Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Home Season has begun

You can paper over the cracks all you want, but the sporting wicket at Bangalore showed that the Indian Test team still has some weaknesses in the batting department. Don’t get me wrong here, when I use “sporting wicket” to describe the 22 yards in Bangalore, I don’t mean to imply that the Hyderabad wicket was un-sporting or any such thing. It’s just that I find it extremely hard to enjoy cricket where conditions are tailored in such a manner to nullify one aspect of the game itself.

The wicket in Bangalore on the other hand, was an example of where, spinners took wickets, fast bowlers took wickets, and each team had a batsman going on to score a century. The old cliché applied perfectly, “there was something for everyone”. This test match literally tested all aspects of a side’s game.

Now keep that in context when you consider that this was an inexperienced New Zealand side coming off a loss at the hands of the West Indies, and having lost their captain, and arguably their best spinner, Daniel Vettori, due to injury, they did manage to stretch the Indian side quite considerably during this Test. The upcoming opposition during the course of the home season are England and Australia, sides that recently white-washed us at their home grounds, and cannot be classified as “pushovers”.

However a lot has happened in World Cricket since those disastrous away tours of 2011, and England are not the side they were when they Played India “last summer”. England currently are not selecting their best batsman, Kevin Petersen. Their most successful captain, Andrew Strauss, recently retired, they will need a new opening batsman as well as middle order player, however Johnny Bairstow has definitely pitched his tent on that middle order spot. The form of their fast bowlers is a worry, as they have been undone by a superior batting line-up, at the places where our Indian team capitulated. However the biggest worry for the English team, in the context of their upcoming tour to India will be their not –so - recent capitulations against spin in the U.A.E against Pakistan. The No. 1 test ranking turned out to be a slightly poisoned chalice for the English side, and they lost their spot within a year, India lasted for 18 months.

So when it comes to England, I think our team is up for it and that it will be an evenly matched series. What could tilt the balance in favor of the Indian team are the pitches. If rank turners are prepared, I think MSD and Co. will coast, with a few hiccups here and there. However, if wickets like the one at Bangalore are more the norm, then we may be in for a few surprises and a few shocks along the way.    

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Mind fixed!

While watching the Sri Lanka - Bangladesh match on tuesday, with India's Asia Cup fate hanging in the balance, at a crucial period, when Bangladesh had 5 wickets in hand and 50 runs to get in plenty of time, one of the batsman played an uppish shot and it went towards Malinga, who would have had to put in a quick sprint, and maybe a dive, nothing I haven't seen the man do a countless number of times. But instead what happened was Malinga barely went for it and the ball landed around 3-4 feet ahead of him. 

At that point of time, the mind went instantly to fixing, and I started thinking, in such a situation, where the result of the match is irrelevant to the stronger team, while being extremely relevant to the progress of the weaker team, where the bookies would get good odds against Bangladesh, how much money could a cricketer or more than one cricketer, be offered to under-perform or throw a game. And would the money be enough to tempt maybe an aging player, or a player who believes he doesn't have too long left in the game, to take what he can, and get out. Would a Maharoof, agree to bowl leg-side throughout the game at the speed of 120-130 kmph, so that Bangladesh could win. Would a batsman agree to get out under 10, and make some quick money, because it really would not matter one way or the other so what's the harm in getting paid to chill. He may justify it to himself by saying, "when it really counts i wouldn't even think about it". I don't really know, how someone rationalizes something like that, but i have to believe that there are more factors in play other than cold hard cash. Would that same logic even apply to a spot fixing scenario, of no-balls in an over or wides in an over, or even boundaries in an over in an irrelevant game.

I however, admonished myself for being that cynical, and eventually convinced myself that maybe the man is saving his strength and preserving his fitness for the upcoming ODI's against England, and maybe more importantly the IPL, where he can get the money match fixing never offered, legitimately, by kicking ass for his club in the gilli danda format. Which is about the only thing the IPL is good for, as long as it does not fall prey to it itself, is that it will and maybe to a certain extent already has, completely dis-incentivized match fixing. With the kind of prices random ass cricketers are getting in the IPL, it would be completely daft, to even consider exposing yourself to the risks of match fixing. If you can perform well, and you do perform well, it will invariably result in a rise in your bank balance. 

