Sunday, September 23, 2007

A (young) gentleman's game !!

The last two weeks have been a real spectacle in the world of cricket. The baby born on September 11th has not only learnt to walk and talk, but is in fact taking giant strides on its way to living and prospering with the big boys i.e. Tests and ODIs. Before the World T20 began, there were a lot of skeptics of the format, yours truly included. The apprehensions were various: T20 would make bowlers an extinct species, it would entice youngsters into slogging thereby hampering their development and, of course, the suggestion, rather unkind at that, that T20 is nothing but a 3 hour evening entertainment show rather than a contest between bat and ball. On most counts, T20 has proven everyone wrong. Although we have seen a lot of big hitting in this competition, hardly any has been of the shut-your-eyes-and-swing-the-bat variety. The bowlers have suffered quite a bit but there is plenty of evidence that the good ones (notably Vettori, Asif et al) will not only adjust to this format but also become the key men for their sides. Spinners have managed to hold their own against the marauders at the batting crease and in some cases have actually turned the match around. And most importantly, it has bought the crowds back to cricket, at least in South Africa where there was a significant drop in game attendances over the past few years. All in all, the World T20 Cup has been an unqualified success, converting even stalwarts of the old school of batting like Boycott into ardent fans.

And at the end of two-weeks of high quality cricket, we are left with two teams and the dream final: India vs. Pakistan. Not many, not least the organizers, would have thought of this lineup. But such has been the level-playing field that T20 has provided, very much in contrast to test matches. And the two finalists have every right to be there: Both have defeated the current World Champs plus another high-quality team (South Africa and Sri Lanka respectively). So this final match-up is no fluke. But for me, having two sub- continental teams in the final means a lot more than just a dream matchup (not to mention the artillery outside the field that goes with it !!). It is symbolic of the way the T20 format has opened up new and exciting possibilities in the game of cricket. For years, Indian and Pakistan were thought of as having a bunch of very talented cricketers, but the word ‘team’ did not fit in very well alongside them. But the advent of a new form has changed things around: for starters, both teams left out their senior players. They were quick to grasp what T20 was all about and invested in youth. A bunch of first-timers were pushed onto the world stage and they have delivered, whether it be Misbah-ul-Haq, Sohail Tanvir or Rohit Sharma. Both teams have young and new captains with fresh and aggressive ideas, ideally suited to this format. And most significantly, the T20 format has cleared the cobwebs in the mind and has unleashed the raw striking talent that cricketers from our part of the world have. While I have been awed by each of the dozen-odd sixes that Yuvraj has hit so far, what has struck me even more than he is playing with a very clear mind. He is no more wondering whether to attack or keep wickets intact, to go over the top or keep it safe along the ground. T20 teaches you to play in only one style: your natural style. And the natural instincts of Yuvraj Singh have finally come out in gay abandon. And yes, I will go as far as to say that this has been the cleanest hitting (no slogs mind you !!) that I have seen in my two decades of watching cricket. And the running between the wickets has also been the best I have seen from the Men in Blue for a long, long time. The concoction of youth, natural talent, energy, fearlessness and T20, of course, makes for a very intoxicating drink indeed !!!!

So irrespective of the result on Monday, there is some evidence that it will be these kind of players and teams that have them who will lead the world in dominating this brand of cricket. The rest of the world would do well to see the signs. Win or lose tomorrow, both India and Pakistan will leave South Africa two steps ahead in their understanding of this fine game.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

New-age Cricket !!!

We are entering a new age in cricket. Cricket’s latest avatar is taking the world by storm. Started just about 2 years back, it has got everyone’s attention like nothing else before. Already, the ICC deems it worthy of a World Cup (remember, the 50 over format had a low-key WC more than a decade after the limited-overs game was introduced in England). And to follow that up, four of the world’s richest and most influential cricket boards have joined hands to create an ‘official’ Twenty-20 international league, much on the lines of the Champions League in European football. I suspect the dynamics of world cricket are going to be altered fundamentally in the years to come.

So what is it about T20??? The first word that is usually associated with T20 is ‘fun’. Talk to about half the cricketers about the new baby, and this is the word that you would find in their first sentence. Yes, it is very much about fun, primarily for the spectators. A game that is done and dusted in three hours is ideal to take your family and friends out to on an evening after work. The innovators have also made some smart moves to ensure more activity and fun for the players. The ‘dressing room’ has been bought on to the field (you surely wont find anyone dressing thereJ), so that the tensions and tactics of the games can be seen by all. The new batsman pretty much sprints to the wicket or else he is timed out. And not to forget the cheer leaders entertaining the crowd after every boundary or wicket. There is a definite carnival atmosphere to this format of the game. For the organizers, this attracts newer segments of the population to the game which hitherto had stayed away from game because of its slowness and excessive length. It is truer in England than anywhere else, where the overwhelming success of the format has resuscitated the game in the counties. It is therefore, without a doubt, a win-win both for the authorities and the spectators.

