Easy does it

The man of this particular match should be the curator.

Baby commentators are taught, along with the alphabet, to react to every incident with an instantaneous pitch diagnosis: “It’s keeping low”; “The bounce is very good”; “It is taking turn”; “The pitch has evened out”.

Sometimes, if you are particularly lucky – as happened during one particular period of play today – you get all four conflicting judgments in the span of a few overs. Must be something in their contract that says you get docked a Scotch or two if you don’t do this.

The Brabourne wicket started off on day one with bounce when the bowler extracted it; movement for when you got the upright seam to hit the deck just so; turn for bowlers prepared to give it a tweak; and full value for shots played by batsmen with the nous to handle a track that had something in it for the bowlers as well.

Consider the Samaraweera dismissal: Zaheer Khan, who on the day recovered both his lost rhythm and his smile, went around the wicket and hit the deck hard, back of good length and on the kind of line just outside the off that forces a batsman to play at it; the ball climbed and seamed away just late enough to find the edge and nestle in the soft hands of a diving VVS Laxman at second slip. It’s the kind of dismissal you look to see on day one of a Test; this was day four, and the ball was then exactly 58 overs old. Equally, when the spinners – particularly Harbhajan – bowled, there was turn off length and such perfect bounce that MS Dhoni, standing up, was taking them just above the waist. Moral of the story: good pitches can be made in India, if you have both the skill and the intent.

All of this has made for a fascinating fourth day’s play. Wickets didn’t tumble in a heap, as they tend to on rapidly deteriorating tracks; the bowlers had to work their victims out. Dhoni gave his bowlers well thought out attacking fields, the kind that allowed them to concentrate on one batsman at a time without worrying about him taking a single and sneaking away to the other end, and put a high premium on mistakes.

The most costly mistake of the day was the one made by Darryl Harper, though. Tillekeratne Dilshan got a bummer for the second straight time – the ball he was deemed out to hit him on the outside of the front thigh; it was clearly turning sharp, and bouncing enough to miss the stumps for both height and direction — and that was a pity, for he seemed to come out with positive intent. [Bajji has at the time of writing this only got the one gift wicket, but no matter. He did pretty much everything right: stuck to good lengths, gave the ball air, probed away around off, occasionally varied trajectory by going around the wicket, and built such a deal of pressure that he stymied any thoughts the Lankan batsmen may have had of trying to break out of jail. He has in the past bowled far worse for much greater rewards, and likely will again.]

His dismissal cued a period of play that tested the bowlers’ patience. Kumar Sangakkara dug deep into his reserves of will to grit his way through his ongoing bad patch; Paranavitana at the other end displayed good technique against spin, playing either fully forward or back, always with bat in front of pad, and always playing the ball below his eye line.

It took a peach of a delivery to dismiss the opener – and Sreesanth produced it in the first over of a fresh spell, when he angled one across the left hander, got it to bend in the air, and straighten on middle. Sree looks a whole different bowler when he cuts out the gratuitous theatrics and turns his focus inwards, on his craft. To his credit, despite the crowd repeatedly egging him on to kick over the traces, he stayed focused throughout this game, and bowled with considerable thought, skill and, when he needed it, pace. The ball that got Paranavitana was a beauty, but it was shaded by one he bowled to Mahela that had everything: pace up around the 139k mark, the full length, lift, and the kind of impossibly late moment that left even a batsman of Mahela’s class looking helpless.

Zaheer has sleep walked through much of this series; in the post-lunch session he suddenly rediscovered his rhythm and produced two lovely dismissals. The one of Samaraweera was the prettier one, but the take down of Mahela was a classic of conception: Zak started the over with a ball straightening on off; the next attempted to duplicate it, but drifted into the pads a touch and went for a couple; the third was angled across the right-hander, landed outside off and kept going, and then came the one angled across again, but this time hitting length around off, forcing Mahela to play, and seaming away just enough to find the edge.

Zak’s two quick strikes, in the 54th and 58th over, pretty much knocked the Lankans out of the game; Pragyan Ojha nailed it down tighter when, on the cusp of tea, he tactically worked out Angelo Mathews.

Ojha clearly has some distance to go before he gets comfortable bowling to left-handers. Against right handers, though, his use of flight and loop, the fuller lengths he bowls and the turn he extracts makes him a bit of a handful. To Mathews, he got the ball to turn sharply off length, looking for the edge; when he found it and saw the ball sneak through the slip cordon for a fortuitous four, he adjusted his length fractionally to the short side, providing more room for the ball to bounce, and again found the edge – this time to Dhoni.

Sangakkara and Paranavitana are still out there, with the Lankan captain showing some sign, after the break, of wanting to go down fighting. But with half the side back in the hut, a 170-run deficit remaining as I write this, and with four sessions to go in the game, this one’s done and dusted.

Time enough for series post-mortems later; time now for me to hit the road on a trip I’ve been pushing off all afternoon so I can watch “just one more over”.

Enjoy the rest of the game, and the weekend. See you guys Monday.