In the end Bangladesh beat a listless Sri-Lanka, but that’s all they were, completely listless. They had just finished a tough tri-series in Australia, where they played all 3 of their finals, and eventually ended up on the losing end. They were in Bangladesh in the blink of an eye, ravaged by injury and demoralised by defeat, and it’s no wonder they lost all their games. But the recent news of spot-fixing, match-fixing, the Cairns-Modi saga, Mohammad Amir’s release from jail and subsequent interview, even the bizarre Nupur Mehta news item, are all bitter reminders that no matter how much you may want to wish it away, match-fixing is the most serious threat to cricket as a sport, and it will rear its ugly head again sooner rather than later.

My 2 Paise on Mohammad Amir

Mohammad Amir, the prodigious talent, he could have been the Sachin Tendulkar of fast bowling. He quite literally burst onto the scene, reached 51 wickets in 14 tests at the age of 18, when he bowled 2 hideously obvious no-balls at Lord's in a test against England in 2010. The rest is history, other matches got clouded, many players got implicated, some got dubious discharges due to lack of evidence, while others, thanks to the prompt English criminal justice system got jail-time. Some are still in jail, one is out. 

To tell you the truth, I'm glad Mohammad Amir went to jail. He deserved it, on the basis of the trial the media gave him, and then him finally pleading guilty in Court, while staunchly claiming his innocence prior to the court proceedings, I viewed him as a liar, and felt he got what he deserved. Now that he is out he spoke to Michael Atherton in an interview (video and transcript). Now on seeing his interview, one thing shone out that though the interview was extremely rehearsed it did feel genuine in parts. 

However I have a hard time believing his excuse that he never did it for money or the £1,500 Mazhar Majeed gave him, and that he was completely tricked. manipulated and duped by people he trusted i.e.  Salman Butt and Mazhar Majeed . Amir's version is that Mazhar Majeed told him that his texts and calls to a man named Ali have been recorded and that he is in trouble and that Mazhar himself can sort it out for him as long as he bowls two no-balls for him, and that it was basically Salman's job to make sure he did it when it was supposed to be done.

In my opinion, it is a wonderful lie, well thought out, well rehearsed, and a very effective one, because i think it contains elements of the truth. I may not be able to tell fact from fiction from most of the things he said, however not for a second do I believe, that he did it because he thought incriminating texts and calls had been recorded (no information has been offered towards the justification of those texts), and that somehow bowling 2 no-balls would bail him out of his fix. One of the main reasons for my disbelief of his version of the account of the incident itself, was due to his own account of an incident prior to the infamous Lord's test where Salman Butt had "jokingly" spoken about spot-fixing and Amir had equally casually brushed it aside. Amir then spoke about a second incident where Salman Butt once again broached the subject, and Amir claimed that he had responded with the words "yeh haraam hain" and once again refused him.  This is where the lie falls apart, I don't believe it is that easy to go from "haraam" to "aaraam". I think Amir is expecting a leap of faith from people to believe that he knew what he was doing was wrong, and still went and did it anyway. 

The arguments for him are extremely persuasive, he was just 18 years old; Salman Butt was the captain, how can he go against his captain, the one who had been supporting him all this while; he was put in a confused state by outside influences which clouded his judgment; he doesn't have the security and money of the IPL because since he has been around Pakistani players have no played in the cash cow league etc. However, the nail in his coffin would be the fact that he continually maintained his innocence till the day he plead guilty in court, the fact that even once he realised what he did was wrong he did not come out with the truth. He underwent a small jail-time for pleading guilty so that he does not have to face trial and see lame excuses like these shred to bits in a cross-examination, which eventually happened with the other two fellows. 

The interview may sway many in Pakistan to plead for leniency towards him, maybe even in the rest of the sub-continent, we are an emotional bunch. I doubt it will convince too many people elsewhere. It was not the convincing sort of interview which would completely win you over. It's the type of interview which will suit both sets of people who have already made up their mind. The side which feels he was a pawn and deserves leniency on that ground, as well as the ground of tender age and rare talent, will get enough fuel in this interview to voice that opinion. While the nay-sayers, the ones who feel that he should see out his ban and be rehabilitated, as well as the minority who believe he should never play again, will see enough in this interview to stick to their positions as well. 

