Culpable homicide

#Why is it that the ICC gets its truss in a knot when 10 wickets fall in a day’s play, or when a pitch takes turn, but is totally silent when it comes to pitches on which a grand total of 825 runs are scored in one hundred overs?

Rajkot was, not to put too fine a point on it, an unmitigated disgrace — if bowlers had unions, they would be organizing a gherao outside the curator’s home around now. We’ve had — distressingly often — ‘batting beauties’ in the past, but this wicket was something else: no matter what you bowled — pace, spin and every variation in between — the ball did just one thing: it sat up and begged to be hit.

To speak of the batting feats of Sehwag, Tendulkar, Dhoni, Dilshan, Sangakkara and others would be a travesty — the real heroes of the game yesterday were the bowlers who ran in ball after ball, knowing that ‘victory’, on this ground, was the difference in whether they were hit for a four or a six. Maybe the innovation the ODI format really requires is a rule change that permits teams to have 11 batsmen, and for all the bowling to be done by machines calibrated to serve up 300 half volleys per innings.

#It occurs to me, too, that if some smart entrepreneur were to bring bullfighting into this country as a professional sport, that would be the end of cricket. The crowds that infest our cricket stadia increasingly want blood sport, not cricket. They want Indian batsmen to hit sixes off every ball, and Indian bowlers to take a wicket every over; the silence with which they greeted a brave charge by Dilshan [who, on the day, outperformed even Sehwag with ease] and some classical hitting by Sangakkara, was disgraceful to say the least.

#For all the reasons above, parsing the Indian team’s performance on the day is pointless, yet one point occurs that will, I suspect, recur in course of this series.

The first relates to the question of opening bowlers. You have 414 on the board. You know that the wicket is dead. You want to somehow winkle out a wicket or two early, while the ball at least has hardness going for it. So why on earth would you bowl your best strike bowler as first change?

Zaheer bowled first change for the same reason Ishant has been doing it in recent times — because Praveen Kumar just cannot bowl first change; at his pace, he will be slaughtered on any but the most responsive of wickets. Strikes me that is a half-smart way of managing a bowling attack — because you insist on shoe-horning Praveen into the side, you are forced to use your best bowlers as stock, and that means you lose out both coming and going.

It seems fairly axiomatic that the bowler you pick for a particular slot should be the one best suited to that slot; thus, if Praveen Kumar is given the new ball, it needs to be because he is best fitted to use it, not because he cannot be used in any other position. Equally, for example, if Zaheer and Ishant are your best new ball bowlers, you need to give them the new ball — and then, from available options, pick the best possible number three. Fail to do that, and you not only have a less than penetrative opening attack, you end up blunting the edge of the one bowler who can be your spearhead.

In passing, watching Ashish Nehra bowl yesterday — except at the very end — was an exercise in wanton masochism. Granting that the wicket offered him nothing, Nehra made things worse for himself by carefully picking out the exact wrong line [and/or length] to bowl, at every available opportunity. MS for instance set a packed off field for Dilshan, with on occasion a short cover as an attacking option.

The field cried out for bowlers to bowl as wide as legally possible outside off, and force the batsmen to play into the packed field. Nehra promptly pitched middle and leg or, if by accident he strayed onto off stump, pitched the ball at that precise back of length spot that was guaranteed to invite the batsman to go back and thump through the untenanted off side.

If this was the first time Nehra was losing control to this extent, you could put it down to the mind-melt consequent on bowling on concrete — but this was precisely the problem he had during the T20s as well, so maybe it is time someone spent quality time with the guy.

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A tale of two number threes

Two captains, both batting at number three, showcased the two ends of the spectrum of playing pivot.

Kumar Sangakkara was brilliant in the way he seized on the momentum the openers had created, escalated it, and took the game away from the bowlers. And what I particularly liked is that for the most part, he did not need to go beyond classical cricket strokes — even the inventive shots, like a breathtaking late paddle that played a delicate angle between keeper and short fine, was a thing of beauty.

At the other end of the spectrum, I am personally no fan of MS Dhoni’s self-prescribed anchoring from the number three position. The mindset of pushing singles along and leaving the charge as late as possible works more often than not in the ODI format, but equally, it is as counter productive in the shortest form of the game.

Consider the arithmetic. Start with the basic assumption that scoring a run a ball is mandatory in any T20 game. The challenge before the Indians yesterday was therefore to score run a ball, and to somehow squeeze in 86 additional runs from somewhere. The only way you win that kind of game is by biting chunks off that differential, especially during the power plays — something Viru briefly, and Gambhir in a brilliant explosion, did to such good effect [those two got 81 from 40 deliveries; that is, between them they knocked the differential back by41, that is, almost half the original ask].

