Monday, January 20, 2014

The Mystery of the Letter Writer Solved

I'm glad to note that the mystery of the letter writer has been solved (described in these two posts here (post #1) and here). I did indeed make a mistake and misattribute the letter to David Frith to the Indian team manager PR Man Singh; instead, as the scan below makes clear (sent separately to me by Brian Carpenter and Mr. Panwar Man Singh), it was indeed Man Singh Panwar who wrote the letter.

Here is the scan sent to me by Mr. Singh; click on the image for a larger version. (A better quality scan--sent to me by Brian Carpenter--can be viewed as a PDF file here):

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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Of Editors Eating Their Own Words and Mistaken Credit - The Saga Continues

As a follow-up to the last post, here is an update in the form of new correspondence from the gentleman that wrote to me. My reply follows.

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Wed, 15 Jan 2014 07:49:12 -0500
From: Man Panwar <>
Subject: Retraction of Letter to Wisden

Dear Samir,

I sent you an email on 30 Dec with a simple request to retract your outrageous statement that some one called PR Man Singh (!) wrote that piece. You have been silent. I wanted to forget this incident, but your silence in the matter is deplorable. If you do not retract it, I may take it to the next level, which I really do not want to do. Your call.


Man Singh

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Thu, 16 Jan 2014 12:42:33 -0500 (EST)
From: Samir Chopra <>
To: Man Panwar <>
Subject: Re: Retraction of Letter to Wisden

Dear Mr. Panwar,

Thanks for your email. May I ask if you have a copy of the letters to the
editor section with your letter and the photo of David Frith eating his
words? If I have indeed confused you with the erstwhile manager of the
Indian cricket team PR Man Singh, a simple enough error of memory, not entirely surprising given the antiquity of that epistolary exchange, and surely not as 'outrageous' as you seem to think it is, then I welcome correction. (I did, after all, in my original version of the post, confuse David Frith with Christopher Martin-Jenkins.)

However, at this stage, I have no evidence, besides your indignant
insistence, that you are indeed the original letter writer. You will
understand that I cannot make a 'retraction' and neither can Cricinfo make a correction to their page without such evidence.

best wishes,
Samir Chopra

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Friday, January 03, 2014

Of Editors Eating Their Own Words and Mistaken Credit

A couple of weeks ago, in a post at The Cordon on ESPN-Cricinfo, I recounted a little tale of an editor (David Frith of Wisden Cricket Monthly) forced to eat his words after India's win in the 1983 World Cup. (Short version: Frith suggested India, on the basis of its dismal record in the World Cup, be forced to qualify for the next one; the Indian team manager PR Man Singh wrote in after the Cup suggesting Frith retract in the appropriate fashion; Frith complied.) In the original version of the post, I made two mistakes. I named Christopher Martin-Jenkins as the editor, and the Cricketer as the magazine.

Now, I have received a very interesting, irate and confusing email from a reader. I don't know what to make of it. Here it is:

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Mon, 30 Dec 2013 14:19:57 -0500
From: Man Panwar>
Subject: Eating Words

Dear Samir,

I am really shocked that you of all persons, who claims to be a Professor at a leading college, would publish something without first doing a little research on the matter. I refer to your article stating that some one called PR Man Singh wrote that letter to David Frith asking him to eat his words. What rot. That letter was written by me. In my office in New York once I composed it, all my colleagues liked it. I sent it off by post, there was no email those days. I also sent him the cutting from my edition of the Wisden. Once it was published we all had a big party. Where the heck do you get off giving credit to some one else ? Are you not as a Professor, expected to research your articles to ascertain the truth, before going half assed about it.

I started to follow cricket in 1946 (were you born then) when the greatest Indian cricket team under the Nawab of Pataudi, with the likes of Merchant, Hazare and Mankad sailed from our shores to take on England or the MCC as they were then called. I moved to the USA in 1970 and settled in NJ but followed Indian Cricket like a hawk. I took it as a great insult to us when David Frith suggested we withdraw from the World Cup. The rest is history. I had a further exchange of ideas with David after this. I also called him a “Limey” but was man enough to apologise to him.

Now if you are a noble man, which I am sure you are, you will also publicly apologise for this blunder. Or call me at 201-XXXX-XXX.

I myself belong to the former Royal family of Tehri Garhwal in Uttarkhand. We are Rajputs. Most Rajputs have Singh as their middle name and their clan name as the last. I just normally do not use our surname Panwar. If you are interested I will send you a link to our family tree. You will see my name under the sons of Narendra Shah the late Maharaja. My brother Balendu Shah used to captain U.P. in the Ranji Trophy.

In my anger I did send off a letter last week to Cricinfo about this, and called you a nasty name. If they did forward it to you, please accept my apology.

Best regards & a Happy New Year.

Man Singh

Man Singh Panwar

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Monday, April 08, 2013

Alcohol and the Jesse Ryder Assault Case

My article at The Cordon last week on the Jesse Ryder assault case sparked some strong critical responses (mainly on Twitter). These roughly amounted to the following:

  1. That I had blamed Jesse Ryder for the attack, thus blaming the victim of a seemingly almost-fatal assault.
  2. That I was wrong to speculate or conjecture about what had happened that night, wrong to offer an opinion on what might have happened. This criticism is related to the one that I was wrong to be offering any sort of commentary on a man who had been the victim of a beating.
  3. That I am a puritan about alcohol, who thinks alcohol causes violence, that it was the sole cause of the incident that night.
First, I reject the canard that I was blaming Jesse Ryder for the attack. Nowhere in my post do I suggest that Ryder’s drinking in particular caused the fight, that he started the fight, that he was drunk, that he was to blame. Describing the incident as alcohol-related does not mean blaming Jesse Ryder. Indeed, in my post, I suggested Ryder might even have been picked on by his attackers. That is, he might have been harassed by his attackers, who knowing Ryder’s past, made offensive remarks pertaining to that. My critics should acknowledge though, that even if Ryder had been stone cold sober and not drinking—though we have been told he was—and had been attacked by a pair of drunks, this would have been an alcohol-related incident. More importantly, you do not have to be drunk to get into an alcohol-related fight; you simply need to have your tongue loosened up a bit. That is all that is needed to implicate alcohol in this incident.

