Tag Archives: Atherton

The challenges ahead for M. S. Dhoni

Over the weekend, I was in conversation with a few friends of mine about M. S. Dhoni’s captaincy. We agreed that in the T20 World Championship he was doing exceedingly well. He appeared to have confidence in his players and also had their confidence. There was a sense of an environment of trust and enjoyment in the team. He also appeared to get them to give off their best for themselves as well as their team members.

Ian Chappell observed that this was a team that was playing fear-free cricket in the spirit of their captain.

At this point in time, perhaps justifiably, most fans, observers and commentators are completely enamoured by Dhoni’s freshness, approach, acumen and style. If sceptics needed more convincing, apparently he and Sreesanth had an early night after the T20 finals with Dhoni saying that there was still much to do in the Australia ODI series and there was no need to get carried away. He is reported to have said to his teammates, “Sab kuch normal rakhne ka (keep everything normal). Just live in the present, keep your feet on the ground, enjoy your success but don’t get carried away by success.

These are good days for Dhoni and his team. These are honeymoon days for Dhoni. They are happy days too, for his team has won when no one expected it to do so.

However, there are some stark realities of captaining India and if he is not aware of it already, I am sure it will hit Dhoni most when he contends with three evils in Indian cricket which are, in no particular order, (a) ‘the system’, (b) the dressing-room-egos, and (c) unsurpassed expectations.

The System:
This is euphemism for the BCCI and its machinations. Harsha Bhogle, writing in the Indian Express, says in the context of Rahul Dravid’s resignation: “Ideally, a captain should be free to think about the game and his players. If matters outside the playing field begin to occupy his mind more than those on it then there is a problem in the system that is causing it to happen. If a captain has to keep thinking about contracts, coaches, schedules and such other matters that really should be someone else’s responsibility, it is taking away time from his primary activity. Nasser Hussain quit as captain in 2003 because he was being forced to think more about Robert Mugabe than about the opposition. If Dravid has left the job for similar reasons, then all we will have is a new face with the same worries.

And that is essentially what Dhoni will face too.

Subsequent to my conversation over the weekend with my friends, I was reminded of this lovely article I read by Rohit Brijnath — in my view, one of the best writers on Indian cricket — just before Rahul Dravid and his team departed for England in June 2007. He wrote of the BCCI: “On 23 March, India’s World Cup challenge ended. In July, India opens its tour of England. Ample time existed to find a new coach. The BCCI’s inability to do so is further confirmation that no one in the Indian board knows, or seems to care, how to build a world-class team. As a group they remain unfamiliar with excellence.

Dhoni will be faced with a similar inept system that has no commitment to excellence. As I have said before, I doubt that this mob would be able to plan a booze party in a brewery even if their lives depended on it. They would, however, organise it in a hurried manner as though their backsides were on fire if and only if they smelt money.

Sourav Ganguly was able to manipulate this system to his — and his teams’ advantage. But then he was a master politician and moreover, he had Dalmiya on his side. It will be interesting to see how Dhoni copes with this single major challenge that he faces to his tenure as captain.

Dressing room egos:

If one were to accept the scuttlebutt , there may have been a blip in the dressing-room temperature in the game against South Africa with Yuvraj Singh being one of the culprits. Harsha Bhogle gave the impression on air that the “tendonitis of the elbow” explanation was a bit of a furphy. He follows that up with the following lines in this article: “India should have been rocked by the withdrawal of a champion batsman, but the captain let him sit out and didn’t bother persuading him to play. That is the way to go and in doing so he made a statement on what he thought the rest were capable of. Only Yuvraj will know how bad the pain was but it must have been excruciating enough to warrant missing a game a day after playing the innings of his life.

If there were any tensions subsequent to that game, Dhoni appeared to have smoothed them over, given Yuvraj Singh the ego-stroke that he was possibly looking for — if indeed, the scuttlebutt was to be believed — and then gotten on with the job.

But this is just the start. As Rohit Brijnath comments eloquently, “Indian cricket is alive, constantly, with a dozen mutinies and a captain must deftly quell them. Some insurrections are quelled by a quiet word at dinner or a friendly pat to an uneasy bowler. Dravid’s toughness has reportedly made him intimidating to men who are not on his wave length. Of course he must not pander to indolent fellows, yet must convince men to a common cause. A fellow at ease with words must communicate more ably.

