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Advantage Paes-Mirza? July 2, 2006

Posted by Arnold in Arnold, Tennis.
1 comment so far

How many of you’ll think that Leander Paes (or maybe Mahesh Bhutpathi) and Sania Mirza should pair up in the Mixed Doubles?

And how many of you’ll think they will?

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Too Much Cricket or Too Few Players? June 24, 2006

Posted by Arnold in Arnold, Cricket.
3 comments

I've been particularly surprised by the amount of attention this whole issue of "player burnout" in cricket has been given. Here's how I see it.

There is a market for a certain amount of cricket. Good business strategy would involve trying to ensure that as much cricket as possible is played without exceeding the demand that there is for it. All the cricket boards are business organizations and would thus do what they can to maximize their profits. There is nothing wrong in this. And certainly the amount of cricket being played currently doesn't seem to be too much for the public to handle.

The question that then arises is — Are cricketers able to cope up with this much cricket physically, mentally and otherwise? Having never played the sport myself at anything that even comes close to a professional level, I do not feel that I am personally qualified to make this judgment. In fact, I think it's a personal decision by each player to decide how much cricket he feels his body can take.

What if this figure that the player decides for himself does not match with the amount of cricket his national team has to play in the calendar year? As the amount of cricket being played increases, this is becoming more and more true. And hence we have players complaining. What is to be done?

I think cricket would do well to take a look at, and learn some lessons from, its American cousin — baseball. The job of a Major League Baseball starting pitcher is one of the hardest and most physically tasking in professional sport. An MLB team's regular season consists of better than 150 games. And then there's the post-season. No pitcher, no matter how great, can be expected to pitch every game. It's just not physically possible. To tackle this problem, teams rely on that time-tested strategy of rotation. A pitcher plays only one of out every 4-5 games. (Also a pitcher who starts the game will rarely pitch through to the end, but this solution is not possible to adopt in cricket since there aren't really any "substitutions" in cricket.)

I believe rotation is the key to the current problem in international cricket. Don't play your best eleven every match. Instead of a squad of 20 players whom you expect to carry you through the year, increase your squad size to 30-35 players. And use them in rotation. This forces teams to ensure that they have a deep bench and a good "second" team. Having just 3-4 match winners will no longer cut it, since they can't play every game. Teams with more depth in their lineups will naturally do better in the long run and this is what's important in the end.

The amount a particular player is used in the rotation policy depends on a number of factors like how fit that player is, what his role in the team is (an allrounder might play less games since his task his harder), the quality of the player, etc. The players' contracts would also be decided dependent the amount the board plans to use them. In other words, the more you play the more you earn. (One big difference between the MLB and the cricket boards is that while baseball players frequently shift clubs, cricketers tend not to "shift" countries.)

Some people might feel that this rotation policy would lead to a reduction in the level and quality of the sport. I don't think this is true. The slight drop in level, due to the fact that you won't the best twenty-two playing all the time, will be made up for by the fact that your players are less fatigued when they do play and hence can perform better. Besides, with more top-level match experience, the "second string" players will automatically improve and close the gap between them and the first eleven. Also, the rotation needs to be done carefully so as not to have all your first eleven resting for any particular game. Rotation would also mean that stress related injuries should reduce, and this can only be good for the game.

And at the end of the day, the cricketing boards will be happy because the increased number of games will fill their coffers up faster.

There’s “Fair Play”, and Then There’s Fair Play June 20, 2006

Posted by Arnold in Arnold.
3 comments

Sport, to me, is all about winning fairly. You have to win and you have to do it fairly. "Fair" in a sporting context means two things — legally fair and ethically fair. In order to ensure that the players abide by the first, we have rules and officials to see that they are followed. But what about the ethical factor? Who looks after that? Does it even matter?

I'm writing this post after having seen the Mavericks employ the "Hack-a-Shaq" play against the Heat; so I'll start off with that. Is "Hack-a-Shaq" fair? By the current rules of the NBA, it certainly is. And when you're playing for the Championship, you're going to use every little trick you can to help get you there.