I will admit the use of the word ‘everything’—in the title of my post and then again later in the post itself--was unfortunate. I meant it as a rhetorical flourish in response to the NZCPA and police statement, along the lines of ‘Whaddya mean this had nothing to do with alcohol?! This had everything to do with alcohol!’ By using ‘everything’ I made it seem as if alcohol was the sole cause of the attack, but all I meant to say was the news made it seem very likely alcohol was causally implicated in the attack on Ryder, that it was a contributing factor. (Note my use of ‘likely’; I will return to this soon enough.) But nowhere in my post did I say alcohol causes violence; I merely pointed out a correlation between alcohol consumption and violence. This correlation is visible to most: bar brawls, fights in sports stadiums late in the afternoon (there is a reason why, beyond worries about drunk driving, beer sales cease in the late afternoon at many cricket grounds), domestic violence cases etc. A simple googling of ‘alcohol related violence’ throws up a wealth of links which note the correlation between alcohol and violence, such as this one, which links to many studies conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Social workers, policemen, women’s shelter workers know about this correlation; I took this to be a cultural commonplace, one that warranted my claim that the Ryder assault—especially because of its location and timing--was alcohol-related, but many assumed I was saying one drink turns you into a maniac, that alcohol invariably leads to violence. But that claim was not made by me and neither was it needed to make the case that I did. (Incidentally, those suggesting I am a puritan about alcohol are wildly off the mark. I enjoy wine and beer and whiskey; I go on wine-tasting vacations; I make road-trips to visit my favorite craft breweries; like any middle-class aspirant to the good life, I try to talk knowledgeably about the single-malt whiskies I enjoy: ‘Laphroaig? Pshaw! Too peaty!’).

On a related note, though I did not explicitly and extensively indict masculinity in my original post, I did note in my invocation of the Martian anthropologist that it is the ‘males of the species’ who might brawl after drinking. It is the combination of a misguided masculinity and the inhibitions loosened by alcohol that often contribute to post-alcohol consumption violence. Both these factors make it possible for me to make the following claim: if you hear two men have been in a fight in a bar, it is reasonable to infer/speculate/conjecture/assume/hypothesize that alcohol was involved. I do not need, at this stage, to rely on the additional datum—as in this case--that one of them has a prior history of similar incidents. The mere reporting of the first is enough to warrant the drawing of that conclusion.

This brings me to the criticism directed at my ‘speculating’ or ‘conjecturing’ about what happened that fateful night. Many commentators wrote as if speculating or conjecturing about unseen, but reported on, and incompletely known, events was probably the worst sin a blogger could commit. To that, there are two responses. First, my piece was not reportage. It was an opinion piece. I was not writing as a beat reporter but as a blogger responding to a news item; this sort of opinion piece, consisting of speculative commentary, the plausibility of which can be judged by readers and responded to critically, is perfectly appropriate. I was writing to express my considered belief—my opinion--on what happened that night. People reading my opinions are free to critique the process by which I reached those conclusions or to point me to additional evidence that might affect my beliefs, and thus, perhaps, to show why conclusions were not warranted. It is no argument, however, to command an opinion writer, ‘Thou shalt not speculate!’ A blanket ban on speculative commentary by opinion writers – like, for instance, on those who speculate on what went on behind closed doors at a deliberation of Supreme Court judges before they delivered their ruling - thus ruling out the inverse of a species of commentary called ‘reading the tea leaves’, would be far too restrictive. If it’s OK for opinion writers to speculate about what might happen in the future, then why not about the past? I formed the beliefs that formed the basis of my post on the basis of the evidence I had. I have been accused of not being diligent enough in my evidence collection, but even after reading additional news reports my hypothesis about what happened that night remains the same as before. I do not think Ryder was the victim of a premeditated, conspiratorial assault; the facts still seem to point to an edgy, alcohol-infused encounter having gone wrong. It is far more plausible to infer this and indeed, to continue to not blame Ryder, than to assume that there was a conspiracy to attack Ryder, that the assault was planned.

Furthermore, I hate to break the news to those who accused me of ‘speculation’ and ‘conjecture’, who, possessed by a spirit of epistemic rectitude, have suggested that we should sit on our hands and not form any beliefs till ‘all the facts are in’: much of our daily reasoning consists precisely of speculation, conjecture, guessing, hypothesizing, and so on – and thus, offer opinions about all sorts of matters based on this. We constantly form beliefs on the basis of incomplete evidence; if we were to continue to wait until all the facts were in we would never form any beliefs. There are, of course, good variants of that activity and there are bad variants of that activity. This is why it is silly to assume Martians have landed when you see a broken window in your apartment but far more reasonable to conjecture that the neighbor’s kids have been playing pranks again. I happened to think my conjecture was a good one, which is why I wrote the post I did. Here is why: I heard a fight had taken place in a bar, that there were men involved. I reacted on the basis of prior beliefs that bars have often served as venues for brawls, that the intersection of masculinity and alcohol—as bar bouncers and visitors to Yankees games and the SCG in the old days will testify—lies quite often in violence. That was the basis of my reaction. 

