Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and the home minister’s angst

So while I was away in Dubai, ooh-ing and aah-ing about outsize piles of steel and glass, Sri Lanka came up with a novel idea to fill a gap in its social calendar: another series against India, and how incredibly novel is that? Cricinfo has some detail:

The teams began 2008 by playing four ODIs against each other in a tri-series in Australia and faced off in two more matches during the Asia Cup in Pakistan in July. India then toured Sri Lanka for three Tests and five ODIs in July-August. After a gap of a few months, India visited Sri Lanka again in January-February 2009 for five more ODIs and a Twenty20. They won four of the one-dayers and the Twenty20 as well. Not yet satisfied, India returned in September, this time for a tri-series involving New Zealand and the hosts. They played Sri Lanka twice and lost once. Now it was Sri Lanka’s turn to visit and they toured India in December for three Tests, five ODIs and two Twenty20s.

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.

Keep this up, and wives of Indian players are going to be filing for divorce in droves — and citing Sri Lankan players as the cause, for alienating the affections of their husbands. Seriously though, do either of the boards even know the meaning of ‘enough’?

Elsewhere, television stations across India breathed a collective woosh of relief when it turned out the franchises had ignored Pakistan players for the upcoming IPL season — the auction provided the talking heads a promising issue [here’s Cricinfo’s full coverage] to flog at considerable length, and when I flipped through the channels this morning, many of them were still at it.

Judging by reactions, the franchises have in one stroke hurt Indo-Pak relations, embarrassed the country, dealt a mortal blow to Pakistan cricket and devalued the equity of the IPL, to name only the more prominent sins that have our television anchors excited.

Sundry celebrities have helped the good work along with their comments — Shah Rukh for instance with an none more so than Home Minister P Chidambaram, who with a pretty pout was seen talking of how disappointed he was that Pakistan players wouldn’t feature this season.

Chidambaram and his ministry have, in recent days, warned that (a) parts of the permanent fence at the Line of Control have been cut, signaling the possibility of a concerted push by militants from across the border to infiltrate into India; (b) that the ceasefire has in recent days been broken by Pakistan troops firing into Indian territory; (c) that there is the very real apprehension of LeT-sponsored terrorist attacks across the country, including with para-gliders; and (d) that there is significant intelligence that hijack attempts will be carried out.

So, a question for the home minister: If these threats are real, and if one or more of them fructifies in the immediate future, what do you suppose the reaction within India will be to Pakistan players appearing in the IPL? Even assuming the mango person is okay with it, how do you suppose the likes of the Shiv Sena will react? And while on that outfit, the Sena has already said it will ‘not stand idly by’ if Australian players play in the IPL — so does the home ministry have any thoughts on that? Does the home ministry have the will to stand up against attempts by extra-constitutional authorities to impose their writ on the rest of us?

No? Then PC should just shut the hell up, no?

The problem for the franchises is very clear: If they pick Pakistan players, and if something untoward happens, their investment goes down the drain. Given the current climate, given the drumbeat of warnings emanating from India’s own home ministry, why should any franchise take the chance? Amit Varma among others makes that point.

That leaves the other one — the “damage done to Pakistan cricket”, the “snub to Pakistan players”, etc. What damage? A few players will not be able to add big bucks to their bank balance, true — but the ‘damage’, if any exists, is to individual fortunes, not the collective good.

More to the point, if participation in the IPL is so integral to the well-being of Pakistan cricket, where was this angst when the government last season banned its players from being part of the IPL? It wasn’t the franchises who “snubbed” Pakistan players in 2009 — it was the Pakistan government that actively blocked its players from coming to India. The dog did not bark then, no one made the case that bilateral relations had been irreparably harmed, and PC was absolutely okay following an IPL sans Pakistan stars. But now that franchises have taken what is a purely economic decision, there is a deafening uproar?

You could argue, with considerable justice, that the whole thing could have been handled better; the Pakistan stars could have been warned and given the opportunity to withdraw from the auction rather than see no public takers — but to take that button and to sew on it the vest of fractured international relations is a bit much, no?

Oh, and out of the corner of my eye I notice that Bangladesh, after raising some hopes of tweaking India’s nose a bit, is hurtling towards demise. Nice — frees me up to catch up at work after a week-long absence. Back to regular updates on blog once I settle back down here. Meanwhile, quick poll: is this whole Pak/IPL thing media-manufactured, or is there some justice to the criticism the franchises are attracting? Appreciate your thoughts.

