Power corrupts…

(In a [paywalled] newsletter for The Morning Context earlier this month, I had written about the troubles roiling various National Sports Federations (NSFs), the looming threats of a ban on the All India Football Federation and on Hockey India, and how sports administration in this country got to this precarious point. What follows is an update, largely about the AIFF and a series of court hearings that occurred over the last few weeks).

A funny thing happened in the Supreme Court last week, during ongoing hearings into various petitions filed by, and against, the AIFF. Senior Advocate Gopal Shankaranaryanan informed the bench, headed by Justice DY Chandrachud, that the AIFF was not able to provide a comprehensive list of players — both male and female — who had represented India at the international level. “We don’t have any such database,” Shankaranaryanan quoted an AIFF official as saying.

Under compulsion, the AIFF finally produced a list of around 180 male footballers, and 3 — three — women footballers. The list was so superficial it did not even include the name of Oinam Bembem Devi, the Manipur-born footballer who has represented India 82 times and is the recipient of both the Arjuna Award (2017) and the Padma Shri (2020).

“Ten years ago,” Shankaranaryanan told the Court, “a woman player represented India thrice at the international level. Later, she got her law degree and when her parents told her that she had to choose between football and a career in law, she chose law. And she is standing right beside me now — my junior, Jhanvi Dubey. She could tell you the names of at least 20 women who have represented India.”

A startled Justice Chandrachud hit the pause button on the proceedings and segued into a discussion with Ms Dubey.

Why such a list was needed in the first place is part of a longer story.

Sports gets its Overton window

For the longest time, the administration of NSFs was straight out of the feudal playbook, controlled by entrenched officials who, with the support of politicians and others with vested interests, held on to their positions of power for decades.

The first real challenge to entrenched authority came in the form of Supreme Court advocate Rahul Mehra (Twitter) who, as I detailed in the Morning Context piece linked above, started filing Public Interest petitions that drew attention to acts of maladministration and malfeasance in various NSFs.

Mehra got lucky in that the Delhi High Court judge who heard the early petitions — Judge Nazmi Waziri — was himself a college-level boxer with a keen interest in sports. As petitions proliferated, the Delhi High Court in an unusual step created a special Sports bench.

Kabbadi was among the first to feel the heat. Its problems began with an indifferent showing at the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia, following which an outfit calling itself the New Kabbadi Federation of India went to court over the selection process followed by the Amateur Kabbadi Federation of India, which is the governing body officially recognized by the Sports Authority of India. 

The Delhi High Court first stayed the election of office bearers to the AKFI, and subsequently appointed an observer — Justice (Retd) SP Garg — as observer for the selection trials held in September 2018.

Justice Garg, by his own admission, had no clue about the sport, which he does not follow — but that is beside the point of this post. The big picture outcome was that the courts became increasingly involved in attempts to clean up sports administration.

Initial judicial interventions largely dealt with discrete issues — an official overstaying his prescribed tenure, for instance. More recently, however, courts began considering the entirety of sports administration — more accurately, maladministration — and taking the view that it is time to revisit the founding documents of the various NSFs.

AIFF’s own goal

Indian football moved from the sports pages to the front pages of mainstream media when, on June 24, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) warned the All India Football Federation that it had to put in place a revised constitution within 38 days and conduct properly supervised democratic elections to the leadership posts before 15 September, or face a ban.

A ban would have immediate and costly repercussions — India is slated to host the FIFA Women’s U-17 World Cup in October, and a ban would take away that right. On 27 July, Home Minister Amit Shah tweeted that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had approved the signing of guarantees for hosting the event.

Earlier, responding to a petition filed by Rahul Mehra, the Delhi High Court had appointed former Chief Election Commissioner Shahbuddin Yakoob Quraishi, who had also served as Secretary to the Ministry for Sports and Youth Affairs, and former national football captain Bhaskar Ganguly as administrators, with the brief of drafting a new constitution.

At that point, Praful Patel was into his third term as president of the AIFF. The Delhi High Court had, as far back as November 2017, quashed Patel’s tenure as president and asked SY Quraishi to take over as administrator. Patel appealed against the order, with Reliance Industries-affiliated attorneys appearing on his behalf, and got a stay.

Patel’s tenure officially ended in 2020 but, citing Covid and related issues, he ducked holding fresh elections and continued in office for a further two and a half years, until the Delhi Football Club, represented by senior advocate Prashant Bhushan, appealed to the Supreme Court against Patel’s illegal continuance in office.

On 18 May, a Supreme Court bench led by Justice DY Chandrachud, along with Justice Surya Kant and Justice PS Narasimha, finally kicked Patel out of office and appointed former Supreme Court Justice AR Dave to manage the affairs of the AIFF in tandem with Quraishi and Ganguly.

Stating that the existing state of affairs was “not in the interest of proper governance of the federation”, the SC bench asked the Committee of Administrators headed by Dave to facilitate the adoption of a new constitution for the AIFF, in accordance with the Sports Code (Full text) and other relevant guidelines.

The SC bench further asked the CoA to prepare electoral rolls for the conduct of proper elections to the AIFF executive committee and to carry out the day-to-day governance of the AIFF. This, the SC bench said, would be a temporary arrangement until the new constitution is ratified and fresh elections are held.

The SC’s decision to appoint Dave to head the CoA was born of the realization that Quraishi was dragging his feet for a good five years since his initial appointment by the Delhi High Court. He had submitted an early draft of the constitution in 2018, but the document was problematic on a whole range of issues. Dave was brought in to provide some adult supervision.

Praful Patel goes off-side

The road to hell et cetera…

Bhaskar Ganguly is aging, ailing, and disinclined to pay much attention to the legal side of things — all he wanted was whatever was good for the boys and girls playing football. So the heavy lifting had to be done by a 71-year-old former judge of the SC with minimal experience in sports administration, and a former CEC who was born two months before India attained Independence. Ranged against them were the state associations, most of them headed by feudal ‘landlords’ with ties to politics.

On 22 May, four days after the SC order, Praful Patel sent a memo to FIFA president Gianni Infantino, informing the latter that the Indian Supreme Court had removed him and his executive committee from power. Patel asked Infantino not to take any precipitate action such as suspending the AIFF, and personally “vouched” that Indian football will soon be back on track.