Third, many accused me of poor taste in writing about a man who had been attacked and was near death. But Ryder is a public figure; what happens to him makes news; responding to that news is perfectly appropriate for bloggers and journalists. If Ryder had been a completely obscure person, living his life out of the public eye, presumably the news of his assault would not have made the news and there would have been no press conferences or newspaper articles on his health (and indeed, neither would anyone care he had ever gotten into a brawl in a bar previously). And of course, once news of the attack broke, there was plenty of commentary—about Ryder, his past, his career, his character--in any case. So apparently, it is acceptable to write about a near-dead man so long as you write the ‘appropriate’ things, that all one should do when confronted with news about a public figure is offer bromides and wallow in agnosticism, scrupulously refusing to draw any inferences from the news presented to us. When Christopher Hitchens died last year, many commentators, including myself, wrote articles where we detailed our disagreements with that rhetorical pugilist. Predictably, there were those who suggested that these writings were in poor taste, that one should not speak ill of the dead. This fastidiousness about the dead or the injured public figure is curious; it seems to find its grounding in a misunderstanding about the nature of public discourse, which is not circumscribed in the ways my interlocutors might want. (What Glenn Greenwald wrote in response to the commentary on Hitchens’ death applies to those who would critique my writing about an injured public figure as well.) 

Importantly, in Ryder’s case, it was only because of his public past indiscretions that the need was felt for the clarification offered by the NZCPA and the police (one made, we should note, without all the facts being in, for after all, they did not have Ryder’s testimony at that point in time, and indeed, as seems likely now, will never have). So, again, why the restrictions on commentary on that statement? Why is it not acceptable for an opinion writer to respond to a public statement about a public figure?

In closing let me repeat something I have already stated above: the next time I hear about a fight between two men in a bar, I will speculate, assume, conjecture, hypothesize, abduce that alcohol was involved. It is a reasonable inference to draw and unless the ground facts about masculinity and alcohol change I will continue to draw that inference in the future. It is not an unreasonable inference to make. If you think it is, please state your argument, one that does not rely on arbitrarily circumscribing public commentary or a misplaced fastidiousness about public discourse on public figures. I stated mine in my original post and have reiterated it above. My readers are, of course, welcome to simply remain agnostic and suspend belief till the facts are in. They might be surprised at how difficult genuine agnosticism actually is.

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Sunday, July 22, 2012

Enough of the inconsistency and hypocrisy: Close the Sharma and Parnell Case

The following is the unedited version of a post that went up at The Pitch today.

Enough of the inconsistency and hypocrisy: Close the Sharma and Parnell Case

Rahul Sharma and Wayne Parnell have joined the list of cricketers that will soon be caught up in the sporting world’s hypocrisy and confusion when it comes to the D-word: drugs. If sentence will be passed on them, in all probability it will be done by those who are not averse to the occasional beer, wine, or whisky, and who in all certainty, start their days off with a liquid injection of caffeine. Some of them might, even in these enlightened times, puff on a cigarette or two. In short, a bunch of recreational drug users will pass judgment on a pair of recreational drug users. Perhaps, from the sidelines, an equally hypocritical and sanctimonious crowd will ask for harsher punishment. Meanwhile, that same contingent, punishers and callers-for-heads alike, will cheer when cricketers spray champagne over each other after a win and talk about the ‘big night’ and ‘sore heads’ that lie ahead. (Incidentally, are we any closer to figuring out the role that alcohol played in Tom Maynard’s death? Or is that to be brushed under the rug?)

By all accounts, Sharma and Parnell did what a pair of young men might do in a big city once the working day is done (in their case, after their commitments to their IPL team were done and dusted): they went out to party. Perhaps they smoked a joint; perhaps they just took a drag on one as it made the rounds. Perhaps, horrors!, they dropped a pill of Ecstasy, and even worse, danced to dubstep and techno, and would have stayed up all night, if the Mumbai Police, like killjoys the world over, hadn’t decided that rather than busting gang-lords, corrupt politicians and other sundry criminals, they would rather crash parties and harass a bunch of happily inebriated bad dancers.

From the back of the police wagon that carried them off to the thana that night, Sharma and Parnell might have glumly wondered why their buddies could drink beers in dressing rooms with opponents and be praised for doing so, while they would be forced to donate their bodily fluids as evidence of criminal wrongdoing. They would wonder why there exists a category of forbidden substances called ‘in-competition prohibited substances’ that includes marijuana, but not alcohol or tobacco.

As professional sportsmen Sharma and Parnell should know what works for them and what doesn’t when it comes to ingesting substances that might adversely affect their on-field performances. Cannabis and ecstasy are not performance-enhancing drugs in any sense; their effect on performance-diminishment remains to be scientifically ascertained. (Vikram Rathour confesses to being surprised that Sharma tested positive as he “doesn’t even drink beer.” Perhaps Sharma is smarter than Rathour imagines; perhaps he knows the occasional joint will do him far less damage than the gallons of beer that our cricketing heroes of yesteryear were said to have consumed.)

If Sharma and Parnell had smoked a joint in the dressing room, they would deserve censure; under the present circumstances, when they are on their own time, and not in the workplace, their punishments should end with the hassles they have already been subjected to. Of course, it is entirely possible that their employers might fine them for a ‘public relations disaster.’ But these are only to be expected when stupid laws rule the land.

Sharma and Parnell’s worst mistake was to have run afoul of the hypocrisy and incoherence of drug laws the world over. They’ve suffered enough. Time to close the case.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The DRS should Eliminate Howlers. And Those Alone

By Vineet Goyal

Much has been written and debated about the effectiveness of DRS and it is fair to say that the jury is still out. Recent comments from Jacques Kallis are a good indication that the majority of players are not entirely comfortable with the system. However, most agree it is quite effective in eliminating blatant errors and the game is better off with some sort of DRS in place. Eliminating howlers was in fact the primary intended purpose of the system. So why is there still opposition to the system if it serves its primary intended purpose so well.

The answer lies in not what it does but in what it does not do effectively. It is completely ineffective in marginal decisions – the current technology used in DRS especially for predicting the trajectory of the ball in an lbw decision is not accurate enough for players and administrators to feel confident. But marginal decisions! No one was worried about those anyway – at least not the players. All we wanted was to eliminate the howlers for which DRS seems to work quite well. The problem however is that once the system is in place, we cannot ask the players to use it only in cases of a howler. The players realize that the technological shortcomings of the system can be exploited and therefore, they can use the DRS strategically to get a decision in their favor. This is very discomforting from everyone’s perspective.

