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This is a hair-pun-free zone August 25, 2006

Posted by ramanand in Cricket, Ramanand.
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Man, what a mess. A bunch of babies in their nappies could hardly have made a bigger mess. And given that we have “top” legal teams in the fray (isn’t the fact that these lawyers already boast of a sterling track record in football and tennis litigation an indication of the state of modern sport?), the stink raised can only complement the bawling of journos and former players all over. With babies at least, you can change their diapers and give them a wash.

In particular, the volume has been the highest in the chatter from England, Australia and Pakistan. Pakistan has already declared Darrell Hair some kind of slimy monster (the “Go Back” poster in the linked article is hilarious, given that he is at home in England and suggests that the sub-contintental cottage industry of protest material is thriving), producing this wonderfully absurd comparison between Hair and a toothbrush moustache by Hairy, sorry, Harry Pearson. In England, the controversy has, in its wake, triggered off a rash of hirsute puns. This has become so infectious that no phrase remotely related to a bunch of dead cells is safe from writers. (I have had to be so vigilant in avoiding this fever that it has left me eyeing relatives of rabbits instead of whiskets to raise and pull out). A majority of English commentators have been in favour of Haq’s haqs. This in turn has brought down upon them, the collective ire of the Aussies, who say that Woolmer’s past form is as good as a prize horse in matters of tampering and attacking the English hacks for cooing for Pakistani haqs.

As a neutral, I must say I have greatly enjoyed the spate of wonderfully opinionated writing that has been suddenly unleashed. Every position on the three sides of the fence has been taken and attacked. I loved this bit by John Stern of The Wisden Cricketer:

But back to the Oval. I’m wondering how this issue will come to be labelled by cricket history. It doesn’t seem to have a ready tag. ‘Bad Hair Day’ makes a nice headline but is more of a judgment than a description;


So now we know why the ICC moved to Dubai: they needed more sand to stick their heads in.

Reactions from the Aussie press and ex-players has been unanimous. Perhaps this can be ascribed to the fact that since last year, we have been in the middle of one long war stretching from side to side of the Equator: a war that never really went away, but simply simmered, and is just starting to prepare for one long boil that will climax pretty soon. Meanwhile, the Aussie cricketers rough it out in their “jungle camp” as the dogfight resumes in London.

The South Africans left Sri Lanka because of security concerns. I hope someone will soon ask: Is it now safe to play cricket anywhere?

[Sorry for all the bad pun-ditry. It’s a hair-pun-free zone now. Starting now.]


Indian Cricket: Back to negative tactics? June 28, 2006

Posted by Aniket in Aniket, Cricket.

