This game needs adult supervision

It beggars belief that the BCCI chose to publicly air stump mike recordings to make a particular case – one that, if deemed serious enough, should have landed in the court of the ICC-appointed match referee, not used to deliberately fuel flames that are already burning bright.

I thought that the Lodha Commission and the Supreme Court had between them had ensured that the BCCI would be run by adults?

Not that I have any time for Steve Smith’s “disappointment” either. He was not merely stood there when the Ravi Jadeja-Matt Wade incident happened – he was a willing, even active, participant throughout.

The issue is not about the nature of the words exchanged, or even the fact that any words were exchanged at all. No one is naïve enough to imagine that it was all one-way traffic, all the time, that the Indians have not chattered at opposing players. The problem lies elsewhere.

I was calling the play over by over at the time, for FirstPost.com. And while I had no means of knowing what was being said, I made the point that Wade was repeatedly, deliberately, talking at Jadeja as the batsman was settling into his stance.

That is not sledging or mental disintegration or any of the other euphemisms that have entered the lexicon to provide loutish behavior a linguistic fig-leaf. The egregiousness of the incident lies in the fact that it was a deliberate, and repeated, contravention of the rules governing cricket. Smith, maybe, needs a refresher, so here it is:

Law 42, governing fair and unfair play, begins thus:

The responsibility lies with the captains for ensuring that play is conducted within the spirit and traditions of the game, as described in The Preamble – The Spirit of Cricket, as well as within the laws.

Item #4 is headlined ‘Deliberate Attempt To Distract The Striker’, and it says:

It is unfair for any fielder deliberately to attempt to distract the striker while he is preparing to receive or receiving a delivery.

Which part of that sentence does the Australian captain need explained to him in words of one syllable and accompanying hand-gestures?

The clip provides additional clarity to what anyone who was watching saw in real time: During that passage of play, the chatter was constant, high-decibel, and it occurred even as Jadeja was preparing to receive. On one occasion, he had pulled away and walked off to square leg to regain his equanimity, and as he walked back he got more of the same.

To repeat, Smith was not only part of it, he and his mates continued the practice even after Jadeja had once taken his frustration to the umpire.

Smith is “disappointed”? Frankly, so am I. He is a brilliant batsman – it is, in fact, a travesty that Kane Williamson, Joe Root and Virat Kohli are being held up as the triumvirate of modern batting when Smith has shaded them all. And as captain, ignoring his fairly ordinary game awareness for the moment, he has managed to hold a young team together through a very tough transitory period and is well on track to restoring it to a measure, at least, of its former pomp.

But these brain fades of his, and his seeming ignorance of cricket’s governing laws, are now becoming a marked blemish. If he saw the clip the BCCI aired, he has every right to be “disappointed” – not that it was aired, but that under the pressure of a rescue operation mounted by Jadeja and Saha, he so far forgot his role and responsibilities and became a willing party to some extremely sharp practice.

All of which is also why this was an issue the BCCI and team management should have taken to the match referee. It seems, though, that we live in different times, where the first and often last recourse is social media – not that it does anyone any good.

In passing – the BCCI did the reveal because it owns the feed and therefore it could. But has it considered for a moment that this is a two-edged blade? And that sooner or later, in an age where we celebrate this new-look, aggressive, take-no-prisoners Indian side, we can and likely will find ourselves on the business end of that sword?

No point asking, at the time, “Where were you in 1984 when the Sikh riots happened?” or some other equally asinine form of whataboutery.

Finis!

What this series has desperately cried out for is a boxing writer, someone from the glory days of the sport – a Liebling, a Mailer, a Plimpton, a Joyce Carol Oates, someone who can wring compelling narrative out of the blood and sweat and triumph and tears when two evenly-matched champions batter each other to a standstill.

The narrative followed the pattern of a classic heavyweight bout – the cocky champion who waltzes around the ring at the start, anticipating the easy knockout and walking all unsuspecting into the well-prepared challenger’s sucker punch (Pune); the counter-punching offensive in the next game that puts his opponent down on the canvas (Bangalore).