Writing cricket

In a piece on Virender Sehwag in the ToI Friday, under the title ‘Virunder’ with VI and DER in bold black and RUN in blue [nudge-wink, did you see what they just did there?! Oh, and the front page went Viru Say Wah! — do they have some kind of contest on who can deal the most mortal blow to the English language?], K Shriniwas Rao came up with an opening gambit that made me spill my morning coffee.

Here it is – complete and unadulterated.

Makes you think about the advice bowlers sometimes get, about the virtues of not trying too hard, of just putting the ball there or thereabouts, and letting it do all the work.

The problem with an extraordinary display of talent [and when Viru plays a big one, “extraordinary display of talent” is mealy-mouthed understatement] is that the reporter’s adrenalin levels soar. He knows he has just witnessed something remarkable, and believes he has to “do justice to it”.

So we get Charles Darwin. Neanderthals. The “Wolverine effect”. A cornucopia of counterfeit verbal currency.

Of all the wtf possibilities, the line that gave me most cause to pause is this: “Primal in his talent, a tad primitive in his thinking…”

There’s a stereotype for you, in all its knee-jerk glory: Sehwag is a muscle-bound bully whose “thinking” is bookended by two actions: hit and block.

For an antidote to such facile characterization, read this: my friend Chandrahas Chaudhury, back in the day when he was writing cricket articles not novels, and Nishant Arora also of Cricinfo walked Sehwag through the different moods and moments of his controlled 155 against the Australians in Chennai on the 2004 tour.

Here’s a wonderful look under the hood, a peek into the mind of a batsman at work.

Primitive? Really?

Reading Hash’s play-by-play piece prompted me to go back to the Cricinfo archives for other specimens of good writing. Here’s Sehwag through the eyes of some of my favorite cricket writers. [Oh by the way, this is not because ‘Sehwag is my favorite batsman’ – though he most certainly is on a very short short-list; I picked Sehwag only because he is the flavor du jour, and because when he bats at his best, his deeds exhaust adjectives and defy writers to push their own limits.]

First, two articles by Amit Varma. The first is against the backdrop of the India versus Pakistan Test in Bangalore in the 2005 season.

Sehwag’s watchfulness is predatorial: he waits for the right moment to pounce on his moving dinner. It is an aggressive watchfulness, not a defensive one. It intimidates the opposition, because when he gets the opportunity, he strikes with speed and finality. The rest of the time, muscles taut, mind relaxed but alert, smelling prey, he makes sure that his wicket is safe.

Even Sehwag’s defence has aggression. When he defends on the back foot, he punches the ball as much as he pats it down, and it often speeds to the boundary, so well is it timed. There is nothing about his game that is diffident, and he defines a bad ball more broadly than most other batsmen. Bowlers toil in a meritocracy when they bowl to him; when they err, they pay. But he sets the terms, and soon they’re broke.

The second predates the one linked to above, and is an appreciation of the Sehwag-Aakash Chopra opening combination, written against the backdrop of the Multan Test of 2004:

A common view of Sehwag, when he entered Test cricket, was that he was a one-day swashbuckler, who might fit into the lower-middle order in Tests, but was unsuited for the kind of rigour and discipline that opening the batting supposedly needed. Sehwag certainly is no classical opener, but Test cricket, in recent years, has broken away from the traditions of more than a century, and Sehwag has emerged as a batsman ideally suited to the times.

Steve Waugh’s Australians have redefined Test cricket as a game of aggression, where momentum always overcomes solidity, where the traditional dichotomy of Attack and Defence is recast into a new paradigm of Attack and Counter-attack. Think of the great opening batsmen of our age: Matthew Hayden, Herschelle Gibbs and Michael Vaughan routinely play at a pace that brings them 180-plus runs in a day. Virender Sehwag is a perfect opening batsman for what Test cricket has become today.

Here’s Chandrahas, on Sehwag’s batting style:

But it is his approach to the game – his gambler’s instinct and his insouciance, the free and easy air with which he plays his slightly chancy game – that is his most charming and attractive quality, made all the more endearing because of the intense and competitive world in which he practises his craft. To me there is no stroke in the game more beautiful than a cover-drive or a flick from the bat of VVS Laxman, and yet there is no prospect as pleasurable in general as that of watching Sehwag bat. There is something irresistible about such bravado and dash, such disregard of rules of batsmanship thought to be almost sacrosanct. Even strolling about the crease between deliveries, he appears to be thinking not about the bowler changing his line of attack, or of this fielder going here and that one there, but rather of palm trees and golden beaches.

It is this very style that earned Sehwag the reputation of a “dasher” in his early days in international cricket, but there is something about that label that suggests style over substance, and also hints at a certain weakness – at faults and chinks waiting to be exposed. Sehwag has proved without doubt that he is not just a dasher. In fact, he has readily agreed to open – the position where dashers are most susceptible, against the new ball in Tests, and has responded with five centuries, each one a longer innings than the last, against five different attacks in two seasons. Not so long ago new-ball bowlers around the world used to see Indian openers in their dreams. Now they usually come running in and see the ball disappear over point off the second ball of the game.

