Monthly Archives: October 2011

Good horses in unfamiliar courses

In an earlier post, Sanjay Subrahmanyan writes about how Team India’s middle-order hopefuls have performed in recent years in the glories, chaos, catastrophes, and convulsions of Indian cricket.

One of these “hopefuls” is Yuvraj Singh. He is once again a Test middle-order “hopeful”. Fourteen years after making his First Class debut and some 8 yeas since making his international debut, Yuvraj Singh is still a “hopeful”. That is a story in itself and is cause for him to be the protagonist in this essay. But the larger plot is the rationale behind his selection in a Test side. The more important inquisition is about how T20 and ODI performance continues to influence selectors when they sit down to select a Test side.

India is, ironically, in a good situation. This moment in time represents a compelling opportunity to build for the future. It should be an opportunity to be clear and strategic in thought and action. Instead, what we are left with is an impression of a selection group that is chaotic, disorganized and muddled in its thinking.

India has been thoroughly embarrassed and humiliated in England in a tour in which nothing went right for the team. In a year from now, the team might have one or perhaps even two or three departures through retirement. For example, I cannot see VVS Laxman’s body last beyond mid-2012. Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid cannot be too far from hanging up their bats. Zaheer Khan is not going to be around for ever. This was, therefore, an opportunity to commence a definite freeing of the many strong Atlases that held the team aloft in an impressive journey. The time was ripe for strategic thinking.

Ironically, the situation that the team faces now has parallels with 2007.

The tour of Australia in 2007 was an important one for India. The team had had a captaincy change after the triumph in England, which wiped out a disastrous World Cup performance. The team had also unexpectedly lifted the inaugural World T20 Championship under the captaincy of MS Dhoni. India would play a series against Pakistan prior to embarking on a defining tour of Australia. Here was a team on the ascendancy; but she had to win in Australia.

Prior to this tour, Yuvraj Singh was selected in the India Test team. After all, how could you drop a player who had smashed Stuart Broad for 6 sixes in an over? Yuvraj Singh proceeded to hit a brilliant century in Bangalore against Pakistan. The selectors had no other choice. Yuvraj Singh’s name was etched in the team sheet for Australia in December 2007. In order to accommodate him in the middle-order, Rahul Dravid had to open the batting along with Wasim Jaffer in the first Test at the MCG. Yuvraj and India had a miserable Test match. The same mistake was repeated in that infamous Test in Sydney. Once again, Rahul Dravid was sacrificed in order to accommodate Yuvraj Singh in the middle-order. Yuvraj made an embarrassing 12 in the first innings and did not trouble the scorers in the 2nd innings. Good sense prevailed in the 3rd Test in Perth when Wasim Jaffer opened with Virender Sehwag.

Now I am not saying that Yuvraj Singh is a poor player. Not at all. He is one of the sweetest timers of the ball in world cricket. He has a lazy elegance about his stroke play that whispers “Brian Lara”. He burst onto the scene by hitting some of the best bowlers out of the park. He had the swagger, power, timing, hunger, attitude and charisma. At one stage, he was even talked of as a future captain of India. He looked like he wanted to belong. He belonged. He played a wonderful hand in India’s 2011 World Cup win. He seemed to be fit and hungry in the 2011 World Cup. After sulking and moping his way through the previous year — including, famously, in the IPL Edition 3 — it appeared as though Yuvraj Singh had arrived once again. He played like a team man. After a spate of sorry injuries, he was even throwing himself around on the cricket field once again.

But that was in the ODI arena. His exploits in 2007 were in the T20 arena. The question must be asked. Is Yuvraj Singh a Test batsman?

Since 2003, Yuvraj has played 35 Test matches, scoring 1709 runs at 35.60 with 3 centuries and a highest of 169! All of Yuvraj’s centuries have been made on the subcontinent. Indeed his average in ‘Home Tests’ is 45.31 against an average of 29.24 in Tests away from the ‘Home’.

Contrast this with a “contemporary” of his. Since his debut in 2000, Wasim Jaffer played 31 Test matches, scoring 1944 runs at 34.10 with 5 centuries and a highest score of 212. Three of Jaffers’ five Test centuries have been made overseas: how can we forget that brilliant 212 at St Johns’ in the West Indies and his fighting 116 in South Africa.

Alas! Jaffer only played 2 ODI games (in South Africa) and never played a T20 for India. So he wasn’t able to showcase his latent flamboyance and ability to “thump” the ball hard and far. We like that. We like opposition to be pummeled into submission. We like our batsmen to be in a Colosseum battling the opposition with a mace instead of a bat. So flair and flamboyance wins.

Mind you, I am not pushing for Jaffer’s inclusion in the Indian Test team. All I am saying is that Yuvraj Singh has a record that is on par with Wasim Jaffer as a player. I agree that such comparison fail at various levels. I am not advocating a StatsGuru based analysis of player worth. And as a person who is not heavily pro-StatsGuru, the last thing I would advocate is a StatsGuru compliant iPad for all members of the Team India selection committee!

My point here is that Yuvraj Singh’s massively significant ODI and T20 performances continually propel him into our peripheral vision when it comes to selecting Test teams. He is always there in our faces, asking to be selected in Test matches too; because he thumped 4 boundaries in an over in an ODI or pummeled India to victory in a T20 or took Kevin Pietersen’s wicket… Again! We do select him in Tests. He fails. We fail. We do not learn. Another IPL comes around. Another ODI series comes around. He performs well in these. We select him again.

I have shone the spotlight on Yuvraj Singh because we make the same mistake with other players too.

