Testing tolerance

We are going to play against Sri Lanka. Again.

So over the last two years, India and Sri Lanka have played a whopping 32 matches against each other across three formats – six Tests, 23 ODIs and three Twenty20s. That’s 52 days in all. And they want more.

Like a kid discovering a new toy, the BCCI appears to have discovered Test cricket once the Indian team took pole position on the ladder. The good bit is that its marketing boys saw the opportunity to hype ‘world dominion’ and managed to arm-twist South Africa into truncating a lengthy one-day schedule and play a couple of Tests instead [the compelling nature of the two-Test series just ended is the best argument you could make for playing more Tests — and less one day games]. Those two Tests were especially welcome in a year that would otherwise have seen the ‘world champions’ play only Bangladesh and Zimbabwe in Tests. But like the proverbial kid with the new plaything, the BCCI is now on a mission to schedule Tests against whoever has a spare five days on the calendar — and if there is one team that always has time to spare for us, it is the Lankans. So here we go again…

That said, India pulling off a win in the second Test, with about nine legitimate deliveries to go, spares the team of criticism that its ‘champions’ tag needs the legitimacy of defeating Australia and South Africa. India now have four wins and a draw in the last five Test series played [even if one of those wins is against Bangladesh and the other against Sri Lanka, the sequence also includes wins against Australia and England at home, and now a drawn series against the Proteas [and while on things to look forward to, the highlight for me personally is India’s tour of South Africa end-2010 — that should be a cracker, with SA most likely creating the kind of wickets that will help Dale Steyn and company, setting up a clash between the Indian batting and the Proteas strength in quick bowling].

Before the start of this series, S Rajesh of Cricinfo had done a stat-piece that breaks down South Africa’s enviable record in India. The key takeaways were that South Africa scored more runs per wicket than it conceded — in other words, its batting outperformed the Indians at home, making the Proteas the only team that can claim that cachet in recent times. Significantly, then, India’s win has come on the back of a mammoth batting effort [by a line up sans Rahul Dravid, and sporting two new-comers and one senior player coming back from injury].

In all of this, Harbhajan’s role has come under greatest scrutiny — and rightly so. All said and done, the exit of Anil Kumble pushed the off spinner into the position of India’s lead bowler. While no one expects that he will run through every side he comes up against, on every wicket he plays on, there is at least the bare minimum expectation that he will perform at all times like the leader of an attack [Kumble, incidentally, is the perfect example you could find for this — throughout his career, he earned the respect of his international opponents because, as Steve Waugh once said, “There is never a time when Kumble is not coming at you hard”]. It is this expectation Bajji hasn’t fulfilled as much as he is capable of, and it is this that has fueled criticism in the past, and will again.

His diatribe at the post-match press conference yesterday is, therefore, out of place.

“I have been hearing a lot of things from them [the media], but today they were on the receiving end,” he said in response to an unrelated question. “They should be getting that kind of treatment because they should know what to play on national television and what not to play. We play for our country with a lot of passion and it disappoints all the players sometimes to see what characters they make out of us. If I don’t do well on the ground they will show us as 3 Idiots (a Bollywood flick). Harbhajan is one of the idiots, MS Dhoni is the other. That is not right. I know it sounds funny but it is not.

“It’s a shame and it should not be done. But if that is the way you want to sell your programmes, we are not worried about that. I was there for a bigger purpose. I was playing for my country, which means more than anything else for me. I won a game for my country and that is a special feeling.”

Congratulations on the five-for and for winning the game for your country and ours, dude — but you need to get that hype is the function of your press agent, it is not the business of the media or of the fans. If your bowling gets praised when you do well, it is equally apt to get slammed when you do badly — as at Nagpur. To avoid the media when things are not going well, and to then come out firing when you do something good, smacks of immaturity. And again, on this a good example to emulate would be Anil-bhai, who you clearly respect — despite winning more games for India than any other bowler of whatever kind, Anil has repeatedly been slammed for being ineffective, and he has invariably tackled such criticism with grace and good humor, while never once crowing when he was on top.

