May 16, 2012

"Switching" off the leg stump in LBW's

In light of the 'switch hit', it has been proposed to emend the existing LBW rule. Presently, a batsman hit on the leg in front of the stumps cannot be given out when he has switched stance if the ball has pitched outside what is presently his present off-stump: the reasoning is that his off-stump would have been his leg stump under "normal" circumstances. The proposed emendation would ensure that a batsman playing a switch hit can be given out LBW if the ball pitches outside his present off-stump and hits him in line, thus merging switched chance and regular stance for the purpose of LBW decisions: simply, a right-hander playing a switch hit would be treated like a left-hander. As always, Harsha Bhogle makes a perspicuous and eloquent case for why this change in rule is to be welcomed. As for me, the proposed change gives me an opportunity to have a re-look at the LBW rule in general.

In plain prose the rule goes like: a batsman shall be ruled out Leg Before Wicket if (and only) if the ball hits his leg in front of the stops, and it is deemed that the ball in its trajectory will hit the stumps, and that it has not pitched outside the batsman's leg stump (here after "the leg stump clause"). The leg stump clause of the rule has always baffled me. Firstly, if the term Leg Before Wicket (and by wicket is meant the stumps) is to be taken at face value why the region where the ball pitches is relevant as long as it hits the batsman in front of the stumps is unclear to me. Secondly this makes life difficult for leg spin and right-arm quick bowlers bowling round the wicket to right-handed batsmen, and left-arm Chinaman and left-arm quick bowlers bowling round the wicket to left-handed batsmen*: given that the stock delivery of these bowlers has the tendency to pitch outside mentioned batsmen's leg stump from the suggested angle, it is impossible, as Shastri and Wasim Akram do not tire of saying, for them to get an LBW decision . The leg stump clause seems, therefore, to be an unnecessary and unfair complication to an otherwise neat rule.

While I am not aware of the context in which the existing LBW rule came to be accepted it is not difficult to hazard a guess. Cricket is a game where a bowler has, theoretically at least, the chance to get a wicket off all deliveries, but a batsman has only one chance. Besides, the game was for a very long time played only in Australia and England where the uncovered pitches arguably gave the bowlers, particularly the quicker men, an unfair advantage against the batsmen. The "leg stump" clause in the LBW rule might have been one of those incentives given to batsmen  to introduce some sense of balance between what is essentially a contest between bat and ball. In the present times, however, we have a situation where the game is tipped too much in favour of the batsmen what with the increasingly flatter pitches, smaller grounds, chunkier bats, Sehwags-and-Haydens and shorter boundaries around the world. And that is an important reason, though not the only one, to reconsider the LBW rule in its present shape.

I would personally like to see the "leg stump" clause removed, even if only as a fan, because it would make the game a lot more fun. For starters, this would deter "negative tactics" from both batting and bowling teams: while batsmen would think twice before kicking balls pitching outside their leg stump, bowlers will be encouraged to use the leg stump line as an attacking option. That is not a bad thing at all particularly considering the fact that the the third and fourth days of Test matches are often highly boring attrition affairs in places like the Indian sub-continent and the West Indies. Removal of the clause would also make LBW verdicts easier for (and on) the umpires, reducing the percentage of marginal decisions to some extent, and thereby, hopefully, reducing player dissent to such decisions as well. I may be a bit too naive but I would like to think that simpler rules would lead to better understanding and co-operation among the parties involved in cricket matches. In an era where grandstanding and gamesmanship have become the face of the Gentleman's Game, anything that clarifies - and redefines - limits and relationships within it is worth a try.

*The claim also applies to left-arm quick bowlers and orthodox spinners bowling over the wicket to right-handed batsmen, and right-arm quick bowlers and leg spinners bowling over the wicket to left-handed batsmen. 

