March 28, 2011

Scrappers, not LOSERS!

Daniel Vettori, bespectacled, more studious in appearance than sporting, seems like the sort of man and captain who has his heart in the right place. And it did not therefore seem like an exaggeration when he said, after the attrition-filled Quarter Finals victory over the Proteas, that a sixth semi-final berth at the cricket World Cup was an "amazing achievement" for a small country like New Zealand. You weigh those words in the context of where New Zealand cricket seemed to be headed a few months before the World Cup and they seem to acquire even more significance. And yet, New Zealand's being in the final four of the 2011 World Cup would surprise few who have followed the Black Caps' cricket with anything more than cursory attention. In a sport played by teams that usually boast two or three very good names, if not great ones, on whose reputations alone games sometimes sway, the Kiwis have always represented a study in the theorem "a team is more than a sum of its parts." How else can one vindicate the almost invisible consistency New Zealand, a team of batsmen who seem to bat to kill boredom and bowlers who (with the notable exceptions of Shane Bond, Sir Richard Hadlee and Chris Cairns in his prime) have at best bowled at medium pace, has maintained in major ICC tournaments?

My earliest memory of the New Zealand cricket team goes back to a pre-dawn telecast in Chennai of a cricket match between a team in yellow flannels (Australia, of course) and another in bright grey way back in 1992. On the day, the captain of the team dressed in grey, which I later learned was New Zealand, Martin Crowe, smashed a ton, giving Kiwis a victory over Australia in the inaugural contest of the Benson and Hedges World Cup. I recall that New Zealand were incredibly consistent during the league stages and played some thrilling and innovative cricket, with Mark Greatbatch heralding pinch-hitting in the first fifteen overs (before Sanath Jayasurya and Kaluwithara poached the badge in the 1996 World Cup!) and Dipak Patel opening the bowling consistently, the very first example of an international outfit starting with spin in one-day cricket on a consistent basis. New Zealand would bow out in their semi-finals clash against the eventual champions Pakistan but they had done much better than co-hosts Australia in the only World Cup to have been played in the region so far. That was the beginning of something remarkable from a team which has fielded men with normal skill but extraordinary well.

Almost two decades have gone by since the last World Cup Downunder and if anything New Zealand's share of match winners has only dwindled during the time. For a long time, the likes of Chris Cairns and Nathan Astle could lock horns with the best in terms of all-round abilities and batting respectively and come out on top. With a steady-minded, but not flashy, captain in Stephen Fleming and sparkling, but never consistent, performers like Craig McMillan and fill-in men like Chris Harris, Gavin Larson and Dion Nash, New Zealand still kept their place in world cricket there or thereabouts. Although one should not be too unfair to the names above, none of them, it seems fair to say, elicited the awe of a Tendulkar, the raptures a Brian Lara left, the stupefaction a Shane Warne commanded, the thrill an Alan Donald delivery triggered or the feeling of disbelief a Gilchrist innings left as residue among spectators and opposition alike.

Given that background, it is all the more creditable that the New Zealand team has hardly been trounced abroad (until recently), has been more than steady at home (once again until lately) with its persistent swing bowlers doing the job and has won a Champions Trophy. In fact, tomorrow's clash against Sri Lanka will be the Kiwis' fourth in a row at the World Cup after 1999, 2003 and 2007. No team other than the decade's best team, Australia, has even come close. You can have all the money in the world to get the best support staff and equipment for analysis (read 'India'); you can have the finest talent bursting at the seams on paper (read 'India', 'Sri Lanka', 'South Africa' and bowling talent in 'Pakistan'). But the great beauty of sport lies in its sleepy disinterestedness in history, records and the like and its knack of evening competitors on the day. It it in this connection that the Kiwi endurance in cricket tells its own unique story; not too attractive, but quite inspiring. 

