Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A cricketing colossus goes into the sunset !!!!

Every once in a couple of generations, comes a sportsman who is so different from the rest that he sets new benchmarks for the rest that ply his trade. Talking specifically about cricket, such champions can be counted on the fingers. All batsman, however great, come a distant second when compared to the Don. Hardly any all-rounder is mentioned in the same breath as Sir Gary Sobers. When it comes to leg-spin bowling, Shane Warne is widely regarded to be the best that ever was. And when it comes to the clan of wicketkeeper-batsmen, you need to look no further than Adam Gilchrist. Which is why his retirement holds so much significance for international, let alone Australian, cricket.

In fact, if you think about it, the phrase 'wicketkeeper-batsman' is a relatively new one in cricket. And Adam Gilchrist can perhaps lay a legitimate claim to be its inventor. Before he burst on the scene in the late 90s, a wicketkeeper was looked upon as not much more than just that, a wicket keeper. A batting average in the late 20s was perfectly acceptable, along with the ability to hang around with a top order batsmen. Some wicketkeepers had a couple of exceptional days in their careers where they made centuries. But that was an honourable exception. And how things have changed !!! Today, a choice between two glovesmen inevitably comes down to who is better with the bat in hand. And in fact, quite often, the better wicket keeper loses out. Blame that on Adam Gilchrist. Today a keeper is not good enough if he only contributes 30s and 40s. He needs to have the ability of scoring 70s and 80s, and even a hundred, on a frequent basis. All because of the man who changed the way the world looked at wicket-keeping forever. Which is why I stick my neck out to say that Adam Gilchrist was one-in-every-two-generations cricketer.

I hardly need to repeat the figures. What is more important is the way that Gilchrist turned matches on their head. In his second test match, Australia were set 369 to win by Pakistan at Hobart. At 126 for 5, things looked bleak. Enter Gilchrist to slam an undefeated 148 of 163 balls (against Akram, Waqar, Shoaib and Saqlain no less !!) and lead the Aussies to a 4 wicket win, a win so improbable that it gave the team the belief to go for another 14 consecutive wins. At Mumbai in 2001 (on a turning track), Bhajji was wreaking havoc and Australia were 99 for 5. The man walks in and slams 122 off 112 balls, the Aussies completing a 10 wicket win on the 4th day. At the Wanderers in 2002, he walked in the relative comfort of 293 for 5, but still clubbed 204 off 213 balls, taking his team to 652 for 7 and an innings+360 runs win. If the South Africans thought it was Gilchrist at his best, they were mistaken. In the next test, Australia were 185 for 6 but managed 382, because of one man and his innings of 138 off 108 balls. There are numerous such examples. But let no one mistake Gilchrist only as one of the most explosive batsman of all time. In his primary role of a wicket-keeper, he was quite good as well. Standing up to Warne and McGill, and standing back to the pace of Lee, and succeeding most of the times, is no mean achievement. He might not be the greatest wicket-keeper of all time, but as a package, he was irresistible. And, not to forget, in a team with a reputation of being the bad boys of cricket, he stood out with his hard-but-fair approach.

He was one of the cornerstones in both the 16-test-win run achieved by the Australians. His contribution was no less than that of McGrath, Warne, Ponting or Hayden. Which is why it would be interesting to see how Australia handle his departure. Warne's absence is already showing quite alarmingly if you are an Aussie fan. It is also proving hard to replace McGrath. But Gilchrist's absence could hurt them even more. Brad Haddin is talked about as being as good a batsmen as Gilly, and if it is anywhere close to the truth, bowlers around the world might as well give up. But even if someone becomes the second Adam Gilchrist, we will always cherish the original !!!

Thanks for the memories Gilly !!!


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

India's 'could-have-been' man !!!

So finally, Messrs Vengsarkar and Co have unveiled, or so it seems, the vision of Indian cricket's future (atleast in the ODIs). The golden oldies have been sidelined and in come the young blood. I am no big fan of Ganguly, but I confess to have been surprised by his exclusion. But on second thoughts, one can see the selectors rationale and I only hope that the by-now-mandatory-kolkata-outcry will die down and hopefully, these events will not affect our team in Adelaide.

But, amidst all this clamour for youth, there will be one man contemplating his now-fragile future as an Indian cricketer. Although he is no longer young, having turned 30 last month, he was till recently, a virtual certainty for the Indian ODI team. He certainly does not fail the selector's new criteria (throwing, running between the wickets et al). In fact, he is still considered to be one of the best outfielders we have. But when he ponders over his exclusion (especially for a tour where he was a success last time around), Ajit Bhalchandra Agarkar might do well to reflect on a career that was but, more importantly, that could have been.