And then the rounds of boxing, testing each other’s techniques, their science, their skill, their legs and hearts, landing blows, drawing blood, hammering each other to a standstill (Ranchi), all of that setting up a final round of phenomenal drama, each knocking down the other, each bouncing off the canvas in their turn and fighting back till those dying moments, that final flurry of punches long after human endurance has been stretched beyond limits, when the legs weaken, the muscles of thigh and calf flutter with effort, the lungs collapse and finally, even the biggest of hearts gives out…

It’s the sort of narrative cricket writers are rarely called on to write – a Test series that swings one way then another, predictable only in its unpredictability is, unlike the epic battles between the likes of Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman, a rarity. Gideon Haigh produced one such narrative, on the iconic Ashes series of 2005 – but that is Gideon, among the best sportswriters of our times, writing at concert pitch on a fairytale series, and a lasting regret for me will be that Haigh wasn’t the designated writer for the India-Australia series just completed.

THE last day’s play was a formality – or more accurately, was reduced to a formality when in the second over Steve Smith tossed the ball to Steve O’Keefe. Indian captains do this almost by default – when they have a game to try and win from a seemingly hopeless position, they turn to their spinners, as if it was prescribed in the Vedas or something.

Smith had been stood at slip watching Josh Hazlewood, in the first over of the day, produce deliveries that swung both ways at pace, putting all forms of dismissal – the inside and outside edges, the front and back pads, the stumps – in play. He had a rested Pat Cummins ready to produce one final lung-bursting effort, to push the Indians, to take the fight to the dying minutes of the final round – and he chose to toss the ball to the left-arm spinner O’Keefe. “Brain fade” has, thanks to Smith himself, entered the cricketing glossary, and at the risk of overuse, it applies here.

In the spinner’s second over, KL Rahul smacked him on the off with an immaculate square drive and then produced a perfectly executed sweep, for fours on either side of the wicket. That was pretty much that – the only question at the start of the day was whether Australia would at the fag end of a series where they showed the intent to fight for every inch bring the sort of pressure on India that Bhuvi Kumar and Umesh Yadav produced at the start of the Australian second innings. Once the Indians got away — there were seven runs in O’Keefe’s first over, and nine in the second — that was pretty much that; from that point on, India walked the pooch home with considerable ease.

In one last postscript to an enthralling series, Cummins came on to bowl after those two O’Keefe overs and produced high drama. His very first ball was a sharp bouncer, angling from outside off to leg, lifting at top pace into the batsman. KL Rahul Murali Vijay (Thanks Jithendra for the correction) slipped inside the line and looked to glide to fine leg; the ball lightly flicked the glove on the way through to Wade but barring a muted yelp from the keeper, no one appealed, at a time when you expected the Australians to have gone up for everything, to show that edge, that desperate desire.

In that one fiery spell, Cummins took Murali Vijay out in a classic quick bowler’s dismissal — ball perfectly in that channel between third and fourth stumps, the sort of delivery that, no matter how many times you have seen it and even succumbed to it, draws you forward for the nick off.

He kept the pressure up, Cheteshwar Pujara tried what batsmen of his class usually do – get the single, get to the other end, settle in. His push into the covers and his call was fair enough; Glenn Maxwell had his head in the game, attacked the ball, ran around it, and the sight of that fielder swooping in caused the hesitation, the throw matched the fielding effort and Pujara was run out by half the length of the pitch. Both wickets fell in that one over, and left you wondering what could have been possible.

India on balance would have nailed the win, but the point of competition is to not make things easy. (With the ask in the teens, David Warner was seen racing from backward square leg, chasing a glance off the pads all the way to the boundary and putting in the dive).

Those dismissals had the unlooked-for result of setting up the sort of contest between a fired up quick bowler a counter-attacking batsman on a pitch with pace and bounce – arguably the best sight in Test cricket.

In a 15-minute passage of play, Cummins and Rahane put on an exhibition.

Sixteenth over of the innings, Cummins steaming in, bowling full length in the channel with shape in the air and Rahane gliding onto the front foot, driving immaculately back down the track to the mid off boundary – game on. The next ball was the predictable response from a fast bowler who has been driven back down – the searing bouncer, and Rahane whiplashed into the hook, a shot rarely seen from Indian batsmen, and played to perfection. Those two shots, and another Rahane boundary in Cummins next over, fired both players up.

