Day three, open thread

Work-wise, this was a packed weekend — which worked in my favor. The sessions and periods of play that I watched in the first two days of the first RSA-India Test sufficed — total immersion would have been akin to being strapped to a chair and being forced to watch paint dry.

The cricket was, in a word, boring — for all the hype about AB de Villiers taking on the spinners, fact is none of the South African batsmen, batting on day two from a position of considerable comfort, were proactive; they never seemed inclined to try and step up the pressure. An overall run rate of 3.17 tells its own story; when that run rate is achieved on the back of a first day that produced 291/2, it becomes a bedtime story for the habitual insomniac.

If South Africa played to its patented safety first template and showed no real urgency in run-making [Kallis, his mind fettered by the desire for that elusive double ton, was as strokeless on day two as he was positive on day one], the Indians were equally disappointing. The wicket had bounce and sharp turn [we could yet come to regret not having taken the courageous step of going in with five bowlers, and including Pragyan Ojha in the mix] — the kind of conditions spinners revel in and batsmen, especially from teams like SA that are not known for their skill at playing the turning ball, dread. And yet the lines were flat, the bowling uninspired. Amit Mishra inspired oohs and aahs with sharp turn — but a foot of turn is of debatable value when the bowler is hitting the line outside off as his stock ball.

As for Bajji, any time you find an off spinner bowling the bulk of his deliveries from around the wicket to right handed batsmen, you’ve got to figure something is way wrong. The likes of EAS Prasanna, newly picked as one of India’s two spin bowling coaches, will tell you that when there is turn to be had, the off spinner’s stock ball is the one just short of driving length outside off, turning in to hit the top of off. That line forces the batsman to play the turning, bouncing ball from beside it, without the protection of his body behind the bat; Bajji’s preference on the other hand seemed to be to bowl off, to off&middle and middle stump lines — just right for batsmen to get behind it, watch the turn and play it down and away through the “leg trap” for easy runs.

Add missed chances and an umpire seemingly unschooled in the fact that the LBW is a legitimate mode of dismissal, and it all made for less than compelling viewing. More of the same, I suspect, today, though as I write this Sehwag has already hit Dale Steyn for the first four of the day — India with a batting lineup missing the solidity of Dravid and the silken grace of Laxman has to make 359 as its first target, to get past the follow on mark, and then fight its way to 558 and beyond. Coach Gary Kirsten spoke of how there is yet a chance for the home side — but realistically speaking, there are only two results possible: a draw, and a South Africa win. And the way the game is set up, by the end of play today we will have a fair idea which of those two results we are likely to get [oh, and between that four and this sentence, Gambhir’s been taken out by Morkel].

Add post: The first hour is not yet done, and already SA has a firm grip on the game. Gambhir, Vijay and Tendulkar back in the hut — and all three batsmen undone by the extra pace of the Morne-Steyn combine. Pace through the air — the quality the Indian seam bowlers lack — is proving to be the key differentiator. Two quicks regularly hitting speeds in excess of 145k, coming at them from either end, appear more than the Indian batsmen have the will, or skill, to handle. Gambhir got the kind of ball no batsman wants as the first delivery of a session; Vijay misjudged the line and extent of movement; Tendulkar made a mess of trying to counter away swing generated at great pace — and India, 60/3 at the time of writing this, are now dependent on Sehwag, two debutants [one of them a reserve wicket keeper] and captain MS Dhoni to save their blushes.

Open thread, people, for any comments that may occur to you in course of the day’s play. Will check back off and on…

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Number two

The churn in the Test rankings following Australia’s Ashes implosion is exercising a lot of minds lately. Anil Kumble, for instance, speaks of the possibility of India vaulting to the top of the rankings, and what it needs to get there [Item: play more Tests!]. Elsewhere, two informed voices speak of Sri Lanka and its gradual progress to the number two slot it currently occupies: SR Pathiravithana, and Suresh Menon. The former looks at the what-next question:

The former President was also elated by this development. He was also of the view that the present crew played good cricket, but the Lankans lagged a bit behind where the bench strength and the feeder points were concerned. He said: “We must delve into the reasons and make our bench strength strong enough to take up the challenges of present day cricket. But, we really are far behind where the feeder points are concerned. Punchihewa elaborated: “Even some prominent cricketers are of the view that Sri Lanka will keep discovering the Mendis and Dilshans on a regular basis, but that is too hypothetical.

