Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Under-prepared And Overwhelmed

Having been absolutely badgered by a resilient England team, it is back to the drawing board for the Indian team. India have been unqualifyingly abject but to be fair this England team is a mighty strong unit. Unlike India, their hold on the No. 1 ranking looks a lot more solid and they look the real deal in every sense. Hell, England are the new Australia in town.

In normal circumstances, fans can clutch at straws and at least point towards redeeming factors in a failed campaign. Here the Indian fans could count the positives on the fingers of one hand and still be left with fingers to spare. Rack your brains and then rack some more, and all you can come up with is Rahul Dravid’s batting. Exercise it a bit more and maybe Praveen Kumar’s gumption and spirit stands out. What else? Search me.

One telling stat that bears iteration is that prior to this series, Rahul Dravid had just 2 centuries in losing causes for India in his 150-test career; meaning every other century he had got resulted in an Indian win or at worst a draw. In this series alone, he has more than doubled that tally – all 3 of his centuries went in vain. This says as much about Dravid being a lone ranger as about the rest of the team being a bunch of under-performers.

So where to from here for India? India would do well to emulate the template provided by England. England had sunk to the depths of a 5-0 Ashes whitewash – only the second in history – before striking gold. Unlike India though, England’s hasn’t been a story of a few brilliant individuals carrying the team through. Theirs has been a much more meticulous and methodical approach in their ascent to the top. They’ve put processes in place and concentrated on creating a squad rather than just a team of 11. That is what manifested in having a readymade replacement in Tim Bresnan for their strike bowler Chris Tremlett. Reverse the situation and with Zaheer khan out, all the screws came off India’s machine.

Preparation is another key word that we’ve heard a lot in the last few weeks. While England prepared with a missionary zeal for this marquee series, India went AWOL. The results are there for all to see. India came under-cooked and were fried by a well-oiled English unit. Graham Gooch, England’s batting coach has an apt saying to motivate his troops, “If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail”. This couldn’t be truer for the Indian team. They should make this their mantra going forward, for preparing – and preparing well - is one thing they failed to do.

Preparation was their single biggest failing – and hopefully their single biggest learning - from this series. They felt they just needed to turn up and they'd win; it’s a pitfall a lot of really good players and teams have fallen into over the years and paid a heavy price for it. The ones that don’t fall into this trap are the real champions. Or the reverse could also be true – true champions never get bitten by the complacency bug.

This has been an unmitigated disaster in every sense of the term. The only bright spot is that there will hopefully be an acceptance that not everything is right with Indian cricket; that their needs to be a succession plan once the Big Three retire; and most of all, that India need to build an all-weather attack that can pick 20 wickets consistently under different conditions and circumstances.

Some steps are already being taken to show that a few lessons are being learnt. For the tour of Australia, for instance, BCCI are now insisting on a practice game before the tests begin. Why this was not a part of the original itinerary and why BCCI insist on ‘learning’ only after having burnt their fingers is a different story altogether.

To end this on a slightly depressing note for Indian fans, the No. 1 ranking looks like a thing of the past at least in the foreseeable future. The least the fans can hope for is to see the will among administrators and players alike to rectify this and set the wheels in motion in trying to recapture the hard-earned but short-lived glory. For that though, India will have to incorporate some of the bloody-mindedness England showed both in planning and execution.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

DRS? Yes... No... Uh, Come Again?

Nothing it seems is straightforward as far as cricket administrators are concerned. Barely had the collective sigh of relief of fans all over died down that the DRS had finally been made mandatory for all international cricket, came the rude jolt that ball-tracking technology (read Hawk Eye, Virtual Eye, et al) will no longer be one of the mandatory requirements.

Just to rewind a bit, Hawk Eye and similar such technologies provide a dual function. The first one is to show where the ball landed after the bowler delivered it; and the second is the more complex function of predicting where it would have ended had it not been obstructed along its way (by the batsman or his body). Now we all know that the predictive element of this technology has long been a grey area and no one could tell for sure where the ball would end up after it hit the batsman’s pads.

Players, commentators, viewers, and most importantly, umpires alike had long been a bit circumspect about it but accepted its verdict, even if hesitantly. Since it was such a grey area, the administrators had a case for not making it a part of decision-making. But what about the line decisions part of the technology, meaning where the ball had landed?

There wasn’t any doubt – not a single one – of anyone ever doubting the technology over where the ball had landed. Even tennis, which embraced technology much after cricket, accepts Hawk Eye’s evidence as the last word on decision-making. Remember we’re only talking line decisions here, so I’m not comparing apples with oranges.

