterday: Curtly - yes, Ambrose - and company blew India away on the final day as a  batting line up, with Azhar and Tendulkar in their prime and Ganguly, Laxman and Dravid on their way up, collapsed for 81 pursuing 120 at the Kensington Oval, Barbados. Sunil Gavaskar had reportedly looked at the pitch the night before the final day and wondered if the target was even attainable on it, let alone easily, against the Caribean pace attack which was still formidable if not invincible. The former Indian opener, who had been prolific against the likes of Holding, Garner, and Marshall, did not express his misgivings but they came true all right. It was the only test in the 1997 five-test series that did not have rains or a pointless surfeit of runs. West Indies took the series one-love and there was no love lost between the sides. It was Brian Charles Lara's first test as captain, as Walsh sat out due to injury. The Prince of Trinidad's initial taste of captaincy was as sweet as his initial taste of batting in international cricket had been. 

Five years on, the teams arrived again at Barbados in 2002. The Indians were, for once, one-nil up in an away series after some tight bowling had given them victory as light faded on the last day of the second test at Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. If the Indians had been buoyed by the scoreline, it did not show. In an irony of sorts, bitter for Indians it need not be said, the Indians were bowled out for 102 in the first innings - the zero and two transposing places compared to the score they had been set to win five years ago, also in the third test of that series. Half-centuries from Laxman and Ganguly in the second innings did only enough to make the WIndies bat for a second time but Mervyn Dillon, who picked up eight wickets in the match, had sealed its fate a minute into it when he bowled Shiva Sundar Das for a first-ball duck. After a drawn fourth test, which went on forever as tests do in Antigua, during which Laxman and Dravid opened their wickets' account and Ridley Jacobs, Chanderpaul and Hooper scored hundreds for the West Indies in the only innings they batted, the Indians flopped again in the fifth test at Kingston, Jamaica. The test is remembered for an open-ended sentence that had sadly become a refrain about Indian batting line-ups which always looked majestic on paper and were often crumpled like paper on the field by half-decent bowling attacks: if only India had batted for fifteen minutes... (for then the skies opened up and it seems it rained for a couple of days after that in Jamaica).

The 2006 series, which was decided 1-0 in favour of India in the final test at Kingston by Dravid's fine twin half-centuries and Kumble's grit with bat and ball, did not feature a test in Barbados.

Tomorrow, the Indians would once again set foot on Barbados to bury the ghosts of the past and try to beat West Indies on a ground that had been their fortress for many years. Even in home conditions, every team has something that is its backyard, a ground that visiting teams are in awe of having been called there as if to be summarily thumped: Barbados is West Indies' version of Perth (Australia), Durban (South Africa), Headingley (England) or Wellington (New Zealand). The home team would know that and even though they are weak they would want to exploit any remnant of a historical advantage there is.

 However, the Indians will be inspired both by their number one status, as opposed to the West Indies team's lowly number 8 ranking, as well as the home team's recent record at the ground. Since drubbing India, the West Indians have won only two of their eight games at the ground, drawn one and, more importantly, have lost to the better sides - England, Australia and South Africa. Besides, their bowling attack can be sharp on its day but is not one that will make a batsman lose sleep: considering that Fidel Edwards, their only genuine quick bowler, is coming of an injury, the task for the Indian batsmen would be a lot easier. Gayle's absence will also continue to emasculate the hosts and keep the visitors interested.

However, the Indians cannot afford to be complacent. A senior statesman like Rahul Dravid who has been there and done that would know that Indian cricket has seen many false dawns and do well to impress that upon his younger colleagues. Admittedly, the Indian teams of the last three or four years have been enormously consistent, so the alarm is, if anything, a cautionary note at best. And with a cool but no-nonsense man like M. S. Dhoni leading the team, the tyros would know that they cannot take anything for granted. That is just as well because the next five days represents India's best chance to win their first test at Barbados.

Three years ago, a resurgent Indian team stormed Perth after Sydneygate had laid them low, yet again snapping a winning streak the Australians sought to extend.  Back then, they had a gladiatorial man like Anil Kumble who led by example. Going into tomorrow, the Indians would look to a gentleman who loves the struggle, an artiste who would love to showcase some of his silk to fans in the Caribean before he signs off for one last time from the islands Columbus touched and a stoical captain who will tell them "to of course just go and enjoy the game." But winning it is not beyond Team India either.

May 21, 2011

Warne's gone!

