Friday, 18 April, 2008

Don't blame the IPL....

Flashback to the 1950s when India was undertaking her fourth tour to England. Vinoo Mankad, India's star all rounder, was signed by the Lancashire cricket club Haslingden for a princely sum of 1000 Sterling Pounds. Not wanting to lose this money, he did the unthinkable. He asked Indian cricket board to compensate for his loss of revenue in case he was selected to represent India in the test matches! This incident would pass off as rather insignificant, today, but remember we are talking about the 1950s, when cricket was played for fun, pride and everthing else, but certainly not money! It was ok to live in extreme poverty like Vasant Ranjane - India's fast bowler of 1950s - did, or even die in obsurity like JG Navale - India's first ever test keeper. But making money from cricket? Blasphemeous!

Fast forward to the 70s. If there is one cricketer who can be called as the Harbinger of commercialisation of cricket in India, then it is Sunil Gavaskar. Here is what former Indian captain, MAK Pataudi, had to say about him. (Excerpts from Mihir Bose's book - Maidan view) :In Bombay only money seemed to matter, and there was more than one way to make it. Gavaskar found them all. Advertising, film producing, writing articles (on the same match, but for different publications), taking fee for organizing matches, writing instant books which were spiced to sell better, appearance money and signing contracts with manufacturers of sports equipment. He became the first millionaire through cricket, rich enough to buy a flat in the centre of Bombay. In a capitalist cricketing country, he would have been considered a genius. In India they began to call him a mercenary, and within the team he became the envy of some of who felt that their contribution to Indian cricket was not much appreciated. Why should Gavaskar hog all the publicity as well as the money? The answer was simple: he had reached those dizzy heights to which no Indian cricketer in his right mind would even dream of aspiring. As importantly, he was articulate where others were dumb, he was controversial where other dared not to be, he could even be witty and this made him ideal material for the media and advertiser.

Over to the 1990s when Mark Mascarenhas bid for the 1996 WC. He promised an astonomical USD 10 Mn for that event. Back then, that kind of money was unheard of in Indian cricket. It was the beginning of the quest of cricket finding it's market value.

Well into the first decade of the new millenium, Sachin Tendulkar bagged a Rs 200 Crore contract from Iconix.

Last year ESPN Star network bagged the ICC television rights for USD 1.15 Bn.

So friends, don't blame the IPL, the ICL or the Stanford League for commercialisation of this wonderful game. The process of commercialisation is as old as the game itself. These are just the pit stops in the game's long and eventful journey.

Let us allow the market to determine cricket's true value. If the IPL or any of the players flop, be rest assured, market will take its own corrective action. And if they succeed, then fifteen years down the line, Dhoni's Rs 60 Mn or Ishant Sharma's Rs 40 Mn contract for the IPL could well look like peanuts, much in the same way that Vinoo Mankad's 1000 Sterling Pounds contract of 1952, looks now.

Monday, 14 April, 2008

Well Played South Africa, Welcome IPL

“Wait till you come to the West Indies maan. Our pitches will be too hot to handle.”

That was the gist of what, a justifiably furious Viv Richards said to the Indian team, as India leveled the 4 test series, one all, at Madras in 1988. West Indies were already one up in the series, by the virtue of their win in Delhi, where they skittled out the Indian team for paltry 75 runs. To compound the woes for India, the captain and easily their best batsman, Dilip Vengsarkar, was ruled out of the final test due to an injury.

If the plot bears an uncanny similarity to the one played at Kanpur, then India’s response was even more identical. Throw an under prepared track, make the ball turn from day one, finish the match in three days and level the series one all!

I have no inkling if the South African skipper Graeme Smith has issued any veiled threat to the Indians on the type of pitches they would encounter on their next tour, but he must be ruing his team’s failure, for, chasing a series win in India is a bit like chasing mirage in Thar desert. Ask the West Indies who are still looking for one, twenty years on.

Having played great cricket all through the series, as also in the lead up to it, I thought the South African camp should have seen it coming. Sometimes it helps to have a better sense of history, a lesson they will not forget in hurry.