The objective of DRS should instead be to eliminate howlers and just that. It would be futile to formally define a howler but in principle from the perspective of the batsman, we can think of a howler as a decision where the batsman feels (in his mind) that grave injustice has been done to him in giving him out. Now, an lbw decision where the ball was perhaps just hitting the top of middle stump is not a howler (assuming there was no inside edge and impact was inside the line of stumps) – in this case, a batsman would be disappointed but in his heart knows that he was beaten and perhaps out. Clearly, we cannot have a system where by rule the players can ask for a review only in case of a howler. This should happen by design. Here is a proposal that I feel should achieve this:

1. The batting team is allowed only ONE unsuccessful review for both the innings.
2. The bowling team is allowed two unsuccessful reviews per inning as in the current system.

The asymmetry in batting and bowling reviews is because of the asymmetry in knowledge between batsman and bowler. The batsman knows whether he nicked the ball almost surely but the bowler may not.

So lets see how this system would play out. A batsman will review only if he is absolutely sure that he is not out. Except lbw decisions, the batsman knows whether he is out or not. Anyone who has played cricket would know that you feel the vibrations from the faintest of nicks and you know it. If the batsman didn’t edge the ball and is given out, the review will certainly reverse the decision – none of the technologies including hot-spot and snicko give a false positive. So non-lbw decisions will be ruled correctly.

It is a bit more trickier for the lbw decisions because the batsman does not know whether the ball was going to hit the stumps or even whether the impact was in line or not. It’s amazing to see the performance of umpires on the elite panel currently – even the players would testify that the umpires are extremely accurate about things like estimated path of the ball and line of impact. Of course, they are humans and making real-time decisions, so they are bound to make marginal errors of a millimeter here and there. And I think the players are ok with such errors. If Kallis is beaten to an incoming delivery that is crashing onto the middle stump and hits him a millimeter outside the off-stump, I don’t think he will feel cheated if he is given out. The howlers in lbw decisions happen (at least these days) when batsman are given out after an inside edge which is easy for batsman to detect and then review. But since batsmen have only one unsuccessful review for two innings, they will not review marginal decisions.

What about the bowling team? Can they use it for marginal decisions? Since there are two unsuccessful reviews allowed, they might like it happens in the current system. However, this should not be a problem. This system does not produce false positives, i.e., if the batsman did not edge, there will be no hot-spot. So if the batsman is indeed not out, the system would rarely reverse the on-field not-out call. However, in case of a blatant error, the decision is reversed. Therefore, the DRS essentially comes into play only in blatant errors and has no impact in marginal decisions.


Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Indian Cricket From Across the Border

Guest Post by Kamran Wasti

In a watershed moment in Indian cricket history, Saurav Ganguly led his team out to play England at Leeds. Already 1-0, Ganguly faced the prospect of leading a potentially dysfunctional team playing England on a green wicket under the traditional cloudy Headingley skies. Other than having more fast bowlers, the temptation to include the opener Shiv Sunder Das, who had just hit 250 in a side game, was also there. He did not play and has not played since. Instead, the limited but gutsy Sanjay Bangar was included as a makeshift opener as Ganguly played two spinners, won the toss and batted. The rest is history – Bangar rose above his abilities to join Rahul Dravid who played possibly the greatest innings of his career as they defied England bowlers and made things easier for Sachin Tendulkar and Ganguly himself to rack up aggressive hundreds before Anil Kumble spun England out for a landmark Indian victory.

As a university student living in a hostel, Ganguly’s decision to bat first reminded me of Mark Taylor’s call in the 1997 Manchester Test. Taylor reportedly had wanted Shane Warne to bowl last in conditions which seemingly looked ideal for fast-bowling. Like Taylor, Ganguly knew what his strengths were – he put the onus on his batsmen to survive the testing conditions and the spinners, his best bowlers, to do well on a track completely different from the raging turners at home. They delivered.

Ganguly’s era followed by the Rahul Dravid’s and to some extend even Anil Kumble’s was a rare phase in Indian cricket where the team backed its strengths rather than camouflage its weaknesses. As a result, India’s achievements were greater than the sum total of the ability of its players. Other captains, including Mahendra Singh Dhoni, exemplified Samir Chopra highlighted in his very well-written article, India never cultivated aggression, even when they were No. 1.

I remember reading a Kapil Dev interview from 1985 after a farcical tournament at Sharjah where no team Pakistan failed to chase 125 after Imran Khan had taken 6 for 14 against India and England were led by 45-year-old debutant Norman Gifford. India had earlier won the World Championship of Cricket in Australia where Sunil Gavaskar had handled his limited bowling resources brilliantly, as aspect of India’s success surprisingly lost on most critics. In short, India, were having a high in one-day cricket. Kapil Dev, in that interview, announced that his focus area was one-day cricket and that he ‘would like to see who placed the West Indies ahead of India now’. There was one slight irony though in both these tournaments: India had won every single match they had played but had yet to face the West Indies even once. When they finally did, in the three nation Rothman’s Cup in Sharjah later that year, West Indians walked away with an easy win as they did a year later and indeed after the 1987 World Cup, where they won 7-1 in an ODI series. All through this phase, the West Indies were not the ‘official’ World Champions. India, while they were,
never won a single match against them. The point was as lost on Kapil Dev as it is on the Indian team today: It is Test Match cricket that matters.

Consider further examples: Pakistan won the 1992 World Cup. They had a good test team but were not the ideal one-day side. They had a wretched run in one-dayers in the lead-up to their most important test assignment, the 1993 tour to the West Indies. The selectors knee-jerked and replaced Javed Miandad by Wasim Akram, dropped experienced batsmen like Shoaib Muhammad and Salim Malik and packed their side with a host of rookie fast-bowlers. What they had missed out on was that Pakistan had continued to do well in test matches. Predictably, they were blown away by a rampant West Indian side in the tests. Wasim Akram celebrated his return to captaincy with a similarly preposterous take when he took the 1995 tour to Australia as preparation for the World Cup defense as unsurprisingly, Pakistan suffered humiliating defeats. India learnt this lesson the hard way in 1983 when the West Indians routed them at home and are learning the hard way now having exposed completely in England last year and now in Australia. Where has it all gone wrong?

