Culpable homicide

#Why is it that the ICC gets its truss in a knot when 10 wickets fall in a day’s play, or when a pitch takes turn, but is totally silent when it comes to pitches on which a grand total of 825 runs are scored in one hundred overs?

Rajkot was, not to put too fine a point on it, an unmitigated disgrace — if bowlers had unions, they would be organizing a gherao outside the curator’s home around now. We’ve had — distressingly often — ‘batting beauties’ in the past, but this wicket was something else: no matter what you bowled — pace, spin and every variation in between — the ball did just one thing: it sat up and begged to be hit.

To speak of the batting feats of Sehwag, Tendulkar, Dhoni, Dilshan, Sangakkara and others would be a travesty — the real heroes of the game yesterday were the bowlers who ran in ball after ball, knowing that ‘victory’, on this ground, was the difference in whether they were hit for a four or a six. Maybe the innovation the ODI format really requires is a rule change that permits teams to have 11 batsmen, and for all the bowling to be done by machines calibrated to serve up 300 half volleys per innings.

#It occurs to me, too, that if some smart entrepreneur were to bring bullfighting into this country as a professional sport, that would be the end of cricket. The crowds that infest our cricket stadia increasingly want blood sport, not cricket. They want Indian batsmen to hit sixes off every ball, and Indian bowlers to take a wicket every over; the silence with which they greeted a brave charge by Dilshan [who, on the day, outperformed even Sehwag with ease] and some classical hitting by Sangakkara, was disgraceful to say the least.

#For all the reasons above, parsing the Indian team’s performance on the day is pointless, yet one point occurs that will, I suspect, recur in course of this series.

The first relates to the question of opening bowlers. You have 414 on the board. You know that the wicket is dead. You want to somehow winkle out a wicket or two early, while the ball at least has hardness going for it. So why on earth would you bowl your best strike bowler as first change?

Zaheer bowled first change for the same reason Ishant has been doing it in recent times — because Praveen Kumar just cannot bowl first change; at his pace, he will be slaughtered on any but the most responsive of wickets. Strikes me that is a half-smart way of managing a bowling attack — because you insist on shoe-horning Praveen into the side, you are forced to use your best bowlers as stock, and that means you lose out both coming and going.

It seems fairly axiomatic that the bowler you pick for a particular slot should be the one best suited to that slot; thus, if Praveen Kumar is given the new ball, it needs to be because he is best fitted to use it, not because he cannot be used in any other position. Equally, for example, if Zaheer and Ishant are your best new ball bowlers, you need to give them the new ball — and then, from available options, pick the best possible number three. Fail to do that, and you not only have a less than penetrative opening attack, you end up blunting the edge of the one bowler who can be your spearhead.

In passing, watching Ashish Nehra bowl yesterday — except at the very end — was an exercise in wanton masochism. Granting that the wicket offered him nothing, Nehra made things worse for himself by carefully picking out the exact wrong line [and/or length] to bowl, at every available opportunity. MS for instance set a packed off field for Dilshan, with on occasion a short cover as an attacking option.

The field cried out for bowlers to bowl as wide as legally possible outside off, and force the batsmen to play into the packed field. Nehra promptly pitched middle and leg or, if by accident he strayed onto off stump, pitched the ball at that precise back of length spot that was guaranteed to invite the batsman to go back and thump through the untenanted off side.

If this was the first time Nehra was losing control to this extent, you could put it down to the mind-melt consequent on bowling on concrete — but this was precisely the problem he had during the T20s as well, so maybe it is time someone spent quality time with the guy.

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33 thoughts on “Culpable homicide

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  3. It is Val here from Australia. Excllent article Prem. I find it comforting that there are journalists writing about the issue of batting pitches. The ICC are a non-entity when it comes to providing direction on this issue. In fact, that is probably not correct. The ICC are a negative entity in my view, sseming to encourage batting pitches. My personal view is that cricket pitches in all forms of the game are an utter disgrace.

    By utter disgrace I mean that they are too much in favour of the batsman. Why would anyone young person want to become a bowler? From a fan’s perspective I find it terribly boring, watching or following session after session of cricket with very few wickets falling and boundary after boundary being hit. Do the players enjoy playing this sort of cricket? It must be terribly dull being in the field whilst all this is happening.

