Friday, February 29, 2008

The 'Art' of Batting, Bowling, Fielding and ...... ???

For a long time now, humble spectators like me have believed that the wonderful game of cricket was all about batting, bowling and fielding. Indeed, these three disciplines were called 'art' and the cricketers who mastered them were rightfully known as artists. We used to called GR Vishwanath an artist because of his impeccable late cuts and square drives. Similarly we called Shane Warne an artist because of the wonderful control he exhibited over that most difficult art of wrist spin bowling. But now, we are told, there are also some other arts that every school kid must learn if he has to be a top international cricketer. And one of them is the 'art' of sledging. And this amazing discovery of a new art form comes from no less a person than the captain of the Indian cricket team. As much as I have liked his on-field captaincy in the ongoing CB series, that comment from Mahender Singh Dhoni left me shocked and cold.

Almost immediately and inevitably, the media was full of debate on whether sledging has a place in international cricket or not. One faction called for the ICC to immediately ban sledging in any form. The other party argued that 'sledging' made for a more interesting game and without it, players would just be going about their business in much the same way as robots do. In order to make sense of all this and to give MS Dhoni a fair trial, I looked at the online Oxford Dictionary for the meaning of the word 'sledging / to sledge'. Ironically, one meaning of the word 'sledge' takes us back to Santa Claus and his sledge (vehicle) driven by Rudolph the reindeer. It reminds us of a time when we were all children, innocent and free from any aminosity towards each other. The other definition, staggeringly, is refered only to in cricket and it means ' offensive remarks made by a fielder to a batsman in order to break their concentration' (read it here). Do we interpret that to mean that sledging is prevalant only in cricket and not in other sports ?? So the dictionary definition states that 'to sledge' neccessarily means to make offensive remarks at somebody else. While it is too much to expect any cricket captain to know the dictionary definition of any word, we do expect him to be careful about his remarks. And if the Indian captain wants us to believe that to make 'offensive remarks' is an 'art form' which all youngsters should learn, then I have to reconsider my support to his team. Mind you, I do not subscribe to the view that cricketers should walk on the field with duct tape on their mouths and thoughts. Some emotion is perfectly acceptable, indeed required, on the field. Frustration and disgust at playing a wrong shot or bowling a full toss, dissapointment and dissent at being given a bad decision is not bad at all, since it shows your committment on the field of play. But to direct that frustration against an opposing team member is simply not on. And when it escalates into a war of words even off the field, then the umpires and ICC should act quickly.

Anyways coming back to the point, if MS Dhoni really meant what he said and if we are going to see his team indulge in all sorts of on-field chatter (there again, humorous chatter is fine, the umpire must know where to draw the line if the players are not mature enough), then I believe he has got off even more lightly than Mathew Hayden has. Sadly, in the midst of all the jingoism of 'big bad Aussies' vs Us, we (including the BCCI) have completely overlooked a potentially serious comment made by our own captain and he has gone scot-free.

Oh and there are 2-3 cricket matches yet to be played before this tour finally ends. I only hope that they pass of peacefully !!!!


Saturday, February 23, 2008

Coming this summer, the biggest circus of them all !!!!

