The Calculus of Hype

“Millions of Indians will lustily cheer every wicket taken by the Men in Green and go into raptures of delight whenever a Pakistani batsman hits a boundary.”

Yeah, right.

That’s Partho Bhaduri on the front page, no less, of the Times of India. And reading that made me realize, not for the first time, what suckers we in the media are for the obvious narrative. India’s fate depends on Pakistan!! Ooo — the delicious irony of it all, happening just days after India had played its first cricket match with the Land of Lashkar after 26/11.

Shashi Tharoor, the Twitter-minister, posted about this last evening; Partho and his mates have peppered the print media with riffs on this theme; the TV channels are getting nicely warmed up as I write this… and yet, have we done full justice to the tremendous potential [Excuse the emphatic itals in this post, please — too much Dan Brown lately] of this story?

And then there’s the conspiracy angle. Will Pakistan want India in the final? Younis Khan says so, but can we trust him, can we take his word for it and hope that Pakistan will pull out all the stops? Isn’t it more likely that Pakistan — who, as we all know, we can never really trust — will play just below par in order to do the dirty on India? Imagine what a laugh they will have in the dressing room after they’ve contrived to lose to Australia, knowing that the old enemy, still engaged in its own game against  the West Indies, now has to go through the motions knowing that its last remaining hope has been scuppered!

Oh for a Subhash Ghai, a Sunny Deol, to do full justice to such a compelling storyline. What drama! What conflict!

What crap.

Item one, the outcome of the Pakistan-Australia game does not hinge entirely — or even remotely — on whether Pakistan wants India to progress or no. The Aussies under Ponting have, thanks largely to England, rediscovered a large part of their mojo; there are signs that the arrogant self-belief that characterized the team in its pomp is gradually coming back. More to the point, the Aussies are playing very good one day cricket just now; the skipper is back in form and that fact alone makes a tremendous difference to a team that only lacked for its one surviving member of the fabled world champion outfit to lead the way.

Around him, the various bits and pieces are slotting nicely into place to a point where they are not missing Michael Clarke all that much; Mitchell Johnson cementing his place as a high quality all-rounder gives them that additional edge;  and if Nathan Bracken’s absence hurts the bowling lineup, Brett Lee is getting more into the groove with each outing. Plus, Australia is at its most dangerous when it is winning consistently.

Whether it fiddles with its lineup or not, Pakistan will have its hands full with the opposition in the game slated to begin early this afternoon — to suggest that the outcome merely hinges on whether Younis and his men want to do India down is ridiculous. The team is playing more than decent cricket, but the catch with Pakistan is that spectacular explosion and sudden implosion are two sides of a very thin coin [while on which, what fun if Pakistan actually implodes today — television talking heads can live off that for the remainder of the tournament].

Beyond all of that is the fact that India has not, in this tournament, had the look of champions — or even of a team deserving to be in the top four. The batting has been patchy, the bowling has oscillated between the good and the wild, the fielding standards are a disgrace, and MS Dhoni is gradually finding out that an ability to keep his cool is a virtue that cannot paper over every crack.

It had to happen — this after all is the Indian cricket team, and it is therefore axiomatic that any rise in fortunes will be swiftly followed by a precipitous decline. Thanks either to a beneficial alignment of the planets or a fortuitous alignment of various talents and form or both, Dhoni hasn’t felt real pressure since taking over the captaincy — but that time had to come. He is still the best bet for captain, and not merely in the short term — and if you take a long term view, it is good that his thinking is being tested now, rather than a lot closer to the next World Cup.

Mercifully, there is about Dhoni a touch of ‘if you can keep your head while all about you are losing theirs’, as exemplified by this media interaction where the bulk of the questions appear to be about Pakistan. The money quote:

“Pakistan will not play their XI thinking if they win, India will qualify,” he said. “Whatever they need to experiment they will do because they have qualified, they will look at the future. They might try out their reserves. It depends on them, what they want to get out of the game. I don’t think they will consider that if they win and if we win comfortably against the West Indies, India will qualify. I don’t think that will be an issue.”

‘Pragmatic’ is the best way to be for the Indian captain today — focus on the game, use it as an opportunity to begin treating the symptoms of decline, and the heck with whether you make the last four or no.

Given the players that form part of the squad, there are no tweaks India can make to its lineup that can substantially alter its fortunes — the best possible XI seems to be the one that took the field against Australia. Change, hopefully, will be in the attitude — there has been more than a touch of the defensive about the side in these last two games, and that is not a mental makeup guaranteed to get you very far.

Of the many things Dhoni said in his press conference, there is one bit I disagree with:

The likes of Ishant and RP Singh were also well down on pace, but according to Dhoni, that wasn’t as much of a concern as their erratic line and length. “It’s not about bowling 140 or 145-plus,” he said. “At the end of the day, you have to bowl the right line and length to the batsman. If you see the South African bowlers, they were among the quickest in the tournament but they were also fetched for runs. That means it is not about the pace, it is about where you are bowling and what field you have got. So I don’t think pace is the only criteria, it is line and length, the swing and the movement that you can get.”