Even as I was trying to find out how many World Cup semi-finals the Kiwis have reached before, I was surprised to find out that the one they play against South Africa tomorrow will be their fourth in a row. But even with New Zealand's blue-collared approach to the game, the slipping of some of their fine performances under the radar says a lot about the powerhouses of cricket (and their parochial aggrandisement of achievements by their players matched only by their humungous blind eye towards others' achievements) and how New Zealand has, like a wicket keeper who does his job so efficiently that he does not even seem to be physically present on the field, gone about its cricket with focus and without fanfare. Nowhere was New Zealand's taciturn efficiency more visible than their Quarter Final win over South Africa recently. If the Proteas' mid-innings pandemonium that eventually led to their loss was a typical South Africa reminding them of their psychologically brittle days, the Kiwis' resilience to shut the door and turn the key was also typical New Zealand - scrapping but stubborn. The signs had been there even when Jesse Ryder and Ross Taylor, both men of belligerent ways, settled on more workmanlike ways of run scoring. In the end, the two batsmen's vigil counted in the final analysis as much as Oram's brilliance with the ball and Nathan McCullum's on the field. 

The New Zealand cricket team, which has never been large on ego, had stooped when it had to and conquerred the occasion when the opportunity presented itself. Here was a team that journalists targeted for having a soft underbelly, people teased and tauinted randomly on FB and twitter and the world at large seemed to have forgotten as a prospect worth reckoning in the World Cup. Here was a team that lost 4-0 to Bangladesh and followed it up with a 5-0 mauling at the hands of India in games that were intended to be prelude to the World Cup. Here is the only non-Asian team that has qualified to the pre-summit clash of the 2011 World Cup!

There was a muttering in some circles following the 5-0 defeat in India that the Kiwis did not bat long enough and John Wright, a man who knows more about "long batting" than most was appointed the national coach; Allan Donald took on the reins of the bowling which was never going to be Goliath slayers but which could with some aggression, in the words of White Lightning himself, go a long way. And the change in personnel seems to have worked like a charm. It needs to be kept in mind that a team's skipper and support staff are only as good as the on-field outputs and not efforts: but that is modern sport and harshness is its other name. Irrespective of what happens tomorrow, the Black Caps will be a happy lot.

The Kiwi vice-Captain Ross Taylor strongly believes that his team can reach the finals. Sri Lanka, with a ten wicket thumping of England under their belt and the chafing home conditions at the backdrop, may represent an altogether different proposition vis-a-vis South Africa with a known disposition to crumble under pressure. But the Kiwis will go into the match knowing that they have nothing to lose. Oftentimes, those without fear of defeat are like killers on the run: they can rubbish the odds, mutter a profanity and do something that defies credulity. Much of New Zealand cricket has been about de(i)fying commonsense and if it takes them all the way, few can grudge them the achievement.

March 25, 2011


If you have quietly excursed around the twitter timelines, Facebook walls and blogs of Indian friends who are cricket fans over the last sixteen hours or so, you would have probably thought that the Indians have won the World Cup. And you would be excused for thinking so. And so would the updates and updaters for elevating a quarter final victory over Australia to stratospheric heights. The ecstatic reaction to the gritty and successful Indian chase at Ahmedabad, which resulted in Australia being knocked out before the semi-finals of a World Cup for the first time in nineteen years, shows how much a Quarter Final victory at the World Cup means to Indian fans, especially given that it came against India’s fiercest rivals during the previous decade.

But there is another interpretation to the reaction too which should not be slid under the carpet: it gives the world yet another chance to appreciate and take stock of what the Australian teams of the previous decade has achieved. That Ricky Ponting, who we Indians love to hate not in the least because he seemed for a while to be the only batsman who could match (if not better) Tendulkar’s batting records, was at the forefront of his team’s (losing) battle, would have come as no surprise save for Ponting’s most unabashed detractors and/or those with a very short sporting memory. This post is specifically intended for the latter faction.