In the team that has been chosen to play West Indies in the forthcoming Test series (if we rule out quota-based selections as a plausible reason), we have Rahul Sharma and Varun Aaron who have got in on the basis of their T20 and ODI performances. The First Class records of the above two players makes shabby reading.

Rahul Sharma has played 10 First Class games and has taken 18 wickets at an average of 44.66 a piece! I am not joking. This is true! And the only good thing about Rahul Sharma’s selection is that he makes Varun Aaron’s selection look inspired! Varun Aaron has played just 12 First Class games and taken 26 wickets at 41.50 a piece!

Both of these players may well be the future of Indian cricket. I have nothing against them and hope that they have a brilliant career in whites as well as in the blue of the Team India ODI/T20 teams. That is not my point. My point is that they have found a place in the Indian Test Team through IPL/T20 and/or ODI routes. This is a selection process that has lost direction.

Another curious selection is that of Ajinka Rahane. And to explain why, our protagonist must make a reappearance!

Rahane is a fine player, mind you. I was always confident that he would play for India one day. That is not my issue. My concern is (a) the route the selectors have chosen for him and (b) the person he has displaced in the team.

Rahane has replaced Abhinav Mukund in the Test team mainly because of his domestic record but also because he played reasonably well in one ODI in England. He also had a reasonably good T20 gig.

Rahane is a class act. He was always marked for a Team India spot at some point of time in his career. In four Ranji seasons since 2007, he has played 49 First Class matches and scored 4838 runs at an average of 69.11 including 18 centuries. After opening in his first two seasons, he has been coming in at #3 in subsequent seasons, for reasons best known to him and the Mumbai team management. This a record to be proud of. Once a player accumulates as many runs as Rahane has in first class games, the real issue is one of “when” rather than “whether” — unless of course, Rahane also responds to the name “Badrinath”!

Abhinav Mukund was in Virat Kohli’s U19 Team that won the World Cup, although he played only one game in that particular journey. Since then he has had an impressive run in domestic cricket — Ranji and the Irani Trophy. Since his debut in 2007, he has played 47 First Class matches and scores 3880 runs at an average of 54.64 with 14 centuries and a high-score of 300*.

Clearly, players like Ajinkya Rahane, Abhinav Mukund and Cheteshwar Pujara are the future of Indian cricket. They are young. They have made plenty of runs in first class cricket and have also made big hundreds. I have always felt that more then hundreds, what matters most when you look at domestic records of players is the number of big hundreds a player has made. All three have made many big scores.

Now, let us look at Yuvraj Singh! In all the time since he made his debut (in the late 90s) Yuvraj has played a mere 97 first class games, scoring 6114 at an average of 44.62 and with just 18 centuries to his name.

So, essentially what has happened is that, on the back of a good World Cup ODI and a good IPL season, Yuvraj Singh has squeezed himself back into the India Test Team! The result of this is that the selectors may have wanted a player who could play in the middle-order in the event of a Yuvraj Singh failure or injury — both of which are equally likely — who would also double as an opener in an injury situation to one of Gambhir or Sehwag — also likely given trends in recent series.

Enter Ajinkya Rahane who edges out Abhinav Mukund, the incumbent in the openers’ slot! So one T20/IPL/ODI based shoehorning has resulted in the forced eviction of the future. It is clear that IPL/T20 performances have influenced Test selection. Surely, Varun Aaron and Rahul Sharma have been selected on that basis. Yuvraj Singh’s selection is reward for a stellar World Cup. These selections may pay off for Team India. But I do not see either clarity or consistency. There is much muddled thinking.

Part of the problem here is with communications. The selectors do not communicate with players. Younger players do not know what plans the committee has for them. Would it not be good (or indeed necessary), for the selectors to talk to Suresh Raina and set targets/goals for him? Would it not be necessary for them to talk to Abhinav Mukund to explain why he was dropped? But that does not happen, for it appears that the selectors job in India is to merely select; not to nurture talent. Even in selection, their job seems to me to be to select good horses for somewhat unfamiliar and uncomfortable courses.

A significant part of the problem here is that selectors are barred from communicating their decisions to you and me. It may not be necessary. But it would help identify how these decisions are thought through. The result, therefore, is an extremely unclear, hazy and murky environment in which no one is really sure what is going on.

Meanwhile, we have several other distractions like a dog on a race track and broken barricades in a rock concert and an array of similar goof ups to distract us from transparent and cogent decision making!

— Mohan (@mohank)

The Indian Test middle order

India’s rise to the no 1 status, despite the best efforts of the BCCI, has been a result of the outstanding middle order batsmanship of Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman & Ganguly with fire power at the top by Sehwag. Zaheer, Kumble, Harbhajan and Ishanth have also done their bit in crucial matches to give us reason to feel happy. In the coming years things are going to change very rapidly. The middle order cannot go on forever. Over the last 5 years e have seen the following players being brought into the Indian middle order, sometimes due to injury and later after Ganguly’s retirement. Here is an analysis of what they have done and whether they can serve India’s interests in the years to come.

1. Yuvraj Singh

He was identified as India’s future (much like Virat Kohli is today) and every Indian fan loved the way he smashed Allan Donald and Glenn McGrath in Nairobi or that wonderful win at the Natwest trophy. Even then we forgot that it was ODIs and not Test matches. The trend has continued over the last decade or so and Yuvraj keeps getting picked everytime he stars in ODIs. Has he done enough in Test matches at all.

This is his Test record – 35 tests 1709 runs 35.6 ave 3 hundreds & 10 fifties

35 tests is too many for just 3 hundreds. Flops in Australia & New Zealand and hudreds at home are not exactly helping the cause.