Cummins got three on the leg side for the hook and the pull. He came around the wicket – the unapologetically headhunting angle. He bounced, Rahane – a rarity in this Indian line-up, muted and low profile even in his aggressions – hooked with ferocious intent and power, this time hitting the fast bowler slanting into him over midwicket, the shot played off his helmet, among the hardest acts in cricket.

Then came the coup de grace: even before Cummins was into his delivery stride, Rahane backed to leg to free up space on his off, waited for the bouncer, got under it, went up on his toes to make the shot and crashed it flat and hard over cover for another six, a shot so stunning in both conception and execution that it will likely gain meme status on social media.

Steve Smith, Rahane’s IPL captain, stood at slip, hands on head, watching the ball, and the game, sail over the boundary and into the crowd.

If Rahane provided the drama, Rahul personified calm common-sense. Batting with a flowing elegance that is all his own, authoritative in his strokes and tight in his defence, Rahul ended the game and the series with his seventh fifty of this series.

Australia had stayed competitive, more often than not running in front of the game, for almost the entirety of the series. But they ran out of gas on the third day and paid for it on the fourth.

Which, when think of it, pretty much defines Test cricket between evenly matched teams — in the final analysis, it all comes down to nerve. To who holds it, and who loses it.

India, to draw analogy from another sport, replicated the template of the marathon runner. For most of this series it sat parked just behind the shoulder of the pace-setter, waited for its moment, and produced that kick in the legs that marks the real champion runner to take over the lead and, in doing that, cut both legs and heart out from the opponent.

A song of fire and ice

THE following happened in the space of 11 deliveries:

A fast bowler produced a searing delivery from around the wicket in the channel around off, seaming away late while climbing. It was good enough to beat attempted aggression by a well-set batsman playing his preferred area square on the off, to find the thick edge and fly to slip, where a regulation catch was shelled by probably the worst fielder in the side. (The fact that he was standing there testifies to this — captain Rahane wanted fleeter feet in front, and despite having caught like a dream at slip all series, opted to pull out of slip and post himself at mid on).

A little later the batsman takes that same line at that same pace backed by a field set exactly for that shot, and nails a square drive that drills a hole through the point region to the fence. To the same length and very nearly the same line, the batsman then pulls fiercely, taking the ball from outside off and despite pace around the 140k mark, hitting across the line and defeating the best opposition fielder at mid-on. The batsman wants either a one or a three to retain strike; it ends up as a two as the fielder recovers quickly.

At the other end, the man who had just dropped the catch gets a ball in perfect line, just close enough to the stumps to compel the batsman to play, the ball bouncing off the deck, turning sharp and late and finding the edge. The fielder at second slip gets down low quickly, gets his fingertips around the ball, holds, appeals, gets the decision, and races into the pavilion because he has to come out shortly and bat.

The decision meanwhile is reviewed and it turns out the ball kissed the turf just the tiniest bit. The player who pulled off the catch (Vijay) has to come dashing back out from the pavilion and onto the field of play. The bowler and fielders are upset; an umpire actually gives one fielder a sympathetic pat on the back in passing.

And one ball later, the bowler makes one go through straight to defeat a batsman on the lookout for turn, hits the pad, gets the LBW, triggers another review, and this time gets the ruling in his favor.

Eleven deliveries from start to finish showcasing good quick bowling (Umesh Yadav), fierce batting (Wade), desperate striving to keep control of the game in his hands (Wade again), intelligent spin bowling that gets a batsman almost out with one kind of delivery, then uses it as set up and takes the same man out with the other type (Ashwin). And sandwiched somewhere in there, both bad catching and good.

That was how the Australian second innings ended, and that in microcosm is how this entire Test series and particularly this final Test has been: dramatic, packed with incident, its plot points coming so thick and fast that it becomes impossible to chronicle, or even catalog, them all.

THE events of the previous day’s play had me musing on the irresistible force/immovable object paradox, which the Chinese began pondering as early as the third century before Christ.

Neither they nor anyone else has solved that one yet – but if and when they do, they can get started on the Dharamshala Corollary: to wit, what happens when the two opposing forces change roles, now irresistible, now indomitable, so often that it becomes impossible to tell the other from which?

When play began this morning, Australia was in control. 52 runs ahead in a game where every run has to be excavated at the cost of blood and sweat with just four wickets left to take. An hour into play, India had assumed control – the deficit wiped out, the wickets still intact, the batsmen in the middle batting with increasing nonchalance and near-immaculate control.