I did not watch the last ever competitive game that Shane Keith Warne played (as it appears at this stage, at least) given that the Rajasthan Royals versus Mumbai Indians game was scheduled for a 10:30 p.m. HKT start. The news of Royals' having won the match was therefore sweet. After enduring a mixed season, punctuated by comprehensible ebbs and fighting flows, the boys in sky blue gave their champion captain a fitting farewell by thrashing Mumbai by ten wickets, also in the process keeping Mumbai on tenterhooks over a semi-final berth which appeared a certainty not very long ago. Although nobody is foolish enough to delude themselves by likening IPL games with international contests, the irony that Warne had his last hurrah against fierce rival and close friend - and allegedly a bringer of nightmares to the former a decade and half ago - Tendulkar's side is not lost at least not on me.

As Robin Steen aptly writes in cricinfo, it is difficult to appraise the legacy of men like Warne; perhaps it is even an enviable task. What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the leg-spinner from Victoria? Is it the blonde hair, the seductive - and in a sense preying (pun intended) - eyes an admixture of the sorcerer's mystery,  his art's beauty and a gambler's deception and the loopy leg-break that stays long enough above the batsman's eye level to make him think he can hit it only to dip suddenly and  have him miss it, by half an inch short of a half-volley, and get bowled (ask Gatting) or edge it to Marks Taylor or Waugh, Heals or Gilly (ask any number of Englishmen, South Africans or Pakistanis)? Or is it the, even by his 'paunchy' standards, over-fat head-shorn shadow of his who always got thrashed around by Laxman and Tendulkar and company as if the runs he gave to the Indian batsmen were reparations for his on-field philandering elsewhere? Would Warne be remembered, as Ian Chappell once said, as the best captain to have never captained Australia or would he be recalled as a dark genius, who was always game for a game and who could inspire but who, by his own admission, was rather cavalier for Australian cricket's top job which is pregnant with historical esteem? Should we even get into his personal life and talk about his indiscretions as a husband or affections as a father or should we just be content and say "SKW was born to bowl leg-breaks like SRT was born to bat"? 

At the end of the day, it is, perhaps, a matter of perspective. Peter Roebuck once wrote something along the following lines: we urge and castigate our sportspersons fiercely because those moments when we are in their (virtual) company are the only ones when we are free of our own bondages, weaknesses and limitations. The adulation surrounding and the accusations levelled against the great Australian leg-spinner, too, can be read in the spirit of Roebuck's argument. Underlying every moralising take on Warne's personal life is arguably a standpoint which represents an immanent aspiration of perfection that could be elusive. Likewise aggrandising the man (or his brandname) - such as labelling the 1994 ball to Gatting as the ball of the century when an off-spinner's equivalent of the delivery from Muralidharan to Sadagopan Ramesh hardly received a murmur in the press - is a product of a cricketing culture that thrives  not only on intense competitiveness but also on immense, and at times unabashed, conceit.

What must, however, be remembered is that Warne, like the other great stars of his time, has merely been a magnet, if willingly so, that has attracted songs and snipes alike. What he did for the game cannot be, should not be and will not be forgotten. Alongside Muralidharan and Anil Kumble, Warne has overseen a couple of, arguably, the most extraordinary decades of spin bowling, the likes of which I may not witness before my sunset. Like Tendulkar, albeit to a lesser extent, Warne has been an icon, a face not only to be recognised but also remembered and the man who made things happen on the field and sold things off it: Warne was one of the first sign-ins the moment IPL germinated in Lalit Modi's mind. Like his pace bowling compatriot, and very often partner in crime Glenn McGrath, Warne is a ruthless, or at best nonchalant, sadist when confronted by a(n even slightly nervous) batsman (ask Athers and Daryl Cullinan). Like Wasim Akram he is an original, each man a giant in getting the ball to talk, tease, taunt and thrill! And like Brian Charles Lara, in my opinion the greatest lone match-winner of his time, he is a flawed genius, which makes his tale all the more interesting to read. Enough said, he will be missed. Farewell Warney. We do not know if you will be the richer for poker, but it will be the richer for you, while cricket will be the poorer.     

April 27, 2011

Another from the Dark Continent!

Gary Kirsten might have had the style of a standing duck, which even traumatised someone like Andy Zalzman, second in ugliness only to Shivnarine Chanderpaul's. But the bloke could play, mind you: a one-day internationals' average of close to forty-one and a test average of over forty-five, which could have been even better had he not played frequently in the bouncy and pacy decks in his country, puts the issue beyond doubt. Dogged in defence, fierce in determination, fuel-efficient with his cover-drive rather than flamboyant as left-handers generally are, Kirsten channelled his aggression through more attritional means than any apparent artistry of method. Perhaps - coincidence or not - Kirsten was the beginning of an end, at once a throwback to an earlier and darker era of civil struggle as his utter lack of extravagance - even while hitting sixes - suggested, and a vanguard of the new, competitive times, yes, with quotas in place, but only to ensure a level playing field for those who had been formerly disadvantaged. And I personally cannot forget the fact, although it irritated me then, that when world-class batsmen still struggled to play on turning wickets in India, Gary Kirsten succeeded and it was a tribute to his technique, as ungainly as it looked, and mental toughness.