Rajesh, again, makes the statistical case. And again, the key takeaways are, (1) that Bajji is a case of diminishing marginal returns, as should be clear from his average and strike rate progression; and (2) that he has been most ineffective where his team would have maximum expectations of him — to wit, in home conditions.

As far as the game goes, what with traveling and work I could watch only in sporadic bits — certainly not enough to comment. Two things did strike me, though, as I watched what I could of days four and five: the Eden Gardens effect, which is celebrated at some length in this piece by S Aga, and the sheer wtf nature of field setting and bowling for the entire afternoon and evening sessions of day five.

As early as the first session, it was clear from the run rate and the attitude of the Proteas batsmen that South Africa was playing time, and had no intention of reprising the positive mindset that had helped it negate the Indian bowling in the first Test. This meant that India could attack flat out — and it is against this that I couldn’t see the point of India’s tactic of spreading the field when Hashim Amla was on strike, and permitting the batsman to play without pressure and take singles at will.

Why? Such a tactic is so clearly counter-productive. The batsmen are gifted a comfort zone; every ball he is allowed to play without pressure is one less the team has to survive. From the bowler’s point of view, too, constantly switching from aggression to defense plays hell with performance. Against that, or so it seemed to me, the far better course would have been to ensure that pressure was applied at both ends, that there were men crowding the bat right through the day, and that Amla [whose batting this series it is impossible to over-praise] was made to work hard for survival, rather than be assured of it. It was only towards the end of the third session, with time ticking down, that India ratcheted up the pressure even when Amla was on strike. And from that point on, survival became considerably trickier and, in the event, the vital wicket fell.

To point this out now might seem churlish in the aftermath of the win, but this is one of the most consistent mistakes India makes, and maybe it is time the think tank paid some attention to this.

On an unrelated note, Harsha in his latest column makes the case for why India should go flat out to stage IPL-3 [a call that is counter to Shane Warne’s recent pronouncement that the tournament needs to go back to South Africa, and to the players’ association that has been talking of pull outs]. This is where I’d love to see the Federal Home Ministry and the home ministers of the respective states step in. When My Name is Khan was threatened by the lunatic fringe, both P Chidambaram and the Maharashtra government stepped in with strong statements about beefing up security and not permitting the lunatics to take over the asylum [ironically, I noticed in one of those news clips that the cops had installed night vision cameras in theaters to forestall trouble — cameras that CS Terminus and other targets on the terrorist radar in Mumbai are yet to get].

Surely, then, you want the government, at both central and state levels, to now take an equally strong stand, to step forward and state the collective intention that India will not be held hostage to random terror threats? Last year, the government abdicated this responsibility, on the rather specious grounds that there was an election scheduled around the same time. This year, that excuse does not exist — so hopefully we’ll see a statement of intent from the government [and hopefully, the GoI won’t just stop with making statements, but will do everything necessary to walk that talk].

Elsewhere, the IPL continues to generate news for all the wrong reasons. The broadcast media has decided to boycott the event, citing Modi’s draconian rules on what can and what cannot be aired;  my understanding is that international photo agencies are currently talking among themselves prior to announcing a similar boycott. Good — Modi’s attempts to redefine the nature and functioning of the media need to be challenged, through such boycotts and where possible, through legal action [stand by for a PIL on the subject, unless my guess is way wrong].

Elsewhere, the Ravindra Jadeja case is another indication of the kind of chaos that can result from hasty, ill-judged action. Modi says that all factors were considered; if that is true, how does Modi and the IPL justify acting against a player who was no longer under contract? The key element in this story is that his contract with the Royals ended December 31, 2009. Since there was no talk of renewal, that makes Jadeja a free agent; as such he has every right to seek employment elsewhere. So how can he be deemed to have contravened the IPL guidelines? [Typically, rather than question the basis for the action taken against him, Niranjan Shah’s “support” for the player comes in the form of negotiating the extent of punishment]. Jayaditya Gupta, meanwhile, riffs off the incident to raise a legitimate, larger question:

The issue of Jadeja’s ban is not the ban itself. If he has violated the rules, he must be punished, and if the penalty is a ban, so be it. The issue is this: Did it have to come to this? Who is looking after the interests of a young man with unimaginable riches suddenly at his command? Who is providing him the counsel to separate right from wrong? Simply put, who is his minder?