If Dhoni, during that phase, sets his sights on going run a ball, the effect is to push his team further behind, because each delivery where you score just one will actually push the asking rate up. None of this is to suggest that MS lost us the game yesterday — we accomplished that in the field, even before we came out to bat. The point is, MS does not need to play that game; in fact, to do so is actually counter-productive given the lineup he has.

A far better lineup, IMHO, would be for either Raina or Rohit to come in at three [it also allows the team to maintain the left-right combo it seems so hung up on]. Both are good stroke players and can benefit from the little breathing space that position provides; Yuvraj at four, and Raina/Rohit at five with MS at six [with the option of coming in after Yuvraj if circumstances warrant a more cautious approach] and Pathan in the finishing slot at seven [again, with the option of being sent up as a floater if the game situation demands it] is, IMHO, a far better way of optimizing available resources. And MS, with his ability to keep the board ticking over and also of playing the big shots when his mind is free of self-imposed restraints, would be far more useful in that lower middle position.

The positive for me in yesterday’s game was the bowling of Ishant Sharma, particularly that first spell of 3-0-7-0. Oh yes, before you point it out, one spell is too small a peg to hang hopes of a real comeback on — but what there was of it was good.

In recent times, Ishant on his run up has looked like a tired marathoner hitting a heavy head wind as he nears the finish — a sense of pushing himself through those final few paces. When he is feeling good, however, he accelerates smoothly through the early and middle part of the run up and literally hurtles through the final paces, in the process creating a momentum that translates smoothly into his delivery. That is how he bowled yesterday, and the difference was most marked in the way he regularly hit the high 130s while looking like he had plenty left in the tank.

Equally, Ishant when not on song is particularly exposed when bowling to left handers — but yesterday, he was immaculate against Sanath Jayasuriya. He used varying lengths on the short ball to keep Sanath pegged back; he had both deliveries — the one leaving the left hander off the seam and the one jagging back in — going to confuse the batsman and inhibit strokeplay, and neither Sanath nor Dilshan looked remotely at ease during the 18 deliveries they faced off him, to score a sum total of 7 runs while benefiting from one let off apiece.

Now to see if he his recent enforced rest has helped Ishant rediscover his mojo — if he has, then with Zaheer back and Sreesanth “turning into a new leaf” as a friend once said, our opening worries with the ball could be in a fair way to being resolved.

On an unrelated note, here’s just what we needed: another commentator to interpret the Indian team’s recent rise to number one position. Do you get the feeling as you read this that Simon Briggs wrote it to paper over the earlier, and even more ridiculous, piece authored by Simon Wilde? Let’s see: the message seems to be, India [sorry, Wilde] actually “deserves” the number one placing, but cannot “justify” it because it does not have a superstar bowler or bowlers. Err — okay, so which team deserves that ranking because it can “justify” it, then? There is also some unintended hilarity about how Bradman could line up 300-in-a-day efforts because the bowlers then, like the ones enabling Sehwag today, are “subservient”. Harold Larwood and Maurice Tate, who suffered the most during the Don’s onslaught that fetched him 300 in course of one day’s play at Headingley in 1930, will love hearing that one.

Right, so who’s got the next bizarre theory? Step right up, ladies and gentlemen: the comedy club is now officially open.

PS: Voted yet?

The Test team that isn’t

One of the members of the Indian team, to whom I had sent a congratulatory SMS Sunday evening, responded with this: It’s been a long time coming — we’ve dreamed of this and worked towards this all our playing lives; feels good. Now to maintain it.

Therein lies the catch: sometime early next year if not sooner, India will find itself overtaken in the rankings, for no fault of the team’s.

When a Simon Wilde writes that India does not “deserve” to be number one, it’s difficult not to take issue. The team has worked towards this; it has gone from a group labeled the worst travelers in cricket to a side that holds its own even when playing away from home. And it made it to the top of the table thanks to a points system it did not devise — the same points system, incidentally, that saw England being named the number two side in the world even as it was on a hiding to nothing in the Ashes series Down Under.

While Wilde, thus, is easy to dismiss, Jamie Pandaram’s piece in the Sydney Morning Herald is more on the money. Ignore the bit about surveys showing that only seven percent of Indians like Tests — a survey is as good as the sample, and a 500-or-so sample size is no way indicative of the mood of a nation of one billion plus [besides, checked out the crowds that turned up, especially in Kanpur and at the Brabourne?]. Ignore, too, the bit where Pandaram keeps talking of the paucity of home Tests — the larger point is, we are just not playing enough Tests, period.