Twenty five years ago Sri Lanka boasted of the best school cricket team in the world. But, today we are being beaten by even Bangladesh on a regular basis. I feel this is one of the biggest drawbacks that is ailing our cricket. Even to put a simple building, one must have a strong foundation to hold it up”.

Suresh Menon, meanwhile, puts his finger on the larger flaw: Lanka’s home and away record is lopsided. In the 2000s, which is being identified as the period when Lanka worked its way up the ladder, it has played 40 away Tests for a 13-18 win loss record; against that it has played 53 at home for a 31/11 win loss record. Narrow that down, and you find that in the three years starting September 2006, Lanka has 10 away games for a 4-4 record, and 14 home games for a 10/1 record. You could argue that this is not Lanka’s fault as much as it is the lopsided nature of the ICC-sanctioned international cricket calendar — but the fact remains that much of Lanka’s position at the number two spot in the Test hierarchy is built on success at home powered by its battery of three spinners, in a fashion reminiscent of India’s record when the spin troika was at its peak. From Suresh:

And now comes the difficult part. Breaking through to Number 1. South Africa are perched there as if by right, and a glance through the records shows that Sri Lanka have to work on their away record before they can be considered the best team both statistically and psychologically.

Of their 18 victories abroad, seven have come in Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, six in Pakistan, two each in England and New Zealand and one in the West Indies. No wins in India, Australia, South Africa, although they have victories against all of them among their 42 at home. This is the lopsidedness that Sri Lanka will have to correct if they have to evolve from an exciting team capable of giving the big teams a run for their money into a well-rounded outfit which approach every game on at least level terms with the opposition. It is no compliment to be known as unbeatables at home if the flip side of that is “innocents abroad”. It took their neighbours India years to live down their image as tigers at home, lambs abroad.

In Sangakkara, Sri Lanka are fortunate to have as captain at this crucial juncture a man who is hard as nails and combines charm and toughness in rare measure. Both behind and in front of the stumps he is an inspirational figure, a Ranatunga without the rough edges, a Jayawardene without the gentleness.

Australia’s fall from grace would seem a great opportunity for Test cricket to acquire a greater degree of interest; an opportunity for the ICC to create a series of contests between the top four-five teams with the number one slot at stake, but the FTP suggests that is an opportunity largely missed. Short term, though, India has a chance to leapfrog Sri Lanka to the second spot when we host Sangakkara and his team for a three-Test series later this year. That should set up quite nicely the three-Test clash [a bit of a downer being this, too, is at home] against South Africa in 2010. Here’s Anil Kumble:

We need to play more Tests… If you look at the 12-month period from last August, Australia played 17 Tests, while India played 10… To get to No.1, you first need to play more. Then, obviously, you’ve got to do well consistently… Once we get to No.2, getting to No.1 will be taken care of.

Addendum: Here’s Harsha’s equally distinguished brother Srinivas Bhogle’s thoughts on the Sri Lanka as number two question:

So while Sri Lanka are winning practically everything — and that’s really the best that any team can do — they are deriving a significant benefit because of three things: (a) Sri Lanka play Test series with relatively fewer matches, (b) they have lately played a lot of cricket at home and (c) they have only encountered weak away opposition recently.

Let me explain the meaning of ‘recently’, because this is one of the merits of ICC’s ranking scheme. The essential idea is that wins in the recent past must get a greater weight than wins in the not-so-recent past. There’s no need to quibble about this; it seems to make good sense.

But how recent must ‘recent’ be? ICC takes it to mean one year (they also  have a curious fixation about the month of August, but we’ll let that pass), but, at least for Test cricket, one year seems insufficient — two years seems more reasonable, especially given the current reluctance to schedule too many Test matches.

I therefore believe (a) ICC should not give such a generous one-match bonus for Test series wins involving just 2 or 3 matches, (b) ICC should distinguish between the home-away results (it’s always easier to win at home), and, (c) ICC should not scale down the weight after just one year (two years is better).

Window of opportunity

Dileep Premachandran makes the case for the coronation of the Proteas as toppers of the world Test table, in the wake of the Ashes.