No such worries for the India captain though. He intelligently opened the bowling with Harbhajan in SA’s second innings. Again, I am not aware if Dhoni is a keen follower of Indian cricket’s history, but if he were to be one, he would find another instance when an off-break bowler opened the bowling for India. The year was 1967 and Gary Sobers was leading the West Indian team that included the likes of Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith. Making a complete mockery of fast bowling was the Indian opening pair of Ajit Wadekar and ML Jaisimha who bowled all of three overs between them at Bombay, only to let the more celebrated spinners in Chandra, Venkat, Durrani and Bapu Nadkarni to take over.

To conclude, India has leveled the series despite South Africa playing better cricket. For me, more than the fact that India has retained its number two ranking in the ICC test championship, it is the reinforcement of MS Dhoni as a future test captain and the sight of Ishant Sharma consistently rattling the opposition timber that holds so much promise for the future.

This series was played in the afterglow of India’s successful tour in Australia and also under the shadow of forthcoming Indian Premier League. A combination of other factors like injuries to key players, quality of pitches, an empty stadium and absence of live telecast in many parts of India added to the general lack of enthusiasm.

Cometh 18th April and all that will be a thing of past…..

Thursday, 10 April, 2008

The Brown Park, Kanpur

Is the logical deduction, therefore, that English grounds men must prepare wickets which will suit the Australian hostility in attack and not expose the limitations of their batting? In this Welfare State age of all things on a platter and made easy, is a turning wicket a dishonour and no longer a challenge to personal skill?

So went the report in the ‘Manchester Guardian’ after the second day of the fourth test between England and Australia at Old Trafford, 1956. This was in the aftermath of Jim Laker taking 9 wickets, sending Aussies crashing from 62/2 at tea, to 84 all out, in their first innings. Laker went on to capture all 10 wickets in Australia’s second innings to win the match for England by an innings and 170 runs.

Close on the heels of this astonishing feat, two Indian bowlers, both spinners, had flirted with the ‘Perfect Ten’, Green Park stadium at Kanpur being witness to both these instances.

West Indies captain, Gerry Alexander had won the toss in the second test at Kanpur and elected to bat. Not surprising, for, that West Indian team of 1958 boasted of batsmen like Conrad Hunte, Gary Sobers, Rohan Kanhai, Collie Smith and the skipper himself. At 55/0, it looked like yet another leather hunt for the Indian fielders. Only Subhash Gupte, whom Gary Sobers later described as the best leg spinner of his time, had different ideas. He took the next seven WI wickets on trot and looked well set to emulate Jim Laker, only to be ‘thwarted’ by debutante Indian fast bowler Vasant Ranjane, who clean bowled Lance Gibbs, the eight wicket to fall. Subhash Gupte eventually finished the innings with 9/102.

If Ranjane denied Subhash Gupte a place in record books, it was Chandu Borde who ‘spoiled’ off spinner Jasu Patel’s figures at Kanpur, a year later. It was an identical Australian batting line up that faced Jim Laker in the 1956 test, O’Neill and Alan Davidson being the only two changes. Jasu Patel’s 9 wicket haul in the first innings (to go with another 5 in the second innings) not only gave India their first ever test victory against Australia, but also earned him a Padmashri (Indian Civilian award) the following year.

As the Indo-African caravan moves to Kanpur for the final test, the name ‘Green Park’ looks at best, a misnomer. Spinners have always ruled the roost here. The last time it smiled on fast bowlers was about 25 years ago, when a certain Malcolm Marshall, at his menacing best, knocked the bat out of Sunil Gavaskar’s hand and hurled India to a humiliating defeat.

In last fifty years, India has lost only twice at Kanpur, to West Indies on both occasions. When Subhash Gupte’s dream spell was overshadowed by Wes Hall’s 10 wicket haul in 1958 and later when India’s 1983 world cup euphoria was cut short by Marshall’s fearsome bowling.

Dale Steyn, Ntini and co could well find a place in the annals alongside Halls and Marshall, if they make the brown track at ‘Green Park’ redundant with their pace.

Otherwise, India could well be on her way to level the series, one all.

Thursday, 3 April, 2008

Demons of the Mind

Vijaysingh Madhavji Thackersey a.k.a. Vijay Merchant, was considered as India’s best ‘all weather’, ‘all wicket’ batsman in the 30s and 40s. No wonder, when he led the Indian side to England in 1946, he scored an incredible 2385 runs at an astonishing average of 74, in what was considered as one of the wettest summer in England.

