The case for Sreesanth

“Left arm spinners cannot unclog your drains, teach your children or cure your diseases. But once in a while, the very best of them will bowl a ball that will bring an entire nation to its feet. And while there is no practical use in that, there is most certainly value.”

The quote above is from Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, the debut cricket novel from the fine young Sri Lankan writer Shehan Karunatilaka.

That’s the promising beginning to a piece by my friend Venkat (@venkatananth) on the enfant terrible of Indian cricket. Okay, on second thoughts, scratch enfant.

Here, read.

How final is ‘final’?

Sreesanth issued with a final warning by the BCCI.

Sreesanth fined for yet another transgression.

Just saying.

Easy does it

The man of this particular match should be the curator.

Baby commentators are taught, along with the alphabet, to react to every incident with an instantaneous pitch diagnosis: “It’s keeping low”; “The bounce is very good”; “It is taking turn”; “The pitch has evened out”.

Sometimes, if you are particularly lucky – as happened during one particular period of play today – you get all four conflicting judgments in the span of a few overs. Must be something in their contract that says you get docked a Scotch or two if you don’t do this.

The Brabourne wicket started off on day one with bounce when the bowler extracted it; movement for when you got the upright seam to hit the deck just so; turn for bowlers prepared to give it a tweak; and full value for shots played by batsmen with the nous to handle a track that had something in it for the bowlers as well.

Consider the Samaraweera dismissal: Zaheer Khan, who on the day recovered both his lost rhythm and his smile, went around the wicket and hit the deck hard, back of good length and on the kind of line just outside the off that forces a batsman to play at it; the ball climbed and seamed away just late enough to find the edge and nestle in the soft hands of a diving VVS Laxman at second slip. It’s the kind of dismissal you look to see on day one of a Test; this was day four, and the ball was then exactly 58 overs old. Equally, when the spinners – particularly Harbhajan – bowled, there was turn off length and such perfect bounce that MS Dhoni, standing up, was taking them just above the waist. Moral of the story: good pitches can be made in India, if you have both the skill and the intent.

All of this has made for a fascinating fourth day’s play. Wickets didn’t tumble in a heap, as they tend to on rapidly deteriorating tracks; the bowlers had to work their victims out. Dhoni gave his bowlers well thought out attacking fields, the kind that allowed them to concentrate on one batsman at a time without worrying about him taking a single and sneaking away to the other end, and put a high premium on mistakes.

The most costly mistake of the day was the one made by Darryl Harper, though. Tillekeratne Dilshan got a bummer for the second straight time – the ball he was deemed out to hit him on the outside of the front thigh; it was clearly turning sharp, and bouncing enough to miss the stumps for both height and direction — and that was a pity, for he seemed to come out with positive intent. [Bajji has at the time of writing this only got the one gift wicket, but no matter. He did pretty much everything right: stuck to good lengths, gave the ball air, probed away around off, occasionally varied trajectory by going around the wicket, and built such a deal of pressure that he stymied any thoughts the Lankan batsmen may have had of trying to break out of jail. He has in the past bowled far worse for much greater rewards, and likely will again.]

His dismissal cued a period of play that tested the bowlers’ patience. Kumar Sangakkara dug deep into his reserves of will to grit his way through his ongoing bad patch; Paranavitana at the other end displayed good technique against spin, playing either fully forward or back, always with bat in front of pad, and always playing the ball below his eye line.

It took a peach of a delivery to dismiss the opener – and Sreesanth produced it in the first over of a fresh spell, when he angled one across the left hander, got it to bend in the air, and straighten on middle. Sree looks a whole different bowler when he cuts out the gratuitous theatrics and turns his focus inwards, on his craft. To his credit, despite the crowd repeatedly egging him on to kick over the traces, he stayed focused throughout this game, and bowled with considerable thought, skill and, when he needed it, pace. The ball that got Paranavitana was a beauty, but it was shaded by one he bowled to Mahela that had everything: pace up around the 139k mark, the full length, lift, and the kind of impossibly late moment that left even a batsman of Mahela’s class looking helpless.