The intent of the letter was to position the Supreme Court as outside interference, and Patel himself as football’s savior.

On the heels of Patel’s missive, a delegation of FIFA and Asian Football Confederation officials landed in India and held meetings with state associations, with the AIFF, with sports ministry officials and with the CoA. They asked that Indian football clean up its act; mandated a proper constitution to be in place by end-July, that this constitution be approved by all state associations by the first week of August, and properly managed elections to the executive committee be held by September latest.

 Worth pointing out here is that the CoA, during its tenure, had been sending multiple emails over time to FIFA, keeping the global body appraised of all developments. The CoA, strangely, even sent FIFA a draft copy of the proposed constitution — strangely, because FIFA is a global regulatory body that has no locus standi when it comes to approving a member body’s constitution.

In any event, FIFA sent a few comments which the CoA duly accommodated in the draft constitution, which was placed before the Supreme Court in the last week of July.

During this hearing, Rahul Mehra made the point that this is the first time the Supreme Court will consider the constitution of a government-recognized NSF. It is therefore precedent-setting, and the outcome could become the template for all other NSFs. Given this, Mehra said, there is a need to make the exercise as comprehensive as possible, and to not rush it due to some externally imposed deadline.

All parties — the sports ministry, the local sports associations, and the CoA — agreed with Mehra’s point. For its part, the SC bench ruled that as a first step, democratic and fair elections overseen by the CoA will be conducted and a properly constituted executive committee will be put in place.

Synchronously, the draft constitution will be vetted by the state associations and all other stakeholders, any and all objections will be taken into consideration, and it will be finalized and set in stone in the space of three months or so. Again, all concerned parties were in full agreement with the SC proposal.

But where are the women?

The one sticking point, throughout this extended process, was the discomfort the state associations felt at the mandate that half the members of the general body should be sportspersons. This, association representatives felt, would result in their becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Status quo ante is that the general body is comprised of 72 members — two each (the president and secretary respectively) from each of the 36 state and Union Territory associations. The recommendation placed before the Supreme Court was that half of them — 36 members — should be sportspersons.

The criteria for a sportsperson to be eligible was, per the recommendations, that he/she should have represented the country on the football field at least once, and should have retired from international football at least two years before the date of elections. But even with such minimal qualifications, several of the state associations were likely to have problems filling their quota with qualified representatives. Hence the idea was tweaked, and it was proposed to have an association of former footballers comprising 18 men and 18 women, agnostic of state affiliation. This was again tweaked to a final recommendation that representation be on a 2 to 1 ratio, with 24 men and 12 women in the general body.

This is where Bembem Devi and Jhanvi Dubey came in — when it came to creating a list of eligible players, the AIFF told lawyers appearing on behalf of the CoA that they had no database of those who had played football for India, nor how many matches each had played at the international level.

Finally, the concerned parties came up with an ad hoc list of 30 names — players who had represented India at least once, who had retired at least two years prior, and who were under the age of 66 (This last to ensure that their tenure does not extend beyond the mandated maximum age of 70).

Via the AIFF website, the CoA is also attempting to get former players to register, in order to widen the field of available candidates — the goal being to pick the top 24 most capped male players who fulfill the criteria listed above, and also the top 12 most capped women, ditto.

Praful Patel flings a monkey wrench in the machinery

Following the Supreme Court order of Thursday, August 4, Praful Patel — who remains a member of the FIFA council — wangled a letter from FIFA to the CoA, the gist of which was that the CoA had not adhered to the assurances given to FIFA and to the promised timelines.

The FIFA email was sent on Friday, August 5 — not to the CoA, but to Sunando Dhar, a Patel appointee who is acting secretary general of the AIFF. Dhar promptly leaked the letter to the media. The Hindustan Times, and subsequently other mainstream outlets, went to town on the possibility of a FIFA ban. The CoA, as well as its lawyers, came to know of the letter only via the news reports.

The actual letter was forwarded to the CoA only in the second half of Saturday, August 6. “The idea,” Gopal Shankaranarayanan pointed out on a call, “was to give the appearance that the CoA was tardy and negligent.”

Meanwhile, on the 6th, Praful Patel called for a meeting of the 36 state associations and told them that the FIFA letter is of great use to them in getting their own way. Use it as best you can, Patel told the associations; we got the letter to help you. The CoA and its lawyers are now in possession of the recording of that meeting, and the full list of attendees.

It is a different matter that Patel had no authority to summon such a meeting in the first place.

Armed with this letter, representatives of the state associations met with joint- and under-secretaries of the sports ministry, asking for urgent intervention. Their demands included that there be no sportspersons in the general body.

The state associations filed an application in the Supreme Court, saying in sum that some sportspersons can be accommodated in the executive committee, but not in the general body. The CoA for its part is recommending that 36 of 72 members in the general body, and a minimum of 5 of the 12 members of the executive committee, should be former players.

Essentially, the sports associations were using the FIFA letter as a hammer to beat the SC-appointed CoA into submission.

The CoA, which has preferred to soft pedal and try to get all stakeholders to arrive at a consensus on all points, appears to have had enough — on Wednesday, August 10, the CoA filed a contempt petition in the Supreme Court (Full Text).

The petition, in essence, says that Praful Patel has abused his position as FIFA council member “to orchestrate a campaign among the state associations to undermine the various steps” taken by the Supreme Court, including having former footballers involved in governance and administration. The petition attaches copies of Patel’s correspondence and, crucially, the transcript of the meeting Patel had with state association representatives on the 6th.

In a hearing before the SC bench on the morning of the 10th, advocates appearing for the CoA told the court that there have been documented attempts to interfere with the court-mandated electoral process; and that these attempts were being orchestrated by those who have been removed from office by the court.

Additional Solicitor General Sanjay Jain told the court that the sports ministry’s intervention was on the basis of the FIFA letter. The court has asked the CoA and ASG Jain to get together and sort out the confusion.

Advocate Menaka Guruswamy, who appeared for the state associations, told the bench that the associations have filed an application — and got ticked off by Justice Chandrachud, who told her, inter alia, that the court does not “appreciate your back door methods to defeat the orders of the court. If your clients don’t want football in India, so be it. We have taken serious note of your conduct and we are watching it.”

The SC bench will hear the case again tomorrow (August 11). I’ll post an update following the hearing.