Can Yuvraj turn it around this time atleast. A comfortable home series against a none too threatening WI team is ideal. Have a look at his first class record

97 games 6114 runs 44.62 ave 18 hundreds & 30 fifties

Good, but not good enough to inspire confidence that Yuvraj can be a dependable Test batsman.

2. Suresh Raina

The next big guy to break into Test matches on the basis of ODI success in the last 5/6 years. Just have a look at his first class record

67 games 4497 runs 42.02 ave 8 hundreds & 31 fifties

There is nothing there that says Raina is a test cricketer! Look at his Test record to date

15 tests 710 runs 29.58 ave 1 hundred & 6 fifties

How did he get so many chances in the first place????? 15 tests???

3. Virat Kohli

He is the new Yuvraj. Again his ODI successes are forcing selectors to pick him. Have a look at his Test & FC records

3 tests 76 runs 15.2 ave

33 games 2207 runs 52.5 ave 7 hundreds & 8 fifties

Would it not be better if he played one more season of domestic cricket, scored 3/4 hundreds and make his way into the test team??? What is the hurry?

4. Cheteshwar Pujara

A dream debut! A quiet series in SA. Now injured and recovering. Inspiring domestic record and definite Test material that needs to be nurtured.

3 tests 107 runs 21.4 ave 1 fifty

56 games 4130 runs 55.81 ave 14 hundreds & 15 fifties

5. S Badrinath

The unlucky guy in Indian cricket. Been around for years. Never got the breaks he deserved. Has played just 2 Tests. Probably because he is not as flamboyant as Yuvraj or Raina! His Test trials are ODI matches where usually Yuvraj/Raina perform and so he loses out to them in the end. Fantastic domestic record! Maybe, just maybe he might get in after the big guns retire on the score of experience.

2 tests 63 runs 21.0 ave 1 fifty

97 games 7478 runs 62.31 ave 27 hundreds & 32 fifties

6. Rohit Sharma

Talented performer, very very good domestic record, unlucky to have not yet played a test match, more because of injury and one for the future on whom I would bet more than Kohli.

43 games 3409 runs 60.87 ave 10 hundreds & 15 fifties

The glamor and attention of ODIs and the IPL have resulted in the selection committee not selecting a proper test team.

Sanjay

Indian Test team for WI series

MS Dhoni – Captain – Selectors feel he does not need rest.

Gautam Gambhir – Concussion free & injury free he will be crucial.

Virender Sehwag – If he is fit and if he fires and if he can bowl and if if if …..

Rahul Dravid – No comments

Sachin Tendulkar – No comments

VVS Laxman – No comments

Yuvraj Singh – Is he fit? Is he good enough for Test matches? Am personally not convinced

R Ashwin – Very good in T20s and ODIs, 134 wickets in 35 first class matches is not the best record to get a break in tests. Again am not convinced he is test material as yet.

Pragyan Ojha – He should be in the team and playing in test mtaches.

Ishanth Sharma – Is he fit? Will he fire? Another question mark

Umesh Yadav – Glad he got picked. Deserves a few chances

Virat Kohli – He is the future of Indian cricket at the moment. But I will reserve my comments as far as tests go.

Varun Aaron – Raw pace needs to be encouraged. Better pick than Sreesanth

Ajinkya Rahane – Pipping an unlucky Abhinav Mukund. Unfortunately a match winning 91 in a home ODI is considered better than 49 in a losing cause at the Lord’s Test.

Rahul Sharma – 10 first class matches and 18 wickets in 5 years for Punjab!! What is he doing in this team?

Dropping of Bhajji was expected but am not too sure it was the right thing. Praveen Kumar has probably been rested. Raina has finally been found unsuitable for tests which is a good thing. I was half expecting them to pick Jadeja ahead of Ojha, but Cheeka and company felt that the inexperience of Rahul Sharma would serve India better. I think players like T Suman, Bharath Chipli, Paul Valthaty, Mayank Agarwal will definitely feel that an India call is inevitable. BTW why no mention of  Rohit Sharma??  My son looked at the side and said they could have picked Jakati!!

Sanjay

 

 

The Third Angle

I like chocolates. I love them. I’m a chocoholic. For more than a decade, the freezer in the refrigerator at home has been chocolates’ permanent address. Other stuffs share the space on temporary basis. But now, my mother complains that I’m not finishing them off at the same rate as I used to a few years ago. True. I’ve had them, over and over again. I’ve had nearly all of them, been fickle over naming a favourite one each year. I’m bored of eating chocolates. Yet, I love them. Will have one, now and then, but not as staple diet.

I wonder if the same has happened with the fans of the game, and the game of cricket itself. One Day International cricket, especially. (well, the fall isn’t that sudden/steep in tests, has been gradual).

There was the World Cup, which India won. Unlike the World Cup victory in 1983, which put India on the map of cricket, this world cup win didn’t glue the fans to the game for long. No, I’m not saying cricket lost its fans, I’m just saying fans are finding it too hard to follow the journey of the game.

There was IPL even before the World Cup victory’s champagne bottle was uncorked. As soon as the IPL ended, the fans were too exhausted from the euphoria of the very dazzling league, that the tour of WI, in all its played down humbleness, received near zero following. I would be conversing with one or two people on twitter, at max. That’s alright, maybe? WI are not the same, Indian team was half as strong as the WC team, et al. But, look at the global picture – few WI fans attended it. Zimbabwe’s remarkable come back to (test) cricket didn’t get big turn-outs, Pakistan’s outings at WI, Zimbabwe and UAE aren’t well attended. But for marque series, there is hardly any interest.

Ever been to office/college/school without eating your breakfast. How well did you enjoy your lunch? Did the hunger make it more enjoyable? Was there more satisfaction?