Ranji day three

Did you happen to watch the last two balls of play on day three? Ajit Agarkar to Satish — on perfect length, just that fraction short of ‘good length’, lifting nicely off the deck, then deviating off the seam at the very last instant to leave a well set, defensive minded batsman squared up and lucky to survive.

Deliveries like that, on day one of a game, would have the purists in ecstatic anticipation of a real clash between bat and ball; when it comes at the fag end of day three, when on almost any pitch around the world the conditions are at their best for batting, it’s a real delight.

Thanks to having a container full of stuff — my Bombay home, reduced to boxes of various shapes and sizes — land up at my Bangalore doorstep, I missed large chunks of the game, but did manage to catch bits here and there [thanks to a very friendly neighbor who recognized my name, and left his front door open so I could peek at his TV screen from across the corridor! :-)] and the post tea play in its entirety.

The eye-catcher, aside from the bowling [while on that, I’ll confess to perverse delight at the sight of Ramesh Powar, that beer keg on legs — he is perhaps the only throwback to a different era, when pot bellies were the norm, and when you look past the avoirdupois you find an off spinner cast in the classical mould], was easily young Manish Pandey.

The lad clearly has talent to burn, attitude ditto; the pull he played off Agarkar to get to his 50 — off the front foot to a short of length ball on this kind of deck, hitting to the left of mid wicket — was a sight for the gods, as was a cover drive and a clip off his legs that would have done top flight internationals proud.

He clearly merits a go at the highest level — trick is, how on earth are selectors going to slot the lad into a team that seems to have a half dozen decent contenders vying for two or three places? The answer to that one is going to be interesting to watch.

Oh, and on a day when India and Sri Lanka set a record, they were at it again. Actually, at the time of writing this, they still are, and there is a commentator yelling something about it being a cup final — but seriously, as Sidharth Monga said in that piece linked to above, it’s time the rest of us went on strike.

Again, I only managed to catch glimpses of the India innings [and I notice that Virat Kohli, with a less than optimal sense of timing, managed a failure on the day Peter Roebuck picked him in his list of young bucks to watch for] — including a slightly extended look at Raina playing spin, which always ranks among the more pleasing sights in the game. Lanka is now chasing, and I find I just don’t care. Seriously — there is something wrong when you actually begin looking forward to a Test match against Bangladesh.

Consider this today’s hi-hello post; tomorrow is about unpacking stuff, re-assembling dismantled furniture, et al. Strenuous, stress-filled day ahead — blogging, if time and energy permit, will happen sometime late evening. Be well, all. Meanwhile, here’s some leisure reading: Mike Marquesee on the Firozeshah Kotla in particular and Indian grounds in general.

What a missed opportunity, sirji

New year. New city. New job. Same old cricket – these last couple of years, the Indian and Sri Lankan cricketers seem to spend more time with each other than with their respective spouses/squeezes.

Then again, who needs to start the year/decade with a crib about the scheduling? So I’ll start with a mild crib about the Board’s priorities instead.

In between the moving from Bombay to Bangalore, the settling down at the Yahoo office, the official induction process and the unofficial getting to know the city, I managed to catch parts of some fascinating cricket – Test cricket, glory be, that provided a far more compelling spectacle than these 50 over hit-abouts we seem to overindulge in.

The good news on that front is that India’s board appears to have taken captain MS Dhoni’s request to schedule more Tests with a measure of seriousness [MS seems to speak a language intelligible to the Board – shortly after his public strictures on the need for a bowling coach, the board has lined one up], and gotten the South African board to ditch some ODIs and play two Tests instead [now if the board could do the same with Australia, cutting the ODI schedule down from seven to say three and factor in some Tests, it would really deserve a rousing cheer].

The program versus the Proteas, which Neo Sports is already billing as the battle for number one and as the ‘World Championship of Cricket’, saves a year that otherwise would have featured Tests against only Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.

Given all that I had on my plate in recent weeks, I haven’t done much browsing/reading – but a news item in the Times of India’s Bangalore edition dated January 8 did catch my eye.

The Karnataka State Cricket Association apparently requested the BCCI to permit Rahul Dravid to play for/lead the state team in the upcoming Ranji final against Mumbai. Since the game gets over a mere two days before the start of the first Test against Bangladesh, Vijay Mallya reportedly offered to fly Dravid over to Chittagong in a private jet.

The BCCI nixed the idea without – in true board style – assigning any reasons. Apparently the honchos believe that it is more important for Dravid to get an hour of net practice than full-on match practice in the final of the board’s premier domestic competition.