    Why don’t curators produce pitches that favour bowlers from time to time? Obviously in Tests they want the TV revenue for the 5 days. In one-dayers they must believe more people will watch as more runs are scored. It is wrong-headed thinking. The game will be run dry in a couple more years if it continues like this. And sadly, India is a major problem in this area. India is becoming the global centre of cricket which for me is great, but India must understand with this opportunity comes responsibility.

    • Hey, Val, how’re you doing? Journalists — both in India and elsewhere — have been writing about the issue, but for all the good it does we might as well be spitting into a gale force wind.

      The players — even the batsmen — hate these kind of wickets, from what I’ve gathered from talking to some of them. It is great fun as long as you are batting, but like one bloke told me recently, the minute you get a ball, from a good bowler, that you hit at will, you realize that pretty soon the other team is going to come out there and make you look pretty silly in your turn.

      India is a problem — and I agree totally about the responsibility that comes with our position at the center of cricket’s finances — but I’d submit not the only one [I mean, the record for run making was that daft game in South Africa, of all places, no?]. And as long as we look at country specific solutions, nothing will change. The ICC’s first mistake was mandating against pitches where too many wickets fell; it is compounding that by encouraging the creation of these superhighways. Like you say, if this keeps up people will quit watching [actually, TRPs have in any case been declining, year on year — it is just that we have so many eyeballs, the drop hasn’t become alarming yet]; typically the ICC and the country boards will then do their Chicken Little thing.

      While on this, lookit India and Australia — seriously, what the fuck is the idea of playing 7 odis this year, another 7 next year, and so on ad infinitum?

      • Thanks for your thoughtful response Prem. I certainly agree that the impact of these discussions is like spitting into a gale force wind, but what else can we do? This issue is causing me much distress as a cricket follower, not just at Test match level but first-class as well. Thankfully at all levels below this bat and ball seem to be competing well. At least I feel encouraged knowing that people like yourself in India are passionate about the issue. In fact, my reading of it is that most serious Indian cricket fans would agree with you. That is encouraging.

        I have applied myself to coming up with a solution to this problem and I think I may have something. I think an on-field response is needed. From reading cricket history, my understanding is that the conditions for Bodyline (or whatever you want to call it) were created by several factors, namely flat pitches, the lbw law (the ball must pitch in line with the stumps) and Bradman (who was a handy bat at the time!!). Do you see where I am going with this? Bring back Douglas Jardine and Harold Larwood. In fact, I think Mahendra Dhoni has already applied his own “Bodyline” tactics against Australia in 2008, I can’t recall which Test or which day, but by bowling wide of off-stump for the full-day in an attempt to frustrate and restrict runs appeared to me to be the act of a captain working around the lifeless pitches. Of course these tactics have been tried before. The captain then needs to “ventilate” his frustrations in the media and put pressure back on the administrators for my strategy to work. Something along the lines of “if you want attacking cricket than give us a decent pitch to play on, otherwise I will try to win the game as best I can”.

        Sure the idea needs some work, but at least it is something. Unlike the 1930’s though, the issue of cricket having 3 formats now is probably the major problem in having Test pitches addressed. It is hard to have the public’s and media’s attention focussed on the issue long enough. And anyway, the captain trying to make this point would probably be sacked by his own administration long before he could successfully implement this strategy.

        Further, the problem has been further highlighted by the 3rd Test match in Perth, Australia between Australia and the West Indies. After 2 days (as I am sure you are aware) Australia are 7-520 and West Indies are 2-214. Ho-hum. Another high-scoring Test match. The local TV commentators here are as bad as the ones you guys have over there for the IPL. They are breathlessly describing it as an enthralling, thrilling Test match. Worse still is that Chris Gayle seems to be very pleased with his 102, the 5th fastest Test century, smiling like a Cheshire cat at the end of Day 2. What rubbish. Sure he should be pleased with his innings, but surely this should be offset by concern over the impotence of his side with the ball. The game has turned into a circus.

