Younis sacked?

On Twitter, a friend pointed at this ToI story that suggests that Pakistan has sacked captain Younis Khan and coach Intikhab Alam in the wake of the Champions’ Trophy defeat against New Zealand. Zee, and a couple of other sites, also have the bare bones story. Further details awaited — but if the match-fixing allegation that reportedly led to the action proves true [I wonder how strong the evidence was, to prompt the PCB to take unilateral action], that will come as another blow to Pakistan cricket, which in recent times has been on the receiving end of more than its due share of slings and arrows.

The Calculus of Hype

“Millions of Indians will lustily cheer every wicket taken by the Men in Green and go into raptures of delight whenever a Pakistani batsman hits a boundary.”

Yeah, right.

That’s Partho Bhaduri on the front page, no less, of the Times of India. And reading that made me realize, not for the first time, what suckers we in the media are for the obvious narrative. India’s fate depends on Pakistan!! Ooo — the delicious irony of it all, happening just days after India had played its first cricket match with the Land of Lashkar after 26/11.

Shashi Tharoor, the Twitter-minister, posted about this last evening; Partho and his mates have peppered the print media with riffs on this theme; the TV channels are getting nicely warmed up as I write this… and yet, have we done full justice to the tremendous potential [Excuse the emphatic itals in this post, please — too much Dan Brown lately] of this story?

And then there’s the conspiracy angle. Will Pakistan want India in the final? Younis Khan says so, but can we trust him, can we take his word for it and hope that Pakistan will pull out all the stops? Isn’t it more likely that Pakistan — who, as we all know, we can never really trust — will play just below par in order to do the dirty on India? Imagine what a laugh they will have in the dressing room after they’ve contrived to lose to Australia, knowing that the old enemy, still engaged in its own game against  the West Indies, now has to go through the motions knowing that its last remaining hope has been scuppered!

Oh for a Subhash Ghai, a Sunny Deol, to do full justice to such a compelling storyline. What drama! What conflict!

What crap.

Item one, the outcome of the Pakistan-Australia game does not hinge entirely — or even remotely — on whether Pakistan wants India to progress or no. The Aussies under Ponting have, thanks largely to England, rediscovered a large part of their mojo; there are signs that the arrogant self-belief that characterized the team in its pomp is gradually coming back. More to the point, the Aussies are playing very good one day cricket just now; the skipper is back in form and that fact alone makes a tremendous difference to a team that only lacked for its one surviving member of the fabled world champion outfit to lead the way.

Around him, the various bits and pieces are slotting nicely into place to a point where they are not missing Michael Clarke all that much; Mitchell Johnson cementing his place as a high quality all-rounder gives them that additional edge;  and if Nathan Bracken’s absence hurts the bowling lineup, Brett Lee is getting more into the groove with each outing. Plus, Australia is at its most dangerous when it is winning consistently.

Whether it fiddles with its lineup or not, Pakistan will have its hands full with the opposition in the game slated to begin early this afternoon — to suggest that the outcome merely hinges on whether Younis and his men want to do India down is ridiculous. The team is playing more than decent cricket, but the catch with Pakistan is that spectacular explosion and sudden implosion are two sides of a very thin coin [while on which, what fun if Pakistan actually implodes today — television talking heads can live off that for the remainder of the tournament].

Beyond all of that is the fact that India has not, in this tournament, had the look of champions — or even of a team deserving to be in the top four. The batting has been patchy, the bowling has oscillated between the good and the wild, the fielding standards are a disgrace, and MS Dhoni is gradually finding out that an ability to keep his cool is a virtue that cannot paper over every crack.

It had to happen — this after all is the Indian cricket team, and it is therefore axiomatic that any rise in fortunes will be swiftly followed by a precipitous decline. Thanks either to a beneficial alignment of the planets or a fortuitous alignment of various talents and form or both, Dhoni hasn’t felt real pressure since taking over the captaincy — but that time had to come. He is still the best bet for captain, and not merely in the short term — and if you take a long term view, it is good that his thinking is being tested now, rather than a lot closer to the next World Cup.