The is no such hunger left in cricket, with cricketers having jam-packed international tours round the year. Teams play each other over and over (INDvSL in the past, INDvENG now & in the near future), it is saddening to hear of repetitive fixtures.

ICC is changing the rules of the game time and again, making it more fancy, or trying to. People have polarized views on each of those rules. But, in spite of all that, ICC hasn’t done enough to buy the fans into the stadia. It’s like an ungrown Mario meeting the monster at level 8-4, can’t do any better no matter what one tried.

Is there a way out?

Possibly, Tri-Nation Tournaments.

Australia had ditched it (and now going back to it), India has ditched it, England isn’t hosting any of this, nor are WI or NZ or SA. SL are, so are Zimbabwe and Bangladesh..or, rather, they have been the ones to do it in the last 2 years.

Instead of a team playing 10 games against 2 other teams by means of two separate ODI series one after the other, a 10 game Tri-series (3 rounds of 3-game Round Robin, plus a final) would deliver more excitement than the two before mentioned series put-together.

For one, there would be some competition. Every team would want to reach the finals, and have a shot at glory. And, more than that, there would be more following of the game. More people will be watching it, out of concern, at least. Instead of “ah, we won another game” in an indifferent manner, there might be a “YES! we go to the top of the table now. If Ind beat Eng in the next game, we will be in the finals….” and so on.

Three teams. You don’t have to wait for your favourite player from a third team to arrive after a month to see him play. You will see him atleast every other match. All three teams are involved at the same time. The matches would be more crucial. The possibility of a “dead rubber” will reduce. Look at the ODI series that we have seen since the World Cup. But for ENGvSL and SLvAUS, all other series were decided at the half-way mark. Only ENGvSL went to the last game. In a tri-nation tournament, the winner can be decided only in the finals. There is excitement. There is a wait for that excitement.

And over 10 games, one team plays only 7 games, at max. That’s atleast 300% saved for any team involved. The finals will be more likely a close-contest, than the final dead rubber of a bilateral series. And this single tournament is enough for atleast 3-4 months of ODI needs, you will have tests etc before/after it.

Just fit a Tri-Nation tournament in-between two test series, and see how it goes. Or go a step further. A and B play a test series somewhere, C and D play a test series elsewhere. Make A, B, C and D meet at a common point for a quadrangular trophy. Sharjah? Canada? Singapore? Or in any of the 4 countries itself. Why not?

The Shrine of Tri-Nation Cricket

Bring back the glory days.

Atleast one weak team can benefit from this. Involve them more, don’t discard them. Kenya’s last Tri-nation tournament involving a test nation came in 2003 ( same year as the last time tri-nation tournament was hosted in India). They were World Cup semi-finalists that year. Haven’t played another ODI outside World Cups since. Out of the top of my head, I can remember good performances by Kenya in two different tri-nation ODI series involving India. One was in South Africa in 2001. The other, in India in 1998 (it was actually an IND-BANG-KEN Tri series). Kenya beat India once in either occasion. They were minnows then too, they’re disappearing into the oblivion now.

We haven’t shelved away many of those Sharjah Cup games from our memory. The Tri-Nation tournaments in Australia have always been fun. Natwest Tri-Series in England, how many sweet memories haven’t they produced?

Let us hope the CB Series 2012 revives the endangered tradition of Triangular Tournaments. I’m not businessman, I know no money talk. I know I love cricket, and would love to see many more love it.

-Bagrat

(photo credit : Wikipedia)

Touching God: The Seduction of Fast Bowling

Fast Bowling: The unbridgeable gap

Pick up the bat. Assume the stance. Crouch. Tap. Tap. Eyes fixed at a point in the distance, somewhere between the bed and the lamp. In the distance, the bowler bounds in. He jumps into his delivery stride, trigger movement, back leg movesback, batlifthighTHOCK.

The ball is bounding away through midwicket even as the flourish is extended just that little bit longer for the camera. VVS Laxman follows the ball far off towards the hoardings, getting ever smaller in the mirror. Bat flung away carelessly, plonk down on the bed. That ball keeps going and going. VVS smiles.

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I always loved this from Manan. Lifting the entire post:

He was a middle-aged man, balding, silver-dusted hair, a grey sweater, dark trousers. His belt buckle was, incongruently, the Texas pan-handle. He seemed to be walking intently, with long purposeful strides amid the chaos of the shopping center, his eyes fixed at some imaginary sign-post. Or perhaps it was a real sign, I honestly have no idea.

Suddenly, he broke his stride. Took two long gallops and corkscrewed his right arm to deliver, what looked like a leg-spin down the pitch. It was a startling interruption. Least expected. He let his hand linger at the top of the arc, letting his wrist sink down. I don’t know if his mind’s eye was relishing a wicket or maybe he had just hopelessly beaten the bat. He didn’t smile or cheer to reveal his vision.

And then he continued on.

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I am a child of the Enlightenment. Conclusions should be arrived at rationally, by reason, deduced by logic. So when I am forced to make an unfounded claim, I lamely appeal to first principles, certain axioms that form the bedrock of my worldview. With that disclaimer in place, I submit an axiomatic pillar of my cricketing compass:

Fast bowling is fundamentally different from virtually every other aspect of the sport.

This is not a claim made facetiously and some elaboration is in order. Fast bowling is different in so far as it lies outside the realms of imagination. I have spent an unhealthy amount of time batting against the wall of my bedroom, conjuring up various innovations to turn the humdrum confines of that space into the Elysian theaters of green grass and white flannel. Strategically arranged wooden slats convert the flattest bedroom carpeting into a subcontinent minefield. Little obstacles laid on the “pitch” create spots from which the ball rears in alarming ways. With a little imagination, I can easily enact a fantasy, Damien Martyn facing a greatest hits lineup of bowlers. Each one is faced with consummate ease, balls dispatched past the dresser at cover and the desk at gully. Rigorous nets practices usually take place in front of the mirror as I admire my various spin variations in slow motion.