A Rahul Dravid or VVS Laxman, for instance, will get to play two Tests against Bangladesh in December this year. They were then slated to play three home Tests against South Africa in February — but the FTP cryptically says they will be ‘rescheduled’ — a euphemism for maybe some other year, if at all. Effectively, thus, the Test team will wait till May 2010 before, hold your breath, playing Zimbabwe in two Tests. Then we wait till sometime in November, when we host New Zealand for three Tests, before going to South Africa in December 2010 for three Tests. That is a grand total of 8 Tests over a 12-month span, including a — with all due respect — no-account series against Zimbabwe. In that same span we will play 17 ODIs besides the Asia Cup — and the schedule for India makes plenty of room for the IPL and Champions League.

While Pandaram’s piece gets side-tracked [incidentally, the likes of SMH and Wilde might want to note that as this is written, Australia at home has been outplayed, and is struggling to stave off defeat against a West Indies side currently ranked number 8 — the lowest in its history], Cricinfo nails the main point down:

During the period in which India have only two Tests – against Bangladesh – to maintain a hold on their No. 1 position, South Africa play at least four and Australia eight. A 2-0 win against Bangladesh isn’t likely to give India too many ratings points either, so they could be overtaken depending on how South Africa do against England, and how Australia go against West Indies and Pakistan at home, and in the away series in New Zealand and against Pakistan in England.

”We just go out and play whatever is scheduled,” Gary Kirsten is quoted as saying. A current member of the side put it more pithily: “We’ve dreamed of the number one rating from the time John (Wright) [whose effusion here is, knowing the man, not pro forma but comes from the heart] took over as coach. Seems a pity we finally got there only to lose it by default. Not because we are not good enough, but because we won’t play enough.”

That point about working towards a dream was well taken. Anil Kumble — who has done more than his fair share in pushing the team to the top and who, sadly, retired before the final step was taken — writes of just how much the team wanted this, in his latest column:

Almost two years back we sat down and planned for this day, so you can imagine the feeling among all concerned now that the task has been achieved. Back then, we knew that in the next 18 months or so we would play almost every team in the world, either home or away. We made a conscious effort to sit down and discuss the way to the top. The team goal was simple. We were fifth in the rankings and said to ourselves: “Let’s go out there and win every series from here on, as that is the only route to the top.”

The team has done its bit. As, come to think of it, has the BCCI, by its own lights: Rs 25 lakh per player as reward, there you go, quit cribbing and keep in mind we are able to pay you this money because of all the billions we earn through the IPL and assorted ODIs [seven of them against Australia next year, after seven against the same team this year].

Ask the players, and they’ll tell you they’d rather have more Tests. Ask the fans, and they’ll tell you if the BCCI schedules series against South Africa and Australia, billing them as the games that will settle this argument for good and all, we’ll queue up outside the grounds.

The real pity is that captains beginning with Sourav Ganguly, and coaches starting with John Wright, have worked with focus towards building a competitive Test team. Now we have one — but thanks to the Board, we won’t get to see it play as much as it should.

Zak is back. Again

These days, Zaheer Khan decides when he needs to turn up for practice, and when he to treat himself to a break even as his mates sweat it out.

He has, almost right through his career, been like that – only, earlier his absences were seen as a sign of unsound temperament in one who, during the first quarter of his career, was not particularly keen on fitness. Women members of Exert, the gym in Bombay’s Haji Ali region where Zak used to work out then, used to laugh at his regimen: a gentle amble on the treadmill followed by a sandwich; then a round of two of desultory pumping of iron before he went ah fuck it and strolled off.

His absences, seen then as a manifestation of a lazy work ethic and unsound temperament, are now viewed by his team in far more benign light. They acknowledge that Zak is a total team man, and a champion who is aware of his body’s needs and has a well honed sense of when to conserve his energies, and when to expend them.

Zaheer belongs to a new generation of players who do see being dropped from the side not as an excuse to go into a massive sulk, but as a spur to look within, to identify flaws and set about rectifying them with enviable focus.

In Zak’s case, the seminal moment came at the end of the 2005-’06 tour of Pakistan, when he was dropped thanks to a combination of indifferent performance, a less than ideal work ethic, and the emergence of Irfan Pathan.

He went back to the nets, then decided that he needed to hone his skills in competition, not isolation. And so he went to Worcestershire, teaming up with coach Steve Rhodes and bowling coach Graham Dilley.

That stint saw Zaheer develop from being a bowler of limited variety and fragile temperament, to one who through trial and error cut down on his run up, improved his balance on the jump into the delivery stride, and added the weapons of both-ways conventional and reverse swing to his arsenal. “When I was playing for India, I couldn’t experiment too much but in county cricket I had that freedom to try new things, and to explore what I could do,” he said at the end of his stint.