No doubt, those qualities and that background served Kirsten admirably during his extremely successful tenure as the coach of the Indian cricket team, one of the more demanding jobs in the sports circuit, which ended with the World Cup triumph. As a coach, Kirsten could have hardly hoped for a better farewell. He had arrived after the abrasive Greg Chappell who had left rookies clueless, veterans hurt and the Indian team directionless. He departed being hoisted on the shoulders of one from the young Indian brigade - visibly awkward, being the quintessential worker satisfied with the intensity of the work behind the scenes - a moment as poignant as Tendulkar's holding the cup with his son and daughter by his side or a head-shorn Indian captain posing with it the next day. I have always maintained that coaches and captains are only as good as their teams. And yet, Kirsten was a name never forgotten during the post-World Cup celebrations. That probably spoke volumes about Kirsten, the man, model and mentor. It is time to thank him for what he's done to transform a bunch of aspiring cricketers, both young and really old, into World Champions. It is also time to wish him well.

The man who has been called up to replace Gary Kirsten is a former England coach, a man who like Kirsten also comes from Africa, Duncan Fletcher. The comparison must, however, end with the continent from which they hail. If Kirsten appeared to be a dressing room version of Mahindra Singh Dhoni, cool, calm and collected, Fletcher was always reported to be passionate, opinionated, sometimes controversial and in a word un-English. But the Zimbabwean had his moments. During his seven years in charge of the England team, Fletcher presided over many memorable moments, most notably the Ashes win in 2005, and some real nadirs, the lowest probably being the revenge whitewash meted out by McGrath and company to the visiting Englishmen in 2007 and yet-another-hardly-surprising early exit for England from a world cup during the same year. So, it is not like Fletcher is an unknown; he is neither new  to the ebbing and flowing fortunes of cricket and cricketers in our time nor to the task of coaching an international outfit. But coaching the Indian cricket team would in terms of the sheer magnitude of the assignment - especially now that the Indians are World Champions as well - be nothing like anything Fletcher might have encountered during his time with England. Even that sounds like an understatement. 

Michael Vaughan apparently tweeted about Fletcher's discomfiture when it comes to handling the media on hearing about his appointment as Indian coach. The classy Yorkshire right-hander is right on the mark because there are few more impossible propositions in the world than facing the Indian media. Strauss' article about what Duncan Fletcher did for England is insightful and speaks of Fletcher as a man who commands respect and is meticulous about details. Doubtless, those are excellent attributes to have as a coach. But Harsha Bhogle sounded a right note of caution about the well-known Indian obsession for track records (read "statistics"), cricket fans and administration being no exception to the norm: Kirsten had an international record to be proud of. John Wright had had a respectable international career to. Greg Chappell's status as a fine modern-day batsman, irrelevant his standing as a coach, can hardly be questioned either. Duncan Fletcher, however, has not played any test cricket and had a reasonable one-day career which was brief. Despite that background, BCCI's decision to choose Fletcher on coaching reputation alone seems both admirable and sensible, even if a little surprising. But only time will tell whether the decision will stand Indian cricket in good stead (and I refer to more than merely victory-defeat ratio by that).

Fletcher has been given a two-year contract which once again seems like a reasonable move, but will start only after the Indian tour of the West Indies. Ironically, the first international tour the new Indian coach will be part of will be the tour of England after the tour of the West Indies. Fletcher's experience in England may come in handy there. Later this year, the Indians also tour Australia and it may be the last time we see Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman bat together Downunder. With Australian cricket undergoing transition and the Indian team looking at one in a summer or two, this will be India's best chance of a test series win in Australia. Fletcher himself would know that well. But his real challenge would come, especially if his contract is renewed, when the three of the Fab Four start calling time one after another. Given that Fletcher helped England, skippered by a fiery Nasser Hussain, from the brink of disaster to Ashes glory, overseeing an "encore", in this case with the Indian team, should not be a problem, albeit the likes of Dravid, Laxman and Tendulkar are irreplaceable. Fletcher's biggest cushion would be a calm and successful captain without an ego who is going to be around for a while by the looks of it. That's always a nice thing and here's hoping Duncan Fletcher makes a good beginning for, with and in team India.