What Brijnath writes about Dravid applies equally to Dhoni with a few exceptions. The problems are the same — there are always a “dozen mutinies” to quell — but the approaches will be crafted by the leader. Where Dravid was seen as “intimidating”, Dhoni may be more “approachable”. And Dravid’s “toughness” may make way for Dhoni’s “tough love” approach.

Dressing-room-mutiny-quelling is a necessary skill that any Indian captain must possess. Sourav Ganguly had this in spades, in my view and that made him more able to curtail the inevitable “slow leak of spirit from the team”. Ironically, in Ganguly’s reign — and so also in Dravid’s reign — this “slow leak” occurred most when the team was winning! Somehow, when effigies were being burnt and when houses were being stoned whenever the team lost, team spirit was at its highest! These events seemed to spur the team to band together and play for each other! Dhoni will face the same challenges, particularly as the team has started on a winning note. The more the wins, the greater the dressing-room-egos! He needs to manage that and the mutinies that could result and this is certainly not a job for the faint-hearted!

The most telling paragraph in Brijnath’s wonderful piece is this one: “No doubt there are players in the team who complain about the imperfections of Indian cricket (selection, too much cricket, etc), yet never strive for their own personal perfection. There are fading elders around, too, of varying utility. Yet for better or worse these are Dravid’s men, this is his team. A great leader finds a way to unite the most rag-tag bunch, rousing them to play harder for him and each other.

And as Dhoni sits down on the flight back to Mumbai and as he charts out his own roadmap, it would do him good to have the above paragraph — with Dhoni instead of Dravid — in front of him. His task will be one of managing egos, stopping the slow-spirit-leak and uniting a rag-tag-bunch that is not high on self-discipline and extremely short on consistency!

Unsurpassed expectations:
This was one area where neither Ganguly nor Dravid managed well. These expectations come from the media and the fans.

Dravid always talked about the lack of proportion. In an interview with Mike Atherton midway through the England series, when asked about whether captaincy was a “burden”, Dravid perhaps gave an insight into the resignation that was to follow when he said, “Burden is too strong a word and people say that because of how I look. I’m not naturally a cheery-looking soul on the field. I do enjoy it but there are aspects I find tough. What I find hardest is the absolute lack of proportion. It makes it very hard to build a team when two or three bad games provoke such an extreme reaction. The media in India have been changing rapidly. I actually enjoy reading the papers over here because I’ll get criticised for how I actually captain the team, the bowling changes I make and the field placings I set, rather than, for example, how many times I clap my hands and something equally irrelevant.

And seriously, the braying mediocrity of Indian cricket — its media — must cop a lot of the blame for setting and moderating the expectations of fans. Media people will tell you that they are merely reflecting the pulse of the nation. And that may well be right. However, the quality of commentary is more often than not, based only on opinion and completely devoid and bereft of analysis and “proportion”. There are TV programs that regularly tease out and hang-to-dry “culprits” of losses that the team endures! There is too much banality, too much opinion-driven hysteria, too much drama and too much sensationalism — just in the name of filling up column-space or air-time. There is very little deep-analysis. And the real danger is that those that do indulge in analytical pieces are dumbed down as boring and irrelevant.

Dravid had to battle the system that did not provide him with support. He had to fight the egos in the dressing room. But the public couldn’t care less! Joe Public wants to see achievements. And achievement, for almost every Indian fan, is thrashing the living daylights out of the opposition. Nothing else will do, thank you very much!

These are the realities and challenges that Dhoni will face once the honeymoon period is over. Will he overcome these to make an imprint on Indian cricket?

I sure do hope so.

— Mohan

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England Vs India: Test 3 Day 1 — India attempt to step up…

Dileep Premachandran asked yesterday in a well-written Cricinfo article if India would be able to step up and cross that last hurdle in the 3rd Test against England at The Oval. It was a question that was posed yesterday on this blogsite too. So often — most excruciatingly in Steve Waugh’s final Test — India have not managed to cross this last hurdle.

But India did the right things right on Day-1 of Test 3. India won the toss, elected to bat and came out in a sensationally positive frame of mind. If this mindset was evident in the mercurial nature of of Wasim Jaffer’s batting, it was palpable in the purposefulness of Rahul Dravid’s stride. This team meant business and they would have reached a much more satisfying destination at the end of Day-1 but for the fact that a certain Ian Howell appeared to have got up on the wrong side of his bed! After giving a marginal caught behind decision to send Dinesh Karthik back to the hut, he chopped Sourav Ganguly at the knees with a shocker of a decision! India ended the day at 316 for 4. India had had a good day, but England are still in the game.