When Australia last lost a World Cup game, also against Pakistan (before the one they lost last week), I had just completed feel-struggling my way through my second teen-year. What remained of my teenage saw no Australian defeat at a World Cup match; and during the first half of my third decade in the world, the pattern would remain as obdurate as my Mathematics scores (which never once crossed six percent). The worst or best thing about the Australian dominance, depending in your vantage point, was the Australians never looked like dropping a game after THE tie in the semi-finals and Gibbs’ dropped catch of Steve Waugh took the men in yellow to the finals of the 1999 World Cup. The final was a one-sided affair with Shane Warne flummoxing the Pakistani batting order which had stalwarts like Ijaz Ahmed, Saeed Anwar and Inzamam Ul Haq into submission. The two other major Asian teams would suffer similar fates in the summit clashes of the 2003 and 2007 World Cups: if the 1999 World Cup final was about giving one of Australia’s toughest cricketers and fairest captains, Steve Waugh, a fitting farewell, the 2003 final at the Bullring was about Ponting hitting the crescendo on the perfect occasion against India and the 2007 final about Adam Gilchrist “feigning” form to only stun the Sri Lankans in the final at Barbados with a hundred out of nowhere.

The one-sidedness of the last three World Cup finals shows a lot about the Australian attitude to the game which we know has, until lately, been manifested in the way they play, also yielding phenomenal results. Not for the Australians the jerks of added pressure in knockout games because when someone failed there was always someone else to step up to the plate; but not for them either the letting up during ‘less’ important games, for no game was more or less important to the Australians: we want to win every game was the mantra and it worked like a cure. Yes, the Australians sledged merrily (leading the world in gamesmanship as well); yes, McGrath often roughed up the opposition’s best batsman even before a contest began; yes Gilchrist walked and others didn’t; yes it is unfair that Shane Warne took up leg spin than become a sorcerer; and yes many teams never realised – and if they did, there was little evidence of it – that the best way to ‘down’ Australia was by playing the ball and not the reputation of the players they had. But to simply attribute Australia’s remarkable, nay perfect, success rate in the World Cups to any/all of the aforementioned reasons or to an extended love affair with Fortune is to miss the point.

The truth is between 2000 and 2008, the Australian cricket team fielded some of the fiercest competitors that have turned out in the game even by Australia’s own high standards. That in turn is thanks to a tough domestic cricket setup which meant that cricketers were battle-hardened even before they wore the yellows, something Allan Border and company envisaged late in the 1980s when Australian cricket was at one of its lowest ebbs. The truth is the Australians made no bones about their love for winning, shared it as a collective vision, were led by a man who breathed meanness in order to remain fixated about his team’s goals and went ahead and played hard cricket. Result: 34 WORLD CUP games without a loss, with one no-result in between. We dance in the Isles if India beat New Zealand 5-0 in a One-day series!

I am not even sure how one can put an unbeaten streak of 34 matches in a game’s biggest tournament into perspective. But let me try. A tennis player who wins four grand slams within the space of two or three seasons may come to achieving something which in its magnitude is similar to what the Australian team achieved. Maybe, it is akin to a senior golf pro winning three or four of the biggest circuits on the trot. As far as team sport goes, however, what the Australians have done is beyond compare. For starters, the last three World Cups have been played in vastly different conditions. Besides, as the previous decade wore on, the seniors in the core group – the Haydens, Gilchrists and McGraths – were becoming only older. Add quirks such as Shane Warne missing the 2003 World Cup after testing positive for a banned drug on the eve of the tournament and we will understand that the Australian dominance, despite the number of match winners the Kangaroos have had in their ranks, has never been about one man (like it is in India with Sachin Tendulkar!) or a few men. Whether or not a 34-match unbeaten run is replicated time will tell; but being bloody-minded as a team and enjoying teammates’ successes as one’s own is something every team and every individual playing in a team sport can learn from the Australians.

Now that the tiring succession of Australian triumphs is over, we can look to more ‘open’ cricket matches and more unpredictability in the game. But while we do that, we need to understand that the various Australian teams post-1999 have left cricket with a proud piece of cricketing history that is not likely to be expunged in team sport, least of all cricket, in the foreseeable future. If it is obliterated and I am alive when that happens, I will surely write about it from (and in) some corner of the world.