His comeback made you sit up and rub your eyes – or, if you were Graham Smith, curse fluidly. Zak took the South African captain’s wicket for fun – six successive times, spanning four one dayers and the first Test of that series.

That was where Zak revealed just what he had learnt during his time in the wilderness. As long as he was a bowler reliant on rhythm and a natural outswinger, he could be negotiated, even decimated – as Adam Gilchrist famously did to him in THAT first over of the World Cup final.

In England, he added both-ways swing, learnt to use the width of the crease, and developed immaculate control on length – and these showed not only in his serial take downs of Smith, but in the way he made world class left handers sweat. He always had Sourav Ganguly’s number [think back to the 2005 Duleep Trophy final; to the former India captain’s outing for Northamptonshire against Worcestershire in the 2006 season; to the Bengal versus Bombay Ranji fixture at the Wankhede…]. On the tour of Sri Lanka shortly after South Africa, he was at it again, effortlessly taking out the likes of Sanath Jayasuriya, Upul Tharanga and Kumar Sangakkara [one early spell read 3-0-3-3]; in England it was Andrew Strauss who found Zak too hot to handle.

In an interview to the Observer that I’d saved at the time, Michael Vaughan nailed it against the backdrop of a performance that ended England’s six-year sequence of being unbeaten in home Tests and saw Zak being named one of Wisden’s Cricketers of the Year 2008. “We never knew what was coming next,” Vaughan said. “I can’t remember so much swing, not even from Chaminda Vaas or Wasim Akram. Zaheer – and I think he was the man coming up with all the ideas – kept doing the unexpected. It was fascinating to watch. On that last day at the Oval, Zaheer was still swinging the ball both ways. Traditionally, he should have been bowling over the wicket, but he kept coming round to left handers; he was changing the angles all the time. The guys would not have seen that before, and I can guarantee they would not have practiced that.”

That comment encapsulates the new Zaheer: two-way swing at will, perfect control of length, a bouncer that has gone from a means of venting his frustration to a potent weapon he uses to maneuver the batsman and get him where he wants him, and a calm calculation of angles and lines that argue a refined grasp of the geometry of seam bowling.

His five wickets in the Lankan second innings at Brabourne signal his return to full form and fitness where, thus far on his nth comeback, he has looked a bowler searching for misplaced rhythm. Two of his victims – Samaraweera and Kulasekhara – were done by his control on length; on both occasions, Zak banged the ball in just close enough to off stump to have the batsman unsure whether to play or leave, got the ball to lift off the deck and seam in just late enough to crack the edge of the defensive bat and fly to slip.

In the case of Mahela Jayawardene, Zak played on known uncertainties around off stump early in his innings, setting him up with deliveries angling across, then bowling one hitting line of off, drawing the smooth-stroking Lankan into the push, and seaming away to find the edge. His best though was reserved for Kumar Sangakkara this morning: one ball just around off cutting in that the Lankan captain defended; the next on fullish length outside off that got Sangakkara driving; the third on middle and off on good length that had him defending, only for late away movement to find the edge through to Dhoni.

Those were the dismissals of a bowler with enviable control on mind and craft both. And with all of that, he has also found and harnessed a new ruthlessness, best exemplified during the home series against Australia when Zak developed such a stranglehold over the Aussies that Mathew Hayden, who by then had been dismissed thrice in three tries by Zak [Hayden’s third ball dismissal in the first innings of the first Test in Bangalore was a carbon copy of the take down of Sangakkara at the Brabourne yesterday], was reduced in the second innings at Mohali to attempting cricket’s version of the Charge of the Light Brigade.

His temperament is brittle, Hayden suggested before that game, reminding all who would listen of what his erstwhile mate Gilchrist had done to Zak while he watched from the other end. In his attempt to test that temperament, Hayden charged the first ball Zak bowled in the second innings en route to going down in flames after a manic 29 off 20 balls [Bhajji got Hayden then; Zak proved that ‘brittle’ was a thing of the past when he came back to nip Australia’s nascent resistance in the bud with three quick strikes that smashed through the lower middle order, and help hand Australia a 320-run defeat].

Ironically, it was Zak who after the first Test of that series in Bangalore did unto the Aussies what they were in the habit of doing to everyone else. He taunted Ponting on his “defensiveness”, and suggested that neither the Aussie pacers nor spinners were good enough against the Indian team. “On a fifth day pitch the spinners could not do us any harm – that shows what their spin attack is all about,” he taunted. “And even the pacers didn’t look like getting wickets at any stage today.”