Zaheer has sleep walked through much of this series; in the post-lunch session he suddenly rediscovered his rhythm and produced two lovely dismissals. The one of Samaraweera was the prettier one, but the take down of Mahela was a classic of conception: Zak started the over with a ball straightening on off; the next attempted to duplicate it, but drifted into the pads a touch and went for a couple; the third was angled across the right-hander, landed outside off and kept going, and then came the one angled across again, but this time hitting length around off, forcing Mahela to play, and seaming away just enough to find the edge.

Zak’s two quick strikes, in the 54th and 58th over, pretty much knocked the Lankans out of the game; Pragyan Ojha nailed it down tighter when, on the cusp of tea, he tactically worked out Angelo Mathews.

Ojha clearly has some distance to go before he gets comfortable bowling to left-handers. Against right handers, though, his use of flight and loop, the fuller lengths he bowls and the turn he extracts makes him a bit of a handful. To Mathews, he got the ball to turn sharply off length, looking for the edge; when he found it and saw the ball sneak through the slip cordon for a fortuitous four, he adjusted his length fractionally to the short side, providing more room for the ball to bounce, and again found the edge – this time to Dhoni.

Sangakkara and Paranavitana are still out there, with the Lankan captain showing some sign, after the break, of wanting to go down fighting. But with half the side back in the hut, a 170-run deficit remaining as I write this, and with four sessions to go in the game, this one’s done and dusted.

Time enough for series post-mortems later; time now for me to hit the road on a trip I’ve been pushing off all afternoon so I can watch “just one more over”.

Enjoy the rest of the game, and the weekend. See you guys Monday.

100 and counting

The best outcome of this Test — besides India notching up a win, of course, and keeping its home record against Sri Lanka intact — was the naming of Shantakumaran Sreesanth as man of the match.

Too often, adjudicators tend to be seduced by batting performances, and in this game it could be argued that either Sehwag or Gambhir, or both, should get the nod for setting the base for the big Indian score that broke Sri Lanka’s confidence and caused the visitors to implode twice in course of two days of playing time. Recognizing that on a pitch with nothing much to offer bowlers, Sree set the win up with his five-for merits applause.

Hopefully the award, and his performance over all, will finally teach the youngster the lesson that if he focuses on the bowling, and not on antics, he has a future yet, in an Indian team that badly needs good seam bowling options.

From a Lankan perspective, the stat that jumps out at me is this: the ninth wicket partnership between Thilan Samaraweera, currently top of the list for most Test runs in this calendar year, and Ajantha Mendis managed 73 runs in just under 20 overs [19.3 overs, actually] at a healthy 3.74.

It showed that for all the hype of a wicket that was “doing things”, batting remained easy. But what was really remarkable about that partnership is this: it was the second most substantial one for Sri Lanka in both innings combined; next only to the 82 runs added by Paranavitana and Sangakkara in 29.1 overs for the second wicket, after Tillekaratne Dilshan had perished to the first ball of the Lankan first innings.

As an indictment of the Lankan approach to batting in this game, that one fact tells the whole story; underlining it is the related fact that Sangakkara’s needless drive at a widish ball from Sreesanth that gave the bowler the first of his five-for signaled the beginning of the end for the visitors.

This game should have been a draw, but Lanka at no point showed bottle for the fight.

Enough said, till the contest resumes in three days at the DY Patil Stadium Brabourne Stadium in Mumbai.

Meanwhile, some weekend homework: check out the nominated bloggers for the Indibloggies, and support the deserving with your votes.

Updated: The great Lankan dope trick

Being proved wrong has its pleasures. I came in anticipating a day where I had to choose between over the top recapitulations of 26/11 and a total yawn at the cricket – mercifully, the cricket kicked up a notch.

Make that ‘being proved partially wrong’ – the Sri Lankan implosion had nothing to do with a dramatically deteriorating wicket, and everything to do with Indian bowlers who went back to basic principles of bowling tight groupings, coupled with a Sri Lankan line-up that showed no stomach for a fight it could only force into stalemate, but not win.