It’s not just about Jadeja, of course. Every IPL franchise has young players – four mandatory “catchment” players apart from internationals like Jadeja – who are suddenly faced with more money than they could have ever dreamed of. The temptation is huge, it is natural. All that is needed is some sage advice; the kind every young fast-rising professional gets: Don’t chase the money, chase the work; the money will take care of itself.


Back to work [oh, and part of this work involves cricket — if all goes well, should have something of interest to share with you before the end of the month]; will swing by again sometime this weekend.

‘Everybody does it’

Harsha makes two points in his latest column — one, that Shahid Afridi could be the one day captain Pakistan needs, and two, that maybe it is time to look at making ball tampering official.

The captaincy debate comes just when Mohammad Yousuf, the incumbent, gaffed his mouth with his foot:

“I didn’t do badly as captain, not as badly that I should resign or quit. I accepted captaincy when no one was willing to take captaincy for the tours. I took it [captaincy] only because of the country and will continue for the country in future.”

That statement is disingenuous at so many levels. For starters, when he says he didn’t do as badly as he could have, after being whitewashed in both Tests and ODIs, it kind of begs the question: how worse do you suppose the defeat had to be before you felt a sense of personal responsibility?

As to the second part of his statement, that he took it because “no one else was willing to”, he forgets to point out that his predecessor Younis Khan quit because senior players made his life miserable — and one of the major culprits was Yousuf himself.

The biggest argument against Yousuf’s continued tenure, though, is that he is totally lacking in inspiration on the field — and though I didn’t watch the Australia-Pakistan series start to finish, the sense I got from the parts I did see was that he is not the kind who is likely to grow into the job.

So there needs to be a change — and given the fractious nature of the team, different captains for Tests and ODIs seem to make sense, with Afridi the obvious choice for leading the one day side thanks to his ability to galvanize his mates [it is no coincidence that the one game where Pakistan and Australia were on level terms is the one Afridi led in].

But from that to endorsing ball-tampering seems a bit of a stretch — particularly when it comes from the voice of moderation that is Harsha.

But at least one good has come out of it. We now have a nice debate on the whole issue of ball-tampering. Predictably bowlers, who have always played the role of the exploited, sometimes with good reason, are all in favour of fiddling a bit with the ball. Batsmen (and at least one wicketkeeper) are up in arms. The law doesn’t allow it but maybe the time has come to question whether the law is indeed just. Cricket allows you to “maintain” the state of the ball but not to “alter” it. You can therefore rub the ball on your flannels to ensure the shine stays longer, but you cannot rub it on the ground, for example, to ensure it goes faster. But in either case you are altering the natural condition of the ball.

By maintaining the shine a bowler prevents the ball from deterioration. And yet the worsening of the ball, and the ensuing implications, are at the very heart of our game. Either action seeks to make the two halves of the ball unequal, so why should one be allowed and the other outlawed? Is it because one helps conventional swing and the other encourages reverse swing, which has always been looked upon as the naughty child in the family? Or, let’s face it, is it because batsmen don’t like reverse swing?

Cricket is no stranger to ways of making the shine go off the ball faster. Remember when Sunil Gavaskar used to “open” the bowling? The wicket keeper would collect and roll it to fine leg, who would roll it to mid off, who “passed it” to third man and so on. An over of that, and the ball would be just right for Bishen Bedi to bowl over number three. And even now, bowlers do more than rubbing the ball to ensure that the shine stays longer — in the areas they polish and the ones they don’t lies the secret of preparing the ball for reverse swing, and no one has a problem with that. [It is not, for instance, as if the law says any polishing done should be even].

But to go from there to the extreme, and to suggest maybe that it is okay to snack on the ball between deliveries [what next, if I am a bowler with weak teeth, can I bring my knife and fork to the party?] is more than I personally would want to see — because if you open that particular door, there is no telling where it will end. If it is okay for instance to use your nails to raise the seam, why then is it not okay to use a bottle cap? If teeth are acceptable, why not a knife?

