Category Archives: Commentary

Sins Of Star Cricket Commentary

If it’s hard for a bowling side to watch batsmen pile on the runs, as the Australians are doing in Sydney right now, it’s even harder for the audience to listen to the commentary. Moments like these are a real challenge for the microphone-wielders: what do you talk about when it’s clear just where the Test match is headed and there are few strategies or tactics to dissect? Here’s what Ian Chappell and Co. tried out:

1) Female streakers. A truly bizarre moment: Chappell sees Michael Clarke hug Ricky Ponting after reaching a double ton. “I’ve never seen the need to hug anyone on a cricket field,” Chappell said, betraying yet another sign that his hyper-masculinity may all be an elaborate attempt to compensate for a secret penchant for cross-dressing. He then qualified his statement, noting he did in fact hug two streakers once. “What gender?” Shastri asked, mischievously. “Female,” came the fast reply (God forbid the other option!). I think Chappell then went on to suggest the women in question were strippers. I’m really not sure.

2) Ian Chappell discusses the other boring Test match. What’s better than discussing the current one-sided Test match unfolding languidly before your eyes? The other boring Test match across the world, namely Sri Lanka receiving a pummeling from Kallis and Co. I can just see Chappell’s producers pleading with him through his ear-piece to talk about the weather, or Sydney tourist attractions instead.

3) Tip Foster. Apparently, there was once a dude who captained England in both football and cricket and did reasonably well in both. He scored 287 on debut in Australia. He also died early from diabetes (at age 36). I know this because one commentator — Dean Jones? — decided he needed to talk about it, and Wasim Akram repeated the exact same thing a moment later.

4) Diabetes is really terrible. Just to follow up on Tip Foster — Wasim Akram issued a public service announcement on how to avoid diabetes. (Hint: it involves not eating biryani every day.)


Calling Usman Khawaja an ‘Asian’ Batsman

I discussed this problem on Twitter already, but I wanted to flesh out my thoughts a bit more. Yesterday, during the first day of the Test between Aus. and N.Z., Mark Nicholas said a shot by Usman Khawaja was almost “Asian looking.” Cricinfo immediately ridiculed the comment as insensitive, as did some of my Twitter friends — but the issue is a little more delicate.

Here’s why it makes us cringe: 1) Any mention of racial essentialism is not cool. Saying a practice is inherent to a race/culture takes you to tricky areas (“You are Indian, therefore you must like X.”). 2) Khawaja is Asian (of Pakistani descent, specifically), but he plays for Australia. To say he is an ‘Asian’ batsman implies he’s not fully Australian; he’s a foreigner in our midst. (I’ve addressed Khawaja’s heritage in another post.)

A related example: A few years ago, I went with my family on vacation to South Africa. At one stop, my father met a South African shopkeeper of Indian descent; naturally (because all Indians rejoice inside when they see a member of the diaspora), my father asked him where he was from. My brother later berated him for doing so; it’s probable that this particular South African had lived in the country for generations; to ask where he was from implies he wasn’t from South Africa. (Similarly, I have friends of Indian descent here in America who absolutely hate answering the “where are you really from” question because white people never have to answer it, and it sort of emphasizes their difference and exclusion. “Oh, you’re not really American; you’re a foreigner.”)

OK. But here’s why it’s a difficult issue: 1) To call a batsman ‘Asian’ in cricket means they have deft wrists. It’s as style of play that apparently was once associated with Asian players (Ranji, I’m told, in particular). It’s sort of why we call left-handed leg-spinners Chinamen. In other words, it’s nothing about a person’s culture or heritage; it’s simply cricketing shorthand. (Dissent: But when was the last time you heard a white batsman called ‘Asian’? Surely there are wristy players outside the subcontinent, right? And isn’t ‘cricket shorthand’ derivative of colonial/racist discourse? I mean, come on — Chinaman?)

2) Then again, we know that the diversity of cricket (and how it is played) is its chief attraction. Pitches are different around the world, as are sporting cultures; this leads to different types of players and techniques. How can we talk about this diversity without referring to different cultures? (Dissent: But is it true that Asians are now more “wristy” than other batsmen? And what exactly is the “West Indian style” of cricket? If you find yourself using words like exuberant and Calypso — well, that’s taking us back to colonialist discourse, right?)