Cricket, like English football, has had two all-powerful dynasties dominating much of the past three decades. West Indies’ hegemony mirrored Liverpool’s time at the top of the tree and the Australia era has gone hand-in-hand with Manchester United’s dominance. Now, with the exit of Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden over a period of two years, Australia have come back down to terra firma.
Of the pretenders, who is best equipped for a long stay? Or will the future mirror the mind-numbing mediocrity of the heavyweight boxing ring? Where once you had Ali and Frazier, you now have Klitschko and Chagaev. Cricket can ill afford such a dizzying fall from grace, especially in an era when Test cricket is struggling for survival. Competition is a wonderful thing, but it’s a dominant champion that gives a sport a real edge and other teams something to aspire to. To echo the words of Sir Alex Ferguson, you need someone to knock “right off their fucking perch”. …
What of India? They followed up home victories against England and Australia with a sloppy display in New Zealand – winning one, being outplayed in the next and then spurning the chance of victory in the third game. They were the only side to go toe-to-toe with Australia during the glory years, and have also worked out what it takes to win away from home. But there are cracks in the edifice, with impending retirements and complacency casting a pall over the future.

Cricket, like English football, has had two all-powerful dynasties dominating much of the past three decades. West Indies’ hegemony mirrored Liverpool’s time at the top of the tree and the Australia era has gone hand-in-hand with Manchester United’s dominance. Now, with the exit of Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden over a period of two years, Australia have come back down to terra firma.

Of the pretenders, who is best equipped for a long stay? Or will the future mirror the mind-numbing mediocrity of the heavyweight boxing ring? Where once you had Ali and Frazier, you now have Klitschko and Chagaev. Cricket can ill afford such a dizzying fall from grace, especially in an era when Test cricket is struggling for survival. Competition is a wonderful thing, but it’s a dominant champion that gives a sport a real edge and other teams something to aspire to. To echo the words of Sir Alex Ferguson, you need someone to knock “right off their fucking perch”. …

What of India? They followed up home victories against England and Australia with a sloppy display in New Zealand – winning one, being outplayed in the next and then spurning the chance of victory in the third game. They were the only side to go toe-to-toe with Australia during the glory years, and have also worked out what it takes to win away from home. But there are cracks in the edifice, with impending retirements and complacency casting a pall over the future.

Clippings

Thank Zeus, and those who devised Twenty20, for the glorious unpredictability of unpredictability.

Andy Zaltzman on South Africa, chokers, and a brilliant talent who scored 208 not out off his own bat and then took 4/13.

And just to ensure that Andy doesn’t monopolize the humor quotient, here’s a cracker from Robbo Robson, on BBC [hat-tip Naveen Surendran for the link]. Select lines:

A bowler’s pace has varied from express to stopping-at-all-the-stations. Shahid Afridi bowled a 78mph twirler in one game, Harbajhan flighted a last-over delivery at an elegant 46mph when you’d have expected it to be fired in. Umar Gul has spent the tournament trying to remove the toe-nails of the opposition.

……

It is cricket for the goldfish-memory generation, of course, but it’s pretty enjoyable for all that. It’s all over so quickly it sort of defies too much analysis – not that that’s stopped me, eh?

I am reminded of the post-match interviews of the quick chats given to the press by 100m sprinters just after they’ve finished running. ‘Usain, take us through the race!’ ‘Well, as you can see, I start as quickly as I can then I like run really fast and ooh, I’ve finished first.’

Right. Much to do work-wise, no clue where to begin or when it will end — blog on a break, people; back Monday.

Madness, method…

Consider this sequence at the start of Pakistan’s innings:

Kamran Akmal cuts the second ball of the day fiercely past point. He then thumps, off the front foot, the last ball of that over, short in length, past cover. The second ball of the second over produces a wicket; Akmal pulls the third in front of square leg and drives the next off the front foot, threading it between Herschelle Gibbs at short cover and Graeme Smith at mid off; to the sixth ball of that over Shahid Afridi ducks in exaggerated mime of defense and gets the wide; the sixth ball is rebowled and Afridi plays a forehand down the line that screams to the fence behind the bowler. To the second ball of the third over, Akmal glides onto his front foot and tees off, hitting through the line, up and a long way over the long off boundary; to the next ball, he is out top-edging a pull…. And so it went for the early part of the Pakistan innings.

When the Proteas came out to chase, Smith and Jacques Kallis get the score to 30/0 at the end of four overs — and memory fails to regurgitate a single shot those two played though they had kept pace with Pakistan, which had made 32/2 in its first four overs.

Or consider these two contrasting images: In the second over of the Pakistan innings, Parnell gets a short, lifting delivery to move off the seam; Shahzaib Hasan shapes to pull and finds the ball hurrying onto him; the ball flies off the toe of his bat and Roelof van der Merwe at mid on spins around on his axis, races away as the ball soars over his shoulder and flings himself forward to pull off a blinder.