Outside the home turf of my bedroom, things get a little more tricky; this Indian still hasn’t wholly shed the “poor traveler” tag. Those expansive cover drives do not come off quite so well in practice, flicks through square leg inexplicably end up as lobs to short cover. I realize why “spinning an onion on ice” can be complimentary, while the only drift I achieve sends the ball spearing towards fine leg.

The desired acts of batting and spin wizardry do not lie outside the bounds of imagination. Possibility, yes. Probability, almost certainly. Still, who amongst us has not twirled a bat and at some level believed that we could pull off as outrageous a shot as any top batsman?  I contend that these flights of imagination are somewhat precluded in the case of fast bowling. Setting aside the laziness of an appeal to first principles, one explanation suggests itself. The physicality of fast bowling sets it apart from most other cricketing acts. To be sure, batting for extended periods of time can be testing- just ask Dean Jones- while 90 overs spent in the field would tax most sportsmen. However, when it comes to singular acts, the delivery of a single fast ball is the pinnacle of physicality on a cricketing field.

It is in this realm of the physical that the capabilities of imagination are exhausted. Here is a simple exercise: Take a ball, run for fifteen yards and then throw it with all your might. One would be hard pressed to approach anything close to 90 miles per hour on such a delivery. Every time one bowls a cricket ball, there is a profound realization that speed is either immanently achievable, or intrinsically impossible. Perhaps batting instinct cannot be taught either, but acceptance of that requires more nuance, more profundity. The lure of speed lies in its simplicity: in the physical gap between the truly fast and everybody else falls the finite boundary of imagination.

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After the first powerful plain manifesto
The black statement of pistons, without more fuss
But gliding like a queen, she leaves the station.
Without bowing and with restrained unconcern
She passes the houses which humbly crowd outside,
The gasworks and at last the heavy page
Of death, printed by gravestones in the cemetery.
Beyond the town there lies the open country
Where, gathering speed, she acquires mystery,
The luminous self-possession of ships on ocean.
It is now she begins to sing- at first quite low
Then loud, and at last with a jazzy madness-
The song of her whistle screaming at curves,
Of deafening tunnels, brakes, innumerable bolts.
And always light, aerial, underneath
Goes the elate metre of her wheels.
Steaming through metal landscape on her lines
She plunges new eras of wild happiness
Where speed throws up strange shapes, broad curves
And parallels clean like the steel of guns.
At last, further than Edinburgh or Rome,
Beyond the crest of the world, she reaches night
Where only a low streamline brightness
Of phosphorous on the tossing hills is white.
Ah, like a comet through flame she moves entranced
Wrapt in her music no bird song, no, nor bough
Breaking with honey buds, shall ever equal.

– Stephen Spender, The Express

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All through India’s tour of England, commentators across the board harped on about Praveen Kumar’s lack of pace. His control and nous notwithstanding, the general perception seemed to be that a frontline fast bowler must be truly fast. While this is a point of debate, the seduction of speed is undeniable- at some level, speed is not something that can be taught. It also expands a bowler’s arsenal, given the requisite amount of control and thought. However, the matter goes beyond a simple cost-benefit calculus. The seduction of the tearaway quick is that of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the unattainable. It lies in the recognition of an ideal that we are keenly aware as being the purview of a select few. It lies in recognition, not imagination…and ultimately, in wistful reconciliation.

In the pilot episode of Friday Night Lights, fullback and general badass Tim Riggins tells his teammates on the eve of the season opening football game, “Let’s touch God this time boys. Let’s touch God.” The moment is popcorn inspiration, embracing cheesiness with a benevolent, self-indulgent smile. It is also the key to understanding the lure of speed. All of us try. Like Adam in Michelangelo’s famous fresco, we seek to bridge the gap.

But it is only the fast bowler who touches God. Therein lies the seduction.

– Rohit (@Noompa)

Going Places. A book-review.

Going Places : India’s Small-Town Cricket Heroes, by K.R. Guruprasad.

From gully cricket to Team India

I was at Landmark, browsing books, hoping to buy some books that would help me spend some alone-time in this new place I’ve now moved into, far from home. Lying in a small heap in “Sports Section”, was this book, the photograph on its cover, gripping my attention. Set my hands on it, read the title, bought it.

We, in India, love to play cricket. Anywhere. I’ve played cricket inside my house, on the staircase of my apartment, in the garage, between cars, in my classroom, in school corridors, on the streets, in football grounds, basketball courts, ofcourse in cricket grounds, and have also approved of a couple of bathrooms being large enough to play the game; and also told my colleague in office that the aisle between our cubicles seem to beg us to play cricket. This book tells us how kids who once played like this in small towns, with tennis balls, made it big. It is a fairy tale story for some, bed of thorn for some others.

Author, K.R. Guruprasad, from Bellary, tells us how he enjoyed the game as a kid, when the local cricket club had the best ever players one can see, and how it seemed pointless at that point for anyone playing the game to represent the country, as there cannot be any more pride than playing for the local club you grew up watching. Things changed with television age. And the world cup victory. He tells us how people could’ve watched the ’83 WC if they went to big cities, like Madras. But the rest of India had to manage with radio, which would at that age allot a minimal time to cricket inbetween its regular programs.

How the author takes us from this introduction to setting before us eleven players from the rural pockets of India who have made a name for themselves at the international stage (or about to…) is magical. He travels from the urban metros to villages, from cricket academies in Bangalore, to sports hostels in Lucknow. He meets people who’ve helped cut to shape the diamonds we celebrate today as crowns of Indian cricket.

