Gautam Gambhir, redux

Harsha comes to the topic a bit late — likely a function of weekly deadlines. Sometimes, events happen immediately after you’ve dashed off one column, and then you are constrained to wait a week before you can take it up in your next [one reason why I believe Harsha needs to have a blog of his own, but that is a conversation we’ve been having for years].

All that said, his take on the ‘reprimand’ is worth your while.

And it strikes me as particularly baffling that players seem to get away with abuse on a field, with insulting language, but cannot make an honest observation off it. It has wider implications. I fear it could only lead to more boring, vanilla statements of the sort we now get at press conferences. The audience, who are the real owners of a sport, want to know what a sportsman is thinking, they want his assessment, and they have a right to that knowledge. Otherwise we will get what passes for cricketer-written columns in our newspapers: bland, insipid and flat statements that do not tell us why the owner of the byline is an exceptional performer, do not allow us a little window into his mind. Gambhir allowed us that and was told to stand in a corner.

Give it up for Gauti

Seriously. Give it up for Gautam Gambhir — the lad has cojones.

A day after being reported by IPL Commissioner Lalit K Modi and promptly reprimanded by the IPL’s hanging judge, Gambhir hits back with the frankest statement by an Indian cricketer I’ve seen till date.

I said what I said and I stand by it. But it cuts both ways. For instance, people said we (Delhi) gave an ordinary performance against Mumbai and we did. But we didn’t overreact or fuss about what anyone said. We picked ourselves up and raised the bar.

I don’t believe in saying things I don’t mean. If you’re looking for platitudes or banal gestures, I don’t think you’ll get that from me. I don’t mean to sound arrogant, I’m not, but I also can’t be a hypocrite.

You go, Gauti. And from all of us who have had it up to here with the predigested pap that cricketers routinely serve up to the media and the public — please don’t change.

Different strokes, different folks

There is, said Peter Roebuck in his latest essay, a fine line between teasing and taunting. Peter’s a fine bloke, besides being the most balanced of journalists writing in the Australian media space [his Brit origin likely has something to do with it; Peter manages to avoid the rabid parochialism that underpins the writings of his peers there].

Here is what Peter wrote after the infamous Sydney Test on our last tour Down Under:

Make no mistake, it is not only the reputation of these cricketers that has suffered. Australia itself has been embarrassed. The notion that Ponting can hereafter take the Australian team to India is preposterous. He has shown not the slightest interest in the well-being of the game, not the slightest sign of diplomatic skills, not a single mark of respect for his accomplished and widely admired opponents.

Harbhajan Singh can be an irritating young man but he is head of a family and responsible for raising nine people. And all the Australian elders want to do is to hunt him from the game. Australian fieldsmen fire insults from the corners of their mouths, an intemperate Sikh warrior overreacts and his rudeness is seized upon. It might impress barrack room lawyers.

In the past few days Ponting has presided over a performance that dragged the game into the pits. He turned a group of professional cricketers into a pack of wild dogs.

Which is why, as I revisited the clip above [and this is merely one of dozens of such clips I could throw up, all of them featuring Australia on one side and assorted opponents on the other], I found myself wondering: where exactly is that line drawn? Who is supposed to draw it? Who ensures that players of all nationalities remain on the right side of that line? And most importantly — just when will this happen?

On which side of that line, incidentally, would you put a succession of Australian bowlers in the clip above? Which brings us to this:

Ironically, the match referee who handed out the ban to Gambhir then, and to Benn now, while gently slapping the concerned Aussies on the wrist, is the self-same Chris Broad.  His comments after the latest incident are classics of their kind. Here’s one that takes the biscuit for its unadulterated wtf nature:

Benn has the right to appeal and Broad said there was every chance he would have received a lesser penalty had he pleaded guilty.

Broad, in fact, is a master of such gibberish:

South Africa’s coach Mickey Arthur described Ricky Ponting’s team as “masters” of putting pressure on umpires with their “histrionics” and Chris Broad, the match referee, said they pushed the boundaries of fair play but not crossed them.

Brilliant, that. Australia does not cross the boundaries, it merely moves them further away? I wonder if you can do that while fielding? What if a fielder needing to take a catch who is perilously close to the rope kicks the rope further away to make space — pushing the boundary of play but not crossing it, so to speak?

Anyway. After that impromptu riff on the principles of jurisprudence in general, Broad gets specific:

“It was an incident which could have been avoided. No one likes to see cricketers pointing bats at their opponents or pushing each other away. It is not the sort of example that players should be setting at any time, least of all in a series which is being played in a great spirit and being followed by millions around the world on television.