April 7, 2011

Beyond the Victory Lap!

Every generation has its "cockahoop" or "high-five" moment (or variants thereof). And as far as sport and cricket in India is concerned, Kapil's Devils' unexpected storming of the World Cup in 1983, which had hitherto been the undisputed and unclaimed fortress of the men from the Caribean, is what my mother's generation, and to a lesser extent my father's, will remember as the event that changed cricket and the perception of it in the India. Sachin Tendulkar was a ten-year old boy then; I was twenty-one months from being born; my home was only one of four houses in all of what is today called Madipakkam; my grandfather's house had an Uptron black-and-white television; Marina beach was still clean; my father was in Calcutta; and one-day cricket was, besides the once-in-four-years Prudential-hosted tournament, considered by many as a passing fad.

Fast forward a better part of twenty-eight years and our own generation's cricket moment has come with an entourage of moments that will remain indelible forever: if skipper Dhoni's bottom hand "deposition" over mid-wicket reminded us of the maverick who had specialised in finishing games with sixes before becoming captain, Tendulkar's being paraded on Yusuf Pathan's shoulders is something no Indian fan, let alone a Mumbaikar, will ever forget. Gautam Gambhir's dive during his over-my-dead-body innings of 97, which is as uncharacteristic as a Sehwag forward-defensive, that signified the importance and desperation fuelling India's most important one-day chase in years, Man of the Series Yuvraj Singh's deserving presence in the middle when the winning runs were "thrashed", the scenes at the Wankhede stadium and Ravi Shastri's ear-shattering screams, without which no Indian victory, however small, seems complete these days, will remain with us till sunset. Some may say that for a country with one billion people and A Sachin Tendulkar and one which is as mad about cricket as Europe is about soccer, if not more, twenty-eight years is a long wait. But now that the wait is over, it is time to sit and revel in a fine team effort.

A lot has been written about the role of Captain Cool and Coach Low-Profile in newspapers and websites in India's winning the World Cup. Almost every player, present or former, who has spoken about the victory has hailed Kirsten's role behind the scenes and Dhoni's role on it. The captain-coach duo deserves every bit of the laudation they have received. However, I have always been of the belief that a captain and coach is only as good as the team; to put it differently, a team may be skippered by a genius and coached by an astute person but it is the results on the field that will be feted or stigmatised and in that sense the Indian team as a whole stepped upto the plate.

Nowhere was the Indian resurgence more evident than in the form and intent of Yuvraj Singh who some said looked like he was pregnant during last year's IPL and who, to make matters worse, lost his place in the one-day clothes six months before the World Cup. To hit one of your lowest nadirs before a tournament of great importance and to emerge as the Man of the Series in the tournament, with four Man of the Match awards to boot, is the stuff of legend. Not for nothing therefore did coach Kirsten call Yuvraj's turnaround as one of the most amazing comebacks he's witnessed in the world of sport. And as one part of the world continued to bother and the rest wonder about when he would retire, Tendulkar reserved his two centuries for two of the better teams in the tournament in England and South Africa, besides setting up a sterling run chase versus Australia in the Quarter Finals and running up a fortune-assisted eighty-odd in the semi-final clash against Pakistan that took India into their second world cup finals in the last three attempts. Sehwag had earlier set the tone for the tourney in initimitable style with the blitzkireg 175 versus Bangladesh in what was labelled a revenge encounter for the 2007 sting and though he did not do much afterwards apart from presenting the world some astonishing cameos, Suresh Raina more than made up down the order when he got the chance towards the end of the tournament. Kohli too began the tournament with a hundred against Bangladesh and although he did not quite reach those heights again he reminded us throughout the tournament that he's a young man who will decorate the Indian middle order for some years to come. The signs for Indian cricket, at least in the shorter formats, remains bright. 

