Thursday 28 June, 2007

The Don Bradman of bowling

If there is one record that is most likely to go unsurpassed in test cricket, it is Don Bradman’s batting average of 99.94 in 52 matches.

Well, there’s competition brewing up from none other than Muthiah Muralitharan. With the ball, ofcourse!

Murali’s wicket taking spree has reached Bradmaneqsue proportions. He is etching a graph similar to that of Sir Don, as far as bowling is concerned.

Murali’s 58th five-wicket haul in just 111 tests is truly mind boggling and puts him more than a country mile ahead of his contemporaries. His 683 wickets in 111 tests mean, he takes a shade over six wickets every match. Only Sydney Barnes has a better ratio of wickets per match – seven - for the statistically inclined.

These are remarkable figures and should have ensured a confirmed ticket to ‘greatness’ for Murali. But to his and his fans’ misfortune, Murali was in the news for wrong reasons since the beginning of his career. He has been called twice (1995 in a Melbourne test and 1999 in an ODI at Adelaide) and reported once by match referee Chris Broad, as late as in 2004.

Rewind to1963, when Australian Ian Meckiff was ‘called’ for his illegal action. It took another 32 years for ICC to detect a dodgy action, when Henry Olonga was ‘no-balled’ in tests. Are we to believe that in between those years, every bowler to play test cricket had a ‘spotlessly clean’ action? Or do we put it down to sheer incompetence on the part of umpires, who failed to detect the ‘straightening’ of elbow?

Perhaps the answer could be found in former England fast bowler and an authority on biomechanics, Frank Tyson’s article, in which he narrates the following story:

Let me start with a hoary anecdote about Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe. During one of their many fruitful opening partnerships they encountered a blatant chucker. Herbert was reputed to have met Jack for a mid wicket conference and said, "Jack, the bloke bowling at my end is a chucker."
"I know," replied Jack, "Don’t complain. They might take him off."
The empirical moral is clear. Its okay to chuck provided you don’t do it successfully.

This is not to insinuate that Murali chucks. But to ICC’s great discomfort and horror, Murali was hugely successful in test cricket. He was now a ‘problem’, they could neither sweep below the carpet nor shoo away. The blame for this predicament lay squarely at ICC’s doorstep. They ought to have taken a proactive, and more importantly, firm action, if in their opinion, Murali chucked. But they chose to be ambiguous and as a result Murali, even at the height of his glory, had to endure constant public scrutiny, sometimes, even ridicule.

Lesser players would have wilted long ago under the extraordinary pressure. But not Murali. He was made of sterner stuff. To his eternal credit, Murali came out stronger every time he passed through the ‘kangaroo’ court.

Today, Murali is only 26 wickets shy of overtaking Shane Warne, another great spinner, as the highest wicket taker in test cricket. They say, spinners get better with age. Murali, Warne and Kumble are living examples of this adage. He has minimum three years of good cricket ahead of him, in which he can easily add 150 more to his wickets column.

After he is retired, Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) should have a dedicated Post Box Number to honour his achievements - the Sri Lankan equivalent of 9994!

Friday 22 June, 2007

A Sense of Occasion

History is often peppered with small moments, whose symbolism far outweighs its historical value. 25th June 1932 witnessed one such moment, when India played her first ever test match at Lords against Douglas Jardine led English side.

Here’s what the Evening Standard of 19th April 1932 had to say, when that Indian team first arrived in England:

(In 2004, Outlook magazine came up with a special issue on Indian cricket edited by Boria Muzumdar. The issue featured Colonel CK Nayudu’s scrapbook containing this Evening Standard article)

There has never been such a team of contrasts meeting on common footing of cricket. The 18 players speak eight to ten different languages among them, they belong to four or five different caste, some may not cat this and some may not cat that; a few are denied smoking by their religion laws; some similarly have drinking proscribed; they are captained by a Maharajah rich beyond the dreams of county cricket treasurers and they have tradesmen who earn their living with their hands; some come from the plains where cold is almost unknown and others from the hills where the climate has inured them even to English summer.

The team contains six Hindus, five Mohammedans, four Parsis and two Sikhs. Caste demands that Hindus do not eat beef or veal, and that Mohammedans avoid pork, bacon and ham. The Mohammedans foreswear alcohol by religion and most of the others do so by choice. The Sikhs, who will play cricket in turbans, will be similarly denied smoking. So to prevent any difficulties at meal times, men will eat mutton, chicken and fish.