One way or the other his loss is a shame and a sharp indictment of the sport. He could have been the jewel in the crown, (and may still be, if he serves out his entire 5 year ban he will be 23 when illegible to play again) of an extremely potent and possibly world beating bowling attack. There is no doubt that Pakistan have always had an embarrassment of riches when it comes to fast bowling talent, and there is also no doubt that Pakistan will continue to produce talented fast bowlers. However, does the team have an atmosphere where the only object of the game is to win, and nothing less is acceptable, I do believe that Misbah, the current selectors and the PCB brass have taken the first steps forward, but a lot more has to be done in order to educate, protect and financially reward talent so that the dangers of match fixing do not derail the rebuilding of cricket in Pakistan.

Monday, March 12, 2012

What now?

Everyone and his wife has written a tribute to Rahul Dravid, and to be fair, he deserves it, the man who went often un-applauded in his career, is finally being applauded in a manner in which he deserves. In Rahul Dravid, I think we had a player, who we will miss more now that he's gone. But now that he has gone, we must figure out what in the world to do with our batting line-up. 

I don't have the faintest inkling to what Sachin and Laxman are thinking, so i'll assume that they are not going anywhere for the next couple of series and thus pose my present conundrum. What now. 

One of the reasons Sehwag's complete hit or miss nature hasn't hurt us as bad over the past decade, has been the presence of a reassuring Rahul Dravid, as soon as Sehwag is dismissed. A new number 3, padded up with Sehwag on the crease, at times, may as well wear the helmet and be ready to go. That's a lot of pressure to pile on a young batsman, such as Kohli, but he has managed to absorb the pressure and perform in ODI's, so he seems almost a natural option. 

Now coming to the more vexing problem which is Virender Sehwag. He is now 33 years old and he has expressed a desire to move down the order when the seniors retire. So instead of inducting another new fellow in the middle order you move Sehwag down the order, and look for an opener instead. It's an easier, some times trickier, option as there is a smaller more identifiable pool of batsmen to pick from and I would assume selectors would normally look for people who open for their state side in the Ranji Trophy. 

So they could be tempted to give Murali Vijay another go, or someone like Abhinav Mukund one more shot. But the problem with that option is that Mukund has an average of 20 something from 10 innings, while Vijay has an average 30 from 20 innings, however remove the matches played at home and only look at away games, which is where Mukund has played all his games, Vijay's average drops to 19 or so from 12 innings. So both don't really make for spectacular numbers or inspire much confidence. 

Or you could go completely left field and go in for a Ajinkya Rahane, who has a decent first class record, and showed fleeting glimpses during the ODI's in England, that he could counter-attack the new ball with some good clean cricketing shots. He may be risky choice, but he is only 23, so if he succeeds, you have a long term prospect in hand. He would be my choice, if the selectors decided to shake things around and move Sehwag to the middle order.

In the extreme likelihood that the selection committee decides to persist with Sehwag as an opener, the debate then moves on to what should the middle order look like. Safely assuming that Sachin will remain at No. 4, do you promote Kohli to No. 3, or do you move VVS Laxman to No. 3, and move Kohli to No. 5, in order to groom him to eventually take over Tendulkar's slot, and therefore would need to start looking for a new No. 6 batsman. Basically the question is, do you fill your best batsman in whatever positions are available, or do you pick a person for a spot, like you would ordinarily do with your opening batsmen. I'm not against moving Kohli or Laxman to No. 3 quite frankly, and a new batsman would have an easier time at No. 6 if his top order is doing well, which they are more than likely to do in Indian conditions for the next 18 months. But the selectors will have to ensure in that situation, that they pick a batsman with no obvious flaws to a particularly delivery, especially short pitched bowling, because the Suresh Raina experiment showed extremely clearly, that if a batsman is unable to get past the flaw, through his technique, he may flourish in Indian conditions, but the moment the team tours, he becomes dead weight.

In that situation the selectors may be tempted to go in with a Cheteshwar Pujara, even though he has not done much barring his 72 on debut against the visiting Australians. I would pick him on the strength of his debut performance, in a pressure situation he was promoted on debut, and with his brief counter-attack he blunted a good portion of the Aussie spirit in that chase. The ability to handle the pressure on debut, still counts for a lot, and he also seemed to have the technique to be able to play a long innings once he gets in, and his past first class performances have been a testament to that fact. The arguments against him are many, he has been injured twice in quick succession for long periods of time, and has not done much in domestic cricket since the time he has come back from injury. 