        And finally, these 7 match one-day series are awful to follow as a fan aren’t they? They are no different to sausage sizzles for cricket clubs to raise some funds (and similar to one-day internationals hopefully they don’t make people too sick who consume them). I read an article where Graeme Swann expressed his frustration that straight after the Ashes series this year, rather than celebrating, reflecting and taking in what had happened, he found himself playing in a 50 over match against Ireland and then into the tedious 7 match series against Australia. No time for any joy or frustration, celebration or self reflection. But now we are on to another topic, a topic that is probably closely related to appalling pitches if we apply our philosophical minds to it.

        There is another possibility here Prem. Am I, like yourself (as you indicated somewhere I believe, apologies if I am wrong) investing too much of myself into this game. Maybe this is the real issue at stake here? After all, it is just a game. It is, isn’t it?

        • I’d take your last point first, Val — sure, we invest more into the game than a ‘game’ deserves, but I’d submit that is true of all sports and all fans. Personally, I could never watch an F1 race, for instance. In a race, I like to know which bloke is leading, and it is fairly unsettling when I root for the yellow car only to learn that the red one, three places behind it on the turn, has already lapped it twice. The one time I tried saying that out loud in a sports bar, though, I damn near got lynched. Ditto another occasion, when at Shea Stadium I wondered out loud what the eff the point of baseball was — this was after two innings in course of which no one connected with the ball even once. My host damn near gagged me before I could say anything more. Yet Formula, and Baseball, and every other sport, has fanatics who would likely see our own involvement in cricket as fairly tepid. Nature of the beast, so…

          Too busy with newspaper production to respond point by point, but I’d agree with your central premise. Ideas like neutral curators are just plain daft — wickets aren’t, for all the idiot remarks made by silly commentators, produced in a week or a fortnight. Laying a wicket and getting it up to match fitness takes a good six months minimum, not accounting for vagaries of the weather; the fortnight they talk of is merely getting an existing wicket match ready. At this latter stage, you really cannot change the character of the wicket — that was pretty much set in stone when you made it in the first place. So short of the ICC appointing ‘neutral’ curators to live and work in each of the cricket playing countries on a 365 day basis, calls for change in wicket preparation is just wasted breath.

          So your central premise, that the solution has to be on-field, is in fact the only logical way to go. I’d want, first off, to see that stupid coda to the LBW rule, that talks of how the batsman was “struck marginally outside off stump, good decision” get its place in the dustbin. An off spinner or a seam bowler, in defiance of conditions, actually manages to make the ball come in towards the top of middle stump, the batsman sticks his fricking pad in the way, deliberately pushing an inch outside off, and it is not out why? Redraft the LBW rule to read: “If the ball would have clearly hit the stumps had the batsman not deliberately interposed his pad in the way” and you immediately go a long way towards leveling the playing field between bowler and batsman, and to an extent help mitigate even the deadest of pitches.

          Similar tweaks to field restrictions; an end to the rule that a bowler can only bowl 10 overs [okay if you can’t do that, then introduce a rule that says a batsman can only bat 10 overs, why ever not?]; and some other such sensible changes would go a long way to putting the interest back in the game. Trouble is, the ICC runs cricket, television runs the ICC, and neither is well known for possession of common sense.

          I guess one of these days, when we all switch channels and try to figure out whether the red car or the yellow car is actually in the lead, these blokes will wake up.

          Cheers, mate

  4. I think it is too idealistic to think of picking up players for a particular spot as the best suited for that; if that were the case, Gambhir wouldn’t be picked up, considering that he is one-half of the greatest opening partnership, and with Tendulkar and Sehwag opening, no point picking him up for one-down, right?

    ODI’s requires innovation and full understanding of a player’s limitations. PK can’t bowl first change, but can swing like crazy – open with him. Zaheer can do both – open with pace / swing, bowl first change if the opening bowlers are being slaughtered, and he can even return later for reverse swing.

    • nm: actually, mate, *your* point proves *my* point. Gambhir and Sehwag are today our best possible opening pair. Picking GG is not the mistake — splitting the combination is. SRT should be the one batting at first drop.

      PK can “swing like crazy”? Yes. In England. In certain conditions, in SA. And rarely, if atmospheric conditions aid him, in India. The rest of the time, no. Like I said in this post, you’re going to see this happen more and more in this series.