But these are all forgotten for the present in the quest for cricketing success. With all of them the game is a passion and they know as much about the form of our players, records and scores as the most enthusiastic schoolboy.

Almost the only cricketing thing they know nothing about is a sticky wicket, and they are hoping to get to Lord’s for some practice before wet is out of the ground.

Small step for world cricket it was, but for Indian cricketers, a test match at Lords was indeed a giant leap. No one expected them to win, but even in defeat they managed some credible individual performances.

The reason for raking this up is that, to mark the 75th anniversary of this test, MCC is commissioning a Pataudi Trophy and Bletchley Park Post Office is issuing a special stamp.

I wonder, why this was not an Indian initiative in first place? Have we, like on numerous occasions before, failed to seize the moment or do we lack the ingenuity to celebrate this small, but significant milestone in Indian cricket?

I remember reading how the Ashes centenary celebration in Australia was a grand affair. Let alone that, even a Boxing Day match is almost a ritual in Melbourne. A match at Lord’s is still sacred to many cricketers and fans alike. No wonder, cricket, in all its forms, is still thriving in these countries. Unlike Indians, they don’t trivialise the game. They preserve it as an art form, without making it elitist.

Sometimes, even a largely symbolic event is sufficient to trigger an avalanche for bigger things in future. The lone test in 1932 was one such trigger that has enabled the game to flourish into its current form in India.

Indian cricket history may not be as glorious as some of the other test playing nations, nonetheless, we need to commemorate landmarks around which the history of Indian cricket is woven. Cricket has and still plays an important role in India’s social fabric. Occasions like these should be exercised not only for reminiscing on the game’s past, but also to honour our past heroes, many of who have faded from public memory.

The moot question is, ‘Do we Indians, in general, lack a sense of occasion?’

The answer, I am afraid, is yes.

Monday 18 June, 2007

President, Coach and Politicians

Last week saw a frenzy of activity over two of the most high profile jobs in the country – the President of India and the coach of Indian cricket team.

The hunt was truly on.

I am amazed by the uncanny similarity in the way the ruling coalition in India nominated its presidential candidate and the way BCCI went about selecting the coach of cricket team.

I must admit that Indian Express was first to come up with this interesting analogy on the President and the coach, in one of its editorials. The edit, though, was written before Graham Ford declined the coaching offer and well ahead of the ruling coalition naming its presidential candidate.

In both cases, things were markedly haphazard to begin with, borne out by the lack of structured agenda. Again, in both cases, early front runners fell wayside, as the race gathered momentum. Dark horses were sidelined by ‘influential’ sections. Favourites were tripped at the goalpost. And the eventual winners were pulled from relative obscurity and thrust into national limelight. In the end, the ruling UPA coalition chose political correctness over expertise and ability. BCCI, similarly, chose a non-controversial way out, after being cornered by its own incompetence. (I can also point that the eventual winners were of the same age – 72 – would that amount to stretching things too far?)

Politicians have long ceased to surprise me with their antics, like the one they played out to select their presidential candidate. I have accepted that unprofessionalism (is it a right word?) and lack of accountability are no longer the ‘add ons’, but they come as standard fitments with all politicians. What worries me is that the BCCI - helped in no less way by politicians scrambling to take charge of it - is going down the same drain.

BCCI is the golden goose amongst all sports bodies in India. The very fact that it is THE richest sports organization in India is acting like a magnet, attracting avaracious politicians from all corners, who hitherto had no clue about the game whatsoever. In past, politicians like Madhavrao Scindia, Sheshrao Wankhede, NKP Salve have fiddled with the governing body. But I suspect, it had more to do with the unprecedented publicity that this game offered, and not the money. Not anymore. Corporates are loosening their purse strings like never before and will continue to do so in future. More money is certainly not a bad thing, provided the heart is in right place. I am afraid, with politicians, that may not always be the case, for, money and power often make a potently dangerous mix.

Back in the late eighties, there was a general sense of despondency over the lack of free and fair elections in the country. Public confidence in Election Commission's neutrality had reached its nadir. It was then that, TN Sheshan, as Chief Election Commissioner, cracked the whip. He not only set a strong precedent of free and fair elections, but also ensured that no politician worth his salt, dare infringe on commission’s autonomy ever after.