PostScript: The Comptroller and Auditor General of India, who had begun an audit of the AIFF’s accounts, has in June expanded the scope of its audit to cover the entire duration — 16 years — of Praful Patel’s tenure.

PS2: This piece — as also the Morning Context piece written earlier this month, is based on a review of 100s of pages of court documents, and extensive conversations with advocates Rahul Mehra, who is the lead petitioner in many of the cases now making their way through the courts, and with Gopal Shankaranarayanan, who appears on behalf of the CoA. I am grateful to the two advocates for sparing considerable time in the midst of much.

Relevant Documents:

October 10, 2017 order of the Supreme Court affirming the roadmap and timeline for the AIFF

A special leave petition filed by AIFF August 3, asking for the dilution of some recommendations

FIFA’s letter dated August 5

The CoA/AIFF response to FIFA’s letter of August 5

Contempt petition against Praful Patel moved on August 10

CAG audit to cover Patel’s tenure

(Lead image courtesy khelnow.com)

Update from SC hearing, August 11:

The SC, among other statements, said it will decisively interfere if any attempt is made to sabotage India’s hosting of the U-17 Women’s World Cup. Via Live Law, here is an update on what happened in court on Thursday, August 11.

Pause button

It’s going to take a while to wrap my head around just how abysmal this Test match has been. So — report/review sometime tomorrow morning, after I sleep on this for a bit.

Indiscreet incidents

CRICKET is a series of discrete incidents — a truism repeated so often it has been elevated to cliche.

That statement is most true of the shorter versions of the game, more particularly of T20. In a format where the objective is to maximise runs off every ball, a bowler sending down say a perfect yorker forces a defensive shot. Incident. Next ball, the batsman to the same sort of delivery ramps it over the keeper’s head. Incident. Neither connected to the other, except via the scoreboard.

The beauty of Tests lies in the fact that while the truism still applies, there is an overarching narrative, an evolving storyline held together by an extended contest of skill and will. Day one of the third Test was highlighted by two such moments.

The 22nd over of the England innings. Joe Root, whose mastery of spin was a talking point until the Indian spinners sorted him out in the second Test at Chennai, on strike to Ashwin, taking the first ball on length and working it for the single to mid on standing deep. Ball two, an attempted reverse sweep by Zak Crawley ends up with the ball dribbling to backward point for a single. Ball three, Root goes deep in his crease to work Ashwin with the turn to midwicket. Ball four, Ashwin goes a fraction fuller, bringing Root forward in defense.

Three deliveries — good length, back of length, good length. All bowled from around the wicket to bring both edges and the LBW into play. And then the deception — more air on the ball, less dip, the ball landing on a full length. Root, set up by the previous three deliveries, misreads it, reckons it will dip and land just back of length, and goes back to try and work it on the onside again. The ball beats the inside edge and raps the pad. A short story with a twist ending — and Root’s attempt to mount a rescue after Dom Sibley and Jonny Bairstow had been dismissed without scoring comes to an abrupt end.

The 25th over. Axar Patel to the hugely impressive Zak Crawley. Ball one is on length — Crawley goes on the back foot to defend, playing as late as possible to account for turn, or lack of it. Ball two — the arm ball, landing on the shiny side, skidding past Crawley’s forward defensive push and missing the off stump by the thickness of a coat of lacquer. Two balls bowled round arm, flat, and quick. Ball three is tossed up, plenty of flight, on the fuller length — it draws Crawley forward, turns sharply and beats the outside edge. Ball four: Axar goes a bit wider on the crease, bowls the arm ball, quick through the air. Crawley, with the turn on the previous ball still haunting him, plays for the turn where there is none, and is pinned in front.

Each wicket was a “discrete incident” — but they were also a continuum, the deliveries prior playing a vital role in the batsman’s downfall. And therein, the real pleasure of watching Test cricket — as in chess, it is not just the move itself, but the distant possibilities that one move opens up.

I tend to watch limited overs cricket — when I watch it at all — while multi-tasking; I look up at the screen when the noise of the crowd alerts me to some event. Tests, though, suck me in; each ball making me recall the one that went before, and teasing me into trying to figure out what the bowler is doing, how the batsman is responding, and how this duel between the two is shaping up towards a denouement.

THERE is precious little worth writing about an England innings that was over in the mind before it began in the middle. Joe Root, after calling correctly and deciding to bat, said at the toss that he expected the track to turn — and then handed over a team sheet that was heavily biased in favour of pace, with three full-time quicks and a seam bowling all-rounder in Stokes against a solitary spinner in Jack Leach — a decision even more baffling when you realize that if the game runs its full course, England will be bowling last on a track most conducive to spin. Cognitive dissonance, much?

One after the other, batsmen came out and went back again without making an impression, victims as much of the demons in the mind as of the quality bowlers they were facing, each complicit in his own dismissal. The honorable exception was Crawley — who scored 53 (84 balls) in a team score of 112. The quality of his batting — the composure at the crease, the minimal set up, the clean back-lift, the decisive movement forward or back — was impressive; what was even more notable was his choice of strokes. On a wicket where playing with the bat beside the body was fraught, he played in front. His first scoring shot, a four, was a firm push with the full face of the bat to long on, the ball traveling across the outfield as smoothly as a puck on ice. Eight of his ten fours were drives — initially straight on either side of the wicket, then through the covers and wide mid on once his eye was in. Of the other two, one was a flick off the pads through midwicket when the bowler overpitched; the other, a back foot square drive to a ball that was served up short and wide.

His play contrasted with that of his mates, who appeared to have hypnotised themselves into the belief that the only viable scoring shot was the sweep and its reverse variant, alternating ill-judged attempts at such shots with a grim occupation of the top of the batting crease, unable or unwilling to commit either forward or back.

RAVICHANDRAN Ashwin, whose YouTube channel has become a go-to resource, called the England innings as early as a week ago. In an episode following the second Test in Chennai, he made two points worth recalling:

One, he said England has been talking — and thinking — of dustbowls and dramatically turning deliveries so much that when they got to the middle, they were playing their own hype more than the actual ball being bowled to them.

And, two: On a track with turn and bounce, it is the ball that doesn’t turn that poses the real danger. This point goes with something Anil Kumble once pointed out when he was asked why he wouldn’t turn the ball. “The difference between the middle of the bat and the edge is two and a half inches — and that is all the ball has to turn”.