Zak’s return to the team, and to form, is probably the single most significant outcome of this series. He is now a bowler serenely aware of his strengths, and confident enough to not just shoulder the burden of spearhead but also that of mentor. When Zak is on song and the seamers are operating, Dhoni happily allows him to lead the side, setting fields and talking his junior mates through their spells. Both Sreesanth [in South Africa, and particularly one spell at the Wanderers], and Ishant Sharma [particularly in England] have bowled their best, most sustained spells under his wing; on both occasions, Zak proactively worked with his juniors, stationing himself at mid off/on and walking/talking the bowler back to the top of his mark.

During Zak’s time away, MS Dhoni has seemed a little at sea as his seam bowlers lost their way. The Indian captain, now boasting a Test record of seven wins and no defeats in nine tries, will likely rank the return of his go-to man on par with India’s clinching the number one spot in the Test rankings. Or maybe even higher – Dhoni said at the presentation ceremony that making it to number one wasn’t the thing; “the real task for us is now, we have to maintain our standards.” And to do that, MS will look more than ever to his spearhead.

In passing, I liked the way MS handed the trophy over to Pragyan Ojha and pushed him to the front for the mandatory team photograph. For a youngster looking to find self-confidence and a sense of belonging at the highest level, the gesture will have meant much. I liked, too, his pragmatic reaction to the question of whether the number one ranking will mean much without India having beaten South Africa and Australia. From Dileep Premachandran’s piece:

Over the next year or two, the No.1 ranking will change hands often. Unlike in the days when Australia, and West Indies before them, ruled the roost, it no longer signifies the best team in the world. For India, greater challenges await, but there’s little use brooding about Australia or South Africa right now. When asked if victory in those climes was essential to be legitimate top dogs, Dhoni said: “Let’s see when we go there. We can’t play them sitting here.”

PS: Away from office, and on the road, all day today. Back here tomorrow, see you guys then.

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.

Test 3, Day 3

“Sri Lanka clearly hasn’t learned the art of putting the boot in when it can,” I said at the start of my blog post on the first day’s play in this Test match – right quote, wrong team.

If India wins this Test – and despite the quality of its play on day three, it still can – it will thanks to the ICC’s incomprehensible number-crunching find itself elevated to the number one slot on the Test table.

By its play today, however, it indicated that it has a long way to go before it can translate that statistical anomaly into undisputed – even by the likes of Simon Wilde — reality.

Australia’s unchallenged hegemony through the nineties and early ‘noughties’ is widely attributed to a rare concatenation of outstanding talents with bat and ball, an unprecedented array of individual match-winners who collectively became even greater than the sum of their parts.

What is not as often discussed is that the real driver was the ruthlessness developed during the latter part of Mark Taylor’s captaincy, and honed to a fine art during the Steve Waugh years.

During its decade-long dominance of international cricket, Australia reveled in putting opponents down on the mat as soon as it possibly could, and then putting the boot in with a ruthlessness that sent a message to future opponents that they too could expect no mercy.

As a result, teams took the field against Australia having already lost the mental battle; their sights were fixed not on winning, or even holding Australia at bay, but in not being totally disgraced. “If we can draw the first Test, we have a chance,” Rahul Dravid once told me the day before the team was setting out for a tour Down Under; then BCCI board secretary JY Lele more pragmatically said the team would lose 3-0.

Avoiding a whitewash was the substance of not just our ambition, but of the rest of the cricketing world, whenever they padded up to take on Australia.

And it was not just that Australia was ruthless – it was also relentless. It never let up, no matter the quality of the opposition nor even the status of the series. Thus, it would play at the same levels of intensity against an England and a Bangladesh; it would play tooth and claw cricket in the first game of a series and in a dead rubber after the series had been sealed 4-0.

It is this lesson India is a long way from learning – champion sides [and individuals] don’t just win, they dominate; they intimidate oppositions, they put the fear of god into them.

India ended day two on 443/1, motoring along at a rate close to six rpo and occasionally hitting the high sevens – unprecedented that early in a Test match innings. In the process, it reduced Lanka’s most potent weapons, the spinners Muralitharan and Herath, to abject submission.

In the first two sessions of day three, batsmen of the accomplishments and experience of Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Yuvraj Singh managed 186 runs in 56 overs for the loss of six wickets. That is to say, those four storied players managed a combined 212 runs in 383 deliveries faced; this in contrast with the 254 deliveries Virender Sehwag faced to score 293 runs.

Here’s another illustration: India’s champion batsmen, for the most part, scored at or under 3 runs per over on day three, against an attack that had already suffered the death of the thousand cuts. Had India scored at that pace on day two, it would have ended at or around 237, some 150 runs behind the Lankan score, and we would have been talking this morning of the need to play cautiously, focus on going past the Lankan first innings score, and then consolidate and build a big lead. ‘India fight back,’ the headlines of this morning’s papers would have read.

