Old wine, new bottle

Apologies for the absence, folks — had a ton of traveling to do, and stuff to complete, before the World Cup gets under way and consumes the bulk of my mind-space; a clearing of the decks, if you will. Besides the really urgent stuff, we’ve been working on setting up a cricket blog within Yahoo Cricket. It is still, visually and in terms of functionality, a work in progress, but starting later today all of us will begin posting on it with increasing frequency. As part of the experimenting/seeding stage, just put up a post there about Cricinfo’s list of top XI bowling performances of all time, and an omission that struck me as somewhat glaring. Here it is.

I’ll try and either cross post, or at least link to, any posts I do there — but in the bustle of the WC, it may not be always possible. Appreciate it if you could swing by once in a way. Oh, and? As my colleagues begin posting, I’ll over time work with them on content, style etc. Any qualitative feedback from you guys would be hugely welcome — in the interests of keeping things in one ‘file’, post them here, please.

Back here in a bit.


“A metropolis beyond imagination”

The cavalier attitude to doing due diligence ahead of the selection process (time was, it was mandatory for players to produce fitness certificates ahead of selections; players in time found tame doctors to produce the necessary certification; over time, the charade was given up altogether; in circa Srikkanth, the practice is to pick the team and, in the addendum, add pious hopes that various players sporting various niggles will recover in time to save the selectors’ blushes) seems set to cost the Indian team — per most recent reports, Praveen Kumar’s injury has not responded to treatment as rapidly as was hoped for, and the bowler will now rush to England for additional treatment. Whether he will or will not be able to play is still unknown.

That aside, will leave you with a lovely piece by Suresh Menon on the tragedy of Eden Gardens. An edited excerpt:

Few, however, have been able to capture the sheer passion of the Kolkata fan. The illogicality of his obsession, the thoroughness of his preparation, the amount of hardship he is willing to put himself through for the pleasure of seeing Tendulkar bat or Sourav Ganguly adjust his sweater.

And it is this constituency that Jagmohan Dalmiya and his band have let down. The fan asks for nothing more than a good match – and an India-England tie had the potential to be just that in the World Cup – but whether it was the arrogance of the president of the Cricket Association of Bengal or his stupidity that has denied them this, it is not good for either Kolkata or India, or indeed cricket….

The Board of Control for Cricket in India must take some of the responsibility too, for although the World Cup is an ICC event, the national board has obviously to ensure that venues are ready and the shopping list of do’s and don’ts adhered to. It might have suited the current dispensation in the Board to blacken Dalmiya’s face for political reasons, but as usual in the petty politics played out by petty men, the larger picture is missed. Hang national pride, who cares about how a nation about to sup at the high table appears to the rest of the world.

Suresh ends his piece with the thought that this fiasco could be the end of Jagmohan Dalmiya. Not a hope (even the writer doesn’t believe it). The functional illiterates that comprise the BCCI may not know Sun Tzu from Chop Suey, but “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” is the number one tenet in the Board playbook.

For the first two years after the regime change, the Board spent considerable energy trying to “finish off” Dalmiya, with Modi leading the charge and at one point claiming that Dalmiya would be sent to jail.

What followed was hilarious, if you like your comedy like your coffee — black.

The BCCI trotted out charges of misappropriation of funds relating to PILCOM, the Pakistan-India-Sri Lanka joint committee that conducted the 1996 World Cup. In December 2006, he was expelled from the board and all its member associations.

Dalmiya went to court — and in June 2007, got a stay from the Calcutta High Court of his expulsion. And then the real fun began — Dalmiya moved a counter case charging Board officials including Sharad Pawar, Niranjan Shah, Shashank Manohar and Chirayu Amin with perjury.

Thing was, the board based its suspension on an amendment to the rules governing disciplinary action that had, as per usual, written after the fact (remember recent imbroglios about last minute amendments to auction rules, and the other one relating to conflict of interest where a convenient amendment was inserted after the fact? SOP for the BCCI, this habit of writing its rules on water).

Worse, the BCCI honchos had forgotten that for a rule or amendment to be legal, it had to be duly registered. Since they had casually pencilled in a convenient amendment to justify their proceeding against Dalmiya and pre-dated it, it was not possible for them to register the clause, as the discrepancy in dates would then show up. They hoped no one would notice. Dalmiya, who during his tenure had developed enviable expertise in exploiting the rule book to his own personal ends, did.

To really put the lid on it, the officials while appearing in Calcutta High Court in response to Dalmiya’s legal challenge, placed the hastily written amendment before the court and swore that it was in fact official; when queried about the fact that it had not been registered, the officials further claimed that the Board had sought and received permission from the appropriate body to register the amendment at a later date.

