‘Interviewing’ Sehwag

Hey, had you guys read this piece in the New Yorker’s blog?

It came apropos, in a way. I had just finished re-reading two books on tennis that take a match-eye view of the sport: L Jon Wertheim’s Strokes of Genius [sample here for those new to this book; and here’s a treasure trove of Wertheim’s classic writing for Sports Illustrated] on the 2008 Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, aka ‘the greatest tennis match ever played‘ [another excerpt], and Peter Bodo’s The Clay Ran Red.

One thing about books is how reading one inevitably prompts you to read, or in my case re-read, another, related book — thus, those two books and a brief conversation about Genius with a friend on Twitter led me back to my fairly shopworn copy of Marshall Jon Fisher’s A Terrible Splendorwhich then prompted a re-visit to John McPhee’s Levels of the Game [sample chapter], which had first appeared as a two-part essay in the New Yorker [You’ll see links in the blog post linked to at the start here].

Besides being among the finest examples of sports journalism imaginable, those books share another commonality: they look at a sport through the prism of a singular rivalry: Rafa/Fedex, Ashe/Graebner, Don Budge/Gottfriend von Cramm… [In this, the construct differs from Johnette Howard’s The Rivals, where the focus is on the rivalry between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, with the sport forming a broader canvas against which this story plays out [Sample Chapter].

Tennis with its gladiatorial, one on one action uniquely lends itself to rivalries unlike say cricket — and yet, I sometimes wish a quality journalist had attempted to interpret the sport through the prism of the clash of individual practitioners [Shane Warne versus Sachin Tendulkar down the years, anyone?].

Actually, I’d argue that in comparison with the great books on tennis and even team games like soccer, cricket just has not produced any outstanding literature down the years. You are left either with (auto)biographies of varying quality, or ‘tour diaries’ and such. Wonder why. [And while on that, two of the finest writers on cricket/sports are in the final stages of publishing their books this year. I don’t know what their books are going to be about, yet — but, can’t wait.]

So anyway, to continue this ramble, here’s the money quote from the blog post cited above:

Williams plays with a certain stern aloofness, a level of evenness that has no doubt helped her as she has won seven major championships. This is also how she talks to reporters, and as I sat listening to her and to other players answer questions one after the other, I thought about the theory that their individual styles of parrying with the media matched closely with their individual styles of play. John McPhee made a similar point when he wrote in this magazine,

A person’s tennis game begins with his nature and background and comes out through his motor mechanisms into shot patterns and characteristics of play. If he is deliberate, he is a deliberate tennis player; and if he is flamboyant, his game probably is, too.

Is that true? Can we, based on how a player behaves and how he talks, gain pointers to how he will likely play his game? Here’s a little thought experiment, in the form of an “interview” with Viru Sehwag. [Note that this interview never happened — I’m merely reversing the process, looking at what he has said at various times on Twitter, and framing probable questions that could have elicited those responses.]:

So — you don’t really like giving long interviews, do you?

Successful people always have 2 things on their lips…smile and silence..!

Right. Anyway. Of late, your career seems to be cyclical: you get into awesome form, then injury intervenes, you are off the map for a bit, then you come back and have to build up to that form all over again. After a point, doesn’t this get hard? Wouldn’t you far rather have an uninterrupted run at the top of your game?

Hard times r like washing machine,they twist,turn n knock us around,but in the end we come out cleaner,brighter n better than before

Smooth roads nvr make u gud drivers. Problem free life nve makes u strong person. So nvr ask life, WHY ME?Instead challenge it & say TRY ME!

Your mates say you are not a good one for taking advice — you’ll listen, but do your own thing anyway. Surely there is someone you listen to?

Listen2our elders advice nt bcoz thy r always right but bcoz thy’ve more xperiences of being wrong.how true but v still dn’t want2understand

So what is the best advice you ever got?

“If we play with energy poise and unselfishness, we will be playing the game the right way.”

Cricket right now is in turmoil, with corruption allegations surfacing all over again just when we thought that was a thing of the past. Your thoughts?

sea is common to all,some take pearls,some take fisheset n some out with wet legs. World is common to us.We take what we look for.

People say,”Find good people & leave bad ones.”But it should be,”Find the good in people & ignore the bad in them.”No one is perfect.

But surely all these controversies are unwanted obstacles at a time when cricket — especially traditional cricket — is struggling for survival?

Obstacles r those frightful things u see when u take ur eye off frm ur goal.

To change the topic: you missed what would have been a great century thanks to Suraj Randiv’s no-ball. Reactions?

Right effort has to do with unselfishness and working to benefit the team.

Yeah, well, with the benefit of time and distance you can be philosophical, but at the time you must have been desperately unhappy?

If u wait for happy moments,u will wait forever. But if u start believing that u r happy,u will be happy forever.

Oh come on — you’ve always been scrupulously fair in your on-field dealings so when someone cheats you out of a landmark for sheer cussedness you must have felt pissed off big time? You are human, no?

expecting from the world to be good to u coz u r good to them..is just like expecting from the lion not to eat u coz u r a vegetarian..!!

The depth of ur Personality will b revealed by the way u respond to situations u dislike…

Okay, but still — do you think such needless gamesmanship is justified?

