Friday, November 30, 2007

The blue moon is here

Four years ago, I stood in a Bangladeshi restaurant in Manhattan, watching the Indian team complete their win over Pakistan in the 2003 World Cup. It was about 10 in the morning, and I had stayed awake (on my feet, no seats mind you) all night. I was tired, utterly exhausted but elated. A few feet away from me, a young Pakistani supporter sat downcast, cradling his head in his hands. I stared at him, reading his utterly shattered expression, and experienced a strange emotion: I was actually feeling sorry for a Pakistani fan. This evening, as I caught up with the highlights for the first day's play (I had only been able to watch the pre-lunch session last night), I realized I'd come close to feeling that other rare emotion: feeling sorry for the Pakistani team. This bedraggled, morose, injury-stricken mob is not a team. Perhaps they'll pick themselves up off the ground. For the sake of the cricket fan, I hope so. Yesterday's performance at the Eden Gardens was terrible; it started with the bizarre selection of Akhtar and continued with the uninspired bowling and fielding, and limpid body language all day (And yes, practice before a test has claimed another victim, this time the Pakistani captain).

Go the ICL!

Its funny, theres a test match on between India and Pakistan, but all I feel like writing about is a Twenty20 tournament that started today. I'm glad the ICL is here; I wish them all luck. Too many players in India simply don't make a proper living from cricket, and even those that do have to deal with a feudalistic monopoly in the form of the BCCI. The ICL has been sneered at aplenty by all and sundry, and its had some of its glory stolen by the IPL but they have so much financial clout for now, that it's being able to put on a show and generate some hype. Its international stars are, admittedly, a superannuated lot, but the Indian contingent is young and in some cases, impressive in terms of their cricketing abilities. I've already seen one very good player - the left-arm spinner Ali Murtaza - today and look forward to seeing more. Once again, more power to the ICL; I hope they appoint a legal team and start contesting the BCCI's ludicrous restrictions on their activities, and also help some of their younger recruits in their dealings with the BCCI. The BCCI is being colossally stupid in their handling of this scenario; it would be nice to see it being taught some sense in the courtrooms of the land. Has anyone at the BCCI thought about how they could have co-operated with the ICL to develop cricketing talent in India? No - because that would have required them to think about the game, and thats one thing they can't do. Go on ICL, I'm cheering for you.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Satisfying fare

I have no idea why I didn't blog over the past few days. Yes, I was busy watching a test match but blogging during games is the easiest way for me to blog, much easier than coming home and trying to write something coherent after a long day at work. And I had time off last week from work - because of annual turkey slaughter day. So, it must be because of lack of sleep, caused by the terrible timings of test cricket in India (which also ensures that I develop a bad neck during this time of the year - from my head falling over during my nodding off in front of the living room desktop machine).

But anyway, last night I was able to get to bed on time. India had won before lunch; Tendulkar had wrapped up things nicely; Ganguly hadn't; the Indian captain, Kumble, had gotten things off to a nice start for all concerned. Pakistan, however, while having fought hard, and stayed pretty
close at times with India, seemed incapable of really putting India under sustained pressure. They persist in picking Mohammed Sami, a man who has played over thirty test matches and is flirting with a bowling average of 50, their batting seems fragile in test matches; their captain looks like he wants to check into an anxiety-treatment programme any time now; their leading fast bowler always looks like he needs an oxygen tank, and their main spinner doesn't. But I won't, and you shouldn't, write them off. This was a good, tough, test match.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

No good news

Ugh. Patel is back. RP Singh and Sreesanth are out of the first test, and he-who-lack-intensity is back with a fair chance of donning Indian colors again, and that too against Pakistan. OK, Munaf, go for it. Prove everyone wrong. And I hope, that if you slack off on the field, that your new captain gives you tongue-lashing on live television.

Meanwhile Down Under, Alex Brown continues to keep the flag of Australian cricket journalism flying high. He insists (good embedded journo that he is) that Ricky Ponting talking about Indian cricket captains is "targeting" the opposing skipper and that its a strategy that has "worked well for Australia" in the past. Oooh. Theres that thing, "targeting", again. It has all these magic powers. I don't suppose having two of cricket's best bowlers of all time had anything to do with Australia doing well over the past 15 years, did it, Alex? I loved how Glenn McGrath used to "target" opening batsmen (and silly me, there I was thinking that pace bowlers had nothing to do with opening batsmen!). In fact, his targeting strategy was so good that even if he'd bowled short and wide, it'd still have worked. Forget line and length, just "target" the opposing batsman. Yeah, thats the trick.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