“Everybody does it” is, first up, false — a more accurate statement would be, “some people do it”. And the fact that some people do something does not, in and of itself, make that the right thing to do. Hey, some people do dope — so would we argue the case to make doping, recreational or performance-oriented, legal?

Cricket clips

#1. Rohit Sharma had an opportunity to make his case for consideration for the national team, and he blew it. At the time of writing this, Manish Pandey is however grabbing his chance with both hands and then some — 43 off 39 with five fours and two sixes, as I write this.

#2. Suresh Menon makes the point well: Shahid Afridi has managed to get away with a slap on the wrists for an offense that should have attracted far heavier punishment. Menon also takes a swipe at the ICC for one of the more memorable wtf quotes of recent times:

The ICC has banned Afridi for just two matches. Its official communiqué states: “The Pakistan captain was observed in the act of changing the condition of the ball during Australia’s innings without the permission of the on-field umpires.” So that was the problem then. Bad  table manners. He should have asked the umpires first. “Mr Umpire, could you please pass the ball please; I always carry a salt shaker in my pocket. You never know when the opposition is 35 runs from victory with five overs remaining, and your fast bowlers might need some help.”

3. Sharda Ugra and Rohit Mahajan are scathing on the subject of the fiasco involving the Pakistan players in the IPL-3 auction. From Sharda:

Modi calls this theory a “pre-conceived conspiracy” except that its preconception came from the IPL bosses a few days before the auction. Switch off the camera and put down the pen and most franchise executives will say that.

That a few days before the auction the franchises were told to “take it easy on Pakistani players”. Two days before the auction, Mumbai’s Mid-Day newspaper reported a story: “IPL teams told not to bid for Pakistani players in auction”. It quoted IPL Chief Operating Officer Sundar Raman’s one-word reply to the report: “Rubbish”. After the story appeared, Lalit Modi messaged the reporter calling the report, “totally biased” and adding, “anyway fiction is good once in a while.”

And from Rohit:

It has become evident that the franchisees actually wanted several players from Pakistan; it’s also become clear that the Indian government didn’t play a role in the exclusion—on the contrary, the government had given 17 Pakistani players visas in December. All along, the Board for Control of Cricket in India and the IPL have insisted that the franchisees were and are free to buy players of their choice. So who prevented the franchisees from choosing players from across the border? It wasn’t the IPL governing council, as Rajeev Shukla, BCCI vice-president, says: “There were no instructions to the teams from the IPL governing council not to pick Pakistani players.”

But sources say instructions were  indeed given. And the man giving the instructions, according to sources at IPL franchisees, was IPL commissioner Lalit Modi himself. “It was he who personally advised franchisees to not buy Pakistani players at the auction,” a source with an IPL team told Outlook.

Publicly, Modi and the BCCI have maintained that the teams were completely free to pick up any player. Modi told a TV channel: “There was no pre-decision. They (franchisees) were all worried about availability and that’s why the Australians weren’t picked along with many other players.”

That’s a bit disingenuous, for while the Australians are indeed playing an international series during the IPL, the Pakistanis are not. Salman Ahmed of Portfolio World Sports Management, who manages several Pakistani players, says he appreciates that the sponsors could have been wary about the presence of the Pakistanis due to the 26/11 Mumbai attack, but adds: “The right thing to do is to sit down with the players, explain to them the situation and hand them their money for terminating their contracts. A little tact and honesty would have helped…Modi has played a dirty game by putting them up for auction and then ensuring nobody bought them.”

Until three days before the auction, Tanvir, Misbah, Umar Gul and Kamran Akmal were not up for auction—they believed that they were still contracted with the teams they played for in IPL-1. They had been sent letters by their teams in December, stating they’d play for their respective IPL teams. This was confirmed by a senior official with the Kolkata Knight Riders franchise. There was no talk of them being on the auction list at that stage.

This auction is already the gift that goes on giving; with a sizable chunk of BCCI honchos waiting for an opportunity to cut Modi down to size, the coming days should bring a host of interesting revelations.