In our real life,v know very well,what is right,true n justified. Problem is,v can’t follow it from our side,but v expect it from others.

So you never got angry at the time?

Remember, even iron becomes weak when its hot. Stay cool & u will always be strong.

Time and again, you play sublime cricket — and then your mates stuff up, give their wickets away. It is almost as if there is one set of bowlers bowling to you, and another, far better, set to them. It’s almost supernatural, the way you make it all look easy.

champions r not supernatural,they just fight one more second whn everyone else quits,sometimes one second of effort gives u the victory.

Every time we see you bat, we are left with one thought: if only you had batted longer! Have you ever thought of curbing, or at least tempering, your natural game so you can maximize the time you spend at the crease?

fight with ur strength,not with others weakness bcoz true success lies in ur efforts not in others defeat.

And so on. Here — go make up your own interviews [the media does it anyway, vide this PTI story at the height of the Suraj Randiv fracas, so why not you?]; there’s tons of good material on Viru’s Twitter stream.

By way of bonus, here’s another way of doing this — an ‘interview’ with Kanye West. Brilliant! And, tangentially related, here’s a favorite writer, Susan Orlean, on why a crowded city is just one big Twitter stream.

And just for fun — there is a weekend coming up, and I don’t intend to log on and give you guys company — here’s some related reading matter: A Chandrahas Choudhary classic, where he sat with Viru and had him talk through a seminal knock; and here’s Hash on watching Viru bat.

Enjoy your weekend; see you Monday.

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Cui Bono

A leading national daily once asked a Pakistani fast bowler to perform some brand endorsement functions. The player refused, claiming that he did not have the time. Two days later, the paper in question — you know who you are — front-paged a story that selectors and the establishment in Pakistan were concerned about the bowling action of the player in question, and there were some doubts whether he would be picked for an upcoming tournament.

Another day, another story: India had just finished one more of its disastrous campaigns at the world level [those holding the IPL entirely to blame for the latest disaster might, while we are on the topic, like to consider that outside of the win in the inaugural edition of the World T20 Cup, our recent record in global competitions has been less than stellar, to put it mildly]. Then coach Greg Chappell was back in India, preparing his post-tournament report. At the time, a national daily, three days running, front-paged stories citing “confidential sources” and claiming that the coach’s report was incendiary in nature; that it came down heavily on various players [all of them named]; that three or four players in particular were slated to face the coach’s wrath, and so on.

The reports also claimed (a) that senior players Tendulkar, Ganguly, Sehwag, Harbhajan, Zaheer and Yuvraj had formed a coterie against then captain Rahul Dravid; that they lacked commitment and refused to follow instructions of the coach and captain; that they put their personal interest over the team’s interest; that it was the coterie, for instance, that forced Dravid to opt to bat first if he won the toss against Bangladesh, and so on and on.

There was only one problem with the story — it wasn’t true. And I knew this at first hand. The day he returned to Bombay, Chappell had called on phone, and asked if I would go over to the Taj to meet with him. At that meeting, he said he was putting together a presentation for the board, showed me the first draft, and asked if I had any thoughts. What struck me at the time was the forward-looking nature of the presentation — where I had expected a post-mortem of the World Cup disaster, I found instead a meticulous roadmap of all that could be done to improve Indian cricket from the ground up.

Without going into tedious detail, its centerpiece was the point that exposing players to the latest coaching methods once they had reached the national level was counter productive. The player was physically shaped, Chappell argued, during his formative years in school/college/club cricket, he was pretty much set in his ways, both physically and in terms of skill sets, by the time he reached the state level. And once he got to the national side and was exposed to a different brand of coaching altogether, it was proving to be counter-productive in the extreme. Thus, the presentation argued, the BCCI needed to set up a grassroots-up coaching structure. School, collegiate and club coaches would work under the direction of a state coach; the state coaches would form a body interacting closely with the national coach, and the goal at all times would be to ensure that players were moved systematically through the development process, so that they peaked at the national level rather than reaching that stage and being forced to unlearn everything they had learned till date.

The presentation, when it was made, surprised, even delighted, the board. The paper in question reported it on the sports pages, without ever once mentioning the doomsday drumbeat on its own front pages in the days leading up to the event. It did not at any point in time even consider that its inspired kite-flying on the tail wind of “confidential sources” could have damaged relations among players; it offered no apology for misleading the readers; it did not even explain how its “sources close to the coach” could have gotten it so completely wrong.

I was reminded of these and other similar incidents when I read this morning in the Times of India that the BCCI was “considering” sacking MS Dhoni, and replacing him with Virender Sehwag for the ODI and T20 sides.

Who is doing this “considering”? Here are a few facts: (1) The board officials have neither met, nor telephonically or otherwise discussed, India’s latest world cup campaign. Their line is that they are currently busy with the Lalit Modi hearing due on the 16th, and that discussions of the team performance can wait till the team returns, and the captain and coach file their reports. (2) The national selectors have not at this point in time discussed the Caribbean campaign, and are slated to do so only once the two reports have been routed to them via the BCCI [the normal process is for the reports to be submitted to the board secretary, who forwards them to the selectors together with any comments the board officials may choose to make]. (3) The issue of the captaincy will not be decided upon now, but will be on the agenda of the selectors when they next meet to pick the national side for India’s next major engagement.