Versus: 5th over, ball three, Abdur Razzaq bangs one in slightly short of length, Smith goes for the pull and ends up heaving it up in the air. Umer Gul moves to his right where he should have been going back, realizes his error, back pedals, takes time off to check if he can pass the buck to Shahid Afridi, then reaches for the catch, lets it fall behind him, falls over and bangs his head hard on the ground, almost knocking himself out.

It was that kind of day: the machinelike efficiency of the Proteas versus the electric madness of the Pakistanis. Clinical efficiency will on paper trump random bursts of electricity any day — but on the ground, especially in a format where a game can spin on its axis in the space of an over or less, inspired madness can produce amazing results. A machine knows its limitations and plays within them; the madman [and I don’t use this word in a pejorative sense] knows nothing except the prompts of fleeting moments.

The machine was best represented by Jacques Kallis, who returned to the side and played with efficiency. With the ball, he bowled two controlled overs of pace and bounce for 14 runs before Smith turned to spin; with the bat he kept his end going with a controlled — that word again — 64 runs off 54 deliveries. It was a performance worth the consummate professional — yet it contained no incendiary moments that could light fires in his team mates. [“We had Albie padded up in the 11th over but if we don’t lose a wicket, he can’t come in,” Smith said post-match; with Jean Paul Duminy playing his trademark nudge and run, Kallis motored along till the 18th over before getting out].

The epitome of Pakistan’s own special brand of cricketing madness was — as he has been so often in his career — Shahid Afridi. Alternating painfully studied defense with trademark thumps, taking exaggerated care not to hit in the air, and playing a 34 ball knock worth 51 that gave impetus to the first half of the Pakistan innings. And when his team came out to defend the total Afridi was all over the place from ball one, talking to whoever was bowling, casually rearranging the field his captain had set, and — like cricket’s equivalent of Kamal Hassan — showing every sign of wanting to play all the roles himself.

In course of an earlier game, Wasim Akram produced a great commentary moment when Nasser Hussain asked him how Pakistanis classified Afridi the bowler. “We had no idea what he was doing,” Akram said. “Then we went on this tour to the West Indies, and they told us he was bowling leg spin, so we said oh, okay.”

That vignette spells out the quintessential maverick, who defies classification. But on the day and in fact through this tournament, Afridi has been producing virtuoso leg spin: there is drift, loop, flight, turn, bounce and very good use of the crease; what makes the package devastating is the top spinner he bowls at speeds approaching that of his team’s quicks, with no discernible change in action.

His two wickets were of the kind that would have done a Shane Warne credit. Gibbs stood at the wrong end of the track watching Afridi bowl two leg breaks of varying degrees of turn to Kallis; he then squared up to the bowler and was given a lovely top spinner that landed on off stump line and drifted in just enough to beat the batsman playing for turn and hit the top of the stumps. In his next over he ripped a leg break past the bat of a bewildered AB de Villiers and then, in his own version of the fast bowler’s three card trick, produced a top spinner close to the stumps and just short of length. De Villiers, the player with the highest strike rate in this tournament, was lured into the cut, and looked back to see the ball crash into the stumps off the bottom edge.

“I enjoyed batting, bowling and fielding,” Afridi said at the post-match presentation while accepting his Man of the Match gong. Even filtered through a television screen, that enjoyment was infectious; on the field, its impact was epidemic with his mates catching the disease, laughingly shrugging off their occasional flubs and producing enough moments of inspiration [Mohammad Amer in the 6th over frustrating Smith with changes in length, direction and pace to the point where the Proteas skipper lost his cool, took a swipe, and saw the bowler run down the pitch, almost push his wicket-keeper out of the way and claim the catch; Umer Gul who, were most quicks are lauded for producing one yorker or two at the death, produced six each over…]

South Africa’s problem, says Dileep Premachandran, is its predictability.

Players like Afridi and Yusuf Pathan will fail as often as they come up trumps, but they bring a sort of manic unpredictability to their teams that South Africa patently lack.

Australia had it with Andrew Symonds, and West Indies do with Chris Gayle, and it should come as no surprise that those outfits have brushed South Africa aside in global events in the recent past. There’s little doubt now that South Africa possess the best all-round side in all forms of the game, but until they can win the matches that matter, they will never be respected or feared like Lloyd’s West Indians or Ponting’s Australians.

In the most unpredictable format of the game, you could argue that the law of averages caught up with them, after seven T20 wins in a row. But the greatest operate outside of such restrictions. Australia have won 29 World Cup matches in a row since 1999, and the West Indies didn’t taste defeat in the competition until 1983. As good as Smith’s team is, it isn’t yet the real deal. You suspect that realisation will hurt even more than this defeat.

