Category Archives: Bowlers

Is It Time To Drop The ‘Indian’ Pitch?

Many people who don’t care about a Test championship have a simple and powerful argument on their side. The problem, they say, isn’t that Test matches don’t have added ‘stakes’ or context, but that there isn’t enough good Test cricket. To raise the quality, you need better pitches that equalize the contest between bat and ball and, yes, risks the prospect of a Test match ending before Day 5. This makes sense, but it raises a problem for me: are we basically saying we should drop Indian pitches?

Let me elaborate: I have come to Test cricket rather late in my fandom, and I have to say, all else equal, I’d rather watch a Test in South Africa or England rather than one in India. That’s because the rhythm of the typical Indian Test match requires a lot of patience; from what I gather, two sides bat for a long time on a placid pitch, which then markedly deteriorates so all hell breaks loose in the final sessions. This means until the spinners can get involved, others bowlers have to toil for a long time and batsmen enjoy (long) days in the sun. Now, sure, you could say I’m wrong because what I’ve just described could be an excellent Test match and adding diversity to the ways cricket is played is part of its charm. But the problem is that Indian pitches sometimes don’t deteriorate, which means two sides just bat each other into a stalemate. There is nothing worse than seeing one team pile up 500 runs, only to see the other squad match it.

Do I have this wrong? Am I describing an ‘Indian rhythm’ that doesn’t exist? And be honest: do you really prefer Indian cricket to the swinging pitches in England?

 

Untangling the Duncan Fletcher Factor

Is Duncan Fletcher behind India’s recent selection decisions? Since the BCCI has erected an electric forcefield to keep him from the media, we can only speculate. Take it away, King Cricket:

Umesh Yadav is a Fletcher bowler and we’ll doubtless be seeing more of him after he took 3-23 in West Indies’ first innings. As England coach, Fletcher erred towards the workmanlike spinner, but he’s blessed with more options in India and both Pragyan Ojha and R Ashwin have done enough to justify Harbhajan Singh’s exclusion. Was that another Fletcher move?

A couple of things have irked Indian fans lately. First: why drop Praveen Kumar after his solid performance in England? And second, who the hell is Rahul Sharma? I’m not sure what I feel about either (Is Praveen really a Test bowler? Would he be able to swing it all that much in Australia?). But the question left unresolved thus far is what exactly Fletcher (and the Indian think tank) learned from the England 4-0 debacle. Was it just a freak breakdown unlikely to ever be repeated? Was it just that the English planned better? Or was it simply that we need to manage injuries better?

It’s hard for Fletcher — or anyone — to believe that the Indian batting line-up will fail as woefully as they did in England. Even if he does belief that, Fletcher can’t change the batting line-up at this point (since Dravid/Tendulkar/Laxman/Sehwag/Gambhir/Dhoni all pick themselves, leaving just one spot to fight among Raina/Yuvraj/Rohit Sharma/Badrinath?/Pujara?/etc). He does have some leeway with the bowling, which explains the current experimentation with Ohja/Ashwin (instead of Harbhajan) and Yadav/Aaron instead of (or as part of an attack featuring) Ishant and Zaheer. Picking Yadav so soon into his career seems strange, until you realize that this is just the way Indian selectors work. Why waste young fast talent on crappy Indian pitches, when shiny ones beckon in Eng, S.A. and Aus?

All things said, as long as the Indian team doesn’t ruin Yadav/Aaron the way it ruined Ishant and Irfan Pathan and RP Singh and L Balaji (and so on), this team has a fighting chance. It helps that the Australian team isn’t nearly as good as they used to be (and they’re certainly not as good as England at home). There’s hope for you yet, Fletcher.

Is There No Fast-Bowling Indian Gene?

Zaheer Khan doesn’t think Indians can bowl fast ‘naturally’:

“It’s not a natural thing,” Zaheer told Times of India. “Indian bodies are not designed to bowl fast but that said, it’s not very different from bowling outside India. Basically you have to spend a lot of time understanding yourself, your art, and then find out what works for you and what doesn’t. It also involves a lot of hard work.”

If I were charitable, I would interpret Khan as saying that fast bowling itself isn’t natural; it’s a fine art that can only be perfected through practice. Anyone who has seen a slow-mo replay of a fast bowler’s action understands the enormous strains involved. See, also, “Broken backs, fast bowlers.”

But if I were simply reading the text, I’d conclude Khan thinks there’s something wrong with the Indian gene pool. The problem with this argument is that it’s based — or related to — a post-colonial pathology: many South Asians (particularly right-wing Hindus) believe that Indian men aren’t masculine enough, and the British took advantage of their femininity.