So again — who is this mysterious entity that is “considering” the captaincy issue? More broadly, what is the genesis of such stories?

A good question to ask yourself is, cui bono? Who benefits?

The facile answer is, Virender Sehwag — the man being nominated by various confidential sources as the next captain. But that is superficial — the real answer lies at the subcutaneous level: a combination of sponsors and player agents.

For sponsors, a player’s brand value rises exponentially as he rises in the team hierarchy [and vice versa — an ‘ex-captain’ tag on a player is worse than if he had never been captain at all]. And the more a player’s value rises, the more agents stand to earn through pimping his services for various brands.

What is really startling is the knock-on effect such stories have. One media outlet front pages it or surfaces it on its TV channel, and everyone else picks it up and amplifies it, not because their “confidential sources” are confirming the story, but because not having the story on their own channels/pages makes them seem disconnected, dated, out of the loop. [Do a search for ‘Sehwag, captain’ and you’ll see what I mean].

Unfortunately, such inspired planting of stories causes great collateral damage — but again, that is not the paper’s concern. The point is to build up a tailwind for the thought, to transform a motivated wish into a national outcry through the mysterious alchemy of the front page, and if damage is a by-product, then so be it.

PS: Here’s Harsha Bhogle on India’s performance in the Caribbean:

The new ball, in the hands of India’s bowlers, made no statement. It wasn’t the first serve, as it should have been. It was merely a formality that had to be achieved for a game to start, just a pawn that was pushed forward with little intent. The new ball on flat pitches and on grounds with short boundaries is like a toy for a pampered child to toss around, but here it had fangs. India’s openers were shown them, the opposition weren’t. It is a serious issue. New-ball bowlers have to be cultivated and nurtured so that they grow into handsome trees; they cannot, at the first sight of a storm, wither away.

India’s fielding stood out. Like a radio might, or like my old phone does. It was like a retro movie. When it comes to fielding or athleticism, India make an occasional concession to modernity, flirt with the latest and slip back towards the old and the comfortable. When Australia took the field, I thought more than once that their hockey players had arrived. They were smooth, they glided around and made what might otherwise have been a three a two. Great catches arrived with the frequency of a politician’s quotes. It was beautiful to watch but I do not think our young cricketers are watching. They demand the latest sometimes but they do not demonstrate it.

Once India’s finest, Yuvraj stood at mid-on, the abode of the tired fast bowler and the slow-moving spinner. At long-on and fine leg, the limbs had to be cranked to start. It was painful because of what should have been. He is a cricketer who is richly blessed, and a period of humble introspection might just be the right prescription. The turn he took a kilometre ago was the wrong one.

PPS: Pleasantly surprised by both the number and quality of comments on yesterday’s post. Unfortunately, am preoccupied with various personal and professional issues and apt to be off the net till at least some time late tomorrow evening. Will get back then and respond, where required. Meanwhile, stock up with salt — lots of it. I suspect that in the coming days you’ll need it.

PPPS: Now that I think about it –the above piece is *not* to be interpreted as a defense of Dhoni, please, or an argument for his continuance. A review — a serious, comprehensive one — is required and hopefully, will happen. My intent is merely to suggest that rumor-mongering does no good. To the concerned media outlets, the players who are named, or even to us the readers.

Some wit, some wisdom

From the inimitable Viru Sehwag:

There is a very thin line between success and failure. If you ask Virender Sehwag, it is a matter of how you look at things. “Half empty or half full,” he smiles. “A cover-drive for four or disaster,” he explains.

“When I play a cover-drive, I play it to score runs. I don’t play a shot to get out. So, if the cover-drive ends up in a catch at slip, I am spared criticism. If it ends up in the hands at covers, I am slammed. The shot attempted has remained the same, only the mode of dismissal is different.”

Cricket clips

The most intriguing game of the weekend was not the one featuring India’s “thrilling” one run win over RSA, hyperventilating commentators notwithstanding. The marquee game for my money was the one between England and Pakistan — a low-scoring affair that put the ‘thrill’ in thriller.

Most interesting to me was the identity of the player who sealed the game for Pakistan — one Abdur Razzaq, last seen hitting the headlines during the recent furor about Pakistan players in the IPL. How did it go, again? Shah Rukh Khan started the ruckus with his statement that he would love to see Pakistan players in the third edition of the tournament; asked why, if he felt all that strongly about it, he hadn’t pushed his franchise into picking a player from that country, he said KKR had been very keen on Razzaq, and were on the verge of signing him up, but at the last minute had been informed that he was out of action with a wrist injury.

That ‘injured’ player turned in the best bowling performance, by a very long margin, when England was batting, and then nailed the game with an 18-ball 46 not out that included five mammoth sixes. So — why did SRK, whose heart bleeds all over the place for Pakistan players, not pick Razzaq again?

The India-RSA game, in contrast, was an extended audition for dumb and dumber. With the bat, player after Indian player got off the blocks, then stumbled; with the ball — and needing only to bowl out a won game, thanks to an underwhelming Proteas batting performance — the bowling unit disintegrated in ludicrous fashion [and they didn’t even have ‘pressure’ as an excuse, once Jacques Kallis got out in the 43]. Steyn and Parnell capitalized on some mediocre bowling to infuse artificial excitement into the proceedings, but for all that the contest was one between two sides both intent on losing.

