December 23, 2015

An Apology for Compelling Draws

Outside the ambit of painting and, perhaps, the art/science of seduction, the word 'draw' gives the impression of something dragged out, much like an overlong film about the flora found in deserts. A typical draw in a game of Test cricket also creates the impression of elaborate pointlessness, especially among the game’s newest fans, introduced to it through the T20 format; its fiercest detractors; and those who view the current health of cricket, rightly, with Argus-eyed skepticism. Sometimes, though, one is made to wonder if draws alone are responsible for all the ills afflicting Test cricket and that a farewell to them will ensure instant revivification and a broader acceptance among fans of the game’s 125-year-old format. Two different frames of reference suggest that the latter is a simplistic view. First: the cause for the waning popularity of the game may be located as much in the zeitgeist of the day – with its unapologetic emphasis on instant gratification – as in the results a five-day contest produces (more on this another day). Second: even if results are a cause of concern, not all draws can be condemned with the charge that they are curtailing the future of Test cricket.

The draw that the South Africans attempted earlier this month in Delhi, for example, deservedly drew a lot of praise from various quarters—the captain and Manager of the opposing team included. On the other hand, it did also attract the sardonic barbs of at least one writer. According to the former, South Africa’s ultra-defensive batting (which has spawned the lexical monstrosity 'block-a-thon') symbolised, among other things, the commitment of peripatetic cricketers to their national whites and to Test cricket in an era of domestic T20 leagues, garish clothes and slog-fests. The latter, however, holds that South Africa’s approach represented a futile exercise because the series was already lost. My own opinion of South Africa’s second dig in Delhi dovetails with the views of the former, and I think it made for compelling Test cricket while it lasted.

South Africa’s obdurate batting was fascinating to watch because it reduced and exalted cricket to its very essence—a contest between bat and ball (ceteris nearly paribus). Obviously, the speed of the scoreboard was such that it might have even driven a Yogi to lose patience, but that was incidental to the drama; whose main players were two vulpine and skillful spinners, a ring of close-in fielders and three fine batsmen, their stage a pitch that gave no freebies and rewarded mindful persistence. With each ball delivered and each delivery safely met, one could witness a substantial and substantive dialogue between two equal adversaries, the lines (and lengths) occasionally veering into sub-text to keep the more discerning aficionados honest. The theatre lasted for close to nine hours and while the final act showed an Indian win, who is to say that a draw would have reduced the value of the gripping contest that preceded it? To do so would be to succumb to the convenient trap of hindsight.

Admittedly, not every draw or attempted draw keeps bums on seats. The worrying trend is that for every draw that enthralls and thrills lovers of Test cricket, there are four which make them wonder whether the Sun will set upon this Time-honoured five-day sporting spectacle of substance, style and subtlety, just as it has on the Empire that birthed and propagated it around the Commonwealth. Indeed, the writing has been on the wall for a while and the stakeholders of the game – players, umpires and match referees, cricket boards, journalists and fans – must quickly come up with strategies to reduce the number of drab draws that currently frustrates Test cricket. Draws should not be altogether eliminated, however, because their elimination would kill a congenital aspect of Test cricket: playing for Time.

Now, ‘playing for time’ is not an anachronism 'favourited' by grey-haired ladies and gentleman who take up the cudgels for what they believe is cricket’s purest format. Even three summers ago, Francois Du Plessis, in the company of his boyhood friend Abraham De Villiers, future-skipper Hashim Amla and others, batted for fourteen minutes short of eight hours and retired undefeated on 110 to the dressing room at the Adelaide Oval after facing a small matter of sixty-two overs and four balls. On debut. Just for the record, neither South Africa nor Australia won that Test match. A year and few weeks later ABD and FDP were at it again, and almost surmounted a fourth-innings Mt. Everest against India at the Wanderers—the ‘almost’ a riveting 'no result'. While thinking of thrilling 'no results', England’s three last-over heists (in December 2009, January 2010 and March 2013) should not be forgotten, as they deserve pride of place in the Hall of Fame of Draws. Nor are English ninth-drops lone specialists in hanging for dear life till the last mandatory over is bowled, as their Sri Lankan counterparts showed, against England, at the HQ in June 2014.