“The decision to find Benn guilty of a Level 2 offence is indicative of the fact that conduct contrary to the spirit of the game is completely unacceptable. I hope Mr Benn has learnt his lesson and will be careful in the future.”

Absolutely unimpeachable statements, those. Especially the one about pointing bats not being the kind of behavior anyone wants to see on a cricket field. But, um, just who was batting at the time?

The over began with a run-in between the bowler Benn, who was moving across to field a drive, and the non-striker Johnson, who was taking off for a single. The contact seemed incidental, with neither man at fault, but Haddin appeared to inflame the situation after completing the run, when he pointed his bat at Benn.

Uh oh. So at the end of an accidental contact between opposing players Brad Haddin — who was not the player who was pushed, even accidentally — made it his business to make a physically threatening gesture at his opponent. That is not, as Broad so vehemently says, the kind of behavior you want to see on a cricket field — so of course the law came down hard and heavy, with a 25 per cent of match fees fine.

Presumably, the law does not want to see on a cricket field a player standing still for bats to be pointed at him — which must be why Benn attracted the heavier punishment of a Test match ban. Again:

There appeared to be some incidental contact between Johnson and Benn when Johnson moved to position himself between his partner and the bowler. Things became even uglier when Johnson pushed Benn away, following the initial contact. After stumps the West Indies captain Chris Gayle said he felt Benn had not initiated the physical clash.

Again, Benn’s physical involvement is being described as ‘incidental’; Johnson’s response as deliberate, and deliberately physical. So naturally, Johnson gets docked 10 per cent of his match fees. It all makes perfect sense, no?

When my friend Karunakaran [on Twitter] pointed out these anomalies earlier in the day, I told him the whole thing reminded me of this story of the mother who took her son to school on his first day. “My little Brad Johnson is sooooooo sensitive,” the mother cooed to the teacher. “If he ever does something wrong, just punish the kid next to him — he’ll get the message.”

Chris Broad operates along similar lines. Recognizing the extreme sensitivity of Aussie players, he hands out salutary punishment to the other bloke, confident that the message will get across loud and clear to the real culprits.

Jokes aside, there are two issues here. The first is the ICC’s lack of will to draw the line and to hold it firmly against all comers. [Before you remind me, there is a ‘Code of Conduct’. Here is the concise wiki entry; I have too much concern for your well being to link to the gibberish-laden full version].

The bigger problem is the match referees’ idiosyncratic application of whatever norms do exist — and no one is more idiosyncratic than Broad. [Irony alert: In his playing days, Broad was the poster boy for bad behavior, smashing the stumps with his bat after being bowled in the Bicentenary Test in Sydney; on the infamous 1987-’88 tour of Pakistan that was signposted by the famous Mike Gatting showdown, Broad stood at the crease for well over a minute after being given out LBW; on one occasion he was even dropped from the England side because the management couldn’t stomach his constant mouthing off].

For instance, note that “inappropriate and deliberate physical contact between players during play” is deemed a Level 2 offence; note that there was nothing appropriate about Johnson pushing Benn; note that the prescribed fine is 50 per cent of the match fees and/or a ban for one Test or two ODIs. And finally, note that Johnson got away with a mere 10 per cent of his fees.

Had there been a review system for match officials, Broad would have been put out to pasture ages ago. There isn’t, so he isn’t.

The quick and the dead

The Indian bowling at the start was a bit lacklustre. Praveen Kumar has had a bad day in office. He is a swing bowler with not much of pace and he will find it difficult in these conditions where the ball doesn’t swing much and one will require a bit of pace to be successful on flat wickets. Praveen doesn’t have that and he will have to find out a way to be useful in these conditions.

That clip, from Sourav Ganguly’s column in the Times of India this morning, encapsulates a thought I had while watching Praveen bowl in the first one-dayer between India and Australia. Two contrasting moments in the play underlined the thought: the first came in the 49th over of the Australian innings, when Mike Hussey walked down the track and with consummate ease, lofted a PK slower ball onto the roof of the stadium; the second came in the 37th over of the Indian chase when Suresh Raina took strike after a Dhoni single and was totally fooled by a Mitch Johnson slower ball into popping up a return catch.