On to the real thing

So the India-Pakistan one-day series is done and dusted. Pakistan do look like a better team when Shoaib Akhtar is not on the field; whether its because he brings in an air of indolence, or whether its because it means there is one less thing for the captain to worry about, is not clear. But on a helpful pitch Gul, Tanvir and Ifthikar should be a handful, and they were in this last one-day game. On to the test matches, where I think the same Indian XI that played in the last test of the English summer should (and will) take the ground: Jaffer, Karthik, Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman, Ganguly, Dhoni, Zaheer, Singh, Sreesanth, Kumble (I suppose a second spinner is always a possibility). The XI that plays in the fourth test against Australia will be different, I'm guessing: form and injury will have played a part by then. But first, a test series against Pakistan awaits, beginning with a game at the Kotla, once one of the worst grounds in India, now, with an improved facility but still some dodginess about its pitch. The Kotla used to be a featherbed, but now I'm not sure about what it produces. Pakistan will come into the test with more confidence than they had after Gwalior, but they need to solve the opening batsman problem and more importantly, the prima-donna-fast-bowler problem, and the perpetually-worried-captain problem.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Rejig away

Mukul Kesavan pens some thoughtful opinions on a possible Indian batting order for the Australian series. While I agree with Mukul in spirit - that an attacking batsman is needed at No.3 - I'm afraid that even I, VVS Laxman Fan Extraordinaire and Defender of the Faith, am not sure that sending VVS to that spot is going to work in the way that Mukul intends. I think that the attacking days of all of the Big Four are over. I haven't seen any of them dominate in tests in a while (the last Indian batsman to play dominating innnings in test cricket was Viru Sehwag). They all remain good, solid bats (and Tendulkar in one-days, on the evidence of this current series against Pakistan remains as good as ever), but I do not think that Australia will be the place where they will suddenly rediscover their aggressive touch. For that reason, I think that if India are to make a match of things in Australia (the reason why Mukul suggests this batting change) it'll have to look to its bowlers and outcricket instead. If India are to win, they'll have to rely on a Trent-Bridge template: bowl Australia out on the first day and then take all the time they need to build up a score that makes the third innings difficult for Australia. India have traditionally not been good at batting hard to take the initiative - the last test match I can remember this happening in was Chennai 1998 on the back of Tendulkar's 155*. So, again, I appreciate and applaud the sentiment behind Mukul's suggestion - that a strokeplayer is required at the three spot, to avoid the possible becalming that awaits us with Jaffer, Dravid and Tendulkar all in the top four. But I'm not sure that VVS has that spirit any more; the one that makes him get on top of bowling attacks, to cut them to shreds with his wrists. As always, I hope to be proven wrong in these matters; these are the sorts of predictions one loves to get wrong.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

We're greedy; we're stupid; we don't care

This ongoing spat between Cricket Australia and photo agencies (followed by the BCCI's idiotic comments that they'll follow suit) is merely the latest depressing reminder of how much I despise everything about cricket other than what happens on the field. Why cricket administrators feel the need to periodically remind us that they're a bunch of greedy, incompetent, blowhards is beyond me. But from a larger perspective this spat is no surprise. Cricket's managers don't understand very much about the fans, or the larger economy within which the game is staged. They don't get one simple fact: you pay advertisers to advertise your game, not the other way around. And they forget that cricket photographs make the game memorable; that they help keep the game alive, popularize it, and bring in more revenues from things like television. But what do the cricket managers care? Heads and wallets up their arses, they ride on their corporate donkeys towards the sunset, fattening up, and headed for the kill - of the game.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


Aha, there you are. I speak, of course, of the obligatory Indian fan with the joint flag of the two nations. I was wondering where you'd been thus far in the series.

Yo mama

I've not been a big fan of Gambhir, but ever since I saw him once get all feisty with Andre Nel, I never doubted that he was a bit of a scrapper. He's just had a bit of a scrap with that other scrapper, Afridi, and it was all quite a lot of fun to watch (only a couple of overs after a little tete-a-tete with Tanvir). As that verbal scrap brewed, the commentators were wondering what was being said. Well, I didn't manage to lipread Afridi, but Gambhir seemed to have commented on Afridi's sister's anatomy. Spoken like a true Delhi boy. I'm not sure that Afridi has a sister.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Keep a lid on it, said the muppet