For now, though, I hope the Indians can fend off the Pakistan challenge in the semi-finals at Mohali. One can never tout Pakistanis to win or lose any game. However, it would be fair to say that they have been the best team on view in the tournament besides South Africa. If the contest is anywhere near as exciting as the league game in the 2003 World Cup, where Tendulkar went berserk and decided the issue before his innings was cut short by the combine of cramps and Shoaib Akhtar, the fans will have been treated to some cracking cricket. And just for the record (with the uninitiated, of whom there may not be many, in mind) India has yet to lose a World Cup game against Pakistan. MSD & company would hope that India’s own little unbeaten run (against their neighbours) continues at least for one more game.

March 21, 2011

One, possibly two humdingers!

After thirty days of cricket, the league stage is finally done and dusted. The eight teams that have gone through to the quarter finals are, admittedly, those anyone would have predicted to go through a month ago. But the results have not been all that straightforward especially in Group B where there were at least three quarter-finals spots up for grabs, waiting to be decided till the very end.

This edition of the World Cup, as many have said, has already exceeded expectations and in the light of the charade that was the tournament in 2007 it already appears like the beacon needed to show one-day cricket in bright lights again. Aside from the delays in venues being prepared for games and the confusion over tickets, the cricket on the field has been of fine quality. If anything, the absence of an associate team and co-hosts Bangladesh in the quarter-finals is probably the only disappointment from a neutral fan’s point of view, but then the team that would have had to make way would have been terribly disappointed had one of the associates qualified.

As things stand, the matches have been exciting: the associate teams, barring Kenya, have punched above their weights at least in some stages during the tournament and England has displayed both tremendous grit and tremulous choke which has meant that they have been the team to beat and to have been beaten unexpectedly in the tournament. Throw in a tie and five other close finishes, Strauss’ men have thoroughly entertained spectators – now beat that! Not to forget, the Australians were finally beaten in a World Cup game, albeit one of not great relevance, after a staggering unbeaten streak that lasted close to twelve years, spanned four World Cups across four continents and thirty-five matches.

Sport is cruel and team sport is further subject to the pride, pathos and ficklenesses of the individuals who compose it. That puts the Australian domination of cricket into perspective even more. The Kangaroos need to be saluted and applauded for the standards they set and overhauled during the previous decade with the sort of consistency hitherto unseen in sporting history. Time then to remember messieurs Gilchrist, Hayden, McGrath, Warne and the Waugh twins among others. Time, it is too, for the Indian fans to acknowledge that though the Indian team may be taking on a much weaker Australian team on paper, they need to compete for a better part of 100 overs to beat the boys in yellow. That brings me to the subject of the post.

The Indians have one, possibly two, enthralling contests on the anvil: if the Indian team beats Australia and Pakistan beats West Indies in the first two quarter finals, one can expect all of cricketing India, which is a substantial part of the sub-continent, to be enraptured by the sheer occasion the games warrant. A couple of time zones away, I can already feel the thump and buzz of expectation in my nerves. However, the Indian team as well as the multitudinous fans around the world rooting for them would do well not to get too much ahead of themselves.
Going into the knock-out stages, however, the men in blue seem to have betrayed more chinks than strengths: while amazing Tendulkar, blitzkrieg Sehwag, composed Gambhir, in-form Kohli and a more mature Yuvraj have all worked all right, they are not working well in unison. (No team knows better than India does about how a world of talent on paper may still come to a farthing on the field; the Kiwis on the other hand have hardly ever had world-beaters but have always finished there or thereabouts in the major tournaments. There are lessons to be learned from contrasts about the virtues of working together). The implosion after Tendulkar’s fall in the game against South Africa meant that the Proteas went into the break with the momentum behind them which fuelled their chase of 297. Against the West Indies, Yuvraj’s ton was followed by a similar, even if slightly more subdued, collapse and had it not been for Zaheer’s crucial spell in the middle overs, India might well have finished third, not second, in the group standings.