Karthik was playing extremely well and had composed his 91 runs in style; with confidence and energy. On that score he wafted with minimal footwork at a ball from Sidebottom for Matt Prior to pounce on the catch. The England players went up as though they had just won the lottery or a date with Catherine Zeta-Jones, or both! Ian Howell, the umpire, lifted the dreaded finger and Karthik had to make the slow long walk back. I did not hear the snick. Snickometer did not think there was a snick either. However, Karthik did say at the end of days’ play, “there was a small nick, there is no doubt about that“! Phew! One less effigy to construct and then destruct for the folks in Kolkata! The Ganguly decision, however, will have generated a few thousand effigy orders!

Up until that lapse in concentration, Karthik had batted very well. He was all poise, determination, inventiveness and concentration. A step down to caress Andreson through extra cover as well as an inside-out six off Panesar were special shots.

In the morning, after Rahul Dravid had won an important toss and elected to bat, proceedings ran against the normal script. Karthik, the normal aggressor was quiet while Wasim Jaffer, the dour accumulator was in his elements! It was a very different Wasim Jaffer that came to the crease this morning. Indeed, it appeared as though Jaffer and Karthik had reversed roles! We saw a quiet Karthik and a different player to the Jaffer, who normally plays well within himself. Instead, he was playing out of his skin! There were some great leaves by both Jaffer and Karthik initially. Of course, the bowling was shocking to start with. Karthik and Jaffer were served some dross by James Andreson, who gave both the openers ‘ample opportunity to have a look at the ball and what it was doing’. Both Anderson and Tremlett had poor opening spells and they did not make batsmen play enough. Although Sidebottom bowled tightly, he slid too many across face of the batsmen. The openers settled down and slowly opened their shoulders.

I liked the way the openers saw off the new ball. A shot by Jaffer to send an Anderson ball for 6 over third man was so Sehwag that one wondered if Sehwag himself would have been able to execute that shot any better!

The only way Jaffer was going to get out was through a brain explosion. And it did happen. He played a shot that would have done Sehwag proud! It was a strong statement from Jaffer, but I’d think he needs to work on his square-off-the-side strokes to do well in Australia.

India went in to lunch at 117-1 off 28. It was an innings that was paced well. India were well-placed with Karthik on 50, Dravid on 25 with Dravid looking very very determined.

Dravid’s stride to the crease was purposeful. He opened with two fours and looked extremely focussed, determined and positive. If he had a message to convey to the team, he did so with panache. In the days leading to this Test match, he had already telegraphed his positive intentions. He had said that the previous two Test matches were-result oriented even though they only featured 350 overs. He said that with 450 overs expected to be bowled at The Oval, he expected a result. This was positive and tone-setting stuff from the captain.

The hour after lunch saw some awesome batting; perhaps even the best batting-phase of the series from either teams. Dravid and Karthik were scoring at will. They took nearly 70 runs in 17 overs. In this passage of play it was interesting to note that England maintained a very good over rate too. One particular shot by Dravid was really special. Panesar had two men in front of Dravid — one at short extra cover and one at short mid off. The two fielders were really close to each other — within hand-shaking distance. A flighted ball from Panesar invited the cover drive. Dravid leaned into a classic cover drive and threaded the ball through these two fielders with unforgettable panache and sheer style.

He really did look set for a 100 or even higher! After all, the last time he played at The Oval, he had scored over 200 runs! And then suddenly the ball started moving around quite a bit. Although Dravid was bowled by Anderson off a beauty — and normally, it is a beauty that gets Dravid out — it was really the previous over from Sidebottom that probably set up the dismissal. It was a fantastic and searching over; an over in which Sidebottom swung the ball away and asked a few questions. Dravid had played and missed a few times in that over and was clearly annoyed with himself. The first ball of the next over was a terrific yorker length ball that moved slightly away. Dravid lost his middle stump!

Although the ball was a good one, but for the previous over, Dravid may have, on most occasions, presented a straight bat to the ball. Instead, he closed the face and tried a cute flick to leg, perhaps in an effort to score a few off Anderson to compensate for the tightness of Sidebottom’s line, movement and length that did not afford any “gimme” balls.

Soon after Karthik was out too. How Howell could have given that out, I really do not know. There was no sound of a nick. Nor was there any deviation. The benefit of doubt should have gone the batsman’s way. It did not.

