The Anxiety of the Not-Great Indian Cricket Team

Suresh Raina makes a good point in Bangladesh:

“The [Indian] team’s graph is going upwards definitely,” he said. “These were the last matches of the season. We don’t know when we are next playing one-days. We have done quite well in the format and we are still No.2 in the world. It’s not that you become good or bad in just one series.”

It’s unlikely Raina will be able to temper the widespread anxiety unleashed by India’s first series loss to Bangladesh. Indian fans know that their country, among the few that follow cricket, is the most passionate about the game and that its ruling body, the BCCI, is the richest. And so not being able to defeat Bangladesh in an ODI series (or not being able to win any Test abroad for a very long stretch) hurts especially.

The problem of measuring quality is particularly acute in the game of cricket, which has, in the modern era at least, only had two out-and-out great teams (the West Indies and Australia). You could make the argument that after roughly five years in the wilderness, Australia is now back on top, but condescending fans would point rightly to losses in India and the UAE (against Pakistan). Measuring a quality team in cricket is more art than science; you have to check so many boxes that the question itself becomes problematic. Is win-loss the biggest factor? Is it really so bad that South Asian teams are generally bad travelers? Doesn’t a sterling home record (like Australia’s) outweigh the few bad losses abroad? Or is it about the quality of the players themselves — do you have a world-beating spinner, or a fiery pacer? And even if a team is able to check all the boxes, does it produce great cricket? 

And so, amidst all this confusion, we confront the fact that we generally don’t have a consensus on defining a good cricket team. When India loses to Bangladesh, it exposes the anxiety underlying most Indian cricket fans’ hearts: Are we crazy to have put all our hopes and dreams and money and time into a team that has no clothes? For my part, I heed Rahul Dravid’s sage advice to young players in the Indian squad. He used to say: Remember, we’re neither as good nor as bad as they claim.



Justifying Australia Hatred

I think the best case against Australia starts with Brad Haddin’s extraordinary behavior during the World Cup. There are plenty of exhibits; the most damning one comes right after Glenn Maxwell bowls Guptill with the most innocuous of deliveries. The shame for Guptill, who has blown it in a World Cup final, is evident, but Haddin decides to add to the pathos with sarcastic clapping in his face.

And why? Here he is:

“You know what? They deserved it,” Haddin said of New Zealand’s batsmen being the subject of several send-offs. “They were that nice to us in New Zealand and we were that uncomfortable. I said in the team meeting: ‘I can’t stand for this anymore, we’re going at them as hard as we can.’

“It was that uncomfortable. All they were was that nice to us for seven days. I said, ‘I’m not playing cricket like this. If we get another crack at these guys in the final I’m letting everything [out].’ I’m not playing another one-day game, so they can suspend me for as long as they like.”

This makes absolutely no sense. I’d be willing to dismiss this behavior as yet another silly episode featuring Australian men and their petulant masculine insecurity–but this was a World Cup final! What kind of man–that too, one close to his 40th year on this planet–looks at the great spectacle and history of the World Cup, at the import and importance of this final, and thinks: Yeah, I’m going to help my team by being an asshole.

Is there a difference between what Haddin did and the Kiwis’ own performance against South Africa in 2011? I think it’s the difference between instrumental sledging–aggression aimed at unsettling the opposition–and gratuitous immaturity. The former is barely justifiable (I don’t like it, but I imagine most cricket fans don’t care and even like a “little spice”); the latter, especially among a team as capable and talented as Australia, is downright bizarre.

Haddin’s behavior, to use a popular phrase, is not a bug of Australia’s cricket, it is a feature. Rather than relying on actual aggression, this team insists on adding a veneer of rudeness that will not age with any grace; whatever affection we have for the West Indian greats of the 70s and 80s will not (and should not) be extended to this sorry lot. It’s a pity, because this team is so good and play cricket so well — but from here on out, I’ll greet their victory and success with a sarcastic clap.

Explaining the India-Australia Rivalry

I was thinking yesterday about why it is that the Indian team cannot play the Australians without some emotional and difficult controversy erupting. Jarrod Kimber steps in, as part of Cricinfo‘s generally wonderful preview of the semifinal today, and recounts the long, tortured history. It got my blood boiling.

