Thursday, January 31, 2008

Begging to differ

About a week ago, Homer at Two Cents wrote an article about Indian cricket, in which he made the following optimistic statement:
self belief coupled with the ability to play attritional cricket coupled with the hard nosed element of being in the game at all times and we stand at the cusp of being a really really good Test unit.
So, why don't I just express some pessimism here? The way I see it, our chances of becoming a "really really good Test unit" have always been poor in a certain way. The reasons for this are manifold, so why don't I, in the fashion of good old Indian taxonomizing, just make a list? Here it is:

  1. India cannot seem to solve the opening batsman problem. In fact, we haven't solved it since the Gavaskar-Chauhan-Srikkanth days. Chopra/Sehwag came close to solving it, but they got broken up, and there is little chance the Indian selectors will bring them back again. For whatever reason, lack of form, the five-bowlers-so-the-wicketkeeper-or-allrounder must open theory, the make-room-for-someone-else-in-the-order theory, we cannot find a stable opening pair. As a result, our great middle-order suffers.
  2. Fielding and running between the wickets simply doesn't seem to get better. Some historical perspective would be useful here. Commentators on the game in India have been talking about this need for more than *twenty* years now. Very little has changed. Yes, we have a new young brigade coming up, but they can't seem to force themselves into the side on a regular basis, and there is little evidence that these skills are making a big appearance at lower levels of cricket in India. Its worth noting that when we won the World Cup in 1983, Srikkanth was an outstanding fielder, and people talked about how much of a difference this would make to fielding standards in India. Back in 1983!
  3. Our fast bowlers cannot stay fit. Our fast bowling in attack in England was Khan, Singh and Sreesanth. Come Adelaide, none of them were visible. Sometime this year, Ishant Sharma will break down. And the cycle will begin all over again.
  4. Spinning greats are nowhere to be seen. Harbhajan has been disappointing in tests for a long time, Chawla does not seem an adequate replacement in tests for Kumble. Even if Powar/Chawla are to take over, it'll take some time.
  5. The aggressive Indian captain (and I don't mean Ganguly-aggressive, I mean as in tactical-aggressive) is yet to be found. Fear of defeat continues to inhibit any Indian captain. And why shouldn't it, given the essentially irrational, over-the-top reactions that await him from an ignorant media and excitable fan base?
  6. Indian selectors continue to confuse one-day form with test form. Sehwag gets dropped from tests because of one-days, Dhoni continues to strut his chicken-scratch innings in tests because of his one-day reputation. More disasters await us in this area.
  7. The IPL is here. Plenty of bright young Indian talent will simply disappear into its gaping maws, leaving little talent for the longer game, whose popularity in India might be diminishing (might?).
  8. The BCCI continues to prioritize one-days over tests; it refuses to look into making pitches in India a little more bowler-friendly.

My overwhelming feeling is that we had a chance to make a serious move on the test arena had we found the bowling resources to go with the Fab Four, to keep our pace bowlers fit, to make our pitches a little more lively, to have improved our fielding and running between the wickets. Instead, while we did improve our away record and finally start winning tests overseas against all and sundry, we still suffer from most of the weaknesses mentioned above. And I do not see anything structural in Indian cricket that will change these factors.

As always, happy to be proven wrong.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Surely this is "hard but fair"?

Judge Hansen:
Mr Singh had innocently, and in the tradition, of the game acknowledged the quality of Mr Lee's bowling. That interchange had nothing to do with Mr Symonds but he determined to get involved and as a result was abusive towards Mr Singh. Mr Singh was, not surprisingly, abusive back. He accepts that his language was such as to be offensive under 2.8. But in my view even if he had used the words "alleged" an "ordinary person" standing in the shoes of Mr Symonds who had launched an unprovoked and unnecessary invective laden attack would not be offended or insulted or humiliated in terms of 3.3.
(Emphasis added).

Andrew, Andrew, Andrew. Tsk, tsk.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Just a small analogy

Since returning from my Australian travels, I've sat down with some of my local friends and spun the following story for them:
A women's basketball game in the WNBA is underway. One player on a team is a lesbian, and is out of the closet about it. Its a public, well-known fact. This same player, lets call her Lauren for the time being, is playing defense. A player from the opposing team goes up for a shot. Lauren jumps up, blocks it, and yells in the other player's face "Get out of my goal, you b**ch!". The opponent, turns and yells back, "F*ck you, you dyke". At this, Lauren goes over to the referee, and complains. The referee reports this to WNBA officials, who bring disciplinary proceedings under the WNBA's code of conduct, and suspend the opponent player for three matches.
I then ask my audience, has justice been served? To render the analogy more exact, I then say that the same pair of players was involved in a spat a few games before, that Lauren was called a "dyke" back then as well (once again, in a situation which she might have provoked), that Lauren instigated at least two other clashes with other players on the same team, and that at various away games, Lauren was subsequently heckled as a "dyke" by the home team's fans (the home team in this case being the banned player's). I then ask again, does the three-match ban make sense.

Interestingly enough, not one single person who has heard this story thinks the three-match ban is justified, and everyone thinks that "if Lauren wants to do a whole lot of trash-talking on the court, she should just deal with it".


Sunday, January 27, 2008

More twists

India are determined to make this match exciting, There are fifty overs left in the day and India are only 150 runs ahead as Laxman for the third time in this series, loses his wicket to a bouncing ball from Lee. While RP might be able to bat, Dravid might not, especially with a finger that I'm guessing is painfully swollen and bruised, if not broken. If Dhoni doesn't pull his cranium out of his nether regions, he'll scratch around as usual, not put any runs on the board, and ultimately get out. Ah, well, I suppose it'll be the Delhi boy that comes to the rescue (no, I don't mean Sharma or at least, I hope thats not the case). (Given that Australia should be able to chase down anything that requires less than six runs an over, India are a long way from safety).

