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.