But what about the players? I saw the first game of the World Cup and the frightening manner in which Gayle and Gibbs murdered the bowling put me off a bit. I have always been an advocate of an equal contest between bat and ball, and that game did not do the bowlers any favours. Thankfully though, the other games have seen more of a level playing field, with the India-Pakistan contest being a real classic to rival any ODI or Test match. Still, the T20 format inherently favours the batsmen. Here, they have the license to go for the big hits from the first ball without too much worry about wickets (you have to be really ordinary to lose 10 wickets in 20 overs !!). Infact, after the first game, I thought that having only 8 batsman bat (i.e. maximum of 7 wickets only) might be a useful thing to try out. The pitches and conditions in Durban and Cape Town have favoured the bowlers a bit, which is why you see first-innings scores of 130-150 rather than 200+. This makes for a much more interesting game. But these pitches are the exception rather than the norm, and therefore, expect the bowlers to suffer a lot more in T20. This needs to be addressed sooner or latter by the ICC. That apart, this World Cup looks set to be a great success and the T20 format would sooner or later be the primary format of cricket played over the globe.


Friday, September 14, 2007

End of series but start of a journey...

A lot has happened in the week since my last post. India have finished the one-day series in England with mixed success, the World T20 Cup has taken off in spectacular fashion in South Africa, almost simultaneously, 4 of the biggest cricket boards in the world have united to form an ‘official’ league of the Twenty20 format. And today comes the news that India’s cricket captain has abruptly decided to step down from what arguably is one of the hottest seats in Indian contemporary life.

We can look back at the 7-match ODI series with a mix of positives and negatives. However, when seen with a long-term perspective, the negatives seem to outweigh the positives. The batting did mostly fine, but the best batsmen in the series are all above 32 and are approaching the evening of their careers. It is upto Yuvraj and Dhoni to take over the mantle of the batting through the next few years. They, hopefully alongwith Sehwag, would be the fulcrum around which the next generation of talented batsman can build their careers. It was good to see Utthapa succeeding at the The Oval, this will hopefully go a long way in his development as a decent international cricketer. For the team management, now is the time to keep on blooding new guys in the one-day team. In fact, I would even suggest a rotation policy where one of Sourav, Sachin and Rahul is rested in every match and fresh talent is given a chance. To take it further, if Sachin were to retire later this year as reported, not only would it be a fitting end to a great career and would also pave the way for Gen-Next to make their mark. Coming back to the series, the bowling and fielding looked pretty ordinary though. Apart from Zaheer and Powar, the others were too inconsistent (although Chawla has a good future ahead of him). As for the fielding, we really need to improve our standards (as mentioned in the previous post) to be able to compete with top international sides. To sum up, the series provided us with quite a few lessons. Hopefully, we will be good learners and take two steps forward in our journey towards the next World Cup and beyond.



Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Warnie's final googly !!!

The irresistible Shane Warne has done it again. After getting 708 victims on the field with that mesmerizing mix of flippers, googlies and leg breaks, he has now delivered yet another googly that has left many stumped. And he might have got a few ‘wickets’ in the process as well. His list of Top 50 cricketers (cleverly executed as a daily countdown of 10 each) was bound to raise some eyebrows and, of course, a lot of controversy.

I see no reason why any rankings/ratings/list should generate any controversy. But cricket has a history of having too many such ratings and, not surprisingly, lots of controversies to go along with. Remember the Wisdens top 5 players of the century and how we were shocked at seeing Sachin out ?. Ratings and lists are no more than opinions of either individuals or panels, who are helped by their own vast experiences of playing, commentating or writing about the game and also by the enormous statistics available at their disposal. But finally, they are still opinions and therefore, bound to vary. But in Shane Warne’s case, what is very obvious is that he has allowed ‘non-cricketing’ issues to creep in his judgement of his Top 50. I wonder what Steve Waugh will tell Warne the next time they meet. Waugh at No. 26 cannot be a pure cricketing opinion. Warne defends the rating on two counts: a). Waugh being a match-saver than a match-winner b). he being handed a great time by Mark Taylor. Somehow, I find it hard to buy that. While the second argument might be true, and Taylor also was a better captain that Steve, it was under Steve that the Aussies developed that ruthless streak of winning matches (remember that 16-Test winning streak ?). Therefore, to brand Steve Waugh as a defensive captain is baffling. He might not have been one of the greats entertainers as a batsman and that might be where Warne is coming from. But, all said and done, Waugh at 26 is too hard to digest. And yes, there have been enough theories going around in the past few days to account for that, which I find hard to shun.

