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.

25 thoughts on “Writing cricket

  1. Awesome blog and post cheers. How long has this blog been running now? The only thing is I seem to be having slight technical difficulties getting to your RSS feed though. Scar Removal Treatment

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  3. It’s not just sports writing. The TOI routinely murders the language, with its “witty” headlines. I’ve found numerous instances of the news websites having horrible grammar and sentence constructions. Typos can probably be forgiven on the website, but I wonder where their quality control has gone.

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  5. Mr Panicker , I stumbled upon ur blog quite by chance. I became a fan of Sehwag after I had watched his 2 or 3 innings way back in 2001. I had not seen even Sachin scoring with such ease and felicity. It immediately struck me that the man is special. Since then I make it a point to see all his highlights. In the TOI article the writer did a great disservice to Sehwag. On the contrary to being brainless he is one of the shrewdest cricketers in the world today. And as u have pointed out he always remains in the zone contrary to being something special to be aspired for by other cricketers. These r signs of geniuses- they do things with the utmost ease, w/o breaking too much sweat or a lot of hard work. I put him in the same category as Dhyan Chand & Pele- both having the ability to dribble the ball through any maze of defenders at will. So can Sehwag hit the ball to any preferred direction at will. It was said of Dhyan Chand he would play the game completely in his mind, he would have the entire map of the field in his mind and know precisely how his movement in the field would be affecting the field positions & movements and dribble past any no. of defenders. Same is the case with Sehwag, he knows very well if he hits a particular shot what will be the affect on the bowler, the opposing captain & the field, as soon as the field is readjusted, he goes about playing the shots he prefers. In short he very shrewdly manipulates the field placings.As everyone knows cricket is a mind game and Sehwag excels at playing it. The writer seems to think seeing & hitting the ball at will is a very simple process. On the contrary it is a complex process,and a lot of brain engineering must have gone into a batsman’s mind in his formative years, before he is able to hit the ball at will. And as u know, none of the hits r mistimed hits, all the hits r well timed & well directed. As everyone knows he has said several times ‘I see the ball & hit the ball’. Y isn’t someone else in the team able to do the same thing? I think the main reason for it is Sehwag learnt his cricket in the rural environs of Najafgarh, he did not have the benefit of a coach during his formative years. Whatever he learnt was by observation. In his village Najafgarh, there were no proper grounds or well laid pitches to play the game. Young cricket enthusiasts would convert any little space into a cricket ground. In his hometown the ground which is available for playing has been flattened & pruned for playing cricket by Sehwag himself. On such grounds there would be no pitches as such for playing, there would be uneven bounce and uncertain movement towards any direction. Young boys playing on such grounds would generally be playing without pads or other protective equipments. The only protection on such pitches would be your bat only. I have myself played a lot of cricket on uneven grounds. Once a full speed ball hit me just above my right foot, I still carry the scar. You have to observe the ball until the last moment on such wickets, otherwise u could be hurt badly. Because Sehwag has learnt his cricket on such grounds, his basic technique is also modified by his original environment, u will rarely see him padding any delivery it is always the bat with which he plays. He isees the ball until the last moment and modifies his strokes accordingly. I still vividly remember one of Bret Lee’s well aimed Yorker which would have broken the middle stump of any lesser player being hit easily by Sehwag for a boundaryThat is why if he has to play on a seaming wicket, he will be the only one to not only survive but play a big innings. This is quite in contrast to other Indian players who come from metros and learn cricket under a cricketing coach on proper cricketing pitches. Further as u may be knowing many geniuses over the years were great music enthusiasts. And Sehwag says he gets into the mood by whistling tunes betn runs- this is another example of a genius mind

  6. Teacup

    While the overall numbers of – 17 for India, and 4 for Aus doesn’t seem worth talking about, it is but an undeniable fact that the famed Indian middle order have more often than not LOST the momentum that Sehwag has set up. Melbourne in 03/04 is the most classic case.

    Compare that to what happened with the Aus team – Ponting/Martyn/Waugh would strive to maintain the momentum that Langer/Hayden used to inevitably give them. How often did you see them stuff up ? Infact wasn’t the arguement that Aus didn’t have a defensive mindset at all ? That they didn’t know how to bat out time, since all they knew was attack, attack and some more ?

    Compared to Hayden/Langer, Sehwag when in his elements used to do it even more, and yet once he fell the likes of RSD, SRT, VVS and SCG used to try and ‘ consolidate’. Different mindsets lead to different results in the end.

    That is precisely the point about momentum – it’s not a switch that can be turned on at one’s beck and call. You always work to maintain it.

    • What do you mean by “maintaining the momentum”? Scoring at the same rate as Sehwag? Or is it about continuing to dictate terms? If you agree it is the latter, than India have not too badly after major Sehwag knocks. For every Melbourne ’03, you have a Galle ’08, Multan ’04, Chennai ’08.

      By the way, loosing the plot after a brilliant innings is nothing new in Indian cricket. Sunil Gavaskar, Gundappa Vishwanath, Vengsarkar, Azhar, Sachin, Laxman and Dravid have all seen their brilliant knocks wasted.