The contrasting attitudes are best exemplified in this: “Murali is a big challenge to face,” Sehwag said at the end of day two. “If you have to play against a spinner like him, you have to attack him. Otherwise, he will come and dominate you. So instead of allowing him to dominate, I dominated right from the first ball and pushed him onto the back foot.”

Sehwag faced 77 deliveries from the off spinner, and scored 83 runs including 11 fours and two sixes. By the end of the day, Murali was a shadow of his world record-breaking self, reduced to bowling around the wicket, from wide of the crease, into the spot a foot outside leg stump.

Against that, Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman and Yuvraj faced 112 deliveries of the same bowler, managed 65 runs, and saw him end the innings with 4 face-saving wickets while Herath, who had similarly been reduced to the ranks of the impotent, came back with two today, taking his tally to three.

None of this will likely make much difference to the outcome of this particular match – but what the Indian team needs to learn is that momentum needs to be seized and built on when it presents itself; it cannot be pickled and put away for a rainy day. Get into the habit of riding the adrenalin, and it serves the collective cause in the face of sterner examinations; bat at half throttle simply because there is no apparently urgency, and you find it that much more difficult to move up the gears against the better sides.

Having reduced the Lankans to complete submission on day two, today was the opportunity to demonstrate the ruthlessness of champions, the chance to administer the coup de grace and put the opposition so far behind the mental eight ball that the Indian bowlers could pretty much have things their own way against a totally demoralized opposition.

Related, ruthlessness – the so-called “killer instinct” – cannot be switched on and off at will but needs to be cultivated as a constant; an attitude that permeates the team as it steps across the white line. Absent that quality, this team with its “best batting lineup in the world” will continue to do well against the likes of Lanka, Bangladesh et al, but will struggle when it goes up against the mentally stronger big boys at the top of the table.

As far as the match goes, thanks largely to MS Dhoni’s late order power-hitting on the back of the two double century stands powered by Sehwag, Vijay and Dravid yesterday, India is in full control.

Lanka faces the task of batting out 180 overs knowing that even if they succeed, on a tougher wicket than Kanpur, the best they can hope for is a 0-1 result – not the kind of mindset conducive to extended concentration and focus. To trot out a tired cliché, it will be a “test of character” for the Lankans and, for the home side, a measure of their desire to attack relentlessly in the quest for the best possible result. [Oh, and another chance for Pragyan Ojha to give it a go and put himself permanently in the frame].

PostScript: There are three television screens within eyeshot of where I sit, in the Rediff office – and yet, yesterday, I struggled to follow the Indian innings because of the crowds in front of each of those screens. It was not just my editorial colleagues; our fellows from across the ‘border’, from the marketing, sales, tech and allied departments all gave up on work for the day, and only went back to their seats once the umpires had downed stumps.

Today, only one of the three screens was turned to the game, and even that had no ‘attendance’ – the first ‘crowds’ began trickling in around 4 pm, when Dhoni, with only Ojha left for company, began opening his shoulders.

Just saying.

On another note: Sambit Bal salutes Virender Sehwag for what he is: the most destructive act in cricket. Period.

Oh, and by way of weekend homework: Check out the blogs in all categories. Support the good ones. A blogging universe in its infancy can use all the backing you give it.

Wide Open

Before he steps out into the public glare, Sachin Tendulkar puts himself through a ritual: First, he plugs in his earphones and turns the volume of his IPod way up; he then hides his eyes and half his face under his preferred brand of shades.

The earphones and shades are the bars to a prison Tendulkar voluntarily immures himself in, not out of arrogance but of the desire of an intensely private, extremely shy person to keep the world at bay.

It is, equally, the attempt to find through artificial means the privacy denied, for two decades and counting, to one who ‘belongs’ to the nation.

The prison motif also permeates much of Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open — but in his case it is a prison constructed by circumstance, not out of choice.

Open is a searingly honest book [earliest posts here, and here]; a brilliant coming of age narrative that also serves as the prism through which we witness the entries and exits, on the world stage, of some of the most storied players of the age.

It helps that the narrative arc of Agassi’s life is almost operatic: tormented childhood, troubled teens, conflicted adulthood all marked by an internecine conflict between talent and temperament/inclination; an almost Dickensian plumbing of the depths of degradation followed by a Chicken Soup for the Sporting Soul story of redemption.

Three women power the story: the teeny-bopper crush turned live-in lover of his early twenties; the Princeton-educated supermodel/actress he happily beds and reluctantly weds, and whom he treats in his memory with an indifference bordering on contempt; and the leggy blonde tennis legend who becomes his personal Holy Grail and who, once she enters his life, propels the narrative towards a fairy-tale denouement.