BCCI needs to be an autonomous body not only in letter, but also in spirit. And for that, it needs a TN Sheshan of its own.

Thursday 14 June, 2007

A huge relief, indeed

Jamaican police’s confirmation that Bob Woolmer died of natural causes should bring a welcome relief to cricket fans. It has ended months of speculation, which sometimes bordered on mindless sensationalism.

Bob Woolmer’s demise, the night Pakistan lost to Ireland, had cast a dark shadow over the Caribbean extravaganza. It was like the Dementor’s ‘kiss of death’, that almost sucked life out of the world cup.

Cricket has had its fair share of controversies in the past. The bodyline series, the packer circus, the match fixing episode, the doping scandals and the recent Oval gate have all contributed to tarnishing the image of ‘gentleman’s game’. But never was it about life and death. You don’t play cricket to kill someone. You don’t watch cricket to see someone die. Woolmer’s death threatened to carry the game into that very murky zone.

Worse, the story was played in full public glare. Ever since Jamaica Observer first broke the news that Woolmer’s death was not natural, it was a trial by media. Every news on Woolmer was sensationalized into a ‘breaking’ news. There was no voice of reasoning. And as is often the case, truth was the first casualty.

Now that Jamaican police themselves have explicitly stated that it was a natural death, I believe, heads should roll in Jamaican administration. If that seems far-fetched, they atleast owe an unequivocal apology to the cricket fans around the world for messing it up big time.

My heart goes out to Bob’s widow, Gill Woolmer, who was dignity personified, through this entire episode. It was easy to get provoked in face of rumours flying thick and fast since the day her husband died. She can now reflect on his memories, without being tormented by the exact cause of his death. And spare a thought for the Pakistan team. The age-old axiom of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ has been applied in a reverse way to them. They were guilty until proven otherwise. It is a shame that some of them have been viewed as convicted killers in this entire episode. Amidst the massive turmoil, we seem to have missed that, a great career has met with an appalling end. Inzamam Ul Haq certainly deserved a better exit from world stage than this.

While the pathologist Dr Ere Seshaiah still stands by his earlier report that Bob was indeed murdered, I hope we have heard the last on Bob Woolmer’s death.

Cricket can do without any more ambiguities.

Monday 11 June, 2007

Welcome, Graham Ford

Dear Graham,

Welcome to India.

In the midst of some very important businesses like arranging one day matches in Ireland, Scotland, Timbuktu etc and deciding who (and who not) should telecast them, BCCI has finally managed time to appoint you as the national coach.

Your appointment should have been a straightforward decision, once Dave Whatmore was out of the fray. (Don’t ask why he was out, in first place). But trust BCCI to add twists, turns and intrigue to a fairly simple plot. It is an indication of things to come, or perhaps, an ingenious way to prepare you for all that.

Welcome to the world of BCCI.

Frankly, Indians know very little about you, except that you succeeded Bob Woolmer as South Africa’s coach in 1999. I believe it bodes well, for, your appointment will be viewed with some optimism, some curiosity, even apprehension, but not with prejudice.

More than your success with the South African team, it was heartening to read, that you are known to work with individual players, helping them sort their flaws - both technical and temperamental. There is no dearth of such players in the current Indian side, who would need your advice, coercion and both. Even outside the team, your will find players like Mohammad Kaif, Suresh Raina, Venugopal Rao, Balaji, who have lately fallen out of favour with the establishment.

There are other issues, which will keep your hands full.

Injuries to the lead bowlers like Munaf Patel and Sreesanth has been a concern in recent times. Dilip Vengsarkar has more than once expressed displeasure over these injuries, considering the busy season ahead.

A few youngsters need to be tagged with a ‘Handle With Care’ label. Ishant Sharma, Manoj Tiwary and Piyush Chawla are all in their teens. Their success in international cricket depends as much on how you, in conjunction with the selectors, handle them in next few years, as it does on their own ability to adapt to the rigors of international cricket. There are more than couple of promising players in domestic circuit and it would do no harm absolutely, if they make it to test grade.