Mercifully, there is about Dhoni a touch of ‘if you can keep your head while all about you are losing theirs’, as exemplified by this media interaction where the bulk of the questions appear to be about Pakistan. The money quote:

“Pakistan will not play their XI thinking if they win, India will qualify,” he said. “Whatever they need to experiment they will do because they have qualified, they will look at the future. They might try out their reserves. It depends on them, what they want to get out of the game. I don’t think they will consider that if they win and if we win comfortably against the West Indies, India will qualify. I don’t think that will be an issue.”

‘Pragmatic’ is the best way to be for the Indian captain today — focus on the game, use it as an opportunity to begin treating the symptoms of decline, and the heck with whether you make the last four or no.

Given the players that form part of the squad, there are no tweaks India can make to its lineup that can substantially alter its fortunes — the best possible XI seems to be the one that took the field against Australia. Change, hopefully, will be in the attitude — there has been more than a touch of the defensive about the side in these last two games, and that is not a mental makeup guaranteed to get you very far.

Of the many things Dhoni said in his press conference, there is one bit I disagree with:

The likes of Ishant and RP Singh were also well down on pace, but according to Dhoni, that wasn’t as much of a concern as their erratic line and length. “It’s not about bowling 140 or 145-plus,” he said. “At the end of the day, you have to bowl the right line and length to the batsman. If you see the South African bowlers, they were among the quickest in the tournament but they were also fetched for runs. That means it is not about the pace, it is about where you are bowling and what field you have got. So I don’t think pace is the only criteria, it is line and length, the swing and the movement that you can get.”

I seriously hope that is not what he is telling Ishant [and yes, I believe he is a serious talent, and hope he gets his game back on track soon] — because the two things are not mutually exclusive. It is about bowling the right length and line, yes, but if you can bring pace to the package, so much the better. The South African example is not well taken, because it largely is about Wayne Parnell who, not to put too fine a point on it, bowled crap. Crap at some pace yes, but still crap.

The antidote to that is not to drop the pace down by 10-15 ticks, because all that does is make you a medium paced trundler. A fast bowler’s rhythm is different from a medium pacer’s — things fall into place when he is running in fluidly with the intent to bowl as quick as he is capable of. Tell him to slow down, and the natural rhythm is automatically disrupted, control is lost, and rubbish results.

For all the hype, India has nothing really to lose in this game — so I’d seriously hope Dhoni goes into the Wanderers and slips the leash on not just Ishant, but the team as a whole. If there is one change I would make in the unit that has played thus far in this tournament, it is to do away with its defensive, almost apologetic, mindset and to get out there buzzing with testosterone that might have come from last night’s nookie, but which I hope comes more from a realization that even absent Viru, Zak and Yuvi, the team still has enough skill to play good cricket.

A good game today likely won’t get India into the semis — that is miracle territory. But a great game at the Wanderers will reverse a collective mindset that is increasingly unsure, tentative, and if that is the only outcome of today’s game, I’ll still take it, and smile.

PS: Anyone watched the New Zealand-England game yesterday? There was for me one moment worth noting, and it came at 66/0 at the end of the first ten overs of the Kiwi chase. England, battered into submission by McCullum and Guptill, was clearly looking forward to the end of the mandatory power play overs so Strauss could spread the field and give his bowlers a bit of elbow room to try and rein things in. Kiwi vice-captain McCullum promptly called for the batting PP — brilliant, I thought. Too many captains in too many games use the power plays by rote where, ideally, it should be used as an unexpected weapon to disrupt the opposition’s game plan.

One of these days, someone will hopefully look at a sizeable sample of the last ten overs of matches in the pre-powerplay era, and contrast that with a similar sized sample of games where the PP was taken in the last ten overs, and tell me why it makes sense to hold the batting power play for the death, when teams with wickets in hand go hell for leather in any case.

PPS: Besides two games to follow, I’m trying to get the edition done a day earlier than schedule. Busy, hence, and likely to be largely absent from here. Random match thoughts, as always, here.

Mountains, molehills

It seems to be the season for interviews — and here’s another very good one, by Osman Samiuddin with Younis Khan. Harsha had in his own polite fashion hinted at the problems the media creates for teams. Younis is less diplomatic more pointed:

Before, when we lost a match, everyone used to say, “The match was fixed, the players sold out.” Now when we lose, everyone says players have had a fight. But what I want to know is, fight over what? Obviously if players don’t perform always, they use these things as crutches, these excuses.