#3. Two interesting reads, for when you have time: Rahul Bhattacharya, who ranks high on my list of favorite cricket writers, on what goes into making a cricketer great; Harsha Bhogle, who I had been hoping to rope into Yahoo only to find he had already signed an exclusive deal with Cricinfo, interviews VVS Laxman at length.

Future perfect

After some deserved strictures on how India went about its business in the recent triangular ODI series, Harsha Bhogle spends some time mining the batting riches being thrown up in recent times.

Every time I see Manish Pandey, I see another dimension to him. Opening in the IPL, playing solidly in the middle order in the Ranji Trophy, and at all times being brilliant in the field. I am going to enjoy the next few years watching Kohli, Raina, Sharma, Pandey and Cheteshwar Pujara. Throw into that list Murali Vijay, Ajinkya Rahane and Shikhar Dhawan and, if you like to see good batting, you have reason to smile.

In fact, while on this topic, how about this A side to tour South Africa, Australia and, in a few months, England. Vijay, Rahane, Sharma, Kohli, Pujara, Pandey, Wriddhiman Saha, Mithun, Ashok Dinda, Sudeep Tyagi, Iqbal Abdulla, Piyush Chawla, Aushik Srinivas, and Irfan Pathan as captain. In fact, many years ago we used to have an Indian Colts team led by a certain senior player; it would be beautiful for these young men if Rahul Dravid could be persuaded to lead this team once in a while, for they can have no better teacher in the modern game than him.

The idea of bringing all these talents into an A team, and scheduling tours to the top nations, is perfectly timed [and for the nth time, I find myself wondering why such ideas seem to occur to the likes of Harsha, but never, ever, to the honchos ‘running’ Indian cricket].

A major problem for the youngsters is lack of opportunities at the highest level. This is when they are fizzing with talent, self-confidence, and the fearlessness of the young. It is also the time when they look around and realize they have very few, if any, opportunities to break into the topmost tier.

Sehwag and Gambhir at numbers 1 and 2; Rahul Dravid at 3, Sachin at 4, VVS at 5 and MS Dhoni at 6 currently command the batting slots at the Test level — and if you are a talented youngster looking to make a case for yourself, you find the jury has returned its verdict even before you’ve had a chance to speak: SRT, RD and VVS will, you realize, be around for a while yet, so no matter how eloquently you let your talent speak for itself, there is just no way you can crash that middle order. Worse, from the young one’s point of view, you also do not know when opportunities will open up.

So you wait, motivating yourself for the occasional big domestic game, and mostly marking time on flat batting tracks against dispirited bowling line ups — and with every passing day, you lose a bit of that effervescence that is the hallmark of the talented young.

Upshot: by the time you are roped into the team, you’ve lost the buzz [sometimes, and Ambati Rayudu is merely one case in point, you lose your way entirely during that seemingly endless waiting period] that made you noticed in the first place — and you then have fans and the media wondering what they saw in you in the first place.

The antidote to all of this is exactly what Harsha suggested — bring these young kids together into an A team and schedule as many games, against as many quality opponents, as possible throughout the year. Playing home and away against the likes of Australia, England, South Africa etc will keep their buzz going, help hone their talents and prepare them for national duty — and I suspect, given the batting and bowling riches contained in that list, that their games will be followed as keenly as those of the national team [more keenly, if said national team is playing Sri Lanka again].

In passing, I wonder if Harsha sometimes feels the way I do just now: you write some 200-300 words that you think makes sense, and just as you put the final period in place, you realize the whole effort is wasted — because none of this is even remotely on the radar of those in charge of the game.

The perils of disarmament

The Rajkot game [previous post on the topic] moves Harsha Bhogle to philosophize on the nature of cricket as contest.

At the heart of cricket’s magic, the reason all of us are so enamoured by it, is the fact that every ball is a contest. The bowler conceives the challenge, sets his line, his length, his movement, the placement of fielders, and presents it to the batsman, who must then unravel it and respond.