You are also likely to preside over the retirements of VVS Laxman, Ganguly, Tendulkar and perhaps Dravid. I can’t think of any era in Indian cricket that boasted of such a fine middle order. Add Anil Kumble to that list and you have the core of Indian team of last decade or so, making way for the next generation. Your challenge will be to put in place a succession plan, la good corporate entity, well before these greats make a final bow.

All these are long-term concerns. Some issues merit your urgent attention. The loss of form to Sehwag, Irfan Pathan and Harbhajan is a huge setback. They are proven match winners and have anything between 5 to 10 years of good cricket still left in them. You must ensure they are not lost to Indian cricket.

Finally, you won’t find a better time to start your assignment. No one expects you to take India to dizzying heights, as they did from your predecessors – Chappell, Wright and Kapil. After team India’s debacle in the recent world cup, expectations are at an all time low. The good part is that, there seems to be a reality check from the fans and sponsors alike. It may be temporary, but it argurs only well for you.

They say, India is the spinach of travel destinations - you may not always like it, but it is probably good for you. I hope you are one of those who like their spinach. I also hope you enjoy your stay in India, and importantly, during your tenure, the players enjoy their game too.

For, when that happens, it will make a beeline for success.

Welcome once again, Graham, and all the very best.


Cricket Guru

Saturday 9 June, 2007

First In First Out - Part III

You won’t find two opening batsmen, poles apart from each other - both in style and their outlook to the game - as Vijay Merchant and Syed Mushtaq Ali were.

Vijay Merchant was the epitome of concentration. Once, after getting out on 250, in a first class match, he said in a non chalant way, "My concentration ‘slackened a bit’, else I could have easily carried on." Mushtaq Ali on the other hand had a dare devil approach and often stepped out of the crease to hit fast bowlers. Remember, he did that in 1930s! In the words of Ray Robinson, "The only time he is still is when he takes guard from the umpire. Why he goes through the formality is one of the mysteries of the Orient because, after making his mark, he takes no notice of it."

Neither of the two started their test careers as opening batsmen. But when they opened together for the first time at Old Trafford in 1936, they put on 203 runs for the opening wicket, exactly the same no.of runs that Indian team had scored in its first innings. It was no fluke, for they combined together by sharing 81 and 64 run partnership in the very next test at Kennington Oval.

World War II robbed more than 7 years of cricket from their prime, but it failed to diminish the spark from their batting. In one of the wettest English seasons in 1946 (pitches were left uncovered then) they scored 124 and 94 runs in two of the three tests that they opened in. Alas, it was also the last series in which they opened together. In four tests as openers, their impressive record reads 3 half centuries, 1 century and 1 double century, all in away tests.

I can’t resist posting this beautiful piece on Mushtaq-Merchant opening pair by Sujit Mukherjee. He writes: "I wonder if the Mushtaq - Merchant combination did not contain the finest possibilities of Hindu Muslim collaboration in India. Sustained by profound mutual regard, they complemented each other – Merchant representing the wisdom, the endurance, the deep rooted nature of Hindu India and Mushtaq representing the dash, the vision and the grand design of Muslim India. Appropriately matched, it made an irresistible combination".

Like their predecessors, Vinoo Mankad and Pankaj Roy were as different as chalk and cheese. Pankaj Roy was the more aristocratic of the two. It won’t be out of place to say that Roy often played in binary states - 0 and 1. He probably holds the record for the highest percentage of ducks for an opener during his time. But he also held up the Indian innings for a decade, first with Vinoo Mankad and then with Nari Contractor. His partner - Vinoo Mankad - was more gifted, in fact, one of the most gifted cricketers of his time. A pucca Gujarathi businessman, he had the audacity to ask the board to compensate him for the loss of revenues during the 1952 away series against England. No wonder he was a miser, both in giving away runs off his bowling and gifting his wicket while batting.

And as with Merchant – Mushtaq, Roy and Mankad first came together against England at Calcutta in 1952 and straightaway shared an opening century partnership, followed by a half century in the very next innings. The ‘Mankad’s test’ at Lords in the following series saw them break 100 runs mark once again, but it got overshadowed by otherwise disastrous tour. Their crowning glory came in the last test at Madras against New Zealand when they put on a 413 runs in 471 minutes, a world record that has stood test of times till today.

How badly India missed a good opening pair after them is brought out in the fact that in 15 years after this world record stand, India could manage only 4 opening century partnerships.