G'bye Gilly

So Adam Gilchrist is heading out the door. I developed an instant liking for Gilly, as I would any cricketer that could snatch a Pakistani victory away from them (yup, Hobart 1999 is what I'm thinking of). But over the years, there was much more to like. I've always associated Australian batsmen with the hook and the pull, and Gilly was a fine exponent of those shots. He seemed to hold the bat slightly higher up on the handle than did most other test batsmen, and this gave his batting a slightly willowy touch as his entire body seemed to be more extended than usual when he launched into those horizontal bat shots. I never paid that much attention to his wicketkeeping; for some reason, I took it for granted that with a bowling attack like Australia's he would pick up heaps of catches, and I'd also become a bit numb to the diving-wicketkeeper-catch. So my most vivid impressions are that of Gilchrist the devastating test batsman. I once saw him make 87 against the West Indies at Sydney in January 2001. He came in at the fall of Ponting's wicket, and immediately slashed hard off the very first delivery, which screamed away to the fence through the gully-point region. And he was off and running. And that pretty much summed up the way he batted - always off and running, and if you didn't watch out, he'd quickly swamp you as many a bowling attack found out over the years (like for instance, India at Mumbai in the 2001 series). Its a good time for him to retire, but not so good for the Australian team. Its not going to be a given that the late-order will simply blast Australia out of trouble as happened so many times when Gilly was around. And of course, its not good news for fans. Good luck Gilly.

Still dodgy, but theres Viru

An interesting end to what will be Tendulkar's last innings in Australia: run out for 13, and that too by a direct hit from a pace bowler (Tendulkar's first innings scores in this series: 62, 154*, 71, 153. His second innings scores: 15, 15, 13, 13). Meanwhile at the other end Sehwag, the only one looking like he can make runs comfortably is chugging along with more than a hundred runs to his name. Where would India be in this second innings be without him? In a pretty sticky situation, especially since its not clear that either of Dravid or RP Singh will be able to bat. India aren't out of the woods yet. Sehwag needs to keep scoring at the same rate to really settle things.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Just a little sticky

An awkward situation is developing at Adelaide. Australia are only 37 runs behind India 45 minutes before tea on the fourth day, and Australia have only lost four wickets. If they step on it from here, and grab a lead of 120 or so by day's end, India will have some very awkward batting to do tomorrow. India are very bad at batting out fifth days of test matches. Getting dismissed for 200 odd in 75 overs tomorrow (i.e., a repeat of the Sydney performance) will not do them any good.

I'll have a bash instead

There wasn't too much to write about yesterday; lots of attritional batting, thus demonstrating that even cricketing regimes dedicated to the wholesale philosophy of attacking occasionally have to slide their swords back into the scabbard; a bowling attack that lost one strike bowler, and found another one of its primary spearheads committed to a strangely defensive mindset, which refused to be flexible, and lastly a pitch, which refused to turn into the minefield that all and sundry had predicted (if I had a dollar for every time television commentators' predictions about the demise of a pitch had been proven wrong, I could have bought several expensive legal textbooks by now). So, what I'll do instead, is indulge in a bit of bashing – mainly directed at some folks that have managed to irritate me profoundly over the past few days and months. It always feels good to have a go, its pretty cathartic, and you stand a good chance of pissing some people off as much as your targets have pissed you off.

So, exhibit Number one: Billy Bowden, a legend in his own mind. Bowden is by the looks of it, a not very good umpire. He has somehow convinced himself, and no one else, that he deserves classification as one of the games “characters”. Unfortunately, he hasn't managed to learn the LBW law. Whats more, there is little evidence that his experience is standing him in good stead, for he refuses to learn. This weakness might be tolerable were it combined with a little humility but that quality is in short supply when it comes to the Goat. Instead, he projects an air of superior wisdom, and a feigned nonchalance that manages to come off as carelessness. But it gets worse. For within the heart of this LBW-law-ignorant-failed-cricketer, beats the heart of a frustrated schoolmaster, one eager to reprimand , correct, and admonish. He loves to give dirty looks to bowlers who dare appeal, to all who appear not to be wholly approving of his slipshod decision making. Perhaps his frustration at not being universally loved for his supposedly-quirky personality characteristics bubbles up in these circumstances, and prevents him from thinking about the midnight oil he needs to be burning while studying those forgotten laws of cricket.

Exhibit Number Two: Ian Healy. Are most hypocrites as sanctimonious as Ian Healy? I doubt it. Most of them are not given jobs as commentators, and thus not reassured that their pronouncements are important. Thus, their sanctimony knows some reasonable bounds. Healy, however, steadily climbs up the slopes of Mount Sanctimony, only disappointed that its summit is not higher. If it were, he'd try harder to go beyond his previous efforts. For what else could explain his constant harping about Irfan Pathan's minor chirps at Australian batsmen, his urging that Pathan reign himself in, that the umpires caution him, that order must prevail on the cricket field? This from the man who could not keep his mouth shut behind the stumps, and who was as much a "mental disintegrator" as anyone else.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

A late wag

India were 156-4 at one stage. Now, they are 427-7. As an Indian fan, I've watched too many teams do this to India over the years. Its nice to see the tables turned for once. This Kumble-Harbhajan partnership has pushed the score on nicely after Tendulkar's dismissal; it has kept the Aussie team out in the sun just a bit longer, and even made someone as level-headed as Stuart Clark look a little flustered.