To give you an example, if the ball pitches outside leg stump, there’s no recourse for the batsman to challenge an lbw decision because ball-tracking technology is no longer a mandatory requirement. The ICC of course has added a proviso that if agreeable to both parties, ball tracking technology can be used for decision-making, but that’s hardly the point. The point is why let individual boards decide what should be uniform playing conditions for all international cricket.

This blog, like most Indian fans, knows for a fact that BCCI is not a huge fan of ball-tracking technology and so will not accept it in its current form at least for the India matches. That is where uniform playing conditions would have come in; by putting the ball in individual boards’ courts the threat of lopsidedness in international cricket looms large with some series being played with DRS and some not.

I don’t know what these guys were smoking when they passed this ridiculous playing condition. What I do know is that every stakeholder in every sport is fine with WYSIWYG (what-you-see-is-what-you-get) technologies. And the elementary function of ball-tracking technologies – of showing where the ball landed - is as WYSIWYG as they come. But by clouding their minds with the predictive element of ball-tracking technologies, the mandarins at ICC decided that the whole technology has to go.

Another aspect which hasn’t attracted enough attention as yet is the cost of using these technologies. The HotSpot has a huge cost element to it (some estimates peg it at USD 60,000 for a Test match) and none of the parties involved is ready to bear its expenses. With HotSpot now made mandatory, you cannot have DRS without having HotSpot in place.

And so the vicious circle continues. In one fell swoop, India has both accepted and rejected the DRS. The ICC is thumping its chest that they have got India to ultimately accede to its wishes. Both parties are claiming victory and not for the first time cricket, over whom the fight is, is the loser.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Jamaican Punch & An RD Composition

As India wrap up their second victory in consecutive Jamaica tests, it bears reiteration that India were without 4 first-team regulars; had 3 debutantes; and 3 others who’d played 10 tests or fewer going into the match. So all those who scoff at this victory saying it was ‘only’ West Indies need to get their cricketing senses right.

The architect of the victory, however, was that 150-test veteran, Rahul Dravid. The tributes have been flowing thick and fast, and so it should be. He’s long been the unsung hero of this team; always the sidekick, never quite the main protagonist. Tom Alter who paid a rich tribute on firstpost.com articulated it well – “… he’s been the Shashi Kapoor to Tendulkar’s Amitabh…”. Siddhartha Vaidyanathan, previously with Cricinfo, wrote eruditely on RD & his mastery of struggle.

It was poetic justice as well, for it was exactly 15 years ago to the day that Dravid had missed out on a century on debut by 5 agonising runs. And at Lord’s. The same match where Sourav Ganguly did get to his.

The victory itself was more a roller-coaster than a landslide. While the fight back from 85/6 was good, India shouldn’t have fallen to those depths in the first place. The spinners turned the ball a mile but it was precisely for that reason that ball kept eluding bat. Sometimes, it pays a great deal to just stick to the basics. It took Raina and a straight ball to end West Indies’ resistance. These might be mere instances of nitpicking but against mightier opponents like England (India’s next challenge), these things might hurt India.

Asked about the umpiring, MS had this gem for us: “If the correct decisions were made", he said, "the game would have finished much earlier and I would have been in the hotel by now.” He might as well have said if the UDRS were here… At least India won this game. Imagine the furore had India lost? One of these days, India’s going to lose big time on account of bad umpiring (at least until the likes of Daryl Harper are still around). Why not be proactive & nip the problem in the bud MS, rather than rant out in the media? The match referee might also have a thing or two to say about that ill-advised comment. Go fish.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Gayle Blown Over

The big news trickling in this morning is that Chris Gayle’s international future is in doubt due to a long-running dispute between the West Indies board (WICB) and him. Now, this can only be a bad thing if you’re a true fan of the game.

I must confess the moment I heard Gayle had initiated talks with the board (which was a prerequisite for him playing again), I assumed it was only a matter of time before the WICB reinstated him. After all, you can’t keep out the one world-class player you have in your team for too long, right? Wrong. WICB, in its immense wisdom has decided an apology is more important than West Indies winning or losing its next game.

In the claims and counter-claims (through ‘sources’ and then some more ‘sources’) that have followed, one thing is pretty clear; neither side is blameless. Gayle accuses the board of sabotaging his career and the board counter-accuses him of not giving them the respect they deserve.

To an outsider looking in, this totally reeks of juvenile prudishness and utter lack of maturity. For if these are well-meaning adults (and ‘professionals’ at that), surely they can sit across the table and trash it out? Instead, what they’re doing is trashing each other!