So its official now. The game of cricket, certainly the 44 day circus called the Indian Premier League, can be safely classified in the category of 'Sports Entertainment', alongwith with the likes of WWE. Each cricketer has been valuated, just as equity research houses throughout the world value stocks. The difference, of course, is that the cricketers valuation is lacking any fundamental analysis (and some would say, also lacking rhyme or reason). But today, every cricketer worth his salt has a price tag attached to him and is avaliable for being bought and sold, just like any stock, commodity, toothbrush and toilet paper. Most of the reactions to the auction last week have been extreme. Some have lamented the 'death of cricket' while others have written that 'it was pathetic to see Rahul Dravid sitting besides Vijay Mallya like his secretary'. The best quote comes from Andrew Webster in the Sydney Morning Herald and it goes '"While a cricketer's value can be determined by a salivating squillionaire, a man's worth can only be determined by his actions," . After all this outburst, the stage now will shift to the grounds where the eight franchises (note that I refuse to call them 'teams' because this motley formation is an insult to that word since I cannot see, for example, any common objective being shared by Brett Lee and Sreesanth while playing for Chandigarh) will 'do battle' against each other. But I am terribly sceptical about the level of competition that will be on display. The reasons are many:
1. At 44 days, the tournament is too long a la the World Cup last year. Each franchisee playing 14 games is a bit too much. And even though they will be playing at night, it can be terribly hot and sweaty during summer evenings here.
2. So many games can also bring in spectator fatigue which in turn can affect the players' level of intensity.
3. But most importantly, is there going to be any pride for which they will be playing for. A large of part of sports thrives on pride (whether it be local, state or national) and the emotions arising out of that pride is what drives true sportsman more than being employed for a million dollars by an industrialist/Bollywood superstar to do a job. In the absence of this pride, how will this galaxy of stars motivate themselves ? We all remember the terrible cricket dished out by the ICC World XI in the super series a few years back.

To add to this, what about the spectators ? The onus of the success of the IPL (and other leagues of its ilk) depends on the support by the fans, both in terms of attendances as well as television eyeballs). But the majority of spectators in India watch the game only because of national pride which is why reactions are so extremely good or extremely bad. Now I live in Mumbai but will I support the Mumbai franchisee ? Atleast I have my talisman player in 'my' franchisee but what about someone living in Chennai ? Will he support the Chennai franchisee and the likes of Dhoni and Hayden ? On what grounds should he ? As of today, there is not even a single local player in that franchisee. To make matters worse, a Rohit Sharma is playing for Hyderabad. Now if he is playing against the Mumbai franchisee at the Wankhede and is leading a run chase, do i egg him on or pray for his dismissal ? A point also made by Kunal Pradhan in the Indian Express. The least that they could have done is to remove the cities from this whole mess and called them simply "Reliance Industries XI" or "King Khan's Superstars" or "Priety Zinta's Heroes" !!!. Spectators are going to find it hard to support their franchisee. and It is all going to be quite confusing. But inspite of all this, and inspite of the fact that I am not a great fan of this whole concept, I find it unlikely that the IPL circus will fail. Alas !!


Saturday, February 16, 2008

Stats and the 'truth' !!!

For all of those with a keen interest in cricket, and especially of cricket facts and figures, the blog 'It Figures' on Cricinfo (link here) offers more than just food for thought. For those who have not yet checked it out, I suggest you stop reading further and click on the above link. An excellent blog by some of the most famed cricket-lovers (and number-crunchers !!).

More than anything else, it brings out the dichotomy between figures and judgement i.e. statistics hide more than they reveal. Of particular interest is the latest post on the blog, which talks about the most 'consistent' bowlers in test cricket history. Now, putting a quantitative measure of the word 'consistent' is itself daunting. Statistically, consistent would mean a distribution in which maximum no. of points are near the median. Translated into cricketing terms, it would imply a batsman who mostly has scores close to his test average (and who is therefore deemed more consistent than, say, a guy who averages about the same but is more of the '100-5-2-150-5' variety). When it comes to bowlers, things are not that simple. So what the writer of the blog has done is to come up with a measure of bowling consistency. What it implies (read the blog to understand it fully) is that a bowler who most often gets a wicket in an average spell (7 overs for a medium-pacer and 11 overs for a spinner) is more consistent than a bowler who bowls 3 wicket-less spells and then gains a bucketful of scalps in his next spell (even though, both the guys end up with similar bowling averages). It is certainly quite interesting and has invited a host of comments from readers (ranging from appreciative to dismissive and a few downright silly - mostly from readers whose favourites could not find a high-enough position on that list).

