“A metropolis beyond imagination”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Test two, day one

When constructing narratives, you tend to look for plot points. For those moments that mean little at the time, but which you recognize, post facto, as the fulcrum around which the storyline turns on its axis.

The first came with less than half an hour to go for lunch. Hashim Amla, who by then had been batting long enough against India on this tour for his beard to have grown an inch or two more, and debutant Alviro Petersen, who from the first ball he addressed batted with the aplomb of a veteran, had weathered the inevitable early dismissal of Graeme Smith, bowled through the gate by Zaheer Khan [while on which, few bowlers have had the wood on opposing batsmen so thoroughly in recent times].

Harbhajan Singh came on to bowl after we had already seen enough from Amit  Mishra to realize he was not going to be the one to slice through the opposition on this day. And the off spinner started with just a slip and short square – but no bat-pad on the off, and no leg slip for the bounce and turn across the body that Bajji normally revels in at the Gardens.

It was a strangely non-aggressive field, especially when you consider that this was an off-spinner who owns this ground, bowling to a Test debutant who had never faced him before.

At that point, South Africa controlled the game. The Proteas have in recent times been slammed, with some justice, for a safety-first mindset with the bat. In Indian conditions, and with the advantage of winning the toss, that mindset became an asset – unlike the Aussies, for instance, who look to dominate and come to grief on grounds where patience is the key, the South Africans are adept at playing the waiting game. With Amla and Petersen growing in stature by the over, it was set up for the visitors to bat long and bat big, and to take the game away from the home side.

For 63 overs either side of the lunch break, nothing happened to change that impression, though Zaheer did take out Amla and Petersen after their respective centuries.

In the 64th over, Harbhajan bowled one on off and middle turning to leg; AB de Villiers stayed back and with the turn, tucked the single behind square. Nothing unusual there – Harbhajan had been bowling that line ever since this series started, and batsmen had been taking the singles, and more, being offered to them on a platter.

Except that this time, as the batsmen ambled across, Bajji wandered off to the side of the pitch and visibly berated himself. The words were unclear; the message was unmistakable – Bajji seemed to be reminding himself to bowl outside off, as his craft dictates; to make the batsman play beside the line and not behind it.

At the end of the over, Bajji was going 15-0-53-0; his series analysis was 61-1-219-2. From that point of self-realization on, he was to bowl a dream spell of 8-2-7-3.

The outside off line, and the bounce he got on this track, first defeated a Jacques Kallis sweep – part of an effort by the batsman to dominate the spinner, but on this occasion flawed because the bowler had kept the line wider of off; the turn in to the bat and the bounce off the deck found the top edge and VVS Laxman, making amends for a horrid drop off Amla when the batsman was in the sixties, provided that moment of magic every team needs, when he ran back from slip to take a tumbling catch as the ball came down over his shoulder.

Bajji’s form – or lack thereof – and his focus on bowling flat, defensive lines has in recent times triggered justified queries about his continuance as the team’s number one spinner. Every once in a while, though, sometimes sparks in that brain of his – and then he becomes unplayable.

Maybe it is a combination of the Eden Gardens and the number 250 – it was around that point that in his break out series against Australia he began turning it around with a hat-trick, before the Laxman-Dravid combine scripted one of the most stirring second acts in contemporary memory. Here, again, it was with South Africa still in control at 253/4 that magic happened.

Ashwell Prince came out; Bajji immediately went around the wicket to the left-hander. The batsman read that as an indication of the bowler’s ploy to hit off and turn it away from the bat, with a slip in place. He played for turn; Bajji bowled the one that went through with the arm, and nailed Prince bang in front.

Jean Paul Duminiy must have been too busy putting on his gear to watch Prince get out – he came out, got the exact same delivery, and departed in the exact same fashion, to put Bajji on the verge of another hat trick. Even before the umpire’s finger went up, the offie took off, not towards his celebrating team mates but towards the spectators thronging the one gallery that is not down for renovation.

There is nothing quite like the Eden Gardens when India is on top. Reports put the attendance at around the 40k mark, but the buzz around the ground was reminiscent of the Gardens in all its 95k glory – and Bajji, and the Indian team, fed off it.

It often happens with this team that when one player sparks, the rest catch fire. Zaheer Khan took out de Villiers with a great run from mid off to cover and a pick up and throw that caught the batsman out of the crease after Dale Steyn, who had survived Bajji’s hat trick ball, sent him back.

Ishant Sharma, who outside of a spell after lunch with some great short-pitched bowling particularly at Hashim Amla [a rare recent good spell, only for the good work to be undone when Ishant overdid the short stuff] and Amit Mishra then came to the party, and when umpires called a premature halt to play, the Proteas had lost eight first innings wickets for 45 runs and squandered the advantage of the toss. India, for its part, had scripted one of the most compelling turnarounds in recent memory.

Now it is India’s turn to make all the running. 280, tops, seems the most the Proteas can hope for from where they are; conditions are good for batting [though Steyn’s pre-series comment that when you are bowling at 150-plus, the nature of the pitch really doesn’t matter still holds good], and the home team can afford to take the better part of two days to build the sort of score Bajji, with this confidence going for him, can work with.

