November 25, 2013

Khan's sunset spell (?)

Against the run of play, Zaheer Khan is back for another spell, perhaps his last. I have forgotten how many comebacks he has made since his stirring return to spearhead status six years ago. Nor have I kept count of the time that has elapsed since he was last seen in national whites or blues. Before he leaves again, however, succumbing either to the whims of his  physique and/or to the lengthening shadows of sunset, I only think it appropriate to celebrate India's best non-slow bowler since Kapil Dev. 

The characterisation non-slow itself provides an appropriate beginning. The expression may superficially seem like an insult to a man who arrived on the scene twelve years ago delivering "yorkers from hell." Delve deeper, and you would realise that it is actually a tribute -- to the transformation he has undergone from a hungry young speedster with a characteristic leap before delivery to a cerebral fast medium man who has, compelled by time, circumstance and the strain his former action put on his body, traded off speed for delicious subtlety. 

Think Shane Warne and you would have the mental image of a conjurer par excellence. Imagine Bishen Bedi and you would recall a tradesman of the tease. Indeed, spinners add another dimension to their game by adding mind games to their repertoire. By contrast, few fast bowlers have brought to bear upon their day job, perhaps because they have needed to, the wisdom born out of their memory of conditions, opposition and their own strengths and limitations nearly as much as Zaheer has. His performance in the 2011 World Cup - the balls to dismiss Strauss and Michael Hussey spectacularly highlighting the contrasts he is capable of - for example was as much an intellectual affair as a physical, sweat-laden tour de force.

While Zak's mind makes him everything a fan wants him to be, his body makes him everything a fan does not want him to be: this rather absurd marriage of mind and body makes the Mumbai left-armer a fascinating study, on par with Sourav Ganguly, the modern Pakistan teams and select South African teams. Like Sourav, Khan can be inspirational; like his former captain's drive - not the one through covers, of course - however, Zaheer's fitness is an ab-fuck-solutely frustrating enigma (at least for distant watchers). Like Pakistan teams contemporaneous with his own international career, Zaheer can delight neutrals and partisans alike on his day; but just like they shun predictability by rule, he keeps his captain guessing as to whether the numb Zaheer or the nimble Zak will turn up on any given tour. Finally, Zaheer Khan can be world-beating like South African teams of a certain vintage; he can also be profoundly vulnerable - existential grin, a longing skyward look and all - like they tend to be during the unnameable stages of ICC tournaments. 

Experience-wise therefore, being a Khan fan is similar to being a Dada fan(atic; yours sincerely, Kolkata), or a fan of the South African or Pakistan cricket teams: I am one and, despite the tacit jokes punctuating this piece, look forward to his comeback spell. Although I would not put my money on its lasting very long, I hope it lasts long enough to see Zaheer Khan through to 300 Test wickets. The milestone, should he get there, will not even place him fifteenth on the list of fast bowlers with most Test wickets. Perhaps, that is only befitting for with Zaheer - as with Vaas, that other underrated left-arm journeyman of our time - numbers tell only part of the story. To know the other part, one had best begin by asking M.S. Dhoni who looked to his left-arm fast man whenever he needed a wicket during India's last World Cup campaign. Almost every single time, the (talis)man delivered a "b. Khan" in the score book.     

November 20, 2013

Kevin Pietersen - 99 not out

Kevin Pietersen - or KP by which larger-than-life abbreviation he is often called - is many things. What is frustrating for the casual observer though is that he is many things which are apparently often irreconcilable. As a sensitive man, he has brought trouble (not least of all upon himself). A swashbuckler, he suffers (some would say, suffered) frailty towards anyone gently lobbing the ball with the wrong arm. He is a (coldly?) calculative modern individual who has not made a secret of his desire for the IPL money, but who still finds immense pride in his performances for  England. 

Kevin Pietersen is indeed many things. However, as Mark Nicholas remarks eloquently in his generous and insightful tribute to the boy from Pietermaritzberg who is a man on the eve of his 100th Test for a country in another hemisphere, these many things should not cloud the ambitious genius that is the essence of the man - an essence that has served the England team far better on the field than the controversies off it would allow some to see. 

Granted, 'genius', like 'awesome' is a word thrown about increasingly casually in an era where most people achieve some degree of fame for two full minutes thanks to the social media. In my view, the description, however, becomes KP in a manner in which it became two other cricketers, a certain Shane Keith Warne and Brian Charles Lara.

With the former, KP shares a scarcely camouflaged love for theatre: a lofted drive from Kevi(n) and a tantalisingly dipping leg break from Warney are a sight for the gods, so it is little wonder that mortals go bonkers at the sight of these two narcissistic - and highly intelligent - performers in their element. There is an off-field aside too the Warne-Pietersen connection: both men court, in spite of their considerable intellects, trouble with the consistency with which they court awe. Consequently (or not) they never shy away from having each other's backs, although Warne, with clearly more time on his hands, outdoes KP at this sort of a thing.