In fact, the most noticeable aspect of the game was the commentary — a vertiginous descent into cliche hell [At one point in the game, Ravi Shastri flagged off four consecutive overs with the words ‘Kallis is now the key’, leading to the suspicion that the commentator had taken the day off and been replaced by a bot]. Fittingly, the increasingly mediocre nature of commentary is the subject of a Sriram Dayanand rant:

Live commentary, a well-established source for opinion and analysis, was scrubbed clean too. Erstwhile opinionated voices were now contracted by ratings- and revenue-obsessed cricket boards, and matches were accompanied by the voices of cheerleaders. Too wary of saying anything substantial, they concentrated on honing their clichés and giggling away with their co-hosts. Even the once edgy and opinionated-by-nature Sunil Gavaskar had begun to sound like a chirpy choirboy as the decade ended.

The scalpel was wielded now and then, but all too rarely. Like when Geoffrey Boycott spluttered, “In my day we didn’t indulge in any of that nancy-boy stuff” as the ritual of batsmen coyly touching gloves mid-pitch unfolded between overs.

Ian Healy, Tony Greig, L Sivaramakrishnan, Arun Lal, Michael Slater, Ranjit Fernando, Ian Bishop, Danny Morrison, Kepler Wessels, Robin Jackman, Waqar Younis, Aamer Sohail blended seamlessly into the commercials and background noise of the crowd. Exceptions in the form of the thoughtfulness of Mike Atherton, the loquacious openness of Harsha Bhogle, or the schoolboyish enthusiasm masking a keen insight of a Mark Taylor did exist, but by and large white noise was what we got.

The one silver lining in this cloud of verbiage is the humor our commentators are sparking on Twitter. In a moment of inspired exasperation — and after one too many iterations of “that ball went like a tracer bullet’, from the usual suspect — my friend Ramesh Srivats [Twitter] was moved to suggest that Shastri should do commentary during the Commonwealth Games. During the shooting event, Ramesh suggested, Shastri might be moved to say ‘that bullet went like a cricket ball’. Heh!

Virender Sehwag, Dayanand said in his piece, was among the few honorable exceptions to the mind-numbing sameness of cricket sound bytes. As if to prove that point, Sehwag’s reaction to winning a second successive award for Test innings of the year from the opener’s slot was to suggest that he wanted to bat at number four:

“I would love to bat at number four. I know I would not get that till Sachin retires. But I can wait,” Sehwag said, despite his enormous success at the top of the order. “I still would like to bat in the middle order. It’s difficult to field one-and-half days and then come out to bat in 10 minutes. When you bat at No. 6 like (MS) Dhoni, it allows you some rest. I have been successful as an opener but who knows, maybe I would have been more successful in the middle order.”

Who else in contemporary cricket is likely to make that statement after his record through 2009 and in the two Tests against South Africa this year? Equally noteworthy, his thoughts on defense [and for Sehwag addicts, one from the past — an interview published in Open magazine after The Daily Telegraph picked him as player of the decade]:

Sehwag defended his naturally aggressive approach to batting, saying there were risks involved even if he opted to play more cautiously. “People say I take too many risks. But the fact is, there is risk involved in every shot. You can get out trying to defend a ball as well. At times, people tell me to leave ball outside the off-stump. But some of them can jag back and get you out if you don’t play shots. I think if you think so much, you simply cannot bat,” he said.

Elsewhere, with the BCCI now on a mission to get India to play as many Tests as it can squeeze in, even if it means reversing its earlier policy and abandoning a few one-day games to make room in the schedule, Sidharth Monga makes a timely argument for more care in choosing venues:

Between this last Kolkata Test and the one before that, at the end of 2007, six Tests have been played in Nagpur, Mohali and Ahmedabad. During those matches, Tendulkar overtook Lara, India completed a series win over Australia, Rahul Dravid engineered a stunning comeback from 32 for 4. Still this Kolkata Test alone was probably watched by more people than all six others put together.

To watch those six Tests was to find some merit in the view held by the rest of the world that India – the country, not the team – doesn’t care about Test cricket. To watch the one at the Eden Gardens was a pleasant reassurance that India did. That Test cricket was alive and kicking in India, the only place able to draw more than 100,000 – the figure when Eden Gardens is not undergoing renovation – to a Test match.

Harbhajan paid his friends at the ground a fitting tribute: “In Test matches, we don’t even get crowds, but Eden [Gardens] is probably the best ground, as you get the crowds for the whole five days. It does not matter whether India is batting or bowling.”

That sentiment, doubtless shared by Harbhajan’s peers, cuts no ice with the BCCI’s rotation policy: The Test against South Africa was the second at Eden Gardens since March 2005. Whether this is because of board politics – the lack of Tests coincides with a shift in power from Jagmohan Dalmiya to Sharad Pawar and Shashank Manohar – is immaterial now: the policy is obsolete anyway and needs ruthless, radical change. The purest form of the game, generally reckoned to be an endangered species nowadays, should be played at venues that care for it.

