The World Cup hangover

It is significant — in a bizarre, what-the-fuck sort of way, to note that the BCCI is contemplating [actually, to use the Times of India’s patented style, make that “allegedly contemplating…”] sacking MS Dhoni not on the basis of a qualitative review of his performance as national captain, but because he had the gall to suggest that post-IPL parties on top of a hectic playing and traveling schedule had taken its toll on the players.

Significant, because it sums up all that is wrong with the BCCI. On the one hand, it has no idea of the product it is supposed to be handling — in fact, it is seemingly unaware of its responsibilities in that regard. And on the other, it has a phenomenally thin skin and at the first hint of anything remotely resembling criticism, it produces its world famous imitation of a porcupine, all bristling venom-tipped quills.

It doesn’t help that there are sufficient loose cannons among the former players to fan the flames. For starters, barring Sourav Ganguly no one had the cojones to name Yuvraj Singh as a problem child. His case is typical of Indian cricket: he drew flak for a variety of reasons ranging from his highly visible paunch and obvious lack of physical fitness, to his lackadaisical on-field performance and general lack of involvement. Promptly, his team, his captain, his franchise and assorted board honchos came up with statements “expressing support”, and denying that there was a problem. He then went out and hit a few runs, gesticulated a take-that message to the pavilion and the TV camera, and that was that — all was forgiven and, more importantly, forgotten. Till the next time.

The other, equally distinguished commentators have however come up with statements ranging from the banal to the bizarre. Gavaskar is bemused, apparently, by the lack of preparation to cope with the short pitched delivery. Well okay — how to prepare and when? Did it occur to Gavaskar, a paid member in good standing of the IPL’s governing council, that you cannot on the one hand have your players snacking on bowling rendered toothless by dead pitches and short boundaries calculated to produce a flood of “DLF Maximums” [notice how many of our ‘boys’ got caught inside the boundary line, in the West Indies?], schedule the tournament so it ends less than a week before the World Cup begins, and then talk of ‘preparation’?

Madan Lal wonders who forced Indian players to attend parties. Um… the answer, Madan, would be the franchises and the IPL’s ‘entertainment committee’, which was selling tickets at Rs 45,000 a pop to fans hungry to mix with players. And as a former player, former selector and former coach, you know bloody well what happens when you defy the board’s unstated diktats. Azharuddin says the game is more important than parties, which is about as insightful as his trademark “we batted badly, bowled badly and fielded badly” when the team lost under his stewardship.

While on parties, consider a statement made by IPL commissioner-elect Chirayu Amin that is more germane to the discussion:

IPL’s late night parties had turned controversial with players — stretched with nearly back-to-back games — coming out in muted protests against the entertainment overkill. Moreso because these were also considered a compulsion. ‘‘ I can say that the parties would be stopped,’’ said Amin to reporters in Vadodara on Tuesday . The IPL parties enriched IPL team-owners but took a heavy toll on players’ fitness levels owing to the hectic schedule. Indeed, the word was out over the last few days that late night bashes will be discontinued.

That statement was made on April 28 — two days before the World Cup began. It was made on the back of media and player complaints that the parties were proving counter-productive. The stories of the time include repeated references to the franchises forcing players to attend; it included more than one mention that players were unhappy, but could not protest. Madan and Azhar might want to consider that timeline, before they next wax indignant in front of the TV cameras.

Incidentally, I am not suggesting that MS was right to offer that up as an excuse; I am, however, suggesting that before you give his statement the horse laugh, you might want to recall recent history, and consider whether there is a grain of truth in what he is saying. To throw out the statement simply because it comes after a defeat is a case of baby, bathwater.

Ravi Shastri takes the biscuit, though. Having sat in the commentary box throughout a tournament wherein Yusuf Pathan managed a grand total of 42 runs off 34 balls in four tries, the best Shastri can do by way of analysis is to suggest that Dhoni should have sent Pathan in early in the deciding game against Sri Lanka [his scores till then? A confidence-inspiring run of 11 off 7, 1 off 5 and 17 off 12. If you were Indian captain, would you deliberately have pushed a player who looked totally at sea up the order? A player, what is more, who looked totally de-fanged when the opposition banged the ball in short and attacked his body? In fact, where Dhoni IMHO goofed in that final game against SL was in promoting the likes of Yusuf ahead of Rohit Sharma].

It’s a pity that the former greats who now occupy the commentary box and Parliamentary seats do not make half the sense of an Anil Kumble, by the way. Or maybe not — the system is set up to facilitate noise and filter out sense.