With the latter, KP shares everything except height - that is the lack thereof - and the top hand on the bat. For Lara's high back lift, which in its speedy formation resembled a shimmering wooden arc, read KP's bat, held like a periscope, its bottom skywards, often at ninety degrees, moments before coming down to contact the ball. For Lara's ferocious square cut that used to race behind square point, read Pietersen's front foot pull stroke which, regardless of the pace of the incoming delivery, often ends up well in front of square. Lastly - and only owing to length considerations - for Lara's dance down the pitch  followed by the neat swing of the arms sending the ball soaring over long-on, as prompted by the follow through, read Pietersen's decisive sashay, long stride upon long stride, before the ball is lofted into the ground beyond deep mid wicket. I once wrote that I would not mind paying to watch Lara bat; I would not mind paying to watch Pietersen either.

There is little doubt that that unmistakable strut and that outrageous creativity of stroke-making - arguably matched among contemporaries only by AB De Villiers - are the things that make Pietersen a crowd puller. Unlike many risk takers, however, who hedge their manner of play by arguing for natural style over restraint and pointing unconvincing fingers at past records, Pietersen marches on - thanks to a solid work ethic, all told - seldom drawing too much attention to his own completed innings; giving lie to the portrait of an overly self-absorbed man that his fiercest detractors paint of him. Pietersen's pride at sighting a hundredth Test cap - previously won for England by Geoffrey Boycott, David Gower, Graham Gooch, Sir Ian Botham, Michael Atherton and Alec Stewart, all stalwarts - is, however, understandable for it testifies to his durability, often eclipsed by the seemingly congenital opulence of his stroke play and life's ways.

KP now enters his sixth Ashes series. Recall that his debut series was also an Ashes agreed upon by Australians and Englishmen alike as the best in two decades. Following a consistent run of scores, KP duly stamped his seal upon that series with a murderous, series-salvaging 158 against Warne and Company in the concluding act at the Oval.  This time though, he enters a little south of ideal form just like his captain - and beneficent benefactor - Cook. Memories of his tone-setting double hundred at the Adelaide Oval in 2010 would no doubt give him cause for optimism, however. As would the fact that he has, since said double hundred, conquered conditions as vastly different as Headingley and Mumbai and bowling attacks as vastly different as South Africa's and India's with two of the finest attacking innings - 149 and 186 - of the generation. These innings reveal a batsman at the peak of his powers against the best on the field even when his mind is playing tricks off it. With those tricks all but tucked away now, who knows what can KP do!

Score a triple hundred on Boxing Day at the G? Run up a 60 ball hundred in the fourth innings to steal a chase on a turning strip at Sydney Cricket Ground (Bill Lawry's commentary for company)? While we wait for time to give us the answers, Australia beware: Kevin Pietersen is in town.  


November 18, 2013

Alastair Cook begins

Let's face it, Alastair Cook bores: the opposition, the fans - except, I suspect, those who while watching him bat are possessed with the same cussedness he displays while batting - and perhaps even umpires. No, it is not about the forward defensive stroke which looks like a loveless jab; or that rare specimen of a southpaw's cover drive which might be best described as a soulless clout. Graeme Smith's style, if he has any, is ugly too, but 'Biff' brings to his bat a brutality that makes him an obvious vanguard as skipper and opening batsman. Shivnarine Chanderpaul has inadvertently led the battle on substance over (conventional) style to an extent that is scarcely credible. Yet, his monumental lack of style is unique, if the lack of anything can be unique. Cook though is boring, plain English boring, like another grey summer's day in downtown Manchester or Leeds. He is also less than a double-hundred shy of 8000 Test runs, has twenty-five centuries in the long form, and has the chance to  add significantly to that tally before Christmas when he turns twenty-nine.

Yours truly is no great fan of Cook's. Just as Gary Kirsten's 210 in 1998 at Old Trafford has gone down in Andy Zaltzman's cricket-viewing history as one of the most heart-lulling, mind-numbing and soul-crushing innings of the age, Cook's own 294 at Edgbaston in 2011 - when the opposition batsmen were barely sighting hundreds - has become my own pet bore-a-thon. Not only would I not pay to watch Cook bat, but I would probably escape from a free pass too with an appropriately worded excuse. What I will not escape from, however, is reading Cook's career trajectory, which is an indubitable lesson in will, especially for those who, by cursory glances, are dismissed for lacking flair.

'Chef' - a nickname that is arguably as prosaic as Cook's willow-wielding - has been around in international cricket for less than eight years, but his durability brings a veteran journeyman to mind. Cook's debut Test versus India at Nagpur in 2006 brought him 164 runs including a second innings hundred, which in the context of a still middling England team heralded a star, albeit one with little sparkle: after the match, a close friend actually told me that Cook's batting reminded him of - that West Indian Champion's Trophy legend and, ironically, England's nemesis  - Ian Bradshaw's. Unlike England's more stylishly stellar promises - you know the names - however, Cook has played, struggled, stayed and become an international batsman of fine pedigree (a term I use, only because I find the oft-abused great tiresome). And if the perception that a batsman peaks around thirty is true - as evidenced by Sangakkara's crescendos in the last two years - then bowlers around the world had better watch out for Cook 2.0. He may be a little more aggressive; or worse, his defence may become even more impregnable.  