In the very next hour, Australia takes back control, blasting out the remaining wickets, allowing just 28 more runs to be added to the 4-run lead. At the end of hour three, India – are you managing to keep track of all this? — are right back in control, having taken three wickets in the space of 11 overs, with the opposition a mere five runs ahead of the game…

Test cricket is about momentum, control, shifting from side to side. But almost invariably, these swings of fortune happen over time and are the result of the slow action-reaction sequences triggered by opposing strategies and tactics.

What has distinguished this India-Australia series is not that fortunes have swung end to end– when two closely matched teams take each other on, you expect that to be the norm. What makes this really special is the pace at which such swings have happened – look away for half an hour, any day of this series, and more likely than not the two teams have changed the narrative on you and taken the storyline in totally unpredictable directions.

While memory is fresh on both sides, someone needs to chronicle it, capture the many events as they ramified, and preserve all in a book. And some day maybe a decade from now, someone born in the age of Twitter and weaned entirely on the compressed versions of cricket will read it and dismiss it all as wild exaggeration.

PostScript: My post-play report is here. And below, please find a couple of thought bubbles, spinoffs from an enthralling day of Test cricket at its very finest:

#1: Ravindra Jadeja gets a bad rap on social media, where he has been ironically knighted. It’s taken a while, but Jadeja is now the one laughing last, loudest, longest.

Even by the standards of a home season that has seen him match, at least statistically, the batting numbers of his presumed betters such as Pujara, Kohli, Rahane, Vijay and Rahul and equally, match and then overhaul the performance of his bowling partner and world rankings topper with the ball, this final series against Australia could be the breakout performance he needs to establish himself as the first name picked in any format, on any conditions, in any country, against any opposition.

That he has learnt to take the pitch out of his equations when he bowls has been evident for a while; that he has learnt to be equally penetrative against left handers and right handers, top order batsmen and tailenders, is also increasingly self-evident. Of more recent vintage is his self-discovery as a complete batsman. He came in to bat when India was down and almost out; he top-scored to leave India in a position to win the game. But what was remarkable was not the runs he scored, but the manner of it.

His wagon-wheel here was exemplary. On the off side, he stroked 11 through the covers and six in the mid off region; on the on, he had six to square leg, 12 through midwicket, 14 to long on. It was an amazingly even spread on a track where the best batsmen on either side were reduced to mostly playing on the on. Accentuating that is the fact that where edges and nudges were the default mode of scoring for most, Jadeja only scored five behind the wicket, on off and on sides combined.

Where everyone found Nathan Lyon unplayable, Jadeja stroked an easy 27 runs off  34 balls faced. His authoritative six off O’Keefe, hit with casual contempt, meant that Steve Smith never used the left arm spinner for the duration of Jadeja’s stay at the wicket — that is to say, for a span of over thirty overs. He left what he had to and defended when he must, playing out 68 dot balls, and he still ended up scoring his runs at 66.31 – quicker, under more pressure, than Smith and Warner had done in the Australian first innings. And this controlled innings came on the back of the one in Ranchi where, with the tail for company, he went after quick runs and batted with freewheeling enterprise.

#2: Ajinkya Rahane is a quiet fellow who goes almost unnoticed on the field, particularly in a team led by the tempestuous Virat Kohli. Even his celebrations are muted – a slight smile, a token high five more for form’s sake than with any vim. In a lippy team, he is the one who has nothing to say to the opposition – and yet, when it comes down to it, he turns out to be the most aggressive of the lot.

Every Indian captain I have watched as part of my work, and that is a list that goes all the way back to Azharuddin, would in the Australian second innings have gone with in-out fields, trying to find a balance between taking wickets and defending runs.

Rahane attacked flat out – three slips, gully, point in, cover in, mid off in, mid on mostly in, midwicket drawn in, square leg well inside the ring… His intent was clear: he was willing to concede runs if the opposition was good enough to make them, but his first priority was to back his bowlers.

Equally, every captain I’ve watched would have had either Ashwin or Jadeja opening the bowling or, if they felt unusually ambitious, used the debutant hero of the first innings first up. Rahane slipped the leash on Umesh Yadav and Bhuvaneshwar Kumar and let them bowl 13 straight before he even turned to spin.