I had forgotten what it was like in the 1990s. Australia were coming into their own, ready to usurp the mantle from the West Indians. The 1996 World Cup was a rare mistake; otherwise, the dominance (and arrogance) of this team was breathtaking. I remember Warne refusing to eat the food in India; I remember the obvious discomfort of having to tour the country at all. Kimber fills in some other incendiary details:

Before 2001, this was kind of how Indian cricket was seen in Australia. As this effeminate version of cricket that really wasn’t for Australians…This was a country that only shortly before [2001] we were happy enough to laugh, or at least cringe in silence, as former Australian Greg Ritchie did a long-running racist portrayal of Indians on TV. Australia went from a country that called Indians “curry munchers” to a country that was now desperate to beat them.

YouTube has a few clips of Ritchie’s performances. They are unbelievably awful — Ritchie wears brown-face and a turban, and he speaks with an accent that puts The Simpsons’ Apu to shame. It’s a strange thing when you realize that you feel more resentful and angry toward white Australian cricketers than you do the white South Africans.

Things are better now, yes — India has done enough in the last 15 years to prove that its quality, and, in that same period, the Australians have suffered enough blows to seem more relatable. I have enough emotional distance to it to say I don’t regard either team with much enthusiasm; the Indians spew verbal attitude too much for my own taste. Kimber is right when he says both teams are bullies; they are genuinely hard to like, even if they deserve respect and awe.

Still, if the World Cup is more about history and emotion and spectacle, then on this late New England night, I can call on those ancient slights and insults and indulge in some good ol’ sports nationalism. A good performance tonight, please, just to exorcise Ritchie’s ghost once and for all.

Causality and Umpire Errors

I used to read a lot of social science research in my previous life, and one of the most pressing issues in this “soft” science (compared to, say, physics) is whether we are able to identify causality when dealing with such complex and varied human patterns. During a presentation, one sociologist put slide after slide showing very persuasive evidence linking a factor to rising inequality, but then showed a slide that said, simply: “Sigh…causality.” No matter what she had showed us, she noted, there were many, many caveats.

I bring this all up to offer some amount of comfort to those Bangladeshi fans who are convinced, but for a dodgy no-ball call, they would have plucked their way into the semifinals. I’ve written before about the “linear fallacy” in cricket commentary, wherein people assume that if a certain wicket had/had not fallen at a specific time, the end result would have changed. But it is entirely possible that had Sharma been given out on that delivery, other players would reacted differently. Who knows? Dhoni, for example, would have had more time at the crease, and he may have added more to the scorecard than six runs. Or maybe India’s bowlers would have been comfortable defending 270. We’ve seen plenty of turnarounds and surprises in cricket to know that a good innings here or a bad umpire call there does not, in itself, cause victory or failure.

So, yes, be annoyed that you were not able to see the counterfactual, and that you were denied it by a call that seems only so-so. But do not assume that your life would have been that much different in the counterfactual — we simply do not know. And be comforted, as this Indian fan is, that your team made it as far as it did.

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What is Cricket’s Shibboleth?

From the Bible (and, more famously(?), The West Wing):

“All right, say ‘Shibboleth.'” If he said, “Sibboleth,” because he could not pronounce the word correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan.

There have been a few articles lately testing the cricket bona fides of fans in Afghanistan and India-Pakistan. One NPR reporter roamed around Kabul giving people watching Afganistan’s first game some shibboleths:

EEVES: Vegetable seller Zabih Ullah is sitting, legs crossed, on a rug, gazing up at the TV, trying to figure out what is going on. Do you know what a googly is?


Jarrod Kimber did something similar:

She doesn’t know about Mohit Sharma’s late call-up or why Umar Akmal is keeping . She doesn’t know any of the players. She doesn’t need to. For her – for many, in fact – this isn’t about the players. After the game, she won’t be starting Facebook memes about Suresh Raina or RTing funny photos of Pakistanis. She will just be happy or sad.