Cook's individual achievements form only part of the Essex man's story, however. What is more revealing is that the rise in Cook's stature as a batsman has coincided with his team's ascendance from pushovers to solid competitors to being the (second) best in the business. Indeed, the current England team's winning habit owes much to a near-perfect combination of ECB's prioritisation of Test cricket, Andy Flower's clear vision as head coach and Andrew Strauss' understated but uncompromising leadership. Nor can one forget the significance of, arguably, the second most potent bowling attack in the world: all the same, while messieurs Swann and Anderson, ably assisted by Stuart Broad and others, have most often done their darndest to pick the twenty wickets needed to win Tests, Cook's prolific ball-blunting defiance has ensured that the bowling efforts actually become favourable scorelines.

Alastair Cook's importance to the England team has only become even more focused in the wake of Strauss' retirement. Even if one chooses to underplay Cook's role as a senior statesman in reintegrating Kevin Pietersen - a move which returned huge dividends in India last year - and questions, as Shane Warne has done, his wait-for-them-to-make-mistakes brand of captaincy, his role at the top of the order is more significant for England than ever;  a significance that has been contrastingly illustrated lately. 

In India last year, with England sighting a 1-0 deficit by the third afternoon in Ahmedabad, Cook ground out 176 in over nine hours - a tour de force of immaculate defence and optional attack that bears comparison both with the best defensive innings of the past and with the best innings played by a visiting batsman in the sub-continent. Cook would go on to make two more hundreds: playing Robin (122) to Pietersen's Batman (180) in the stunning series leveller in Mumbai; and an over-my-dead-body 190 at Kolkata that gave England an unassailable (and eventually series-winning) 2-1 lead. Creditable as Cook's hundreds in the two Indian metropolises were - they showcased Cook's versatility as a batsman and his ability to compartmentalise batting and captaincy -  it was his Ahmedabad marathon that set up the turnaround in the series, suggesting that  moral victories do sometimes offer a trailer for real ones.

If Cook's last Indian winter as a batsman was delicious (or dogged, if you do not prefer gastronomical cliches), his England summer this year, when Australia visited, was bland (or flimsy). The skipper aggregated a modest - by his standard, paltry - 277 runs at 27.70, with a highest score of 62 and just two other fifties. On as many as five occasions Cook scored less than thirty, and on each of those occasions England slumped - assisted by a woefully out-of-form Jonathan Trott - to three down for less than fifty. If not for the duet performed by a sublime Ian Bell and an Australian batting line-up heroically afraid of playing patient cricket - and the weather's concluding sad solo at Manchester - for much of the series, England might have lost at least one Test. In the event they lost none; the eventual 3-0 scoreline in England's favour did not thankfully paper over their batsman's flaws, however. Cook's own performances suggested - perhaps incorrectly, because they might merely have reflected a routine dip in form - to me that juggling the critical twin roles of an opener and a captain were finally becoming more difficult for him than he let on.

Cook is now back in Australia. He racked up a Bradman-esque 766 runs in just seven innings the last time he was there, proving that he had graduated from a minnow-beating monster to a first rate young batsman, besides giving the England team the small matter of their first away Ashes win in a generation - and Ponting's captaincy the worst farewell possible. That Cook is captain, too, this time will add to his opening burdens; although, if his form in the tour games are any indication, he is determined to show that his batting woes in the Ashes Episode I (shot in England) were just an aberration.

A few days ago, the friend with whom I co-author this blog asked me (rhetorically, I suspect) whether I see any of the world's currently leading batsmen threatening Sachin Tendulkar's records. While it is hard to be sure one way or another - few thought that Sunil Gavaskar's 10000 Test runs would be surpassed, but Border scaled 11000 in the fading light of his career's day - Alastair Cook has the years, the appetite and the determination to challenge the Indian maestro's numbers in Test cricket at least. If Cook gets even close to Mount 15921 - which, for the foreseeable future, should command the same reverence as Mount 99.94 and Mount 800 -  the reminder of his tale will be quite memorable. As things stand, he is already among the finest batsmen to have played for England. Cook will be quietly proud of that as he waits for toss time at the Gabba.

July 12, 2013

J-Q of the Ashes


Jardine, Douglas. The England captain who devised bodyline to restrict Bradman in the 1930’s. Bradman still averaged in the mid-50’s. England won the Ashes. Everyone went home happy, except the Australians. 

James Anderson. The England cricket team’s Tom Cruise. Shares a first name with Mr. Bond. Is as devastating as Dale Steyn when the ball is swinging. Used to be just as useless when it is not.  Has saved two Tests for England with his third best skill – batting. One of them was the Ashes Test at Cardiff in 2009, with Monty Panesar at the other end. Australians from that team, please eat your hearts out. 

Jaded. What England's leading spinner Graeme Swann a.k.a never is. Even when a number eleven - albeit one with a back lift uncannily reminiscent of Yuvraj Singh and three first class fifties - lofts him for two sixes. Also what an irrepressible South African-born England right-hander (see (K)) used to feel when the country versus IPL question came up. Now he is sufficiently "reintegrated" into the team, as evident from Andrew Strauss' commentary yesterday.

(Joker. The late Australian actor Heath Ledger's terrifying opposite number to Brit Christian Bale's (American) batman in the appetiser to the 2009 Ashes, The Dark Knight. Batman rose again but the Joker got the Oscar.) 


Let us talk about Kevin (Pietersen). South African by birth. And spelling. England cricketer. Troubled genius. Troublesome thirty-two year old kid. On his day he can be devastating, as he showed in his debut Ashes in 2005 (and has shown many times afterwards). On his day he can leave himself and his team devastated. His brain used to freeze, until recently, when his eyes spotted anyone who carried a ball in his left-hand. Once sent some text messages that almost ruined his international career. Does not have an ugly batting style, but a tolerable one. 