So long, and no thanks for all the blocking

Thanks, MS, for confirming my theory: if you block too much, you forget how to properly play those attacking shots that are your strength (mind you, this particular shot, the aerial slash to deep point (Symonds) is one that has gotten him out before, though I think almost always in one-days).

I cannae stand it anymore

I have to confession to make. I'm starting to get sick and tired of MS Dhoni as a test bat. Last night's 6 off 54 was the latest example of the kind of chicken-scratch innings I've come to expect from him, wherein he comes in, plays shots straight to fielders, blocks endlessly, and seems to have no attacking shots whatsoever. I don't mind the hard-hitting batsman occasionally turning cautious when the occasion demands it, but he should still remember his main strength are his offensive strokes. Otherwise, he is condemned to get out when he makes his first attacking move. Whats more galling is that Dhoni is getting a free-ride on the basis of his one-day form. Dhoni hasn't played a straighforward attacking innings in tests since his 148 at Faisalabad. The two attacking innings he has played have come in hunting-for-declaration settings (Antigua 2006, the Oval 2007). Other than that there has not been much to distinguish his other efforts from what he he played last night. Why don't India simply play Dinesh Karthik, who is a better test bat (his technique is better, he takes more singles, his strokeplay is superior). As things stand, Dhoni's achievements in one-days and T20 ensure he stays in tests, while Karthik occupies the sidelines (lets not forget that other than a small blip against Pakistan Karthik has even been successful as a opener, thus indicating no shortage of technique). Dhoni's value down the order lies in him playing attacking cricket, or a slightly modified version thereof. At the moment, if everything isn't stacked up for him (cf Antigua 2006 or the Oval 2007) he looks so hopelessly out of depth that it is embarassing. But I doubt anything will be done about this. Once again, we have managed to confuse tests with one-days and it isn't doing anyone any good.

As Dhoni walks out today, he should remember that his value lies in putting opposing teams on the backfoot, not in making them feel that they are always in with a chance.

Come get yer new blogs

A couple of blogs leave the blogroll; a couple enter. The new entrants, Geetha Krishnan's literate Cow Corner, and David Barry's delightfully nerdily named Pappus' Plane. Check 'em out. Good value.

Crap catching, crap over-rates, great batting

I don't think I've seen a more amazing drop than the one that Gilchrist just put down off Lee (Laxman being the lucky bat). His footwork looked poor, and for the first time, I'm starting to wonder whether Gilchrist is starting to lose it behind the stumps, in addition to losing it in front.

Despite Hogg and Clarke having bowled 19 overs out of Australia's 67 thus far, the overrate remains poor. Ponting is, I think, excessively self-indulgent in the time that he takes setting his fields. Which, I should point out, are actually very good at drying up boundaries.

And as I write this Tendulkar has launched into a six, and then a four to bring up yet another ton. Superb stuff.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

There goes the plot again

India have had partnerships of 34, 48, 40 and 34. For day one on a Adelaide pitch, thats not good enough, and clearly India have lost their way. Ganguly can feel a bit unlucky, for he was far down the pitch (Rauf continuing his tendency to not be able to judge that deliveries would go over the stumps), but the rest have been done in by good bowling (and in Sehwag's case by an airy waft). This toss will have been wasted if India lose two more wickets today.

Oz take the first session

A slightly disappointing session for India given that they won the toss at Adelaide and decided to bat (as you would). Pathan looked good but got a very nice delivery and Dravid messed around for a while, not looking like he was coming off a 93 at Perth. In the end, he got done in by pace. Given that this is Adelaide, you'd have to say the first session went to Australia. On the bright side, Sehwag is on 56 and looking reasonably solid (Tendulkar is yet to get off the mark, which always makes me nervous). Not that there is ever an unimportant session in a test, but this one will really determine how well India will have taken advantage of the toss.

A day at Adelaide

I've only seen one day of test cricket at Adelaide; it was memorable in many respects not just because of the cricket (a tough, well-contested day saw Australia close out the day at 272-6 against the touring South Africans in the first test of the 2000-2001 series) but also because of the elaborate planning that got me to the ground.

It all started with me noticing that the dates for the Adelaide test overlapped with those for the Australian Conference on Artificial Intelligence, which was being held in Adelaide that year. How convenient. I quickly ran down to my colleague and research partner's office, and asked him if he'd want to submit a paper ("Postdiction Problems in Dynamic Logic" no less!) that we'd been working on together to the conference. He agreed; it'd been in progress for a while, we'd already presented it at a workshop and got some decent feedback and it looked ready for primetime. We went over it again, cleaned it up, formatted it in the conference's required style, and sent it off to the conference referees, fingers firmly crossed. My research partner was not a cricket fan at all; he harbored no suspicions whatsoever as to the actual motives for my desire to submit a paper to the national AI conference. My boss liked the idea, and all was well. In a few weeks, we heard back from the referees; our paper had been accepted. The next step was to apply for travel and lodging funds from the department and university. Forms were filled out, signatures obtained, t's crossed, and i's dotted, tickets purchased, hotels booked. Then, suddenly, a wave of panic swept over me. What if the conference organizers in their infinite wisdom decided to schedule our presentation for 14th December, the first day of the test and the last day of the conference? I could ask my co-author to do the talk, but there was no way I couldn't be present as well for questions and the like. There was only one thing to do: lie and beg. I immediately called the organizers to plead my case. It was simple enough: I had to fly back to Sydney on the 14th, the vagaries of Qantas flight schedules and all sorts of booking hassles made it so. There was simply no way that I could present the paper on the 14th. Would the organizers do me the courtesy of scheduling the talk for , say the 12th or the 13th. The harried conference organizer, already juggling the logistics of a large event, sighed, but said that he would look into it. A week later, we received the conference program. Our talk was scheduled for the 13th.