      Zak swings the ball both ways — and that is particularly lethal when you have the new ball to bowl with, not one that has been thrashed around for ten overs, landing on the hard concrete stands more often than not. As for reverse swing, we are forgetting something here. Typically, unless it is a particularly hard pitch and worse, a harder outfield, the kind of abrasion that produces lethal reverse swing in the dry, windless conditions of India happens only towards the 30th over. Four overs later we change the ball. Goodbye reverse swing.

      • And the corollary to that is: Zaheer with the new ball, no batsman however good he is goes in thinking I’m going to target him. He has a rep of being dangerous, so batsmen tend to take some time to get set against him, which means that early on, during the power plays, the bowling side gets a bit of an initiative. Use a lesser bowler during that period, he gets tonked, and the unnoticed problem is the batsmen build up a good head of steam before Zak even comes in to bowl — so on the one hand you are using him at a point less than his peak effectiveness, and secondly you are using him not when he can attack flat out, but when his job is to reverse the momentum somehow, which when facing high quality batsmen on flat decks is easier said than done.

        Incidentally, since you mentioned GG, check out his effectiveness as opener, both solo and in partnership with VS, versus his effectiveness at first drop. We are underutilising him, too — mercifully, because of the strength of the batting lineup, the problems don’t show up as much, but it is still the wrong thing to do.

  5. Prem, I think similar pitches have been produced in India earlier too. I attribute most of what we saw yesterday to the T20 revolution. Batsmen are more confident and they keep going hell for leather. Also, I don’t think these high totals would have been achieved had Sehwag or Dilshan (Yuvi too had he played) not fired in the same match. You can easily notice the difference in India’s RR in a Test match when Sehwag fires and when he does not. Same goes for ODI’s too, but to a far lesser extent.

    • Of course we’ve made similar pitches, but seriously the one we had the other day was just plain awful — a real estate developer could have found in it the perfect basement for a skyscraper. I’m not suggesting making raging turners — that’s why I brought up the Brabourne example: Sehwag made runs, so did other batsmen who had the skills, but both seam and spin bowlers got wickets when they were good enough. Which to me is the ideal wicket.

  6. You are pretty much spot on as usual. My two cents

    If you take the T20 experience out from these players, this pitch would have been just a 600 run wicket. If you go back about five years when that kind of score was a rarity than a rule, the pitch would have been hailed as a good one for one dayers. It’s sad to say but true that batters have got better in terms of new skills acquired than bowlers since the advent of T20. The bar has gone up, and bowlers world over have been caught napping. Though it’s fair to say the rules have not helped them either. PP and all. Also, from a batters perspective T20 has helped them to deconstruct the 50 over game better and have made it easier than ever before.

    Traditionally we used to call the list of batters a “line up” and a list of bowlers an “attack”. The way things are going, it might be about time to reverse these addressals.

  7. Your assessment of Praveen Kumar is spot on. I think he is in the team only to score a few runs at the end when our batting fails. It is not like we don’t have alternatives. The selectors should look for pace bowlers who can at least extract good bounce even on dead pitches by using their height and hitting the deck often than someone who has no pace nor can extract bounce. Any one of Munaf Patel, L. Balaji or M.Gony would be a good choice to replace Praveen in the ODIs. Both Munaf and Balaji have good control and have the height and the ability to extract bounce. Gony is currently leading the charts in Ranji and is quickest among the three. IMO, Balaji has the edge over Munaf/Gony in fielding and variety.

    • I forgot to mention Sudip Tyagi who has been pretty impressive whenever I have seen him bowl. He is a very good prospect but his fielding is abysmal. I would consider Munaf and Nehra to be better fielders than Sudip, that should say a lot about his fielding abilities. To pick him in this side which on an average drops about 5 catches/game would be suicidal.

  8. Totally agree. This match was a sad match. I used to bowl in school and my local gully tournament and I loved bowling. Each wicket meant something. But after seeing this mockery of the art I wonder who would be interested. I mean give something to the bowlers. Zak and Nehra were terrific at the end.

    What is with the TV channels who cannot stop singing paeans for the batsmen and dont speak a word about the useless pitch?