Kryptonite. What Australian bowlers might need to dislodge captain Cook once he gets a start.

Katich, Simon. Former left-handed opening batsman who averaged in the mid-forties in his 56-Test stint for Australia. Well-known for a stance that was part Gary Kirsten, part Chanderpaul and, therefore, fully dangerous for the visual health of watchers. Less known for his solitary Ashes hundred before England escaped at Cardiff in 2009 (see (C) and (J))).  


Lord’s cricket ground, the home (a.k.a 'Mecca') of cricket, the prestigious Marylebone Cricket Club and the Middlesex county (which once fielded the elegant, the locally rapacious, the internationally frustrating, Mark Ramprakash). Hereabouts grey-haired gentlemen in grey suits applaud boundaries and wickets in an 1800's rhythm that makes English rain and a run rate of less than one per over sound more enthusiastic. 

Lonely. How a young cricket fan used to grandstanding (or Virat Kohli), generously foul vocabulary and dancing will feel when he watches the second Ashes Test that starts on July 18 at Lord’s.

Lawry, Bill. Also known as “the man who talks nothing like he batted” (in my mind). And he batted, from what I hear, a little like the Don of death-to-bowlers using the forward defensive, Geoffrey Boycott. Was wrong-handed unlike Boycs who was right-handed. Averaged a Boycott-esque forty seven nonetheless. Aggregated over 5000 Test runs. Seven of Lawry’s thirteen tons came in the Ashes. Which is more than Boycott’s ton-tally against the Australians. (Aside: Lawry also delivers more minutes a word than Boycott does on commentary).


McGrath, Glenn. Could not move the ball an inch or bowl fast on most days. Remains test cricket’s fourth highest wicket-taker. Carries the nickname Pidge. Predicted the drubbing of England in every Ashes series during his playing days, and was right except on one occasion. Directs the MRF Pace Academy in Chennai these days. Probably realises that his chances of making it as a specialist no. 11 batsman in the Australian squad are all but over after Ashon Agar's 98 yesterday. 

Michael Atherton: A Test opener who was all British in grit and grumpiness. Once made 185* to save a Test at Johannesburg against Donald & Co. Nicked off McGrath’s deliveries to slips far too often, his final innings included, like many opening batsmen of his age. Attended Cambridge University and is now in the commentary box

Merv Hughes: Known as ‘big Merv’, one wonders if the avuncular Australian had one big Mac too many during his time. Clearly, the Jesser Ryder of his time - Jarrod Kimber would approve. Hughes is, perhaps, more famous for his mustache than the fact that he played a third of his Test matches against the Englishmen. Was a handy bowler like David Boon was a handy batsman. Ended up with 212 Test wickets, which is more than what Thommo (Jeff Thomson) got.


Nineties. The decade which saw the clash of the Australian titan Brendon Julian, who bowled left-arm fast medium, with English demi-god Philip Tufnell, who bowled quick-ish left-arm spin. Tuffers got a seven-for in a Test (against New Zealand). Julian made 56* in only his second Test, against England. The match was drawn. 

Also the ten-run sequence that makes batsmen nervous (unless the batsman responds to the name Virendar Sehwag). Michael Slater and Australia's Captain Tough (see (W)) managed nineteen score between 90 and 99 between them in Tests.

Naught: The number of Ashes series the Australians have won this decade. Also, the number of Ashes that England won between 1990 and 2005. Also the number of people who will not watch the Ashes on illegal streams in countries where cricket is not on the telly. Also the percentage of trust Mickey Arthur will feel towards Cricket Australia after his sacking. 

No love lost: An idiom allegedly coined to describe the relationship between Australian and England cricketers as well as the fans of the two cricket teams. Also one of a few possible descriptions of the twitter hashtag #Pontingface and the face behind it (see (P)).


(The) Oval, short for Kia Oval (formerly Kennington Oval). Name of the cricket ground in London which will host the last Test of the ongoing Ashes series. As good a batting track as you can hope to see in England. Not to be confused with Kensington Oval in Barbados, which is far from the best batting track you will hope to find in the West Indies. Even without Holding, Ambrose, Walsh and Garner around. 

October. The tenth month of the year. A period when England and Australia’s domestic cricket calendars are sparsely populated. A period when the team that loses the ongoing Ashes in England will begin to plan for the return campaign when the oldest cricket show hits Downunder in December. That team may well be England or Australia.   

Owl. A nocturnal bird which is carnivorous. Also Ashes aficionados in England and Australia who stay up late to follow ‘away’ Ashes Test matches. 

(O: Not the sound used to refer to zero in cricket. 'Blob', 'duck', 'naught', 'no score' and 'without troubling the scorers' are preferred. That last one is a Shastri-ism, so we will not be hearing it at the Ashes. Thankfully).