In the bowling department, it was interesting to hear bowling coach Eric Simmon's refer to Munaf Patel as an "unsung hero". Often has the medim pacer's temperament been questioned in the past, including by this author, but Patel came up with a steady performance that should not be glossed over in the final analysis. Ashish Nehra, though plagued by injuries, delivered his bit to the team whenever he played while Ravichandran Ashwin showed why he is Dhoni's talisman by bowling both economically and successfully whenever his captain asked him to open the bowling. All said, Harbhajan Singh was a disappointment for me although he looked to be coming into his own during the knock-out stages of the tournament. People have said a lot about Sreesanth - some unfortunately going to the extent of getting personal in ways that do not go well as far as I am concerned - and the Kerala pacer would know that he did not do much in the couple of games he got. I personally believe that Sreesanth is more of a test-type bowler, especially suited for conditions where the ball swings a touch. The game-breaker, though, for me  (except during the finals where Jayawardena's enviable artistry and Perera's calculated rush undid his unbelievable first spell which comprised five overs which seemed McGrathian and three maidens for a farthing!) was Zaheer Khan. If the ball that bowled Michael Hussey in the Quarter Finals was one of the balls of the tournament, the Yorker to dismiss Strauss on 158 arguably tops the list. Although a lot more expensive than the tournament's other leading wicket-taker, Shahid Afridi, Khan struck almost always when Dhoni brought him back before the ball change.

I did not see enough of the matches to assess the ground fielding but everyone seems to be of the consensus, especially now that the Indians have won the cup, that after sleepwalking through the league games, the boys really turned the screws in the knockout stage. Far too often in the past, the Indians have peaked too early going into tournaments and run out off steam at the half-way stage. But during this World Cup, it seemed like everything including their worst suit, the ground fielding, was 'destined' to peak at the right time. It was heartening to see Yuvraj Singh remind the younger turks Raina and Kohli as to how good he can be on the field and why he had made backward point his own position for many years. The inspiring yards, however, came from the older legs like Tendulkar and Zaheer Khan who also threw themselves with childlike joy and commitment to stop whatever runs they could, something that might have been invaluable during the final three games of the tournament.

Just before the start of 2010 the Indians received the number 1 test ranking and it seemed like they had hoodwinked the Proteas with the unsought help of nonsensical ranking technicalia in getting there. But there can be no such grudges with regard to the Indians winning the World Cup. As a skipper, Dhoni, as Venk aptly said, seems to have the Midas' touch: aside from having the T20 World Cup trophy and World Cup trophy in his cabinet, he has led the number 1 ranked team in the world well for over a year. No wonder, he now says he would love to repeat what he has accomplished. I generally refuse to get drawn into the debate of "best versus others" but I acknowledge the fact that Dhoni is amongst the best skippers we have had. His record vouches for that and as with most things in life Dhoni's ways are grounded in two simple traits (though to have them in the heat of battle makes him commendable): calm decision-making and backing his instincts even if he knows that the world (which the Indian media and spectators sometime appear like) will go hell for leather if he fails.

However - and I admit this also has to do with my being a nostalgia freak - some past greats cannot be forgotten during this glorious hour even though they were not part of this outfit. A decade ago when the match-fixing allegations rocked the cricket world and the Indian team needed an inspirational leader, it was Sourav Ganguly's mercurial personality and captaincy that gave the Indians a new attitude. While standing at Indian cricket's greatest summit, though some may dislike the superlative, we cannot forget Dada's contribution. Another great who never came close to winning a World Cup, and in my opinion the greatest cricketer India has produced, but whose commitment to the team cause, prodigious ability to bear pain and sincerity amid trials is second to none deserves a mention too: this World Cup is as much a gift to Anil Radhakrishna Kumble as it is to Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar. They shelved Rahul Dravid from the one-day plans long ago and despite emotional biases I must say he may not have contributed much to this team: but as a man who kept wickets under Ganguly's captaincy for close to four years, all for the sake of team balance, exemplifying the ultimate spirit of being a team man and who for all the slings he has received averages close to forty in one-day cricket, I missed Rahul. Laxman's case is worse; in a fast man's game, Laxman's swiftness, or lack thereof, has meant that the Hyderabadi's incredible on-drives and silken cover-drives have not been seen in the one-day game for a long time. This World Cup is an ode, though, for the Bangalore-Hyderabad duo too as well as others who have given their best for Indian cricket in whichever form.

And why not?! When I, an Indian fan who has not held a bat for six years now, get a beer at 3 a.m. and celebrate the Indian victory with my German roommate whose only route to understanding cricket is through its likeness to baseball, feeling as if I have won something, every Indian who has done the hard yards on the field only to never end up where Dhoni and his men deservedly can deserve to feel proud about what they did wearing the Indian blues at some point in time in their lives.

And now that the cup is won, my favourite part of the cricket calendar awaits: no, NOT the IPL, but beyond: tours to the West Indies, England and Australia! I don't think India has toured any two of those countries during the same year in the twenty-six years I have been alive. It will be fun, and the Indians will be touted to win the tests and one-day series in these countries. Unless they play very poorly, they will probably meet those expectations. After all, they are now the WORLD CHAMPS!