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.