Much as I love the game of cricket, I dislike the air of feudalism that hangs over it. Yes, I speak of the relationship between boards and players. Now, we are being told that Marvan Attapattu might be sent home because he, like many other players before him in the history of the game, has described the national selectors as being a few fries short of a happy meal. Now, I'm well aware that you can't do this sort of thing in the military: insubordination and all that. And some rather autocratic corporations have pretty intense disciplinary constraints on employee behavior. But are those the best models? So a player makes a critical remark about some aspect of management. This happens, and is happily tolerated in lots of organizations (in some, it is considered the best way to acquire a critical, introspective feel on thing). But in cricket, it is almost invariably greeted with this sort of hysterical over-reaction. I'm well aware of the divisive effect that certain kinds of pronouncements can have on the team itself but this shut-up-or-go-home treatment seems very 19th century.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Cap'n Jumbo

So Anil Kumble is the new captain of the Indian test team. For what its worth, I had suggested earlier on this blog that this be the call made by the selectors. The two worries I expressed in that post still hold true: that Kumble will bowl himself a bit too much, and that his on-field hectoring of players will turn some players off comprehensively. Kumble has been viewed by many of India's captains in the past as being the only strike bowler (most disappointingly at Sydney in the 2003-2004 series, when some imaginative bowling changes might have helped India pick up more wickets); it would be a surprise if this view has not been internalized by Kumble himself. But its a view he'll have to change if he is to nurture India's budding pace attack. And Kumble will need to change his constant yelling and scowling at fielders that don't come up to his standards. Those sorts of reprimands work in the dressing room, not out on the field. I've always found this to be least likeable part of his personality, especially when its pretty clear that Kumble isn't a great fielder himself - some humility would go a long way here. It might surprise some people, but for me this remains the biggest worry: that Kumble's authoritarian streak will be a divisive factor.

But for all of that, Kumble has a good cricketing brain, and he fights hard, qualities which should stand him in good stead against both Pakistan and Australia (the selectors in their infinite wisdom have decided to make Kumble for just one series). Dhoni might yet become test captain of India down the line, and this would have been a good baptism by fire for him, but its not the worst thing in the world that he acquire some more experience before taking over. Kumble will be leading a team that will include three former test captains: Dravid, Tendulkar and Ganguly, and Dhoni, the current ODI captain. There'll be plenty of advice handed out on the field, but Kumble should be able to deal with it all. Good luck with it all.

Oh, and by the way, I found Sanjay Manjrekar's suggestion (made twice) that Kumble be made captain as a "gift" or a "reward" for his service to the Indian team over the years, completely ludicrous. This is the test captaincy, not a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Good comeback? Not so much

Well, Viru is gone (because of an undistinguished stroke). What a drag. But Shoaib Akhtar, another one making a comeback is here. He looks very heavy, muscular yes, but dare I say it, a bit 'roided, and I suspect a bit vulnerable to injury. From what I've seen today, its not clear to me that he is going to last the entire tour (he could start by finishing this interminable over with wides all over the place). India look set for a big score (barring the kind of silly collapse in the last 10 overs that dries up the runs). Pakistan look very ragged, as their over-rate plummets. Sloppy stuff.

Welcome back Viru (now don't mess it up)

I know Sehwag knows it. This innings by him is crucial to his getting back into the team (in whichever form). He looks a little tentative, but crucially, he hasn't lost all his old strokes. There could be worse ways to walk in than with a score of almost 200 on the board. I've always been a huge fan of his (that he is a Delhi boy helps but really, it was his batting that did it for me), and I'll be happy to see him back in the side. I don't know how he's going to get back into the test team (not that he ever should have been dropped) but getting back into the one-day side is a start.

(Meanwhile, Yuvraj decides to go down in a heap, and induces a concerned look on Malik's face - not because of the injury, but because the Pakistani over-rate is looking very dodgy, and Malik could be facing a ban, if they mess up the rate again).

Neunundneunzig wieder

This is the third time I've seen Tendulkar get out for 99 this year, and this time, it was pretty clear that excessive diffidence got the better of him. The problem with having one run to get the hundred is that you try and get excessively cute about getting the single. So you look for little dabs and cuts and nudges, instead of playing the very strokes that got you so far. And so it went, and indeed, as I watched Tendulkar try that off a couple of a balls preceding his dismissal, it occurred to me that he could very well nick it to the keeper. And he did. Mores the pity, for it was a very good knock, and I quite enjoyed seeing some of the strokeplay of old. Anyway, theres a pair of Delhi lads (Sehwag and Gambhir) at the crease, and pay attention to them, I must.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Roy Dias, you legend