There was considerable appreciation in the commentary box for India’s aggressive bowling in the second innings, but insufficient acknowledgment of the fact that no bowling unit can attack consistently unless they are given sharp teeth in the field.

Consider, too, his perfectly weighted bowling changes. That he brought Kuldeep Yadav in as early as the 14th over, as the first spinning option ahead of Ashwin and Jadeja, owed to the fact that the debutant had dismissed the two batsmen then at the crease, Maxwell and Handscomb, in the first innings.

When Maxwell went after Kuldeep in his second over, hitting him for a six and a four off successive deliveries, and smacked another four in the next over, Rahane allowed the youngster yet another over and kept the field up. Contrast with Smith, who took O’Keefe off after just one show of aggression by Jadeja and kept him off for the entirety of that partnership. Also consider what it means to a young bowler when the captain shows faith, doesn’t banish him after one expensive over.

Kuldeep’s spell was 5-0-23-0. After that 5th over, you knew he was going off. At the other end, Jadeja was bowling beautifully (4-1-9-0), and yet it was Jadeja who came off to give place to Ashwin. And then in the very next over, Jadeja was brought on at the other end. Ashwin got Handscomb in his second over; Jadeja took out Shaun Marsh in the very next over, his second after the change of ends.

You could dismiss all this as happenstance. When things go well for you as they sometimes will, it is easy to hype molehills into mountains. But go back and consider the post-lunch session on day one, and you see similar patterns.

Rahane is an outwardly quiet lad, but an aggressive one who doesn’t need words and pumped fists and incestuous suggestions to channel his aggression. He is, too, a noticing lad; he sees things and he acts on them.

Kohli will come back once he recovers. And he will take back the captain’s armband, which is both fair and natural. But his injury timeout has had one unlooked for benefit: India has found its next captain, for when it needs one.

(My match report for First Post)

Objectivity is hell, and other thoughts from the Test

Objectivity is an elusive creature – its lack easily spotted in others, its practice so hard when it is your turn.

My read of play on day one of the Dharamshala Test was that Australia had done badly with the first strike in conditions conducive to good batting, and left a good 200-250 runs on the pitch. And that still feels like the right call.

But from there, I called the Indian follow-up as an exercise in batting long and deep, the innings extending six sessions across two days to double the Australian score and still leave itself two full days to bowl the Australians out.

And that is where objectivity went for a toss, and I failed to factor in that if one side could collapse in a session against good bowling and tight fielding, so could the other; if one side could absorb the mental fatigue of a tiring session and come back strong and hard, so could the other; if batsmen on one side could forget their disciplines and end up throwing away good batting opportunities, so too could the other.

Tunnel vision lay behind my reasoning that if India could weather the morning burst with the new ball, the quicks would lose their sting. In any case, I figured as an extension of that reasoning, Pat Cummins in just his second international outing after an injury layoff extending more than five years could not physically sustain hostility over extended periods of time, which in turn would reduce Josh Hazelwood to bowling stock.

Sobering statistic: At tea Australia had bowled 59 overs. Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood bowled 29 of those, with the pacier Cummins bowling the odd extra over. Intensity? His last spell before tea was an extended five overs in course of which he first took out KL Rahul with a searing bouncer to go with some fiery words before; his first three balls to the incoming Ajinkya Rahane were all quick and sharp, the first drawing an attempted ramp, the second a pull, the third a top-edged pull.

And in the final minutes of the day’s play, with 19 overs under his belt, he was still sharp enough to take the second new ball and produce an unplayable lifter off good length, with sufficient late swing at peak pace to draw Saha’s edge and but for Renshaw shelling an easy catch at first slip, force another wicket. You want to stand for Cummins — to bowl that many overs at speeds that rarely if ever dropped below the mid-145k mark, and often inched up to the 149k level, is hard enough; to be able to bounce twice, thrice in every single over through a long day of Test cricket is the sort of effort that exhausts superlatives.

