Daily Archives: 7 July 2011

Clutch Redux

A few months ago, Siddhartha Vaidyanathan (@sidvee) wrote an excellent article titled “Tendulkar and the ‘clutch’ question”. This was an exquisite essay, which recognized Tendulkar’s many virtues: his incredible longevity, passion for the game, hunger for the fight, impact beyond cricket, and his poise even when burdening a billion expectations. However, @sidvee’s article also states that Tendulkar’s performance in the “clutch debate remains partially unresolved”. Apart from this expression of thrust/hypothesis, one very minor gripe that I had with the article was that it was a somewhat convenient fence-sit, for most part.

A “clutch moment” is defined as one where an athlete senses the moment, pounces on it and imposes his greatness on the occasion. The end result is normally a victory.

This article was @sidvee at his very best. The arguments were excellently and passionately constructed. It even had a typo (“goosbumps” instead of “goosebumps”) to show us all that @sidvee was human after all. There were many comments from readers of this article. If the quality of an article is measured by the debate it generates, then this one certainly belonged in the top-drawer. There were also a few ripostes to @sidvee’s article; the best of these was one by Mahesh (@cornerd).

At first I thought I would not buy into the debate, for a variety of reasons. For a long time now, I have employed a wicket-keeper for any arguments on Sachin Tendulkar’s greatness. Occasionally, I would find myself in the thick of a virulent debate on Tendulkar’s greatness. The main reason for staying away from the “clutch” debate, however, was that the Sachin-clutch argument was old-hat to me. It had done many a spin around my block!

But then, I am not a great fan of a fence-sit either: a fence-sit gives the fence sitter nothing more than a sore bottom! So, I have decided that, after nearly three months, I will weigh in to the debate after all.

In a subsequent piece, @sidvee quoted from Stephen J Gould’s brilliant piece on Joe DiMaggio’s phenomenal 56-game hitting streak, in which the author comments on the nature of legend.

“A man may labor for a professional lifetime, especially in sport or in battle, but posterity needs a single transcendent event to fix him in permanent memory. Every hero must be a Wellington on the right side of his personal Waterloo; generality of excellence is too diffuse. The unambiguous factuality of a single achievement is adamantine. Detractors can argue forever about the general tenor of your life and works, but they can never erase a great event.”

The argument is that Tendulkar’s peers — Ricky Ponting, Shane Warne, Steve Waugh, Brian Lara, Adam Gilchrist, VVS Laxman, Rahul Dravid, Aravinda De Silva, et al — have faced and seized clutch moments. These moments have been recorded and recognized in their respective CVs. Meanwhile, the argument is that Tendulkar let his clutch-moments slip through his fingers.

Indian cricket fans will point to the fact that if India had won the Chennai Test against Pakistan in 1999, we may not have felt the need to have this argument. Tendulkar would have had his clutch moment on his CV. That moment would have been further augmented, ornamented and romanticized by virtue of the fact that Tendulkar battled through an injury to get India to within spitting distance of victory in that Test. We like blood. We like our sporting heroes to be gladiators that vanquish evil. The clutch is a much better clutch if the sportsman has morphine in his body or his jaw strapped by a bandage.

We willed Tendulkar to win that match for us. But he let us down! Tendulkar got out within sight of victory. India lost. The Indian cricket fan has not forgotten!

When we turn our focus on that heroic-tragic Chennai Test against Pakistan that India lost, few fans seem to remember that it was a low scoring match; that no team had crossed 300 in that match; that apart from Afridi, who had scored a second-innings century as opener, no other player stamped his authority on the game; that Saqlain Mushtaq bowled as brilliantly as anyone has seen him bowl; that the pitch was crumbling; that at 82 for 5 chasing 271, India was cooked already! It was against this backdrop that we must see Tendulkar’s epic effort. I do not wish to be a Tendulkar apologist. That is not his point. His record speaks much more than I can.

However, the point I wish to make is that the scorecard does not record the above details. The scorecard does not record the fact that Tendulkar first shielded and then battled Nayan Mongia through an epic contribution; often chiding him for taking undue risks; always encouraging him. Worse! The scorecard does not record the fact that, with 53 runs to get, Mongia departed to an ugly pull off Wasim Akram! By getting out, Mongia had said (like almost all Team India players of Tendulkar’s era had), “You do it on your own from here. I am out of here!” The scorecard does not record the fact that Tendulkar was in severe pain at that point in time. His back had given way by then. The scorecard does not record that, despite that pain, he chose to change gears and belted a few boundaries once Mongia got out (needlessly). The scorecard also does not record the fact that all it took was one single fatal miscalculation; one small error of judgment is all it took for Indian fans to label him permanently as a clutch failure! The scorecard does not record the fact that, when Tendulkar departed at 254, with 17 runs still to get, the Karnataka quartet of SB Joshi, Anil Kumble, Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad could only get 4 between themselves! The fact that the Karnataka quartet disgraced themselves is forgotten. The fact that they collectively devalued Tandulkar’s efforts to get India to that point is also forgotten.