To change the perspective slightly, check out Osman Samiuddin’s comparison of Shahid Afridi and Virender Sehwag, two modern players who define the conditions rather than “play according to it”:

But what holds more allure than changing a game is the way they do it. Almost certainly both would have played the way they did, whatever the situation. Context is not important because they create it. When Irfan Pathan peppered Afridi with bouncers and three men patrolling the long-on, deep-midwicket and square-leg boundaries, he didn’t shirk, he took him on, pulling twice for six and once for four. When Anil Kumble tried to curb the scoring by bowling a leg-stump line, Afridi didn’t pad, he tried to reverse pull him, failing once and succeeding the second time. Would he do the same if Pakistan were trying to save a match? He did in Kolkata.

By expressing themselves, both regularly shun traditions in what can be a stifling sport. We look, particularly in batting, for correct techniques, of playing within certain areas with the bat at certain angles, with certain stances and grips. Sehwag and Afridi challenge this openly, they rebel against this conformity.

Sehwag in a floppy hat yesterday seemed right, for it stirred a refreshing spirit, of flexibility not rigidity, of not being confined. Leaning like a lethargic lord, with one hand on bat and other on hip, he could have been playing at club or school level, or even in a maidan. The hat, as opposed to helmet, made for a cute and apt symbol for this. Not for him is the endeavour for perfection or precision in his technique, in his strokes. He does what is necessary, get bat on ball and score runs by doing so. High left elbow, straight bat, nimble footwork, they are rendered meaningless by his brazen defiance of the essence of batting. In any case, he is gifted with admirable traits, but he doesn’t strain for them, they come naturally. Simply, if the ball can be hit, it will be and if it can’t, it won’t. All else, how he does it, against whom he does it and in what situation he does it, this is frivolous.

Afridi is more rustic, more rudimentary but within him rests a similar approach. The very first ball he faced today was pulled for four as if playing a tape-ball midnight Ramzan tournament in Karachi. There was no lining up of the ball, of attuning to the light or the pitch. No strokes were practiced diligently between deliveries, no poses were kept. Only the ball was struck, as hard as possible with minimal concession made to technique or footwork. Here instinct is master and Afridi its slave.

In similar compare and contrast style, check out this piece by another good friend, Rahul Bhatia, where he looks at how the emergence of Sehwag impacts on Sachin Tendulkar:

Ever since Virender Sehwag became the new Tendulkar, the old Tendulkar’s been given a right bollocking for not being his old self. Pressure, burden, caution, restricted are the words used to describe his batting now. He used to be free-flowing, manic, electric and risky. Commentators say that he needs to play his own game, that his back foot moves across too much, among other things. Newspapers mourn the old days, when good ol’ Sach gave the ball a wholesome tonk. Sniff.

And finally [Sambit Bal has many lovely pieces on Sehwag and other players, but I’d linked to his latest just yesterday], a masterly example of seamless construction by the inimitable Rahul Bhattacharya. This one, like the others, is worth reading in full; I chose the quote below only because it plays into my day three theme of seizing the momentum:

Since Australia are the benchmark – and in batting the Indians ought to be meeting them eye-to-eye – it is instructive to note that when Matthew Hayden makes a score (fifty or more, for the purpose of this exercise), those who follow him score marginally faster than they would do had he fallen cheaply (at a rate of 3.79 against 3.75, from September 2001 onwards). When Sehwag scores fifty or more, however, the rest of the Indian line-up make their runs discernibly slower (2.96 against 3.15, in matches where Sehwag has opened) than they otherwise would. So where Australia are taking a man’s success and building on it, feeding off it – the cornerstone of their cricket in general – India are using it, bizarrely, as an occasion to play inside their abilities.

Some of India’s recent post-Sehwag dawdles make damning reading. At the MCG last season, when Sehwag was fourth man out, having made 195, the run-rate plummeted by 1.75 points (or 157 runs per day). At Kanpur against South Africa this season, when he was second out, having scored 164, it dropped by 1.52 (137 runs per day). At Kolkata in the following Test it fell by 1.02 (92 runs per day) after he was gone for 88. And at Mohali most recently against Pakistan it dipped by 1.46 (131 runs per day). Of the above matches India could only win the Kolkata Test. And there too South Africa, had they shown more resolve in the second innings, could have made India regret the tardiness, as the Pakistanis did at Mohali.

Each of these pieces is different in texture from the others, but they are all prime examples of the art of developing a theme. More to the immediate point, they are all examples of high quality writing that doesn’t get in the way of the subject.

American singer, actor, producer and music historian William McCord – better known as Billy Vera — has helped produce albums for an entire telephone director of music legends. He was once asked what it was like to produce Ray Charles. “You don’t produce Ray Charles,” Vera replied. “You just get out of his way.”

The same is true of writing about great sporting moments. Every building block you need — conflict, tension, the drama inherent in the juxtaposition of the success of one and the failure of the other – it is all there in the event itself. All the writers above do is get out of the way of their subject – perhaps the hardest skill there is to learn in the craft.

PS: Some traveling to do this weekend through Monday, so off Twitter for the duration. Back here in the evening with an end-of-play post. Enjoy the weekend, you guys.