All of which brings me right back to the BCCI. And the question the likes of Gavaskar are not willing to ask. Here’s Sunny’s sound byte:

What is baffling is that even though most batsmen showed a distinct sense of discomfort against the short ball during the World Twenty20 in England last year, they were picked again for an event on even bouncier pitches in the Caribbean.

One presumes that the BCCI is as aware as Sunny-bhai that a year ago, India got bounced out of the second edition of the World T20 Cup. So between then and now, just what did the board do to overcome that collective shortcoming?

Did it produce quicker tracks for the domestic competition, so players could get some experience against rearing deliveries? With the exception of the Ranji final, no.

Did it sit down with the selectors to identify players who are seen as core to the team, identify their shortcomings up to and including an inability to play short pitched bowling, and then institute corrective measures [such as sending those players, with a clear report pinned to their shirt fronts, to the NCA [which, excuse me while I laugh, is currently headed by Ravi Shastri] for specialized coaching and practice? Did the board think of sending some of these players off to the Australian Cricket Academy, or to South Africa, for extended practice? Again, no.

So how does this go, per Gavaskar’s playbook? We pick one lot today, we find they are not fit to cope with fast bowling, we junk them all, we pick another lot for another year, find they are not qualified to cope with fast bowling, junk them, pick a third lot… and so on ad infinitum?

Here’s what I am driving at: For a little over 15 years, I have been following and writing on cricket. During that period, I have lost count of the number of times board officials, expert commentators, past players, and folks like you and I have cribbed about India’s inabilities against the short, rising delivery. And so have you. In all this time, though, has anything ever been done about it, by the body that is mandated to improve our cricketing lot?


Take another example: the “strategic blunder” of going with spin. Where did that blunder originate? Our premier pace bowler is Zaheer Khan. Clearly, he was unfit going into the tournament — incidentally, the way his health issues have been handled has a large amount of mystery attached to it. Who else did we have, of the quality required to compete on level terms with more pace-oriented sides?

It is more instructive to look at who we do not have: Irfan Pathan, Lakshmipathy Balaji, Shantakumaran Sreesanth, Ishant Sharma, R P Singh… all these players have in recent memory bowled well enough to be touted as the next great hope. All of them have started out in the late 130k-early 140k speeds. All of them have since their halcyon days dramatically fallen away in pace and venom. And all have been dumped by selection committees who have then unearthed the ‘next’ great hope. Who in his turn has fallen away.

Are you aware that at any time in these past few years, the selectors have assessed the decline in skill of these bowlers and reported on their assessment to the Board? Has the Board at any time sought the inputs of the national coach? Based on these inputs, has the Board on at least one occasion called the player concerned, discussed his shortcomings with him, and sent him to the NCA or better yet, the MRF Pace Academy [the virtues of which the Shastris and Gavaskars routinely parroted every time the “blimp” was witnessed] for corrective action? [Ironically, a player who was working on correctives then gets penalized for doing just that — check out the strange case of Irfan Pathan.]

India did not ‘pick’ a spin strategy thanks to having misread the Caribbean conditions; it was not a “strategic error”. India opted to pack its team with slow bowlers only because we have no choice: We have slow bowlers, and then we have bowlers who run in from the distance and bowl slow. On Twitter, Harsha Bhogle recently made this point:


Who did we leave out?

Harsha’s point is well taken. How many of you who suggest that the selectors goofed by not picking Manish Pandey, Robin Uthappa and Virat Kohli can state on the basis of precedent, and with complete confidence, that they would not similarly have been found out by high quality fast bowling targeting the body? And similarly, isn’t there a certain degree of dissonance in simultaneously suggesting that we erred by depending on spin, and also saying in the same breath that maybe Pragyan Ojha or Amit Mishra would have made the difference?

Did we leave Malcolm Marshall, Wasim Akram and Michael Holding behind, and deliberately pick spinners instead? Let’s wrap our heads around one central fact of cricketing life in India: We do not have fast bowlers. What we do have is a program calculated to reduce reasonably quick bowlers into toothless trundlers in the space of a season.

I’m not trying to suggest that there were no faults in the team as picked. Nor that Dhoni’s handling of the team was pitch perfect — there was more than one occasion when it seemed to all observers that the captain had missed an obvious bet, or three [his choices of whether to bat or bowl first at times verged on the bizarre, for instance].

What I’d like to submit, though, is this: we seem set to do with the national team what we have done or are doing with the IPL. To wit, when something doesn’t work, quickly find a scapegoat, skin him in the media and hang him in public gaze, and quickly get back to business as usual.

It might satisfy the apparent need for ‘closure’ — but it sure as hell will not, in and of itself, help us learn from our mistakes and push us to work on eradicating them.