Apart from the big three, Agarkar's is the name that has evoked the most debate amongst cricket fans. Lets get the numbers out of the way. If you had come from Mars (with some knowledge of cricket, of course) and someone gave you the statistics of Indian bowlers, then you would have seen that Agarkar's bowling average and strike rate are better than Zaheer Khan, RP Singh, Sreesanth, Munaf Patel (only Pathan compares well with him on these parameters). And of course, he bats and fields well than all of the above-mentioned bowlers except Pathan. Then, why on earth (no pun intended :)), you might well ask, is he being left out ??? The answer probably lies in the fact is that the Indian cricket fans, the selectrors included, have run out of patience with him. And that, in turn, is because even his worst detractors know that he had the potential to offer a lot to Indian cricket than what we has given us. And though I am still an Agarkar supporter, I feel he has contributed to his own decline. For one, not a lot of thought was put into his bowling. The misplaced tendency to bowl short and aggressive, in a manner not suited to his stature, paid him rich dividends in his early days. But soon, it was found out by top batsmen and thereafter, an Agarkar short delivery was promptly cut through point or pulled in front of square. Then there is also that terrible disease of bowling a boundary ball after four good deliveries in an over. When he has bowled within himself and looked to swing the ball, he has done well for himself.

But just as it takes two to tango, somewhere he has also not got his full due. His batting, for example. During the Chappell-Dravid regime in 2005/06, all and sundry were tried at the No 3 position, but somehow, Agarkar never got a chance up at the top. Keep in mind, that in the 4 innings that he has batted at No 3, he has scored 182 runs (including the career best 95 no.). Pathan grabbed that opportunity and has never looked back since, atleast when it comes to batting. Maybe, just maybe, success batting at No 3 would have rubbed on his bowling as well. He was well worth trying out at No 3, given that he is a good timer of the ball and not afraid to go over the top in the Powerplays (and can hit some clean sixes as well). Also, the insane comparisions with Kapil Dev did not help either.

But, all might not be lost as yet. While he might be 30, he still seems fit enough to compete with the young guys. And if only he can clear his mind and find his way back, he might well script another successful comeback story.


Sunday, January 20, 2008

A victory to savour !!!!!!

'Ek Aur Karega ?' will definitely go down as the most famous question in Indian Cricket History. It was a question that, to my mind, changed the course of the test match and just maybe, will change the course this Indian team takes. Had this question not been put, an Australian win might have become a real possibility. Ponting had done well to survive that torrid working-over from Ishant (albeit with a slice of luck) and a different bowler coming in would have released the pressure off him and we all know what a great batsman he is once on song. With a strong line-up to follow, Australia would have well fancied their chances. And one thing is for sure: If the Aussies had won this match, their aura of invincibility would have increased manifold, other teams would have resigned themselves to the contest of the best No 2 team, and world cricket would have been in further danger.

This is of course, not to say, that India won simply because of that twist of fate. Indeed, the above question would have become irrelevant had Ponting been given out leg before previously in his innings. This victory, and I have no doubt that it would rate as the best overseas victory for Indian cricket (possibly alongwith Port Of Spain 1971 and definitely better than Adelaide 2003), has been achieved because the Men in Blue simply outplayed the Aussies in most contests. An inexpeirenced opening pair (how Hayden was missed in the second knock !!) was put under pressure by a trio of medium pacers whom everyone expected to finish second best to Lee, Clark et al. In fact, I admit that I did not think Pathan was good enough to be part of a 4 bowler attack (he is ideal as the 5th bowler and No 7), but I am happy to have been proved wrong. All the hoopla about the Perth track being 'red-hot' was rendered useless, the bowler who played only to take advantage of the track went wicketless (again proving that only raw pace has never bothered anyone). And India's batsman chipped in with useful contributions all the way through. Aided by brisk efforts by Sehwag at the top (how we missed him at the MCG !!), the middle-order did a great job building on that momentum. Dravid and Sachin ensured that we put in a decent score in the 1st innings, while Laxman held together the innings second time around (with great support from Dhoni). And of course, there was the skipper himself, getting to yet another milestone in a glorious career. He will no doubt remember wicket no 600, more so because of the result.

And I also dont believe in the theory that this win is poetic justice, after looking at what happened in Sdnyey. Sure, the Indians have done an excellent job in lifting themselves up after the events of the past week and came back hard at the Australians, but to say that this win was simply meant to be is to undermine the efforts put in by the boys, as well as the fact that it was a thrilling match. The only time poetic justice was delivered was with Andrew Symonds. An outside edge went unnoticed in Sdnyey and granted him a life, while an inside edge to pad off the same bat also went unnoticed at Perth only this time, he was at the wrong end of an umpiring error. What goes around, as they say, comes around. But apart from that, the umpiring errors evened out and thank goodness for that !!!!

A great win by a team full of self-belief, lead by an astute cricket veteran, backed by high performing seniors and talented and fearless juniors !!!

Congratulations Team India and all the very best for the future !!!!


Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Blunders Down Under !!!!