Gavaskar’s debut changed all that.

Two years before Gavaskar made his debut, Chetan Chauhan had opened Indian innings with Vinoo Mankad’s son, Ashok Mankad, against Australia at Madras. But he had to wait for further nine years to combine with Sunil Gavaskar. The Perth test of 1978 spelt the beginning of the most successful opening partnership, hitherto unknown in Indian cricket. In eight series including the Australian of 1978, Indian cricket witnessed a familiar sight of Gavaskar and Chetan Chauhan walking out to open the Indian innings. For four years from then on, they provided much needed stability at the top. Only 4 of the 36 tests that India played during this period saw a different player in the opening role, Roger Binny and Anshuman Gaekwad being the ‘culprits’ on two occasions each.

Gavaskar’s debut is well documented. What is hard to believe, is that Chetan Chauhan’s first two scoring shots in tests were, a square cut for four and a flick for six! Other wise he was an out and out defensive batsman. But he was a perfect foil to the little master and carved out some memorable partnerships like the 192 at Lahore against the likes of Imran Khan and Sarfaraz Nawaz, the near match winning 213 at Oval against England in 1979, the courageous 124 at Manchester in the same series following on, the match winning (and series winning) 192 against Australia in Bombay and the superb 165 against Messrs. Lillee and Pascoe at Melbourne.

They remain the only opening pair in India to put over 3000 runs in test matches and by far, the best India has ever had.

Apart from these three pairs, only handfuls have threatened to be successful. Contractor – Jaisimha, Prabhakar - Sidhhu and of late Sehwag – Chopra, have flattered to deceive. A rather grim scenario, given that this June 25th, India will be celebrating 75 years of test cricket.

An opening pair is often a measure of team’s strength and overall success. In India’s case, the paucity of thoroughbred openers is a good measure of its long drawn failures in test cricket.

Thursday 7 June, 2007

First In First Out - Part II

Given Indian selectors’ penchant to choose makeshift openers over the regular ones, it won’t be a bad idea to advise young players against opening the innings early in their careers. It might actually brighten their chances of opening for India some day!

How did the idea of makeshift openers take its roots in Indian cricket? Was it the lack of reliable opening batsmen, or just a case of aping other teams? Either ways, when Janardan Navle and Jaoomal Naoomal walked out to bat for India at Lords in 1932, they set a precedent, which Indian cricket could have done without.

A cursory glance at the list of openers reveals that out of 84 players who have opened the Indian innings so far, only a third were qualified openers. Indeed, an abysmally low percentage by any standards.

This is not to devalue the contributions made by some of the make shift openers. Players like Mushtaq Ali, Ravi Shastri, Navjot Singh Siddhu, Virendra Sehwag have adapted superbly to opening position after playing some of their early innings in the middle and late order. Why, even Vijay Merchant batted at number six in first three tests of his career. Pankaj Roy, was originally a middle order batsman in domestic cricket before graduating to opener’s role in test matches.

But it hurts that there wasn’t an honest effort made, to tap and groom genuine opening batsmen. As Sujit Mukherjee says:

Indian selectors and captains seem to regard numbers one or two in the batting order as ritual sacrifices to propitiate whatever gods that promise prosperity to rest of the batting.

And so, Indian batting inspite of having some fine middle order players, never prospered, for they rarely enjoyed the luxury of a good opening stand, which they could build their innings upon. The sorry state is mirrored in the fact that in 117 tests before Gavaskar arrived on the scene, there were just 9 opening century partnerships, including one double and one quadruple. (The corresponding figure during Gavaskar era is 21 century stands in 129 tests. Post Gavaskar era, it reads 25 century stands including 1 double and 2 quadruple, in 161 tests)

What about India’s near obsession with wicket keeping openers? Perhaps, no other test-playing nation has flirted with this idea as much as we have. Even 75 years after Navle first opened the batting, it seems India has not gotten over the ridiculous notion of doubling up the wicket keeper as an opener. Of 34 players who have kept wickets for India thus far, almost half of them (15) have also opened the innings.