I don’t think this theme is malicious, even if it’s mildly condescending (and just to return the favor: I would have asked if the guy knew what a doosra was, since that’s been far more essential to the game in the last decade than the googly). The larger point–which I think is missed by a lot of media outlets–is that you can enjoy cricket without knowing all the rules. As I’ve said many times before, cricket really isn’t that complicated, and people (including, er, Barack Obama) who say they can’t understand it are basically saying, nicely, “This game just doesn’t seem interesting enough.” 

Because, honestly, every game–bar, maybe, sprinting–can be as complicated as you want. American football? Talk to me about Deflate-gate and the Ideal Gas Law. Football? Talk to me about endless attack formations and passes and off-side. I imagine that fans of any game make a decision about how much they want to “get into it”; otherwise, they’re very happy to enjoy the “whoosh” of a sporting event. So don’t tell me that you’d really like cricket “if only you could understand it,” because, really, it’s not that hard.

I go back and forth about cricket loyalty tests. I think the IPL organizers know that most young upper-middle class men in urban India don’t have many social outlets, and spending a few hours drinking, dancing, and ogling at cheerleaders is a grand ol’ time. The cricket, in this case, is just part of a larger spectacle. I think a lot of this also happens, as Kimber pointed out, in big India games–the quality of the cricket is a smaller point in a much larger narrative.

All of this seems, at least to someone who has taken a fair amount of time to try to understand the subtleties of the game, a bit disappointing. It also has some serious consequences for the game, as it could bend the aesthetics of the game to please the janata (namely, with smaller boundaries and stupid fielding rules).

On the other hand: PEOPLE IN AFGHANISTAN ARE WATCHING CRICKET. So, yes, I’m torn.

Extra Credit: What’s the ideal cricket shibboleth?


Picking A Fight With Channel Nine’s Commentary

The Guardian has published an excellent critique of Channel Nine’s cricket commentary. It’s a damning piece that condemns the “matey” exhibitionism and the endless backslapping, jockey-jokes, proud ignorance, and self-referential odes. It’s something any viewer of American morning news shows will recognize–rather than discuss the day’s news, these products turn the cameras within and produce spectacle, with as much silliness and put-on humor as pancake makeup will allow.

I particularly liked this part in the essay:

When Misbah-ul-Haq matched the fastest Test century record against Australia in October 2014, Roar Radio caller Adam Collins launched into an impromptu song of praise. He took us from Misbah assuming the captaincy among the ruins of the 2010 spot-fixing scandal, through his slow and criticised rebuild and on to this joyous moment of vindication, catching the emotion and significance of the moment for his audience with a response that was detailed, meaningful and aptly turned.

In the Adelaide Test after a high-profile funeral, Steve Smith produced a moment of poetry, walking halfway to the boundary during his century celebration to salute the 408 painted large on the Oval turf. That footage will be forever twinned with Nine’s soundtrack, as Brayshaw mustered “I think he might be walking over to the number here to recognise Phillip Hughes and that’s… terrific stuff.”

I’ll end with a little bit of snark. One of the few joys of an ICC event is the collision of commentary teams from around the world. You have these giant egos drawn from separate networks, and they clearly have varying levels of tolerance for each other. The results are (happily) abysmal.

Example #1: During India-Pakistan, Sunil Gavaskar says something about how India was a rank outsider in 1983, with odds of victory in the final at 66 to 1. Mark Nicholas replies that that seems impossible in a “two-horse race,” to which Gavaskar mumbles, “I don’t know about these things…it was a long time ago.” Spot the layers of tension here: There’s the unfortunate allusion to betting (Gavaskar’s protesting a bit too much here; he obviously knows something about the mechanics of odds); there’s also the fact that Gavaskar clearly doesn’t like being fact-checked by the likes of a cricketing nobody.