India failed to back its traditional strength which is spin bowling. Regardless of how good Zaheer Khan may be in the eyes of his fans, his prime has seen him take wickets at around 27 or 28 runs per wicket – much better by his standards but hardly world class. Across the border, Waqar Younis averaged 5 wickets per test at 22 till the end of 1998 and even a wretched last 32 tests meant that his final cumulative career average was 23. Wasim Akram, for 7 years, between 1990 and 1997 was the top bowler in the world again averaging 5 wickets per test at 20 and Imran at his peak did the same at 17. On the contrary, India’s most consistent bowler during their prime years was not a fast bowler but the venerable Anil Kumble. During some of India’s greatest moments, like the series wins in Pakistan and the West Indies, it was Kumble who won them matches. The Leeds test, played on a green wicket, was again an Anil Kumble masterclass and even on the 2003 tour to Australia, it was he who took the wickets. Admittedly, they don’t have a replacement for him and you very rarely get an Ambrose for a Garner within a year but didn’t India realize where their strength is? India’s other humiliating tour to Australia was in 1991 – a year earlier they played Anil Kumble on the soft, slow English wickets but did not take him to Australia at a time when Australia had not played quality leg-spin at test level for a long time. This time they played their leg-spinner in England but did not realize that he would be more useful, in fact critical on the bouncy Australian wickets. To cap it up, they failed to realize that R. Ashwin, their spinner, with his 3-test career had done little wrong but critically lacked the controlling support of Pragyan Ojha at the other end where invariably, Ishant Sharma would be playing the benign pie-thrower in Australia. This would never have happened during Ganguly’s times.

In this regard, Ian Chappell has an interesting story - he was being forced to play Terry Jenner and he wanted Ashley Mallet for the Perth test; the next tests were at Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne and he knew that Terry Jenner (I think he was talking about the 1974-5 Ashes) would be able to get a few wickets at Perth and then it would become difficult to justify not playing him on wickets where he expected Mallet, then the best spinner in Australia, to play a crucial role. He had his way and Mallet took a bagful of wickets (considering that it was the signature Lillee-Thomson series). This can never happen with this management. It may not happen with Duncan Fletcher either; remember how he used Ashley Giles and how he kept Monty Panesar out. Panesar had bowl really well against Pakistan in 2006 and yet when they landed in Australia, Fletcher played Giles who had not played for over a year. When Panesar finally played, ironically at Perth :), he immediately got wickets. The best bowlers should always play; Derek Underwood would be deadly when the pitched helped him. When it didn't, he offered great control. And the West Indies used Joel Garner as a stock bowler till 1984. When Roberts retired and Holding became first change, Garner terrorized batsmen all over the world.

A more poignant pointer would be the 1977 Perth Test when Bishen Bedi played three spinners at Perth in a narrow defeat and himself took the only 10-for of his career. The West Indians did not resort to spin in 1983, 1987 or 1994. Nothing exemplifies the importance of this principle that the last test in 1994 when, with a second-string team and no Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh hurried India to defeat through pace on a slow wicket. The lure of fast, bouncy wickets is well-known but India is not a fast-bowling nation – three of India’s best fast bowlers have ordinary records and Zaheer Khan is the worst of the lot, with Kapil Dev, the best of them averaging only fractionally below 30.

When you back your strengths, it automatically means your best bowlers play. If conditions suit, then India’s fast bowlers will always do better; India won the Leeds test in England in 1986 not through some great fast-bowlers: Kapil Dev averaged 40 in England. The match was won by Madan Lal and Roger Binny. They were not great bowlers but were certainly the best available and they delivered when it mattered. Additionally, England fell to Maninder Singh and Ravi Shastri in the second innings. Would one have expected MS Dhoni to make such a move when he didn’t play two spinners even at Adelaide where Nathan Lyon was able to take crucial second innings wickets? I do not think so. But ask Misbah ul Haq if he would play at Perth with just Saeed Ajmal and he won’t.

As far as India’s standard attack is concerned, Zaheer Khan obviously makes the cut till he is fit but I have my doubts about Ishant Sharma. After half a decade, his achievement is 20-odd wickets against a very poor West Indies and a few good spells here and there, including the Ricky Ponting one delivered 4 years ago. After the emergence of Umesh Yadav, Sharma sole contribution perhaps was to keep either a revitalized Irfan Pathan or a second spinner out of the team. Sanjay Manjrekar was clinically honest in his appraisal– Sharma just isn’t good enough. With Yadav around, he is not their second pick. In my book, with the way I saw Irfan Pathan bowl recently, he isn't even the third best and with one spinner around, he should not be in the team anyway.

Ian Chappell and Imran Khan recently criticized India’s obsession with Tendulkar’s hundreds. The same was valid for this number one position as well. The moment India went number one, the team started getting rave reviews with the die-hard fans drawing similitude with Australia’s recent run. Nothing could have been far from reality. As far as I can recall, I have not seen an Indian team win by a two test margin in an overseas series even once (save for wins against Zimbabwe or Bangladesh) since Kapil Dev’s team won in England in 1986. India’s major achievements included 2008 and 2010 wins over Australia: These were pretty misleading too; particularly if you consider the 2010 series, Australians were fielding a side that had been bowled out for 88 and then defeated by a very poor Pakistani team. Compared to the 2004 series that they won in India, not a single player remained save for Ponting and Clarke. The same team was blanked by England. Were Indians really honest about what they were 'achieving'?

Indians beat South Africa in a test but that they had done even during their Greg Chappell days, which are unanimously termed the worst in recent Indian history. Honest supporters would have realized that South Africans were always bound to lose at least one test in an embarrassing manner - they just do it. What was more critical was the way Indians failed to win the third. I was sitting with my friend in Lahore and wondering how can they claim to be number 1 with such an approach? Predictably, an opportunity to win the series was lost. Similarly, the series against the West Indies reminded me of Zaheer Abbas's captaincy when he would draw tests that were easier to win.