When Dhoni and the team management punted big time on Sreesanth, they likely had no idea they would hit the jackpot of a five-for from the returning maverick. It would be lovely to be able to write of a dramatic reformation, of an enfant terrible who matured overnight and allowed his natural talent to flower, unhindered by his distressing penchant for exhibitionism.

To say all that would be only half right, though. The exhibitionism was kept in abeyance, and that is a huge plus for a player who has earned himself too many headlines for all the wrong reasons. The talent remains latent, however: on the day, all he really did was adhere to basic lines and lengths; the Lankan batsman did the rest.

Paranavitana was out to a short of length delivery that he went back to and poked at – body around middle stump, bat waving a foot outside off. Kumar Sangakkara, who really should have known better, lashed at a ball that was length or better and very wide of off, managing only to drag it onto his stumps off his inside edge. Samaraweera went at a wide ball outside off that was keeping a touch low, and dragged it on. Prasanna Jayawardene chased a short, wide ball outside off. Skill came into the equation only against Herath, when Sree altered his line and got one ball to angle across the batsman and move just enough to hit top of off.

It might seem churlish to dismiss a comeback performance that netted a five-for. Equally, it can be argued that good bowling pressurises batsmen into silly shots. To which: it is not my intention to dismiss the performance, nor to negate the fact that Sree largely bowled good groupings.

The point sought to be made is merely that this was not a barnstorming comeback that deserves ballads sung in its honor, but merely a competent one. The extent of his rehabilitation will really be tested only when he bowls under some real pressure [and I seriously hope he comes good; India’s seam attack, especially its bench, is long on numbers, but short on serious firepower, and a rehabilitated Sree would be a huge asset].

Two of his mates contributed to Sree’s dream run. The first, Harbhajan Singh, remembered that he was an off spinner, and went back to bowling lines largely on or around off stump, slowing down his arm on delivery, and letting the ball hit length and do its stuff. As happens when he gets a good groove going, Bajji began asking questions of the batsmen.

Pragyan Ojha, too, had a good debut, as far as it went. He was tight, his lines were good, his bowling style relaxed, and he showed the ability and patience to probe constantly at the vulnerable areas, without letting the lack of success force him into experimentation. As with Sree, his real test will come when he bowls under real pressure – but again, as with Sree, you can’t detract from what he did merely on the grounds that the Lankan batting crumbled like an over-baked biscuit.

The batting was mystifying. The first hour’s play indicated that Lanka had figured out its most logical game plan: bat out time and overs, while inching towards the first target of 443 that would avert the follow on and push the match further into stalemate territory.

And then the captain, no less, played his shot from hell, and everything went to pieces. Barring Mahela [who benefited from a dropped chance by Dravid off Bajji], none of the batsmen on view showed any inclination to dig deep – and the fact that the wicket remains largely demon-free made that inexplicable.

229 runs represent serious under-achievement by what is really a talent-filled batting line up. It’s hard as hell to look up at a run-mountain that must be climbed one nudge at a time – but a team aspiring to moving up the Test ladder needed to have shown a greater stomach for the job.

What the collapse – 163 runs in 60 overs for the loss of 9 wickets – accomplished is to make Lanka’s job considerably more difficult. Trailing by 413 runs on the follow-on is tough – but the real problem is coping with the knowledge that to save this Test, Lanka now needs to bat a total of 208 overs, while India can afford to attack constantly with men around the bat.

Update, if the remaining 28 overs merit one, at close of play. Meanwhile, two reads about an innovative attempt to liven up a charity match, and a nice insight into the minds of champion bowlers. Martin Blake, and Peter Roebuck, write about a charity match where the bowlers were miked up, and Glen McGrath and Shane Warne talked the audience through their special brand of magic. From Blake:

Here’s where the brains kick in. McGrath bowls a couple of inswingers to the left-handed David Warner, cramping him for room. Then he flags that he will bowl a little slider, running the fingers down the seam and angling it across Warner. He tips that Warne, standing at slip, will get himself a catch.

On cue, Warner nicks it. McGrath only gets one aspect wrong. The catch flies to Gilchrist behind the stumps. Gilchrist, who also is miked up and who has heard the plan hatched, is exultant.