Perhaps Nicholas should have just named famous players who did in fact play with their wrists. “Khawaja almost looked like X there.”  I don’t know — am I just indulging the worst kind of political correctness here?

Prematurely Judging The Guardian’s World Cricket Forum

Earlier this month, The Guardian (home to some of my favorite cricket writers) launched the World Cricket Forum, a weekly blog that aims to catalog and discuss cricket around the world. It seems the writers at the newspaper suddenly realized that people outside England (and Australia) apparently play and even like to talk about cricket. Anyway, here’s the structure:

 This is intended to be a blog that is global in nature and weekly in output. It will consist of a short themed piece above the line, perhaps outlining the coming week, and then daily updated news stories intended as a catalyst for discussion. Then, having lit the blue touchpaper, we shall retire (above the line although not below, of course) and watch the discussion flow. Imagine, as someone said recently on here, a civilised dinner party conversation rather than the bear pit of a political rally. It is a forum for cricket friends around the world, a meeting place if you will.

Which basically translates to, “We will post a bunch of links to stories we thought were interesting, and then you talk about it.” I understand that the Internet is best when it is interactive, but I really don’t have much faith in letting comment threads rule the roost. There are blogs that feature great conversations from great online communities, but most have trolls, assholes, and very opinionated fans sorely lacking in perspective. Reading through the comments at the Guardian, I see many worthwhile comments, but not enough to match a surf of crap.

This raises a bigger question: are cricket fans jerks? There are the Test elitists and snobs (e.g.: me); the stats people whom no one can understand (let alone argue with); the nationalists who think the Do or Die campaign is still on; the Australians…. Perhaps cricket’s complexity lends itself to a sort of practiced erudition, a trend encouraged by both blogs (Hear Me and My Opinions!) and television replays and commentary (Everbody can be an expert after hearing one talk on televisions). I’d much rather we all talked like Devanshu Mehta, who sifted through volumes of data on J. Trott’s career and ended on this humble note:

That is what makes him so interesting– the most popular metrics used to judge a cricketer fail when judging Jonathan Trott. Batting average, strike rate, gross runs, 100s, 50s, are an inadequate set. Those of us who pay attention to numbers have known about the inadequacy of traditional statistics, but Jonathan Trott personifies this struggle. Any time anyone says, what’s wrong with traditional stats? We can say, “Jonathan Trott,” and smile knowingly.

Can We Blame R. Ashwin For Not Taking That Second Run?

Kridaya links to a plaintive tweet from R. Ashwin and asks whether the spinner/batsman could have, in fact, won the game against the West Indies:

From the video, it looked like Ashwin was way back in his crease and played the shot off his back foot. Perhaps that was the only way to play the shot, but it also meant that he didn’t have much momentum going into the run. By the time he had pushed himself off to take the run, Varun Aaron was already halfway to the striker’s end. If Ashwin had been jumping out of his crease, taking a few strides and hit the ball somewhere to the side of some fielder, it could have opened up the possibility of a tight second run and because of that, put more pressure on the fielder and maybe a useful misfield.

Kridaya quickly (and rightly) notes that all this is easier said than done. I, for one, wouldn’t even think about “jumping out of my crease” against Fidel Edwards (or even Darren Sammy, actually). And Kridaya is also right to point out that to blame Ashwin misses the larger picture; he did as much as anyone else to bring India so close to an improbable victory. No, once again, the fault (if you must find one) lies with the vaunted Big 4, who failed to put their collective heads down and grind out a century a la Darren Bravo, leaving India behind in the 2nd innings.

Which is all to say that I found Arun Lal incredibly annoying at the end of the game. With his grating, whining voice, he kept asking why Ashwin didn’t run harder. “I can’t understand it,” he said, over and over again. There aren’t many ways for commentators to express dismay and frustration without sounding like know-it-all Indian uncles. Sunil Gavaskar is even worse; he adeptly mixes condescension and backseat-driver-confidence. He usually sounds like the know-it-all Indian uncle who emigrated to America and returns on vacation to tell Indians why their country will never be great.

Word of advice: if you don’t understand why a player on a cricket field did something, just follow this French commentator’s cue after the infamous Zidane headbutt. “Eh pourquoi? Mais pourquoi?”


