Saluting the champ

Amit Varma on Vishy Anand, and all that he means to chess, to India. Must read.

The World Cup hangover

It is significant — in a bizarre, what-the-fuck sort of way, to note that the BCCI is contemplating [actually, to use the Times of India’s patented style, make that “allegedly contemplating…”] sacking MS Dhoni not on the basis of a qualitative review of his performance as national captain, but because he had the gall to suggest that post-IPL parties on top of a hectic playing and traveling schedule had taken its toll on the players.

Significant, because it sums up all that is wrong with the BCCI. On the one hand, it has no idea of the product it is supposed to be handling — in fact, it is seemingly unaware of its responsibilities in that regard. And on the other, it has a phenomenally thin skin and at the first hint of anything remotely resembling criticism, it produces its world famous imitation of a porcupine, all bristling venom-tipped quills.

It doesn’t help that there are sufficient loose cannons among the former players to fan the flames. For starters, barring Sourav Ganguly no one had the cojones to name Yuvraj Singh as a problem child. His case is typical of Indian cricket: he drew flak for a variety of reasons ranging from his highly visible paunch and obvious lack of physical fitness, to his lackadaisical on-field performance and general lack of involvement. Promptly, his team, his captain, his franchise and assorted board honchos came up with statements “expressing support”, and denying that there was a problem. He then went out and hit a few runs, gesticulated a take-that message to the pavilion and the TV camera, and that was that — all was forgiven and, more importantly, forgotten. Till the next time.

The other, equally distinguished commentators have however come up with statements ranging from the banal to the bizarre. Gavaskar is bemused, apparently, by the lack of preparation to cope with the short pitched delivery. Well okay — how to prepare and when? Did it occur to Gavaskar, a paid member in good standing of the IPL’s governing council, that you cannot on the one hand have your players snacking on bowling rendered toothless by dead pitches and short boundaries calculated to produce a flood of “DLF Maximums” [notice how many of our ‘boys’ got caught inside the boundary line, in the West Indies?], schedule the tournament so it ends less than a week before the World Cup begins, and then talk of ‘preparation’?

Madan Lal wonders who forced Indian players to attend parties. Um… the answer, Madan, would be the franchises and the IPL’s ‘entertainment committee’, which was selling tickets at Rs 45,000 a pop to fans hungry to mix with players. And as a former player, former selector and former coach, you know bloody well what happens when you defy the board’s unstated diktats. Azharuddin says the game is more important than parties, which is about as insightful as his trademark “we batted badly, bowled badly and fielded badly” when the team lost under his stewardship.

While on parties, consider a statement made by IPL commissioner-elect Chirayu Amin that is more germane to the discussion:

IPL’s late night parties had turned controversial with players — stretched with nearly back-to-back games — coming out in muted protests against the entertainment overkill. Moreso because these were also considered a compulsion. ‘‘ I can say that the parties would be stopped,’’ said Amin to reporters in Vadodara on Tuesday . The IPL parties enriched IPL team-owners but took a heavy toll on players’ fitness levels owing to the hectic schedule. Indeed, the word was out over the last few days that late night bashes will be discontinued.

That statement was made on April 28 — two days before the World Cup began. It was made on the back of media and player complaints that the parties were proving counter-productive. The stories of the time include repeated references to the franchises forcing players to attend; it included more than one mention that players were unhappy, but could not protest. Madan and Azhar might want to consider that timeline, before they next wax indignant in front of the TV cameras.

Incidentally, I am not suggesting that MS was right to offer that up as an excuse; I am, however, suggesting that before you give his statement the horse laugh, you might want to recall recent history, and consider whether there is a grain of truth in what he is saying. To throw out the statement simply because it comes after a defeat is a case of baby, bathwater.

Ravi Shastri takes the biscuit, though. Having sat in the commentary box throughout a tournament wherein Yusuf Pathan managed a grand total of 42 runs off 34 balls in four tries, the best Shastri can do by way of analysis is to suggest that Dhoni should have sent Pathan in early in the deciding game against Sri Lanka [his scores till then? A confidence-inspiring run of 11 off 7, 1 off 5 and 17 off 12. If you were Indian captain, would you deliberately have pushed a player who looked totally at sea up the order? A player, what is more, who looked totally de-fanged when the opposition banged the ball in short and attacked his body? In fact, where Dhoni IMHO goofed in that final game against SL was in promoting the likes of Yusuf ahead of Rohit Sharma].

It’s a pity that the former greats who now occupy the commentary box and Parliamentary seats do not make half the sense of an Anil Kumble, by the way. Or maybe not — the system is set up to facilitate noise and filter out sense.

All of which brings me right back to the BCCI. And the question the likes of Gavaskar are not willing to ask. Here’s Sunny’s sound byte:

What is baffling is that even though most batsmen showed a distinct sense of discomfort against the short ball during the World Twenty20 in England last year, they were picked again for an event on even bouncier pitches in the Caribbean.

One presumes that the BCCI is as aware as Sunny-bhai that a year ago, India got bounced out of the second edition of the World T20 Cup. So between then and now, just what did the board do to overcome that collective shortcoming?

Did it produce quicker tracks for the domestic competition, so players could get some experience against rearing deliveries? With the exception of the Ranji final, no.