For Pakistan fans, says George Binoy, Afridi’s record doesn’t matter — each fresh appearance is greeted with a roar fuelled in equal parts by anticipation and hope.

Pakistan and Afridi supporters always hope that it will come from him. They roar him to the crease, brimming with optimism, hoping he will destroy the opposition with his recklessly cavalier approach. Thousands of fans celebrated his arrival at the crease at Trent Bridge after Pakistan had lost Shahzaib Hasan in the second over.

Did they know that Afridi’s last half-century, in any format of the game, came 28 innings ago, against Zimbabwe at Multan in 2008? And the one before that was 19 innings earlier, against Sri Lanka in Abu Dhabi in 2007? It didn’t matter, for when it comes to Afridi, there’s always reason to hope. He’ll disappoint more often than not, but his successes are so spectacular that it’s worth the heartbreaks.

Kamran Abbasi on what it all means:

Yet Younis has made his own luck. He has encouraged a determined and aggressive attitude, something that caught South Africa off guard. In the past, Pakistan have struggled against South Africa, largely because Pakistan have been mentally beaten before a ball has been bowled. This may be only Twenty20 but Pakistan’s attitude made a palpable difference.

Behind his smiles, Younis is determined to win this World Cup for his country and especially for his embattled North West region. He and his team can hold their heads high. They have made hundreds of millions of their fellows very proud. A semi-final berth was a pleasant surprise, a final appearance is beyond expectations.

This is a sweet moment for Pakistan’s long-suffering fans, who passionately follow a team that often produces frustration but sometimes conjures magic. Nobody swings more sharply between frustration and magic than Afridi. He epitomises Pakistan cricket.

Tangentially, S Rajesh has a post on why New Zealand has always found Pakistan the insurmountable hurdle.

The clash of cultures

Match previews [and Cricinfo is the only site doing it] tend to be somewhat perfunctory affairs done to a prefabricated template: set it up by talking of the states, look for interesting personal contests, round the whole thing off with relevant stats. Which is how it will be if you have to do a dozen of these a week.

And then someone like Osman Samiuddin comes along, and frames a cricket match against a larger backdrop. Here’s his take on the first semifinal, which he sets up as a clash of machine-like consistency versus unpredictable flair. Sampler:

The whole machinery is intimidating, determined to iron out all kinks, the mission pre-programmed; with seven consecutive wins in this format, they have apparently also taken the inherent unpredictability of this format out of the equation. They are well-trained, well-oiled, and their psychologist talks about 120 contests and of processes over outcomes and how choking is not really an issue anymore. They win even warm-up matches and the dead games because every game counts. They are cricket’s future.

Pakistan are the past. They are wholly dysfunctional, but just about getting along, though unsure where they are going. They don’t control their extras, they don’t run the singles hard and they field as if it were still the 60s. They are least bothered about erasing the flaws because any win will be in spite of them. They did hire a psychologist though, and you can only imagine what those sessions were like and how much they actually talked about sport and cricket. There are permanent mutterings of serious rifts. They may not bat, bowl or field well all the time, but sometimes, they do what can only be described as a ‘Pakistan’: that is, they bowl, bat or field spectacularly, briefly, to change the outcome of matches. You cannot plan or account for this as an opponent because Pakistan themselves don’t plan or account for it.

Full-time neurologist and part-time cricket writer Saad Shafqat gets inside the skull of Younis Khan, and Kamran Abbasi writes of what ‘just a game’ can in reality mean for Pakistan cricket:

Win or lose, I want to see Pakistan play with passion and panache. In a few games of Twenty20, Younis Khan’s team have reminded the world why Pakistan cricket is an essential, thrilling, and fascinating ingredient in our international game.

Win or lose, Pakistanis around the world have held their heads up high for a couple of weeks. “Proud to be Pakistani” shirts have made a reappearance. The Pakistani flag is once again associated with sporting performances that bring joy rather than the fear of international terrorism.

Win or lose, when people tell you that cricket is merely a sport, please tell them that for Pakistan this mere sport is a symbol of hope, a vibrant and pulsating connection with the international community.

No wonder Younis Khan chooses to smile. The enormity of his burden might otherwise crush him.

Me, I’m looking ahead to a good game of cricket — and on balance, I think chances are good we’ll get a cracker.

PS: Got a lot of editing, and some writing, to do. Back on here later in the day.