Supporting the lead actors is an ensemble cast of supporting characters who in their respective ways serve as catalyst to the tale: the tyrannous father [‘bad things happen’ when his father is angry, Agassi says in the voice of the scared child, early in the book] and soft-spoken, all-accepting mother who, in the denouement, stands revealed as The Image is Everything phasepossessing unsuspected strengths; the older, less talented brother who becomes his pro bono driver and wing man; the physical trainer who is the closest thing mankind has seen to the Incredible Hulk; the Fagin-like director of the tennis academy that becomes Agassi’s teenage prison [he refers to his training there as the tennis equivalent of breaking rocks as part of a prison chain gang]; the pastor who on cue doles out dollops of Deepak Chopra-esque bromides; the best friend of his childhood who becomes his manager; and the two coaches, themselves former players of some repute, who chisel his court craft and convert him from street-fighter to a strategist of the tennis court.

And the players: a constant, dazzling parade on the other side of the net of some of the greatest names of the age. What we often tend to lose sight of is that in a career that spans 1986-2006, Agassi has storied players fade and fresh talent emerge. He has battled McEnroe, Lendl, Edberg, Connors and Becker [the latter two he treats with undisguised contempt]; he has seen the likes of Courier and Wilander emerge, soar and ebb; he With friend and rival Pete Samprashas seen the metamorphosis of Pete Sampras from a ‘no talent’ tyro to his arch-nemesis [“I wish I could emulate his spectacular lack of inspiration, and his peculiar lack of need for inspiration,” Agassi says in one of the many cathartic moments in the book]; he has played against and outlasted the greatest names of two decades and, in his twilight years, seen the emergence of Roger Federer, the player who he names, against the backdrop of their first meeting, as the one destined to be the greatest ever.

Those names, and Agassi’s photographic memory for match detail, drive large sections of the book and provide unmatched insight into what goes on in the mind of a player as he battles back from the edge.

But it is his personal journey – from traumatized boy to troubled teen; from precocious talent to chronic under-achiever; from the ‘Image is Everything’ parody to the dignified champion who, in his last hurrah at the 2006 US Open, made fans weep the bitter tears of personal loss – that gives the book its cutting edge. And Agassi’s greatest triumph is perhaps this – he handpicked the perfect collaborator.

JR Moehringer, who is thanked extensively in the afterword, had during his stint at the LA Times netted a feature-writing Pulitzer for his portrait of a river-front town that is home to the descendants of slaves, whose isolation is threatened by a proposed ferry that will link them to the mainland.

He almost netted another Pulitzer [Moehringer was a named finalist] for his searing profile of heavyweight boxer Bob Satterfield, every key stroke of which is, in the light of hindsight, a precursor to what he would do with the many dozens of hours of conversations he had with Agassi.

In an extended section of the afterword, Agassi talks of how he had identified Moehringer as the writer he wanted to work with after reading his memoir, The Tender Bar. Read these excerpts – from the author’s website and from Amazon – and the reason for the choice of

With Brooke Shields: I do? Like heck I do!

Moehringer becomes clear. The themes in his memoir — parental neglect or/and abuse; a desperate quest for identity that paradoxically triggers self-destructive behavior; the constant search for a father figure, mother, companion, seer and, always shimmering in the distance, the promise of redemption – foreshadow the themes that permeate Open.

What strikes you most forcefully as you read Open is its breathless urgency; a sense of watching events unfold in the living, breathing present, that gives an added urgency to the matches Agassi lives through, to the sense of impending cataclysm that hangs over his relationship with Brooke Shields  and to the developing destiny that drives the Agassi-Graf relationship. Moehringer achieves this by writing always in the historic present and, by putting you in the midst of the action as it is taking place, getting you to invest emotionally in the story.

You feel in a physical way the ball come off the racket as he hits the screaming forehand pass that knocks Boris Becker out at the end of a match in which Becker got Agassi’s goat by bowling kisses at his then girlfriend Brooke Shields; you feel the lung-busting, soul-searing effort that went into the quarterfinal of the 2005 US Open [one of the meticulously detailed games in the book], where Agassi

The Holy Grail: Agassi and Graf with son Jaden and daughter Jaz

came back from two sets to love to win his match against James Blake in a 5th set tie-breaker; you feel Agassi’s disappointment when he wins finally Wimbledon only to learn that Steffi Graf, the women’s champion, won’t be dancing with him after all; and as he sits in a plane, crafting a crude birthday card for Graf out of an airline menu, you root for romance to triumph.

And it is all down to Moehringer’s brilliance as amanuensis.

Moehringer constructs the story with rare skill; his tools are a pitch-perfect ear for dialog and a deft touch with portraiture, so that every character, central or peripheral, appears on the page vitally alive and fully formed.