May 4, 2012

Strokes in Plain Prose: Shivanarine Chanderpaul

Popularity and wisdom in cricket are not necessarily contradiction in terms. And Shivanarine Chanderpaul has seldom received rousing support from either. Among the Guyana left-hander's more watchable strokes, his straight push and leg glance evoke tolerant acceptance rather than awe; his defence is solid, but you would be told "Chanderpaul solid", a slight unkindness implicit in the accent, by the game's geeks. The West Indian has not only defied textbooks, like he has bowlers, throughout his career but he has also irritated them beyond measure. For a game that celebrates its southpaws for style, Chanderpaul seems the very antithesis of the term unless it is redefined; so much so that I know some who will pay not to watch Chanderpaul bat, or watch Graeme Smith instead. Chanderpaul's batting has not the voice of Gower's fabled stroke play on the off-side, or a Brian Charles Lara's sense of occasion. But he has always had steel -  tons of it seems -, and now has ten thousand Test runs. That Steve Waugh, Lara, Ponting, Tendulkar, Dravid, Kallis and Jayawardene have made the landmark a bit of a parade target misses the point. 10000  runs in the game's long format remains a significant milestone for anyone. For someone who has been defined by what he does not have rather than what he does all his life it is just something else. Ask Anil Kumble.

My first memory of Chanderpaul is from the 1996 series between India and West Indies, a rare five-Test rubber - if ever there was one - in which cricket would have died (to borrow an expression from Andy Zaltzman) had it not been for the second innings brilliance from Curtley Ambrose & Company on a farmland of a pitch at Kensington Oval, Barbados. In the first innings of that Test  Chanderpaul ground himself, the bowlers, the elements and everything else, with the stubbornness of a habit and the stickiness of guilt, en route to a debut hundred which would turn out match- and series-winning. Forward a decade and half, he was again the scrapper-in-charge against an Indian team that wanted more than the 1-0 win at home they eventually secured after the drubbing at the hands of England, though Darren Bravo's Lara-invoking stroke play and aggregate runs grabbed the headlines. Over the years the one thing that has remained constant about Chanderpaul besides his clean-shaven boyish visage is the impossible willingness - or willfulness - to survive, scrap, switch off, leave, take a single, scrap, start again and survive until hell, or at least the expression of the opposition bowlers, freezes over. It was ironic, but sadly befitting, that Chanderpaul's 10000th Test run came against a resurgent Australian team in a cause that might have been won but was all too easily lost in moments of mindless batting by the other batsmen in the top order.

For all his mind-numbing staidness at the crease, however, Chanderpaul has been more just than a shield: to call him a resolute stone-waller, therefore, is to do him considerable injustice. As Rob Steen eloquently reminds us, the left-hander once tonked a jolly good 100 off 69 balls against an Australian attack that had Brett Lee, Jason Gillespie and Stuart McGill after Lara's fall which left West Indies 53-5. Nor has Chanderpaul been anything less than good in one-day cricket as evidenced by his 41+ average in the format. Twelve years ago on a January day, he even topped 150 against South Africa in East London in a game that West Indies won despite Shaun Pollock's six-for. Be that as it may, it seems Chanderpaul will eventually be judged as an anchor without whom the West Indian batting might have capsized even more frequently than they have since Lara's retirement. It is probably fair as well because Chanderpaul is cast in the mould of a leader of cussed but considerate footmen rather than a follower of flamboyant cavaliers.

The decade that has gone by has seen changes in the way cricket is played, run and administered. Players who have been part of the game have also redefined it in crucial ways. Adam Gilchrist was at once the prototype and the epitome of a wicketkeeping all-rounder while Virendra Sehwag has ensured that "give the first two hours to the bowlers" is an age-old platitude on opening batting meant for conservative souls. (Geoffrey Boycott might balk at that and M.S. Dhoni could issue a rejoinder that unsurprisingly starts with Yes, of course). By and by, Chanderpaul has taken the road less travelled and forced at least some of us to rethink the significance of terms  such as "technique" and "stance" by paring batting down to its fundamentals: not getting out, and making runs. He has shown how will-wielders can be unique. He has shown that cricket does not care even if fans and pundits might. Above all else, he has shown that one's longevity at the top is determined as much through resilience as through talents.

Along the way I hope Chanderpaul has inspired other sportsmen to stick to what works for them even if succumbing to the fancy stuff due to peer pressure is the easiest thing to do. After all, efficiency is at the heart of all performance. Elegance, by whichever name you call it, is but a make-over, the icing that makes a cake look, not necessarily taste, better. So while oozing cover drives, ingenious switch hits and powerful helicopter - and aeroplane - strokes steal the show, Shivnarine Chanderpaul reminds us that a jabbed 30 that saves or wins a game is valuable in its own terms. (He has also on one occasion hit a six of the last ball to win a One-day game. Against Sri Lanka. Which would delight my friend and fellow author on this space: The Venk. Here's proof).