Cricket in the noughties

So we return to our questions. The last 10 years have been breathless, tumultuous, acrimonious, chaotic, crass, and unintentionally seminal. How the coming years will shape up will depend largely on the beliefs and wisdom of the men who govern the game.

The biggest challenge before them is to find a semblance of coherence in the cricket calendar. The number of Tests increased from 347 in the 90s to 464 in this decade, and ODIs from 933 to 1402. Add the IPL, the Champions League and the World Twenty20 and the quantity is simply unsustainable. Forget what it might do to the players, the bigger threat to the game is what it might do to spectators.

This decade began with an abominable crisis. It will end with a crisis of a different kind, but fuelled by the same vice: greed. Match-fixing shook the foundations of the game and tested the faith of its followers. Cricket overload is robbing the game of all sense of occasion and context and testing the passion of the fans.

That is Sambit Bal, reviewing the decade just ending. In the second in a series of planned reviews, Gideon Haigh looks at the ICC’s decade-long decline into irrelevance:

Consistency is an elusive quality in cricket. Not at the International Cricket Council. It began the decade in crisis. It finished the decade in crisis. In between has been sandwiched one crisis after another, in some of which it has been the unwitting coat-holder for two nations duking it out, to others it has contributed by sheer ineptitude: who can forget the “database error” that last year led New Zealand judge John Hansen to believe that Harbhajan Singh had a choirboy’s disciplinary record?

In some ways, you have to hand it to them: in absorbing punishment to its authority and credibility, the ICC has shown a chin like Jake La Motta’s. But surely only the ICC could transform a source of celebration, like a World Cup final, into a debacle like the one at the Kensington Oval 30 months ago, then reward the perpetrators with further appointments, so that Rudi Koertzen, for example, could turn his 100th Test, at Lord’s six months ago, into another fiasco.

Many commentators on this post appear to have taken jingoistic patriotic umbrage at Haigh’s strictures; such natural (?) choler notwithstanding, the points the writer makes about the international cricket calendar are worth noting. Cricinfo promises more in this series; for now, end with Sidharth Monga’s ‘RIP’ riff on all that cricket has lost in the decade of the noughties.

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Planning commission, and omission

Suresh Menon’s latest article should resonate with all who watched the game yesterday, and cringed at Dinesh Karthik’s performance with the gloves [the Keystone Kops nature of his let off of Dilshan was bad enough; the fumble as prelude to the Sangakkara stumping was downright embarassing].

It would be foolish to depend on a very small group of players and then discover when the need arises that the replacements are not ready. Skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni for example, is now forced to miss two matches because of India’s poor over-rate in the Nagpur one-dayer. This means a wicketkeeper, who hasn’t kept for a while, will have to do the job. Yet an intelligent policy of rotation would have ensured that such a person is ready to deliver. This is not to say that Dhoni should be dropped from the team at regular intervals, only that there should be a plan to introduce one or two players into the team just so they keep in touch.

Successful teams have skillful players both on the field and on the bench ready to step in at short notice. You do not experiment during a tournament like the World Cup. But during the build-up it is necessary. And sometimes you learn more from a loss than a victory, which tends to hide the shortcomings.

Yesterday’s win hid a whole laundry list of shortcomings. We are an incisive opening attack short; the bench strength in the seam department is suddenly non-existent; the middle order remains unstable, so much so that had opening batsman Sachin Tendulkar not anchored the chase, the hard work of our spinners could still have been undone; clearly we have no viable understudy for a wicket-keeper who, as captain in all three forms, is the most over-worked player in the side…

Another clip from Menon:

India can no longer afford to define victory in narrow terms, on the basis of matches actually won. It is when substitutes perform well, when the bench strength rises to the challenge that from a long-term perspective it may be assumed that a team is doing well. Australia showed that when they won the one-day series in India with what was in effect their second team, injuries having eliminated many frontline players.

It is not necessary for India to go for broke every time. There is such a thing as building a team. If Virat Kohli, for example, is not ready to replace a top player like Yuvraj Singh or Sachin Tendulkar in the middle of a World Cup, then the selectors have failed. But batting is not really a major problem, although there is a call for ensuring that everyone gets enough rest, and that the replacements can hit the ground running. The World Cup is the making of a player, and if one or two matches in the build-up are lost while someone is given the chance to establish himself, then that is a fair trade-off.

The Sehwag factor

# It’s faintly curious that Viru Sehwag, who earlier this year renounced captaincy ambitions “to concentrate on his batting” and even promoted the cause of his Delhi mate Gautam Gambhir as the logical captain in waiting, was picked to lead during MS Dhoni’s enforced absence.

If Sehwag is serious about not wanting to lead India [the buzz at the time was that he was miffed that the captain’s armband had slipped past his grasp and gone to Dhoni, and that his renunciation was an expression of his unwillingness to be permanent bridesmaid, with no real prospect of ever becoming the bride], this seemed like a good time to give Gambhir a go, always assuming the selectors have identified him as a future captain.