Consider these dismissals: Jonny Bairstow LBW to Axar Patel’s first ball of the game, pinned in front by a straight ball that beats the edge as the batsman played for the turn that wasn’t there. Joe Root, LBW to an Ashwin delivery that straightened — not turned — with the arm on the line of middle and leg. The impressive Crawley, LBW to an Axar Patel arm ball that went through straight. Stokes, LBW to a quicker, flatter, fuller ball from Axar Patel. Archer, looking to force Axar with the turn that wasn’t there, bowled by the straight ball. Foakes, bowled playing back to a full, straight ball that did not turn. That is five six out of ten wickets to the straight ball; five six batsmen out playing for turn that only existed in their traumatised minds.

This Test is just one day old, but already England — after, it needs emphasising, volunteering to bat first — have handed the initiative over to India. And to make matters worse, the visiting team has bought wholesale into its own hype about the pink ball “swinging around corners”, as Ben Stokes said after a session in the nets, and gone in on what Root said was a spinning track without a second spinner. Such a pity the game is not being played in the nets.

One passing thought: Is Jofra Archer still nursing an injury, does anyone know? The premier quick has bowled just five of the 33 overs in India’s innings — and barring one delivery that got onto an attempted Rohit Sharma pull quicker than the batsman anticipated, has been bowling in the mid-to-high 130s throughout and looking totally underwhelming. Did England — with the likes of Stone and Wood to call on if in fact it thought a seamer should be picked over a spinner — put a half-fit Archer, his right arm literally swaddled in Kinesio tape, on the park?

ONE word on the umpiring — particularly that of the third umpire Shamsuddin: disgraceful. Not so much because at least a couple of his decisions were dodgy — a grassed catch by Stokes, which looked not out; a reprieve to Rohit Sharma on a Foakes stumping off Leach, which looked iffy — but because he seemed in too much of a hurry to reprieve the Indian batsmen.

Umpires need to follow the Caesar’s wife principle: Not only do they need to make the right call with the benefit of technology, they need to be seen to be making the right call. A rush to judgment is antithetical to that — and in both of those instances, and others, Shamsuddin did not call for different camera angles to confirm his initial impressions.

That raises two questions: One — why on earth did the BCCI not provide for neutral umpires for this series? It can’t be the expense; it can’t be Covid either — after all, between the two teams there are about 80 players and staff accommodated in secure bubbles; then there are the commentators, the production teams etc. How hard could it be to add two more?

Second, if the BCCI must use home umpires — inexperienced ones, at that — surely they could, before the series, have ensured that these umpires were given training in the use of technology, briefed on all available angles for each mode of dismissal, and instructed to call for the most logical angles before making a final decision?

And finally, one thought on the newly built Motera ground, renamed after the prime minister, bookended by the Adani End and the Reliance End: The facilities may be world class, but the ground is a disgrace. That is not a comment on the fact that the wicket is turning — this is India, it is hot, wickets will go quick. It is not even a comment on the swimming pool sized craters opening up where the quick bowler’s front foot lands, making bowling positively hazardous.

What is truly disgraceful is the outfield. Take a look at the bowlers’ run ups at either end. It is usual to see the impression of boots on turf — but I have never before seen little craters forming to mark each step of the run up. There was a moment, late in the third session, when Ben Stokes ran in gingerly, looking to plant his boots on safe ground in between two parallel tracks of gouged-out footmarks — rather like the game of avoiding the cracks that little children play on our pavements.

Surely, given all the money that has been spent on state-of-the-art facilities inside the structure, a little care could have been taken to ensure that the ground — which, after all, is the most important part of any stadium — was up to standard?

PostScript: No surprise that the England captain and head coach have formally complained about the umpiring. I thought they were being a bit precious, arguing with the on-field umpire over decisions taken by the third umpire — but this is absolutely justified. And Crawley makes the point, clearly and well.

It’s all in the mind — and mindset

IN COURSE of his post-match comments, Joe Root said (emphasis mine): “We have to learn from this and find ways to score in these conditions and bowl six balls to one better.”

When we watch cricket, what catches our attention is the deliveries that do dramatic things: Spit and turn off the deck, banana-swing both ways, the toe-crunching yorker… What we don’t truly appreciate is the “boring” stuff — the limpet-like adherence to line and length, and how that ramifies over the course of a session, or a Test. Here is an example:

Ashwin got the wicket of Dan Lawrence with the first ball of his first over of the day (the 26th of the innings). There was clearly a plan in place, based on how the England number three had batted in the first knock. Ashwin and Pant had an extended chat before he began to bowl. The first ball was fired down the leg side — Lawrence did himself no favours by signalling his intent to come down; it nutmegged the batsman and Pant, gathering way down the leg side, reversed himself, dived, and pulled off a great stumping. (Given all the pre-match speculation of whether Pant could keep on this track, and whether he would let his bowlers down, it’s worth noting that Pant kept as brilliantly as the far better keeper, more accomplished Ben Foakes did).

Ashwin’s next strike was off the last ball of the 38th over. It is what happened in between that was key: Ashwin bowled 41 deliveries in the intervening period, and 39 of those were to Ben Stokes. Through that phase of play, Ashwin prodded and poked at the batsman’s technique, probing his muscle memory, his shape — he bowled over the wicket and around; from close to the stumps and from wide on the crease; high arm, round-ish arm; quicker, slower; with drift and without; the big turning off-break and the one that holds its line… He even tried the same ball that got Stokes out in the first innings, the one that drifted across the left-hander, hit middle and turned sharply to top of off; Stokes was beaten again this time, but the ball bounced a bit higher and went over the top of off.

Having worked on him and set him up, Ashwin then bowled one much fuller, giving it more overspin, getting it to slide through quicker. Stokes, set up for the turning ball, poked at this one and edged to slip.

A couple of related points: Shortly after Lawrence was out, Rishabh Pant was heard yelling to his field: “Single mat deiyo”, don’t give away the single. And, secondly, Ishant Sharma bowling from the other end once Axar began to bleed a few runs kept the pressure up with two tight overs while Ashwin was working on Stokes.

That is really the key for spinners in Indian conditions — they need the support in the field, and from the other end, to be able to work things out. Strike rotation negates that ability, and that was the one thing that England really got wrong with the ball: they just were not tight enough.