On the other hand, there may be reasonable nature-nurture arguments to explain India’s lack of fast bowling talent. For example, experts looking at Kenyan runners — a group that routinely dominates international competitions — have argued that high elevation, a culture that relies on running and walking, and possible genetic advantages all conspired to produce lethal running machines. Is there any reason to believe Indians are susceptible to cultural/genetic factors, or maybe other incentives, that drives talent away from bowling fast? Ideas anyone?

 

Moneyball Moments: Tiger Pataudi

Sorry, I wanted to add one more thing about Moneyball: the book isn’t just about quants and numbers; it’s also — I’m told — about challenging conventional wisdom.

So, let’s talk about cricket Moneyball moments. One off the top of my head: Tiger Pataudi, realizing he can’t intimidate other teams with pace, decides he’ll just use spin, over and over again. Who says you can’t waste the new ball?

Spin quartet, voila (from BBC):

Former bowling stars Bishen Singh Bedi and EAS Prasanna credited Pataudi with forging India’s devastating spin bowling attack in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

“His faith in the spinners was absolute and we all prospered under his captaincy .. We won’t find the likes of him in a long, long time. His voice cannot be filled. A great, great chapter of Indian cricket has come to a close,” Bedi said.

Prasanna said Pataudi was “primarily responsible for developing India’s spin quartet in an aggressive role similar to what the West Indians had later in form of the pace quartet”.

You have any? (Moneyball moments, I mean.)

Where Does A Fast Bowler Get His Speed?

The New York Times has posted a great video detailing how a tennis player gets speed on a serve. It’s illuminating to see all the different parts of the body work together to send a wee tennis ball hurling across a net. Does anyone know if a similar explanation exists for fast bowling? I’d like to see the run-up broken down into segments. At the very least, it’ll give me perspective on Ishant Sharma’s latest injury, which sounds just terrible.

“I have a ligament tear in my left foot, and there is also a bone impingement in my left ankle. Surgery is the only way out. But if I undergo that now, my foot will be in plaster for about three months and the rehabilitation in all could take about 6-8 months.”

Bone impingement? Good God! If you haven’t seen it already, read this earlier post on cricket injuries and the ethical obligations of a fan.

Meet Varun Aaron, the Next Man To Lose His Pace

No season of Indian cricket is complete without the emergence of a false pace Messiah. The routine is so well-known now that it might as well be etched in the Ten Commandments: “Thou Shalt Worship A False God.”

Behold the lengthening list of prophets: Munaf Patel; L. Balaji; Irfan Pathan; A. Nehra; R.P. Singh; Ishant Sharma; S. Sreesanth; V.R.V. Singh…When they first emerged, all boasted talents usually seen in men from across the border. Sheer pace; killer yorkers; unbelievable swing — all possilbe reincarnations of previous greats like Akram and Waqar. And then, one by one, they fell away, either because they couldn’t maintain the fitness level required at the international level (V.R.V. Singh, e.g.), or because they don’t want to expend the effort (Munaf Patel, e.g.), or because the system discards them (Irfan Pathan, e.g.), or because they decide they want to become a “smart” bowler like Zaheer Khan (briefly, Ishant).

Well, meet the latest shiny new guru on the street: Varun Aaron, from the land of Jharkand. Watch this video of his action and his speed, if only so you can tell others why you believed in him in the first place:

And so far, the ritual is going according to script: We have evidence that he regularly clocks above 140km/h. We have a quote in Cricinfo wherein he swears never  to compromise on pace. We also have a light first-class record that suggests he hasn’t been truly tested by the rigors of the game (though he did impress on a recent trip to Australia). I can’t believe anymore. Why can’t India groom fast bowlers? Is it because we just don’t care about the bowlers, compared to the batsmen? Or is it because we don’t appreciate that fast bowlers are delicate creatures that need to be extensively trained and looked after? What is it?

Wanted: Someone To Smack The Ego Out Of The English Bowlers

I have been a fan of the English team since 2005, when I watched the team triumph over Australia (and also when I fell in love with Test cricket). I like the English crowds (even when they boo Ricky Ponting); I love English summer cricket (not so much when it rains), and I like the pitches and grounds and the bowlers’ swing.