Example #2: Sourav Ganguly repeats the need for India to keep wickets in the early overs, so they can get 80 runs in the last ten overs. Very clinical and concrete. Nicholas tries to add some subtlety by recalling a conversation with Dhoni, who said he likes to be in a position where the other side is just as worried as he is. Simple enough. Ganguly’s having none of it. “I don’t think about it like that,” he says, and repeats his 80 runs thing. Nicholas is stumped: he wasn’t even criticizing Ganguly’s math! “No, the point is about pressure…” he begins.

Example #3: At one point during the same game, Shane Warne proceeded to talk for a good two minutes about Ian Healy. On and on about how Healy was so good at keeping off Warne’s own bowling, which–we will all recall–was so damned mysterious and brilliant. Ganguly says nothing, until, clearly exasperated, he starts talking about the game at hand.

At this rate, the fist fights should break out in a week.

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The DRS Debate Is Starting To Annoy

It’s annoying chiefly because I suspect most Australians aren’t necessarily that angry that DRS isn’t available; they are angry more because one nation (i.e., not theirs) is supposedly being irrational and preventing the technology’s wholesale adoption. Listen carefully, and this theme of the unfair application of power keeps emerging; approximations include: “Can anyone explain the BCCI’s stance?”; “Why can’t Indian fans just stop blindly defending this stupid decision?” and “It’s not right that some Tests have DRS and some don’t!”

These are all valid points, but they are not quite appropriate for the debate over the DRS; they are about a separate argument about how wealth and power is distorting the administration (and future?) of cricket. So, Australian fans perceive an all-powerful board throwing its weight around on an issue; that weight means, occasionally, Indian players get a bad rap; and Australians get to laugh and say, “See? These idiots who are running this game into the ground can’t get anything right! They’re even eating their own!”

Well, I sympathize with this point of view (though the smugness and sanctimony that so many Australian fans exhibit on Twitter on this issue is starting to wear thin). But, again, it seems a bit off: as S. Monga pointed out on Cricinfo recently, the Indian team also benefited from “bad” umpire decisions (the Adelaide Test would have been over a lot quicker if a few LBWs had gone the other way against Vijay and Kohli). In the final tally, the BCCI’s stance on DRS stance may help India; it may hurt — that’s all beside the point.

Which is that there are still legitimate arguments against the DRS in its current form! I won’t go through the lot, but one that has struck me lately is what Dhoni was sort of talking about in last week’s press conference, when he said that players use DRS to test or “justify” the umpire’s decision.Do you know how annoying it is to see a crucial player decide to use his team’s last review because, well, what the hell, maybe technology will save me? There’s a real cost to the fact that the majority of DRS reviews have actually upheld the umpire’s call — they waste time, they undermine the umpire’s authority (who was right in the first place!), and they support this problematic notion that whatever a ball-tracking estimate says is Absolute Truth. When we see a “bad” decision, we go on and on about how terrible umpiring is and how we should allow reviews; then, when we see how stupid players actually are when they use two reviews, we…what, exactly? Simply have to take it as part of the package?

Now, yes, there have been a few howlers lately, and they would have been caught by simple replay. But that’s not an argument for the current DRS system that the BCCI opposes; it’s an argument for an entirely different set of rules. So, Australian fans: go ahead, enjoy your bout of schadenfreude when the next bad decision comes along. But don’t be so sure that the DRS is ultimately the best thing for cricket either.

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When Sledging Becomes Harmful

I dismissed the Jadeja-Anderson dispute too casually in my last post, so I want to add a careful amendment. One thing that has always irked me about sledging disputes is the general devaluation of the power of speech. So, in this case, it is agreed by all sides that Jimmy Anderson did say some hurtful things to Jadeja. However, he escaped judgment because Jadeja then “turned around” — aggressively, apparently? — leading Anderson to act in self defense.

The upshot is clear: A cricketer can spew a fair amount of abuse, and his target will have to turn the other cheek. Any hint of physical action will be harshly punished (except in “self defense”?); what is spoken is, generally, free.

I’m not a fan of this approach because I think it undervalues how important and powerful speech can be. As I wrote in a previous post:

Speech matters, and it can in fact cause harm. To focus on the physical aspect of an argument seems natural, since violence among men is always a concern. But it is ridiculous not to view harmful speech as potentially injurious as well… [The] sledger — the one having fun at somebody’s expense — enjoys a massive legal loophole, because he knows that, to a large extent, sledging in cricket is tolerated (and increasingly celebrated).