That brings me to the man I consider to be (and to have been) India’s key performer in the tournament: Zaheer Khan. From the fiasco first over in the 2003 World Cup finals, better known as Ponting's day out against Harbhajan Singh & Co (I am kidding!), Zaheer has come a long way and has led the bowling attack in this World Cup with skill but more importantly meanness and aggression, showing that he can be up there with the best when fully fit. With fifteen wickets in six games, and three on four of those occasions, and a reasonable economy rate in superb batting conditions to boot, Zak has clearly brought his full range and experience in the sub-continent to the fore so far. Sadly, though, his colleagues have been either one-dimensional (read “Harbhajan Singh” who clearly needs to find a way to get wickets) or profligate (read “Ashish Nehra”) if not both (read “Piyush Chawla” or “Sreesanth”). India’s best chances of going to the finals rest behind how well the non-Tendulkars and non-Yuvrajs finish innings the Yuvrajs and Tendulkars set up as well as the kind of wicket-taking and/or containing assistance Khan gets from the other bowlers.

One thing though is certain: the format of the tournament means there will be no comebacks. The team that seizes the day will progress and the other will have to wait for four more years when the tournament returns downunder for the first time in twenty-three years. For now, the next seven games are probably the end of the cricketing world for every cricket fan. I would love to see India and England in the finals. Something tells me, however, that come April 2nd South Africa will be one end of the summit clash at Bombay. Smith’s men deserve to show the world that the five-lettered monosyllabic word has been used against them far too often and a little too unfairly.

March 7, 2011

On the 'Associate' Question!

Everyone who has ever believed in the continued quest to save the one-day game would be elated at the two and half weeks of cricket that they have seen in this World Cup. Fittingly, after close to a decade of Kangaroo dominance, which angered some, bored others and made some marvel at the staggering consistency of the Australians (they are yet to lose a World Cup game since early 1999 as we speak!), this World Cup is the most open one we have had in a very long time; experts, former players and current cricketers echo and jive in with similar sentiments too. Obviously, Group B with England heralding close finishes looks far more difficult to call than Group A where one can be certain that Australia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka will go through. But cutting across the group divide, what one can see clearly is what the associate teams, called uncharitably it seems in hindsight as minnows, have brought to the table.

Naturally, the opinions of those that matter have been divided on the subject of associates. Ricky Ponting is of the opinion that getting hammered is not going to help the non-test playing nations in developing their cricket. At the other end of the spectrum we have had someone like Graeme Swann indicating how it is a great platform for the second string teams to come and show what they are capable of. Opinion from former players does not seem to be unanimous either with some believing that associates ought to be around in World Cups and with greats such as Ian Chappell (agreeing for once, surprise, surprise!) being of the opinion that bringing in the associates allows for too much mediocrity in exchange for one surprise game.

It is in this context that the balanced views of cricinfo editor Sambit Bal drives home a crucial point when he says that a method should be worked out that empowers the associates to give their best shot so that the World in the World Cup can be retained. Bal adds that in terms of format, the 2007 World Cup played in the Caribean with four pools of six teams competing for eight spots in the next round, which is where the serious action begins, the best. Unfortunately - not for the game per se but for its commercial overlords and those dependent on them - the tournament turned out to be a financial fiasco because of India's and Pakistan's exits in the first round, triggered by Bangladesh and Ireland respectively. The argument that such shocks themselves justified the presence of associates, however, turned out to be too premature as neither Ireland nor Bangladesh impressed in the Super Eights. Yet thereby hangs a tale.