If not Che Pujara, then who, a dubious case can be made for Rohit Sharma, who was in great form, and never played, and then got played after sitting on his ass for the better part of two months, and was in horrible form. He has been a trifle unlucky, and mostly daft in his batting, and though talented no doubt, just doesn't seem to have the attention span of anything more than a cricketing 12 year old. And why I am so critical of Rohit Sharma is that he can be only described as a complete waste of cricketing, and specifically batting talent. His fielding is a huge plus, and he could have (and still may) been such a wonderful find for the Indian cricket team across all formats. 

So the Indian selectors will probably look at Pujara, Rohit Sharma, Manoj Tiwary, maybe even Badrinath, who has been a stellar performer in the domestic circuit, but has age against him, being 30 plus, I doubt the Indian selectors will look at him as a long term prospect. My only hope is whoever they pick, has the same desire of wanting to become a test cricketer as much as Rahul Dravid did back in 1996, and he would now get an extended run in the side, and not spend his prime learning and growing years as a batsman, warming the bench or fetching drinks.

Monday, February 27, 2012

In the Spirit of Cricket

After the happenings in yesterday's game, and without really commenting on the impact that both those decisions had on the final result, i have a few thought's on what is out and not out in the context of the law's of cricket and as well as the so called spirit of the game.

Firstly, let's look at the Ian Bell run-out from the disaster that was the English Summer of 2011. Ian Bell thought the ball had gone over the rope, and was walking off to the Pavillion, thinking gleefully about the snack he was going to have with quite a few "did you see that one"'s to the rest of his teammates. The ball never really went out of play, and Praveen Kumar picked it up threw it back, one of the fielders took off the bails, while Ian Bell was casually strolling to the pavillion, honestly believing play had stopped, stupid yes, cheating or taking an unfair advantage, an emphatic no.

So when Dhoni, called him back, upon the insistence of the seniors, in an attempt to play to the Spirit of the game, it was applauded for that, because inherently everyone knew that it didn't really make a difference, they had not been good enough to get him out anyway, or anyone else for that matter, and when they would go on to lose, not only would they have lost, they would have done so, having taken advantage of something which had nothing to do with an active intention to commit an act on the playing field.

The Laws on this point are very clear though and tell a starkly different story. Law 38 of the Standard Test Match Playing Conditions clearly states that even if the batsman is not attempting a run, he is run-out if the ball is in play, and he is out of his crease, except for 4 or 5 express circumstances which are explained within Law 38 itself. So, as per the Law's of cricket, Ian Bell was clearly run-out. Take a quick look at Law 27 (Appeals) and you would get further supporting provisions, showing that India was within their rights to retain their appeal as per the Red-Letter law of the game. Even Rule 8 of Law 27 states that an Appeal may be withdrawn by the appealing team's captain, with the consent of the umpires, however, the act of withdrawing the appeal must be done before the batsman leaves the field of play, and even then, despite all the above if's and maybe's, the final decision still rests with the on-field umpires.

Therefore, it is a reasonably safe and logical conclusion that the umpires that day were so overwhelmingly in agreement with the sentiment of the Indian player's that they were prepared to bend quite a few rules of the game, such was the exceptional nature of the events of that afternoon. The drafter's of the rules try to make the rules and laws as foolproof as possible, but then sometimes some fools, just can't be accounted for.

However, the other three situations don't really fall under the category of someone thinking that play is over lets go eat, so let's look at higher ideal's of fair-play and the spirit of the game, these three situations deal with taking an unfair advantage so to speak over the other team, though in varying degrees of severity.The first one, where Ashwin mankaded Thirimanne, and Sehwag on Sachin's insistence withdrew the appeal, though Sehwag's response in the press conference, that they did it to avoid controversy, is slightly baffling. The fact that they withdrew the appeal is in itself quite baffling to me, and the fact that when you read the Laws of Cricket you realise, that it's the umpires who are completely in charge of the game, and if they chose to say at that time, "Hey Sehwag, you're a nice guy for letting them bat on, but this is expressly against the Law's of the Game. He was backing-up too far". Rule 15 of Law 42 (Fair and Unfair Play) clearly states that a bowler is permitted to do exactly that, and therefore the issue of spirit of the game would not arise itself, so where is the criticism or the controversy. And another disturbing off-shoot off that statement to me is that if a person is making decisions on field with the idea of avoiding controversy, then his concentration really can't be on winning.

