Spun and Bounced
When Dhoni spoke candidly after the 1st test at Motera, it were the words of a relieved captain who had just collected an unlikely victory. These low and slow pitches killed games as winning the toss and batting first was often enough to decide the contest. And if you have lost tosses as often Dhoni has, you would understand his apprehension that India could very well find itself in a similar predicament to the English team in the remaining tests. The game should reflect the performance of the cricketers and not be decided by Lady Luck.
Dhoni’s call for pitches to spin and bounce from Day 1 got a lot of negative press and much illogical commentary. Wickets in India assist spin the same way wickets in Australia suit pace and bounce and the same way wickets in England suit seam and swing. This is precisely what test cricket is all about—a test of your abilities under difficult and changing conditions. Normally the advantage in this instance would lie with the team more familiar with the conditions, usually the home team.
So it was understandable that Dhoni would ask for pitches that made it a fair contest by making the toss irrelevant. The only miscalculation on his part was the belief that his underperforming team was able to tackle the English team that has been seasoned in these conditions over the past year. What Dhoni needed was every advantage for his team. By making the contest equitable he ensured that the better team was likely to win. And that better team just happens to be England.
While their batsmen have shown the occasional fragility, England have been adept at combating their traditional weakness against spin. English batsmen have been patient and exploited any scoring opportunities. Their spinners have bowled to a plan and made the best use of the conditions on offer. Their fielders have backed up their bowlers by drying up runs and effecting run outs as a bonus. They have been thorough in their preparation and performance.
In comparison the Indian batting has been insipid, the bowling inaccurate and the fielding lethargic. Apart from the 1st test where he ran through the English lineup, Pragyan Ojha has not been ably backed up by his partner R. Ashwin. As a pair they have been out-bowled by Monty Panesar and Co. Ashwin has been so wildly inconsistent that one painfully yearns for the metronomic darts of Harbhajan Singh. He did not get many wickets but Harby did not leak easy runs either. The team as a whole has not created enough batting, bowling or fielding pressure on England.
The delusion that we were still good at home was simply that—a delusion. We reasoned that the 8 losses in England and Australia were mostly missing players and ageing seniors. But there is no hiding from the back to back thrashings by England. This is no aberration or fluke, this should have been entirely expected. That Dhoni and the team management believed they had a chance in this contest was self-delusion. And that the powers to be will still vacillate on reforming Indian cricket shows the depths of this denial. And that more than the mounting losses is the real tragedy.
(An aside: It did cross my mind that may be this was an attempt by Dhoni to brutally expose how poor this team really is. By calling for pitches that gave England a real chance of winning, it was a plot to clean the deck. Surely home defeats would prompt the board to sit up and notice? May be this was a desperate call to arms for someone to finally act? A cry for help! Eventually I accepted that these were the workings of a not too sober mind who has read far too many spy novels.)
We know there is a line that you can’t cross, but we’ll be pushing that line.
Bad Light, Worse Sense
The first test of the southern summer has concluded with Australia romping to a 9 wicket victory with a day and half left to play and New Zealand ruing their pre-game bluster and in-game debacle. The Blackcaps continued to show usual frailties while Australia discovered some of their missing spunk.
In all it was hardly a remarkable game (even with James Pattinson spicing it up with a triple wicket maiden) but I would like to draw your attention to certain events that might illuminate (pun totally intended) some of the inconsistencies and irregularities that the International Cricket Council foists upon us.
Rain was on the radar from Day 1 and it was expected that bad light would come into play at some stage. Prudently both captains had agreed to the use of floodlights (why this is not mandated is one mystery we will set aside for now) and so play was likely to continue for as long as physically possible.
Yet here we were on Day 2 as Asad Rauf and Aleem Dar chose to call off play when the light seemed no worse but only because the lightmeter had registered a threshold set the previous day. As the players walked back to the shed to loud boos, you could not help but feel that cricket has a knack for finding insidious ways to push fans away.
Umpires deciding the light is a good change you say. Well its hardly in the hand of umpires but the almighty lightmeter. Is there something quantifiable being measured here? Is there a baseline reading that has been empirically tested as adequate for play to continue? How much has the level of play degraded due to loss of light? Have these devices even been tested under varying light conditions?
All of these are reasonable questions but its futile to expect any answers from the ICC. An organisation that does not even feel warranted to test various components of the DRS prior to full implementation is hardly going to worry about such frivolities. Just trust the ICC mandarins and accept it as an technological improvement. Why be a luddite?
I do not place the blame on messrs Rauf and Dar who were following the letter of the law but squarely at the administrators who seem hell bent on needless changes at every opportunity. While their intentions might be good, the consequences are anything but. When technology trumps common sense, you just have to wonder.
