The TGIF cricket clips

#1. Today marks the start of a ‘series’ I have no intention of watching. A bunch of cricketers who have lately been exposed against speed, swing and bounce get to fill their boots with free runs against arguably the slowest attack in world cricket — I’ll take a pass, thanks.

You can make a case for why Zimbabwe cricket needs a leg up [while on that, a segue — as Dhananjay pointed out to me on my Twitter stream, stories such as this one about Harbhajan Singh helping Zimbabwe cricketers out with basic equipment merit fair amounts of play in the media — but won’t get it, because there is no ‘controversy’ here, of the kind that kept the ‘brawl in a night club’ story on the front pages and on TV for days on end].

But that said, I’m not convinced that the board should have shoe-horned this series into its calendar — or even that such tours are in fact the best way to help Zimbabwe. From the Indian point of view, the players have just gone through the IPL and the World Cup, back to back. Almost all the players have during this phase exposed deficiencies in technique and skill sets, and underlined fitness concerns. The down time was an ideal opportunity for the board to work with the coach on ways to bring the players back up to speed, and for the coach to work on individual players to iron out their particular problems.

Harsha makes the point well in his latest column on Cricinfo.

That is why this series against Zimbabwe, though it seems to give young players an opportunity, isn’t the best idea. Yusuf Pathan, for example, would have done well to work on batting against the short-pitched ball, which is so clearly going to block his international career. Suresh Raina, who has much more going for him, could have worked on a similar theme to try and earn the Test place that seems so distant at the moment. And Rohit Sharma could have worked on trimming a few inches off his middle – but more on that later.

While discussing Rohit, Harsha makes the tangential point about the need for mentoring. Earlier this week Suresh Menon, another cricket writer I follow regularly, made that point the centerpiece of his latest column.

This is not to suggest that all players are saints, merely to point out the range of problems that confronts them.  India have been fortunate in recent years to have had quality players and men of the stature of Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, V V S Laxman, Anil Kumble as the backbone of the team. We have been spoiled by their immaculate behaviour on and off the field, and have forgotten how pressure can get to a player. There has been no need for a psychologist or mentor outside of the playing group.

Now thanks to the IPL and the opportunities it provides, players are coming into the Indian team incompletely educated, and with their ideas skewed by the money they make. While a professional coach with the requisite certificate can handle the cricketing problems on the field, it takes a special kind of professional to instruct players on how to handle themselves off the field. Perhaps the time has come to put players through a finishing school before they are qualified to play for India.

Here, to round things off, is an earlier post on mentors. What strikes me, not for the first time, as most remarkable is how much sense there is in the domain of the commentariat — and how little there is within the BCCI.

#2. The battle over John Howard’s [the ultimate cricket tragic, a Cricinfo profile earlier this year had dubbed him as] appointment as the next chief of the ICC becomes more amusing by the minute — and there is nothing quite as risible as India’s explanation for its opposition: apparently the board, with Sharad Pawar wearing his hat as the ICC head beginning July playing point man, says it does not want yet another politician heading cricket. Distinctly duh! Sri Lanka’s opposition is easier to explain — Howard, going beyond his then brief as Australia’s prime minister, was caustic on the subject of Muthaiah Muralitharan way back when; for the Lankan board, this is long-delayed payback. Peter Roebuck is scathing on the subject:

Make no mistake, the case against Howard is as dishonest as it is inconsistent. A board that welcomed Percy Sonn, who declared the 2003 Zimbabwe election free and fair though he knew it was a lie, thereby condemning Zimbabweans to years of torment; a board that accepted Ray Mali, whose co-operation with the apartheid government was exposed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; a board that listens to Peter Chingoka and Ozias Bute, apologists for evil in Zimbabwe, is poorly placed to turn its back on Jack the Ripper, let alone a former PM and cricket fanatic.

The cricket boards of India, South Africa and Zimbabwe are leading the campaign to prevent the antipodean nominee taking up his position. Their reasons are different and mostly false. India says that it does not want another politician to become involved in the game, let alone one as contentious as Howard. India’s real reason is that they fear Howard’s strength and skills and resent his high-handed conduct in the ongoing debate about uranium exports. After decades watching the West run the game, they intend to retain complete control. No less pertinently, they have always been backed by the Zimbabweans and now return the favour.