Since it’s inception in the 1930s, Indian cricket has always been known for it’s negative tactics. The sole aim was not to lose test matches . A draw was considered to be almost as good as a victory. Indians always played to save the test, right from day one. And if playing abroad, a draw was the equivalent of a victory. After all, how can you expect Indians to win abroad? That would be such an abuse of the hospitality of the host team. Such digression was unacceptable from the ‘gentlemanly’ Indian cricketers. And it was this negativity that took us 20 years to win our first test & 15 more to win our first test abroad.
Indian test captains were always known for their negative approach to the game. Right from Merchant, who introduced this approach to both Bombay & Indian cricket, followed by Hazare, Mankad, Borde, Wadekar, Bedi, Gavaskar, Kapil Dev and a few more. It is no surprise that the last two in this list hold the record for most number of draws as captain. In between, Tiger Pataudi came as a breath of fresh air with his positive attitude towards the game. But normal service was resumed right after his retirement and Indian cricket went back to the boredom of negative cricket. Even 5 match series’ would end 0-0 and 14 tests between India and Pakistan during the 70s and 80s produced no result.
All this seemed to change with the appointment of Sourav Ganguly as the captain of the Indian cricket team. He, along with John Wright, seemed to change the team’s attitude towards cricket. Swashbuckling players like Yuvraj Singh & Virender Sehwag found a place in the test team, something which was unthinkable in the past. Attacking bowlers like Harbhajan Singh got much needed support from the attacking tactics of Ganguly. No wonder that in a 5 year span as captain of India, he led India to more test victories than anyone before him. His outspoken tactics totally changed the face of Indian cricket and overseas test victories in Australia, England, West Indies & Pakistan proved that Indians were no more lions at home and chickens abroad. But his batting deteriorated & soon came the time when the selectors felt that he could contribute no more to Indian cricket and dropped him from the team, leaving the captaincy in the hands of Rahul Dravid. The board also appointed the brash and outspoken Greg Chappell as coach in place of John Wright and it was believed that he would ensure that the aggressive streak brought into the team by Ganguly would not die. Unfortunately it has. And the test series in the Carribean is a sorry reminder of this grim reality.
In the first test, India was on the back foot after conceding a huge lead. But a timely second innings fightback gave the Indians a great chance of victory. However, they failed to bundle out the West Indies’ tail and the match was drawn. They held the upper hand for most of the second test but the weather ensured that the match ended in a draw, though one gets the feeling that if someone like Waugh was captain, he would have seen the weather forecast and might even have declared early. But that didn’t happen and the series was still 0-0 when the third test began. The Windies dominated the 3rd test right from the beginning but a sporting declaration from Brian Lara gave the Indians an attainable target of 392 and a result seemed likely.
The hardest part of such run-chases is getting off to a good start. The Indians had a great start, thanks to a century partnership between Sehwag & Jaffer who took India to lunch with all ten wickets in hand. Sehwag departed immediately after luch but the arrival of Laxman at no. 3 showed that the Indians were going for the win. The arrival of Dravid didn’t slow the innings much and at tea, with India at 200 for 2, a victory seemed probable. The fall of Laxman brought Dhoni to the wicket which showed that the Indians meant business. And a six from Dhoni off the first ball he faced made this clear. But what happened after that was totally incomprehensible to say the least. Dravid withdrew into his shell and left the task of scoring to Dhoni. The singles dried up and the asking rate which was a gettable 6 during Laxman’s stay at the crease suddenly rose to above 7. Then Dhoni was dismissed and the Great Indian Run Chase came to a grinding halt, despite the fact that India’s two best One-day players, Yuvraj & Kaif, were yet to come. India (read Dravid) decided to go in for the draw when the only two possible results were either an Indian victory or a draw. A Windies victory was very unlikely, after all Harbhajan Singh & Kumble are no mugs with the bat and Dravid was still at the crease. But Dravid decided to be satisfied with a draw . What hurt most was not the fact that the match was drawn, indeed a win was never a total certainty, but the Indian approach & the time at which the Indians gave in and settled for a draw. This was just another proof of Dravid’s negative approach to captaincy which was evident throughout the series.
Hard questions have to be asked now. Has India gone back to square one? What has the aggressive and hard-talking Chappell contributed if India still settles for a draw from a winning position? And is Dravid, with his negative mindset, both while batting and captaining, the right choice as captain? Indeed it wouldn’t be too harsh to say that it was his batting that cost us the game. These questions have to be answered right now. We might go on to win the last test & then all this will be forgotten. But these questions will soon arise again, and Indian cricket cannot go ahead without providing a satisfactory answer to them.

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

Posted by Arnold in Arnold, Cricket.

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.

The Monty Ball Problem May 28, 2006

Posted by ramanand in Cricket, Ramanand.

On the first day of the 2nd Test between Sri Lanka and England at Edgbaston, the Lankan batsmen found themselves making a familiar journey from and to the pavilion in rapid succession. But for me as a neutral observer, the highlight of the morning was when Monty Panesar spectacularly dropped Lasith Malinga at mid-off . The ball looped droopily as if voluntarily seeking a pair of warm palms to avoid the chill, but Panesar contrived to hold his hands such as to form an event horizon of a rather leaky black hole. The Ministry of Silly Walks would have approved.

I tried to avoid using the word "incompetent" above, but in all fairness to the epitome of the species known as the "amiable Sardar", there's no more fitting epithet. What surprises me most is how Monty made his way to this high a level of the sport without having such a problem being given a penicillin shot. The days of ambling amateurs who could do just one thing very well (as Panesar no doubt can with his left-armers) are equivalent to the Dark Ages to modern coaches who grimly drop the likes of Anil Kumble (the subject of a lament on this blog) for reasons such as suspect fielding and batting in limited overs cricket. Perhaps by 2050, we will see teams saturated with five-dimensional players, i.e. all-rounders who can field, keep and even captain, a dream that will have most coaches drool in their sleep. The irony is that the same team that has in Andrew Flintoff the closest to a full four-dimensional player in cricket, also has Panesar replacing Ashley Giles, the previous incumbent of the "soloist trial" dock. England would prefer to hide Monty in the field in the little hole-in-the-ground that holds the bat-pad helmet, but that would be little solace to the spinner who is usually left wishing for much larger chasms ever since he dropped Dhoni in the last Bombay Test match. He has a tendency to make amends though; he caught Dhoni later in the same match while dismissing Malinga off his own bowling in this instance.