It’s not like what I’m arguing for is unprecedented. In the Shane Warne-Marlon Samuels dispute, the arbiter in that case said Samuels’ throwing his bat was, to some extent, justified by Warne’s “extreme provocation.” That wasn’t an international game, but the same principle applies. And that says: If a cricketer comes at you, again and again and inappropriately (such as off the field of play, as Anderson did), then go ahead — do what you must. Turn around, even.

When You Go To England With Young Men

The problem with India’s cricket team has always been its inconsistency. It was expected, then, that a rare win at Lord’s would be followed by a crushing loss less than a week later. But the nature of that loss revealed an interesting element of India’s fragility. There was no batting collapse; infuriatingly, we witnessed exceptionally talented (yet inexperienced) group of players “get in” and then give up their wickets for trifles.

Annoying, yes, but this game (and the previous one too) was a good reminder that we are watching two very young teams. This is the sort of behavior you expect when you have a group of 20-somethings play each other. A bunch of Englishmen losing their wickets to Ishant Sharma, and a bunch of Indians losing theirs to Moeen Ali, betrays, if nothing else, a tangle of near-adolescent nerves and insecurity. In fact, the Anderson v. Jadeja dispute, a silly and inconsequential tussle involving tell-tales and unnecessary shoves, has provided a valuable interpretive frame for this entire series. Both sides have fresh players who are new to the international scene, and they are capable of extraordinary bouts of brilliance, patience, and absolute stupidity.

Isn’t it strange how cricket fans age according to a separate, accelerated schedule? I am only 28, but I’ve been watching Test games long enough to see some incredible legends play this game. And now, my generation, fed an incredible diet of Tendulkars and McGraths and Warnes, must now start again and digest a new layer of raw talent. We are like new parents: Captivated by the first steps and words, and exasperated by the utter helplessness and endless shit.

But who knows? Perhaps in a few years, we’ll be talking about the greatness of Ali or Rahane and say, “Why, how quickly they’ve grown.”

Leave Alastair Cook Alone, You Hear?

Fortunes in cricket change quickly, but veteran fans will recognize an ancient and predictable rhythm in the recent backlash against Alistair Cook. Every young captain–no, actually, every captain–will enjoy a honeymoon phase before inevitably descending into this “private hell” in which he does not score runs and/or starts losing games.

I don’t know what it is about the burden of captaincy that it should consistently impact an individual’s form. But no matter, it does–few human minds are capable of both marshaling strategies and fielding places and performing par excellence.

So, with that in mind, I want everyone to lay off Alistair Cook, you hear? This fine young man has done enough already to merit a place in the list of “great English batsmen” . Don’t you dare pay any heed to the nattering nabobs who can’t say enough about his head falling over or his trigger back-and-across-and-then-front movement–this man has scored centuries (big daddy ones, even) in every part of the cricketing world.

Moreover, he is captaining a team that is newly terrible–it has lost some of its best players ever (Pietersen, Trott, Swann); it has also lost a famously intelligent coach. So why not wait for a little bit longer before you discard this man back to county cricket (or whatever lower-order reality you English reserve for your unwanted athletes)? Is this really the worst it’s ever been for English cricket? Isn’t it possible that the English now have a terrible bout of rising expectations, and that your anxiety to avoid a return to the dark days of the 1970s…1980s…1990s…basically, every year other than parts of 2005-2013 — has led you to demand bigger and better things too soon?

My advice is to remember the natural order. The Australians, particularly Shane Warne, will always–always–think your captaincy is terrible, and that you’re not attacking enough. The captain will always–always–fail for an extended bout. But almost every captain, given enough time and support, will reward you in the end — if not with outright domination, then a close victory or a crucial innings here and there.

Why, just look at our very own M.S. Dhoni. It only took him three years.

*A previous version of this post, rather embarrassingly, misspelled Cook’s first name. But whatever you call him, just leave him alone. Got it?