If Gayle sits down in a moment of calm, he ought to ask himself what is more important to him. Playing for the West Indies or clutching on to his ego and not apologizing. It’s a no-brainer really. Likewise, what’s more important for the WICB? Settling personal scores or being facilitators in ensuring that the best-possible eleven represents the region?

There are questions aplenty and sadly, very little answers. While this is certainly not the last we’ve heard about this, what is pretty certain is that Gayle will be taking no part in the upcoming India series. From the spectators’ point of view, the series has been further robbed off its sheen after the withdrawal of several Indian stars.

Such a shame!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

What's In A Name?

What’s the similarity between BCCI & Paris Hilton? As you chew over that preposterous question and try to figure out something noteworthy, let me go on to some BCCI-bashing before giving you the answer.

Where do you start with the BCCI? Almost everything they do seem to be at odds with the rest of the world. And it starts right with their name; the Board of Control for Cricket in India. Phew! A few more words, and it would be a paragraph. The name itself sounds imperialistic, not to mention the trouble the poor fingers have to go through in typing the sentence of a name out. Why can’t they simply re-christen it Cricket India (CI). Short, and easy on the fingers too.

Coming on to more serious matters, their latest blood-curdling moment came when they continued to block the implementation of UDRS (Umpire Decision Review System); this time for the England series. A snap-poll on Cricinfo – the premier cricket website on the internet – showed more than 75% think it was erroneous on BCCI’s part. And it just might come back to haunt Team India. Remember Sydney? That was the test which triggered a chain of events that brought the UDRS into the picture in the first place. Ironic then that India is it’s most vocal critic now after being the victims of such poor umpiring in that series.

What’s more concerning is the reason BCCI keep blocking it in the first place. Some would argue that it’s the senior players in the team who’re opposed to it (which is true). But the real reason lies elsewhere. After all, the players are opposed to a lot of other things – the over-exhaustive fixture- list for starters; the contract payments; and a sundry other things. BCCI doesn’t toe the line if they don’t have to. Now when it suits them, they conveniently keep blocking it in every available forum. In this case, they simply want to let the ICC know who the boss is and that they can’t just shove anything down BCCI’s throats. You see, it’s more of an ego fight.

Mind you, this is the same BCCI which blocked the internationalization of T20 matches without even giving it as much as a try. Not many know that India were a reluctant participant in the inaugural T20 World Cup after the BCCI was out-voted 9-1 in the ICC Executive meeting on whether or not to hold a T20 World Cup. It’s an altogether different story that India went on to win the cup; and spawned off that little monster called the IPL. I’m waiting for the day when it turns Frankenstein and devours its own creator! It’s not as far-fetched as you might think folks.

I digress. MS Dhoni’s criticism that UDRS is not 100% accurate and so shouldn’t be implemented is really a little too na├»ve; and slightly unbecoming of a mature head like him. The system was never designed to be 100% accurate. Hell, cricket wasn’t designed to be accurate all the time. Once you start with that mindset, the next best logical target would be how do you minimize the mistakes. That is where UDRS comes in.

It is acknowledged universally that human eye can give you the right decision approximately 90% of the time in most cases. If with UDRS, you could move the needle from 90 to say, 98 or even 95% wouldn’t that be a whole lot better. Not if you are BCCI apparently. With their all-or-nothing mantra, they just keep increasing the margin of and for error.

For the uninitiated, BCCI pretty much runs the ICC. So if the ICC wants to implement something, it better have BCCI’s blessing. Else the screws will come off the wheels even before the vehicle can get going. And to take the analogy further what makes the BCCI chug along? We the billion-plus cricket crazy fanatics of this country, which the BCCI pretty much got on a platter. They didn't have to build up a fan base, nor even cultivate one; they just inherited us for our love of the sport. They were the custodians of the game and happily (for them), in the right place at the perfect time.

Which brings me back to the question I asked at the beginning? If you still haven’t figured it out + are not asleep + are still curious, the answer is this: it is in their inheritance of seemingly undeserved riches. This is how Wikipedia describes Paris Hilton: “She is an example of the modern phenomenon of the 'celebutante', the celebrity who rises to fame not because of their talent or work but because of their inherited wealth...” Replace Paris with BCCI and wealth with fans/followers/market (what have you), and you get the picture.

So what chances of the UDRS getting implemented in an India series any time soon? Not a jot. What should be a lot easier for the BCCI to do would be to remove the ‘Board’ and definitely the anachronistic ‘Control’ and call themselves CI. The BC at the beginning is no coincidence… move on to AD guys! If, nay when, that happens, this post can proudly say, “C I told you so!”