There are honorable exceptions here too. The aggressive Budhi Kunderan, the dynamic Farooq Engineer, the tedious Nayan Mongia and the lucky Deep Dasgupta have all scored hundreds opening the innings and keeping wickets in same match. In fact, Budhi Kunderan’s swashbuckling 192 at Madras against England in 1963/64 series, remained for many years the highest score by an Indian on the first day of a test (it is still the highest ever made by Indian wicket keeper). His tally of 525 runs in that series is also a record for Indian keeper.

But these were mere exceptions, than rule. Take a bird’s eye view and you find that most Indian batsmen have, more often than not, floundered at the top. There’s another reason to it.

An opening batsman needs to have supreme levels of concentration, gumption to take on fast bowlers and technique to counter the shinning red cherry. There have been instances when Indian batsmen were accused of backing too far away from fast bowlers, most notably during the 1952 tour of England. The apocryphal story goes that, at the point of delivery, Indian batsmen were no where in the range of English bowlers’ vision!

A major part of this blame can be apportioned to the docile pitches that breed and feed Indian batsmen. More importantly, these pitches also impede the growth of express fast bowlers, so essential during the formative years of an opening batsman. With little or no experience of facing high quality fast bowling, nor of playing on fast and bouncy pitches, the gap becomes difficult to bridge, when batsman takes the international stage.

But like a silver lining that accompanies every dark cloud, there were batsmen - openers - who proudly glittered though this gloom.

(to be continued)

Wednesday 6 June, 2007

First In First Out - Part I

Almost exactly 20 years before Rahul Dravid and his men succumbed to Bangladesh’s Mortaza, Razzak and Rafiq in the first round of 2007 World cup, Sunil Gavaskar was waging the last of his numerous battles, this time against Pakistani spinners Tausif Ahmed and Iqbal Qasim, on a treacherous Bangalore pitch. The day - 16th March 1987 - was Gavaskar’s last in test cricket.

It was also the beginning of a long drawn struggle for Indian openers, a struggle, which shows no signs of abating even today.

How uphill the task has been for Indians can be gauged from the fact that in last 20 years, India has selected no fewer than 30 openers in test matches and in the process tried 50 different combinations of opening pair. That means a new opening batsman after 5 tests (approximately, for India played 161 tests after Gavaskar retired) and a new opening combination every 3 tests! A sure recipe for disaster, won’t you say?

What do the figures during the Gavaskar era say? In 129 tests that India played since his debut at the Port of Spain, Trinidad, 1971, Gavaskar has partnered 19 batsmen to open the Indian innings. This list does not include players like Raman Lamba, Suru Nayak and Lalchand Rajput, all of whom have opened the batting when Gavaskar was either unfit or had dropped himself lower down the order. The number of opening combinations during this period reads 30.

If we peek into the pre Gavaskar era, i.e. from 1932 to 1971, during which it played 117 tests, India has had 30 openers and 45 different combinations of opening pair. An opener every 4 tests and a different combination every 3 tests.

Dig deeper and we find that in 75 years of its test history, only four Indians had an extended/continuous run as opening batsman. Pankaj Roy - for almost a decade in 1950s, Nari Contractor - between 1955 till the time he got injured during the WI tour of 1962, Sunil Gavaskar - from 1971 to 1987 and Virendra Sehwag from - 2002 to 2007.

What do these figures suggest? Obvious inference is the lack of quality opening batsmen over a period of time. But more damning is that, when we were fortunate to have a quality opener in the side, we failed to capitalize on it by not having a stable opening partner at the other end.

There are only four instances in Indian cricket, when the same opening pair batted a full series involving 5 tests or more. Three of those involved Gavaskar (with Chauhan against Australia in 1979, with Gaekwad against WI in 1983 and with Srikanth against Pakistan in 1987). The other instance was in 1955 against Pakistan, when Pankaj Roy and P H Punjabi opened in all 5 tests.

Opening batsmen, like bowlers, hunt in pairs. Hutton - Washbrook, Lawry - Simpson, Greenidge – Haynes and Hayden – Langer, to name a few, form cricket’s most celebrated opening pairs. No wonder, their stay at the ‘top’ coincided with the team’s domination in world cricket.

So when Rahul Dravid said, at the end of recent Bangladesh series, that during the last ten years he has seen only ‘makeshift’ openers open the Indian batting, he wasn’t merely stating the fact. He was also alluding to the deeper malaise that has been part of Indian cricket since 25th June 1932 – the day India played her first test match at Lords.

(to be continued...)