# Viru and MS share certain characteristics as captain; the ability to remain collected and refrain from excessive hand-wringing and on-field gesticulation being the chief among them. The most notable difference between the two is their approach to defense [A codicil: We only have six random games to judge Sehwag’s leadership by, so perhaps what follows is a bit of a reach. But still.]

When the momentum is with the opposition, MS tends to try and slow things down; his preferred tactic is to pack one side of the field, get his bowlers to bowl those lines to the extent possible, make it as hard for the opposition batsmen as conditions and his resources allow, and then wait for the game to break his way.

In similar situations, Viru tends to attack a bit more proactively. For someone who loves to get his runs through boundary hits, he has as a batsman always been aware of the importance of the single as an attacking weapon; on the field, he carries that same awareness into field settings. Thus, and not for the first time, he yesterday started the turnaround by ignoring the boundaries the likes of Dilshan, Sangakkara and Upul Tharanga were hitting at will; he brought his fielders well inside the circle to make singles difficult to take [Dilshan had one, and not for want of trying to turn the strike over; Tharanga played out 42 dot balls to 27 singles] and banked on the fact that this would force batsmen intent on pushing the accelerator through the floor to take increasing risks with their hitting.

The other noticeable aspect of his captaincy was the recalibration of bowlers’ roles. Ashish Nehra as first change works far better than having him bowl with the new ball. The corollary of course is that Ishant Sharma went for plenty in the opening overs — but that is proof merely that the quick bowler is yet to fully find his rhythm, and not of the tactic itself [incidentally, Ishant looked a lot better when, during his second spell, he took to pitching the ball right up; makes you wonder how long it will be before the coach, or even senior pro Zaheer, talks to him about this].

Similarly, where Dhoni prefers to hold Harbhajan back as long as he can, often bringing him on after Jadeja and a part timer have had a go, Viru invariably uses the off spinner as early as possible, and in an attacking role [It helps that Bajji has in recent weeks rediscovered his bowling rhythm and now tends to bowl a little less like a wannabe seam bowler and more like the offie he is supposed to be].

None of this is to suggest that Viru is better than MS or vice versa — I doubt there is enough evidence on the table to argue the case one way or the other; suffice to say they are subtly different in their on-field thinking. There’s one more game to go with Viru at the helm, and that’s another opportunity to check out his captaincy style in contrast to MS.

#For once, India got a target to chase that did not require a boundary hit off every other ball, and that translated into a calm, measured response kick-started by Sehwag and guided throughout its course by a Tendulkar batting with clearly defined purpose. The 7-wicket win with 44 balls remaining was almost too easy — but personally, I found yesterday’s game far more absorbing than the two preceding thrash-fests.

#Back to recent events in Australia [for the last time], a couple of friends Down Under mailed, signaling their disgust with the behavior of their team at the WACA in particular. Neither wanted their mails reproduced, but the gist is that they had developed a respect for the West Indies thanks to Gayle and his men refusing to be written off, and the behavior of the likes of Haddin and Watson therefore stuck in their craw. In parallel, there is a tendency on the part of some to dismiss critical comment as the ravings of “crazies” — what this section of readers don’t get is that the Australian cricket team is almost universally admired for the all-round skills they bring to the table; hence some of us find it hard to stomach when the team blots its copybook with infantile behavior not consonant with what is expected of a champion side.

On those lines, here’s Greg Baum in The Age. An extended clip:

In this context, the sanction against Watson — 15 per cent of his match fee — was pitiful. A cricketer’s chief income is his base payment. The match fee is the icing on the cake. Fifteen per cent is a few specks of icing sugar. It is open to Cricket Australia to apply its own punishment and essential that it does. Otherwise, its code is merely a piece of paper.

The unexpectedly robust showing by the West Indies made for an engrossing series, but it also exposed an old Australian tendency to tetchiness under pressure. Three Australians other than Watson were disciplined in the series. So was West Indian Sulieman Benn, who got the most severe penalty, a two-match suspension.

In this, it was not hard to detect a familiar undercurrent. “Word” emerged from “contacts” in the Australian rooms that Benn had been a rude, precious and prickly opponent all series, and that in engaging with Benn in Perth, Brad Haddin and Mitchell Johnson had merely been standing up for their mates. These “contacts” remained nameless.

It is hard not to be cynical. If Benn has shown himself to be volatile, you can be certain that the Australians have not missed an opportunity to prod and provoke him. When he reacts, they throw up their arms, as if shocked and affronted, their innocence plain for all to see.

We have seen this demonisation path before: remember Harbhajan Singh, two summers ago? Here is one line the Australians have found that they can scuff without crossing it.

Of course, some of the Australian cricket public love this. As far as they are concerned, there is “us” and there is “them”, and they are fair game, a schoolboy mentality.

But a sizeable proportion of cricket fans were disgusted by Watson’s display of triumphalism and discomforted by the brawl over Benn. These incidents jar on their sense of how cricket should be played.