      • The other part here when talking abt India now and Aus then is the relative strengths of their bowling attacks. Aus could afford to continue the attack knowing very well that they had one of the greatest attacks in cricket history to bail them out if things don’t get their way. That’s why it’s a very simplistic view to just compare 2 numbers and conclude that India are not doing it right(when the overall picture isn’t exactly the same).

        Plus, teacup makes an interesting observation too wrt the weight of those numbers.

        • Besides, in India, probably because of the dominance of ODI in the public’s mind space, we tend to carryover the definition of momentum in ODI to tests. In most test match situations, the momentum (from a batting team’s perspective) is lost only when a couple of wickets or more is lost in quick succession. Unless, of course, when you have little time left to force a victory, which was surely not the case here in Mumbai. A good example of the exception – England managing only 57 runs in 23 overs when they had the upper-hand in test match throughout and they had only a little more than a day to bowl India out.

      • What is the common factor in Multan ’04 and Galle ’08 that you mention ? In Multan Sehwag stayed till he made 309. In Galle he was the only one who made anything substantial in the first innings – if I’m not wrong he remained not out there. So except Chennai ’08, the other two examples are exactly what I’m referring to. Maintaining momenmtum.

        Right I’ll grant that the Aus attack were far superior, but flip that very argument. Since they had a good attack, they could if they wished played slower and yet won ! For India, it’s the exact opposite – you need as much time as you can get to bowl a side out twice. From that scenario – pray why would you slow down after having been given a ballast ?

        • I suggest you look at the facts before you comment. I will save you some trouble. At Multan, Tendulkar scored 194 not out and India declared at 675 for 5 (Sehwag’s wicket fell at 509); At Galle, Sehwag scored 50 or more in both innings – while in the first there was a collapse, which by the way is exactly what I would regard as loosing momentum (loosing wickets in quick succession as against not scoring quickly; read my reply to Mayan’s post above), India did quite well to post a decent target in the second inning to help India win the match.

          • Yep Sehwag left when the score was 509 at Multan – yeah going from there to 675 isn’t that big a deal. Btw wasn’t there much angst when SRT didn’t reach his 200 – why ? because he was scoring a touch too slowly !

            You’ve conviniently forget the fact that in Galle if not for Sehwag scoring his 201, there wouldn’t be a test to talk about. Anyway that’s you pov. Who am I to quibble against !

            You think the Indian’s don’t do badly after a Sehwag blast, and I disagree. So let’s agree to disagree on this.

            Cheers !

            • “Btw wasn’t there much angst when SRT didn’t reach his 200 – why ? because he was scoring a touch too slowly !”

              Indian won that match by an innings and 52 runs – everything else is irrelevant. Btw, there was only a controversy on the timing of the declaration with SRT stranded on 194. His SR was 55, same as his career SR, so again, there seems to be a problem with facts in your argument.

              “You’ve conviniently forget the fact that in Galle if not for Sehwag scoring his 201, there wouldn’t be a test to talk about.”

              I didn’t forget the fact, I did point out the collapse resulted in a loss of momentum but the beauty of test cricket is that it gives you a second chance and India did well to use it.

              “So let’s agree to disagree on this.”

              Now, where have I heard that before 😉

  7. Hi Prem, On the topic of cricket writing and sports writing in general, what do you think of Raju Bharatan of The Hindu? I used to read them when I was in school, the style seemed overwrought and full of excruciating puns.

  8. The excerpt from Rahul Bhattacharya’s article is a classic case of Indian cricket writers’ nitpicking. Seriously, when did a difference of + 0.04 (for Australia) and – 0.19 (for India) in a team’s run-rate, that too in a test match, become significant?

  9. from the ‘Anatomy of a Classic’, there is this gem

    ” Q: Many right-handers look to pad Warne away when he bowls outside leg stump. Did you never consider this?
    VIRU: In my batting the pad has no role. When I go out to bat I never think of indulging in deliberate padding. “

  10. I’m glad I didn’t have any liquids in my hand while clicking that link or my new laptop might’ve needed some service! Wow!

    Amid all the bizarrely over-the-top imagery, what you aptly call “a cornucopia of counterfeit verbal currency”, the thing that boggles my (biologist) mind is the blatant misquoting of Darwin – well, more a fabrication than a quote because Neanderthals are entirely missing from “On the Origin of Species”! In a year and a season when Darwin’s name and work is being celebrated widely – and dragged through the mud in some quarters – never could have I imagined poor old Charlie being dragged in to prop up such hack work about cricket. Thank you for sharing all the subsequent links – I’ll need all of them and more to wash the aftertaste of this piece off.

    Happy travels!

  11. I think it was during th 1996 world cup or thereabouts — The sports section in “The Hindu” carried this headline, after an Australian victory in one of the matches where Steve Waugh came through bowling the final overs…”Waugh, Waugh, Steve”. I think I just threw up in my mouth again.

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