ALSO from the post-match comments: Axar Patel, on the back of his five-for on debut, was asked how vital the toss was. His response was immediate, and emphatic: “Not particularly. The wicket was assisting spin from the first over; if we had to bowl first on this, we would have done as well.” (Update: Virat Kohli has similar thoughts though Joe Root mildly demurs)

The debate about the quality of the wicket should never have happened in the first instance; it had been pretty much put to rest by the way India batted in the second innings (if you argue that the first innings was down to the toss advantage — which is specious in itself, but still). And Axar finally made the point worth making: The toss did not matter here; what you did, or didn’t do, with the ball mattered.

Axar’s bowling colleague Ashwin, while accepting the Man of the Match, nailed it (emphasis mine): “Look actually, this wicket is very different to the first game. Those balls which were doing much didn’t get wickets, it was the mind doing things.”

Exactly — which brings up England’s woeful batting in the second innings particularly. Surely, you thought, after the way they played in the first innings, and by then having watched the Indian batsmen play on this track across two innings, they would have rethought their reflexive, predetermined game-plans. But, no.

Lawrence, as pointed out previously, charged down the wicket so often, and so often irrespective of length, that he might as well have taken the bowler into his confidence ahead of play. Stokes, who has played enough to know better, played determinedly from within the crease, his front foot sliding along the crease, going neither fully forward nor deep back — which allowed Ashwin the time and space to work him out. Pope came out sweeping and went out sweeping, almost every one of them premeditated — and his top edge off Axar Patel mirrored the way Root had gotten himself out in the first innings, sweeping at the ball turning away from him without being able to get close enough to the pitch to keep the ball from turning and bouncing.

Root popped up the ball off the sweep once, and then reverse swept Kuldeep Yadav and was lucky to be dropped, off a sitter, by Siraj at point — by now, the Indian bowlers have figured out not only that Root will sweep, but have watched how he sweeps, and you can see them beginning to see the stroke not as Root’s strength, but as a vulnerability to be exploited. Foakes, who batted so correctly in the first innings, fell sweeping at a Kuldeep delivery that was way too full for the sweep (and which, ironically, was full enough for the drive through the untenanted outfield on either side of the wicket). Olly Stone, out sweeping at Axar Patel…

Here’s the thing: Thus far, the England batsmen have clearly indicated to India’s bowlers that they believe the sweep is their ‘get out of jail free’ card. Any bowler worth his salt, with that kind of information, will work out ways to turn asset into liability. The sweep, used judiciously, is a potent weapon — but if you look back at the two England innings here and count the number of batsmen who fell sweeping reflexively rather than as part of an overall strategy, you’d weep.

Ironically, it was Moeen Ali at number ten who finally showed what was possible on this wicket. Sure, the argument could go that he was batting with nothing at stake — but the trick lay in the how of it. In the same over in which Patel got Stone, Moeen thrice danced down the wicket and deposited the spinner into the stands — the first two over long on, with Moeen coming close enough to negate the turn, and the third straight back over the bowler’s head.

‘Straight’ was the operative word. Rishabh Pant showed the way to bat on a spinning track in the first innings, with his gunbarrel-straight hitting; Moeen showed what England’s more lauded batsmen could have done. And he wasn’t done: When Ashwin took over from Patel, Ali stepped out and lofted the four, against the turn, to long off. The very next ball, Ashwin tossed it wider to force the miscue, and Ali finally went down on one knee to slog-sweep the six — the sweep being on this time because the ball was wide enough outside off. It was brief, but the 43 runs Moeen made off just 18 deliveries was worth a ton of video analysis and coaching drills, if the rest of the England batsmen were watching.

THERE are some numbers England might want to look at. For one, its second innings didn’t last even as long as its first innings — and this was after India had batted out 85.5 overs in its second knock. Two, for all the talk of the importance of batting partnerships, England had no partnerships in the second innings that lasted as long as the one between Foakes and Pope in the first dig. And finally, this: England’s best partnership of the entire match in terms of runs scored was the one for the last wicket between Broad and Ali, which yielded 38 runs in 19 deliveries.

38 runs was the highest partnership of the match for England. Surely — even if you buy the minefield argument — this was an indication of a team that did not apply itself? Surely England’s batsmen are way better than that — as in fact they had demonstrated just recently in Sri Lanka? This was a clear case of what Ashwin was talking about, when he said it was in the mind: India’s batsmen showed application when they needed to and were willing to grind out the tough periods; England’s collective attitude was a shrug of the shoulders and an “Oh what’s the use?” Which cues up one final, chastening number: In its two innings put together, England did not score as much as India did in its first knock. Not that they couldn’t — just that they didn’t.

“We have to find ways to score runs in such conditions, learn from the opposition,” Root said after the match.

Indeed.

Here is today’s match thread — with some points about Pant’s utility and his interventions that are worth noting. And, below, in tribute to man of the match Ashwin via his wife Prithi, this:

PS: Before you mention, in comments, that I haven’t spoken of Axar’s pitch perfect use of conditions to nail a five-for on debut, and a couple of other things, I will. Later.

PPS: A statistic I just picked up from the Clubhouse post-match chat: This is the first time since the eighties that England has failed to cross 200 in two innings in a Test.

Willing, and able

All sport represents the collision of wills: people or teams that want the same thing, and have to cause somebody pain in order to get it. The more it matters to the athlete, the more vivid the experience is for the spectator, and the writer.

Simon Barnes, The Meaning of Sport

UNTIL I got unwittingly dragged into cricket writing in 1996, I watched cricket purely as a fan — for the spectacle of it. Flying stumps, swinging deliveries, spitting turn, gorgeous stroke-play… It is what I remember from all those years of watching — discrete incidents, but never the larger narrative.

Now, it is all about the story, the narrative — and even given the compelling, occasionally noir narratives of international cricket in recent months, the one that unfolded today was one to savour.

In the first innings Virat Kohli (and later, his counterpart Joe Root) came out looking to get their retaliation in first; to dominate in inimical conditions. Kohli’s knock today was the antithesis — a subsuming of the ego, a willingness to acknowledge his batting mortality, to be prepared to look ordinary, if he must, to bat deep, as the situation dictated he must.