Ricky Ponting. Him the world loves to hate and hates to love (even more than his look-alike George W. Bush). Former cricket captain of Australia. Arguably the second best batsman in Australia's cricketing history. Only gent, well, bloke, in world cricket to have been part of a hundred Test victories. Set up many of them with his ferocious pulls and hooks. Still had the technical skill to grind out a match-saving Ashes ton at Old Trafford in 2005. Still lost that Ashes and two more. In between, whitewashed England 5-0 with the help of McGrath and a blonde leg-spin legend (see (W)) in their final series. People remember him as a decent captain who presided over some great teams. Or for the cheekiest grin in the business. It was a punter's grin all right.

Pretty: Not the adjective you would use to describe the batting of the current England top three (Cook, Root and Trott) or the previous top three (Cook, Compton and Trott) or the one before (Cook, Strauss and Trott). Not the adjective you would use to describe (m)any Australian left-handers. Or the trio of Gary Kirsten, Graeme Smith and Shivnarine Chanderpaul. Not the complexion of Ponting’s palm after all the spittle that has gone into it. Not the word you would use to describe the (leg side stroke play of the) Michelangelo of Australian batting, Mark Edward Waugh who debuted in the 1991 Ashes with a ton because elegant is more like it.

Peter Roebuck. The late British writer whose cricket- writing was all poetry, compassion, sunshine humour and life. Found issue with the attitude of the all-conquering Australian teams of the last decade, particularly their captain Ponting. Piscean, and need it be said, with the-foot-in-the-mouth syndrome. Defied a visiting Australian team to score a first-class ton for Somerset. Could not, sadly, manage the same defiance in life. 


Quiney, Rob.  Included here because he is an Australian, has a surname that starts with Q and is not in the Ashes squad currently playing in England. Also because he has a scarcely believable Test average of 3.00 and a highest score of 9 as a proper batsman. Admittedly, after two Tests.

Quit. It is what losers do (according to those who think they are not losers), and the mighty Australian team of the late 1990’s and the noughties seldom did. 

Quizzical. An understated description of the look on England bowler Stuart Broad’s face when he is denied a leg before appeal: only because the ball was pitching out side the left-hander’s leg stump, might have just clipped said jump if it had not bounced so much. 

Quiet The Australian crowd before Ashton Agar’s rearguard yesterday. The England crowd and team during the course of Ashton Agar’s 98  yesterday. Phil Hughes’ critics after this Ashes if he bats the way he did in the first innings.(And me, in the face of the brickbats I will receive for this post.)


July 11, 2013

A-I of the Ashes

This piece (and the installments to follow) are an admixture of fact and fiction. Do I need to even say that? Other standard disclaimers apply as well.


Ashes, The. A cricketing rivalry as old as time itself. If time in your understanding predates cricinfo (and the worldwide web) but not the first official Test match played at Melbourne in 1877. 

 Australia. One half of the rivalry. 

Adelaide Oval. Home of the greatest batsman of all time (see (B)), and one of the prettiest cricket grounds in the world until recently. Has seen some wonderful batting. And a double-hundred from England stodge-meister Paul Collingwood. To restore balance to the world, England still lost.

(Also: The likely state of an Australian cricket fan’s dreams as of next February if their cricket team’s top order does not reign in its affection with balls pitched in the ‘corridor of uncertainty’ (see (G)).


Sir Donald Bradman. Born to bat. His final innings duck is as famous as his immortal per-innings count of 99.94. 

Bodyline: A controversial 1930’s on-field action flick directed by an England captain (see (J)) who asked his bowlers to aim at batsman’s ribs and above to: (a) restrict Batsman’s run scoring; and (b) urge the powers that be to invent a batsman’s helmet urgently. Which came swiftly enough, fifty years later. In the meanwhile further 'bodyline' flicks were banned by the censor board.

Beefy’: Sir Ian Botham himself. Once beat Australia single-handedly in a Test many years ago (see (H)). Retired into the commentary box to see Australia regularly return the compliments in the next two decades. Evades bouncers from Indians these days on twitter, and not very well. 

Boof: Nickname of the current Australian coach, Darren Lehmann who once made a triple hundred for Yorkshire. Perhaps, the third coolest bald man after Ralph Fiennes' Dumbledore in the Harry Potter franchise and Chris Martin's phantom. 

Beer: "Those days such problems were settled over a __." "Ah, we used to play hard on the field but had a __ later, mate." "He is an old-fashioned coach who will invite the boys to have a __ with him." Fill in the blanks. And if the word is anything other than beer, it means (a) you have not been following the Australian cricket scene closely enough, which is pardonable; (or) (b) you have not been following Australia closely enough, which is excusable; (or) (c) you don't know what beer means, which, unless you are (also) a (verbal) teetotaler, is simply not acceptable.


Clarke, Michael. Has the most innocuous nickname in the world – ‘Pup’. Current captain of the Australian cricket team. Comes out to bat these days at 20-2, 25-3 or 35-4. Has batted like a dream in the last two years, and sometimes is forced to bat in one because of his back. Australia's only realistic batting hope at this year's Ashes. Unless Steve Waugh and Allan Border return from retirement.

Cardiff. England’s great escape in Wales 2009 which inspired them to a second straight Ashes triumph at home. Was also the second of three Ashes losses that the Australians suffered under the G.W. Bush look-alike (see (J) and (P)). 

Cook, Alastair. Current captain of the England cricket team. Made 700 runs when England beat Australia Downunder 3-1 in 2011. Rumour has it that the Australian bowlers and fielders were so traumatised by ‘watching’ Cook’s batting style that they could not care less about regaining a bloody urn! 