So, it is time to strike Nagpur, Mohali and Ahmedabad off the list of Test venues. The logic is simple: There is a clear mismatch there between the crowds and Test cricket. The crowds in Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore, Mumbai, even Kanpur, and to a lesser extent Delhi, support Test cricket with their presence in the stands and should each get a match every year. They are not necessarily the best stadiums but the players will trade in the advantages – the state-of-the-art facilities, the hospitality, the indoor nets – for a large, appreciative, knowledgeable crowd that creates atmosphere. And that’s true of hosts and tourists.

And finally, for leisure reading: another good friend [Rahul Bhatia on Twitter, and this is his blog] weighs in with a lovely piece on the making of a cricket ball.

Off to do stuff outside office; back here tomorrow. Be well, all.

All fall down

The very best of Virender Sehwag was on view today. So was the very worst.

[That sense of schizophrenia did not apply to the rest of the side – with the honorable exception of Badrinath, who celebrated his long awaited call up with a level-headed half century before triggering the post-tea slide, what we got from the rest was their unalloyed worst].

While the other batsmen, lulled by a two year diet of largely batsman-friendly tracks and the kind of “pace” provided by teams such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh et al, seemed completely overawed by the speed and fire of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, Sehwag motored along at a health one day rate, taking 34 off 38 Steyn deliveries and 21 off 38 from Morkel.

More than the runs scored, what stood out was the application Sehwag brought to his task. While Gambhir, Vijay and Tendulkar collapsed around him, Sehwag batted in his own zone, defending when it seemed to be called for and counter-punching whenever the bowler lapsed even marginally in line and length.

As his innings developed the Proteas, despite being well in control, seemed to be feeling the heat – the bowlers resorted to defensive lines, the fielders dropped back a few yards, and debutant Badrinath was able to find his feet under the senior batsman’s shelter.

And then, shortly after he had gotten to his hundred and the water cooler conversation had turned to his penchant for scoring big once past the century mark, Sehwag threw it away with a flashy shot he had no business playing.

With Sehwag and Badri looking assured against the quick guns, Smith had been forced to turn to his second, and even third, string bowlers. Wayne Parnell, who Sehwag had taken for 24 runs off 17 deliveries faced, resorted to bowling as wide of off stump as he could, under the more lenient Test norms, get away with. Sehwag could have let them go all day, but after four successive deliveries wide of off, the batsman chased at the fifth, sliced it to the cover fielder standing back on his haunches, and walked off shaking his head.

If he was as disappointed as he looked at having given it up, his team mates gave him a chance to get over it – a spectacular post tea collapse against the extreme pace and reverse swing of Steyn, that saw India lose six wickets in 46 deliveries for 12 runs, gave Sehwag a second chance.

He came out swinging – through the slips, over cover, whatever, in a display as ugly as it was unexpected. Steyn made one climb outside off; Sehwag let it go, chastised himself for his leniency and mimed the upper cut that he, at least by his lights, should have been playing. Before you had the time to say ‘bad idea, dude’, he went for the next ball, fuller outside off, got the edge, and found a delighted Smith at first slip.

The best of Sehwag, the worst of Sehwag, all in one day that saw India get a long delayed comeuppance against genuine pace. Much was made of the reverse swing the Indian bowlers had tried, and failed, to find when the Proteas were batting. In a devastating day long display, Morkel and Steyn showed that even on relatively harmless tracks, sheer pace through the air can smash past the defenses of good batsmen [Gambhir, Vijay, Tendulkar in the first innings before Sehwag and Badri steadied the ship] and that a quick bowler operating with the older ball, bowling the full length at extreme pace, can harness reverse to lethal effect [Steyn, whose post tea spell read 3.5-2-1-5].

During the euphoric period when India under MS Dhoni were unbeaten in Tests, there was always the nagging thought that somewhere, some time, the “law of averages” was going to kick in. More accurately, there was the thought that one of these days we would find ourselves against opposition that didn’t have names stretching 140 characters.

Ironically, India found such opposition only because the BCCI, seduced by the team’s statistical feat of climbing to the top of the Test charts, saw the sponsorship opportunity inherent in a “World Championship” Test series, and managed to shoe-horn one into the calendar.

It may not seem like it at the time, but this series is already proving to be a blessing – we can finally put our sense of notional superiority aside and find out exactly where we stand in terms of being a high quality Test side, and start work on building the sort of team that doesn’t require a buffet of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka to climb ranking ladders.

It could be a process that involves some considerable short-term pain, but it could also be the start of a team building exercise in the real sense.

Quis custodiet…

Oh hey, it is Daryl Harper in the third umpire’s chair — what could possibly go wrong? This:

Smith, who top-scored for South Africa with 105, his 20th Test century, appeared to be given a let-off on 15 when he attempted a cut against Ryan Sidebottom and appeared to feather a nick through to the keeper, Matt Prior.

Although the onfield umpire, Tony Hill, initially turned down England’s appeals, the captain, Andrew Strauss, immediately used one of his team’s two reviews, and the TV replays seemed to indicate an audible snick as the ball passed the bat.

However, Harper upheld the onfield decision, claiming that he could not hear any noise on the replay that he was being shown in the third umpire’s booth. An angry England coach, Andy Flower, claimed that this was because he had the volume too low on his television set, and confirmed that an official complaint was being made to the match referee, Roshan Mahanama.