I have seen one thing in my country, one amazing thing, especially in the media. Often one thing is said and thrown into the press like an arrow, like “the team is unhappy” or something. The captain then responds to it by saying, “No, no, everything is okay, we are happy.” Then everyone assumes that everything must be wrong if he is saying that. Sometimes I don’t respond to it. If someone has thrown that arrow, let him.

This time, during the World Cup, for example. I’ve always played and captained with a smile on my face. After the England loss, I spoke to the media about how it was a “fun” format. How the media grilled me over that! Don’t you think Twenty20 is just that? A fun format? Everyone says it, just in a different way, but today everyone is concerned about promoting Twenty20 too much. What will happen after five years in this format, with so much money at stake? There are dangers there. Nobody wants to play two days anymore, just a few overs. But the response I got to saying this was so negative.

After that match, I changed totally. I was silent, not smiling so much and I didn’t even smile when we won. I felt then that I needed to get a bit tight and stop all this smiling. Then when I did that, people started saying, “Look, the captain is not mixing with the players, something must be wrong, he must have fought with them.”

Did Imran not do this? People didn’t accept it because I was totally changed. I used to chirp and smile and when I changed people thought I had fought. Even now I don’t chill out too much because I’ve seen that if you get too close and too pally with the boys, then you lose a bit of authority. Now the same people are telling me to become pally with the boys again. I don’t want people to get involved in these issues and invade my privacy.

So that is what captaincy does: it teaches you to stop smiling, to take joy in what you do for a living.

Pak spin

Two incidents this week will give fodder for those who argue that ODIs and T20s have begun to have a negative impact on the traditional skills of a Test cricketer.

There was Kevin Pietersen fetching Nathan Hauritz from somewhere near second slip and getting caught via his helmet; more recently there is Younis Khan, with Pakistan unexpectedly in a dominant position after a first innings collapse, attempting a reverse at a point when runs were available for the asking, and there was absolutely no need for such “innovations”.

Both indiscretions had fatal consequences for their respective sides, reversing the run of play and allowing the opposition off the hook; as it turned out, Khan’s cute trick proved the more costly with his team going down to a series defeat with a day to spare.

So — is T20 in particular eroding the batsman’s ability to stay focussed over long periods, to build a Test innings in the traditional fashion? Or are we making too much of isolated indiscretions? Thoughts?

I agree with Younis, though, when he suggests that maybe the usual knee jerk commentary about Pakistan — unpredictable, irresponsible, et cetera — needs to be put on hold for a bit. It is a point made on this blog at the end of the first Test of the series.

Here’s Younis:

“It’s very easy right now to write this team off,” he said, “But how many Tests have we played in the last 14 months? For one full year we didn’t play at all. As and when we start playing more regularly, we will learn to adapt. I think it’s not about the technique, not about the bowling, not about the weather.

“Give this team some time, don’t point fingers too early. It will be very easy for me too to blame particular players, even myself. But the reality is, we haven’t been playing any Test cricket. It’s very easy for me to give up, to say I can’t captain this team. But somebody will have to stand up and fix the situation.”

Before the start of the series, Younis had said that being undercooked should not be an excuse for international teams. But three heart-breaking collapses later, Younis said it was time to analyse the situation, and that he concluded thus not as Pakistan captain but as an analyst. “Out of the four matches we have played, one was stopped midway, one we drew, and lost two,” he said. “And that too it felt like we were not beaten, we lost them ourselves. So I am not looking for excuses but for reasons. And this is one of the major reasons.”

Fair point — talk all you want about professionals having to adapt, the fact remains that the rhythms of Test cricket are so considerably different from those of the shorter version, that ‘adapt’ is easier said than done — especially if your forays into the five day game are so few and far between. The team clearly has talent — trick for the PCB would be to ensure that it gets enough opportunities to get its game together.

While on that, Pakistan plays its next Test in December, against Australia. A quick scan of the team’s upcoming fixtures shows no other engagements over the first half of next year.

Update: Kamran Abbasi, along similar lines.