Crikey. A very typical British exclamation. David Lloyd specialises in them.


Draw. A match or a series result where no team wins or loses. England and Australia have not played out too many of them in recent memory. 

Dull. The complexion of the last half a dozen Ashes series. So hopelessly one-sided that even Damien Martyn’s batting cannot uplift you, unless you are an Australian supporter.

Dizzy: Jason Gillespie’s nickname. Dizzy was a large-hearted Australian fast bowler who once made a Test double-hundred, albeit against Bangladesh. Dizzy is now contemplating a return to the Australian team as a no. 3 batsman.


England. The second half of the Ashes rivalry. A country where people love to hate the IPL and praise the county cricket season, half of which gets washed out anyway. Also home of the current cult hero of cricket comedy, the icon of alliteration and the Schopenhauer of statsguru-aided stats, Andy Zaltzman. 

Edgbaston. Name of the cricket ground in Birmingham. ‘Nas’ Hussain of the retort-to-Ravi Shastri fame once made a double hundred – complete with square drives on one-knee and all – of such rare class and supremacy there against the Aussies, portending the arrival of an England batsman who might average in the early fifties. And promptly proceeded to scold portents-schmortents to end on an Atherton-esque 37.1 as Test average.

Eleven. The number of players in a side. Even in an Ashes Test, yes.


Fair dinkum’ An Australianism that means fair, honest, good and so on. English writers like to over-use it in their pre-Ashes build up in the hope that it will annoy the Australians into batting and bowling rashly. The ruse has begun to work in recent years. 

Fire. What Mickey Arthur got from the Australian Cricket Board recently. 

Filth. It is what many think Mitchell Johnson, the Australian quick bowler, offers when he is one of his moods, which often last for entire matches.


Geoffrey Boycott. Credited with coining the term Corridor of Uncertainty. Often defended until the Thames froze over, and defended his batting saying ‘you cannot score ruuns in the pavilion’. Was once dropped from the England Team after scoring 246*. Once returned to score his 100th first-class hundred at his home ground in an Ashes Test. Legend, with demons as incomprehensible as his pronounced Yorkshire accent. 

Gareth Mallory: Oops, forgot that this post is strictly about the Ashes. 

Gabba: Name of the cricket stadium at Woolloongabba, Brisbane. Hosted the inaugural Test of the Ashes in 2006. Steve Harmsion, the England quick who could be deadly on his day, sent the first ball of the match to second slip. By the time he and the England team had fully warmed to the task at hand, Australia had taken the series 5-0.


Headingley. The cricket ground at Leeds. Scene of Boycott’s 100th hundred, it was also here that Sir Ian Botham out-batted and out-bowled twenty other men to confiscate a Test match from Australia’s grasp. The ground also has a special microphone which makes the ball talk.

Hoggard, Matthew: An Ashes-winning fast bowler. Also from Yorkshire.

Harmison, Steve: See under Gabba.


Ian Bell: England’s current third-drop and response to Mark Waugh, Mahela Jayawardena and V.V.S Laxman. Can elegantly thread a ball between two short cover fielders to the fence. Can just as elegantly pick out the only fielder at deep cover. Is considered to be one of England’s better players of spin. And Dale Steyn is a slow-medium bowler. 

IJL: The initials of England’s current no. 3, Trott. Trotted to a debut hundred at the Oval (see (K)) in London and helped England to the Ashes series  win in 2009. According to some Englishmen, Trott is the best batsman in the world at the moment. Provided Hashim Amla, Kumar Sangakkara and Michael Clarke decide to retire at this instant.

Indian cricket team (short for Board of Control for Cricket in India’s cricket team). Lost to England in England 4-0. Lost to Australia in Australia 4-0. Lost to England in India 2-1. Defeated Australia in India 4-0. The upshot: England will win the Ashes. Unless, they don’t.

(J-Q on the next installment).

July 3, 2013

Chris Martin walks

If Martin Crowe is the best international batsman New Zealand has ever produced, Chris Martin is the worst. The latter has now called time on his New Zealand career.

Never mind Martin was a number eleven! He will be remembered for his thirty-six blobs, in an era of boring multi-purpose tailenders where - heck - even Glenn McGrath scored a Test fifty! And McGrath, even the proud Australians will agree, was marginally better than Courtney Walsh with bat in hand.

Never mind that Martin finishes with 233 Test sticks, third only to the great Sir Richard Hadley and the  versatile Daniel Vettori among bowlers from the land of the long white cloud! He will bring to mind the nicknames 'walking wicket', the amusing 'phantom' or the downright ghastly 'the walking wicket'. Producers of Japanese horror films can take a walk.

Heck, I do not even remember  Chris Martin's bowling action. I do, however, recall that he once scythed through an Indian top-five including Tendulkar, Sehwag and Dravid for below fifty aggregate runs in the second innings of a Test match in India some years ago. New Zealand could still not win the Test as Harbhajan Singh of all people flayed a Test hundred. More serious men must have thought the world cruel, not Martin, I don't think.