Against that, Rick Eyre has been consistently blogging on Howard — and from that perspective, posts on why Australia needs to pull the plug on the candidacy, and that right quick.

John Winston Howard is clearly not going to be the unifying face of world cricket for the years 2012-2014 or any other years, and the numbers are shaping up against him. Time for Cricket Australia and New Zealand Cricket to go down to the corner bakery, buy the biggest humble pie in the shop, and come up with another candidate. Sir John Anderson, even.

Keep your eye on this story — if nothing else, the manufactured outrage from various quarters, and Australia’s possible reaction, promises considerable amusement for the rest of us. And ultimately, none of it matters — the ICC has in recent times become almost irrelevant to the conduct of the game, so why would we need to get worked up on the identity of its next chief?

#3. For more than one reason, this column by Mike Atherton should resonate with us. Check it out.

#4. Today is a Friday. Enough hard work — come chat cricket, live. 3.30-4.30 — here.

Cricket clips

#1 With Sahara now becoming a franchise owner, the BCCI has a bit of a problem on its hands. Or rather, an existing problem got escalated:

The board’s existing sponsorship deal with the Sahara Group ends on June 30. Sahara originally won the right to sponsor the Indian cricket team for a period of four years beginning in December 2005 for Rs 400 crore. But the BCCI was unable to find a new sponsor last year, failing to attract even a single bid. So Sahara agreed to continue its sponsorship of the team for an additional six months on the same terms.

That said, indications are the BCCI has learnt nothing from the recent auction fiasco involving the IPL. Check this out:

According to PTI, the bid document is available for a non-refundable fee of Rs. 5 lakh. The notice requires all bidders to satisfy the eligibility criteria laid down by the board, which has also reserved the right to “cancel or amend the entire bidding process at any stage and to reject any and/or all bids without providing any reasons, including calling for a re-tender.”

In other words, I get to shell out Rs 5 lakh for the privilege of bidding to sponsor the Indian team — and that money is non-refundable. I have to satisfy certain criteria — and I don’t know what they are until I shell out said five lakh and get the bid document in my hands. And after I go through this entire process, the BCCI might decide to scrap the entire process “without providing any reason”, which is a nice clause to have if you intend to manipulate the process to favor any one particular party.

And to think it is Shashank Manohar and N Srinivasan, the architects of this process, who are the most vocal when it comes to complaining about the IPL and Modi’s idiosyncratic ways of running things.

#2. In a Rohit Mahajan piece in Outlook, spotted this bit: when India was knocked out in the league stage of the last ODI World Cup, former captains waxed indignant about player endorsements and demanded that it be capped. The BCCI promptly — and unilaterally — issued an edict restricting player endorsements. When then captain Rahul Dravid — prefacing his remarks with the usual diplomatic language about there being no conflict between the board and the players — suggested that the issue was best resolved through dialogue, Shashank Manohar responded thus:

“I do not think there is any scope for rethinking on the endorsement policy already announced,” Manohar told PTI. “The rules and conditions are set. A player may or may not accept [them] but it is not a problem of the BCCI.”

Manohar dismissed suggestions that the board’s decisions could be questioned in the court of law because they infringed on the players’ right to earn.

“Nothing will happen in the court because the players are not models,” said Manohar. “If they want to play for the board and India, the board is putting conditions. You may or may not accept them. If a player is not willing to sign the contract and uphold the conditions of the contract, it amounts to saying that he is not willing to play for India.”

Manohar said there was no question of the board having a dialogue with the players’ agents who have come out strongly against its decisions. “Who are the managing agents when it comes to the board. We don’t even recognise them. When we recognise the players, why should we talk to the agents.”

Consider the sum of those statements: The Board won’t talk to the players because there is nothing to discuss — we have decided, you can take it or do the other thing. The Board won’t talk to players’ agents, because it is talking to the players [to whom it is not talking]. If a player wants to play for “the board and India”, he can do what we tell him to. Or else.

That response is indicative of the ‘tail wags dog’ arrogance that permeates all levels of the BCCI, from the top down. [Note that around the same time, the BCCI “brushed aside” Dravid’s concern that the team was being over-scheduled — a frequently voiced concern, that has as frequently been ignored by the board, up to and including the latest T20 WC fiasco].

Back to Mahajan’s Outlook piece — in which he makes the point that while India’s performance in the latest world level competition was equally disastrous, the once combative captains who demanded caps on player endorsements have been suspiciously silent. He tells you why:

Thus, three years after that noble effort to create practice time for players, India again travels to the West Indies, this time for the Twenty20 World Cup. The team is jaded—45 days of non-stop play, travel and party for IPL-3 has taken its toll. However, this time around, six of the seven ex-captains are silent. Three of them—Sunil Gavaskar, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi and Ravi Shastri—are massively compensated members of the IPL. A fourth, K. Srikkanth, is the (paid) chief selector and also brand ambassador of the winning IPL team, the Chennai Super Kings. S. Venkatraghavan is the director of BCCI’s umpires’ committee. Kapil Dev has spoken, but perhaps only because he hasn’t been part of the BCCI structure (since 2007), penalised for floating the Indian Cricket League. Wonder why Chandu Borde remains silent? Perhaps to show his gratitude to the BCCI for the stray crumbs that fall his way—he was the manager of the team on the tour of England in 2007. The seven also spoke then, and are now silent, because silence is what the BCCI now wants of them.

So when captain M.S. Dhoni says that the IPL parties were detrimental to the Indian team’s interests, we had Gavaskar, not surprisingly, countering: “Tell me one thing, there were no parties in the West Indies, were there? So how can you say that the team performed badly in the Caribbean because of parties in India.”

In passing, the point about Srikkanth is particularly interesting. Check out what Manohar, with trademark arrogance, had said when the Board decided that players couldn’t sign endorsement contracts without first getting permission from the BCCI:

He also defended the board’s decision to ask the players to seek its permission before signing an endorsement contract. “We do not want to know the players’ figures [of earnings from their personal endorsements]. This is mainly to investigate whether there is any clause that conflicts with the interests of the game or the board or the ICC. We have every right to scrutinise the contracts.”

It’s a wonder the words “conflict of interest” come trippingly on the BCCI honcho’s tongue, no? Also note how easily the board abrogates to itself the right to scrutinize private contracts between players and their sponsors — while the same board and indeed, the same Manohar, was responsible for inserting into IPL guidelines the clause that contracts between the franchises and the IPL could not be subjected to public scrutiny.

#3. Worth a read, one of the more balanced pieces to have come out of the aftermath of the IPL fiasco — from Sharda Ugra.

Thoughts? Comments? Oh, and by the way, will be live today on the Yorker show, 3.30-4.30 PM IST. Link on Twitter, as soon as it is ready.

The after-party hangover

So this is how it goes: Throughout the 40-odd days of the IPL the BCCI encourages, even compels, players to party. Less than a month later, the BCCI serves notice on a bunch of players who went to party, got abused, and stood up for themselves.

[The dichotomy is understandable, if you think of it from a BCCI perspective: it is okay to party as long as the BCCI is making some money off it. Otherwise, not.]

Not to replay an old, tired tune — but here, as in so much else that is wrong with Indian cricket, the problem begins and ends with the BCCI. Anil Kumble nailed it in his recent Hindustan Times column:

Like the art of player management and making sure whatever available talent India has is harnessed properly and maximised. Far too many times for comfort, I’ve been where the current lot of Indian players today are — vilified by all and sundry, having every single thing they do torn apart and then some.

Someone’s got to look at handling both them and the things that come with playing for India, responsibly. There’s the pressure of performance, the pressure of expectations, pressure from a very intrusive media including former players.

These pressures can be overwhelming for a young man, more so perhaps, for a suddenly rich and famous young man coming to terms with his newfound status.

So I think it’s equally important to prepare him to manage life during and beyond cricket.

At the same time, without getting into which cricketer partied too much or drank too much or got into a brawl, or whether anyone did at all, there’s a need to educate young cricketers about their responsibilities. Not that they don’t know what these are but they need help on how to handle themselves with regard to these.

It’s important for the BCCI to ensure that contracted players at least are given not just cricketing infrastructure but life infrastructure. Today’s players need management skills, communication skills, professional media skills — they are, after all, brand ambassadors for the country. Yet, it’s also critical to emphasise the team’s performance and stop either making individuals too important or making or breaking them at the drop of a hat.

Kumble is on the money here — but it is not by any means an original thought. Consider this column from 2008 [the IPL’s inaugural year, in case you need reminding], by Jamie Alter on Cricinfo, where he talks of the pressures on India’s young:

With the win comes an overdose of adulation and big bucks, and there are more distractions today than ever before, Roger Binny, who coached the 2000 winners, points out. Binny says market forces now virtually dictate the game and believes India needs to follow the Australian prototype. “In Australia the development of junior cricketers is based completely within the state programme. Playing in tournaments is then just a part of the process. Their young players are groomed, there are counselling sessions where specialists tell them how to conduct themselves and what to expect.

“These players are too young to take big decisions. The management here should have similar training sessions for our stars. For example, have a marketing or media expert come in and conduct a seminar on how to handle money and all the excess attention.”

Or check out this column I once wrote in context of Sreesanth:

This is exactly why the team needs a good, tough media manager, who can guide the players through the tricky shoals of commenting in public. Most of the players are unused to public speaking, and their lack of expertise leads them to open their mouth wide and gaffe it with their foot. Each time that happens, we renew calls for the appointment of a media manager; as regularly, the BCCI says such an appointment is a “matter of top priority”. This current administration said those exact words, two years ago when Pawar first took over – but in the 24 months since, no more than lip service has been paid to that “priority”, quite likely because the BCCI can’t see in such an appointment anything more than a waste of money. Someone meanwhile needs to take Sreesanth aside and point out to him that since he has enough empirical evidence to quantify what makes for really bad bowling, maybe it is time he shut up and bent his energies to determining what really good bowling is all about; plumping the depths of bad behavior out of a spirit of scientific curiosity is not what he is being paid to do.

The point is that the need for player management has been underscored, repeatedly, any number of times these past few years. Hell, even Ravi Shastri — contracted commentator with the BCCI, member of the IPL governing council, chairman of the National Cricket Academy [my apologies if I have left out a dozen or so of the hats he wears courtesy the BCCI] — spoke of the need for counseling for the young [a very good thing that would be, Ian Chappell said during a curtain-raising discussion on the IPL’s first season, way back when].

And therein lies the rub: they all talk about it. Dalmiya did, in his time. Pawar made that one of the cornerstones of his administration, when he took over. And a decade down the line, we are still talking about something that is not particularly hard to do. Instead, what the BCCI does do, with remarkable consistency, is to send out these mixed signals, exhorting players to party one day, hauling them up for it the next. [And while on all of this, Kadambari Murali makes a very pertinent point in the Hindustan Times].

On a personal note, been occupied with a whole heap of stuff, both professional and personal. Consider this an open thread, folks — for thoughts, comments, links, whatever. Will swing by later in the day. Oh, and I am hosting the live chat on Yahoo today — at 3.30-4.30 pm, here. Make time in your calendar and come on over, let’s chat.

Cricket clips

I love ‘democracy’ — you actually get a mid-week holiday to go vote! Fully intend to enjoy the unexpected mid-week break, as soon as I am done with this post. 🙂

Courtesy a Cricinfo conversation, I stumbled on a Ray Jennings motivational video prepared for the RCB. As under. In passing, with yesterday’s win, RCB joins Delhi Daredevils in the list of IPL teams that started off slow but will, IMHO, get better as the tournament progresses and the players bind once more into a ‘team’.

Elsewhere, Jacob Oram becomes the latest cricketer to opt out of Test cricket so as to conserve his energies for ODIs and T20.

“The last few years have shown that my body cannot handle the strains and stresses that come with being an allrounder, playing all three formats for up to ten months a year,” Oram said. “For the sake of longevity I have had to make a decision that will decrease my workload, so I can concentrate all my efforts on the shorter forms of the game.

“The decision to choose limited-overs cricket over Test cricket has a lot to do with playing opportunities. The Black Caps play a lot more limited-overs cricket than Tests, and there’s also the opportunity to continue playing in world events such as the World Cup, World T20 and Champions Trophy, as well as the IPL.”

Cue more alarmist talk about cricketers turning ‘mercenary’, I’d imagine. Greg Baum’s diatribe, in fact, anticipates this event and suggests that as ever more cricketers are seduced by that dirty word, ‘money’, and as national duty takes a back seat in consequence, the game will lose its fans.

Go, freelance away, but don’t be surprised if in a while, no one cares, and if in another while, because no one cares, there is no one to watch. The whole sporting fantasy depends on the conviction of fans that the stars are playing for something other than money; that they are playing for you, me and the idea of us. But the fantasy becomes less easy to believe if the stars were playing for someone else last week, and will be playing for someone else again next week, and in the meantime make it clear that they begrudge the interlude in national colours because it jeopardises their earning potential.

An interesting argument — but one, IMHO, that won’t wash. I wonder if those who follow soccer, to cite one instance, care overmuch for the size of Christiano Ronaldo’s pay packet. He has, in a brief career, moved from CD Nacional where he debuted to Sporting Clube de Portugal, from there at age 18 to ManU for a £12.24 million fee. So when he jumped ship and transferred to Real Madrid for a cool £80 million, did the fans desert him en masse, turning up their collective nose at this display of vulgar ‘money-grubbing’? Did it bother them that he was not “playing for something other than money”?

The hell it did — when Ronaldo plays I watch, because of the compelling skills he puts on display. And I frankly don’t give a damn whether he is doing it in the red of ManU or the white of Real.

Journalists routinely sneer at such ‘vulgarity’. Yet, offer that same journalist a three-fold hike in his salary to join a rival paper and see how fast he jumps [But of course, when we do it, it is with lofty motives, “like wanting to better deploy our skills and experience in a fresh arena that provides more scope for our talents”].

The fact is that a sportsman’s career is incredibly finite. To be really good at his chosen sport, the player has to make the choice — that is, gamble — very early in life. Long, hard hours of practice allied to whatever natural talent he has just might make him good enough to break into the big time. When he does — if he does — he has about eight, ten years tops to make the most of it. And every one of those days is beset by doubts and fears: Will someone with better skill sets come along to supplant him? Will his own skills mysteriously desert him for no reason he can pinpoint? Will an injury sustained on the field of play put premature period to his career?

I became a journalist at age 30, and have been doing this for 20 years now. I can conceivably go on doing this for the next 30, provided my typing fingers and my mind continue to function [and some would say ‘mind’ is an additional, but by no means essential, requirement]. It is difficult for me, therefore, to understand the fears that plague a young man who knows, going in, that he will be redundant in his chosen field by age 30, 35 tops.

But maybe it is time to try. Maybe it is time to see things through the eyes of an Oram, a Flintoff, a Symonds. Maybe it is time to understand that this situation would not have come about if those who govern the game had spared some thought for the players, instead of making them dance on every available lap while the ‘nation’ — or more accurately the board — pockets the lion’s share of the revenue.

Earlier, the player had no choice. He played when and where he was asked to play, he took whatever the home board in its benevolence paid him and when he got hurt, he sat at home and sweated, not knowing if he would recover sufficiently to be able to play earn again, not knowing if his board would pick him even if he attained full fitness. Like the proverbial hamster, he hit the treadmill and he ran until he could run no more — and then, in what for everyone else would be the prime of life, he retired to his home to spend the rest of his life in an extended anecdotage, chewing the cud of memory and driving his family and few friends nuts [or, if he was very lucky, got a gig on television where he got to talk of how great he had been to a wider audience].

Today, that player has a choice. Multiple choices. And he is taking them — so, mate, just suck it up. And don’t worry about the fans — as a full house showed in Hyderabad the other day, they don’t give a hoot in hell that ‘Symmo anna’ [or for that matter Adam Gilchrist, their ‘Gilly Bhai’, showed great foresight in ending his national career while still at his peak, so he could earn far more money for just a few weeks of work each year] has become a “money-grubbing” mercenary; what turns them on is the electricity he produces on the field of play.

In passing — an interesting read.

PS: Back tomorrow, after the break.

Viru update

“There is little I can do. At the moment I would leave for London with my wife (Aarti) and son Aryaveer,” Sehwag said.

The injury and after, from Viru Sehwag.

What is the Sehwag ‘issue’?

A couple of years ago, a leading media group asked Shoaib Akthar to fly down to India to take part in a promotional road show. The Pakistan quick turned down the invite [no, not warts — the problem that time was time, which he said he didn’t have].

The sports editor of the media group called one of his reporters and ordered him to “take Akthar’s ass”. The reporter called up a few perennial malcontents in Pakistan, got some “quotes”, and stitched together a story of how Akthar’s action was “still suspect” and was causing some consternation in Pakistan’s cricketing circles.

Memo to media group in question: Pissed? Good — may I recommend to you the witty wisdom of someone who, responding to a question by NYT journalist David Pogue on Twitter, recast an old saying thus: If the shoe fits… buy two!

The incident comes repeatedly to mind against the backdrop of the ongoing fuss about MS Dhoni and his comments to the media — stories such as this one, by a leading media group.

On Tuesday, Sehwag batted for just an over-and-a-half at the nets before leaving — a sure pointer that he hadn’t recovered from injury. So when Dhoni arrived at the pre-match media briefing, alone this time, the first question he faced was on Sehwag’s fitness.

His response was a cold, “I don’t want to say anything on fitness issues. BCCI will be issuing a release.”

Why, exactly, is that response “cold”?

When said media group first “broke” the story of “tensions” between MS Dhoni and his vice captain, it had reported that the Indian skipper had pointedly suggested that questions relating to fitness be directed to the manager and physio. Which part of that did reporters not understand?

There is more “drama” in this MSN report.

Though to be fair to the media, the entire story would have been to rest had either Dhoni or the team manager spoken out and clarified on the status of Sehwag’s injury. However, one doesn’t know if there was a directive from the BCCI to the team management to keep mum on Sehwag’s injury. The more disconcerting point is that there is obviously a leak in the Indian team who is feeding pieces of information to the media, and this won’t help the cause of the team one bit.

I’m still trying to get this. Here’s the sequence, shorn of frills: A player gets injured in the IPL. Preliminary reads suggest that the injured area could possibly recover with regular treatment, so he is picked for the next tournament. Days pass, the injury doesn’t heal as well as it was initially expected to. The player tries out in the nets, but pain recurs and he gives up inside of five minutes. The physio and attending doctor(s) decide the injury requires surgical correction; the BCCI decides to fly the player back home and fly out a replacement.

That is what happened — and that is all that happened, so wherefore the fuss? As to the ‘disconcerting point’ about a leak within the Indian team — oh yes, the ubiquitous ‘source’ who shall be unnamed, and who is in the nature of the tribe prone to hallucinating? Because, seriously, what is there about an injury that can cause a ‘rift’ in the team?

Why do I get the feeling that a journo with an overactive imagination floated a story concocted out of thin air, got called on it, and sections of the media have since joined ranks and will continue to fan a rumor that has since been denied, by citing it at every conceivable opportunity?

George Binoy on Cricinfo:

That the injury to Sehwag was such a closely-guarded secret was perplexing. An injury is after all merely an injury and a more transparent dissemination of information from the team management would go a long way in diffusing the ambiguity and speculation that often surrounds the Indian team. Perhaps they could follow Ireland’s example – moments before Dhoni addressed the media, William Porterfield had spoken at length about the injury to Niall O’Brien.

Fair point. A question to Binoy and others who have been following this story: Did any of you at any time after landing in England and watching Sehwag play spectator at the nets ask the team physio or the manager about the status of the player? If yes, what was the response? If not, why not?