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Peek Into The Future

Almost a month has passed by in this World Cup and it is a good time to take stock of the situation. So to the one question that everyone has on their lips; not the one SRK teases viewers with in his Airtel commercial. But the real deal - Who will win the 2011 World Cup?

A million people will have a million views on the subject and a million other arguments supporting their claims. Here’s mine. Disagree with me by all means but no name-calling please.

First, the criteria on which my prediction is based. I was thinking on the subject while travelling in my cab from office to home – and that is a considerable time in major Indian cities. There can be 100 different criteria to base it on; and each criterion might throw up a different team as favourites.

If you’re looking for current form and team balance, South Africa’s your team. If you’re looking for the strongest batting among all teams in the competition, you’ve got to give it to India. If you’re looking for a varied and balanced bowling attack, hand over the World Cup to Sri Lanka right away. If you’re looking for pedigree and track record, look no further than Australia who have won 4 of the 9 World Cups overall and the last 3 in succession.

My prediction, however, is based on something more quirky and irrational. To my mind, that is what makes it more fun. If you take a look at all World Cups played to date, only the first 2 and the last 2 have been won by overwhelming favourites – going into the tournament as well as through the course of the tournament. In 1975 & 1979, West Indies were the odds on favourite to lift the Cup; and in 2003 & 2007, that team was Australia. Both teams, needless to say, duly went on to complete the formalities.

It is in the 5 Cups in between though, on which my prediction is based. They have all been won by teams that were either written off at some stage of the tournament, if not the entire duration, or were facing the very real threat of elimination in the group stages.

In 1983, the odds on India winning the World Cup were 500-1. In fact, the Wisden Editor, David Frith, said he’ll eat his words if India went on to win the World Cup. We all know how hopelessly wrong he was in his judgement. To be fair to him, he did go on to literally eat his words.

Australia were at rock bottom going into the 1987 World Cup after the retirements of a slew of greats in Lillee, Marsh & Chappell; and having just conceded the Ashes, no less, to England. But they surprised everyone, including possibly themselves, to go on and lift the Cup.

In 1992, Pakistan were staring elimination in the eye after having already lost 2 games and getting bowled out for 74 against England in the league phase. They were hoping for a miracle to get out of the mess, and a miracle it was. The match was rained off which saved Pakistan from imminent defeat and therefore elimination; they went on to play like Cornered Tigers, which Imran Khan famously anointed his team as; and the rest as they say is history.

Flash forward to 1996. Sri Lanka had not even come close to getting into the knockouts of any of the 5 previous World Cups, let alone winning it. Even their form going into the World Cup, didn’t give any one enough hint of the surprise in store, finishing as they did 3rd out of 3 teams in a tri-series in Australia just prior to the World Cup. But a brilliant strategy masterminded by that old warhorse, Arjuna Ranatunga, of going hell for leather in the first 15 overs,  as opposed to just the last 10 (which was the practice then in ODIs), paid rich dividends and Sri Lanka ran out comfortable victors.

Last, but not the least, 1999. The rather surprising almost-vanquished team this time was Australia. After losing to New Zealand and then Pakistan, they contrived to put themselves in a position where they had to win all 7 of their remaining matches to lift the Cup. If any side had the resilience to do it, it was Australia, which they did. Ok, they had 1 tie along the way in that famous Edgbaston semi-final against South Africa, but the rules prevailing then allowed them entry into the finals where they emerged victorious in a hopelessly one-sided final.

So to 2011 then. Apologies for the long-winded way of getting here, but the context had to be set. The only fancied team facing elimination this time is, ahem - drum roll please! - England. There you have it finally. They are my pick to be lifting the 2011 World Cup. Not that they have a bad team to do it with either, so it’s not just based on quirkiness.

I could be proved wrong as early as tomorrow if England lose to the West Indies. If that’s the case, just remember this post as a history lesson in World Cup, and forget that I even predicted a winner! :D If England go on to win the Cup though, don’t forget to pat my back and say well done! (That would be scant consolation for Indian not winning though)

I was the one who stuck my neck out after all and went for the unfancied team :P

Monday, March 14, 2011

Chokers In The Pack

After narrowly missing out on almost snatching defeat against England, India managed it successfully this time against South Africa. So well did they manage to avoid victory that a couple more such displays and they could well go on to usurp South Africa’s unwanted tag of Big Match Chokers. There really is no other way to describe it, as well as South Africa might have played.

Sehwag started in his now customary manner with a four first ball – for the fifth consecutive match this World Cup (surely, some sort of a record?). And The Master strutted his stuff in a way only can – cold, calculated and elegant. In fact so well did they – and Gambhir, after them – bat that the mid-innings talking point was not whether India will get 350 or not, but how much beyond will they go and put the issue beyond doubt.