And so it came to be that on the 14th, a successful conference presentation under my belt, I headed to the Adelaide Oval (walking distance from our hotel) with my fellow cricket fans (yup, all of them academics; the idea of submitting a paper to this conference had been suitably transmitted to them as well!). Our group included a German academic, who we had talked into coming along for what we promised him would be a singular experience. We got there a little too early; I had been nervous about not finding good seats in the general admission section. Hence the first photograph of the day shows us sipping beers with the clock showing 9:40 AM in the background.

The cricket that day was tough and hard; South Africa fought well, the runs didn't come easily and Justin Langer battled his way to a tough ton. The beers went down easily on a hot day, not just for me, but for everyone on the Adelaide Hill. As the day wore on, things got out of hand. South African fielders copped all sorts of spray (even I joined in the fun, using some of the Afrikaans I had picked up on my trip to South Africa the month before); South African fans copped it even worse. But the worst treatment was reserved for the women, no matter what nationality they were. Not only did they get the cat-calls, the hoots, the hollers, they were subjected to beer glasses and a bit of shoving as well. It was all a bit much and I wondered what Cricket Austrlia would make of all of this. (Interestingly, the bar on the Hill is the only one I've seen at Australian grounds that had a sign proudly noting its single day sales record, apparently achieved during a Australia-New Zealand one-day international a few years previously). But all in all, it was an enjoyable day marred only by the less-than-perfect day that our German friend had: he had not been an instant convert to the game, and his painful expression was a bit of a downer.

The cricket for me didn't end with the day's play. I had a game to play the next day in Sydney for my team in the Northern Sydney comp, and had made arrangements to be picked up at the airport by my team-mate, our fast bowler, Smoking Joe. The flight was on time, as was Joe. Twenty-four hours after watching Australia play South Africa in a test at Adelaide, I was playing cricket myself in North Sydney. It all felt like a bit of a dream. It still does.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The South Australian connection

The concern of the Indian cricket fan for those matters that might not lie within his ambit is a well-known phenomenon. Witness for instance, the strange interest in the English County Cricket Championship (even when no Indian player is participating). I have a confession of my own, particularly appropriate as the fourth test in Adelaide approaches: I am a fan of South Australia. My fandom has taken a bit of a dip in recent years, but I can easily remember times when it was quite serious. Most of this however, is quite comprehensible: Don Bradman, Ian Chappell and David Hookes all played for South Australia (and captained the team at various times). It started, as most Indian fan's stories do, with Don Bradman. I realized very quickly that he had played for South Australia, and thus very quickly adopted that state as my cricketing home away from home (they must have been good, and somehow blessed, to have the Don playing for them). Even the realization, upon reading Farewell to Cricket, that the Don had only played for South Australia because of economic reasons (he turned out to be, of all things, a New South Welshman) did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for the land of Shiraz and non-criminalized marijuana (the Don had nothing to do with these vices, I'm sure). My liking for South Australia was greatly enhanced by the arrival of another statistical freak: David Hookes, who lashed five centuries in six innings in the Sheffield Shield and was promptly drafted into the Centenary Test, whereupon he set about getting himself another five-fer, this one a garland of boundaries scored off Tony Grieg. It's another matter that Hookes never quite repaid all the attention I paid to his test career (his mediocre performances in the 1977 Ashes was just the beginning). Finally Ian Chappell, with his "three-bouncers-in-an-over-means-12-runs-to-me" proclamations, and his endless clashes with authority sealed the package.

It was only natural that I would automatically select Adelaide as my favorite Australian cricketing ground. I read with delight about how beautiful it was, about its short square boundaries (well, that explained all those happy hookers, didn't it?). One of the best cricketing lines I read concerned Graeme Pollock's 175 at Adelaide during the 1963-64 series. As Pollock hit one of his three sixes off the Aussie duo of Benaud and Hawke, the ABC commentator on air at the time, (whose name sadly escapes me now), murmured, "Murder in the cathedral".

More on Adelaide tomorrow.

No to Sir, with love

Can the English Prime Minister Gordon Brown really be as naive or ignorant as his suggestion that Sachin Tendulkar be knighted seems to indicate? Just to bring you up to date Hon. Prime Minister, India became a sovereign democratic republic on January 26th, 1950. Its citizens don't accept knighthoods (aka "taps on the shoulder from old German ladies"). You might want to reserve those for countries that still feature the Union Jack in their flags. (Or you might want to give a second one to Ian Botham seeing as he was so over the moon on becoming Sir Bottom).

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Observant Fool

Indian test victories are extremely fecund when it comes to producing idiots. For no sooner do they happen that a few dozen spring to life, looking for the nearest holding pen. Our latest exhibit is Will Buckley of the Observer who speaking of the Indian pace attack, which dismissed the world's strongest side at Perth, writes:
The Australians had crumbled. Confused by dibble-dobble seamers who were neither one thing nor the other.
Tell you what, Will old chap. Why don't you strap on your pads, grab a bat, slip on a helmet. Irfan, Ishant and Rudra will gladly dibble you till you're dobbled and looking like Ricky Ponting's hipbone.