Samir Chopra's take on India’s lack of aggression (cited above) is something I have known since I was a child.

Almost all Ranji Trophy finals are decided on the first innings lead. I wonder why? The Pakistani Cricketer used to have a Facts & Figures Quarterly in the mid-80s. My first flavour of Ranji Trophy was through that and I followed the 1986-87 version; I think Arshad Ayub (the off-spinner) hit 174 and it was a high scoring draw with 400 runs being made in the three completed innings. The trend has continued pretty consistently. Even this year, I think one of the teams took some 300-run lead and yet batted on.

For India’s sake, I wish that Tendulkar gets his hundred and not one but two in the triangular. Why two? Because the first one would take him to his 100th and immediately the fans would want the 50th one-day ton too! This is the level of obsession that they have with figures. Even after India’s 4-0 disaster, CricketNext experts were discussing why it was good that Tendulkar did not get his 100th and why it should come in an Indian win. So let us hope he gets those two and then India can look forward to the future.

When England tour India next, don’t expect them to be a cakewalk. They will be wounded lions for this team is willing to learn. For the first time, they have taken a subcontinental defeat seriously and they did manage to win a test under Flintoff – they might just do that again. I just hope Indians are not playing a batting line-up with two 40-year-olds. A younger batting line-up would mean closer encounters but would be a long-term investment. We might get to see Rohit Sharma debut as well!

One good thing that happened for Pakistan after the 2010 England tour was the decision to drop Muhammad Yousuf for good. His best years had come half-a-decade earlier and at 37 his peak years were history. By doing so Pakistan gave an extended run to Asad Shafiq and Azhar Ali who played crucial back-to-the-wall knocks in the recent series against England. Indians should do the same with Tendulkar (after he gets those hundreds – because otherwise you’ll have riots), Dravid and Laxman and, even more importantly, Harbhajjan Singh who is in terminal decline. At 31-32 you expect a spinner to peak but he has surprisingly, consistently grown more defensive and flatter. Unlike Pakistani off-spinners, his normal trajectory was never a flat one but he has continuously followed that route. As a neutral (if you believe me), I saw him bowl what were termed 'magical' 4-over spells in the 2007 T20 World Championship - sickeningly, he was bowling flat yorkers outside leg-stump to prevent batsmen from hitting out. That, in short, sums up his state. He has occasionally produced decent spells, like Ishant Sharma, but that's about it - a regression analysis would show that he in decline and unlikely to rejuvenate. Indians must look towards new spinners and I think dumping Mishra or Chawla was a bad call. Ojha is another good bowler and Ashwin isn't bad either. So basically they have four spinners who can become really good bowlers. They won’t be the Bedi-Venkat-Chadra-Prasanna quartet but they form very good bench strength and a hundred times better than some of the ‘supreme’ fast-bowling talent.

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Friday, January 27, 2012

Angry Kohli

From the perspective of the Indian fan, the second session of the third day's play in Adelaide, when India lost only one wicket and that too at the very end, was probably the most satisfying couple of hours in the India-Australia series so far. I certainly enjoyed it. Not very much happened: no blistering strokeplay unleashed, no mountain climbed, no dominance established, just survival and a semblance of grit. That tells you something about how we've had to revise our expectations.

After tea, Virat Kohli got his hundred, and a very good hundred it was too, even if it came in hot weather on a fine batting wicket on which Ponting and Clarke had just hit double centuries. But Kohli celebrated like he had just reached 300, and appeared to call somebody (probably nobody in particular) a bhainchod. Frankly, it was embarrassing. Earlier, upon reaching fifty, he had acted like he had scored a century. A fifty used to be worth a nod and a little jab with the bat; now Indian batting has fallen so low that Kohli did a full pirouette. Bradman cometh, mofo.

I have nothing against a certain amount of emotional release on the field. (I liked the fact that Ganguly did a strip-tease at Lords.) Kohli seems to be a promising batsman, he has a personality, and a bit of fist-pumping and swearing is just fine. But there has to be some perspective. When your team has performed like a bunch of lost club cricketers for a full series (actually, two full series) and there is every indication that you are going to lose the last Test as well, the excited-Tarzan act at a personal milestone only makes you look like Sreesanth: a little unhinged and laughable. We're done laughing at this team and I wish they would just, you know, go away and lick their IPL contracts where nobody can see them.

The horrible thing about this series is that it's still not over. The T20 and ODI segments remain to be played, more celebrations are in store every time somebody takes a wicket or scores a fifty. These guys are very lucky that the farce will not be played out before Indian crowds. Australians are likely to be more forgiving.