I seriously hope that is not what he is telling Ishant [and yes, I believe he is a serious talent, and hope he gets his game back on track soon] — because the two things are not mutually exclusive. It is about bowling the right length and line, yes, but if you can bring pace to the package, so much the better. The South African example is not well taken, because it largely is about Wayne Parnell who, not to put too fine a point on it, bowled crap. Crap at some pace yes, but still crap.

The antidote to that is not to drop the pace down by 10-15 ticks, because all that does is make you a medium paced trundler. A fast bowler’s rhythm is different from a medium pacer’s — things fall into place when he is running in fluidly with the intent to bowl as quick as he is capable of. Tell him to slow down, and the natural rhythm is automatically disrupted, control is lost, and rubbish results.

For all the hype, India has nothing really to lose in this game — so I’d seriously hope Dhoni goes into the Wanderers and slips the leash on not just Ishant, but the team as a whole. If there is one change I would make in the unit that has played thus far in this tournament, it is to do away with its defensive, almost apologetic, mindset and to get out there buzzing with testosterone that might have come from last night’s nookie, but which I hope comes more from a realization that even absent Viru, Zak and Yuvi, the team still has enough skill to play good cricket.

A good game today likely won’t get India into the semis — that is miracle territory. But a great game at the Wanderers will reverse a collective mindset that is increasingly unsure, tentative, and if that is the only outcome of today’s game, I’ll still take it, and smile.

PS: Anyone watched the New Zealand-England game yesterday? There was for me one moment worth noting, and it came at 66/0 at the end of the first ten overs of the Kiwi chase. England, battered into submission by McCullum and Guptill, was clearly looking forward to the end of the mandatory power play overs so Strauss could spread the field and give his bowlers a bit of elbow room to try and rein things in. Kiwi vice-captain McCullum promptly called for the batting PP — brilliant, I thought. Too many captains in too many games use the power plays by rote where, ideally, it should be used as an unexpected weapon to disrupt the opposition’s game plan.

One of these days, someone will hopefully look at a sizeable sample of the last ten overs of matches in the pre-powerplay era, and contrast that with a similar sized sample of games where the PP was taken in the last ten overs, and tell me why it makes sense to hold the batting power play for the death, when teams with wickets in hand go hell for leather in any case.

PPS: Besides two games to follow, I’m trying to get the edition done a day earlier than schedule. Busy, hence, and likely to be largely absent from here. Random match thoughts, as always, here.

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25 thoughts on “The Calculus of Hype

  1. Interesting that you twist Dhoni’s words to give a completely different spin to the pace bowling problems. Dhoni never said the pace bowlers had to cut down on pace to hit the right areas, he just pointed out what the bigger problem with their bowling. I think he is bang on about his assessment. Praveen Kumar bowled in the mid 120s and was able to keep the batsmen on a leash in both games, even picking up wickets against the weakened Windies side. I don’t care if you bowl 140 kph, you’re going to go for runs if you bowl where Ishant has been bowling the last few months.

    About Parnell, he was expensive but he also put in some good overs at the death by coming around the wicket, changing his pace, and finding the block hole. I’d rather have a bowler who returns figures of 3-60 than one who finishes with 1-45.

  2. Come on, you have to admit that it all sounded so ironic and mushy! 🙂

    Anyhowz, yes, India looked very off-colour and the fact that they had to resort to Nayar’s ‘dibbly dobblys’ to fill up the overs really shows that India have to start looking elsewhere for some new bowlers…

    However, prempanicker, the thing I like abt the Indian cricket team is the skip, MSD. He’s honest and never shies away from the truth….unlike some others like Sanga who says “Sky is the limit” and then finds that his team lies in the rubble! 😦

    As for the PP, I did write in my blog regd. it. To give u an example, the first match of the CT between SL & SA, Dilshan was on a roll and Smith, very stupidly, decided to take the PP after the 10th over and his bowlers duly got smashed. However, why Sanga didn’t take the batting PP after the 15th over to enable Dilshan to smash the bowlers around more befuddles me..

    Perhaps me and you should be appointed as ‘powerplay consultants’ by these teams! 😉

    • Hmm strange about MSd being honest and not shying away from the truth! i would call it being selective,he picked on YP instead of RP,there have many other instances,I did not see him being open -that we were not good enough in the tournament,nor in the WC T20.As they say sucess has many fathers and failure is an orphan.