Did it sit down with the selectors to identify players who are seen as core to the team, identify their shortcomings up to and including an inability to play short pitched bowling, and then institute corrective measures [such as sending those players, with a clear report pinned to their shirt fronts, to the NCA [which, excuse me while I laugh, is currently headed by Ravi Shastri] for specialized coaching and practice? Did the board think of sending some of these players off to the Australian Cricket Academy, or to South Africa, for extended practice? Again, no.

So how does this go, per Gavaskar’s playbook? We pick one lot today, we find they are not fit to cope with fast bowling, we junk them all, we pick another lot for another year, find they are not qualified to cope with fast bowling, junk them, pick a third lot… and so on ad infinitum?

Here’s what I am driving at: For a little over 15 years, I have been following and writing on cricket. During that period, I have lost count of the number of times board officials, expert commentators, past players, and folks like you and I have cribbed about India’s inabilities against the short, rising delivery. And so have you. In all this time, though, has anything ever been done about it, by the body that is mandated to improve our cricketing lot?


Take another example: the “strategic blunder” of going with spin. Where did that blunder originate? Our premier pace bowler is Zaheer Khan. Clearly, he was unfit going into the tournament — incidentally, the way his health issues have been handled has a large amount of mystery attached to it. Who else did we have, of the quality required to compete on level terms with more pace-oriented sides?

It is more instructive to look at who we do not have: Irfan Pathan, Lakshmipathy Balaji, Shantakumaran Sreesanth, Ishant Sharma, R P Singh… all these players have in recent memory bowled well enough to be touted as the next great hope. All of them have started out in the late 130k-early 140k speeds. All of them have since their halcyon days dramatically fallen away in pace and venom. And all have been dumped by selection committees who have then unearthed the ‘next’ great hope. Who in his turn has fallen away.

Are you aware that at any time in these past few years, the selectors have assessed the decline in skill of these bowlers and reported on their assessment to the Board? Has the Board at any time sought the inputs of the national coach? Based on these inputs, has the Board on at least one occasion called the player concerned, discussed his shortcomings with him, and sent him to the NCA or better yet, the MRF Pace Academy [the virtues of which the Shastris and Gavaskars routinely parroted every time the “blimp” was witnessed] for corrective action? [Ironically, a player who was working on correctives then gets penalized for doing just that — check out the strange case of Irfan Pathan.]

India did not ‘pick’ a spin strategy thanks to having misread the Caribbean conditions; it was not a “strategic error”. India opted to pack its team with slow bowlers only because we have no choice: We have slow bowlers, and then we have bowlers who run in from the distance and bowl slow. On Twitter, Harsha Bhogle recently made this point:


Who did we leave out?

Harsha’s point is well taken. How many of you who suggest that the selectors goofed by not picking Manish Pandey, Robin Uthappa and Virat Kohli can state on the basis of precedent, and with complete confidence, that they would not similarly have been found out by high quality fast bowling targeting the body? And similarly, isn’t there a certain degree of dissonance in simultaneously suggesting that we erred by depending on spin, and also saying in the same breath that maybe Pragyan Ojha or Amit Mishra would have made the difference?

Did we leave Malcolm Marshall, Wasim Akram and Michael Holding behind, and deliberately pick spinners instead? Let’s wrap our heads around one central fact of cricketing life in India: We do not have fast bowlers. What we do have is a program calculated to reduce reasonably quick bowlers into toothless trundlers in the space of a season.

I’m not trying to suggest that there were no faults in the team as picked. Nor that Dhoni’s handling of the team was pitch perfect — there was more than one occasion when it seemed to all observers that the captain had missed an obvious bet, or three [his choices of whether to bat or bowl first at times verged on the bizarre, for instance].

What I’d like to submit, though, is this: we seem set to do with the national team what we have done or are doing with the IPL. To wit, when something doesn’t work, quickly find a scapegoat, skin him in the media and hang him in public gaze, and quickly get back to business as usual.

It might satisfy the apparent need for ‘closure’ — but it sure as hell will not, in and of itself, help us learn from our mistakes and push us to work on eradicating them.

Aide memoire: remember when India won the inaugural edition of the T20 World Cup? Remember the ticker tape parade through the streets of Bombay — with NCP leaders perched in the open vans meant for cricketers, waving to the crowds? Remember the victory ‘celebrations’ at the Wankhede, where the front row was occupied by the likes of Sharad Pawar, Praful Patel, RR Patil, Rajiv Shukla, Lalit Modi, IS Bindra, PM Rungta, Sunil Dev et al? A funny thing happened then — Yuvraj walked up on stage, saw a vacant seat in the front row, and sat down. An official promptly trotted up [in one final supreme irony, the man who told Yuvraj to get out of the seat was none other than the then chairman of selectors Dilip Vengsarkar]  and hustled him off to where his mates sat — two rows behind. That vacant chair in the front row, it turned out, had been reserved for Niranjan Shah, the board secretary — Yuvraj’s place was where players belong in the BCCI’s hierarchy, somewhere out in back.

So here’s something the board needs to think about: If you are going to bask in the glory when the team goes out and wins you trophies, shouldn’t you be as proactive in accepting at least a part of the blame when it loses? More to the point, isn’t it your responsibility to do everything possible to create a team that is competitive at the international level?

PS: Before you guys tee off, do note: None of the above is to excuse either the team, or the captain. My only intent is to suggest that the conversation cannot begin and end with those two entities.