Some other Australians also seem to have got the advantage of being part of a great team. Brett Lee ahead of Donald and Pollock seems too biased. So does Darren Lehmann. Six Indians find a place in the 50 (most after Aussies and English), which is testimony to the hard-fought Indo-Aussie rivalry over the past decade or so. But even there, Laxman has reason to feel aggrieved, having tackled Warne with almost as much distinction as Sachin and Lara. And Dilip Vengsarkar, though a very fine player overall, finds a place even though he would have faced Warne in only 2 tests on that 1991-92 tour, where neither performed with much distinction.

Finally, as one of the letters in the English newspapers said, Shane Warne has a right to name his own children, so why not his Top 50 ? All we need to acknowledge that these are no more than opinions of one man and live with the baggage of non-objectivity that comes along with it. Read it, chuckle and forget it rather than spending hours debating on captaincy rifts.

PS: Here is a good article by Tim De Lisle on the selection

Sunday, September 2, 2007

The Great Indian Team Balancing Act. !!

India's woes in the ongoing one day series in England are very much evident for all to see. The defeat at Old Trafford must be especially demoralizing, because when you have got the opposition on the mat at 114/7 with another 100 to get, you expect 9 out of 10 times to finish the job. Sadly, that didnt happen and instead of a 2-2 scoreline (which would made the last 3 games potential classics), we are down 1-3 and wondering where the next win is going to come from.

Coming to the issues that plague the Men in Blue, while they are embarrasingly obvious, there is no quick-fix to it. The 2 most burning issues are: Fielding and Team Balance. Ground fielding has been India's achilles heel for years now. While we may be good at catching, covering the outfield and sending good returns in is an area where we are, quite literally, few yards behind the rest of the world. Recently of course, we have got the best man for the job. Robin Singh not only was one of our best fielders, he also was a classic example of sincerity and hard work. And that is what is needed in fielding. Not great skills or even speed, but just hours of hard practice put in. However, he needs to work with the youngsters in the team, possibly even the Under-21s. I dont see what improvements Robin can bring about in, say, a Ganguly or a Dravid, because you get the passion for fielding at 17, not at 34. But hopefully, give Robin enough time and he will give some results.

The problem of balance arises because, as Harsha Bhogle put it so succicintly, "bowlers cant bat and batsman cant bowl !!". We are comfortable neither with the 7-batters nor the 5-bowlers and keep shifting from one strategy to other. Thats where the all-rounder and utility players come in handy. In fact, I have put together a summary of the strengths of each of the curent members in each of the three departments and the sum of the scores is what they bring to the table. The sheet reads as follows (note that the numbers are based on current form)

Bat Bowl Field Total
Ganguly 7 5 5 17
Tendulkar 8 5 6.5 19.5
Dravid 8.5 1 6 15.5
Gambhir 6 0 6 12
Karthik 6 1 7 14
Yuvraj 8 4 8 20
Dhoni 7 0 6 13
Agarkar 5 6 7 18
Zaheer 4 8 5 17
Chawla 5 7 6 18
Powar 5 7 5 17
RP Singh 3 7 5 15
Munaf 3 7 2 12

One look at the sheet and you realize why Yuvraj and Tendulkar are India's MVP in one-dayers. They contribute in all three departments. Agarkar, inspite of his rotten bowling form, should be in the side on most days while youngsters like Chawla should be groomed carefullyl. Those below 15 should consider at improving another aspect of their game to make themselves a saleable proposition in the limited overs game. On the other hand, there is also the danger of picking too many bits and pieces players. England and West Indies used to do it in the past but without much success. My own theory is that you have need to have a minimum of 3 very good batsman, 3 very good bowlers and a good wicketkeeper-batsman (say 8 and above). If anyone of these contributes in the other department, thats a bonus. The remaining 4 can be utility cricketers. And needless to say, most should be atleast 7 or more on the field. For India, this remains a distinct dream. Two guys currently out in the cold need to do what Dada did in 2006 and come back better players. We need Sehwag and Pathan back as more fitter players and also, with their heads clear. They are going to be crucial over the next few years.

In the past, a very close association of India was with the Great Indian Rope Balancing Act. We need a Great Indian Team Balancing Act now !!!