The return of the Pathan

On January 4th, 2004, I sat in the Coogee Bay Hotel, nursing a schooner of some generic Carlton beer. My friends had wanted to go to the beach, and they had, but I, noting that Damien Martyn had just fallen to Kumble (after the whirlwind five-an-over assault that the Aussie top order had intiated in response to India's mountainous 705), had wanted to go find a place with a television instead. Thats where I first laid eyes on Irfan Pathan. Its been four years since and as a good Indian fan, I've learned to control any great enthusiasm over new Indian quicks (they lose pace, control and fitness all too quickly). But on that day, I was still able to react with a kind of naive enthusiasm at seeing this youngster bowl. I had already heard about his bowling at Adelaide and Brisbane, and about the promise that he seemed to embody. With the score at 311, the Waugh-Katich stand had reached 50, and the Australian climb to safety seemed assured. Then, with a perfect delivery that moved away and across Waugh, Pathan nailed Waugh (Patel didn't drop the catch). And at 341, he yorked Gilchrist. I remember a great deal of those moments: Pathan's wild, hooping, powerful celebrations, the look of bemusement on both Australian's faces, and the desperate hope that flared in me. Could India, thanks to a young quick, pull it off? India didn't of course. On the fourth day, India failed as usual to dismiss a stubborn lower-order partnership as Katich and Gillespie drove India to distraction, and then on the fifth day, India's ludicrous over-reliance on Kumble, its defensive field-placings, Patel's fumbles, and its general reticence cost it a historic win. Pathan bowled 8 overs for 26 runs and one wicket: Ponting.

Later that year, Pathan helped India beat Pakistan in Pakistan, delivering a cricketing kick up the backside to Javed Miandad in the process, who had declared that Irfan Pathans were a dime-a-dozen (poor Miandad, he thought they were talking about those turbaned chaps that run the country's north-west, not the one that was playing cricket for India and making his batsmen look like bumbling fools). I was convinced that a cricketing superstar had arrived. I loved his aggression, his unbelievable skill at making the ball straighten into the right-hander (Waz he a Crim?) and the straight-up purity of his batting.

But his career languished as we all know. I have my own theory for why it happened. On January 29th 2006, Pathan pulled off one of the two highest quality hattricks in the history of test cricket. In the first over of a test match at Karachi between Pakistan and India, with the fourth, fifth and sixth deliveries, he cleaned up Salman Butt, Younus Khan and Mohammed Yousuf. The first was caught at slip, the second trapped LBW by that deadly straightener, and the third bowled middle-stump. A more dramatic hat-trick is hard to imagine. And the quality of the batsmen, the setting, the place, the situation - in my mind, there is no better hat-trick in the history of the game. (In terms of quality of batsmen, Glen McGrath's hat-trick against the West Indies which netted for Campbell, Lara (McGrath's 300th) and Adam) comes close but that was at home, and was for a dominant Aussie side against a insipid West Indies). What did the Indian team do with this hat-trick? They lost the test by 341 runs. Something snapped in Pathan's mind. He could get a hat-trick in the first over of a test against Pakistan in Pakistan, and he'd still land up on the losing side. Thanks folks.

His slide downward was rapid and the ultimate indignity came with his being sent home from South Africa about a year later. His pace was gone, his swing was gone. He was described as Chappell's pet (who in turn was villified for having tried to convert him into an all-rounder). He got carted around in one-day internationals by hacks who would have been looking at the raised finger if the old Irfan had been bowling. But he made his way back. His comeback is, as most sporting comebacks are, a mixture of work on the mind and body (come to think of it, aren't most human endeavors?), a reaffirmation of the fact that he needed to get back to whatever it was that had made him successful in the first place.

Watching him blow away Australia's openers in both innings, a classical fast-bowlers one-two punch that left the rest of the order fumbling to get back on an even keel, was to experience some of the purest delights that test cricket can provide, all in the right setting, as the bright glare of the skin-burning Aussie sun beat down on the protagonists, one of whom reprised his hooping, leaping, celebrations from four years, and what seems like an eon, ago.

Welcome back Irfan. Stay fit. In both mind and body.

Get over it

I'm not sure why so many Indian journalists and fans are convinced that Ishant Sharma's spell to Ricky Ponting on the fourth day's play at Perth will go down in history. Whatever happened, it didn't involve an English player, and it didn't happen in England, and that particular spell of play didn't result in an outcome favorable to England. To have the Lords of World Cricket Journalism smile upon you thusly and ensure your place in cricketing history, you must satisfy at least one of these three conditions. Oh yes, you might have Star Sports showing it again and again in India, some random Indian bloggers chatting about it, and maybe even Channel 9 once at the end of the season (perhaps), but other than that it's doomed to obscurity. Such are the ways of the world's information order in cricket. No worries, the test win is good enough for now.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Who's your daddy?

Ahem. Yesterday, in this post, I wrote the following:
For me, what stacks as being the crucial factors for an Indian win are simple:....2. Ishant Sharma must chill out, and bowl on a length. Sehwag as an offspinner must not be forgotten. India will miss Harbhajan for this pitch has bounce, and he'd have been useful. But lets not forget Viru can give it a bit of a rip.
I'm waiting for that call from the BCCI any moment now. Gary Kirsten, Shmary Mirsten.

Go the young 'uns!

Well, the end was a long time coming, but it came in the right fashion as RP yorked Tait. How appropriate, that at Perth, an Indian quick should finish the match by yorking an Aussie paceman drafted in to build a four-man pace attack that would blow away India in three days. This win will rank right up there, and I hope people remember down the line that a very inexperienced fast bowling attack set it up. Its almost 430 AM now in New York, and I need to turn in so final words will come tomorrow. For the time being, its a great feeling for this Punjabi to listen to some Punjabi lyrics on Channel 9's closing montage!

Could it be?

I'm a little surprised that Kumble wasn't able to slip one past Johnson in this late charge by the Aussie tail. Its been a frustrating little session and the aggravation is growing out on the field (its growing in here as well, I can assure you). The new ball is here, and its gone for six courtesy Clark. What a slam-bang session. You wouldn't think that these guys would make it but when tailenders have a go, and the target is shrinking strange thoughts cross one's mind.