In similar vein I reasoned that where India’s two spinners, numbers one and two in world rankings at this present, could find neither consistent bounce nor sharp turn on day one, Nathan Lyon with a spinning finger rubbed raw and a split callus to add to the pain would never be able, in the optimal batting conditions of day two, be able to give the ball enough of a tweak to be sufficiently threatening – and again, to my surprise and some discomfort, Lyon turned on an exhibition of off-spin bowling that was straight out of the top draw: beautiful rhythm and balance, lovely loop and dip drawing repeated errors in the reading of length, great drift, big bounce, and almost square turn every time Lyon wanted it. It was a performance that put both my read, and Ashwin’s first innings performance, in perspective.

There was one other thing I missed: the essential quality of this Australian side, which lies neither in its good batting nor all-round bowling but in its collective spirit, in an ability to fight its way back every single time it falls behind in a game. Again, I should have known better, as should anyone who has been watching what is proving to be the best Test series in a long time: this outfit under Steve Smith has repeatedly showcased that bounce-back-ability in Pune, in Bangalore, in Ranchi. And now, here.

This is true: if you happen to be ringside when the irresistible force meets the indomitable object, the smartest thing to do is to shut the hell up, get out of the way, and let the game unfold as it will.

PostScript: Some days, events on the field of play seem to cohere into an overarching narrative. On other, rarer days the narrative shifts shape and form faster than you can follow.

Today was one such. Four hours of play resembled one of those old-time Western novels where the hero rides his horse across a featureless desert for page after page, the only point of interest being to see whether he or his horse collapses first.

And then everyone went off and had a cup of tea, and the last two hours somehow turned into a Jack Reacher novel with outsize heroes and outmatched anti-heroes and punches and pratfalls…

In my note to the FirstPost editors at close of play, this is what I said:

Follows, a few thought bubbles, fragmentary impressions, from the third day’s play. Fragmentary, because yet again in this series the two sides took turns in the driving seat and often, there seemed no logical, no visible reason, to explain the switches in control. So.

Here are those fragments, those thought bubbles from an engrossing second day at the cricket.

Dharamshala day 1 Match Report

A dozen playing days in this India-Australia series have produced more fairytales than the combined imaginations of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm managed in their lifetime. The latest in the string of unlikely stories to punctuate this see-saw series came in the unlikely shape of debutant left-arm chinaman/googly bowler Kuldeep Yadav.

Everything about his story flirts with the boundaries of probability, beginning with the very fact of his making it to the playing XI. The most foolhardy punter would have hesitated to put spare change on the possibility that with talismanic captain and number four batsman Virat Kohli pulling out with an injured shoulder, the team management would choose as replacement a tyro spinner — more so in a side that already boasts two spinners who have captured the top two ICC rankings.

That he made the side was surprising enough; that he then produced a series of brilliant deliveries to slice through the Australian batting lineup, after the visitors had taken control of the game in a free-flowing first session that produced 131 runs for one wicket in 31 overs stretched credulity to the limit and beyond.

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India V Australia, Test 4 Day 1

(My preview, written for First Post Friday evening)

C7hHt8wVwAAGBnm“MY GOD” reads a tweet from cricket writer and radio commentator Geoff Lemon, “LOOK AT THIS INDIAN PITCH oh no wait that is just some bread”. Judging by that post and others, Lemon is mildly annoyed with this cricket season’s version of the Great Indian Dope Trick.

There is an art to this. You say the following: It is hard. There is some grass on it but it is dead grass rolled in “as makeup”. There is a bit of moisture beneath the surface (duh!). In the first hour, it will give you some bounce and carry. It will become progressively lower and slower. It will crack up as the sun beats down on it and it will turn sharply. The turn, if any, will only be out of any rough created by the bowlers’ footmarks. The turn will become slower and the ball will keep lower as the game progresses…

You can say the above in whatever order you like, but you have to say all of it, with a suitably portentous expression. (To get the face right, pretend you have to go to the loo urgently).

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The case for Sreesanth

“Left arm spinners cannot unclog your drains, teach your children or cure your diseases. But once in a while, the very best of them will bowl a ball that will bring an entire nation to its feet. And while there is no practical use in that, there is most certainly value.”

The quote above is from Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, the debut cricket novel from the fine young Sri Lankan writer Shehan Karunatilaka.

That’s the promising beginning to a piece by my friend Venkat (@venkatananth) on the enfant terrible of Indian cricket. Okay, on second thoughts, scratch enfant.

Here, read.