The bad light call was hardly the only incident lacking sense on the day. Lunch was delayed by 15 mins to allow the completion of the New Zealand first innings. On facevalue this is an excellent rule change as it prevents the loss of any playing time at changeover. But that is not how it played out. Right on cue the Kiwis lost their last wicket and Australia had to bat. The two overs we were supposed to save by extending play? Wasted.
Logic would suggest that if lunch has been delayed, it can also be brought forward but that would be too practical. You see the fans are better served with a needless 10 min break followed by 2 overs of cricket followed by a 40 min break. Far more sensible than calling lunch when the New Zealand innings ended with the added bonus of not losing any playing time.
These are not isolated incidents but symptomatic of an organisation that is all too happy to make arbitrary changes at the highest level of the game without any trials. The impact of these changes are poorly considered (DRS anyone?). Why do the due dilligence when it will be simpler to tweak the rules yet again next year? After all, it is better for the game.
Originally written for The Sight Screen after the first test in the Australia v New Zealand series.
"Dare to go past what is possible. Past what is impossible. To the place where the possible and the impossible meet to become…the possimpible."
Barney Stinson may have been joshing but Virender Sehwag is certainly the best exemplar of this funda in world cricket. Over a decade long career, he has not only pushed the limits of batmanship but more often than not has achieved what many would consider impossible. Like Barney he has scored and scored fast.
He was not the first to make a triple hundred in test cricket, but he was the first to do it faster than a run a ball. He was not the first to reach a double hundred in ODI cricket, but he was the first to hint at something even bigger. Nobody has scored 16,000 international runs or 37 tons at a faster pace.
But within Viru and his achievements lies a contradiction. While he has confirmed his status as an all-time great test opener, Viru’s performance in ODIs has been muted. Viru the ODI batsman, pales in comparison to the body of work offered by Viru the test batsman. How can someone be better at tests and not ODIs?
It seems counter-intuitive but for Viru ODIs might just be harder than test cricket. In essence Viru has less freedom in ODIs compared to tests. Defensive fields and limited time force him to premeditation. The patience and clarity of mind he shows in tests is pushed aside for belligerence and occassional forced errors.
Critics have latched on to these “failures” and deemed him “careless”. Viru’s batting style can be baffling to us because he sees opportunity where others see risk. He shows intent where others show caution. He might look indifferent or even bored but he hardly wavers from his mission of putting bad balls away.
What has changed recently by nature and not compulsion, is his desire to bat for time. Viru admitted that it was his experience that made the 219 possible. It is the realization that time even in an ODI is malleable, that he can wait for the bowler to make the mistake. Sachin trailed the path of minimising risk without losing his effectiveness. Viru might have reached the epiphany that he does not have to manufacture a shot to be deadly.
As a new standard has been set in ODI cricket, we can only imagine what heights Viru will scale in coming years. Marshalling India to back to back World Cup victories would be on the agenda. More pertinent would be changing opinions and challenging dogmas, reshaping the game for a new audience. If Viru has proven anything, it is that nothing and everything is possimpible.
It is like giving a machine gun to a monkey.
All About Timing
It is an oft-repeated refrain that batting is all about timing. Whether you are a weekend club hack or a seasoned professional, timing a ball is the holy grail. Where punchy bats and pliant boundaries have driven the game into brute-force violence, the sight of an arcing willow sweetly caressing the ball through the gaps is evocative. It is the thrill of a batsman achieveing complete mastery not just over the bowler but also space and time.
Timing is also important when a legend finally decides to call it a day. Hollywood endings are few and far between and cricketing lore is packed with instances when players have left too early. Off late the reverse appears to be true. Some players have been pushed, others unceremoniously dumped. Some continue to flourish without a finale in sight. And then there is Ricky Ponting.
If you time it right, you leave on your own terms. It might mean some goals remain just that, but you get the one chance to shape the memory you leave behind. Staying too long is a duel with only one winner: time. A losing battle against your diminishing abilities, increased scrutiny and unforgiving adversaries. These battling years erase the romance of the past and become a part of your legacy. Stay too long and someone else writes your epitaph.
It is not all surprising that Ponting feels he can reverse his fortunes. Undoubtedly he is heartened by the unlikely renaissance of Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar in recent times. Nor is it entirely impossible given how poor most test attacks are these days. He could yet rise like the phoenix against his favourite punching bags this summer and realise his goal of playing the back to back Ashes. But at what cost?
A Little Less Conversation, A Little More Action
The verdicts in the spot-fixing trial are in and it makes for a tragic reading. Players who were already serving lengthy bans meted out by the ICC, now have to suffer the further shame of a prison sentence among common criminals. Various commentators have chimed in about how “justice has been served” and “action has been taken on cleaning the game” although a closer scrutiny would indicate otherwise.
The nature of the News of the World sting operation left a bad taste in the mouth. Although the 4th estate is protected under the law for such deception, it does not absolve them of instigating the events. Salman Butt and his bumbling agent could very well have discussed such matters before but there is no credible evidence of any fixing before the fake sheik showed up a with suitcase full of cash.