All in all, a quite brilliant blog in that it exposes us to how our judgement on who the best is might change when subjected to science.

May the blog live long !!!


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Young Guns start off well !!!!

We are now half-way through the tri-series in Australia and for all the fans that were optimistic, or even apprehensive, about how the 'Gen-Next' of Indian cricket would perform, the news has largely been good. The team has performed admirably on most counts and though it is way too early to use phrases like 'best Indian team in last decade', 'genuine contenders for the next World Cup' etc, it cannot be denied that this team has displayed enough to suggest that better days lie ahead. I would not read much into yesterday's loss against the Lankans. A rain-shortened always tends to favour the side batting second, especially on a good batting track and with a good batting lineup. And after the veteran of the side turned the clock back in one memorable over from Sreesanth and pocketed 23 runs, there was always going to be one result thereafter. Having said that though, Dhoni probably missed a trick in not selecting an extra bowler especially when the toss happened after the rain delay. Picking 7 batsmen for a 29 over match is always an overkill. Robin Utthapa must be wondering what is he doing in Australia.

But coming back to the series overall, it has been quite an impressive performance. Though the first two games could not be completed, one can safely say that in neither of those games did the rain rescue India. Against the Aussies, with the way our bowling went just before the last shower, the result could have gone either way. In the second game, India would have fancied their chances after scoring 267 in their innings. But it was the win against Australia on Sunday that would have given their supports much joy. And two of the heroes of that day have been real revelations. Messrs Ishant and Rohit have more in common than their surname. Both are young, talented but more importantly, eager to learn. In many ways, Ishant Sharma reminds one of Srinath in his early days. Tall and thin with a similar high-arm action, both have made their names on a tour to Australia (Srinath in 1991-92). But where Ishant scores is his pace. I was pleasantly shocked to see an Indian clock 147kph more than once during the test series. And even during yesterday's match, the ball to Dilshan (in Ishant's first over) hit the bat rather than the other way around. Srinath used to do that in his youth (though at slightly lesser pace). Like Srinath, Ishant has the priceless ability of bringing the ball back to right-handers through the air, but straightening after pitching. Thats what got Ponting out, both at the WACA and the MCG. Ishant needs to watch out for his no-balls, it might hurt him at a crucial time. But, lets not heap too much praise on the young lad at such an early stage in his career. His moves hereafter will be closely watched.

On the other hand, Rohit Sharma has shown a good temperament in his last two knocks, especially in a tight run-chase against the World champions. He seems to have most of the shots in the book in addition to a decent technique. And though Ian Chappell may have gone slightly overboard in proclaiming him as India's No 4 bat after Sachin, it is clear that the 20-year old has a bright future ahead of him. Another heartening feature of our performance has been the running between the wickets. In recent matches, I can be fairly sure that we have gained 10-15 runs just because of the fast legs on the field. It may lead to a seemingly stupid run-out once in a while, but over the long run it will pay good dividends.

On the debit side though is the form of Yuvraj Singh. Clearly, whether it is because of injury or some 'other' factor, he is hardly looking the player that he was during the T20 World Cup. And it was particulary shocking to see him fielding at mid off instead of the usual backward point. Clearly, something is seriously wrong there and India needs a fit and hungry Yuvi. And we need to give some chances quickly to young Piyush Chawla. Kumble's journey into the sunset might be just a few test matches way and we only need to look at Australia's plight to realize what the loss of a champion bowler can do to your team. If Chawla is seen as the next best bet after Anil, then it is vitally important that he be given as many chances as possible, even partnering the captain in the upcoming test series against South Africa. Similarly, Suresh Raina also deserves a chance. He has played some good knocks in the domestic season and is stil one of our best fielders. And dont forget, he is only 22.

But the fact that players like Raina and Chawla cannot find places, tells us something about the depth of the side. Give this side a year or so and they hopefully will start delivering the results. For now, one can only say 'so far so good'.