Steyn and South Africa had other ideas though. They first bowled India out for 296 inside 50 overs - unthinkable until even the 45th over – and then chased down the total in a professional manner, though not without a few speed bumps along the way.

Not all was lost for India either. The top three looked in good nick, the fielding for a change had some energy to it, and most importantly, Harbhajan looked to be getting some of his old nip back. This Indian team looks much more formidable with an in-form Harbhajan in it and that can only augur well for the future.

In a convoluted kind of way, this is also as good a time as any to get a loss out of the way than for it to come in the more important knockout stages of the competition. With India virtually assured of a place in the quarters, the loss wouldn’t matter much in the overall scheme of things, but a win would have done invaluable good to the morale, something alluded to in the earlier post as well.

As an aside, teams looking to get Sehwag out early have a tiny window of opportunity – the first ball. Surely, Sehwag has this at the back of his mind and if nothing else, he’ll go for broke in the first ball of the remaining matches. Not that he won’t at other balls, but one can’t be sure which ones those will be. One can be absolutely cock-sure about that first ball though. It’s a great time to be a punter! Watch out Roach, Sehwag might go for something predetermined, so a great opportunity to get him early.

Lastly and unrelatedly, let’s spare a thought for the Japanese tsunami victims. Every time you think it has bottomed out and can’t get any worse, that is exactly what happens. It’s Murphy’s law at its inverted best – or worst. They could do with all the positive vibes and energy we can pass. Spread it if you can. It doesn’t cost you much but is invaluable to our brothers and sisters in desperate need of help.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

All Tied Up

In boxing parlance, India today had England on the mat & were ready to deliver the knockout punch when the England innings started. It was England, however, who won the bout on points. Don’t let the result fool you. It was well & truly an England victory.

The day couldn’t have started off better for India with Sehwag getting a boundary off the first delivery for the second match in a row (albeit, a streaky one) & Sachin whetting the appetite of zillions with another masterful century. Then came the first & biggest turning point of the match.

In what can only be described as slightly nervy, mostly lacking in common sense, and hardly the stuff of champions that they’re touted as in most circles, the Indian tail not just refused to wag but was also adamant on committing suicide. One particular moment towards the end of India’s innings was symptomatic of India’s display. In what turned out to be the last delivery of India’s innings, Zaheer & Munaf in their zealousness to take 2 runs forgot that they need to complete the 1st run first! Munaf forgot to place his bat inside the crease for the first run; Zaheer was run out attempting the 2nd run; India got zero runs from that delivery & they didn’t get to face the last delivery of their allotted overs because they were all out! That’s India for you – all of it – in just one delivery.

England, though didn’t come out of it totally unscathed themselves. First, their bowling was wayward until they redeemed themselves somewhat with their fine death-overs bowling, aided no doubt by sloppy Indian batting. But most inexcusable of all was their almighty choke (South Africa, you have company!) in almost snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. From an unlose-able 278/2 after 41 overs with a batting powerplay, 9 overs, and 8 wickets in which to get 61 runs, the Indians looked gone for all money.

There however was one last twist in the tale. Step forward Zaheer. In a brilliant display of conventional & reverse swing, he took out the well-set Strauss & Bell off successive balls & then removed Paul Collingwood next over. England inexorably went on to lose 6 wickets for 44 runs in 7 overs.

Not until Patel & Chawla, who bowled the last 3 overs, reduced the rest of India into nail-biting gut-wrenching wrecks, did England get a foot back in the door & rather than slam it shut in India’s face they just 
gently tapped it; & it was India this time who escaped with salvaging a point.

Statistically, the match ended in a tie & India salvaged a point, but it should by rights have been 2 & any psychological points that you get from knocking the opposition out cold. More than the 2 points though, India will rue the fact that they let England get this close in the first place.

That one run that Zaheer & Munaf couldn’t complete came back to haunt India in the end. Something eerily similar happened in the 1987 World Cup, also hosted by India. India was playing Australia then in their first match of the tournament & 2 runs were added to the Australian total at the innings break because one of the sixes hit during the innings was wrongly signaled as four. India went on to lose that match by 1 run & ultimately their campaign ended in the semis.

Then, as now, the format was skewed in favour of fancied teams. Then, as now, the result did not matter whether or not India made it to the knockout stages. What mattered then & what matters now is the incredible lift in morale that teams gain from winning these close matches. India didn’t have the stomach then for a big match after losing that opening game. They haven’t lost now, but it almost feels like one. Do they have the stomach for the big match now? Only time will tell.