Aide memoire: remember when India won the inaugural edition of the T20 World Cup? Remember the ticker tape parade through the streets of Bombay — with NCP leaders perched in the open vans meant for cricketers, waving to the crowds? Remember the victory ‘celebrations’ at the Wankhede, where the front row was occupied by the likes of Sharad Pawar, Praful Patel, RR Patil, Rajiv Shukla, Lalit Modi, IS Bindra, PM Rungta, Sunil Dev et al? A funny thing happened then — Yuvraj walked up on stage, saw a vacant seat in the front row, and sat down. An official promptly trotted up [in one final supreme irony, the man who told Yuvraj to get out of the seat was none other than the then chairman of selectors Dilip Vengsarkar]  and hustled him off to where his mates sat — two rows behind. That vacant chair in the front row, it turned out, had been reserved for Niranjan Shah, the board secretary — Yuvraj’s place was where players belong in the BCCI’s hierarchy, somewhere out in back.

So here’s something the board needs to think about: If you are going to bask in the glory when the team goes out and wins you trophies, shouldn’t you be as proactive in accepting at least a part of the blame when it loses? More to the point, isn’t it your responsibility to do everything possible to create a team that is competitive at the international level?

PS: Before you guys tee off, do note: None of the above is to excuse either the team, or the captain. My only intent is to suggest that the conversation cannot begin and end with those two entities.

Wins and losses

In case you haven’t done it already, go here now — and try replaying the 12th game of the FIDE world title fight between Anand and Topalov. If time is of the essence, fast forward to move 28 and play through from there, for a classic demonstration of attacking chess from the wrong  black side of the board.

And then think back to the magnitude of the effort it took for Anand to retain his title. Ever since Topalov, at the start of the 12-game championship round, announced that there won’t be any quick draws [the move played to Topalov’s strength, as he is renowned for his stamina in long games; against that, Anand is known for offering quick draws in games where he sees no immediate benefits, and conserving his energies for games where he sees distinct possibilities], the pressure has been on Anand to survive, mentally and physically, a tournament Topalov had just made more grueling.

You had to believe, during the back end of the tournament, that the pressure was getting to Anand. In game 8, he lost from what seemed to be an drawn position and allowed Topalov to draw level; in the 9th game, Anand meticulously prepared what seemed to be a commanding position and then repeatedly missing winning lines to allow his opponent to escape with a draw.

To shrug off both the serial disappointments and his own mental fatigue, to turn the pressure back on his opponent, and to ratchet up the pressure to the point where Topalov, almost novice-like, grabbed at a pawn that was laced with poison and to then capitalize on that blunder with an inch perfect handling of the middle/end-game — totally epic, on the scale of achievement.

Against that, yesterday also witnessed a once-proud team plumb unsuspected depths. Batting first and needing to put on a big score in order to pip Sri Lanka by a 20-run differential minimum, India seemed well set at the halfway stage, with 90 on the board and 9 wickets in hand. And then it spectacularly blew it, making a mere 73 in the final ten overs while losing four wickets — against which Sri Lanka, which seemed in trouble at 53/3 at the half way stage, piled on 190 runs for the loss of two additional wickets in the back 10.

That is the statistic that caught the eye — but what remains in the mind the afternoon after the defeat is a series of impressions. Of an ‘attack’ without a strike bowler [Harbhajan Singh, who had to play that role in a side where Zaheer Khan was way under par, ended the tournament without a single wicket to his name. He is bowling “beautifully”, commentators repeatedly told us — but whatever the artistic merits of his bowling, the central fact is that he could never strike]. Of a team that seemed to have been picked from a home for the walking wounded — a clearly unfit Gambhir, a Zaheer Khan who seems to be suffering from some mysterious injury that comes and goes, a Praveen Kumar who had to leave the tournament halfway through, to join the long list of Indian ‘pace bowlers’ in various stages of injury and rehabilitation, a Yuvraj Singh whose tournament and indeed recent form was best encapsulated by that moment, in the early part of the Lankan innings, when he let a ball pass through his palms, and between his legs… Add to that the ‘form’ of that fearsome finisher, Yusuf Pathan; the presence in the side of Ravindra Jadeja, whose preparation for this tournament consisted of practicing in the backyard with his brother; the lack of clarity about Rohit Sharma’s presence in, and utility to, the side… India has stumbled badly before — actually, thrice in world level competitions in the past 12 months alone — but rarely has the team under MS Dhoni looked quite so shambolic.