Charge of the capital boys

So Australia have once again clawed their way back into this game as Clarke and Gilchrist put on a very good stand. As this stand induces the shivers in me, I take comfort at how well Delhi are doing in the Ranji Trophy Final over in Mumbai where my boys need 154 runs more on day 4 and they have all 10 wickets in hand. And two openers who have played for India in the past, Akash Chopra and Gautam Gambhir are the ones leading the charge. And another Delhi opener is bowling offspin now: Virender Sehwag. Yup, go Delhi. Do it. At Mumbai and Perth. And GOSHDANGIT, he's bowled Gilchrist!

Moving right along

Wow, Billie has actually given an LBW. And it's Roy no less. Well, well. Who'da thunk? Tell you what, its a pretty wierd sensation watching a Channel Nine telecast coming in on my flatpanel monitor on a freezing night in Brooklyn, as the sounds of Indian fans chants wafts in on the speakers. (I suppose this says something about the mobility of the Indian diaspora and the increasing number of Indian students in Australia).

Where's yer glasses ref?

It'd be good if we could get a pair of umpires that knew the LBW law. Rauf gives them out when they aren't and Bowden gives them not out when they are. Bowden also doesn't seem to know the no-ball rule. The no-ball he just called on Kumble is one of the worst I've seen in my life.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Onya Ishant

I've dissed Ishant Sharma so many times on this blog (despite him being a Delhi boy, or perhaps because he is one and I expected more?), that I'm now obligated to tender an apology. That spell of bowling was an excellent one, and the amount of trouble he had Ponting in was incredible. And at the end of it, he snared quite possibly the most important wicket of all. The Australian captain himself. India desperately needed this wicket - going to lunch with no wickets in the first session would have been extremely dispiriting.

Keep it going Ishant

Well, that last over by Ishant Sharma to Ponting (possibly the plan that I'd been looking for in the last post), was one of the best I've seen in a long while. A little luck, and he'd have knocked the Punter over. Heres hoping he can keep it up.

Differing starts

A strange start by India. Kumble opens the bowling rather than putting on Pathan, and then decides to not put on a silly point for himself. Just one slip and a forward short-leg. Exceedingly strange. Good start by Australia, they are batting positively as you'd expect, with several singles and boundaries already in the bag. And now Ishant Sharma has replaced Kumble - I'm not getting this all, and I'm afraid it seems to be betraying the lack of a real plan.

Here comes the fourth day

I did something last night I haven't done in a long time - pull an all-nighter. It wasn't for work, but for test cricket. The third day was a cracker, and its time to pull out those cliches about days where momentum and pendulums swing. India appeared to have given it away in the morning. 3, 13, 0. Thats what Dravid, Tendulkar and Ganguly made. And Sehwag had already gone early. But those fightbacks due to Pathan, Dhoni, Laxman and RP Singh pushed the lead on to 400, and amazingly, since it was Australia that was being set the target it still didn't feel like enough. I know it does not feel like enough for the Indian team. They'd have wanted to have been batting this morning, grinding the Aussies further into the ground, but instead, they had to scrap all day, a battle which would have inspired the Aussies considerably (I'm not sure though that the Clarke-Symonds interlude, or the RP Singh-Laxman partnership made them feel good). Still, here we are, and it'll be tense stuff all day.

For me, what stacks as being the crucial factors for an Indian win are simple:

1. India must not lose their heads when the Aussie attack happens, as it will. Please, no glaring, no ground-kicking, no hasty changing of field placings.

2. Ishant Sharma must chill out, and bowl on a length. Sehwag as an offspinner must not be forgotten. India will miss Harbhajan for this pitch has bounce, and he'd have been useful. But lets not forget Viru can give it a bit of a rip.

3. Obviously, the big three - Pathan, Singh and Kumble - need to keep performing the way they have done so far in this match.

4. India must not bleed easy singles all day. This is a surefire killer.

5. The umpires need to remember that Kumble bowls a lot of balls that go straight.

But by far and away, the first point above is the most important. Australia will attack, and India must not wilt. The chances will come their way if they aren't bowling tripe.

Time for another cliche: this is test cricket at its best.

Whats the deal?

This partnership between VVS Laxman and RP Singh has been very useful (37 so far) but I'm utterly, totally baffled by the policy on scoring runs. Sometimes VVS behaves as if he does not want to shield RP Singh and so he'll take singles early in the over, and sometimes he won't. Sometimes RP will have a go, and sometimes he won't take singles either early in the over (while having taken some late in the over and thus retaining strike). I'd estimate that about 10 runs have been turned down thus far.

Getting towards the endgame

Symonds' little double-strike before tea took this test, which India were looking like running away with, and pushed it back just a little towards Australia. I suppose it says something about the Australians (and the Indians) that the current target of 370 doesn't inspire total confidence in an Indian fan. Both Dhoni and Kumble played slightly carelessly and expansively. Kumble in particular, must be kicking himself. He normally does not give away his wicket so cheaply and easily. The last two wickets are left now, and VVS' lack of ability when it comes to farming the strike or stepping up the tempo when the tail is around means that India might not add too many runs (of course, RP Singh, with a few more lusty blows could prove all that wrong). (Note: This inability of VVS to farm the strike lower down the order makes the decision to bat him at #6 even more mysterious). Whatever the target from here on, if India don't panic in the face of the inevitable Aussie attack in the second innings, we could be looking at an absolute cracker.

Its not all forgotten

Nice to see MS has an enterprising bone or two left in him (or at least, thats what that six off Clarke seems to suggest). If he can mix a little bit of aggression with all this defence he is showing, he will do precisely the right thing: he'll give the comfortable looking Laxman good company, and he'll keep the Aussies guessing. Just don't do the turtle imitation anymore. You know what they say about turtles that stick their heads under? When they stick their heads out after a long time, they get chopped.