England played on his ego in the early passages. For Moeen Ali, they put a short cover in place besides an orthodox cover and mid-off. For Jack Leach, there was a short mid-wicket and a short mid-on. It was a gauntlet flung in the face — drive, if you think you are good enough.

Kohli put on a masterclass in which self-denial was paramount. He cut out his favourite shot; he defended with an almost monkish determination. He went tight — bat close to the body, bat face pedantically facing the bowler, pads in tight next to the bat, either full stretch forward or fully back in the crease, very respectful of the conditions and the way the bowlers were using them, very willing to be human, to acknowledge that even he could not dominate at will.

What was impressive was the way he thought his game through. Against Moeen, turning the ball into him, Kohli got his front leg right across so he could cover the turn and play with it. To Leach, turning away from him, he stayed leg side and played beside the ball — giving himself the space to play, or leave, depending on the length and extent of turn.

Kohli took 20 deliveries to get off the mark, and 53 deliveries to score his first 20 runs; he was content to let Ravichandran Ashwin outscore him during their 7th wicket partnership; his 50, which came off 107 deliveries, contained 85 dot balls — a testament to his willingness to defend, to deny himself the shots he normally indulges himself and his fans. When he unfurled that trademark cover drive — the one where he reaches well away from his body, and seems to let the ball “sit” on his bat for an instant before he snaps his wrists into the shot — it was after lunch, with his personal score on 38. And having played it perfectly, with the air of one on a strict diet indulging himself with an ice-cream cheat, he put it back in his kitbag for more favourable conditions, and settled back into the grind.

It was an innings shorn of the usual spectacle you expect from him — but it is a knock that, I suspect, will stick in the memory long after more barnstorming performances are forgotten. This was not the collision of wills that Barnes wrote about, so much as a matter of a batsman in search of redemption putting his skill, and importantly his will, on the line.

The end — rapped high on the pads to a Moeen Ali off break bowled from around the wicket, the decision depending on the on-field umpire’s call — came as the kind of anti-climax that underlines everything that went before.

THERE is an air of surprise — a bit of patronage, even — in the tone with which commentators talk of Ashwin’s batting. What is routinely forgotten is that Ashwin started out as a batsman; that batting is all he ever wanted to do; that he opened the batting for his state — on this very ground, what is more — and that off-spin bowling was in the early part of his career almost an afterthought. Given his origin story, what should really be a surprise is that he became one of the best off-spinners of this or any era (hold off on the pushback till you’ve taken a look at the numbers) — not that “Ashwin can bat”.

He can. And on the day, he batted on bowling-friendly conditions with the class of a top order player. The start, as in the first innings, was slightly skittish — a fairly wild swipe at a ball outside his off-stump came early in his essay. But this time, he had his captain as partner — and Kohli was quickly down the pitch for a chat every time Ash seemed to lose focus. It is a mark of Ashwin’s innings that as it prospered, Kohli had increasingly fewer opportunities — or need — for those chats.

Where Kohli looked primarily to defend, and took the scoring opportunity only when he was sure it was free of all risk, Ashwin went the other way — he attacked, initially with the sweep to knock the two main spinners off their lengths, then with the drives off front or back foot once the bowlers had pulled their lengths back. The story of their contrasting styles is embedded in the statistics of their association: 96 off 177, with Ashwin contributing 56 off 81 while Kohli’s contribution was 40 off 96.

It was also a good example of batting in partnerships, with each complementing the other — Ashwin was willing and able to play his shots, and Kohli was content to be the junior partner and turn the strike over.

Kohli fell in the 66th over; Ashwin, at the time, was batting 56 (81 deliveries). And given the propensity of India’s tail to fold, what followed was an absolute delight — from the point of view of sports fan and writer both. Taking nine, ten and jack along like an expert sheepdog, Ashwin changed gears — he farmed the strike, he talked his partners through their stints, in the early part of every over he looked for the opportunity to go big and, with his home crowd providing the wind beneath his wings, he powered through to his 5th Test century — the 47 runs after Kohli’s dismissal took just 54 balls.

And then — in the face of the second new ball — he and Siraj buckled right back down to the job. They chatted between overs, they passed on information to each other, they continued to play the ball on merit. When, in the 86th over, Ashwin checked with the umpire to see how many balls were left, and tried to hoik a single onto the onside for Olly Stone to peg back off stump, the pair had added 49 runs for the last wicket and, equally notably, played out 55 balls.

That last is worth underlining: Between them, Ashwin, Kuldeep, Ishant and Siraj batted out 121 deliveries and added 84 to India’s total, which finished up on 286 — more than double what England managed in its first innings, on a pitch that has been the subject of much chatter just the day prior.

The Indian second innings put all that talk into perspective. It also showed up the Indian top order which, this morning, appeared to have a collective brain-fade. Pujara managed to get his bat stuck short of the crease, lost his grip on it, and was stumped. Rohit, who was reprieved on a stumping in the first innings by a third umpire who saw a chimera where there was nothing behind the stumps, dragged his foot forward again, had his toe on the line again for Foakes to pull off the quick stumping again, and this time the decision was given. Rishabh Pant, promoted up the order, went down the track to Leach and, for once, lost the line, the length and the plot and was stumped. Rahane was the proverbial cat on the hot tin roof — a long way down and still a long way short of the pitch of a ball that was inches short of being a half-tracker, ending up in no position to play any cricketing shot and fending to short leg.

Two wickets with the score of 55, one at 65, another at 86 — there was that about the Indian batting in the first hour that made you believe they too had bought into the chatter, and decided to perish by the sword rather than trust to their skill to survive and thrive. It took the Kohli-Ashwin association to restore sanity — and for the ebullient Mohammad Siraj to drive the point home in his little cameo of 16 off 21 balls, in the course of which he took Broad straight back over his head for a six, and then played as neat a slog sweep as you’d like to see, off Leach, to put the ball in the bleachers behind wide mid-wicket.

A word on the way England bowled — much better than in the first innings, but the marked difference between the two teams was lack of consistency, of discipline. If you give away a four every ten balls or so, you can’t keep applying the pressure — and for the second time in two innings, England bowlers kept releasing the pressure they had sweated to build.

The day was full of moments to cherish, but for me the best, the one that will live longest in memory, was this: the fifth ball of the 82nd over, Ashwin steps out to a flighted ball outside off and has a swing; off the edge, the ball flies wide of the slip and down to third man for four.