It is interesting to know how one of the most technically accomplished batsmen approached his game. Says Merchant, “When I played cricket I never had a plan of action when going out to bat. As a matter of fact I never gave any thought to the match itself and went in to bat with a clear mind and perhaps an empty mind. And because there was no plan in my mind I concentrated 100% - not 99%.”

If one has to find a fault with Indian batsmen for their pathetic performance on day one at Motera, then it has to be the way in which they approached this match. The image of a verdant green pitch played in their minds over and over again. They allowed themselves to get so overawed by the incessant talk pertaining to the nature of pitch that they ended up fighting the demons, more in their minds than on the twenty two yards strip.

After scoring over 600 runs in the previous test, one would have expected India to shut out any discussion concerning the wicket and concentrate solely on the job at hand. Instead, as a result of this needless ambiguity, it was the Indian team that looked more ruffled, going into the match, than the visitors.

Having said that, it would be unfair to go hammer and tongs at the players for one bad day (read session) on the field. After all, the same team had performed admirably well in Australia and before that, in England.

But the same cannot be said about the authorities in charge of preparing wickets. This series was played on the back of a hugely successful one in Australia and the public interest in the game was at an all time high. Instead of encashing on this golden opportunity and making test cricket more popular, they have managed to wean the common man further away from test matches.

If Chennai track was disastrously docile, the one at Motera threatened to go the Wankhede way, albeit briefly, when India was batting.

Already the South Africans have a vice like grip on this test. If Indian team is harbouring any hopes to make a match of it from this position, some one needs to play the role of Vijay Merchant, who, while returning to pavilion after scoring 250 runs in a first class match said, “My concentration slackened just a bit, else I could have easily carried on.”

Arise, Sir Rahul!

Wednesday, 2 April, 2008

Triple Hundreds and all that....

What is the relation between a triple century and a drawn test? What do triple centurions have in common? Is triple century harmful to health of test cricket?

Don't blame me if you find these lines ripped straight from the Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner authored bestseller 'Freakonomics'. Because they actually are.

As the cricketing world debates the significance of Sehwag triple hundred at Chennai, here are few interesting points, I thought, I should share with you. It is like a rogue cricket fan exploring the hidden side of everything!

  • Out of the 22 triple hundreds scored so far, only one has been scored it in the second innings. That honour goes to the original little master, Hanif Mohammad, when he scored 337 runs in his marathon stay of 970 minutes at crease against the West Indies in Bridgetown Barbados. All others have come batting first.

  • 14 out of the 22 tests, which recorded a triple hundred, have meandered to a meaningless draw.

  • Out of the remaining eight wins, three have been recorded against the lowly ranked nations – Australia winning against Zimbabwe in 2003 (Hayden scored 387), West Indies against Pakistan in 1958 (Sobers making 365 n.o.) and England crushing the hapless New Zealand in 1965 (John Eldrich's 310 n.o.)

  • In the 14 drawn tests, almost 50% of the matches (6 to be precise) have barely managed to complete the first innings. The only drawn match to generate any kind of interest was WI Vs Pakistan, which Hanif Mohammad single handedly saved for his team.

  • The more telling fact is that no triple centuries were scored between 1975 to 1990, when the WI pace attack, not to mention their contemporaries like Lillee, Thomson, Imran, Botham, Kapil, Hadlee and co, were at their peak.

  • Almost a third of the total triple centuries have been scored in last 5 years alone, indicating:
    a) Overall decline in bowling standards and b) Lack of Sporting wickets

  • Wisden's top 10 all time great innings includes just one triple ton, Lara's 375, that too ranked at number 10. And I am inclined to believe that Lara's innings was included more for its timing (it took 36 years to break Gary Sobers' highest individual test score) than for the sheer quality or its impact on that particular match.

It is not Sehwag's fault (or for that matter, any other triple centurion's) that they encountered flattest of tracks. Scoring a triple hundred is the ultimate test of batsman's endurance, patience and perseverance.

But it is often the 'lesser' innings played under trying circumstances, which remain etched in the memory forever.