Not one, but two?

It's pretty painful having to sit through two collapses. Over at Perth, India are down to 165-6 and in Mumbai, Delhi are stumbling around at 245-7 and looking in danger of conceding a vital first-innings lead to Uttar Pradesh in the Ranji Trophy Final. In the case of the game I'm watching, its made even more painful by the off-color batting of MS Dhoni who looks nothing like the attacking batsman that he is supposed (Oh, I'm not asking for slogs but he doesn't look positive or confident). In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Dhoni looks hopeless, and with the runs drying up (this being especially worrying), and the lead only at 284, its not looking good. With this unbelievable crawl since lunch, hitting full-tosses to fielders, not looking to score runs at all, India are making the same old mistakes again and again. (Mark Nicholas: do India know how to win? The answer right now, certainly seems like a "No" for no matter what happens, the lesson to take singles is simply not being learned). Indeed, it might almost be better if Dhoni gets out. Kumble has much more enterprise than him, and places the ball better.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Down they go

India have collapsed rather spectacularly in this first session. Four very good wickets have fallen, and the hopes of winning this game have receded rather quickly. Three of the batsmen (Sehwag, Dravid and Tendulkar) and Ganguly has managed to fall to possibly the worst bowler on display: Johnson. To make things worse, Ganguly fell in an over which was all over, and I mean, all over, the place. Laxman and Pathan in, and I dare say, this is it. Partnership needed.

A quick look ahead

I know this is jumping the gun (especially with a test still underway) but Mark Taylor has just called the correct Indian XI for the Adelaide test: Sehwag, Dravid, Laxman, Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dhoni, Pathan, Harbhajan, Kumble, RP Singh, Ishant Sharma.

Now, back to the test at hand.

Genial quicks

Interesting seeing Brett Lee and Pathan grinning at each other after Lee bounced Pathan a couple of times (Pathan hit a beautiful straight drive off the next ball for four). It reminded me that for all the talk about "ugly Australians", its been a very long time since I've seen an Aussie quick snarling, cursing, glaring etc. Even though McGrath did a fair amount of it in his time, it had faded in his last few years (I sense it went down a bit after the Sarwan business). In fact, in recent years, I think the surliest quicks I've seen in recent times have been Sidebottom and Anderson this past summer. (I'm not counting Akhtar and Nel, both of whom go straight into the Cricketing Spinal Tap section).

Looking better to good

The last post I made last night was quite a doom-n-gloom affair. Pardon me; if you've been an Indian fan for long enough, you get to thinking in certain patterns. Needless to say, the score this morning was a shocker. (Though at one point at about 3 AM, I staggered out to see that six wickets had fallen, and went back to bed, still expecting a late fightback from the Aussies). Its pretty obvious what must happen today for India to win this match (or to take the right steps towards doing so): they must bat out the day. If they do so, they will have enough runs at the end of it. In that sense, Pathan and Sehwag are the right duo to start the day's proceedings. Pathan is positive, Sehwag is Sehwag, and they both are good runners between the wickets.

Yet another plug

Given the events of the second test at Sydney, I thought I'd go ahead and make a shameless plug for a paper that David Coady and I wrote on the morality of certain practices in cricket. As I've indicated before this paper will feature in the collection (The Philosophy of Cricket) linked to on the right hand side. Would much appreciate any comments.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Bad effort, that

India have collapsed comprehensively. They have not put enough runs on the board, they have not used up enough time. Trouble lies ahead.

Enough already

Yuvraj Singh twists his knee during a, wait-for-it, warm-up soccer game. It would be very useful to get a stat on how many injuries have occurred training activities that were not cricketing (i.e., excluding knocks on the head during nets etc). I'm sure it'll make for very interesting reading.

Labels do matter

One problem with getting tagged as "excitable subcontinental" is that if you appeal the way Brett Lee did yesterday after hitting Tendulkar high on the pads, its more likely you won't get the finger going your way. That appeal and the one before it are worth watching - you can sense Rauf crumbling. And today Rauf crumbled again, and once again, he got the height wrong when giving Dhoni out LBW - in face of a sustained appeal from Clark and Co. Its far, far better, to get the tag of "hard but fair". Its pays off better in the long run.

Come back MS

On 21st Jan 2006, playing in only his fifth test match, MS Dhoni, apparently Indian-test-captain-in-waiting, made 148 against Pakistan, rescuing India from a slightly precarious position (albeit on a pretty dead track). Since that innings, the following has been his sequence of scores in test cricket:

13, 18, 5, 16, 16, 64, 5, 19, 69, 9, 29, 20, 3, 19, 5, 18, 34, 47, 36, 17*, 51*, 0, 76*, 5, 92, 36, 57, 50*, 37, 0, 11, 2, 35, 8* = 932 runs in 29 completed innings for an average of some 32.13 (his overall test average stands at 35.85).

MS has not scored a century since that innings, and by and large his batting simply hasn't come up to expectations. He has acquired the reputation of a very good one-day closer (and does not blast innings like that 183* against Sri Lanka) but his test batting remains mired in mediocrity. He can do much better, and its not entirely clear why he has remained thus. One thought that comes to mind that ever since the day MS suffered his brain meltdown at Mumbai against England on that infamous last day as India collapsed, he has chosen the path of excessive diffidence over his natural attacking instincts. While this has netted him some praise (as in the case of his 76* to save the Lords test last summer), the run production has not been forthcoming. Some might suggest too, that he doesn't have the technique to score more than 35 runs an innings in test matches. But if thats the case, surely MS is good enough to average 35 in test matches batting his natural style? What we have instead, is a man who pokes around when he comes to bat, and seems to hope he will not dab one to slips or the keeper for a while. In short, he fails to inspire confidence in tests, and I have the sense of a talent slipping away.

