Cricket clips

The most intriguing game of the weekend was not the one featuring India’s “thrilling” one run win over RSA, hyperventilating commentators notwithstanding. The marquee game for my money was the one between England and Pakistan — a low-scoring affair that put the ‘thrill’ in thriller.

Most interesting to me was the identity of the player who sealed the game for Pakistan — one Abdur Razzaq, last seen hitting the headlines during the recent furor about Pakistan players in the IPL. How did it go, again? Shah Rukh Khan started the ruckus with his statement that he would love to see Pakistan players in the third edition of the tournament; asked why, if he felt all that strongly about it, he hadn’t pushed his franchise into picking a player from that country, he said KKR had been very keen on Razzaq, and were on the verge of signing him up, but at the last minute had been informed that he was out of action with a wrist injury.

That ‘injured’ player turned in the best bowling performance, by a very long margin, when England was batting, and then nailed the game with an 18-ball 46 not out that included five mammoth sixes. So — why did SRK, whose heart bleeds all over the place for Pakistan players, not pick Razzaq again?

The India-RSA game, in contrast, was an extended audition for dumb and dumber. With the bat, player after Indian player got off the blocks, then stumbled; with the ball — and needing only to bowl out a won game, thanks to an underwhelming Proteas batting performance — the bowling unit disintegrated in ludicrous fashion [and they didn’t even have ‘pressure’ as an excuse, once Jacques Kallis got out in the 43]. Steyn and Parnell capitalized on some mediocre bowling to infuse artificial excitement into the proceedings, but for all that the contest was one between two sides both intent on losing.

In fact, the most noticeable aspect of the game was the commentary — a vertiginous descent into cliche hell [At one point in the game, Ravi Shastri flagged off four consecutive overs with the words ‘Kallis is now the key’, leading to the suspicion that the commentator had taken the day off and been replaced by a bot]. Fittingly, the increasingly mediocre nature of commentary is the subject of a Sriram Dayanand rant:

Live commentary, a well-established source for opinion and analysis, was scrubbed clean too. Erstwhile opinionated voices were now contracted by ratings- and revenue-obsessed cricket boards, and matches were accompanied by the voices of cheerleaders. Too wary of saying anything substantial, they concentrated on honing their clichés and giggling away with their co-hosts. Even the once edgy and opinionated-by-nature Sunil Gavaskar had begun to sound like a chirpy choirboy as the decade ended.

The scalpel was wielded now and then, but all too rarely. Like when Geoffrey Boycott spluttered, “In my day we didn’t indulge in any of that nancy-boy stuff” as the ritual of batsmen coyly touching gloves mid-pitch unfolded between overs.

Ian Healy, Tony Greig, L Sivaramakrishnan, Arun Lal, Michael Slater, Ranjit Fernando, Ian Bishop, Danny Morrison, Kepler Wessels, Robin Jackman, Waqar Younis, Aamer Sohail blended seamlessly into the commercials and background noise of the crowd. Exceptions in the form of the thoughtfulness of Mike Atherton, the loquacious openness of Harsha Bhogle, or the schoolboyish enthusiasm masking a keen insight of a Mark Taylor did exist, but by and large white noise was what we got.

The one silver lining in this cloud of verbiage is the humor our commentators are sparking on Twitter. In a moment of inspired exasperation — and after one too many iterations of “that ball went like a tracer bullet’, from the usual suspect — my friend Ramesh Srivats [Twitter] was moved to suggest that Shastri should do commentary during the Commonwealth Games. During the shooting event, Ramesh suggested, Shastri might be moved to say ‘that bullet went like a cricket ball’. Heh!

Virender Sehwag, Dayanand said in his piece, was among the few honorable exceptions to the mind-numbing sameness of cricket sound bytes. As if to prove that point, Sehwag’s reaction to winning a second successive award for Test innings of the year from the opener’s slot was to suggest that he wanted to bat at number four:

“I would love to bat at number four. I know I would not get that till Sachin retires. But I can wait,” Sehwag said, despite his enormous success at the top of the order. “I still would like to bat in the middle order. It’s difficult to field one-and-half days and then come out to bat in 10 minutes. When you bat at No. 6 like (MS) Dhoni, it allows you some rest. I have been successful as an opener but who knows, maybe I would have been more successful in the middle order.”

Who else in contemporary cricket is likely to make that statement after his record through 2009 and in the two Tests against South Africa this year? Equally noteworthy, his thoughts on defense [and for Sehwag addicts, one from the past — an interview published in Open magazine after The Daily Telegraph picked him as player of the decade]:

Sehwag defended his naturally aggressive approach to batting, saying there were risks involved even if he opted to play more cautiously. “People say I take too many risks. But the fact is, there is risk involved in every shot. You can get out trying to defend a ball as well. At times, people tell me to leave ball outside the off-stump. But some of them can jag back and get you out if you don’t play shots. I think if you think so much, you simply cannot bat,” he said.

Elsewhere, with the BCCI now on a mission to get India to play as many Tests as it can squeeze in, even if it means reversing its earlier policy and abandoning a few one-day games to make room in the schedule, Sidharth Monga makes a timely argument for more care in choosing venues:

Between this last Kolkata Test and the one before that, at the end of 2007, six Tests have been played in Nagpur, Mohali and Ahmedabad. During those matches, Tendulkar overtook Lara, India completed a series win over Australia, Rahul Dravid engineered a stunning comeback from 32 for 4. Still this Kolkata Test alone was probably watched by more people than all six others put together.

To watch those six Tests was to find some merit in the view held by the rest of the world that India – the country, not the team – doesn’t care about Test cricket. To watch the one at the Eden Gardens was a pleasant reassurance that India did. That Test cricket was alive and kicking in India, the only place able to draw more than 100,000 – the figure when Eden Gardens is not undergoing renovation – to a Test match.

Harbhajan paid his friends at the ground a fitting tribute: “In Test matches, we don’t even get crowds, but Eden [Gardens] is probably the best ground, as you get the crowds for the whole five days. It does not matter whether India is batting or bowling.”

That sentiment, doubtless shared by Harbhajan’s peers, cuts no ice with the BCCI’s rotation policy: The Test against South Africa was the second at Eden Gardens since March 2005. Whether this is because of board politics – the lack of Tests coincides with a shift in power from Jagmohan Dalmiya to Sharad Pawar and Shashank Manohar – is immaterial now: the policy is obsolete anyway and needs ruthless, radical change. The purest form of the game, generally reckoned to be an endangered species nowadays, should be played at venues that care for it.

So, it is time to strike Nagpur, Mohali and Ahmedabad off the list of Test venues. The logic is simple: There is a clear mismatch there between the crowds and Test cricket. The crowds in Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore, Mumbai, even Kanpur, and to a lesser extent Delhi, support Test cricket with their presence in the stands and should each get a match every year. They are not necessarily the best stadiums but the players will trade in the advantages – the state-of-the-art facilities, the hospitality, the indoor nets – for a large, appreciative, knowledgeable crowd that creates atmosphere. And that’s true of hosts and tourists.

And finally, for leisure reading: another good friend [Rahul Bhatia on Twitter, and this is his blog] weighs in with a lovely piece on the making of a cricket ball.

Off to do stuff outside office; back here tomorrow. Be well, all.