An umpire using technology to rule on whether the batsman nicked the ball or no has his TV volume on mute. Surprised? You shouldn’t be — Daryl Harper has throughout a colorful career moved in strange ways his blunders to perform. Remember this bit of recent history?

Harper in the third umpire’s booth had little say in the first and none in the second, but he was utterly in the thick of things for the third and fourth breakthroughs of the day. First, he sent Shivnarine Chanderpaul on his way for 70 to a delivery that would have cleared the stumps by six inches, before – and to total incredulity from players, spectators and pundits alike – he over-ruled the onfield umpire, Aleem Dar, to saw off Brendan Nash in a near identical fashion.

In police-speak, Harper has been a ‘person of interest’ ever since 1999, when in Adelaide he re-wrote the rule book when he deemed that it was possible for a player, in this case Sachin Tendulkar, to be out LBW when struck on the shoulder by a Glenn McGrath bouncer.

But let’s not go there. More recently, there was the more recent instance of Harper, again in the video umpire’s chair, giving Darren Powell out caught behind when replays — of which he watched a good half dozen — clearly showed daylight between bat and ball. In the Cape Town Test of the ongoing series, he again adjudicated Ashwell Prince caught behind — when, again, replays indicated Prince had missed the ball by a foot.

Keep Harper away from all big decisions, says Nasser Hussain, writing from the vantage point of being on air as a SkyTV commentator when the Graeme Smith incident happened. Nasser could, with greater justice, have said simply, keep Harper away from all decisions, period.

Harper has his own take on things — and interestingly, he has chosen to give it on Facebook, though there exists an ICC proscription against umpires discussing their decisions in public. But what to me is more interesting is that Roshan Mahanama, the match referee, lost no time in defending Harper.

“During the review, the TV umpire followed the correct protocol and as he did not hear any noise to indicate the ball hitting the bat, he recommended Mr Hill to uphold his earlier decision. It must be noted that umpire’s decision is final,” Mahanama said.

When an official uses words and phrases like ‘correct protocol’ without specifying what it is, the ‘obfuscation’ flag goes up. What ‘protocol’ is a third umpire supposed to follow in such cases? There is visual evidence and there is audio evidence — and every commentator on duty at the time, and even fans listening in to the commentary, are unanimous that the sound of bat on ball could be heard. Mahanama, however, says:

“There have also been suggestions in a section of the press that Mr Harper had turned down the feed volume. It is clarified that the volume on the third umpire’s feed, right throughout the series, had been configured to optimise the quality of the audio, by both an SABC Head Engineer and the ICC technical advisor.”

That ‘clarification’ makes everything as clear as mud. Simple question: did the match referee check the volume levels? Was it set so you could hear the snick so plainly audible to the rest of the world, which didn’t have the benefit of the skills of head engineers and technical advisors?

The real problem is not in Harper’s serial screw-ups as it is in the ICC’s readiness to jump to the defense of its officials when they screw up. Consider this insight into how the ICC vets its ‘elite’ panel:

There is a close examination of every aspect of an umpire’s performance. Both captains and the match referee submit a report to ICC about every game. An ICC assessor then examines every appeal that an umpire is required to answer, and a comprehensive assessment is compiled. The umpire eventually receives a DVD, packed full of replays and accompanied by the written assessment, so every performance can be reviewed and sometimes reconsidered. Umpires are assessed on their abilities to judge decisions, to communicate with players and with each other, to cope with pressure and to apply the laws and regulations of the game. The ICC has a very informative description of this procedure on its revamped website, and more details can be found at http://www.icc-cricket.com

That insight comes from Harper himself, in course of an interview that also comprises some interesting comments about technology and umpiring. So then, the question the ICC needs to answer is this: when captains submit adverse reports about umpires [read the box in the Nasser Hussain piece linked to above — on one occasion, a team has actually submitted video evidence of the umpire’s blunders], what action does it take after it ‘compiles’ its ‘comprehensive assessment’?

Is there a single case in its history when the ICC has sacked an umpire from its elite panel for serial incompetence? If not, then what price all these elaborate reports and reviews and compilations?

Captains will tell you that writing a post-game evaluation of umpires is fraught with risk. The ICC promptly shares these reports with the umpires in question, so the official knows the nasty things a team, through the voice of its captain, has had to say about him. The ICC, however, takes no action on such reports — so the official, who is not punished for his blunders, gets to stand again, and take out his ire on the captain, and the team, that filed a poor report on him.

The Umpire Decision Referral System is on extended trial — and Harper has routinely made a mess of it to the point where, in true baby with bathwater style, some teams are calling for the end to the UDRS itself.

Maybe what we need is an umpire/match referee appraisal system, that rewards the good ones but also punishes the demonstrably bad officials by removing them from the elite panel. The ICC’s brief is not to shelter and protect its officials, but to run the game as well as is humanly possible — and protecting and encouraging incompetence is not consistent with that brief.

In other news, the Bangladesh media corps gets its first taste of a Virender Sehwag press conference. Which reminds me, an embarrassment of riches on TV, with England-South Africa, Australia-Pakistan, and India-Bangladesh — and me with a perfectly good TV set in the home I am currently busy setting up, but no sign of the TataSky people who promised to connect it up, yet. I’ll find someplace to watch the action from; see you guys back in here late tomorrow, or on Monday morning.