Pity. It is very rare that marquee Ranji games don’t compete for attention with the national team – I’d have thought the board would have wanted to grab the chance to allow both Karnataka and Mumbai to field full strength teams, play up the championship clash, and get the fans involved.

Would have been a nice start to the year – but never mind, we have a rare treat ahead this Wednesday, when India plays Sri Lanka.

Again.

What an idea, sirji.

PostScript: To all those who asked, in comments and mails — Bangalore is treating me just fine, thanks. Was off the map thanks to a combination of a screw-up with my cell phone connection, some delays in getting my cell and laptop set up at this end, and way too much on my plate thanks to the induction process, and generally finding my feet in the new workplace.

Blogging will likely remain desultory this week, since I’ll be away a good bit of the time getting my new home set up once the packers get my Bombay stuff down here Tuesday/Wednesday.

PPS: Will be away from desk, and net, for the rest of the day, and back here tomorrow morning.

Culpable homicide

#Why is it that the ICC gets its truss in a knot when 10 wickets fall in a day’s play, or when a pitch takes turn, but is totally silent when it comes to pitches on which a grand total of 825 runs are scored in one hundred overs?

Rajkot was, not to put too fine a point on it, an unmitigated disgrace — if bowlers had unions, they would be organizing a gherao outside the curator’s home around now. We’ve had — distressingly often — ‘batting beauties’ in the past, but this wicket was something else: no matter what you bowled — pace, spin and every variation in between — the ball did just one thing: it sat up and begged to be hit.

To speak of the batting feats of Sehwag, Tendulkar, Dhoni, Dilshan, Sangakkara and others would be a travesty — the real heroes of the game yesterday were the bowlers who ran in ball after ball, knowing that ‘victory’, on this ground, was the difference in whether they were hit for a four or a six. Maybe the innovation the ODI format really requires is a rule change that permits teams to have 11 batsmen, and for all the bowling to be done by machines calibrated to serve up 300 half volleys per innings.

#It occurs to me, too, that if some smart entrepreneur were to bring bullfighting into this country as a professional sport, that would be the end of cricket. The crowds that infest our cricket stadia increasingly want blood sport, not cricket. They want Indian batsmen to hit sixes off every ball, and Indian bowlers to take a wicket every over; the silence with which they greeted a brave charge by Dilshan [who, on the day, outperformed even Sehwag with ease] and some classical hitting by Sangakkara, was disgraceful to say the least.

#For all the reasons above, parsing the Indian team’s performance on the day is pointless, yet one point occurs that will, I suspect, recur in course of this series.

The first relates to the question of opening bowlers. You have 414 on the board. You know that the wicket is dead. You want to somehow winkle out a wicket or two early, while the ball at least has hardness going for it. So why on earth would you bowl your best strike bowler as first change?

Zaheer bowled first change for the same reason Ishant has been doing it in recent times — because Praveen Kumar just cannot bowl first change; at his pace, he will be slaughtered on any but the most responsive of wickets. Strikes me that is a half-smart way of managing a bowling attack — because you insist on shoe-horning Praveen into the side, you are forced to use your best bowlers as stock, and that means you lose out both coming and going.

It seems fairly axiomatic that the bowler you pick for a particular slot should be the one best suited to that slot; thus, if Praveen Kumar is given the new ball, it needs to be because he is best fitted to use it, not because he cannot be used in any other position. Equally, for example, if Zaheer and Ishant are your best new ball bowlers, you need to give them the new ball — and then, from available options, pick the best possible number three. Fail to do that, and you not only have a less than penetrative opening attack, you end up blunting the edge of the one bowler who can be your spearhead.

In passing, watching Ashish Nehra bowl yesterday — except at the very end — was an exercise in wanton masochism. Granting that the wicket offered him nothing, Nehra made things worse for himself by carefully picking out the exact wrong line [and/or length] to bowl, at every available opportunity. MS for instance set a packed off field for Dilshan, with on occasion a short cover as an attacking option.

The field cried out for bowlers to bowl as wide as legally possible outside off, and force the batsmen to play into the packed field. Nehra promptly pitched middle and leg or, if by accident he strayed onto off stump, pitched the ball at that precise back of length spot that was guaranteed to invite the batsman to go back and thump through the untenanted off side.

If this was the first time Nehra was losing control to this extent, you could put it down to the mind-melt consequent on bowling on concrete — but this was precisely the problem he had during the T20s as well, so maybe it is time someone spent quality time with the guy.