The XI listed in the book – Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Santhakumaran Sreesanth, Virender Sehwag, Ashok Dinda, Munaf Patel, Suresh Raina, R. Vinay Kumar, Iqbal Abdullah, Praveen Kumar, Ravindra Jadeja and Harbhajan Singh.

The books tells us all the hardship that cricket dreamers in the rural India have to face. The lack of facilities, lesser access to media to pronounce their performances to a larger audience, and lack of funds. What keeps them together, however, is their hard work. Sheer hard work. And some wonderful gem of people who actually took them to where they now are.

The books indirectly lists four factors have featured as major reasons to why we now see more cricketers from rural pockets play for Team India –

1. The New Ranji Trophy Format

Until the 2001/02 season, Ranji Trophy was zonal. But for the top bracket, rest of the teams would hardly get to play more than 3 or 4 games. It was harder to spot talent. Teams with better facilities would survive most rounds. Lesser teams would be eliminated without even facing big names, and hence always lying behind on quality. Delhi, Bengal, TN, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Karnataka would get to play more and perform more, as compared to Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Saurashtra or Kerala. Selectors saw the same faces more regularly, and cricketers from select regions were more likely to make it to the Indian team.

From 2002/03 season on, zonal system was abolished and Elite + Plate league was announced. Every team would play a league, and play as many games as any other team in their league, and play the big names. Competitiveness improved. The author gives UP as an example. UP favoured from the format change, then had a Ranji victory, then had Kaif, and that was a spring board for many more to follow – Suresh Raina, Piyush Chawla, RP Singh, Praveen Kumar. Well, we’ve now even had a Plate League team win the Ranji Trophy.

2. The IPL

The IPL was an instant hunt for talent across all teams in the country, and some new names propped up on the screen, rubbing shoulders with big names. The new kids from the domestic circuits in the rural India now shared the glamour worn by international stars. They played with them, against them, and in the process learnt new art, made friends to fall back on for advice etc. What IPL gave them more than anything, was money, money to survive the toughness of rural reality. In the book, you will find examples to how the breakthrough of IPL has helped many families break even with the world and start living in peace.

3. Family, mentors and friends

Cricket was not a serious option in rural India, not sure if it is today either. Most families aren’t enthusiastic about investing money in their child’s cricket. But, there are some who can see that their kid has it in him to make it to the big level. If you read between the lines, you would actually realise that the “heroes” mentioned in the tagline for the title of this book is actually meant for the mentors. Amazing examples of mentors fill the pages of the book, who, through their whole hearted love for the game and the wards, has put new names on the Indian cricket team. Even today, amidst all the shine and gloss that pampers the cricketers, first thing they do once back home is visit their mentors, spend quality time with friends and enjoy the comfort of home. For the rural people, these kids have always been their heroes, since the day the kid broke their window pane 15 years ago. In urban, there are so many things on your mind, you never know if your neighbour is a hero until he makes an appearance on TV.

4. HARD WORK

The author says how the kids in rural region seemed to be extra hard-working. Yes, one has to work hard to survive in the game, but the ones from rural region have to put in extra effort to match players from urban India. The lack of state-of-art facilities, coaches and technology kept their progress rate slower than compatriots. But some broke through. Again, credits to mentors, first for spotting them, and then persisting with them alll through the good, bad and ugly stages of their life before the glory days started. Some coaches still offer tutorials free of cost, some recruit their wards from places 1000 miles away from home, and feed them in their home like their own sons. Such is the hard work and dedication from the mentors, you can only wonder how much they would extract off their wards.

The author tells us how these stars from rural regions have had to battle myriad difficulties in their life to reach the top. It was no rose bed. One was 45 days from leaving to Africa to earn a living and survive his family. One had given up on cricket and thought of becoming a truck driver in Canada. How right people find themselves in the right time in these people’s lives is explained beautifully. Giving up was something was an attitude that had to be removed from their minds, and was done well too.

Some anecdotes made me smile, some made me weep. If one has to learn something from this book, it is that nothing is reserved to the big cities. If you want something, your determination will take you to the top.

Excellent work by K.R. Guruprasad for having put together all this in one book, having traveled from hot and dry places to wet and sludgy streets, just to meet the people who would best paint the portrait of these cricketers we have now come to adore.

I recommend this book to anyone who loves Indian cricket.

“Going Places : India’s Small-Town Cricket Heroes”, by K.R. Guruprasad.
Penguin Books.
Rs. 199/-

(photo credit : Penguin Books)

– Bagrat

Why, oh why?

Why, oh why?

To me, it was akin to Bill Clinton retiring from politics to become an immigration agent!

*****

I remember that day in March 2002 very clearly. Wayne Carey’s face was on the front page of every newspaper and his news dominated TV news programs. My sporting hero had had an extramarital affair with his team mate’s wife. Anthony Stevens was the vice-captain of the team that Carey was captain of. Both of them played for North Melbourne with distinction. Carey and Stevens were attending a party at team mate Glenn Archer’s house, where Carey’s affair with Stevens’s wife was ‘outed’. Carey had been caught with his pants down… Literally! Wayne Carey immediately resigned from The North Melbourne (Kangaroos) team. He had led the team brilliantly. Some had hailed him as one of the best players to have played the game, ever. The rest of his life after that episode represented a sequence of disasters. The fall from grace was swift and was littered with ignominy and ridicule.