A ‘slower ball’ is a deceptive weapon in the hands of a bowler who has pace. Johnson had set Raina up for the deception in the previous over when he bowled a quick bouncer as the first ball the batsman received, and followed it up later in the over with another short, quick ball. Praveen, by contrast, bowls in the low 130s — the sort of speed where the “slower ball”, especially over used by a batsman who finds his stock ball not working, is a misnomer. [In the 41st over, Ishant Sharma started with a good slower ball to Mike Hussey — a delivery that found Hussey back in his crease, scrambling to push it away; the difference in the batsman’s approach to the two bowlers stemmed clearly from the appreciation that Ishant possesses pace].

It might seem churlish to pick on Praveen after his heroics with the bat — but the fact is India lost the game with the ball and in the field, and it is in these two departments that the team will continue to struggle in the remaining six games. On a recent occasion, while watching cricket at Rahul Bhatia’s home, Amit Varma tellingly commented that Praveen was opening the bowling because he was too slow to come on as first change.

He has a point — and that in turn leads to another. There were many oohs and aahs in the commentary box at the start of the Australian innings when Praveen seamed the ball around and either missed the edge, or found it dropping short of slips. Meanwhile, Ishant Sharma — the one bowler we have who has the pace to take advantage of good bowling conditions early on — languished in the outfield.

Ishant got the ball when the mandatory power play was over, and the field was being spread — an increasingly frequent practice for MS Dhoni and one that, IMHO, is a major contributor to the bowler’s effectiveness being reduced. The move is akin to reducing a race horse to a carthorse — coming in after the PPs, Ishant is in no position to attack; this forces him to cut down his pace and rely on line and length in a containing mode, and the more the team forces this role on him, the more his confidence to bowl quick will erode and he will, over time, be reduced to a medium pace stock bowler.

[While on Ishant, it was interesting to see Viru Sehwag take over mentoring duties when the young quick was in operation. Repeatedly, Viru was seen walking up to the bowler with a few words of advice; the most notable intervention saw Sharma switch to round the wicket against Hussey, tightening the angle and ensuring the batsman had no real room to work with.]

Fine tuning the bowling options is going to be critical in a series where India’s fielding will effectively function as a 12th batsman for Australia. By the most conservative of yardsticks, the team surrendered a good 30 runs in the field; acerbating this is the fact that Australia, throughout the Indian chase [including in the batting power play] kept five swift fielders inside the ring to block the singles and thus turn the screws on the batsmen.

One other point occurred to me while watching the game. As early as the second over of the Indian innings, Sunil Gavaskar in the commentary box was moved to remark that Sachin Tendulkar had “set out his stall for a big innings”. Maybe — SRT’s game has changed over time, and in the latter half of his career the batsman once known for flat out attack has has developed a tendency to pre-plan his innings. Unlike Sehwag, whose game plan revolves around the merits of the particular ball he is facing, SRT is increasingly prone to determining ahead of time what his approach to the entire innings will be.

Fair enough. India could use a batsman who can bat long, rotate the strike and let others bat around him — but the place for such a batsman is not the top of the order. 22 dot balls in an innings of 29 deliveries that ends in the 9th over is bad news on a big chase, and with the Australian batting lineup in the form it is in, big totals could be the norm this series.

Thus, if the brief for SRT — or more likely, the brief he has prescribed for himself — is to bat long, he needs to come in at number three, ceding the opening slot to Gautam Gambhir, who works well with Sehwag, is tuned to turning the strike over rapidly, and is temperamentally tuned to using the power play overs to optimum. One of the odd faults of SRT, among many good qualities, is his insistence on picking his slot in the batting order; IMHO, that will need to change if the team is to fire as a batting unit.

Related, Sidharth Monga has a piece in Cricinfo on how both sides made a mess of their batting power plays. I actually thought India called for the PPs at the perfect point in the game — immediately after the mandatory ball change. After 34 overs, Australia had been 169/3; India was 167/3, and five good batting overs at that point would have made the job considerably easier as the game headed into the slog phase. It is a different matter that the batsmen then muffed it up — but on balance, I thought India called the PPs better than Australia did.

It looks set to be a fairly interesting series; not for the first time, I find myself wishing its length was five games, not seven.

On an unrelated note, back at my desk after four days away; swamped with stuff, back here much later in my day.

The halt and the lame

There is only one way to tell you this: with a straight face.

So: Gautam Gambhir, who has strained his groin, will be replaced in Sri Lanka by Virat Kohli, who has strained his shoulder.

There — and I didn’t even crack a smile. [Any speculation on whether the groin is more key to playing cricket than the shoulder is entirely up to you]