The Task of a Great Cricket Writer

I’m still shocked about the news on Peter Roebuck. I enjoyed his work, even though it was often uneven (as Sambit Bal notes in his surprisingly frank obit). I’m scared to hear what revelations the coming days will bring; I hope the cricket world isn’t about to endure a “Joe Pa” scandal.

But I just wanted to say a quick word about what a good cricket writer should do. In the past, I have compared Test cricket  to a novel, and a good cricket writer could do no better than follow the literary critic’s cue. Just as the critic asks, “Why does an author pick these particular words as opposed to others at his disposal,” the cricket critic should explain why cricketers respond to events on the field they way they do. Why do bowlers suddenly have one good spell, only to fall away in a few hours? How does a batsman encounter a threat — a swinging ball; lack of form; a doosra — and still manage to score runs? How does a captain maneuver his field to out-think a batsman?

Not many cricket writers do this well (I certainly don’t have the expertise yet). Simon Hughes (esp. in his role as The Analyst) perfected cricket criticism, but most commentators rely on vague, untested notions like “momentum” and “pressure” (as The Old Batsman notes in a wonderful post). Wasim Akram always used to say: a batsman batsman would tell him, “Line and length, line and length,” but Akram would always ask, “But why am I not bowling line and length? What’s wrong with me today?” That’s what we should be trying to answer.

Sourav Ganguly Has The Last Laugh

Just found this gem from YouTube. Watch Sourav Ganguly exult in Greg Chappell’s recent ex-communication from Australian cricket:

The BCCI and the Right to Information Act

I don’t normally pick fights with other cricket bloggers, and I don’t mean to start one with Kartikeya (over at A Cricketing View). From the rules of the game to the innards of cricket administration, this guy knows his stuff and he’s far better at finding details than I am. But his latest effort, which critiques an apparently inaccurate Times of India article on the BCCI, reaches some conclusions that are a bit too dangerous. Let’s do this:

Kartikeya is angry that the Times of India continue to peddle the conflict-of-interest angle on Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shashtri. He doesn’t think anybody has looked at the BCCI contract properly, and he backs up his claim with some interesting evidence. So far, so good. But then, he goes to a dark place:

Can you imagine the havoc that journalists with the standards of Pradhan and Narayanan could wreak if they were able to use the power of the Right To Information Act? The two have demonstrated a total inability to be fair to the subject of their story. This must surely be the first rule in any inquiry. […]

I will support bringing the BCCI under the RTI if Bennett, Coleman and Co. and The Times Group can also be brought under it. In general I think private corporations (both for-profit and non-profit) need to be scrutinized a great deal more than they currently are. I will support bringing BCCI under the RTI if Sport Pages (which are about entertainment as much as they are about news) and Gossip Pages of newspapers are no longer considered to be “journalism”, in the sense that political current affairs reportage is considered to be journalism.

The charitable view of this line of reasoning is that Kartikeya is annoyed other people — that is, professionals paid to do this kind of work — can’t match his own research. And I completely agree with the sentiment; God knows I have plenty of axes to grind when it comes to the Times. That being said, however, the burden of proof when it comes to information and transparency lies with public bodies that use public funds, not on how private citizens will use the information. This is a basic point, but one that’s often lost even in “advanced” democracies like the United States. As a former reporter here, I can’t tell you how often town clerks would ask me why I asked for public documents, even though the reasoning behind a citizen’s request has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not information should be released.

So, a word of advice to Kartikeya: Critique sports journalism all you want and make sure they get the facts straight. But private corporations don’t have as high a burden as public ones do (I can’t even imagine bringing corporations under RTI, since that would mean business and trade secrets would be open to competitors), and whether or not the BCCI is transparent shouldn’t be dependent on how others act. Also: lay off the gossip pages. I like ’em.


Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri Need To Be Stopped

For those who missed it: Right after the English team festooned themselves in champagne and confetti, Star Cricket cut to a nice little chat from Bhogle/Gavaskar and Shastri. Bhogle begins by noting that Tiger Pataudi, whom the series is partially named after, did not get to give his trophy. He said it as an aside, and moved on quickly to the main question:  Did anyone really think 4-0 was on the cards? Does it accurately reflect the difference between the teams?