But as I watched the fearsome threesome run through the (depleted) Indian batting line-up at Lord’s this week, I confess to feeling a fair amount of ill-will. Broad, Anderson, and Tremlett are all formidable bowlers, made all the more impressive by their contrasting styles and ability to hunt in a pack — a talent perhaps only the South African quicks currently possess. On the other hand, both Anderson and Broad display dubious personalities; if one’s not whining or wallowing in self-pity, the other one is bullying umpires and throwing balls at opposition members. And to see these upstarts — mere 20-somethings — humble the likes of Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman…well, “ill-will” is merely a euphemism.

Why do some bowlers gain certain reputations and respect, and not others? Anderson and Broad (and Tremlett/Bresnan) are a more than capable lot, and watching them do their thing — especially Anderson’s swing — is a real treat. But you don’t think of either as you do Dale Steyn or Zaheer Khan, right? Maybe in a few years, their reputations will be more firmly established, but now, they still come across like entitled prep boys out to get their privileged due. Gosh, look at me — these are the same players I egg on against the Australians and South Africans! Team loyalty: it makes for strange ex-bedfellows.

Sourav Ganguly and Harbhajan Singh

I’ve been known to praise Sourav Ganguly’s work as a commentator; I like him so much I’ll keep the volume up on my live stream when he’s talking, instead of turning to usually better crew at TestMatchSofa.com. What I like about Ganguly is the combination of a sedate, soft-spoken voice with a ruthless, all-seeing strategic mind.

He’s also clearly used to handling personalities the way they need to be. During Day 2, the subject of Harbhajan Singh — much maligned, and rightly so — came up. Ganguly’s partner asked him what he thought of Singh and his attitude and contribution to the team. Ganguly began by saying Harbhajan was a total and complete asset to any cricket captain, always willing to say ‘Yes’ and bring his A-game to the crease. Then, he said the crucial thing to know about Harbhajan is that if he doesn’t take a wicket early on in his spell, his confidence drops and he starts to go into a shell.

That’s a big contradiction. Either he is a big-hearted lion willing to shoulder the burdens for the team, or he is a fickle primadonna who throws a loser tantrum every time things don’t go his way. Ganguly didn’t seem to sense the contradiction — or maybe he did, and I was trying to make his case diplomatically — but most Indian fans haven’t either, even after a decade of watching the Harbhajan. On the one hand, we value his heroic efforts and pugnacious contributions (from a Test century to the few 5-wicket hauls), yet on the other, we bemoan his average average (above 30) and his often defensive bowling. The best I can say about Harbhajan is that he suffers from ‘superstar complex’ — unwilling to toil, but always ready to sense the big moment and seize the spotlight.

I Miss R.P. Singh

We’re all set for one of the great Test series of the year, India v. England. I’ve started obsessively watching clips from India’s last tour to England four years ago, and the videos have forced me into a bout of R.P. Singh nostalgia. I don’t know what happened to him or why he was dropped, but I always loved his action:

Ishant Sharma and Hero Worship

Sriram Veera snags an interview with man-of-the-moment Ishant Sharma, who got his groove back during the series against West Indies. Unlike most exchanges with athletes, this interview makes for a fascinating read, particularly Sharma’s ruminations on his time in the “wilderness” — by my count, the period extending from his attack on Ricky Ponting at Perth until this last series. Take this little revelation:

I was trying to copy Zaheer Khan’s action. No doubt he is a great bowler, but I guess I shouldn’t have tried to copy his action. We are entirely different in styles. […] When South Africa came to play in India, I started to copy him. I wanted to be a swing bowler. I was forgetting my natural strength of bounce and hitting the deck. When I bowl with my natural style, the ball automatically starts to inswing. That was my strong point, and I should have just stuck to that. That was my greatest mistake.

At first, I thought Sharma was completely and utterly daft for thinking he could become successful by simply copying another bowler’s action. I  thought a bowler’s action was sacred stuff; each one has his own signature (and each with his own tell). For Sharma to think he could just be like Zaheer by, um, being Zaheer betrays a comically childish perspective. It’s common among teenagers and cricket fans to copy the greats during pick-up games; to see an international player do the same is kind of shocking.

But, but, but: I stopped this train of thought in its tracks when I read Sharma is only 22 — a baby in both the athletic and real worlds. Imagine being that age and having colleagues like Khan, Tendulkar, and so on. What does that do to your psyche? How do you cope with the pressure and the inevitable failures? Consider also the particular charm of this confession. In the age of bowling coaches and video training and biomechanics and what not, Ishant Sharma has just confessed to changing his action because he wanted to be like his idol. That’s a beautiful thing — modern athletes rarely betray such naivete and wish-fulfillment. I guess we all have dreams.