Soon enough, Warne is bowling and the boys from Channel Nine ask him for a running commentary on his over. As it happens, he’s bowling to Michael Clarke, one of the best players of spin in the world, a man with dancing feet. Moreover, Warne and Clarke are friends; Warne is calling Clarke his personal Daryll Cullinan but, at 40, there is a question mark as to whether he can back it up.

Immediately, Clarke is advancing down the track to cover the spin. Speaking through his microphone, Warne reveals his plan to draw Clarke out of his crease, then fire one down a little wider of off stump. Quicker and straighter, it could produce a stumping, or a nick.

It’s great theatre now. Down comes Clarke, unaware of the trap. Warne pulls it wide and Australia’s captain-in-waiting is stranded, on the verge of a major embarrassment. A lunging bat and a thick outside edge saves him as the ball squirts to point. Warne groans, and we’ve surely heard that before – a few thousand times.

Roebuck, on the same, with some prep thrown in:

Already Warne and McGrath had taken a close look at the belligerent left-hander. Warne had suggested to his lanky flinger that cover might move a yard or two to cut off his prey’s favourite shot. McGrath had concurred.

Next the commentators asked the surgical seamer to talk them through his next over, his second. In between fending off comments about his fielding, protesting that he was stiff and would presently be exhausted, the beanpole consented.

First came the set-up, a couple of deliveries pushed across the left-hander, cramping him and imprinting in his mind the notion that the bowling was accurate but straight up and down. Next came an inswinger intended to trap the unwary.

As it happened, McGrath started the ball a fraction wide. Even so, Warner was taken aback. What was the old codger up to? Past players ribbed the Narrominite about his swing and pace, suggesting he was as slow as ever but curled the ball more. McGrath took the slapstick in good heart. He had never relied on extreme pace or confronting moment, he had worked hard for every wicket.

McGrath was ready for the sting. He let the audience in on the plan. Two balls angled across Warner followed by an inswinger and now a ball pitching on the sticks, cutting away, drawing the batsmen into the stroke, taking an edge and being caught at slip. McGrath executed it to perfection, and celebrated as the snick was held.

His wicket brought to mind his finest piece of bowling, his hat-trick against the West Indies in Perth in 2000. Then McGrath began by beating Sherwin Campbell with a fullish outswinger, followed by a cutter angling across Brian Lara, and completed the trick with a lifter directed at Jimmy Adams’s shoulder. All three wickets were beautifully conceived. All three were precisely pitched. They were not dismissals, they were executions. McGrath’s greatness ought not to be forgotten.

An amusing sidelight: Earlier this year, a group of top Australian spinners, and even the chairman of selectors, got together to decide that the academy would not encourage spinners to learn the art of bowling the doosra. Then, this happened [from Roebuck’s report]:

Krejza’s doosra was startling. No one could quite believe their eyes as the ball spun back to amaze a left-hander happily shouldering arms. Later it emerged that the fiery offie had been practising the ball all winter and was slowly building the confidence needed to risk it in public. It takes a long time and a lot of effort to perfect a new delivery.

The doosra is a superb part of the game because it adds bafflement. Suggestions that it ought to be banned are dull-witted. Those framing the laws of legitimacy did not contemplate back chucks. Ask any child to throw the ball. The idea was to stop fast bowlers turning the pitch into a coconut shy and spinners imparting extra twist by straightening the elbow. But it is not possible to throw with the arm pointed towards the target.

In any case, if the doosra is so different, why cannot the batsmen detect it? In its own way Krejza’s intervention was as satisfying as those produced by the old masters.

Update: All of that said about Sree, his take down of Dilshan at the start of the Lankan second innings is worth noting as the first real display of his latent bowling talent. The ball had everything: a line close enough to off to get the batsman drawn into it; a length just back of good to keep Dilshan on the back foot; good pace, and good climb off what is not really a very responsive deck. And by way of icing, the merest hint of late movement away. Perfect. If his five-for has helped him shake off comeback nerves and let his natural skills show, that could be the biggest gain of this match.