All of this happened during a phase in play when it was a wee-bit gloomy and there was some swing around. Andreson was in the middle of a good spell of fast swing bowling. The 50-over old ball was suddenly seaming around. Was it the overcast conditions? Or was there some jelly beans involved too?

Ganguly and Tendulkar set about the reconstruction job. Once again, Tendulkar appeared shaky while Ganguly was playing reasonably well, albeit with some initial scares. I thought England bowled badly to Tendulkar. They overdid the “chin music” stuff to Tendulkar when fully pitched outswingers that invited the drive may have been a better option. Matt Prior, who was asked to “put a sock in it” had a forgettable day. He let through some 20 byes and dropped Tendulkar off Sidebottom! A costly lapse perhaps?

But both teams are still in the game. I’d say that India won 2 sessions (session-1 and session-3) with the middle session being called an even one.

The new ball is only 8 overs old. So, Laxman and Tendulkar will need to see off the first 10-15 overs and then start to play their shots. The stage is set for a crucial 1st session on day-2. If one of Tendulkar, Laxman or Dhoni make a big hundred, they can put the match beyond Englands’ reach. But if England manage to get 1 or 2 quick wickets, they are right back in the game. All of this makes for a fascinating day-2.

— Mohan

Call for Sreesanth to be banned…

In an article, which one could be easily pardoned for assuming was written from a pedastal placed at 35,000 ft above sea level, former England Test cricketer and former England captain, Michael Atherton — he of sand-in-pocket fame — writes that Sree Santh should be banned for The Oval Test match for the beamer that he bowled in the ill-tempered match at Nottingham.

Now why is it that these former bad boys of cricket consistently sprout a halo on their heads the moment they give up their bats for either a pen or a microphone? Is there an automatic passage of rites that makes them do this? Or is it a necessary condition of employment? Is it written into their contracts that they will submit articles (or spew their nonsense on air) from a pedestal placed at 35,000 ft?

Atherton starts the article with the oldest slant in the writing industry when it comes to comic relief in an otherwise serious article. He says, “One name, though, should be missing from the scorecard, that of Shanthakumaran Sreesanth. Not to save the printing industry some ink, but to send out the message that the beamer has no place in cricket.” That article opener made me lose my respect for the article as well as its writer right there! Making fun of someones’ name is the oldest trick in the book — and the most puerile one too — Atherton! Kids lose this trick when they are about 10 years old! My advice to Atherton — and I feel compelled to do so, really, for it seems that his sub-editor let that through to the print run — would be “If you can’t think of anything really funny to write or say… Just don’t.

The next pragraph in the article convinced me that this was a concerted attack, meant to put the Indians off their game; sensationalism of this ilk could, apart from selling newspapers, easily deflect attention away from Jellygate. In going down this road, Atherton has only shown — to me at least — that he has lost his sense of objectivity.

Atherton thunders that the person responsible for placing these Jelly beans has had a swift reminder that Test cricket, “especially involving India“, is a serious business.

Wrong Athers. Test cricket is serious business regardless of who it involves. It has no place for jelly beans. It has no place for sand in the pocket either! A former England captain should know that Test cricket is serious business. Period. It has nothing to do with the geography, intensity, religion, quality, colour or the seriousness of the opposition. A Test match should be played seriously even if it is between Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. I am surprised Atherton hasn’t learned this basic tenet despite his many years of experience as a top-flight cricketer.

However, while cricket does not admit jelly beans or sand-in-pocket, it has admitted — though not condoned — the presence of beamers from day-dot. Can we get that right please, Atherton?

The beamer is a terrible ball. Of that there is no doubt. It has the capacity to decapitate. But there are two aspects about the beamer that are important to note. (a) Whether we like it or not, it does happen. (b) It is incredibly impossible to prove that it was deliberately bowled.

The use of beamers is governed by Law 42.6 of cricket. The offending bowler is no-balled and issued with a warning. A repeat incurs a ban, as was the case with Waqar Younis in the 2003 Cricket World Cup.

Typically a beamer is quite hard to bowl because the ball is usually released very early on in the action.

Furthermore, the propensity to bowl beamers increases with sweaty palms and hyperhidrotic bodies — people who sweat profusely. One look at the number of sweat bands Sree Santh wears is enough to suggest that he is perhaps hyperhidrotic. Ditto Brett Lee. Little wonder that Brett Lee and Sree Santh have been recent beamer offenders. Even the great Wasim Akram had a propensity to bowl beamers.