Some 10 years earlier I had just moved to Australia. I started watching Australian Rules Football (footy) and fell in love with the game! It was easy to understand. What I saw was an uncomplicated fast-paced game that celebrated quick-thinking, skillful, athletic endeavor. I was asked to “choose a team to barrack for”. I chose The Demons (Melbourne) because a colleague of mine barracked for them and conned me into ‘going for’ her team too! This choice was made barely a week after I had, metaphorically speaking, stepped off the boat.

A few days later, I saw Wayne Carey play. I immediately regretted my premature choice of The Demons as ‘my team’. By then, it was too late to change allegiance. My colleague was a quick operator! I already had The Demons scarf and car sticker in my possession. It was too late to change. But if I could, I would have. For Wayne Carey! He was a magician.

So, for all the time I watched and followed AFL in Australia, although I supported The Demons, I silently supported The North Melbourne Kangaroos too; the team that Wayne Carey played for and captained. I watched and admired the way Carey played the game. I was watching an incredibly skilled athlete display commitment, grace, dignity, arrogance, physical energy, and immense ability all at once. His physical prowess was exceptional. Here was Adonis. He had the perfect body structure for an intensely physical game. He would shrug off opposition tacklers as though they were mosquitoes who stood in his relentless and focused path towards goal. He was built like sportsmen should be built! He had an incredible ability to ‘see the game’. For him, it seemed as though the game played out a few minutes before the play actually happened.

When I saw Wayne Carey play, I understood what another Wayne — Wayne Gretzky, the Canadian ice-hockey player — meant when he said, “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.”

Wayne Carey seemed to be perpetually in charge of writing the script for the action that would unfurl at some point in time in the immediate future! It was as though Carey had recruited even time to work for him.

He was nicknamed “The King”. Sports does tend to hand out monikers like that somewhat easily even to some who are less deserving. However, in this case, Carey had earned it. His greatness is underlined by the fact that in 2008, some 6 years after that night in March 2002, Carey was named as Australian football’s greatest ever player. The AFL had commissioned the curating of this 50-member all-time-best player-list as part of the AFL’s celebration of 150 years of Australian rules football. Carey is on this list as the best player ever.

I was incredibly upset that my sporting hero had fallen from grace. I was quite angry at the acceptable-behavior-image that Carey would set to many of his young, impressionable fans! For, after all, here was an idol who was revered by all AFL fans, regardless of which team they ‘barracked’ for.

However, in 2008, I was able to accept his position at the top of the AFL all-time-legends list mainly because, back in 2002, when everything exploded in his face, Carey had expressed his remorse. He admitted his mistakes. He worked hard at re-building his image. He admitted that he had let down a lot of people; most of all his family and team-mates. He worked hard with the many people he had let down. He made attempts to rebuild ground that he lost. But most importantly, he demonstrated contrition and took personal responsibility — the first steps towards retribution and acceptance. Although he had fallen in his own esteem in 2002, he attempted to piece his life back together. Here was a human being who had made a mistake. He accepted the error in his ways. He set about redefining and rebuilding himself.

He subsequently lost himself again. And again. And then again! But that is neither here nor there. In 2002, he set out on a long and painful road to recovery.

On reflection, the fault lies entirely with us! For, we are the ones that tend to loft our sporting idols into orbit. We canonize them. And when they come crashing down to earth, it is because they have created a gap in the expectations that we have set for them.

*****

This sobering unfulfilled expectation-gap played out again last week!

Enter. Anil Kumble and his ghastly conflict of interest.

Yes! I accept that Anil Kumble did not have an extra-marital affair. His was a mere business proposition that needed severe inquisition and introspection. Tenvic, the company that he was director of, has “player management” as one of its key objects. This was a clear conflict with (a) his day-time job as President of KSCA (to whom the Karnataka selectors are accountable), (b) Chief-mentor of the Royal Challengers Bangalore, (c) Chairman of the National Cricket Academy.

My first reaction on hearing that news was extreme disbelief. “A player of Anil Kumble’s stature managing players? No way,” I said to myself. To me, it was akin to Bill Clinton retiring from politics to become an immigration agent! Why would he do that?

Apart from the ridiculousness of the proposition itself, I was baffled by the knowledge that Anil Kumble did not see the conflict in his player-management role and the various other honorary roles he held.

Conflicts of interest are as prevalent in today’s complex life as auto-rickshaws that do not want to go where passengers want them to. It was the seemingly brusque manner of his dismissal of the conflict of interest charge that grated:

“I do not see any conflict of interest here. I am very clear in my mind about this. The important thing is to focus on what you are trying to achieve, and I am trying to do that. I focus on what has to be done, not on what people might be thinking. The positions with the KSCA and NCA are honorary jobs, and I have to look after myself. At this stage of my career, I have to do that. Otherwise, you would have to become like Gandhi and give up everything.”

Essentially, Kumble appears to be saying here that he is perfectly capable of managing his conflicts of interest and is doing so in a perfectly legitimate and above-board manner. He is asking us to trust him. But, as Sambit Bal says, “He can argue that he is capable of separating each of his roles and not letting one influence the other. But perceptions matter, and public life has its own unwritten code of conduct.”

So, the existence of his conflict of interest is not a problem. What is far more important is the open admission, clear declaration, and effective management of these. I had expected more from Anil Kumble. Much more.

And frankly, apart from the the allusion to Gandhi making no sense whatever, the fact that Anil Kumble says that he needs to be “looking after myself” is almost like the owner of a 200-room palace saying he needs a few more rooms in his palace in order to be totally comfortable! Cricketers do need to look after themselves. I agree. But my expectation is that, a player like Anil Kumble has built a significant nest egg by now! Surely Anil Kumble does not need to commence building a nest egg at this stage of his life. A “looking after myself” statement or a “need to build a nest egg” statement is what I would have expected from a former player like Sanjay Bangar or Sujith Somasunder. Not Anil Kumble. That said, I do not know about the personal wealth situation of either Kumble or Bangar or Somasunder. The point here is that Kumble has played many games for India and for RCB to have made “enough” money from the game. A player who has played far fewer games — and thereby, had fewer nest-egg building opportunities — needs to “look after themselves” and their pecuniary interests in their retirement.