Both were lies (arrogance is bad enough — when you add ignorance and chronic idiocy to it, the mix becomes combustible, and that is the real problem with the lot currently running cricket affairs in the country). The amendment as presented in court was dated September 2000 (the intention being to make it appear as if it had been written when Dalmiya was still in charge), but the application for its registration was made only in late 2006, after action had been taken on its basis against Dalmiya.

Faced with the prospect of criminal charges pertaining to falsification of documents and perjury, the Board decided on discretion as the better part of revenge, and allowed action against Dalmiya to lapse. It then proactively worked to bring Dalmiya back into the fold, first facilitating his re-election to the CAB as president by failing to appeal the court verdict, then tossing him several sops. (Ironically, thanks to the BCCI’s tendency to over-reach itself, the upshot was that the real issue — misappropriation of funds — had to be given a quiet burial).

All of this was based on the belief that a Dalmiya within the BCCI family was less of a danger than a vengeful Dalmiya floating around on the outside — more so when the prospect loomed that he might join forces with Lalit Modi. (Imagine the havoc those two, who know where more bodies are buried than your average cemetery attendant, could have caused had they worked in tandem against the board.)

Given this, fat chance Dalmiya and his administration will pay for the gross negligence, that has deprived the Calcutta crowd of a chance to watch the national team play in the World Cup in the unrivaled atmosphere of the Gardens.

PS: This habit of sneaking in last minute clauses into the rule book is about to get the Board into trouble on a different front. News reports indicate that there is a clause stating that 20 per cent of match fees will be deducted from capped players in the event their team fails to make it to the Champions’ League. Not surprisingly, players are up in arms and have already registered their protest, on the grounds that they had no prior line of sight into this clause, which was sprung on them at the last minute. Said players might want to consider another aspect to this: 10 teams, only three CL slots. In other words, the clause is tailor-made to save seven franchises considerable sums of money. Wonder who pencilled this dilly into the contract at the last minute.

Too rich even for MI?

Didn’t take long for the prediction made yesterday, with ref the Eden Gardens losing out on its marquee WC match, to come true now did it? Kolkata was waiting to happen; a couple of Sri Lankan venues, and the Wankhede in Bombay, got away by the skin of their collective teeth or this fiasco could have been much worse.

The real WTF element to this was provided by the BCCI president. In the past, I’ve lamented that Shashank Manohar has little or nothing to say for himself or for the organization he heads, leaving all the talking — and doing — to his successor in waiting N Srinivasan. Judging by Manohar’s latest attempt at articulating a position, I’ll withdraw that crib — it is far better for all of us if he just kept his mouth shut. Here’s his latest sally:

BCCI president Shashank Manohar has said that the Indian board cannot be blamed for the events that led to the shifting of the World Cup match between India and England at Eden Gardens. The responsibility for organising the World Cup, Manohar said, lay with the ICC. “According to me this (World Cup) is an ICC event,” Manohar told ESPNcricinfo. “The venues were selected by ICC. The inspection was made by ICC. The board [BCCI] was not at all involved in this.”

Well, duh! You mean the responsibility for constructing/renovating stadia, among other things, was that of the ICC? In other words, the BCCI had given up its control of the various venues to the global body, and they were the ones contracting for the work to be done?

The excuse is laughable. And what is more, it underlines how the BCCI functions. That stadia were not ready to meet deadlines has been an open secret for weeks now; sections of the media have constantly highlighted that, occasionally with telling images. And what was the BCCI response to that?

With 25 days to go for the 2011 World Cup, Ratnakar Shetty, the tournament’s director, has dismissed concerns about the preparedness of venues for the event.

There had been worries over the redevelopment of grounds in India and Sri Lanka, which had overshot their initial deadlines on November 30 and December 31, but Shetty said they were now on track.

I think the concerns are more in the media than anything else,” Shetty said following the ICC’s inspection on Monday of the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai, one of the grounds that was running behind schedule. “As far as we are concerned, all the 13 venues which are going to stage the World Cup are coming up very well and we don’t see any reason of concern.”

Ostrich, sand. So why blame the ICC now? The BCCI stuck its head deep in the sand, refused to acknowledge the problem let alone do anything about it, and now that it got bitten in the arse, its best response is to come up with a typically self-serving statement that only makes matters worse.

Oh, and who said that about the readiness of the grounds being a media concern? Professor Ratnakar Shetty — who, among other things, is “tournament director” for the WC2011. If the ICC is organizing the tournament, why is a BCCI official the designated tournament director? Incidentally, even when Shetty was calling it a “media concern”, he knew — or as tournament director, should have known if he had bothered to read the papers streaming across his desk — what precisely the problem with the Eden was. Here’s a story in the Telegraph that elaborates.

Stand by now for the next fiasco — the wickets. No one from the BCCI has thus far bothered to examine their state of readiness; pitches are being prepared by local bodies with no central guidelines; some have been dug up and relaid, but not tested; others have been patched over. And it is all going to come to the boil when the competition begins. At which time, Manohar can of course shrug and say none of this is the BCCI’s business.