Writing cricket

In a piece on Virender Sehwag in the ToI Friday, under the title ‘Virunder’ with VI and DER in bold black and RUN in blue [nudge-wink, did you see what they just did there?! Oh, and the front page went Viru Say Wah! — do they have some kind of contest on who can deal the most mortal blow to the English language?], K Shriniwas Rao came up with an opening gambit that made me spill my morning coffee.

Here it is – complete and unadulterated.

Makes you think about the advice bowlers sometimes get, about the virtues of not trying too hard, of just putting the ball there or thereabouts, and letting it do all the work.

The problem with an extraordinary display of talent [and when Viru plays a big one, “extraordinary display of talent” is mealy-mouthed understatement] is that the reporter’s adrenalin levels soar. He knows he has just witnessed something remarkable, and believes he has to “do justice to it”.

So we get Charles Darwin. Neanderthals. The “Wolverine effect”. A cornucopia of counterfeit verbal currency.

Of all the wtf possibilities, the line that gave me most cause to pause is this: “Primal in his talent, a tad primitive in his thinking…”

There’s a stereotype for you, in all its knee-jerk glory: Sehwag is a muscle-bound bully whose “thinking” is bookended by two actions: hit and block.

For an antidote to such facile characterization, read this: my friend Chandrahas Chaudhury, back in the day when he was writing cricket articles not novels, and Nishant Arora also of Cricinfo walked Sehwag through the different moods and moments of his controlled 155 against the Australians in Chennai on the 2004 tour.

Here’s a wonderful look under the hood, a peek into the mind of a batsman at work.

Primitive? Really?

Reading Hash’s play-by-play piece prompted me to go back to the Cricinfo archives for other specimens of good writing. Here’s Sehwag through the eyes of some of my favorite cricket writers. [Oh by the way, this is not because ‘Sehwag is my favorite batsman’ – though he most certainly is on a very short short-list; I picked Sehwag only because he is the flavor du jour, and because when he bats at his best, his deeds exhaust adjectives and defy writers to push their own limits.]

First, two articles by Amit Varma. The first is against the backdrop of the India versus Pakistan Test in Bangalore in the 2005 season.

Sehwag’s watchfulness is predatorial: he waits for the right moment to pounce on his moving dinner. It is an aggressive watchfulness, not a defensive one. It intimidates the opposition, because when he gets the opportunity, he strikes with speed and finality. The rest of the time, muscles taut, mind relaxed but alert, smelling prey, he makes sure that his wicket is safe.

Even Sehwag’s defence has aggression. When he defends on the back foot, he punches the ball as much as he pats it down, and it often speeds to the boundary, so well is it timed. There is nothing about his game that is diffident, and he defines a bad ball more broadly than most other batsmen. Bowlers toil in a meritocracy when they bowl to him; when they err, they pay. But he sets the terms, and soon they’re broke.

The second predates the one linked to above, and is an appreciation of the Sehwag-Aakash Chopra opening combination, written against the backdrop of the Multan Test of 2004:

A common view of Sehwag, when he entered Test cricket, was that he was a one-day swashbuckler, who might fit into the lower-middle order in Tests, but was unsuited for the kind of rigour and discipline that opening the batting supposedly needed. Sehwag certainly is no classical opener, but Test cricket, in recent years, has broken away from the traditions of more than a century, and Sehwag has emerged as a batsman ideally suited to the times.

Steve Waugh’s Australians have redefined Test cricket as a game of aggression, where momentum always overcomes solidity, where the traditional dichotomy of Attack and Defence is recast into a new paradigm of Attack and Counter-attack. Think of the great opening batsmen of our age: Matthew Hayden, Herschelle Gibbs and Michael Vaughan routinely play at a pace that brings them 180-plus runs in a day. Virender Sehwag is a perfect opening batsman for what Test cricket has become today.

Here’s Chandrahas, on Sehwag’s batting style:

But it is his approach to the game – his gambler’s instinct and his insouciance, the free and easy air with which he plays his slightly chancy game – that is his most charming and attractive quality, made all the more endearing because of the intense and competitive world in which he practises his craft. To me there is no stroke in the game more beautiful than a cover-drive or a flick from the bat of VVS Laxman, and yet there is no prospect as pleasurable in general as that of watching Sehwag bat. There is something irresistible about such bravado and dash, such disregard of rules of batsmanship thought to be almost sacrosanct. Even strolling about the crease between deliveries, he appears to be thinking not about the bowler changing his line of attack, or of this fielder going here and that one there, but rather of palm trees and golden beaches.

It is this very style that earned Sehwag the reputation of a “dasher” in his early days in international cricket, but there is something about that label that suggests style over substance, and also hints at a certain weakness – at faults and chinks waiting to be exposed. Sehwag has proved without doubt that he is not just a dasher. In fact, he has readily agreed to open – the position where dashers are most susceptible, against the new ball in Tests, and has responded with five centuries, each one a longer innings than the last, against five different attacks in two seasons. Not so long ago new-ball bowlers around the world used to see Indian openers in their dreams. Now they usually come running in and see the ball disappear over point off the second ball of the game.