India has one other advantage going for it – the X factor that is the Eden Gardens itself. That is what I’ll be looking forward to tomorrow – the peculiar buzz that this ground more than any other in the country can create when the home side is doing well.

It is also what I will miss most about tomorrow’s play – the 50,000 spectators who will not be able to stream into the ground, and put the wind behind the home team’s sails.

PS: For those complaining [both in mail and comments] about my being non-responsive: I watched this day’s play partly from my new, and as yet incomplete, home; partly from the Yahoo guest house in Bangalore; partly from an airport lounge. And now I’m writing this, at 1 am, from a hotel room in Bombay where I am overnighting, before an early morning flight to Chandigarh. Sorry, time is a bit of a luxury just now. Back tomorrow night with a take on the day’s play — and back to regular blogging after I return to home base in Bangalore Wednesday. Be well.

Why the Eden?

Hype has it that watching cricket at the Eden Gardens is an unrivaled experience — and for once, hype is not misplaced. Further, it is a pity that politics — namely the antagonism between Jagmohan Dalmiya and the honchos who currently run Indian cricket — has kept the Gardens from getting its due share of international fixtures. International cricket deserves to be played in the best possible venues, and there is no doubt that the Gardens, when on song, is as good as it gets.

Not this time, though; not for India versus South Africa. The short series  against the Proteas has come as manna from Test heaven; had the two boards not worked this out, we would have through all of 2010 contented ourselves with games against Bangladesh, now over, and Zimbabwe. Oh, and of course, Sri Lanka. At a time when India is statistically the world’s number one and, more to the point, the Test team has confidence and a degree of form going for it, what you really need are marquee games that can create excitement among the fans — and India-RSA, marketed right, can provide exactly that.

To get the buzz going, though, you need to guarantee butts in the seats — and right now the Gardens is in no position to do that. In December 2009, when India played Sri Lanka, the CAB opted out of selling tickets and reserved all available space for its members. [That game as you recall was marred by a fiasco to do with the floodlights; an inquiry was promised, but thus far what we have got is a tentative agreement on the inquiry committee, so no point holding our breath waiting]. The CAB now says it won’t sell tickets for the upcoming Test either.

Closed for maintenance

The reasons may be valid: ground upgrade, renovation with an eye on the 2011 ODI World Cup, whatever. Fact remains, though, that a marquee contest between India and South Africa, with the notional standing of the world’s number one Test team at stake, will be shut out for the fans — whose energy and passion is what gives cricket at the Gardens the aura it currently enjoys.

Did we really need to shoe-horn a Test into a venue that is currently capable only of catering to a closed group of ‘members’, while leaving the fans in a cricket-crazy city standing on the outside looking in?

On a tangentially related note, the Test team is out — and it is either predictable, or predictably surprising, depending on where you stand. With Laxman reporting fit, the selectors only needed to fill the slots currently occupied by Rahul Dravid and Yuvraj Singh [in the latter’s case, I’d think it is about time the selectors made a long term call about his fitness, or lack thereof, for Test cricket]. The committee could have gone in many directions: bringing in Cheteswar Pujara, to see if the much-talked about lad has what it takes to eventually step into the shoes Dravid will one day vacate; bringing in Rohit Sharma, to see if he is finally ready to match his talent with the discipline and commitment required at this level; bringing Suresh Raina into the ranks, swapping a left-hander who can bat, bowl and field with another young talent in the same mould…

In the event, the committee seems to have played safe. Vijay is already in the side; the selectors brought Badrinath in, and a case can be made that he has deserved the call up for his consistent performances at domestic level over the past two, three seasons, and by virtue of the fact that he has a game well suited to Tests. You don’t need to agree that this was the best possible direction for the selectors to go, but you certainly can’t make a case that the selections were flat out wrong. Mithun being brought in, just when he has the wind in his sales, was a good move [though it seems improbable that he will play, just being in the frame, and in the dressing room with the seniors, will do the lad much good]; I wish the selectors had on similar lines punted with Manish Pandey.

The Mithun pick is interesting — and timely — from another aspect. Here’s Harsha [who, incidentally, believes Badri merits the chance to debut], at the tail end of his latest column:

The greater fear though is with the bowling. Ishant Sharma took wickets but looked well short of top form in Bangladesh, Sreesanth is injured, RP Singh hasn’t demanded the world look at him, neither has Irfan Pathan with the ball and Munaf Patel, I’m told, is around somewhere. It leads to a rather scary conclusion. If Zaheer Khan breaks down, India might just be the side to queue up to bat against.

Arising from that, here’s a thought/question: Does India want to go into the first Test with its traditional six batsmen, one keeper, two seam and two spin bowlers formula, or does it want to cover for its inconsistent bowlers by being a batsman short, and lining up Zaheer, Ishant, Mithun, Bajji and Ojha? The five-bowler line up is the one I fancy; I’m fairly certain though that the team will stick to its favorite template.