Shane Bond, as the co-author of this blog might say, was badass and brilliant at the same time. Less Dale Steyn than Steyn due to a Zaheer-esque physique, statistics and for being a leader without a compelling support cast. Bond was, ahem, New Zealand's cricket's bowling Vinod Kambli; a fantastic could-have-been that fans world over like to imagine. Chris Martin on the other hand has been Kiwi cricket's has-been, a swing bowler of the kind English county cricket regularly produces. And despite looking like a willfully amusing version of Ralph Fienne's Lord Voldemort, Martin has spearheaded New Zealand's Test bowling attack when the country's international stocks have dipped to new lows. Good bloke Chris!

Personally, I have always loved seeing characters on the field. If Shane Warne is cast as the ultimate sorcerer and Chris Gayle as the cool guy next door with bat in hand, Chris Martin has been an entertainer who seems to not take himself too seriously, and who has thereby brought the meaning of sport right back into the game. For that alone, he deserves some Christmas cards every year. Philip Hughes may be sending one too because the next time he faces upto New Zealand he need not worry about "c. Guptill b. C. Martin' next to his name.

Goodbye, Mr. Martin. The glimpses have been fun, but I wish I had seen more of you.

PS: Here are two wonderful tributes to Martin, a poignant one by Iain O'Brien who had seen an elder brother in the retiree, and a more cheerful variant by Paul Ford.  

June 24, 2013

Let's talk about Duncan and Mickey

It has been my contention for years that good cricket coaches, however skilled at man management and however charismatic, do not build great teams. Rather it is team performance, as Ian Chappell asserts here, which makes a coach look good or bad. One can even repudiate the other generally accepted claim that great teams often make strategically average captains look great while bad teams can make good tacticians look ordinary, because captains can still alter the game with bat or ball in hand. Coaches though neither score runs, nor take wickets, and their fates are shaped by the performances of the people taking the field. I am sure both Mickey Arthur and Duncan Fletcher know that.  

With the Indian team winning the Champions Trophy, following their comprehensive decimation of Australia 4-0 at home, the volatile Indian fan and media might finally accept Duncan Fletcher as a good coach, having raised a united call for his axing after India went down 2-1 in the home Test series versus England last year. In sharp contrast to Fletcher, Micky Arthur, who had presided over Australia's 4-0 'whitewash' of India in 2011-12 - and a not far from honourable 1-0 loss to the number one-ranked South African team at home in 2012 - finds himself ousted, allegedly for things deeper than on-field results. If things had been smooth on the field, however, it would be difficult to see Cricket Australia sacking their head coach, especially two weeks before the Ashes, regardless of certain players' off-field shenigans. My take, and it is a commonsense one, is that the ebbing and flowing of the Indian and Australian national teams' fortunes have had far more to do with the fact that these teams are in transition rather than the credentials or the capability of the men coaching - or, if you like the corporate-sounding football term, managing - them

First, consider India's showing Downunder in 2011-12 - assuming , rather preposterously, that their 4-0 Test series loss in England was an aberration caused by the injury to one Zaheer Khan - which was a non-showing, except for Virat Kohli's belated less-than-consolation hundred at Adelaide, and Zaheer Khan's incisive spells with the new ball throughout the series.  During the course of it, Laxman forgot he was playing (in) Australia for a change. Dravid found new ways of getting bowled.  Tendulkar, for all the sweet contraries his fans would sell you, did not look like getting anything substantial after his tantalising piece at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Sehwag got out more than he batted. Gambhir, except for a counterattacking 80-odd at Sydney, kept courting first, second, third slips and gully, in turns. 

A contest that was billed as the battle between India's batting masters and Australia's young battery of fast men was reduced to an Australian parade, just after the third afternoon of the Boxing Day Test .You could argue that it was Fletcher's fault that the team never played Rohit Sharma, who has been backed by Ian Chappell for years, and who could not have returned worse performances with the bat than Dravid, Laxman or Sehwag did during the series. However, to suggest that that non-decision was responsible for India's hiding is like saying that an absent star in the sky was responsible for someone's breaking up with their spouse. The point is this was a team whose batting spine had displayed clear signs of frailty and ineptitude in England; in Australia, the spine was clinically dismantled by a set of young bowlers who were mean, accurate and genuinely quick. 

If India's problem in Australia was a batting engine approaching its last miles, Australia's problem when they reached India in 2013 was a batting engine, whose parts were still getting adjusted towards working together: even Michael Clarke was not sure what his best position was in the Hussey-less, Ponting-less batting order until the third Test came around. And lo, how the Indian and media fans loved to see the Australian batsmen fail - revenge they called it, never mind M.S. Dhoni does not believe in revenge in sport - and how we tittered when the 'homework-gate' added to our fun! 

The series in India was, in almost every way, the hosts' perfect reply to the series they had played in Australia: Clarke's hundred in the first Test at Chennai was Australia's only three figure score just like Kohli's was India's lone ton in the 2011-12 Australian summer; all the big scores - including two double hundreds - were recorded by Indian batsmen here, while Clarke had plundered a double hundred followed by a triple to add to Ponting's double there; and as James Pattinson toiled alone in the Indian heat, one remembered Zaheer Khan's masterful swing bowling which came to no avail, thanks to some ordinary back-up bowling and defensive field placements from a captain who looked like he had the flight home in mind half-way into the series. Australia failed to win /draw a Test in India like India had in Australia. However, to blame Mickey Arthur for the capitulation of an Australian team without the services of two of its premier batsmen, both experienced in subcontinent conditions, any experienced  spinner and, in hindsight, fast bowlers who knew how to restrict local stroke makers on Indian patches, is grossly unfair.

