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.     

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