‘Voice’ is the hardest thing for the ghost-writer to crack. Write in the voice of the protagonist — who, though skilled in his area of endeavor is likely untutored in the art of telling a story — and the narrative could end up bloodless, lifeless; write someone else’s story in your own voice, and the result rings false in the reader’s ear.

In 2006, Gary Smith [subject of an earlier post] wrote a profile of Agassi for Sports Illustrated that has since been extensively anthologized in ‘Best of…’ collections. It reads, in retrospect, like a Condensed Books version of Open — and the similarities suffice to tell you that the voice we hear, in Smith’s profile and in the autobiography, is Agassi’s own. What Moehringer brings is the skill of the top-notch practitioner of narrative non-fiction: pacing, sentence structure and a driving ‘beat’ to the words that, like a good bass line, you feel in the gut.

Sometimes, though, it all feels too pat. The villains get their comeuppance; no matter how rocky things get in the life of his friends it all comes right in the end, thanks often to the hero’s large-hearted generosity; the hero himself beats all odds, becomes world number one; woos, wins and weds the unattainable maiden…

Pat. Perfect, in a way life rarely is. And it makes you think.

We, all of us, lead two lives. The one is a messy, chaotic affair lived in the hurly-burly  present. And the other is the revisionist version that we live relive in our personal rear-view mirror. In this version there are no coincidences; everything that happens ties in neatly with everything else that happened or will happen; actions are dictated  not by knee-jerk reactions to the randomly unfolding present but by carefully calibrated reasoning; unsightly loose ends are neatly tied during this process of post hoc revision and the more obdurate ones are snipped away altogether.

Open is clearly revisionist; its silences speak to the unsightly bits that have been cauterized. And nowhere is that silence as eloquent as when Agassi speaks of his drug-taking. We know when it started and how; we have a sense of his short term gains and long-term losses; we live through him the euphoria of the high and the soul-destroying nature of the aftermath. But — and thanks to my personal experience with drugs, it is something I looked forward to reading, and was disappointed not to find — when did the self-destructive nature of what he was doing really dawn on him? How? Why? And how, after clocking up a year or more on a killer like crystal meth, did he kick the habit?

The book is silent on that, just as it is largely silent on his role in the two failed relationships that preceded his link up with Steffi Graf.

That minor quibble aside, few if any sports memoirs manage to rise beyond self-serving hagiography and into the realm of soul-searching bildungsroman. Open makes that leap effortlessly, and wins my vote for best sports book of the year/the decade, and – since tennis is the theme – finds place in a very select list that includes the seminal Rivals by Johnette Howard, the story of the Chris Evert-Martina Navratilova rivalry [review by Soumya Bhattacharya] and You Cannot Be Serious, the autobiography of my all time favorite tennis player, John Patrick McEnroe.

Afterwords:

Agassi’s riffs on the players of his generation provide rare insights. Here, for the Indian in us, are his thoughts on two players. First, Ramesh Krishnan, who handed Agassi his first defeat after the latter turned pro at age 16:

My first tournament as a pro is in Schenectady, New York. I reach the final of the $100,000 tournament, then lose to Ramesh Krishnan 6-2, 6-3. I don’t feel bad, however. Krishnan is great, better than his ranking of 40-something, and I am an unknown teenager playing in the final of a fairly important tournament. It’s that ultimate rarity — a painless loss. I feel nothing but pride. In fact, I feel a trace of hope, because I know I could have played better, and I know Krishnan knows.

Next, Leander Paes, whom Agassi encounters at the Atlanta Olympics:

In the semis I meet Leander Paes, from India. He’s a flying jumping bean, a bundle of hyperkinetic energy, with the tour’s quickest hands. Still, he’s never learned to hit a tennis ball. He hits off-speed, hacks, chips, lobs — he’s the Brad [his then coach, Brad Gilbert] of Bombay. Then, behind all this junk, he flies to the net and covers so well that it all seems to work. After an hour you feel as if he hasn’t hit one ball cleanly — and yet he’s beating you soundly. Because I am prepared, I stay patient, stay calm, and beat Paes 7-6, 6-3.

Right. Moving on:

Graf and Agassi in Louis Vuitton ad/photo Annie Liebowitz

Remember this image? From my archival collection, a link to the Louis Vuitton ad series, Journeys. Scroll down on the right nav bar to check out the eight clips in the ‘New York’ series.

Agassi talks to Katie Couric about Open: Part one, and two.

And finally — one of the most moving personal introductions I’ve ever heard: Agassi introduces Steffi Graf at her induction, in 2004, into the Hall of Fame [transcript here, if you need one]: