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.