One huge Indian batting talent has already wasted this tour of Australia: Yuvraj will look back on this series with a huge sense of regret (hopefully). Dhoni shouldn't let this chance pass him by. The stage is set for him at Perth. If he does his usual dabbing, nudging, nurdling, he will nick one sooner or later, and that'll be it. He should try and remember the attacking instincts that got him to where he is (or, at least, into the Indian team, and earned him his early fame). I suspect Irfan Pathan might have a trick or two to show him.

It's right here

Very solid, good, test batting from Dravid and Tendulkar. Dravid has played more strokes in this innings than he has in the entire series, and Tendulkar seems to be carrying on from the first innings of the Sydney test (no, not the second innings!). The pitch has quite a bit of bounce and pace, but is essentially a very good batting track for anyone willing to ride out the initial storm. Fingers crossed for what lies ahead. The century partnership is here. India can only hope that it continues to grow.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Anyone seen the plot?

'Coz India have lost it. 0-56, going along nicely. Then they freeze up, stop scoring runs (or are stopped from doing so). The play-n-miss to shot ratio starts to rise for Viru. Then, he is gone. And shortly thereafter, Jaffer, continuing his strokeless run, finally pokes at one to the wicketkeeper. Tait is in now, and his first delivery is clocked at 150 kmph, the fastest first-delivery-in-a-spell I've ever seen.

Partway right

India have made the expected changes for the Perth test, but they've got the batting order wrong. Dravid should not be at #3. Laxman should. Dravid should be at #5 and Ganguly at #6. Hopefully, it'll be changed, but for now, this is a defensive move, and it wastes Laxman at #6. A left-hander will work better for that position, and the strokeplayers are needed higher up the order. Ah, well. Good to see a Delhi boy back in the team.

A quick shot from the hips

Straight Point asked me below about my thoughts after the Sydney test. In sum, all I can say is the following: scrap the match referee; introduce three appeals per test for disputed decisions; forget the silly business of taking anyone's word for catches; never, ever, under any circumstances get the respective cricket boards involved in any on-field disputes. In sum, keep matters on the field, with the umpires, and use technology judiciously. Its all pretty simple really. (Yeah, I know, I exaggerate, but cricket is a game that really does reward you for sticking to the basics and keeping it simple). And especially with the ludicrous exaggeration and over-hyping the media can indulge in, it makes even more sense to keep things on the ground, not off it. This whole spectacle of midnight tribunals in response to official complaints, the injection of a false, pompous, code of honour into a highly professionalized, global game, and the inability of a sports governing body to come up with a coherent set of rules for the use of technology in conjunction with umpiring has been depressing to say the least.

I'm glad the cricket has started; I love test cricket and this is as good as it gets. Onwards!

Leave it out on the paddock

A quick recollection of a memory (without further comment). Two years ago, India and Pakistan were playing a one-day international and a little incident took place. I blogged about it then. Kind of interesting in the present circumstances, what?

Monday, January 14, 2008

A trip down under

Phew. So this long break from blogging comes to an end. I'm back from Australia, where besides meeting a lot of friends, I managed to sneak in some cricket as well: the first and second days at the MCG, and the second and third days at the SCG. Too much has been written about lots of things connected with the tour, so I'll resist the temptation to stick in my two cents, and will concentrate instead on my takes on the MCG and the SCG, the two grounds where I've seen the most test cricket in my life. The last time I was at the MCG, construction was underway on a new stand, which is now complete. As a result, the conversion of the MCG to a football stadium model is now complete. The three layers of the stands now run uniformly around the stadium, and the old view of the city skyline is gone. However, the MCG still retains all its atmosphere - it, in the minds of Melburnians, is as famous as a football ground (for the AFL), and cricket and Aussie Rules jostle for equal attention there. The stadium is very spectator friendly: there is plenty of space to move around (no sense of overcrowding), the bars and food stands are plentiful (I was pleased to find that the bars continued to stock Four-n-Twenty meat pies, which made my food and drink runs much more efficient), and you can move around easily with the general admission tickets (its quite common practice to find different viewing angles for the day's play during the day). The cricket on Boxing Day was excellent even though my viewing of it was not so optimal (being side-on isn't great, don't you think?). The cricket the next day, when India did their pointless crawl, and handed over the test to the Aussies was decidedly less so. Things were decidedly less spectator-friendly at the SCG. Construction on the old Doug Walters Stand (itself a concretization of the infamous Sydney Hill) is underway for a higher-end stand. In the meantime, access to the O'Reilly Stand the lower level below it is completely buggered, resulting in long lines for entering and food and drinks and in crowded passageways, which are almost claustrophobic at times. The second and third days saw those wonderful innings by Laxman and Tendulkar and I count myself fortunate to have seen both of them live (that taking apart of Johnson by Laxman and the Sydney crowd's ovation for SRT on his reaching his ton will live long in my memory).

Aussie crowds tend to be very knowledgeable at the cricket; most of them have played the game in some shape or form, and are never short of an opinion. Its quite an experience too, to hear the almost instinctive reaction that goes around the ground to a good piece of cricket, one of the most gratifying responses to a game. When all is said and done, watching a game of cricket at the ground is the best way to get a handle on all the hype that is generated by television and the print media: its a game played by a bunch of guys, and the people at the ground can often transcend their nationalist tendencies when they see something they like.

Plenty more to write, of course. All in good time.