The two events in yesterday's game though are a completely different ball-game. The David Hussey non-runout looked really bad, and couldn't have looked more deliberate, but the umpires believed that Hussey was protecting himself, even though the ball was much ahead of him, and did not give him out obstructing the field as they should have under Law 37 (Obstructing the field). Why did they not give him out then, because the umpires believe that it would be un-fair to David Hussey and consequently Australia to give him out as they believed he may have been attempting to protect himself. An extremely thin arguement, if you ask me, and not supported by the Law, other than the fact that the umpires are the final arbiters and that they believed that giving him out would be against the rules of fair play.

Then similarly with the Brett Lee - Sachin lovesong in the middle, Rule 5 of Law 42 (Fair and Unfair Play), leaves it to the umpires to determine whether the obstruction of the batsmen by the bowler was done wilfully or not, and if done wilfully, then it is within the umpires right to call a dead-ball. Now to determine intent in such a situation becomes next to impossible, and I am reasonably sure, the more people get away with such stunts the more it will gain popularity, it will become the equivalent of diving in football and flopping in basketball, which are criticized openly, but accepted as a part of the game because everyone does it.

The Laws, though extremely descriptive and valiantly attempt to be exhaustive, somewhere along the line leave too much discretion with the umpire and too much riding on concepts such as intent. Now this may sound farcical, but intent is all well and good for criminal trial under the legal concept of mens rea, but cannot be given too much importance in sport, because of the obvious reasons. This is where Dhoni's point in the press conference after yesterday's match validates my notion that we need to continue evolving the laws of cricket at a faster pace. Dhoni took up the analogy of a footballer who sticks his hand out while in the Box away from his body, whether or not his act was intended to stop the ball, and the ball strikes the hand, it would result in an automatic penalty.

In a similar manner, if batsman sticks his hand out whether or not he was trying to protect himself, and the ball strikes the outstretched hand, the batsman should be given out, if at that point of time the batsman was attempting a run and he was out of his crease. The Lee-Sachin scenario becomes slightly more tricky, but can be solved by just removing the determination of whether the bowler intended to do so or not, and let it remain at only on a simple determination of whether the batsman was obstructed without attributing any mal-intent on the part of the bowler. If the bowler somehow manages to obstruct the batsman through sheer dumb luck and the batsman is run-out, that would be enough for the umpires to give the batsman not-out and continue with proceedings. Because it is too easy for bowlers to say, I was just fielding the ball or attempting to receive a throw etc, make it the bowlers job to avoid the batsman and not vice versa, the problem would be solved there itself, and the life of the umpire a whole lot easier, and not subject to the vagaries of our romantic idea's and concepts such as the spirit of the game.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The ODI Captain

I have always been a fan of MS Dhoni's leadership style and captaincy style, of taking risks and making calculated gambles. He displayed that during the course of the recently concluded year, where he promoted himself up the batting order in a world cup final, during a tight chase, and won the cup for India. It is such inspired captaincy for which MS Dhoni will be described for years to come as India's greatest captain ever. He has even done so previously in test cricket to great effect, when he promoted Cheteshwar Pujara to one down down in a tricky chase at home against the Aussies.
However, one has to admit that his away captaincy in test matches off late has not lived up to its ODI and home test counterparts. Dhoni seems to me to be a captain who prefers turners at home, which is all right quite frankly, why shouldn't we make pitches which suit our bowling strengths. However, the worrying thing to me is he seems to be a captain who quickly runs out of ideas, with his fast bowling resources, which may have been meagre at times, but it cannot be said he has made full use of them.
Another thing which is very striking about Dhoni is his amazing ability to construct innings in tense situations in ODI games, while at the same time in parrarel his complete inability to do so effectively and consistently in tests in similar situations. Whether his captaincy feeds of his batting or vice versa, it is, in my view MS Dhoni who will decide the fate of this series.
Sachin, Rahul, Laxman, they have always been good, but they couldnt bring back the world cup or win a series in Australia. When the going got really tough, they often got going but they were either hamstrung by lack of support or by marauding unstoppable opponents. This time they are not faced with opposition of the calibre which has thwarted them in the past and they themselves are not past their prime. All they now need is MS Dhoni to be MS Dhoni, the creative, innovative, risk taking captain that he inherently is, and a first and last test series win in Australia will finally be theirs.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Open Letter to the BCCI regarding empty stadiums