The point is that “clutch” is a difficult concept in cricket. It ignores the team. It ignores Nayan Mongia and the Karnataka quartet. It is agnostic to contributions (or lack thereof) from a team. It is a uni-dimensional and harsh measure. As @sidvee himself points out, it is impossible to compare greatness across different sport or indeed, different players in the same sport who play for different teams and in different eras. It is precisely because of this that I value Tendulkar’s centuries more than I value Ponting’s centuries; Ponting did not have to face McGrath, Warne and Gillespie! Clutch applies perfectly only to tennis players and golfers! They chart their destiny themselves.

Almost exactly a decade later — one month shy of a decade later — Tendulkar chose the same venue (Chepauk, Chennai) to “atone” for his earlier inability to close out a win. He stayed not out till the end, scored an unbeaten century and ensured that India won against England. This was an important win for the country’s pride, leave alone the team! This win emerged from the shadows of the 26/11 tragedy that had shocked a nation. I am told that there was not a dry eye in Chepauk. This could have counted as a clutch. But even this was contribution was not enough.

I suspect that most Indian fans are still not able to forgive Tendulkar for that 1999 game. As one reader said on @sidvee’s blog, Tendulkar constantly gets the short-shrift. We are quick to make Gods out of mere mortals, but we have a constant need for our legends to be nothing short of Gods — all the time.

I am not a big fan of “clutch” in team sport. It is all too individualistic. Even Roberto Baggio does not qualify as a clutch failure in my books. Yes, he fluffed that penalty shoot in 1994. But that ignores his teammates’ many misses during the game. I am not in favor of tagging transient acts of excellence as “clutch” in a team sport. If we did, we run the risk of calling Ajit Agarkar or David Warner as cricket geniuses (the logic here is that clutch suggests genius)! By the same argument, I am not in favor of tagging transient acts of lack-of-excellence as “clutch failure” in a team sport.

As Mahesh (@cornerd) says in his riposte, Tendulkar’s preparation for the 1998 series against Australia constitutes “clutch” to me. To me, clutch in a team-sport is not a specific instance in time. It must be demonstrated through sustained acts of (heroic) excellence for it to be a clutch.

And Tendulkar certainly has these sustained acts of excellence in his CV.

– Mohan

The tipping point…

After Team India won the World Cup, I was waiting for the “real” cricket season to commence before I re-commenced blogging! Senior players took a break from the game through lung infections and shoulder niggles. I could point to a digit that was unnaturally, yet temporarily, bent beyond the allowed 15 degrees! So, I took a break from blogging.

More seriously though…

Team India had ticked the “won the World Cup again” box. Everything else after that was mere preparation for the tipping point in what I have termed the Year of Consolidation for Team India.

And that year commences now.

The IPL came and went and ruined any celebration plans that either Team India or BCCI might have had subsequent to India’s World Cup victory! Some, like me, will say that this was a blessing in disguise! Thankfully, the chest-beats lasted just one week. Thanks to the onslaught of IPL-4, post-win celebrations were substantially and significantly minimal in India; this at a time when the English are still celebrating the Ashes victory some 6 months later!

After an ODI series against the Windies, Team India is now in the midst of a low-key Test series against West Indies. The last Test commences today.

But these ODIs and Test matches have been good preparation for the home run in the year of consolidation for Team India. We are at an interesting tipping point.

History will perhaps see 2001 as the year it all started for Team India. The team, through its inspirational leader, Saurav Ganguly, developed self-belief. The team knew that it had to win — and win overseas. It did. Slowly at first, like a child learning to walk. Winning overseas soon became a habit! Along the way, the team recorded a few good victories: Kolkata 2001 (v Australia), Leeds 2002 (v England), Adelaide 2003 (v Australia), Multan 2004 (v Pakistan), Sabina Park 2006 (v West Indies), Johannesburg 2006 (v South Africa), Perth 2008 (v Australia), Mohali 2008 (v Australia) and Mohali 2010 (v Australia), being some of the more memorable and important victories.