  3. I think that Pak would have liked to have India in the tournament for if they would want to play anyone in the final (that is, if they manage to get past the kiwis), they would have loved to have India rather than Australia. Too much conjecture in your article I am afraid for it seems to follow on your prejudices rather than rational thinking. I for one, would have liked to have India go through rather than Australia. But one can’t mess up one’s own game and then blame others….and by the way, you are writing about cricket..and not the relations between the two governments….not that you seem to know much about either!:)

  4. Those who played well deserve victory, pakistan did this. Actually indian team is full of celebrities and where did you see celebrities to play, they only earn money by fooling the sentimental people like us. Game for them is like a goverment job, once entered and then relax.It is us who cared lots. so not care those who not care you and your sentiments.Wall
    Blogs

  5. Whats with promising young Indian fast bowlers going into decline after a good year or two? It keeps happening everytime. Instead of adding pace they lose pace dramatically. Is it something to do with the Indian physique not being able to cope with the rigours of pace bowling?
    Its so disheartning to watch Munaf, Irfan, RP and now Ishant just becoming medium pacers after bowling at 140kph . Every other bowler in the world seems to add a yard or two after a few months in International cricket.
    During the Ashes we watched Siddle, Johnson, Hilfenhaus, Anderson, Onions, Sidebottom, Flintoff all bowling at good pace. We see Pakistan’s young left armer Aamer bowling sharply. All bowlers seem to improve their pace, improve their skills whereas our bowlers just go into decline after a season or two.
    I am really hoping and praying Ishant will come out of this as we really thought he is the genuine article and he is going to play for India for a long time and spearhead the attack after Zaheer. To have him go the Irfan or Munaf way would be unbearable

  6. Well it’s happened (5 – 205?) and it’s hard not to think that beyond the overt tinkering, the Pakis were purposely playing prosaically to dent the desires of the proud populace over the border. It’s not inconceivable is it? It certainly appeared to be an odd display of conservatism from where I was sitting.

    • Well,it’s Not Happened.
      Please dont malign Pakistanis gutsy and sensible cricket.They are the only team flying the South Asian banner.Try to support them,rather than making wild accusations as an excuse for your own failures.

      • I’m sorry, Habib, which part of my article did you interpret as “maligning” Pakistan cricket, and which “wild accusations” were you referring to?

        Or is it more a case of not bothering to read the piece at all, just reacting to the mention of Pakistan somewhere in there?

  7. Agree with you Prem. Pak (Younus) won’t give a fuck to what happens to India. Also the game will be controlled by Punter & Co. India right now “cant bowl; can’t bat; can’t field” and they have a captain whose decision making is at its worst currently and so as the Pakis say Inshaallah India will make it to the semis but I can’t see that happen. TOIlet paper only caters to sensational story not professional journalism – no difference between Burka Dutt and TOIlet paper when it comes to serious journalism

  8. Indians have bowled nonsense (crap in your words) for quite a while now. The malaise of our talented fast-medium bowlers quickly declining into oblivion is continuing with Ishant and RP following the footsteps of Irfan, Sreesanth, Munaf etc. We have not found a spinner of note since Bhajji in 1997. We havent found a batsman of note since Sehwag in 2001 (Okay Gambhir has cemented himself recently, but who else?). Dhoni himself has declined into a nudger much like Sachin. Its rather a doomsday scenario, but I cant see much light at the end of the tunnel. Virat Kohlis of this world havent shown good temperament. We will continue to be the mediocre side we are, which is consistent with the general nature of our country, will continue to under-achieve, and never over-achieve.

  9. “Kiwi vice-captain McCullum promptly called for the batting PP — brilliant, I thought.”

    Did you realize they were 66/0 chasing 147? That is, there was little point in postponing the powerplay. Far from it being a “brilliant” decision, not taking the powerplay would have been incredibly daft.

    • And yet, “conventional wisdom” would have said, you have a start, now consolidate and make sure there are no stupid mistakes through over-eagerness; “bat through the game and you win” — and a thousand other cliches I’ve heard in similar situations.

      The brilliance lay in rubbing it in. If you were watching, Strauss and Broad had already begun discussing how far back each fielder should be, when McCullum signalled the PP to the umpire. The face of the English cricketers was a study.

    • You saw my byline on it, did you?

      To repeat a point made wearyingly often — though I work in rediff.com, I am not responsible for, nor do I agree with, everything on the site. And I most certainly am not in charge of Rediff’s sports/cricket coverage.

      And yes, this article is equally guilty of the kind of hype I am opposed to.

    • Sorry, if you meant why did I mention ToI and not Rediff, the reason is equally simple — I saw the ToI article this morning over my coffee; on my way to work I thought of what I wanted to say about today’s game and on getting here, I wrote it as I saw it. I had not then, and have not now, checked Rediff’s cricket site.

      • yes. that’s what i meant actually. but you made things clear. thanks.btw, I totally agree with you about the hype. the tv anchors have already started hyper ventilating
        🙂

  10. I agree with you that Pakistan won’t play below its potential to get India out of the tournament. Firstly, because I don’t think Younis is that kinda guy and secondly, its all about momentum in these tournaments and Pakistan won’t risk losing it before the Semi-Finals.

    • Not exactly the point I was making, though. My point is more in line with Dhoni’s — that Pakistan’s game plan won’t be — and should not be — dictated by India’s concerns. Pak can either use this game to keep the momentum going, or to try out some of its bench strength with a view to refining options for the knock out phase. In other words, experiment, because there is a point to it and having qualified already gives you the leisure to do it — that in fact is what I hope India would have done had we been in Pak’s position.

      If Pak does in fact experiment, and loses, the fear is that our talking heads will see in those experiments a deliberate attempt to lose — don’t be too surprised if we begin hearing crap about match fixing, in such an event.

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