The performance of the associates in this World Cup, which in its format is a return to the more traditionalist  pattern comprising a round of eight, a round of four and a final, has been consistent and strong, barring, perhaps, Kenya, which is ironic because Kenya was one of the most impressive teams in the associate circuit some years ago and even made it to the semi-finals of the 2003 World Cup. Kenya's return to painful anonymity cannot be blamed entirely on the lack of competitive cricket for them but that would definitely have had a role to play. Which is why the ICC cannot afford to carry the same sort of ignorance with the other associates especially if the game's governing body thinks of the spread of the game as more than glib adjectives spewed out in plush conference rooms at meetings in Dubai, London and Bombay. Which is why I feel the associates despite being competitors have fortuitously but fortunately come together in sending a strong message towards the ICC think-tank.

Even if we discount Kevin O' Brien's once-in-a-lifetime assault on the English bowlers at Bangalore which gave the Irish a victory that would rank alongside the one they had against Pakistan in 2007 at the heels of Bob Woolmer's death, the Irish have given a great account of themselves, have played with pride even if not panache and bowled and fielded reasonably well. Scoreboards are not always the best indicators of non-batting achievements in the sub-continent anyway. The Dutchmen led by 'Ton' Doeschate had a good game against England as well and scoring 290-odd against a bowling attack that has two of the five best seam bowlers in the world is no mean achievement, good pitch or not. And had it not been for Shahid Afridi's incredibly resurrected bowling in this world cup, which even flummoxed the Sri Lankans, Canada might have, and still should have, pulled the rug from under the Pakistanis' feet. However, they, like Ireland in the game against India, bowled with a lot of heart, a point that should not be missed in the final analysis.

Far too many times, victories and defeats are used as all-or-nothing yardsticks based on which verdicts can be passed. This is especially the case in (team) sport where the gap between the winner and loser is exaggerated by emotional drainage and the bloated media glare. It is surprising sometimes that even the most seasoned experts can fall into the trap of blind result-orientation (although admittedly Ian Chappell's article predates the stellar performances put in by the associates). However, triumphs and tribulations alone cannot be fair or sufficient indicators of an upcoming team's performance. To say that Ireland are better than England because they chased 338 down is absurd; and yet if Ireland had lost, even if closely, the game would have been remembered for a brief while by its participants and the crowd before being consigned to manila envelopes where it would have gone down alongside other one-sided games vindicating the Establishment position to keep the associates out. The gap between wins and losses may be narrow on the field but a world too big to be bridged by commonsense in the human mind, which is why I think the Irish did a great thing by crossing the gap, thereby sending a strong message to the ICC for themselves and the other associate teams in this World Cup.

My take on the matter is simple: if the game puts commercial interests first and foremost, then one can merely have India at the centre and invite other teams just for fun. If that sounds condescending, then not giving the associate countries the one window where they can show their talents is downright insulting for these countries, cricketing fans there and kids who love and wish to pick up the game. If the ICC does not want to dilute the standard at its showcase tournament, it is a decision in good spirit probably arrived at with sound reason. But in that case, all the test playing nations should be compulsorily asked to tour some of the more important associate countries every year, not just for coaching clinics, but for proper cricket matches. There is no point saying the FTP does not allow it; when it can allow (or at least compromise), for the health of the game's belly, a commercial monster like the IPL which goes on forever, it should allow, at least as some sort of atonement, a few weeks of serious cricketing activity for the associate teams. 

I read an inspiring post written by cricinfo's Sidharth Monga just before Ireland's first game in the World Cup about how the Irish cricket team comprises men who converge from different, often routine and humble walks of life for these six weeks to have the fun of their lives. Players from Canada, Netherlands and elsewhere could well be similar, for I do not see a country without a full-fledged cricket pipeline keeping its players employed in the game round the year. The ICC need not dole out lifetime packages for them; the least it can do is give them a chance. Come 2023, one of these teams will perhaps lift the World Cup. Two of them could play the semi-finals in the foresseable future especially if Bangladesh's improved form at home and Ireland's fine displays are anything to go by. And even if none of that happens, the naked joy of seeing men play cricket as a sport and remind us all that it is just a game in this era of crass professionalisation of sport, give it their best and walk out heads held high and a smile in their lips is worth ten World Cups.