And on the screen, you saw Mohammad Siraj, running down from the non-striker’s end, leap high and punch the air in an orgasm of ecstatic celebration. He didn’t celebrate his two big hits with half the fervour — heck, Ashwin didn’t celebrate his century with half that vim.

ENGLAND began far more positively than in the first innings, but Dom Sibley — who impressed in the first Test with his ability to pick length and go either fully forward or fully back to counter turn — forgot his best game, and went back to a ball of good length from Axar. It was clever bowling for all that: Axar had produced a couple of big-turning leg breaks to prime the pump; he then bowled one straight, and quicker through the air, to pin the batsman in front.

Rory Burns looked good in counter-attacking mode — until the 17th over. Rishabh Pant, from behind the stumps, called it: “Another outside edge, Ash”, he yelled. Two balls later, Ashwin reprised the ball he had bowled to Stokes — from wide of the crease, getting a lot of drift across the batsman and then turning sharply the other way. Burns made the cardinal mistake of playing it against the turn to the leg side, got the outside edge, and slip was in business.

What the logic was in sending out a left-hander, Jack Leach, with Ashwin bowling with his tail up is best left to Root to explain. In the event, Pant, again: Bowl it on the stumps, he yelled. Axar did — on off, turning sharply in across the left-hander to find the outside edge to leg slip.

Another horrendous piece of umpiring — this time, a duet involving the on-field and third umpires in tandem — saw Root reprieved on the LBW shout off Ashwin. The initial appeal was for caught behind, which Nitin Menon ruled not out. On the referral, there was no touch — but the ball was hitting the middle of middle stump; “umpire’s call” was the verdict. Oh well — one of these days someone will explain referrals to me. (Actually, before that, someone will hopefully explain referrals to the umpires themselves).

Dan Lawrence in more watchful mode (barring a foray down the track to loft Ashwin, bowling around the wicket, high and long behind long-on), and Root took England in at 53/3, trailing India by 429 runs.

That Lawrence shot merits mention: In the first innings, he came down, realised he was not to the pitch of the ball, and poked at it. Here, he wasn’t to the pitch either — but having decided to come down, he went through with the shot and nailed it out of the middle. It is all in the mind, really.

But are they, really? Can England chase this down? The odds are heavily in favour of India. And precedent says not — not against this attack, on this track. But this England team was recently celebrated — justly — for twice losing the toss and going on to win the match on sharp-turning tracks in Sri Lanka. And if there is one thing to takeaway from India’s recent showing in Australia, it is that “precedent” is worth bupkis. Remember fortress Gabba?

The question for England is, how badly do they want this? And how willing are they to put their skill and will on the line to get it?

That is equally going to be the trick for India: Can the bowlers trust in their basic skills, and have the patience to go back and do the same thing, over after over, working away on the batsmen? Eagerness to get a wicket with every other ball is the surefire way to ensure that you don’t get wickets at all.

It’s set up for a fascinating day four — and the fact that there is a day four, and even possibly a day five (I am fairly certain England will play far better this time around), is the best response to the doomsday prophets who went into full bore panic mode yesterday.

Post-Script: Given all the noise surrounding the pitch, a couple of points: This game has already lasted way more than the one between Australia and India at Adelaide. Where, on day two, one team lost four wickets, then the other team got bowled out, then the first team lost a wicket before close — 15 in the day, exactly the same as day two here in Chennai.

And then there is Brisbane. Where Tim Paine, on winning the toss and opting to bat, said (emphasis mine):

Very good toss to win. Looks a fair bit harder than it normally does and there’s a crack down the middle.

You rate pitches on the potential for danger — not on the basis of whether a particular team has the requisite skill set. And surely a crack running the length of the pitch is surely more fraught than dust off the surface?

Just to underline the point, Labuschagne at the end of the first day’s play said “The crack is widening already”.

Remember anyone having a word to say then?

Here, FWIW, is today’s thread.

Post-PS: Spare a thought for Stuart Broad. A man with over 500 Test wickets, left to graze in the outfield until 45 overs had been bowled — and then he came in, found Ashwin’s edge when the batsman was on 28, and saw Ben Stokes spill the chance at slip. His first spell was 2-1-5-0, and he was promptly put out to pasture again. When he was brought back — after nearly twenty more overs had been bowled — he found the edge again, and saw the chance go down again, this time dropped by Ben Foakes, whose effortless keeping on a turning track has been a pure joy to watch. His final analysis reads 9-3-25-two-drops, which sadly for him don’t show up on the scorecard.

This is the problem with too much analysis. It was as if England had, before play started, decided that this wicket was for spinners, and persisted with them without even once considering the possibility that the two quick bowlers they picked were in the XI for a reason. (Just to underline that, England persisted with spin throughout that last wicket partnership between Ashwin and Siraj, until Olly Stone finally knocked Ashwin over).

Spin and other turns

ENGLAND lost its way in the mind before it lost its wickets on the ground.

The pitch aided turn — as it has since the first hour of the first morning. But there was no quantifiable difference between the turn on offer on day one, versus what was available on day two.

When India batted, three batsmen in their own ways figured out how to play the turning ball on a helpful pitch. England came out to bat with all the ginger hesitancy of men condemned to walk in lead-lined shoes across a minefield. The modes of dismissal tell the story:

Ishant Sharma, like Olly Stone for England, opted to target the stumps on a very full length. Two balls going away from the left-handed Rory Burns to set it up, then a third straight on the stumps to pin the opener in front.

Ashwin, predictably, opened the bowling at one end. He bowled two successive maidens to Lawrence, then in the 8th over got Dom Sibley at the business end. To just the second ball of that over, Sibley aimed a big sweep at a ball too full for the shot — a predetermined swipe, more than a calculated shot; the ball hit the bat, ricocheted up and took the back of the bat on the way through to leg slip, India reviewing the on-field decision successfully.

Joe Root got off the mark with a single — off a sweep to the second ball he faced in his innings, off Ashwin. In debutant Axar Patel’s second over, Root aimed another sweep — this time to a bowler who was turning the ball away from him, which meant he was hitting against the turn. Root reached for the shot, Patel held it back a shade, the ball got enough room to pitch and bounce and take the top edge for a simple catch to backward square leg placed there for exactly that shot. Again, premeditated shot without taking the nature of the bowler into account.