Update 2: At the end of the day’s play, Dhoni could do worse than buy a Bhutan bumper lottery ticket. There was no logical reason for him to bring Viru Sehwag on as early as the 12th over [unless the move was prompted by some disgust at watching Bajji bowl the 11th over flat, quick, and mostly on middle and leg]. But he did just that — and Sehwag responded with a straight top spinning delivery on off that Paranavitana inexplicably went back to, failed to bring his bat down in time, and got nailed in front of off. Next stop, Las Vegas.  Meanwhile, fairly odd to see Lankan batsman, who really should know better, not imitate what the Indians did: play right forward to length, and well back to anything short.

Update 3: Interesting, in a train wreck sort of way, to see batsmen reared on spin playing like rank novices — led, unfortunately, by their captain who by way of variety this time drags a spinner, Bajji, back onto his stumps, standing with feet nailed to the ground, and swishing at something that was going along harmlessly outside his off stump. This, shortly after he had gotten Mahela Jayawardene run out calling for the sort of sharp single you try off the last ball of an ODI when you need one run to win. Pressure plays strange tricks on the mind, clearly — and as clearly, the Lankans not relishing the task of batting time.

Update 4: I wonder if Ojha has a sense of his own luck. Not every debutant gets to bowl with six around the bat. Hopefully, he makes the most of it — not every day this kind of thing will happen to him.

Jobs for the boys?

The Kerala Cricket Association must have partied hard last night, after their gamble paid off with the inclusion of Sreesanth in the test squad to play Sri Lanka.

Whether he deserves a place in the squad on form is a question I’ll leave well alone — I haven’t seen his most recent outings; the selectors, on the other hand, presumably have. I’m not sure, though, that inclusion in the national team is the right signal to send a player who, given a final warning by the board less than a month ago for serial bad behavior, flipped everyone the finger by blowing away the practice session of the state team of which he is captain. Hopefully, the least the BCCI and the team management will now do is tell the young man that another transgression is his last — encouraging bad behavior merely tempts the offender to push the envelope even further.

On another note, the K Srikkanth-led selection committee is proving no better nor worse than its predecessors. Team selection is normally an exercise in picking the obvious players, and then bargaining for the remaining slots. It is much harder to do in a domestic series, because there are only 14 slots to fill, of which at least 12 *have* to command their place on merit, leaving slots for one reserve bowler and one reserve batsman for the selectors to play games with.

It took Srikkanth and his cohorts to find the perfect solution — increase the team strength to 16, simple; and in doing that, ignore the fact that historically 14 players are picked for home series because in the event of injury, it is easy enough to call up replacements.

So the committee first picked the obvious names. With two additional ‘berths’ created in a fashion that reflects the operations of our railway touts, ‘Cheeka’ managed to fill those spaces with two statemates in M Vijay and Badrinath. The curious aspect is that the announcement specified that Vijay would be the reserve batsman — which makes Badrinath the afterthought.

And that is curious in itself because when the BCCI announced its latest round of central contracts, Badri was one of the biggest gainers, moving two slots up from Category D to B, and seeing his annual guaranteed earnings go up from Rs 15 lakh to Rs 40 lakh.

Leave the question of whether Badri deserves a place in the playing eleven aside for the moment — he is probably playing to his best form just now. The fact remains that neither he, nor his fellow TN player, will ever make it to the starting eleven absent a spate of Australia-like injuries.

If you assume that selection committees have a say in who gets contracts and promotions, the piquant situation here is that a player found worthy of being promoted is an afterthought even in the minds of the same selection committee. And that player — players — will tag along with the team, sitting on the bench sharing gossip, when they would be considerably better off emphasizing their claims in the Ranji Trophy season now on.

The problem with that is, if Cheeka and company don’t pick Badri, they cannot make the case for his continuing to get a central contract. And if Vijay is not picked as the first choice batting replacement, they can’t make a case for him to be included when the next round of contracts is given out [more on that next round in a bit].

Actually, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. In 2007, when the question of refining the contract system was being discussed, there was some talk that the board would incorporate performance clauses, and that promotions and relegations would be based on what the contracted players actually did in national colors — how often they were picked, how they performed, etc.