In all the professional flavours of modern sports, everything is strategised, margins are carefully pared away, and support staffs strain so that the quirks of luck are not all left to chance. Which is why such sights as Monty's fielding are rare to see these days. Mistakes at the highest of levels are caused by pressure situations and overworked players, and rarely by sustained ineptitude any more, which is a bit of a pity for the casual observer. The current series between India and West Indies have seen a bunch of utility players who can all bat, and so it's going to be a while before anyone puts on a performance like Courtney Walsh in whose hands the bat could be anything you imagine, except for an instrument to score runs. So when the same Walsh battles out overs to allow Lara at the other end to score a 1-wicket victory over the Aussies, you are permitted a chuckle. Or when uncertified madmen like Réné Higuita rush out to the half-line only to turn back and see the ball dribbling into the unguarded citadel. These things don't tend to happen much these days, and remain the preserve of soppy nostalgics. The phrase "human element" gets bandied a lot these days, and is usually a euphemism for "oops, I've done it again". With the players playing the percentages, it is left to Messrs. Bucknor, Terje Hauge and even the double act of Rauf-Doctrove to be custodians of the right to goof up.

So apart from providing writers with a opportunities to earn their daily roTii while having a good laugh, where does that leave poor old Monty? For one, the prospects of dropping Ricky Ponting when Australia are 12/3 in the 1st Ashes Test in 2007, and worse, having those "friendly" men rub it in, is too bone-chilling to contemplate. That something has to be done and soon is evident to Fletcher-Vaughan-Flintoff and co., despite Freddy's brave "I hope it's not catching" banter. Although we've taken the mickey out of the poor spinner, everyone seems to think very kindly of it all as Mike Brearley writes. His progress will be watched keenly over what should be a reasonably decent career even for an English tweaker. Till then, we'll try to resist the bait of silly comedy, but not before one final word from the resident pun-dit who thinks that right now, as far as fielding goes, Monty's name is Madh.

An ode to Anil bhaiyya May 25, 2006

Posted by Abhishek in Abhishek, Cricket.
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The name Anil, is commonly used in literature, especially by native writers – to indicate that they aren’t simply aping the ("western") books they read, by having protagonists with names like Michael and James. Anil is usually your neighbourhood boy-turned-society saviour and a perfect example of the powerless protagonist. Anil gets the vegetable for his mother, marries off his sister and ensures that the bills are paid. Anil can also play the trusted manservant to a flamboyant Karan, the close confidante to the beautiful Soniya or Rakesh's ever present chauffeur. 'Anil' – short, sweet and uncomplicated; the name itself belying decency and probably, a degree of impotency. Kumble's parents, therefore, could not have chosen a better name for him.


'Anil' is the perfect moniker for a man who is India's leading wicket-taker, the scion of the Indian spin attack for ages and only the second man to have taken 10 wickets in an innings, and still finds himself outside of the one-day team and out of favour with the selectors. Anil is the perfect name for a boy, who would fulfill his task to the hilt, and then run off the pitch before photographers could get a chance to get to him. Here one is reminded of the ever effervescent Manchester United and ex-England midfielder Paul Scholes, whose story we shall reserve for another day. Anil Kumble, in short is the possible hero of the day, who never got his due. Much, like Amitabh Bachchan's Jay in Sholay, he won every time – only to die in the end.

OK, maybe I am being a bit ruesome here. Yes, nobody denies Kumble's efforts as a class bowler. Nobody denies that Kumble is India’s highest wicket-taker; nobody denies that he took 10 wickets in an innings and has been the architect of many a India victory. Yet, no-one sticks his head out to say, Kumble is the best spinner India has produced – leave alone India’s best bowler. Kumble gets his due as 'a son of Karnataka' but never as a 'son of India' and more so, Indian cricket. I will be very surprised, if one day Kumble was to win the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award.



The image that most comes to mind is the one of an injured Kumble soldiering on with a broken jaw during India’s last tour to the West Indies, in what turned out to be another fruitless errand, another what-could-have-been. What Kumble deserves is a grand send-off into the sunset. I know, he will be the last to accept that the end is nigh, though by giving him an automatic place in every ODI till the World Cup, much like they turn to him in tests we will ensure that we get Kumble’s best during the WC. Replacing him with Ramesh Powar is laughable indeed, a trading of tried and tested pure gold, for silver-plated brass. Powar might yet mature, but putting Kumble’s neck to the altar is a little bit more that I can digest. If Ramesh Powar is being labeled as the ‘find of the season’ by the BCCI admiralty, the quality of the Indian new-comers is questionable indeed.


In spite of all this, the Anil in the Kumble carries on, involved multitudinally with cricket, via his interests in software and his company. And for a quiet man, Kumble’s role as the head of the unofficial Indian player’s association in remarkable indeed. But as long as Kumble is not given what he merits, unfortunately he will remain another has-been in India’s cricketing history, another powerless protagonist in an unremarkable novel.