The television channels are already well into their “post mortems” — which in the case of that medium takes the form of handing out knives to all and sundry and inviting them to have a go. “Play more, party less” is among the more temperate bits of advice streaming in from the junta, and from there it gets worse. 24 hours later, this too will pass, and the knife wielders will be presented with a new target for their SMS-es.

I figure on putting my own thoughts on hold till the dust settles [and I get out of wall to wall meetings in Delhi, and get back to Bangalore, where there will be more mindspace.

In the meantime, appreciate your thoughts. Forget about the match itself — when you think, macro, about the Indian team in T20s, what thoughts occur to you?

PS: Am back in Bangalore late tonight and at work sometime tomorrow, but I suspect it will be Friday before I am settled and back on this. Talk to you then.

A column, and a comeuppance of sorts

The stomach bug that laid me out all of last week is much better [and my thanks to those who either commented, or mailed, their wishes], but I’m still kind of groggy from the experience, and taking another day to get back to where I need to be.

Two quick pointers: one, to the story of the day, which is that the sports ministry has capped the tenures of those heading the various national sports federations. Rahul Mehra’s PIL helped move the needle on this one, so kudos where due — but in actual fact, I am not sure anything has been accomplished besides reiterating a rule that existed, and was universally ignored, in the first place. The key lies in compliance — Kalmadi and his ilk are past masters at this, so I wouldn’t be too surprised to see the ministry’s decision being challenged, other delaying tactics being implemented, or even one or more of those honchos arguing that the ministry’s directive cannot be grandfathered, and therefore for all practical purposes their tenures need to be counted from today.

Elsewhere, the Yahoo Opinions space just rolled out its third columnist: Girish Sahane, whose blog ranks high on my daily to-read list. As Maharashtra celebrates 50 years of its founding, Girish examines the many public myths and memorials that commemorate its birth, and in the violence of the state’s birth, finds parallels to its present.

We did promise to make sure that each column that goes up is a must read — this latest easily lives up to that promise. Read on.

And if you have comments, feel free to post them here, or on Girish’s blog.

Meanwhile, avoiding comment on the two WC games India featured in over the weekend — all that and more when I get back to this blog tomorrow, hopefully feeling a lot better.

Squaring the circle

In a post on India’s T20 World Cup exit, Great Bong looks at the vicious-circle effect:

Dhoni’s men have now come a full circle. In 2007, they started off as the “replacements” for a previous generation of heroes,  popular underdogs with nothing to lose and everything to prove. They were on the offensive and they were aggressive.

In 2009, things had changed. They were no longer the “little guys”. They had now become the new “fat cats”, a part of the establishment, with everything to lose and nothing to prove. This made them so overtly defensive that they deemed it necessary to shield their best player at a time when they needed him the most.

In a way therefore, their defeat had become inevitable.

Whether Dhoni and his men are able come out stronger from this experience remains to be seen. If they can, then yes they still remain champions even though they might not have the trophy.

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.


Derek Pringle picks James Foster’s quicksilver leg-side stumping of Yuvraj Singh as the moment that sealed the game for England, and he is right – even for an audience accustomed to his big hitting, there was something electric about the straight one he hit to the very first ball he faced, a sense of watching a player in the ‘zone’ top performers speak of. And then there is this:

India’s ejection has disproved one thing – that the Indian Premier League is good for your skills, the mantra trotted out by every player save Dale Steyn, who said it was the easiest money he’d ever earned.

Every member of India’s team is involved with one franchise or other, but you wouldn’t have thought so watching them chase England’s total of 153 yesterday. Nervy at the start they were meandering when Yuvraj announced his intentions by belting his first ball, off Dimitri Mascarenhas high over long-on for six.

Yuvraj’s swagger would have persuaded most in the majority Indian crowd that England would be vanquished, but they hadn’t reckoned on Swann and Foster, England’s two likely lads. In the blink of an eye they’d picked Yuvraj’s pocket and sent a nation addicted to Twenty20 into a prolonged bout of cold turkey.

To say that India’s exit in and of itself disproves the statement that the IPL is good for you [Is the opposite then true, that not playing IPL is good for you?] is a reach I find myself unable to make.

Stephen Brenkley also pushes that anti-IPL thought, as does Mike Atherton, and so I begin to wonder if these are manifestations of the institutional prejudice the British establishment has for an idea that did not emerge from the ‘home of cricket’. Atherton also pays tribute to the innings Kevin Pietersen played, and ends with this thought:

Some day, England will win a match in which Pietersen plays a minor part. At that point, once they have kicked their addiction to an over-reliance on him, we will know that they are a force in the one-day game. Last night that didn’t look like happening.