Each of the aforementioned Test matches is a classic and deserves to be called as such. Bidding adieu to draws would mean the assignment of such matches to the musty files of history—a treasure trove of nostalgia, and a graveyard of hope, at least as far as sports is concerned. Obviously, there is no assurance that Test cricket will continue to conjure up exciting draws if the result lives to fight another day, but that is beside the point. The point is rather that a draw is just one of four possible conclusions to a contest! Conversations should, therefore, focus on the quality of the contest and cutting the list of possible results by one would do little to improve it. The point is also that the dogged pursuit of a draw, when the circumstances so dictate, does not make other results impossible. Examples abound of teams planning to bat time and winning or losing. My own favourite draw in recent memory is the one that India ‘achieved’ against the West Indies in 2012 (yes, in that match where Ravi Rampaul and Darren Sammy were booed at Mumbai for postponing Tendulkar's 100th Test hundred to another day): the match scores of the two teams were tied after the last mandatory ball had been bowled, and first-innings centurion Ashwin refused a second run even though he could have half-Ranatunga-ed it. There is a tragicomedy (or comic tragedy) for the ages. Beat that.  

September 12, 2015

Stumps, Mr. Watson!

Shane Watson would not have made a great friend to Sherlock Holmes. Unlike the master-sleuth’s partner in crime, John, Shane comes across as a brash man lacking, inter alia, in discretion – a certain asset in the art of deduction. Yet it is the man’s candour that keeps one from questioning whether, as Watson said about his retirement from Test cricket last week, he has truly given his best to the long form of the game. Watson’s numbers in Tests are there for all to see, and they speak of an underachieving all-rounder, undone often by a fragile body and at times by a clouded mind. In Watson’s case the numbers may even tell the best part of his story, but that part, shorn of emotion, undersells the man significantly; for, Watson, despite what he promised and what he delivered (or did not), was all about emotions – the ones he exuded, and the ones he provoked.
My first memory of Watson is from the curtain-raising edition of the IPL 2008, in which Watson batted and bowled his way into the Australian team, besides playing a significant role in Rajasthan Royals’ – a team of unfancied rookies, though captained by a certain Shane Keith Warne – tile triumph. Since then, I have watched Watson smash attacks to smithereens in the shorter formats, for Australia and for Rajasthan Royals, and have been awestruck, like others, by the power and the straight lines which characterize Watson’s hitting, especially straight down the ground.  If only Watson had figured out a way to wed his power with some discretion – that word, again – his would have been a story of ‘what he did not achieve’ rather than ‘what he did.’
Even as it stands, Watson’s story in the game’s most prized format is not to be trifled with. Many a sub-continental country would blindly select an all-rounder who averages 35 with the bat and under 35 with the ball whenever he is fit (and so did Australia). Nor have those averages been accumulated by attritional play, as suggested by his last two Test centuries. Back in 2012, with the urn already in England’s kitty, Watson batted over a day to produce a masterful 176 – his best returns in a Test innings. When England returned to Australia to defend the urn a year later, Watson showed off his repertory of aggressive strokes in the second innings of the third Test at WACA, as he galloped to 103 off 109 deliveries, after Warner’s hundred and a first innings lead of 120 runs had given Australia a decisive advantage. Watson’s 176 may be wished away as a personal average-boosting affair on a traditionally fine batting turf, but his Perth counterattack cannot be as easily discounted. To Watson’s detractors, his London and Perth tons may betray a mind that buckles perform under pressure. That theory is as convenient as it is shallow, though, given Watson’s relative excellence in T20s and ODI cricket for nearly a decade. Alternatively, those two centuries may be taken to showcase a man who performs at his best when there is no time to think.
If Watson underperformed with the bat, he frustrated with the ball. Seventy-five sticks in fifty-nine matches do scant justice to a talent that took 6-33 against South Africa in the blink of an eye. Injuries did play a significant role in restricting Watson’s bowling, but Watson would probably be the first to admit that, like any other all-rounder in the game, he was only half a batsman whenever he did not contribute with the ball (which, unfortunately for him and Australia, was far too many times in the past four summers). Neither injuries nor his temperament, however, came in the way of his being a fine slip fielder: Watson’s 45 catches in 59 Tests may not say much about his catching prowess, but his ‘safe as houses’ seldom shelled a catch.
When they did, that expression was back on Watson’s face –  the expression that he wore time after time when DRS indicated that he had been given out correctly after all; the expression that suggested that he was fighting a lone battle against the opposition, the world and, in all likelihood, himself.  That expression becomes very relevant in assessing Watson’s career because it spoke of a ‘Watto’ who had tried and failed… AGAIN. It introduced to the crowds, for a few passing moments, a man who had sought (and been denied) personal satisfaction, amid the fickle rumpus of adulation and opprobrium. It framed a gifted athlete with an incorrigible body and a mind that was not swift in telling his hands to play around the front pad in swinging conditions. It spoke of Watson at the close of play – a handsome face wrinkled by the vagaries of a great game.