To change the perspective slightly, check out Osman Samiuddin’s comparison of Shahid Afridi and Virender Sehwag, two modern players who define the conditions rather than “play according to it”:

But what holds more allure than changing a game is the way they do it. Almost certainly both would have played the way they did, whatever the situation. Context is not important because they create it. When Irfan Pathan peppered Afridi with bouncers and three men patrolling the long-on, deep-midwicket and square-leg boundaries, he didn’t shirk, he took him on, pulling twice for six and once for four. When Anil Kumble tried to curb the scoring by bowling a leg-stump line, Afridi didn’t pad, he tried to reverse pull him, failing once and succeeding the second time. Would he do the same if Pakistan were trying to save a match? He did in Kolkata.

By expressing themselves, both regularly shun traditions in what can be a stifling sport. We look, particularly in batting, for correct techniques, of playing within certain areas with the bat at certain angles, with certain stances and grips. Sehwag and Afridi challenge this openly, they rebel against this conformity.

Sehwag in a floppy hat yesterday seemed right, for it stirred a refreshing spirit, of flexibility not rigidity, of not being confined. Leaning like a lethargic lord, with one hand on bat and other on hip, he could have been playing at club or school level, or even in a maidan. The hat, as opposed to helmet, made for a cute and apt symbol for this. Not for him is the endeavour for perfection or precision in his technique, in his strokes. He does what is necessary, get bat on ball and score runs by doing so. High left elbow, straight bat, nimble footwork, they are rendered meaningless by his brazen defiance of the essence of batting. In any case, he is gifted with admirable traits, but he doesn’t strain for them, they come naturally. Simply, if the ball can be hit, it will be and if it can’t, it won’t. All else, how he does it, against whom he does it and in what situation he does it, this is frivolous.

Afridi is more rustic, more rudimentary but within him rests a similar approach. The very first ball he faced today was pulled for four as if playing a tape-ball midnight Ramzan tournament in Karachi. There was no lining up of the ball, of attuning to the light or the pitch. No strokes were practiced diligently between deliveries, no poses were kept. Only the ball was struck, as hard as possible with minimal concession made to technique or footwork. Here instinct is master and Afridi its slave.

In similar compare and contrast style, check out this piece by another good friend, Rahul Bhatia, where he looks at how the emergence of Sehwag impacts on Sachin Tendulkar:

Ever since Virender Sehwag became the new Tendulkar, the old Tendulkar’s been given a right bollocking for not being his old self. Pressure, burden, caution, restricted are the words used to describe his batting now. He used to be free-flowing, manic, electric and risky. Commentators say that he needs to play his own game, that his back foot moves across too much, among other things. Newspapers mourn the old days, when good ol’ Sach gave the ball a wholesome tonk. Sniff.

And finally [Sambit Bal has many lovely pieces on Sehwag and other players, but I’d linked to his latest just yesterday], a masterly example of seamless construction by the inimitable Rahul Bhattacharya. This one, like the others, is worth reading in full; I chose the quote below only because it plays into my day three theme of seizing the momentum:

Since Australia are the benchmark – and in batting the Indians ought to be meeting them eye-to-eye – it is instructive to note that when Matthew Hayden makes a score (fifty or more, for the purpose of this exercise), those who follow him score marginally faster than they would do had he fallen cheaply (at a rate of 3.79 against 3.75, from September 2001 onwards). When Sehwag scores fifty or more, however, the rest of the Indian line-up make their runs discernibly slower (2.96 against 3.15, in matches where Sehwag has opened) than they otherwise would. So where Australia are taking a man’s success and building on it, feeding off it – the cornerstone of their cricket in general – India are using it, bizarrely, as an occasion to play inside their abilities.

Some of India’s recent post-Sehwag dawdles make damning reading. At the MCG last season, when Sehwag was fourth man out, having made 195, the run-rate plummeted by 1.75 points (or 157 runs per day). At Kanpur against South Africa this season, when he was second out, having scored 164, it dropped by 1.52 (137 runs per day). At Kolkata in the following Test it fell by 1.02 (92 runs per day) after he was gone for 88. And at Mohali most recently against Pakistan it dipped by 1.46 (131 runs per day). Of the above matches India could only win the Kolkata Test. And there too South Africa, had they shown more resolve in the second innings, could have made India regret the tardiness, as the Pakistanis did at Mohali.

Each of these pieces is different in texture from the others, but they are all prime examples of the art of developing a theme. More to the immediate point, they are all examples of high quality writing that doesn’t get in the way of the subject.

American singer, actor, producer and music historian William McCord – better known as Billy Vera — has helped produce albums for an entire telephone director of music legends. He was once asked what it was like to produce Ray Charles. “You don’t produce Ray Charles,” Vera replied. “You just get out of his way.”

The same is true of writing about great sporting moments. Every building block you need — conflict, tension, the drama inherent in the juxtaposition of the success of one and the failure of the other – it is all there in the event itself. All the writers above do is get out of the way of their subject – perhaps the hardest skill there is to learn in the craft.

PS: Some traveling to do this weekend through Monday, so off Twitter for the duration. Back here in the evening with an end-of-play post. Enjoy the weekend, you guys.