Also questionable is the public interest argument. Sure legalised betting is big business that has to be protected but its not like they offer punters odds on the number of no-balls. Having already lost the primary source of income and likely barred from any future involvement in the game, the conviction and prison term is akin to a kick in the teeth. What is gained by punishing them further when they are already ruined?
While the reaction on the sentences have been mixed, we have been reminded endlessly how this is not an isolated issue. We have been given homilies on wicked greed and amoral humanity. Rumours and innuendos are being dressed up to suit whatever argument that might be remotely pertinent. Fixing is so prevalent and out of control that very little can be done. What is being lost in this crescendo is some simple facts and therefore workable solutions.
We do not need to be reminded that fixing is not a “Pakistani problem” as history strongly suggests otherwise. But in that same token it is a fact that fixing is endemic in Pakistan. Accepting that simple truth allows us to understand why fixing is a menace and what can be done to control it. Pakistan presents an unique opportunity to study the elements that have led to half of the side being linked to fixing twice in a decade. Unraveling these factors is the only means of addressing the scourge of fixing.
Aamir and Asif might have delivered the no-balls, but their actions were long ago set into motion by the gross mismanagement of the Pakistan Cricket Board. The PCB can be best described as a self-serving cabal of administrators too busy currying favours and lining their pockets than serving the interests of players and their passionate fans.
It does little to nurture the game as it is constantly entangled in high drama (some might call it farce) on selections, appointments and petty politics. Dealing with the litany of PCB’s crimes would take a few Afridi comebacks but let us consider three of the most egregious: inaction on past fixing, lack of empathy for players and political brinksmanship.
That Ata-ur-Rehman was the biggest casualty of the match-fixing crisis of the mid to late ’90s seems incredulous now. Not only did the PCB hire a fanboy commissioner to investigate the scandal but even acquiesced on his rather liberal sentencing. Announcing a commission and then ignoring the findings was a textbook cover-up. Some of the players even went on to secure management and coaching roles in the team.
This callous behaviour has continued in the recent years with the farcical bans on Shoaib Akthar, Mohd Asif and Shoaib Malik. What it projects to the younger players is that even the most grievous of errors will be tolerated with the occasional slap on the wrist and a token fine. What is a spot-fix or two if match-fixing, doping and insubordination go unpunished? The PCB has set such a low cost for indiscipline, there is little or no deterrence.
While team management gets ferried around in luxury limos in downtown London, the players are paid a pittance compared to their rivals in England and Australia. The socio-economic conditions are such that the cricketer is not only responsible for his immediate family but extended relations once he makes it big. That Aamir and Salman Butt were willing to risk their careers for such small sums underscores their plight. They are so poorly looked after by the PCB that the high risk is justified.
The PCB also muzzles other economic opportunities by sheer stupidity. The Indian Premier League is not only a bonanza for the players but also their respective boards who stand to make 10% of a player’s auction value. Yet the PCB first chose to exclude the players on flimsy grounds and only made them available on the proviso of additional security measures, above and beyond requested by other boards. The end result is that the Pakistani cricketers by no fault of their own, find themselves shunned not just from the IPL but also the lucrative Champions Trophy.
To the inaction and indifference, one can also add indiscretion. Successive PCB presidents have done little to break the malaise of internal politicking that has players and management at constant loggerheads. Its almost as if they thrive on these conflicts as it provides an opportunity to punish opponents and reward cronies. Ijaz Butt ran the PCB as his own fiefdom, intervening in selection matters, undermining certain senior players, even keeping the scribes entertained with wild allegations and flights of fancy.
Worse with his constant shuffling of the captaincy and chopping and changing squads, Ijaz Butt fostered a sense of insecurity among the players. When your career is dependent not on your performance but connections, the players will only seek to weaken and sabotage others in the team. When you stand to lose the opportunity to represent your country on the fickle whims of a deranged mind, you might consider that last high score. Instead of losing their sanity, the players have resorted to make the most of an abysmal situation.
Two factors critical to the well-being of players is economic security and a fair appraisal of their performance and abilities. When one is ignored and the other coloured by political motives, the players will be susceptible to adverse influences. The PCB has been afforded a chance to redeem itself under a new president and it would behoove them to act in the interest of the game.
As a priority it should investigate the evidence available in the recent trials and make an example of players who have been involved in fixing. Even retrograde bans on past players regardless of their legend status would be a powerful statement of intent. It should aim to resolve the impasse on player availability for the IPL. It should work closely with the ICC in setting the standards for approved player agents so vultures like Mazhar Majeed are shut out of the game. These are actionable items with a tangible result on offer. Corruption can never be completely eliminated but realising these simple steps will be progress.
Originally written for The Sight Screen in the aftermath of the spotfixing trials.
We thought we would make 1000 runs in the first innings. But to say and to do are two different things.