He is right, in a way — the BCCI’s “business” is just that — business. Vide the latest load of excreta to hit the IPL fan.

After the auction earlier this month, I had in two posts pointed to many vagaries in how the auction was run (Apres the Auction, and The WTF Sequel). In another related post at the same time, there was this passage:

The buzz is that franchise owners were seriously miffed over Srinivasan sitting in on the auction while it was in progress. Friends in some of the franchises pointed out, through SMS and calls, that this was just one hat too many, one conflict of interest too much to stomach.

First, they point out, he almost single-handedly rammed in the player retention clause when, besides CSK and Mumbai, all other franchises were against it. ‘If the IPL is democratically run, how come decisions are taken just because it suits one or two franchises?,’ one person closely connected with an under-rated franchise asked on phone. Further, Srinivasan set the norms for the auction, decided which player would go in which category, and when each name would come up for auction — which is just dandy since, as a team-owner, he could in advance plan the CSK strategy, then tailor the auction process to suit his team.

At the time, some friends in the comments section had questioned whether I had definite information that this part of the auction was rigged. So here you go — Mumbai Indians has now formally protested that very act (Ironic that it is MI now protesting abrupt last minute changes in rules — they weren’t shy of doing just that very thing, as for instance when the franchise rammed in the player retention clause over the objections of other franchises). Excerpt:

In a two-page letter (a copy of which is available with ESPNcricinfo), Mumbai referred specifically to the clause in the ‘Player Auction Briefing’ dated December 17, 2010, which stated that the auction of player sets would occur in random order. But on the eve of the auction (held on January 8 and 9), two hours before the final auction briefing, the franchises were sent an email containing an amendment which stated that the random order would be replaced by pre-decided ‘order of the auction list’.

The clause was in paragraph 18 of the original Player Auction Briefing, which read: “Players in the auction would be divided into ‘sets’. The initial sets would comprise marquee players. Subsequent sets would each comprise players with the same specialism (batsmen, bowlers, allrounders, wicketkeepers). The order of these subsequent sets would be determined by random draw that will take place in the auction room.”

According to Nikhil Meswani of Indiawin Sports Private Ltd (parent company of Mumbai), who signed the letter, there was a sudden and unexplained change made to the above clause the day before the auction. “The final sentence of paragraph 18 is to be deleted. The sets will be presented to the auction in the order of the auction list.” Meswani noted that this was a “fundamental change” to the auction process.

In other words, “someone”, at the very last minute, decided the order in which players would come up for auction. That same “someone” then sat in on the auction. Thus, he had inside knowledge of which player would come up on the block when, and could thus help his franchise fine-tune its strategy while the others stumbled around in the resulting haze.

Now what? Err… nothing. The BCCI — or more accurately, its president in waiting — models his modus operandi on the Sphinx. Or PV Narasimha Rao, if you prefer a relatively recent example. You can question, you can shout yourself hoarse — but the body, and the man now running it de facto, will gaze back, impassive, knowing that after a while the heat and dust will die down, and everyone will accept the fait accompli.

Does MI seriously think something is going to come of the letter it has sent to the BCCI, assiduously forwarding copies to anyone with a publishing platform? MI, do note: when you arbitrarily got the rules rewritten to avoid the situation of Sachin Tendulkar going into the auction pool, the other franchises had written similar letters of protest.

Nothing came of those. Nothing will come of yours.

PS: Since MI has discovered the concept of “fair play” in a moment of stunning epiphany, will the franchise answer a question? The salary cap fixed is $9 million dollars. The idea is to prevent one franchise from using its money power to tilt the playing field unfairly. MI, along with all other franchises, signed on to that. So here’s the question: Are you paying Sachin Tendulkar the on-record sum of $1.8 million to retain his services? Really? After an auction process where far lesser players went for much larger sums? Will MI — since the auction, and wages being paid to players is supposed to be a matter of public record — reveal how much they are actually paying Sachin? And is it true that sum is close to half the total cap?

PPS: If you are looking for laughs, try this early reaction to the Eden Gardens fiasco:

India, the powerhouse of modern cricket, became the game’s laughing stock yesterday. Only 21 days before the start of the Cricket World Cup, the match between India and England in Kolkata was called off because the Eden Gardens stadium is unfit.

Tournament directors were last night searching desperately for an alternative venue for the match on 27 February. But though a ground will surely be found, the clear lack of readiness was a severe embarrassment for the organisers and, with only three weeks to go before the start, casts doubt on the country’s ability to stage a major sporting event for the 21st century.

More than 100,000 people had been expected to attend the game, which hardly needed any promotion – the new power in the game against the old and, at its most basic, the once ruled against the once ruler at the seat of its old power. It was a hugely anticipated match and its cancellation may yet have repercussions for the whole competition.