Does "Hack-a-Shaq" improve the quality of the game? No, it doesn't. Does it call for any special skills to be employed? No. Does it add to the viewing pleasure of watching the game? No. According to me, it actually detracts from it. And yet, since it's legal and, at times, the most sensible game plan, you can't blame the opposing team from using it.

What about walking a batter in baseball? Two away, second and third base loaded, you see a guy who's hitting .400 walking up to bat with a lousy hitter on deck to follow. What do you do? Walk him, of course. Again, this does not improve the quality of the game in any way. In fact, I don't like watching a batter being intentionally walked at all. But as long as it remains legal and the smartest choice to make (Game Theory-wise, at least), you'd be a fool not to do it.

So what is to be done about it? I think we can do with changing some of the rules to start with. Tighten the rules to make ethical fouls into legal ones. In basketball this has already been done many times in the past. Examples include the introduction of the 24-second shot clock, 8-second half-court violation, 3-second defensive violation etc. Football authorities (FIFA) too have gone some way in criminalizing ethical fouls. The no nonsense attitude of referees toward diving and play-acting is evidence of the same.

With respect to "Hack-a-Shaq", I would suggest having "away from the ball" fouls fetch one free throw and retained possession for the entire fourth quarter, instead of only the final two minutes, as is the current rule.

I don't believe this is "trying to change the rule book in order to protect one particular person". I just think it improves the quality of the game.

India and the Cup June 17, 2006

Posted by Arnold in Arnold, Football WC.
3 comments

I’m sure every Indian who’s been following the FIFA World Cup has at some point or the other stopped to ponder upon the woefulness of our very own football team. How is it that countries like Trinidad and Tobago or Angola can field a team while India can’t?  Let’s look at the possible reasons:

A. There is an anti-Indian propaganda in the football world and FIFA fixes matches to ensure that India doesn’t qualify.
B. The qualifying system is skewed in such a way that for a team to qualify from Asia it has to be much better than one than qualifies easily from a zone like the CONCACAF.
C. The Indian team isn’t as good as Angola.

Ignore the first option as a pitiful joke from my pitiful mind. Let’s look at the second option. FIFA’s aim with the current qualifying system obviously isn’t to have the top 32 football playing countries in world compete in the Finals. It wants to have the best teams subject to certain other geographical representation criteria. Is this fair? I think it is to an extent. If it weren’t there I’m sure we would have to scrap the name “World Cup” and call it the “Europe – South America Championship”.

However, equal representation to all zones obviously isn’t the way out either. Otherwise we’d have the World Cup turning into a farce with teams like Western Samoa qualifying from the Oceania zone. So we need a balance between getting the best teams and giving all the football zones a ‘fair’ representation. FIFA believes that their current qualifying system matches this criterion and hence it is in place. If you think it isn’t fair to India, spare a thought for countries from the South American zone. Uruguay and Colombia, far better teams than India, couldn’t make it out of that group.

Moving to option C. Is the Indian team good enough to play in the World Cup? I have grave personal doubts about this. Looking at the 32 teams in the tournament, I find it hard to pick even a single team that I feel India can beat unless the opponents play blindfolded. (I feel Brazil might beat India even with this restriction.)

I think a strong argument for my case can be made by looking at the clubs that these footballers play for. Even the apparent ‘whipping dogs’ of the World Cup have a fair number of players playing for European clubs. Most of them even have one or two that play for big clubs. (Think Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, Dwight Yorke, Kolo Toure etc.) India, on the other hand, can boast of no such thing. Apart from Bhaichung Bhutia’s short spell at a practically unknown English club, no other names come to mind. This isn’t because Indians are so patriotic that they would choose to forsake the big money in Europe and play for a local club. They simply aren’t good enough.

Why aren’t Indian footballers good enough? One frequent complaint is lack of money and infrastructure in the sport. While I am under no delusion about the pitiful condition of sporting facilities in the country, I find it hard to believe that most of the African countries have it much better. They’re just better natural athletes (and probably with more natural talent too). You’d think India, with a population many times that of these smaller countries, would be able to find at least 11 men capable of taking them on. But where are they?

Football in India obviously loses out on popularity to cricket. But I think that’s more of an effect than a cause. You need some success in Indian football before you can hope for the sport to become popular here. Of course, as far as the foreseeable future is concerned, that is merely a vain hope.