Ironically, the two teams had found opposite paths to disaster: the Indians had taken too old a team to Australia - thanks to the Kris Srikkanth-led selection committee which was blind to the portents sprinkled during the England summer in 2011 - and lost badly. The Australians, compelled by retirements, had fielded a team with many fledglings an India, a formidable assignment even in this age of great hotels, dependable food and the IPL, and were served a taste of their (once) own medicine. One team suffered due to lack of succession planning; the other languished because of the lack of skill and wisdom in players who replaced Ponting and Hussey, especially in conditions so different from home. Even Shakuni, I think, would have struggled to have much impact as a coach under such circumstances.

Those in favour of great coaches may point to moments such as V.V.S Laxman's promotion in the Eden Test - the match that redefined Indian cricket for many - in which John Wright reportedly had a say. However, not often are batsmen with a Test average of under 35 promoted from number 6 to first-drop on the basis of a first-innings half century, and not often do they come off in as spectacular a fashion as Laxman did. While Wright must indeed be credited for trusting his instinct in a sport where everything is sadly becoming organised to the point of appearing pointless, it is Laxman who vindicated his coach's gamble. In essence, coaches and man-managers can appear like messiahs if their players deliver on the field. On the contrary, they can be made to look stupid and alien, as Mickey Arthur has been, even as the unsmiling Duncan enjoys an extended run with the men in blue. I wonder what Shane Warne thinks about it all. 

May 2, 2013

Team loyalty in the IPL

It is that time of the IPL when all except the fans of Chennai Super Kings are partly bored and only partly curious about their favourite team's prospects for the last four. The time is, therefore, politic to examine what the construct favourite team means in the context of a franchise-based tournament. While I have been interested on the topic of fan loyalty in T20 leagues for a while, the Mumbai crowd's partisan booing of Virat Kohli recently, Kohli's riposte to the same - Gayle's defence of his RCB captain in a newspaper article - a follow-up discussion on the huddle and this engaging piece by Samit Chopra which juxtaposes regional rivalries, unearthed by the IPL, against national rivalries, have all acted as triggers for this piece.

In its sixth edition, the IPL has mainly attracted two types of emotional loyalty from fans towards teams if discussions on social media and what I have heard from friends are anything to go by. The first type of loyalty is region-specific, CSK, MI and RCB fans being die-hard representatives of it. The second type of loyalty is determined by whether a fan's favourite (generally international) players form the core of a specific franchise. My own support of Rajasthan Royals, for example, has  to do with the fact that the team is skippered by Rahul Dravid, one among my favourite cricketers of all time. 

In terms of numbers, fans with a regional bent, I think, greatly outnumber those who root for teams in which their favourite stars play. The trend is unsurprising for at least two reasons. First, identification with a regional team is arguably more spontaneous, and is perhaps subconsciously grounded on extra-cricketing factors such as linguistics and culture. CSK's whistlepoDu, for example, is a quintessential Tamil chorus in favour of a team that is captained by a man from Ranchi; is led by a Western Australian with the bat; has a West Indian as its best all-rounder; and is coached by a Kiwi. Second, regional loyalties are, by their very nature, not fickle. They are only strengthened if teams retain their core group of players for any length of time, as has been done by the Mumbai Indians and the Chennai Super Kings. 

In sharp contrast to regional loyalty, player-based loyalty is more liable to change as cricketers get transferred from one franchise to another. While established internationals, likely to have a stronger following, are in theory less likely to be transferred than tyros, there are always exceptions like Ross Taylor, currently with Pune Warriors India, having got there from Royal Challengers Bangalore (three seasons), Rajasthan Royals (one season) and Delhi Daredevils (one season, in 2012). To push through an outlandish comparison, just like there are "team players" and "individuals", there seem to be team fans and fans of individual players. The two factions are not easily distinguishable in the international circuit where nationality trumps sub-national differences (Tendulkar's and M.S. Dhoni's fans excepted). They are more visible in a local league, which, for all its glitz, money and star power, is what the IPL is.

Whichever way fans are divided, the fact there is division must delight those who have a stake in the IPL - advertisers, broadcasters, BCCI, regional cricket associations and the lot - because it shows that people care. And while views from England about the IPL, especially from the pro-cricket establishment circles, is less than encouraging, one must acknowledge that the league offers the neutral cricket-lover something as well. Watching Dale Steyn steam in to Chris Gayle with 21 needed off a super over is a thrilling micro-contest even without context. Seeing Ponting and Tendulkar punch gloves (never mind they have done little else) is the stuff of which fans' dreams are made. And seeing Dhoni take teams apart in the home stretch of games though predictable - and irritating, because nobody seems to have a viable counter-plan - ensures people on seats in stadia and in front of the telly.

I do have my issues with the IPL, the duration of the tourney, the mute-worthy commentary in the games and the off-field machinations not being the least of them. I still look forward to the Australian cricketing summer every year, am in love with the rhythms of Test cricket, and believe that batsmen around the world will be the better for county stints. I would, therefore, not miss the League if it were to stop existing overnight. However, it appears that the IPL has come to stay. The tournament is more than tolerable for the moment, the cricket in it mostly good and at times superb.