Came the day for the announcement of contracts, though, and there was no change in the fine print. BCCI chief administrative officer Ratnakar Shetty, when asked about the omission, told the media simply that “there has been no change”. The media did ask why; Shetty said that was the decision arrived at by the executive committee — as if that automatically precludes further questioning.

Oh and incidentally? The contracts were issued in October 2008. They ended September 30, 2009. The board has thus far not had the time to renew/review the contracts. Hence the imperative for the selectors to pick additional players and push into the ranks those they would like to see retain existing contracts or get fresh ones.

Nothing, clearly, changes in the Wonderland that is Indian cricket.

PS: Busy day. Mercifully, there is a cyclone warning in effect in Bombay and from yesterday on, the weather has been wet and blustery. The umpires will likely go through the routine “pitch inspections” and delay a decision until they are sure it is not even possible to fit in a 20 overs a side game today — but the ground reality is, no play will happen, so India won’t have to “play for pride” today.

Busy day personally, so off this for the rest of the day.


Selection blues

Syed Kirmani and ‘livid’ don’t usually go together — the ace stumper who at various times has headed the KSCA and national selection committees is as jovial as they come.

On one occasion, though, I saw him lose his cool in course of a casual chat. We were discussing the dramatic decline in wicket-keeping standards and Kiri argued that politics was killing the standards of glove-men in the country.

The example he used was of Somasekhar Siriguppi, the first choice keeper for Karnataka. Kiri argued — and from watching him keep and bat, I had to agree — that Tilak Naidu was streets ahead of Siriguppi both behind and in front of the stumps, but Brijesh Patel, Karnataka’s chief selector at the time, repeatedly plumped for SS, arguing to his mates on the committee that he believed Siriguppi had a good chance of making the national team, and hence should be persisted with. The denouement to that story, of course, was that Siriguppi never did make the national team, and an increasingly frustrated Naidu went off the rails.

I was reminded of that conversation, and similar others revolving on acts of omission and commission in team selection, while reading this story of Shantakumaran Sreesanth and the Kerala Ranji squad.

Even though Kerala Cricket Association (KCA) today decided to reprimand S Sreesanth “for regularly violating the players code of conduct”, the pacer was retained as the captain of the state`s Ranji team.

Although the KCA chairman D Gopakumar recommended Sreesanth`s removal from captaincy for his misdemeanor in the field, an emergency meeting of the selection committee here decided against the severe action as he is the only international quality cricketer from the state and still has the potential to make a comeback in the national team.

How screwed up is it, when a selection committee sees fit to confer the captaincy on a player who ‘regularly’ violates the code of conduct? And what message does this send to the player in question — that it is okay to be the perennial enfant terrible as long as he has ‘potential’? Not so long ago, I had in a post argued that much of Sreesanth’s troubles stem from the fact that discipline has rarely if ever been enforced in his case — and this act of the Kerala Ranji selection committee seems IMHO to be more of the same.

Another, more telling clip from that news story:

The committee discussed in detail Sreesanth`s code of conduct and unanimously decided to reprimand him and convey the message that recurrence of such behaviour would be viewed seriously by the KCA, its secretary T C Mathew told reporters.

Mathew said Sreesanth has been abstaining from the coaching camp without prior permission for `non-cricketing reasons`.

“He was appointed captain of the Kerala Ranji side with a clear intention to support his comeback to the national team,” he said.

Ignore for the moment the KCA’s statement that SS has been retained captain with a ‘clear intention’ of supporting his possible comeback to the side — which is a daft reason to pick a player, much less a state captain.

Consider instead this: Despite Sreesanth ‘regularly violating’ the code of conduct, the KCA sees fit to retain him as captain of the squad — and Sree’s response is to absent himself from the coaching camp without permission, and for non-cricketing reasons.

If the KCA really wanted to facilitate the bowler’s rehabilitation, it could have dropped him from the state squad, called him in for a meeting, read him the riot act and asked him to decide whether he wants to play cricket, or play the fool. Seriously, isn’t it time someone gave this young man the kick up the backside he has been asking for?

[Link via Ipatil on Twitter]