Over at History of Cricket, Stuart's wonderfully erudite cricket blog, you can find a very good profile of Roy Dias, Sri Lanka's ace batsman from the 1980s, and one of those that led his country into serious international cricket. In that very well-written profile, you will find mention of an innings of 97 played by Dias in Sri Lanka's first test against India at Chepauk in 1982. I will always remember that test, because it was the first time I saw Sri Lanka's amazing batsmen in full-flight. I don't think I'd ever seen anyone hit the ball as hard as Duleep Mendis did - and yes, I'd seen Viv Richards and Ian Botham by then; I'd also seen Collis King in the 1979 World Cup Final. I was down with some sort of viral fever, and had to stay at home and miss school and watch test cricket instead (yeah, what a drag). The weather in Delhi was crisp and cool, and I watched the test all day for all five days. On the fourth day, Sri Lanka came out to bat, facing a first-innings lead of 220 (their 346 had been rapidly overtaken by India's 566). The first wicket fell with six runs on the board. Dias walked in and launched an astonishing counterattack. The best way to describe this innings is to mention one simple statistic, which I've never forgotten, and never will: when his score reached 61, Dias had hit fifteen boundaries. I've never seen that percentage approached by any batsman in any class of cricket for a score of over fifty since. When Dias was out - almost sparking tears in me - at 97, the score was 157. The next day Sri Lanka managed to throw a few shivers into the Indian team before Sunny came out and guided India to safety. Years later, when I would see Aravinda, Jaya and all of the rest receive hosannas for their batting, I would always think back to that feverish - in more days than one - day in September 1982. Thanks Roy.

Friday, November 02, 2007

What a bunch of softies

I agree with Homer over at Two Cents, as he rips into Vijay Dahiya, Delhi's coach, for sounding so damn pleased about his side's performance against Pakistan. They lost by seven wickets, failed to give a real fight, and generally eased Pakistan into the game. To top it off, Dahiya goes on to talk about batsmen intially being worried about facing Akhtar, and how happy they were when Dhawan hit a six off Akhtar. Good Lord. Is this guy for real? Is he a schoolboy, or the coach of a national-level side? He makes his team sound like schoolboys rather than folks who might be competing for international spots. I'd fire him just for this interview. The whole match atmosphere was surreal; young boys running on to the field to shake Afridi's hand, policemen (the same idiots who don't hesitate to wield their batons at the slightest pretence at Delhi's poor) sharing jokes with Akhtar and probably DDCA officials fawning over the Pakistani team. Why didn't they just concede the match and take the Pakistani team out for lunch at the Maurya Sheraton? Delhi, you disappoint me. Enough of this namby-pamby bhai-bhai business. Play the damn game. (When the test match comes around, that is).

Thursday, November 01, 2007

They're here

Pakistan have arrived in India for their tour. Enough has been said about the kind of emotion that surrounds India-Pakistan cricket, so I'm not going to go off on that again. There will be the usual cliches written about how this is bigger than the Ashes, which is true, and about how it's like a war minus the shooting, which is also true. What will often not be written about is that the cricket is not always the best and that often, the hype simply overpowers the cricket. India resumed cricketing ties with Pakistan in 1977-78, a mere six or so years after the Pakistan Army surrendered at Dhaka, bringing Bangladesh into existence. Pakistan won that series 2-0, and I became a huge fan of Pakistani cricketers. When Pakistan returned to India in 1979-80, they were crippled almost immediately by the loss of Imran Khan, and not for the first time, a touring team simply failed to deal with the intense pressure that Indian crowds can generate. They also didn't deal too well with the Indian quicks, especially Kapil Dev, and batted with little discipline. This opening pair of series set a fairly high standard that most series since then have failed to live up to. Some of the most boring cricket I've ever seen in my life has also come about in India-Pakistan games, sometimes a function of the pitches, sometimes of the players. And when India won in Pakistan on their 2004 tour, they did so in front of empty stadiums, despite all the bleating on about how much Pakistani crowds were starved of cricket in a 9-11 world. And of course, India's last tour of Pakistan saw some spectacularly lopsided batting performances, reducing me to tears of frustration. (India, of course, managed to waste the only time an Indian quick has taken a hat-trick in the opening over of a test match - Irfan Pathan's disappointment must have been huge; he hasn't quite been the same bowler since). Still, beating Pakistan is sweet. Beating Pakistan in Pakistan is the best (its only happened once in my lifetime). Beating Pakistan in India, however, is a more intense experience, especially if the crowd gets involved. For what its worth, I think this series won't be a dull one. For one, I don't think the pitches will be absolute roads. Secondly, the bowling attacks are decent on both sides (and the Pakistani batting is a bit dodgy). Thirdly, there is the matter of unsettled captains. Lastly, Pakistan knows it is in India - they'll pick up their game (the team in 1979-80 was the last one to have a collective conniption while touring India). (Oh, and stand by for all the usual silliness of Indian fans painting their faces with the colors of both teams and carrying giant flags made up of both countries' flags; Pakistani fans are too clever to indulge in that sort of idiocy).