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.