The doubters said Indians could not cope with the short ball. At the start of every series, we hear the same strategies being mapped: chin music. It is almost as if there are no other strategies to combat the strong Indian batting line-up! When India toured Australia in 2003 and we heard of “chin music” for the first time, a friend’s 10-year old said, “Let them talk about chin music, we can talk about Sa-chin music”. Today, every team is still focuses on chin music. Get over it, already!

Other doubters said that India could not win overseas. India has. Consistently.

Many other doubters said that India did not have the bench strength to overcome the departure of the backbone of the team: Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman, Kumble, Ganguly. Today, the last two have departed. Through a mixture of chance, design and the incredible longevity of Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman, India appears to be managing the transition.

These doubts are being answered. Slowly. Today, the team has bench strength that is the envy of the world. Unlike Australia, who lost her best players inside a year, India’s retirements have been managed well so far.

Australia assumed that her tough local competition would continue to routinely throw up talent that is good enough to take on the world. Australia did not blood her future torch-bearers and replacements in a phased manner. Australia waited for the legends to retire and was then found out. Through a combination of good fortune and design, India has taken an alternative route. Today, Anil Kumble and Saurav Ganguly have departed. But their loss is not yet being felt in a manner that is acutely hurtful. Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman and other contemporary senior members are still there to ensure that the baby is not thrown out with the bath water.

Now, we have reached an important point in the journey. Team India has had an exciting 10-year journey up until now. The team now stands on the cusp of a watershed moment. The team has self-belief now. It has the talent. It has the personnel. Through injury management and rest management, the team has ensured that even after the feverish and intense IPL, the team is fit and able to take on a strong England in England in Tests. Sachin Tendulkar, Zaheer Khan, Yuvraj Singh, Gautam Gambhir, Virender Sehwag and Sreesanth were rested to ensure that the team has fresh legs available to take on a significant challenge.

And that really is the key to building bench-strength. Young players need to be provided opportunities to face the heat in tough/alien conditions.

That has happened. While Abhinav Mukund, Murali Vijay, Virat Kohli and Abhimanyu Mithun have not yet set the world alight with their performances, they will have benefited hugely from this outing in West Indies.

Rahul Dravid said recently that the conditions the team encountered in the West Indies have been the toughest he has experienced in a long time. Of the batsmen, only Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Suresh Raina (to a lesser extent) have emerged with their reputations enhanced.

But we cannot be arrogant like the Australians were when they were preparing for their future. In my view, much like the cricket that the team played at that time, Australia went about her preparation for her senior players’ eventual departure in an arrogant manner. Australia used and discarded players like Matthew Elliot, Brad Hodge, Jason Krejza, Stuart McGill, Chris Rogers, et al. These players were put through a revolving door and spun in and out of the team. It was all good while the team was successful. The theory was that the Sheffeld Shield was so strong that it would always throw up the right player when the right moment came along. This was a principle built on a foundation of arrogance. Even if we think that the Ranji Trophy is good at identifying and testing talent in tough conditions (and let us admit, it is not!) India cannot afford to take on the attitudes that Australia adopted.

We cannot adopt a use-once-and-discard policy. If players like Abhinav Mukund, M. Vijay, Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina, Rohit Sharma, Abhimanyu Mithun, et al, are players that we identify for a strong future, we need to be patient with their failures in order that we reap the benefits of their potential future success.

Team India, as I said before, is at a tipping point. Winning, which has now become possible, must become a habit. The ingredients for this phase change are self-belief, talent-nurturing and ruthlessness on the field.

The availability of talent must be a given in this journey. This needs to be nurtured. And this necessarily means that we — the fans — must learn to be patient. As I keep saying, if you want to see a collection of sacks, visit a mill or a godown! If we cannot learn to be patient when the team is winning, we have Buckley’s chance in Hell of being patient when we start to lose! Talent-nurturing cannot turn to talent-nutering!

Finally, the team must learn to win clutch situations.

The journey in this, the year of consolidation, commences with India meeting England in England and Australia in Australia. Yes! India did beat England the last time she visited that country. But she did not play like a champion team would. India did not press for a win at The Oval. India did not have that ruthless edge that Steve Waugh’s Australia had. India did not overcome a clutch situation. Indeed, India avoided the clutch situation totally!

And India is yet to win a series in Australia.

So, a decade after Team India discovered self-belief, it is time for a phase-change; it is time to endure and cut through an important tipping point…

– Mohan