Its been nearly 72 hours since that dramatic Sunday when all hell broke loose down under. Thankfully, things are getting back to normal. The tour continues, so we have a match in Perth (where the worry I have is that the Aussies will trample all over us, aided by the famous Perth wicket and then people will wonder what the whole fuss was all about) and the teams (atleast the captain) seem to be on talking terms again. But the relief that things will return to normal should not overshadow the fact that what happened during those 5 days (and the night afterwards) has serious implications for cricket in general. In fact I feel there are three distinct issues that took place during the Sydney test, each one of them so serious that, had it even occured in isolation, would have proved quite damaging to cricket's reputation in world sports. The fact that ALL three of them happened in the same match explains the volcano of emotions that swept the nation. Hence, all three issues deserve a seperate hearing.

Issue # 1

The substandard officiating in the match

By now, reams of newsprint and hours of TV time have been spent on this, so I will not flog a dead horse further. Would like to make one point though: As human beings, we all get things wrong sometimes, just that this match did not see wrong decisions even out for both sides and when the side that has suffered the most loses so heart-breakingly there are bound to be extreme reactions (I can assure you the reactions would have slightly tempered had, say, Kumble and Dhoni batted out those overs). But what worries me more about the umpiring is that, in recent times, the officals have shown blatant ignorance of the game's laws (World Cup final anyone ?) or logical thinking. For e.g. in case of Ganguly, if both umpires are not sure whether the catch carried (as it was then) it should have either been refferred to the third umpire or the batsman should have been given benefit of the doubt. How can one ever trust the players on the ground in this ? (Pre-series agreement or not) Surely, Messrs Bucknor and Benson should have known better. So the ICC has a serious issue on hand: to improve the standard of world umpiring in quick time. Currently, the elite panel of umpires is really elite: only 8 members, of which one (Mr Hair) is no longer officiating and another (Mr. Bucknor) who will no longer enjoy the trust of the players irrespective of which game he officiates. (The best of them is an Australian and hence cannot officiate in Australia). So it needs to have more in that club. But the question is: are there umpires good enough to join the elite group ??. At least in India, the answer is no. The signs for cricket are not good indeed.
The ICC has also set a dangerous precedent by removing Bucknor from the next test. You bet that there will be games as worse as the Sdnyey test as far as the standard of umpiring is concerned. So does it mean that the ICC will start changing umpires after every badly officiated match ?

Issue # 2

The whole racisim row

Probably the most serious and the saddest of them all. At first, it reminded me of an incident in my childhood. I must have been in the 5th standard or so. While playing with a guy a year younger than me, I inadvertently let a cuss word escape my mouth. He promptly reported the incident to my mother, who then gave me more than a earful. What I am trying to get at is this: not everything that is spoken on the field deserve to be reported, especially if no one apart from the two parties has heard or seen anything. In most cases, you cannot give justice based on one man's word against another. Hard evidence needs to follow. Given this, Bhajji has certainly been convicted without a fair trial and the appeal against the verdict was certainly required. But here again, to hold the entire tour to ransom based on two demands was not on, in my book. When writers in other countries argue about how India is taking undue advantage of the situation given its power in world cricket, there are not entirely misplaced. Finally better sense has prevailed and the tour goes on.

Also, another dangerous precedent has been set: the ICC might need to appoint a battery of lawyers and judge along with the match referee for each match, especially if all teams decide to report everything that has been said on the field. And in due course of time, we will have microphones attached to every player on the field. And what about abuse from the dressing room ??? So have mics there too !!.

Issue # 3

General player conduct on the field

In addition to sledging and racist comments, this also includes general conduct on the field as well as the yardsticks applied by the players to various situations. Here, quite a few instances come to mind. Ponting's continued insistence (in the press conference) that he had held a clean catch off Dhoni was shocking to say the least. In fact, it is interesting to note that he himself bought up the word 'integrity' during the press conference. Most of the journalists would not have thought of it till then. The Aussie captain also proved himself to be a 'master' at judging the legitimacy of dubious catches couple of hours earlier, during the Ganguly dismissal. How we could have been so confident so as to raise the dreaded finger when even TV replies were inconclusive, we would never know. Then there was Adam Gilchrist. Normally renowned to one of the fairer players in the Aussie side, he is the one who is known to walk after edging without waiting for the umpire's verdict. But still, his was the most vociferous appeal when Dravid thrust his pad out while facing that delivery. He would not have been more than 2 meters away from Dravid and he surely would have quite clearly seen that the ball was miles away from Dravid's bat or glove. Yet, you turn your throat sore in appealing. Now, I dont expect cricketers to be saints, but trying to spread a saint-like image while conveniently indulging in double-standard does nothing but expose you as a person (Witness Ponting saying: "If you have to question my integrity, then you just have to look at the first innings when I didnt claim the catch at slip"). But after seeing the Ponting in the 1st innings vs the 2nd innings, we do question his integrity. After all, in such cases, a man with conveniently changing morals is worse than a man with no morals at all.

So, a lot has happened over the past 72 hours, and lets hope all the affected parties: the players, ICC, the cricket boards and world cricket in general, takes the right lessons out of it.