To: The BCCI,

Dear Sirs,

I am an avid cricket watcher, both on television as well as live. I enjoy test matches as well, in fact, i prefer watching test cricket to the other formats available at hand. However, that does not mean that i did not avidly follow the Indian cricket team during it's landmark world cup win this year, in fact i saw every match possible on television, and went for the one in my city as well. And i do feel you didn't get enough credit for hosting a very well organised world cup, and your selectors also did a good job in selecting an excellent team.

I do feel however, of the need to inform you of a certain problem which has crept into test cricket in India, which may well be the death of the longer format of the game in itself, and merely saying that enough people watch it on television, is a simply a method of dodging the problem. Stands are completely empty, people don't want to come to watch test matches live anymore. Some people disagree with this position, and so do you sometimes when one of you decides to actually address the issue, "that look the world cup was this year, off course there will be viewer fatigue for a while, but wait people will start watching cricket in stadiums again". I truly hope that what you say is true for all formats, but i do feel that for T20's and ODI's (till the next world cup at least), you will fill stadiums. However, in the coming seasons of test cricket, after these stalwarts retire, filling up stands for test cricket will become even more difficult.

The problem in my view, with regard to the live viewing experience is two fold: (1) in the administration of the sale of tickets for test matches and (2) the lack of regard for any sort of spectator comfort. Take for example, the first test match of the series between India and the West Indies at the Feroz Shah Kotla in New Delhi, which has a capacity of approximately 48,000 and saw a crowd of around 12,000 per day on the two holidays which coincided with the test, the rest of the days, the crowds were visibly lesser. This is despite the fact that Sachin was nearing his 100th test centiry on the final day of the test. The two sections of the crowd which were the most populated were the West and East Stands. Now people who know the Delhi Stadium, know that these are the cheapest tickets available for tests, costing Rs. 100 per day or Rs. 500 for the entire test, the rest of the tickets were either unavailable or substantially more expensive. However, the least costly stands were the only ones which were full, the corporate seats were empty, the more expensive tickets went unsold, the obligatory tickets went waste and those seats were empty as well. The "free jugaad tickets" that every delhi-ite knows about were not even in demand, as they are when there is a T20 match or an ODI, and so the stands went empty. This is despite the fact that many people were trying to figure out where to buy tickets, and were unable to do so. In today's information age, the fact that the BCCI and the state cricket associations, which in this case is the DDCA can't even provide information to the general public where tickets are available to be purchased is bordering on ludicrous. This can only be attributed to administrative lethargy, which you as a powerful cricket board can rectify quickly.

The lack of spectator comfort is a slightly more problematic issue which would require further cooperation of the state cricket associations. Take for example once again the Feroz Shah Kotla in New Delhi, where both the heavily populated East and West Stands were the ones which were in the worst condition and had the worst viewing experience. The metal grill is so high, that if you want to sit close to the action, you have to watch the entire match through the grill, and if you go far back enough to watch the match above the girll, you've reached the part of the stand covered by the upper storey and all the seats have bird-shit on them. The food provided is ridiculous, not that you would feel like eating with bird shit around you, and they don't even sell you water bottles, it's water by the plastic glass for Rs. 15. This is the kind of thing which completely ruins the entire "event" and the idea of a great time spent with friends and family at a test match.

Unless these problems, both with ticket sale and with the grounds itself, are solved, people like me who saw their first test match when Nayan Mongia smashed 152 against Mark Taylor's Australians, or when Kumble took 10 wickets and Gadar'd the entire Pakistani Batting Line Up, or when even as recently as 2008, where Laxman and Gambhir both scored double centuries in a tame draw which wound up being Kumble's last test, will stop coming to cricket stadiums because after a point, when all your heroes are gone, getting tickets is inconvenient, getting through the security is an Airport-esque experience but with police armed with a lesser understanding of your electronics or your need for coins to buy things, and staying and watching with salmonella for company, why would you bother.