Satadru Sen

Friday, January 13, 2012

No More Whisky

There was a time, not very long ago, when following an Indian innings in a Test match on a foreign tour came with highly pleasurable rituals: you made time, poured yourself a drink or a cup of tea, gathered plates of snacks together, and put your feet up. You knew you were watching a brittle line-up and that the chances of victory were slender, but you also expected a measure of brilliance and four or five sessions of batting. Sometimes what you got was epic: Tendulkar in Perth in 1992, Azharuddin and Tendulkar in Cape Town in 1997, Ganguly, Tendulkar and Dravid in Headingley in 2002, Sehwag in Melbourne in 2003 and in Multan in 2004. No more. Those rituals are no longer viable. Half the team is back in the pavilion by the time the first drink is finished, which forces you to either forego or hurry the second drink. If there is any drama, it is farce, not tragedy. A combination of disbelief and disgust sets in. Surely it can’t, won’t, happen again, the fan thinks, pouring his whisky faithfully for the next match. But it can and does.
When the Indian cricket team returns from Australia in a few weeks, the Customs and Immigration officers at Delhi or Bombay or wherever their plane lands should give the players, along with Duncan Fletcher, a good public beating. Then Srikkanth should be summoned to the airport to receive his own thrashing, for screwing up the bowling attack. What is the source of his bizarre attachment to Vinay Kumar, who was selected for the tour ahead of Irfan Pathan (who had an excellent domestic season, can bat, and is familiar with Australian conditions to boot)? Why did Srikkanth, Fletcher and Dhoni pick Vinay for the Perth Test ahead of Ashok Dinda (who is close at hand, reasonably fast, and also coming off a very successful domestic season)? Did Vinay’s father make a phone call to the PMO? Why were Rohit Sharma and Dinda taken on the tour if they were going to be held back even as the others fail repeatedly? Why does Vinay wear zinc cream? Does he not understand that zinc cream is Antipodean war-paint, not make-up for posturing tourists? Not that playing Irfan or Dinda would have made a difference in a situation where the wheels have come off so abjectly. I am picking on poor Vinay Kumar only because he is a symptom of something bigger: a sign that the money-addled people who run Indian cricket have now, incredibly, begun to see the T20 arena as a recruiting base for Test cricket.
This is not an essay about what ails Indian cricket. The Internet is awash with those at the moment, and rightly so. It is a brief rumination about sport, fandom, expectations and anger. Cricketers at the highest level of the game are, after all, entertainers, engaged in exhibiting extraordinary skills to a paying public. In that sense, they are not unlike circus performers, musicians and actors. We might appreciate a Laxman-and-Dravid special or an Imran Khan spell much as we appreciate seeing Mallika Sarabhai dance, hearing Bismillah Khan play the shehnai, or watching Nasiruddin Shah act. In fact, that is the ideal of cricket: the ‘true fan’ is a fan of the sport as much as he is a fan of a particular team, and he is expected to enjoy the display of skill regardless of which player or team it comes from. The failure of a great player on either team is ideally to be met with disappointment even when it brings satisfaction. This is not an empty ideal: I know Australians who are sorry when Tendulkar gets out cheaply, and fans in Bangalore and Chennai still applaud the opposition, even Pakistan.
Anger has no place in circus performances. Nobody would have become angry if Amitabh Bachchan had put in a sub-par performance in a particular movie. If there was a succession of poor performances (like there was towards the end), fans might have stopped buying tickets, but it would not have occured to anybody to become furious with AB. Yet here I am, wanting to see M.S. Dhoni and company lathi-charged on the tarmac by the CISF. It’s all very irrational and boorish. But it is, of course, an inescapable part of the experience of modern sport.
We get angry at athletes because unlike with actors and trapeze artists, we cannot not buy tickets. By virtue of being members of modern communities – nationalities, student bodies, city dwellers, immigrants – we have already bought our tickets. We live in atomized social fragments, yet are compelled to wander constantly in ever wider worlds of strangers and impersonal agencies of humiliation: bureaucracies, police forces, transit lounges, international finance. In our loneliness and insecurity, we clutch at proxies who will represent us with greater power and glory than we can muster. As entertainers who are also our representatives, athletes are our entertaining, fantastic selves. And they reveal to us that we are not alone. Even an angry community is a community of solidarity. So in spite of its spectacular collapse over the past year, the Indian team has been doing its job.
But those other expectations – excellence, artistry – cannot be banished. Even the banal expectation of entertainment cannot be dismissed. And with representation comes the expectation of dignity, which is after all the source of the anger: the otherwise absurd feeling that we have been ‘betrayed’ by a bunch of traveling performers. When all of these expectations come to nothing more or less simultaneously, it is a sign of something quite rare. It signals the imminent collapse of a cultural institution.
Tickets, even season tickets, can be returned, and for the past year we have been approaching the point when Indian fans will return the ticket they have collectively bought over many years. The case of Indian hockey – internationally triumphant between the 1930s and the 1960s, and endowed with players of near-magical ability and reputation – comes readily to mind. India still has a hockey team, they still play international matches, but they mostly lose, and nobody cares or even notices. Give or take a Dhanraj Pillay, the players are anonymous. Indian cricket is a bigger cultural phenomenon than hockey ever was in the days of Dhyand Chand and Roop Singh: followed by a much larger demographic, infused with incomparable wealth, and carried on an enormously powerful and pervasive media structure. Within Indian sport, it has a hegemonic status that has no counterpart in Britain, the US or Australia. As such, the edifice of Indian cricket is less vulnerable to collapse than hockey was when the Astroturf revolution hit and the Olympic medals dried up.  But it is not invulnerable. It will merely die more painfully and slowly. And because the edifice is financial and political as well as emotional, the death will reverberate, affecting not only ordinary fans with their poignant/pathetic need for artistry and dignity, but the BCCI bosses, the corporate advertisers, and even the regional aspirants and foreign stars who feed at the IPL trough. (What drives the IPL is the presence of Indian stars, not foreign players, and without Test cricket there will no Indian stars.)
It is difficult to imagine anybody pouring a drink and putting their feet up, grinning with anticipation, when Virat Kohli or Rohit Sharma walk out to bat in a Test match five years from now. Even I will stop, or become sporadic in my stubborn attachment to such atavistic rituals, when Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman are gone. Elvis has left the building, and I am about to throw away my season ticket.

Satadru Sen
January 13, 2012

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Book Project Update

As I announced on this blog in October 2010, I have been working on a book on the changing face of modern cricket (contracted to Harper-Collins). Last year, in September, I sent the draft manuscript for editorial comments. I've received those comments now, and have started revisions. The comments are, I'm happy to say, quite positive: VK Karthika , my editor, quite likes the book's analysis but (almost inevitably) wants me to revisit my (in her words) "academic" language in Chapter 1. This is a hard one to take on board, especially as I had worked pretty hard to make sure I didn't sound too academic. But I'm happy that that remark wasn't directed at the rest of the book. A greater challenge for me, quite honestly, is keeping the book's analysis up to date. I feel like a great deal has changed just since September (India's continued decline in test cricket, the termination of an IPL franchise, poor crowds at Indian venues etc), that has the potential to affect my analysis, and I'd like to do justice to all of it. I also have comments to work through from Russell Degnan, Rohan Mascarenhas, John Sutton, Satadru Sen and Sankara Krishna - thanks again guys!