Hits and misses

Those who have been watching cricket closely and reporting on it reckon they can tell when Virender Sehwag has been given a talking to by his captain and/or coach. The tell lies in the way he bats in the opening overs of the knock he plays immediately after that jawing.

The first recorded instance of such a dressing down [a fairly strong word to use for what, in Sehwag’s case, is almost always a mild remonstration] was when John Wright took him to task, some months after Sehwag had been promoted to open. John, wincing in nostalgic bemusement, once recounted that conversation after a beer or three, and as far as I recall, it went like this:

“Viru, for fuck’s sake, this is a Test match, you don’t have to play all your shots in the first over.”

“Okay.”

“I’m not saying don’t play shots,” says Wright, somewhat taken aback by the demure acceptance of his strictures. “Just give the first hour to the bowlers.”

“Why?”

“Because after that you can hit all the shots you want, you can bat all day. Don’t you want to do that, murder the bowling all day?”

“Yes. But why give the first hour to the bowler if he bowls me a half volley first ball?”

John had a penchant for extremely colorful language, so I’ll leave out the rest of a conversation that, even in reminiscent mode, caused the then coach to turn a rare shade of puce. Anyway, you get the idea.

Today he ‘gave the first hour to the bowler’ – and it was excruciating to watch. It always is with batsmen of this type, whose every kinesthetic sense screams hit, while an external voice in the ear says block. After 11 overs he had inched his way to six off 24 balls [not coincidentally, India’s run rate at the time was 2.3 – the lowest it would touch all day].

And then, the transformation. The closest analogy is a school kid who, having gritted his teeth and worked his way through math homework, flings the hated book aside and dashes out into the open air to join his friends at play, secure in the knowledge that he has satisfied the parental diktat.

Almost, in these atypical starts of his, you can imagine that point where he looks up at the dressing room, semaphoring to his mates ‘Okay, have I been responsible enough for you? Can I be me now?’

It is good advice, actually – if he does rein in his atavistic impulses initially, he becomes unstoppable, and makes up lost ground in no time. [Equally good, as again evidenced by his final tally of 133 in 122 balls, is the other advice he constantly gets: Bat in ODIs like you do in Tests, why don’t you?] Only, his mates feel free to offer it to him [and the batsman will stand still for it] only after Sehwag has thrown away a few knocks by trying too hard too early.

A statistical measure of the value of that advice: after 30 overs, India had made 169/0 [and 232/0 after 41 – that is, less than half the day’s quota — when Viru got out]. If it was a one day game, the stands would have been in a state of permanent eruption; in Tests, that rate of scoring is just flat out absurd.

If backing Sehwag to open is one of the very few occasions I’ve had to pride myself on a measure of perspicacity, suggesting in numerous blog posts that Gautam Gambhir would never make it as opener is among my more monumental follies.

I watched him bat early in his career and found a guy unsure of the area around his off stump; a guy, too, who was so aware of his weakness that he seemed to over-reach himself, play too many shots way too early in a bid to deflect the bowler’s attention from his deficiencies.

What I failed to see then is the steel core that has emerged of late; a quiet determination to parlay his skill sets into as many runs as he can possibly manage. More than Sehwag, whose tendency to get bored means he constantly under-achieves, Gambhir has discovered a reservoir of ruthlessness that enables him to grind the opposition down, to maximize every opportunity he gets. And he’s ridden that strength to a dream run of four Test centuries in sequential Tests, and seven three figure knocks in his last nine Tests. Who would have thought…?

But more than the weight of runs scored, individually and collectively, what caught the eye is the complementary nature of their association.

Distressingly often, we’ve seen — and commented on — the phenomenon of one batsman’s struggles, or even his deliberately obdurate defense, taking the wind out of the sails of his partner. Sehwag and Gambhir provide a lesson in the opposite: when his partner was struggling early on in his innings, Gambhir took the onus on himself to score runs at a fair rate so Sehwag could find his feet minus pressure. More on Sehwag’s innings here, and on the theme of batting in pairs here.

Once the two Delhi mates team up to construct a platform [233 runs in 41.2 overs at 5.6 with Gambhir contributing 98 to Sehwag’s 131], the rest is mathematical for this batting lineup  against what by then was a dispirited, disheartened fielding side [the loneliest man on the field must have been Mahela, who should have held Viru before he had scored but for a tyro keeper distracting him].