And then there is another challenge. It is relentless and it must be that way. The moment the delivery of the ball to a batsman is no longer a challenge, the contest ceases. It is no longer cricket. Or maybe it would be to the same extent that boxing would remain a sport if each boxer is allowed three minutes at a punching bag and the winner determined by who hits the bag better.

And so it is imperative that we get the surface right. The vagaries of the surface, and therefore their role in the presentation of a challenge by the bowler to the batsman, lies at the heart of cricket: favouring the batsman a bit one day, then ensuring that he has to hop against the bounce or crouch to smother the turn the next day. It is the inherent mystery in the surface that defines the contest. And that is what cricket’s administrators have to protect. They must be obsessed by the need to retain the contest. Chocolates must have their cocoa, cricket must have its contest; neither exists otherwise.

And having said all that, Harsha goes on to suggest that maybe the job of leveling the playing field is too crucial to be left entirely to the ICC.

Maybe we can start, us in the media, by defining what a good pitch is; not one on which batsmen can score a lot of runs but one on which ball and bat have equal opportunity. Every time a curator says, “I have prepared a good wicket”, let us ask him what he really means.

Bowlers are not waiters, they should not have to serve deliveries on a platter at a batsman’s command. We have already produced monster bats and brought the boundary rope in so much that on some days it looks like we are playing in a small park. And increasingly we produce pitches like the one in Rajkot. Is it inconceivable that a day will come when a bowler is given a list of balls he can bowl, it is announced on a public address system, and then we all wait to see what the batsman does with it?

Hopefully that is a doomsday scenario, but it doesn’t reduce the great need for the cricket world to come together to ensure that every cricketing occasion is a contest between ball and bat. We must be obsessed by the need to maintain it.

Right — I’m off to finish work on India Abroad, and then head out for the weekend. One of the few remaining weekends in Mumbai for me, so hopefully much fun will ensue. See you guys back here on Monday; be well meantimes.

Number 1, and after

For a change, a nicely nuanced post on India’s becoming number one on the ICC Test table — from Harsha Bhogle, so that is not too surprising.

Besides asking why journalists in other countries seem to have such a problem with India’s new position, he makes a pertinent point:

And so while India must celebrate, it must be with a sense of history. This lot of players has put the ribbon on the box, but the cake was baked by many; they have scored a goal but you usually cannot do so unless someone has passed the ball to you. And that is why the only aspect of this moment that disturbs me is the cash award to this team. I am not a huge fan of cash awards to professional players – they are presumably paid to win anyway – but the announcement of this particular one ignores the fact that various others set it up over the last five years.

In particular, India have been served by three very fine captains before the hugely impressive current incumbent. Very few good teams win with inadequate leaders anyway. Under Sourav Ganguly, India realised that winning overseas was an option, and India have much for which to thank a player the world found very convenient to misunderstand. Rahul Dravid was the perfect captain to follow, with his strong commitment to the team and to the cause. It is easily forgotten that under him India won in the West Indies for the first time in 35 years and in England for the first time in 21. And Anil Kumble was the leader at a decisive moment in Indian cricket: in Australia in 2008, where the Test win in Perth must rank on par with the win at Kolkata in 2001 for significance.

Harsha has a point — too often, in celebrating the moment, we tend to forget that it is merely the culmination of a succession of moments that have produced agony and ecstasy in unequal measure; moments that we have lived through and promptly forgotten, without realizing where it was all leading us.

Harsha’s take-away:

But as with all success, India must celebrate the moment and move on. Australia and South Africa are fine teams and Sri Lanka have just the man to drive their transition. As business leaders will tell you, it is more difficult to stay on top than to get there. India need to groom batting replacements, and there are only two on the horizon: the scarcely tested Murali Vijay and the untested Cheteshwar Pujara. Harbhajan Singh desperately needs competition to take him to another level, but more important, India will have to find a way to ensure that players of serious ability, like Rohit Sharma, Sreesanth, Ishant and RP Singh, don’t lose their way. And it will call for people with vision at the top. They exist but they are in a bit of a melee at the moment with others of various hues and political colour.

PS: Stepping away from the blog for a bit. Thoughts about the second T20, if any occur, on Sunday.