In any case, revisions are underway, and I expect to send the draft back in four weeks or so. If all goes well, the book will be scheduled for a June/July release.


Friday, January 06, 2012

Should Have Stayed on Vacation

Last year, while traveling through India, I was able to sporadically follow India's Boxing Day triumph over South Africa (I bought a newspaper, at Cochin's airport, detailing India's win at Durban). This year, I was traveling again over the Christmas/New Year's break; and again, I was able to remotely track India test cricket in the holiday season. This time, of course, it featured a defeat at Melbourne (I sent text messages, from Puerto Rico's Culebra Island to a bunch of friends asking for scores and details; the responses, even if not the scores, were gratifying).

On my way back from Puerto Rico, I noted (to my mysteriously less-than-enthusiastic wife) that even if I missed the first two days of the Sydney test, I would be able to watch the rest of the action once I got home. Well, the Sydney test is over; one day of cricket action has not been used; and really, when I come to think of it all, it might just have been best if I'd stayed on vacation and ignored the cricket altogether.

Two more heavy losses overseas, and for many who will not have paid sufficient attention to the home series against the West Indies, it will seem like the 4-0 thumping of the summer has now been transformed into a running 6-0 scoreline (and perhaps one equally deserving of a response consisting of equal parts hilarity and grief). I will conduct my best impression of the mature, sage, experienced, reasonable, long-suffering Indian cricket fan soon enough, and urge patience, forbearance, and sympathy. Soon, but not just right now. For now, I'd like to just indulge in a bit of chest-beating and wailing (if you have speakers, turn them down now; the terrible keening sound I'm emitting is truly ghastly.).

What makes this all so terribly embarrassing is just how old-fashioned it all is. Imagine that India had lost to a pair of off-spinners on a New Zealand green-top, or perhaps they had conceded a 230-run victory target to a pair of Bangladeshi or Zimbabwean openers. Then, we'd all be chuckling about the novelty of it all, about how the Indian cricket team had somehow contrived to pull off a unique loss, one unprecedented in its cricketing history.

But the problem is that even that minor comfort of disastrous novelty is not present in the current circumstances. For the Indian loss at SCG was made singlularly rank by the utter familiarity of it all: India are playing overseas; when their batsmen bat, the pitch turns green and hilly; when the opposition bats, a squad of alert groundsmen runs out, flattens the pitch and mows the grass; when India bat again, the gremlins take up their usual positions underneath the pitch. The batting line-ups crumble; the fielders (when they are not giving the crowd the bird), stare blankly into space; the chief traffic-policeman (sorry, fielding captain) is a flurry of brisk arm direction; and finally, at the end, there are the bromides of the post-match ceremonies. And the wait, equal parts horrified anticipation of the remaining games, and resigned acceptance of the inevitable home-series triumphs that will make the memories of the overseas disasters a little more palatable.

Plenty is going wrong right now, plenty to be picked through and dissected. Who could sift through the debris of this latest disaster adequately? Only those who have recovered from the grinding weariness of similar efforts conducted through the summer. A brave, if not very numerous, bunch.

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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Chronicle of a disaster foretold ....

Here is what I wrote on my Facebook message just as the day's play was about to start at the MCG:

"I have this horrible feeling that all will go wrong. Hussey and tail will add another 50+ Sehwag will fall early. Dravid will potter and potter and get out. Sachin will flatter to deceive. VVS will fall and act as if it was the greatest delivery ever. Dhoni and Gauty will give slip catching practice and Virat will smack a full toss down mid-wicket's throat. I expect to be in deep despair in about three hours' time. So pray tell me: why do I watch????!"

Barring some trivial changes, the above could well be a report on the actual proceedings as they unfolded rather than a prediction. There's got to be something wrong with a team when an average fan can predict how the day will go with such accuracy.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Top Ten Reasons Why Empty Stands Are Bad for TV

Ten reasons why low attendance at cricket games (test, ODI, T20) makes for a poorer television spectacle:
  1. Soundtrack for boundaries is missing
  2. Soundtrack for falling wickets is missing
  3. Soundtrack for bowler-plus-crowd appeal goes missing
  4. Soundtrack for dramatic entries or exits is missing
  5. Colorful backdrop for action shots of batsman turns into rows of seats
  6. Backdrop of exuberant fans with arms raised as bowlers celebrate a wicket is missing
  7. No witty banners, no outrageous costumes; in short, no carnival
  8. Soundtrack for feats shown on large screen televisions at ground is missing
  9. No standing ovations possible
  10. Television spectator likely to wonder why he is wasting his time watching a game that one seems to care enough for to actually watch at stadium

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The Kotla Test moves on

Yesterday on Twitter (@eyeonthepitch) I predicted India would win by four wickets on the fourth day. I'm still happy to stand by that: the West Indies were never likely to do well in the second innings against the spinners, and India were unlikely to bat as badly again. India are now 152-2 chasing 276, and with a well-set Dravid and Tendulkar at the crease you'd have to back them. But given that an out-of-form VVS and an always-shaky-against-spin Yuvraj are in the wings, things might get a little sticky if early wickets go down.

There is also the worry that MS Dhoni might offer a draw and even worse, Sammy might accept.

On India's bowlers: Both Ojha and Ashwin took five-fors in this test and strange as it might sound, it does my heart good to see Indian spinners dominant at home as they should be). Yadav's pace shows promise though his action is quite ungainly; he seems to derive little from his run-up and delivery stride and instead, gets all his pace from the upper body, a method that is unlikely to work over the long run. Coaching seems required, much as I hate to say it.

Meanwhile so much has been written about the incompetent ticket selling at this test that I can scarcely add more, but this neglect of common sense is no longer benign, it is positively malign as far as test cricket is concerned.