Facing the last ball before lunch, Dan Lawrence jabbed at a back of length ball from Ashwin bowling around the wicket, his bat a long way in front of his pads — and inevitably, popped it into the hands of short leg. Four wickets down for just 39 runs — and not a single one of those wickets fell to deliveries that did anything out of the ordinary.

Ben Stokes was done by the kind of delivery you want to play on loop when teaching an off-spin masterclass. Bowling around the wicket to the left-hander, Ashwin went wide on the crease to get the ball to drift across onto a middle stump line, then turn the other way. The drift and the line forced Stokes to play the line; the turn slid the ball past the outside edge onto top of off stump — the kind of delivery that could have done for the best batsmen in the world, and a result of a bowler knowing his craft to perfection. It was not, in case it needs pointing out, the turn that did for Stokes, but the initial drift in, that dragged him out of position and squared him up.

Ollie Pope, in company of Foakes, was looking good to the point where India shelved Axar Patel and gave Mohammad Siraj a go in his first home Test. The first ball angled across the right-hander, going further away with the seam; Pope played a half-hearted glance, gloved it, and saw Rishabh Pant fly through the air to his left to pull off a blinder. I could go on, but the point makes itself: Only one England batsman — Ben Foakes — applied himself to the task of batting in demanding conditions; he was either fully forward, or fully back, to the turning ball; he worked the ball around for singles and braces and put away the rare loose ball.

England were bowled out for 134 — but well before the second session began, the chorus of “bad pitch” had already reached deafening levels.

Actually, the commentariat has been talking up nightmare scenarios from before this Test had even begun — no wonder, then, that England batsmen came out with all the air of those condemned to the guillotine.

The Indian openers came out bristling with “intent”. Jargon aside, on a pitch with assistance for spin, the batsmen refused to make standing targets of themselves — they either went deep inside the crease or came dancing out based on their reading of length, and kept the board moving at a brisk rate (England, which played in the exact opposite fashion, scored at 2.23).

Gill had a second successive failure, nicely set up by Leach. The left arm spinner got turn and bounce away from the right hander; he then slipped in a slider attacking the stumps, catching Gill playing down the wrong line and plumb in front. Rohit, deliberately padding up to Leach, was lucky to get a reprieve on an LBW referral. It was as clear a case of deliberate padding as you could see, but the on-field umpire in his wisdom decided that a shot had been offered — hence, with the point of impact being outside off, Rohit was reprieved.

Two points: One, not even Rohit will say he was offering a shot there. And two, this point of impact business is just plain wrong — a ball outside a batsman’s off stump is not a negative line, the ball is not in his blind spot, so whether or not he offers a shot, the only question should be whether the ball was hitting the stumps.

The pitch is what is getting negative attention, but the umpiring in this game has been horrendous — embarrassingly so. You can take the odd error as being human — but to see Rohit’s toe behind the line in the first innings when it clearly wasn’t; to see Rohit offer a shot here when he clearly did not, is the kind of thing that can legitimately give rise to talk of home umpires favouring the home side.

Just to make matters worse, that ball would have hit the middle of middle stump. Begs the question: Surely the boards — and not just this series — can afford to bring in neutral umpires and put them in the same bubble? It is not as if the additional expense is a problem.

India closed out a frenetic day, which saw 15 wickets fall, on 54/1, ahead by 241. I’d be hugely surprised if they are not looking to bat till at least an hour after tea tomorrow.

RISHABH Pant deserves a word or three, in passing. He continues to be seen as “mindless”, a “slogger”. And he continues to provide evidence to the contrary — if you had eyes to see. As he was last evening, he was judicious in his choice of what ball to hit during India’s brief morning session with the bat. He picked lines and lengths early; left what he could, defended what he should, and when the ball was within his hitting zone, he was swift, decisive, and lethal. His wagon-wheel was worth inspection: 26 of his runs came in the V, demonstrating the admirably straight lines he used to combat spin; a further 15 came through the midwicket region — mostly when the bowlers, put off their natural lengths, pitched short.

India made 29 runs this morning; Pant made 25 of those (worth pointing out in context that England lost three wickets before it crossed 25). 24 of those runs came in a 24-run partnership with number 10 Kuldeep Yadav; with Pant cleverly farming strike, the partnership lasted 35 balls, and Yadav’s contribution was zero.

He took two outstanding catches — the first, to get rid of Ollie Pope, and then an even better one when, standing closer to the stumps than he normally would to Ishant Sharma, he went airborne on his wrong side to hold a nick off Jack Leach’s outer edge that was really traveling.

But the moment that made me sit up and take notice came in the 11th over of the England innings, bowled by Axar Patel. The first ball was on a good length, on off; Joe Root played the controlled sweep to the line, and got a brace. Pant immediately gave voice: “Thoda aage… thoda sa bahar.. wohi khelega..” (A tad further up, a little outside off, he will play the same shot). Axar’s third ball was exactly that: Held back a fraction, the length a couple of inches shorter, the line just a little bit further outside off. Root swept, got the top edge, and that was that.

Pant will disappoint fans who expect him to play blinders every single time out. He will miss chances behind the stumps, particularly to spin. He will annoy the heck out of everyone with his non-stop chatter. But for all that, he is a young lad with loads of talent, a sharp mind capable of reading the game, and the ability to turn games on its head at will.

What he is, is a find. What he isn’t, is “mindless”.

PS: (Because someone called to ask me this): No, I am not “accusing” the umpires of bias. Anil Chaudhary is just into his second Test overall, and his first as third umpire. Nitin Menon has had a good couple of games. And Virender Sharma, the other on-field umpire, is debuting at this level. Before this, he has stood in two ODIs and one T20. So it could well be incompetence.

But that does not negate the point, it merely raises another question: Do we not have umpires in India with experience? Two debutants, in a series as crucial as this, is a bit much, surely? And that is besides the other question — what stops boards from bringing in neutrals? As Harsha Bhogle pointed out to me a while earlier, even Bangladesh managed to bring Richard Illingworth in as a neutral for the ongoing series against the West Indies.

And there is also this: the principle of Caesar’s wife applies. Even the suspicion of bias can taint a good performance at home — and that alone is sufficient reason to ensure proactive steps to guard against it.