  9. You are right about Praveen Kumar – I think he is in the team to stick to 60 runs in his quota of overs. If he does that, he has done his job. Well, I wouldn’t even pick him for my gully cricket team, and I swear I bowled faster when I was 18 years old with my action modeled on Shoib Akhtar :-) Guess what wrong did Irfan Pathan do or I would even be tempted to bring in Ajit Agarkar in place of Praveen Kumar.

  10. Prem,
    The other way of looking at this match is that, there was this 5 over spell by an Offspinner which was nothing but classical bowling. – Change of pace, flight, spin ever so slightly, over spinners, doosras etc…, that was spellbinding. Also the last 6 overs of the match was nothing short of magical. All that run-orgy that happened might be due to the fact that the bowlers were just below par! Lets face it. The bowling of both the sides was below par. Just amazes me as to how a Warne or a McGrath or a genuinely quick Lee would have performed on this track.

    In the first innings, there was swing – a good amount too. e.g. dismissal of Sehwag was a classic. The setup was perfect and the execution was magical. Look at Sachin’s dismissal. That ball had everything ! But the problem was that the bowlers weren’t producing such deliveries at regular interval. If you bowl in the right areas that wicket would have done some trick atleast in the first hour or so!

    So to blame the groundsman for preparing a belter to cover for the quality of the bowlers is not fair!

    P.S – Just to re-cap Sehwag’s dismissal, not sure why none of the so called expert commentators could spot the setup!. There was no reference of it!

    The ball prior to the wicket, the bowler, moved the point to deep-point and got in square leg from deep backward square leg. With the fact that the ball was moving around that would have straight away given the impression that the bowling was on or outside the offstump (the 2 balls before the wicket was on the offstump) Then came the double bluff ! Chanaka bowled the ball well outside the legstick and got it to swing in the air towards leg and middle. Sehwag, probably didn’t expect the ball to swing that much tried to play it to the vacant deep backward square leg and got got a leading edge to gully !!

    Now that is called setup and execute.

    Cheers
    PG

  11. Like neutral umpires, we need neutral pitch curators from an international panel. But like you said, maybe ICC never wants to “fix” the flat wickets and obscene run scoring. So the neutral international curators and getting quick bouncy pitches for the sub-continental matches will stay a dream and we will never avoid the shock of the bouncy pitches in Australia, or help us develop any world class fast bowlers.

    Unless if its the weather and/or ground conditions of the sub-continent that affects the pitches, then even the curators can’t help us.

  12. ‘Maybe the innovation the ODI format really requires is a rule change that permits teams to have 11 batsmen, and for all the bowling to be done by machines calibrated to serve up 300 half volleys per innings.’. Plagiarism of ideas? :-)

  13. Indibloggie awards were announced and I was quite surprised to not see your name in best sports blog, though you were nominated in the best Indi blog. IMHO , you would have won hands down in the sports blog category if been nominated.

    • Thanks mate, but I think the nomination was right. This is not intended as an exclusively sports-oriented blog. If cricket has dominated for the past couple of months, it is only because with a change in employment and habitation in the offing, I haven’t had the mind space to look at much else — that will change January 2010, once I have settled down in Bangalore and my life is back on track again.

  14. You are quite right that the real heroes were the bowlers. To me the Mom was Harbhajan Singh. Inspite of the mayhem all around , he dared to flight the ball to none other than Jayasurya and managed to beat him in flight. Going by the recent events , I would have expected none of that from Bhajji , but he came up with a crafty piece of dismissal. IMHO , another bowler who was overlooked was Fernando. Two aspects of his bowling-the yorker and the slower ball, in my opinion highlighted the inadequacies of the Indian fast bowling department. Apart from the death overs, when there was reverse swing was on offer, we saw none of the yorkers from any of the fast bowlers, specially , when Dilshan was on song. And if I remember correctly the no. of slower deliveries that were bowled could be counted on one hand. Contrastingly , Fernando bowled a number of yorkers and well disguised slower bowls one of which even brought him the wicket of Dhoni. I thought he was the main factor India could not go beyond 450.

    • Agreed. Bhajji certainly deserved the MoM award yesterday and I hoped they would show some sense and give it to him instead of merely going for the highest individual score on the winning team’s side. Surely, if it had to be a batsman, Sangakkara played much more fluidly and destructively than Sehwag and his inning had more import as well during the ultimately futile run chase.

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