In any case, how much is “enough” anyway? But that is a question that is deep and philosophical.

There is a stronger and deeper question that needs to be asked, however: Does Anil Kumble need to earn money from managing players? Does he need to be talking to companies about featuring Vinay Kumar in an advertisement to sell a new brand of soap?

There is a certain dignity about what Anil Kumble had achieved in his career. His career was about grace and valour. Why would he even want to dilute that by placing a few cricketers in soap advertisements? Surely, that cannot be an appropriate way for Anil Kumble to leverage his brand identity.

In a cricket world that is littered with brutal conflicts of interest, I expected that Kumble would set the standards for the other big-name players who are set to retire from the game. I did not expect him to jump into the gutter in a “me too” shriek. I expected him to be a statesman. Instead, he has declared that he wanted to be a shark too.

Let us not forget the way Kumble played the game. Like Wayne Carey and Wayne Gretzky, he played like a champion. He may not have been endowed with the physical prowess and naturally athletic body structure of Wayne Carey. But he retired as one of the best players to have graced a cricket field.

Kumble was more a Wayne Gretzky than Wayne Carey. Gretzky was a shortish, slim shouldered, physically weak and slow player in a game that needed its players to be tall, broad-shouldered, strong and fast! Yet, Gretzky overcame his apparent weaknesses to become the best ice-hockey player to have ever graced the game. Gretzky used his amazing intellect and his sharp reading of the game to get ahead and to overcome his apparent short-comings. He was an intelligent boy in a brutal man’s game. He used his intellect to dodge checks on his progress. He was always a few steps ahead of his opposition. And he used his somewhat slight stature to wriggle into that area behind the net as the place he excelled at. So much so that that area became known as “Gretzky’s office”.

Likewise, Anil Kumble was a tall spinner who would not spin the ball nor was he a pace bowler who could bowl at pace. There was a certain lack of grace to his running. His arms and legs pumped vigorously when he ran or fielded. He seemed to be all legs and arms when he moved on the field, and when he bowled. He wore spectacles in the first few games that I saw him bowl. If he dived on the field to stop or catch a ball, or to complete a run, he would do so in an ungainly manner. But to him, “being effective” was more important than “looking good”. To him, the outcome of his efforts was more vital than the grace with which he achieved these.

He had a few attributes that served him well as he grew into becoming one of the best cricketers India has ever produced. He worked on his game incredibly hard. He was driven by a determination to succeed. He was a fierce competitor. And he wore the India cap with pride, honesty, integrity, passion and dignity. He also had an extraordinary confidence in himself and his abilities.

He would often out think and out fox the batsman. His grit, pride and determination often won him more admirers than his skill. In that sense, he was more the industrious Steve Waugh who had to work hard at his game than the languid Mark Waugh for whom everything came naturally.

Like Steve Waugh, Kumble had fierce determination and pride. He was a gentleman too and had a strong view on how the game ought to be played.

His comment at the end of the 2008 Sydney Test typified the way he played the game. Kumble said, “Only one team was playing in the spirit of the game.” The comment would rock the cricketing world in more ways than one. Kumble had a view on that Test match. The world heard his view. Given the sort of player he was, everyone sat up and listened.

After all, here was a player that had bowled with a broken jaw at Antigua — much against the advise of doctors — because his team needed him. “At least I can now go home with the thought that I tried my best,” he said, prompting Viv Richards to declare, “It was one of the bravest things I’ve seen on the field of play!”

Kumble had played hard. He had played straight. He had led his team and his country with great dignity. He fought for players’ rights in a country that had no player’s association. His was a voice that the players trusted. His was a voice that the BCCI listened to; that voice represented honesty and was driven by values.

I expected him to be a statesman in an administration that was filled with opportunists. I expected him to contribute to cricket in exactly the same way as he had played — with determination, doggedness and dignity. However, he seems to have joined the rat race that was looking to make a quick buck from cricket. He did not want to be a “Gandhi”.

Anil Kumble will argue (and he has) that we need to trust him. Maybe we do. But, if we let this go through to the ‘keeper, what is to say that someone else less trustworthy will not use the “you looked the other way when Anil Kumble was at it” as a precedent to carry out all sorts of nefarious conflicts of interest!

He has let me down! But it is my fault, for I had canonized him, like I had, Wayne Carey! But unlike Wayne Carey who admitted the error of his ways and appeared to mend his ways, Anil Kumble brusquely dismissed the conflicts as irrelevant.

Woodrow Guthrie was an American singer-songwriter-folk-musician whose best work is “This Land Is Your Land”. Contemporary songwriter-musicians like Dylan and Springsteen talk of the massive influence Guthrie had on their own music. The last stanza in Guthrie’s 1960 song, “Why, oh Why?” is:

Why couldn’t the wind blow backwards?
Why, oh why, oh why?
‘Cause it might backfire and hurt somebody and if it
hurt somebody it’d keep on hurting them
Goodbye goodbye goodbye.

In a field infested with sharks preying on money-filled coffers, Anil Kumble had appeared to be a shining beacon of hope, interested only in gritting his teeth and straightening his jaw for the betterment of the game in India. I am still hoping he will step down from his role with Tenvic.

However, in the last week, I can’t stop saying “Why, Oh Why Kumble Why?

— Mohan (@mohank)