With Dravid and Tendulkar at bat and looking in goodtouch, and Laxman, Yuvraj and Dhoni to follow on a wicket currently vying for high honors in the batting beauty pageant, the better part of day two should see more of the same. Or so one hopes – India can easily undo all the good work by getting into attritional mode, and letting the Lankan bowlers and fielders get a second wind.

On a day that saw 413 runs being scored, though, the best blow was probably struck some 15 minutes before start of play, when MS Dhoni won the toss and took first strike.

The last Test played at Green Park lasted all of three days, and by the third innings the wicket was already so bad, Harbhajan Singh opened the bowling for India against South Africa.

Commentators are already salivating about this track breaking up by day three and turning at impossible angles, but I suspect that is half hope, half hype; the wicket will likely turn [which takes no expertise to predict, given this Test is being played in India] but I suspect from what I saw on day one that the turn is going to be on slow bordering on very slow.

SL could well collapse – but if it does, it will be the weight of runs that breaks its back, not raging turn; I’d even go on a limb and suggest that Ojha and to an extent Yuvraj could be more influential than Bajji in his current flat-and-quick avatar.

Batting, though, was always going to be at its best on days one and two, and Dhoni did his team a favor by getting the coin toss right [maybe it is a science after all].

The question is, now what? The wicket is already on the slow side and will get slower [the best indication is that Dravid and Tendulkar have already begun playing the ball, especially the spinners, as late as they possibly can]. India is punting big time on Sreesanth as Zahir’s opening partner [the gamble would be that his time in the wilderness has given Sree enough motivation to prove himself]. Bajji hasn’t for the longest time been half the bowler he can be, and it is hard to see a turnaround here. That leaves Ojha, on a test drive before the selectors and team management makes up its collective mind whether he is worth the investment [IMHO he is the one to groom as your spin spearhead].

All of that translates into an under-strength attack against a good batting lineup. The morning of day two might not seem the best point in time to call a game – but what odds are you giving me that this match will get progressively more boring as it goes along, and we end up with a second successive draw?

PS: Appreciate all the kind words and good wishes on my post about moving to Yahoo. Unable to reply individually cos these next few days look to be fairly chaotic, for reasons you can appreciate. Oh, and for those asking, the blog will remain active even after my move.

Hit or miss

The most used computer in recent times, according to Anand Vasu reporting out of Colombo, is the one between MS Dhoni’s ears, and it seems to be telling him that triangulars like the one in Sri Lanka where India opens today, where each team gets only one crack at every other team, is tougher than a bilateral series. His rationale:

“In a bilateral series, as the series proceeds, you get to know more things about a particular player or how he is performing at that time. Subconsciously you plan for his strengths and weaknesses,” explained Dhoni.

“In a three-team competition, specially one like this where you play each team just once, you have to be fully prepared right from the word go.

“You don’t get time to adjust. Batsmen and bowlers have become smarter. You can come up with a plan for a player but on the day he may change the way he plays and still succeed. Countering that is really tough. If Plan A is not working you have to be ready with Plan B.”

On balance, you suspect India might have preferred to play the stronger Sri Lankan team first. You get to test your sea legs against the toughest competition in the tournament, and even if you lose you still have a game against a relatively weaker side to nail your finals spot. This way, India needs to hit the ground running, because a loss today to the Kiwis puts it in do or die mode against the hosts.

Harsha had some thoughts on the lineup, that he shared during our recent chat:

Let’s look at it this way: who is going to open the batting for you? Gautam Gambhir and Sachin Tendulkar? Gambhir can play in two forms, but he is coming off a bad patch just now [NB: We were chatting last Saturday, before Gambhir ruled himself out with a suspect groin]. Tendulkar is no longer the guy who can hit over the top first ball. And then there is Dravid at three. Who is going to give you a move on?

I honestly am not sure if Rahul should bat at three or five – he has played some of his best one day cricket at five, in 2003-04-05 when he was our best one day player, he was finishing matches with Yuvraj and company, and he took that form into the T20s as well recently where again he batted five.

I would not mind seeing Raina at three because you want to see if Raina has it in him to play at three on all surfaces. You can’t have a situation where our blue eyed boys are very good at batting up the order on flat tracks and have no qualms about going down the order when the going gets tough, and saying Rahul bhai ko aane do na upar. So send Raina at three, Yuvraj at four, Rahul five, Dhoni six. And where does that leave Dinesh Karthik? Every time you pick him he scores, so what do you do with him?

Should be fun — mild fun — to see how they line up, and how they do in the season opener. It’s Friday, I have newspaper production, so watching will be off and on. As will blogging.