The fact that Atherton appears to have ignored these simple facts as he penned his article suggests to me that he was probably fuelled by his own sense of disappointment at the loss at Nottingham; that he was possibly blinded by his passion for an England win. After all, England had almost won the previous game. After all, England are in danger of losing ground on their admirable home-turf win-record.

If more proof were needed that Athers was fuelled by a deep sense of anger and disappointment at Englands’ loss, it was immediately available in the article. He dismisses Jellygate with a nonchalant wave of his hand. He condones the silly jelly episode by suggesting that it was only a “puerile prank gone wrong; harmless, silly and unlikely to be repeated“.

How does Atherton know that it was only a puerile prank? How does he know that it was unlikely to be repeated? More gallingly, how does he know that Sree Santh’s beamer will be repeated? Does he know that a ball that took off from a jelly bean planted at length would do any less damage than a beamer? And yet, he has been quick to dismiss the jelly bean prank as “harmless, silly and unlikely to be repeated“. Should this man be allowed to write and speak?

The most offending line in Atherton’s article, however, is the one that immediately follows his summary pardon of the English team.

He writes, quite alarmingly that the jelly belly affair was not particularly smart either “since it has alerted everyone to the method used by England to try to induce some extra swing“.

What?

Is he admitting to a theory that has been doing the rounds for many years now? The theory that England’s bowlers have always used performance-altering and illegal substances to alter the swing of the ball? Is that the admission that Atherton has implicitly made? Nathan Bracken was the first to suggest that England bowlers use mints and jelly beans to gain extra reverse swing. Simon Jones and the entire England establishment came down on Bracken like a tonne of bricks and rubbished his outpouring as nothing but sour grapes as a result of The Ashes loss.

With the definitiveness of Athertons’ recent admission (“it has alerted everyone to the method”), there is clearly more to it than meets the eye!

In the presence of such evidence surrounding the presence of jelly beans on the pitch — albeit circumstantial — Atherton’s ability to ignore, pardon and accept this clear breach of the spirit and the laws of the game is beffudling at best and galling, at worst. In the light of this, his persecution of Sree Santh, against whom there is absolutely no evidence of premeditation, shows nothing but the depth of immaturity and a galling sense of imbalance in Atherton.

Using substances such as vaseline, sand, bottle tops, mints and jelly to obtain extra swing goes against the spirit of the game. These are wrongs. There are no two ways about this. Can we get this right please Atherton? The fact that Atherton thinks that England’s jelly tactics in Nottingham was wrong because it merely “alerted” the authorities to something that is perhaps common practice shows Atherton is very very poor light.

One could pursue an angle whereby it could be shown that Atherton, by using his position in high office, has painted himself as an opportunistic and callous individual who is able to turn a blind eye to the misdemeanors of his own tribe while pursuing a vitriolic agenda against a member of an opposing tribe against whom the evidence is absolutely non-existant at best — and at worst, there is some evidence to support pathology around propensity to sweat profusely.

With his inherent ability to turn his eye to a blatant crime, the question I ask is whether or not Atherton should be allowed to wield either the pen or the microphone? I believe there is enough evidence to suggest a state of imbalance, if not at the very least, inordinate bias.

Atherton then thumps the table with this tripe. “But I have no doubt that Sreesanth’s rancorous spell, which included the beamer and the no-ball, was the most glaring example in the match of something that ran completely counter to the spirit of the game. Forget the jellybeans and inane chatter.

Perhaps Sree Santh’s spell was indeed rancorous, spiteful and venenous, although we have no way of proving premeditated rancour. It was certainly ugly. Pietersen was not impressed with the beamer. No batsman will ever be. Pietersen admitted openly to being shaken and imbalanced by the beamer. It was a terrible passage in play. It did not look pretty at all. Of that I have no doubt. But how did all of this translate into Atherton having “no doubt” that it was the most glaring example of something that ran against the spirit of the game? Where is the evidence? Where is the proof? The evidence that England did something against the spirit of the game was there for everyone to see — jelly beans. The evidence that Sree Santh did something against the spirit of the game was there for everyone to see — shoulder-barging. Where is the evidence of premeditation in the ugly beamer that Sree Santh churned? Nothing. If anything, there is evidence to the counter — the inordinately large surface area of the sweat bands on his body; enough at least to suggest a hyperhidrotic state.

A mother can forgive any misdemeanor by her own child, but would readily spew sanctimony spurred by juices of mistrust when it comes to her neighbours’ child.

Nothing proves this more than Athertons’ tripe.

— Mohan