Four other scheduled venues – three in Sri Lanka and the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai where the final is scheduled for 2 April – are still not ready. The International Cricket Council has given them another 14 days to be complete and, although the work left is said to be no more than a lick of paint, nothing is now certain after the fiasco at the Gardens.

“Searching desperately” for a venue, Mr Brenkley? In India? Really?

And what’s with that glorious riff about the empire, and the clash of the old and the new in para three, culminating in the ominous warning that the “cancellation” could have repercussions on the whole competition? Isn’t it time England, as represented by its often infantile media, got over the Raj hangover? No one cancelled the game, you silly little schoolgirl — all that has happened is there will be a change in venue. Sheesh!

No surprises…

Pleasant or otherwise. India’s World Cup squad:

Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Yuvraj Singh, MS Dhoni, Suresh Raina, Virat Kohli, Yusuf Pathan, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, Munaf Patel, Ashish Nehra, Praveen Kumar, Piyush Chawla and Ravichandran Ashwin.

#Questions on the fitness of Sachin, Gautam and Viru

#Questions on the form of Yuvraj and Nehra

#A question about whether we need three spinners

#A question about whether 6 batsmen plus Yusuf is enough, sans cover in case of injuries.

Rohit misses out thanks to his own inability to seize opportunities, and comes as a wake up call for a talented but wayward player who most needs a kick in the butt. Nice to see Ashwin in the squad, but the key is whether, with India’s 4 bowler formula and propensity to pick Bajji almost as reflex, he will get a chance to play.

As a friend points out in comments, this makes for possibly the slowest-moving fielding side in the competition, in a format where keeping runs down in the middle overs is crucial.


Making up the numbers

So just when I was thinking the ideal Monday morning post would be to pick my preferred Indian squad for WC2011, Harsha Bhogle went and did it. And on Yahoo, yet.

It’s hard to quarrel with this team — most members pick themselves, even despite the injuries they are carrying. Typically, such a statement would be an indictment of the younger lot; it would be a fair call to say none of them has really pushed the seniors hard enough. Only, I am not so sure that is the case — the fact that the team picks itself so easily, and that we are unable to even consider adequate alternatives/possibles to the injured Sehwag, Gambhir and even Tendulkar, or to the off form Yuvraj Singh, is even more an indictment of the national selectors, who in the year leading up to the World Cup have preferred largely to stay with known names, and shied away from trying out alternate options against quality opposition. So we really don’t know if Robin Uthappa is a viable option; or a Manish Pandey for that matter; we know we need a bowling all-rounder, but we never thought to try out an Irfan Pathan, say, to see just how far along he is on the road to redemption. I could go on with examples, but you get the idea.

To my way of thinking, the build up to a world-level competition has to run on two parallel tracks: the first being to shepherd the top players along, balancing the need to keep them in peak fitness with the need to ensure that in terms of playing form they stay on the boil. This is a matter of judiciously fielding them so they can continue to fine tune their match play, while scheduling enough breaks/downtime so they can attend to physical niggles and work on little technical deficiencies they spot in the midst of match play. The parallel exercise is to identify alternatives for the key slots, to rotate them into the playing XI as often as possible so the selectors get a feel for how they are coming along, the coach has a first hand look at their capabilities, and the team also gets a degree of comfort with their presence in the dressing room.

Absent such planning, we are reduced to a situation where we say oh, yeah, Yuvraj has looked well below par lately, but you know, somewhere back in the mists of time he was a match winner for us and who knows, he could just maybe strike form during the Cup (“He is a big match player”, as commentators would put it). Or we go, yeah, well, Rohit hasn’t really sealed a place for himself yet, looks good out in the middle but throws it away more often than not but hey, he is still a great talent and anyway, what have you got to replace him? Substitute Yuvraj/Rohit with Ashish Nehra, and the same holds true; it is similarly not the fault of alternate talent, but of our unwillingness to look further afield, that we continue to talk up Ravindra Jadeja as our ‘all-rounder’.

Anyway, that ship has sailed; we’ve spent all of last year pretty much rotating through the same names except on some little-account tour like Zimbabwe, about which no one cared anyway. So bottom-line, the team Harsha picked is likely the team the selectors will pick later today; from that point on, captain and coach will just have to make the best of it.

I’m curious, though. If you were selecting, and you weren’t dependent on “proven form”, but were willing to be imaginative, to punt on ability rather than on whether the selectors had given young talent a chance or no, which names outside of the usual would you consider for the Cup squad, and why?

PS: By the way, I had originally intended to do a post on PowerPlays — I believe this World Cup will be decided by how well a team performs, with bat and ball, in the middle overs, and intelligent use of power plays is crucial to that. But on balance, that post can wait — today is about the team selection; will get back to other stuff tomorrow.