Gavaskar and Shastri, always ready to notice the slightest breach of protocol as evidence of a giant conspiracy to defame India’s good name, begin the rant. First, Gavaskar says, it was ridiculous to see a legend like Pataudi treated in such a way. If you’re going to have a series trophy, there should be one series trophy. Why have an nPower trophy and a Pataudi trophy? At this point, we’re already way into the weeds of a very, very silly debate, given that the Indian cricket team has just done more to defame good Pataudi’s name than anything the presentation ceremony may have done.

But then, the rant takes an inspired turn: You know, people always say the Indians have commercialized cricket, Gavaskar continues. They complain about all the things the IPL commentators say — DLF maximums and what not — but look at Stuart Broad. When he went to pick up his medal, he was wearing the nPower cricket cap, not the English one. Now, realizing he’s about to enter stormy waters, given his own recent dalliance with sponsors and conflicts of interest, Gavaskar steps back and says, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” Sponsors are good; they pay for things; if they want us to say things they way they want, we should respect that. But the double standards are just ridiculous.

Then, literally for 3 seconds, Harsha Bhogle just stared at the screen, paused, and said, “O.K. On the cricket itself…” Why was Gavaskar’s rant inappropriate? 1) I’m sick of elaborate presentation ceremonies. They usually detract attention from the cricketers themselves and have become an elaborate advertisement for authorities/politicians/etc. This one was no different, but honestly, it doesn’t really matter. Pataudi should just be glad the series was named after him. 2) This is after a 4-0 drubbing. Why try to salvage your pride by making silly symbolic protests? 3) Why bring up the IPL or sponsorship or “double standards” at all? What was Gavaskar’s point — that money rules us all, but only the Indians are honest enough to admit it? Is that really a point to make now?

Feel free to add the many reasons the rant was inappropriate in the comments section.

Do All Cricketers Go To Heaven?

Sourav Ganguly has decided to enter the Dhoni-bashing scrum that inevitably formed after the Trent Bridge defeat.  And he’s brought his fists to the fight:

“I’m too fed up hearing this “time to recover” [excuse] – don’t play for India then, you know this is what it is, you have to come back and play a Test series,” Ganguly told Indian news channel Headlines Today / Aaj Tak. “And it was an important Test series, it was a marquee Test series to decide who was the No. 1 Test side in the world and you cannot say that. Okay you’ve lost and you haven’t played well, the matter ends there, just accept that and move on.”

The reaction comes after M.S. Dhoni said he would have liked a little more time between the Caribbean and England Tests. Ganguly’s criticism isn’t entirely fair for two reasons: a) If the England Tests were truly ‘marquee,’ surely the BCCI and the relevant authorities would have recognized that and put in more time for preparation (as Gary Kirsten insisted in the run-up to the South Africa series). And b) Dhoni has often said he expects the heavy schedule in response to questions about the workload. I’m too lazy to look up specific quotes, but I’m fairly sure his attitude has always been, “This is the way things are. We deal with it.”

Only after reading more of Ganguly’s interview do you get an inkling of the source of his hostility:

“You have to put it behind … You are 28, 29, 30, you won’t get to play for India all your life. Make the most when you get it, once it goes, you won’t get it back, even how much you want it.”

Ah, yes, there it is. Intimations of mortality. There was a time — not long ago, mind you — when Ganguly was included in a group known as the ‘Fab Four.’ Together with Laxman, Dravid and Tendulkar, Ganguly toured the world and pillaged and destroyed with only a bat in his hand. Then, he lost the captaincy and headed off to retirement before he was entirely ready. You see evidence of his restlessness in his IPL career; after a so-so bunch of seasons, his protege Yuvraj Singh had to rescue the ol’ fogy. Ganguly again disappointed.

It must be difficult for athletes to contemplate retirement. Poor Roger Federer is only in his late 20s, and already people refer to him like an old uncle who doesn’t know when to leave a party. Ganguly is older, yes, but he’s not even 40, and he has to suffer the fate of commenting on what his former colleagues are doing. He is forced to watch as his friends and teammates get to play his game, knowing fully well that no matter how much he wants it, he “won’t get it back.” Ganguly has always had an edge to him; he once said — with no small trace of bitterness — that no one ever talked about dropping Tendulkar (a quote he quickly masked with praise).  What Ganguly’s going through reads like an ancient Greek method of punishment, like having a thirsty man stare at a bunch of grapes just out of reach.

What does retirement mean for cricketers? It’s not exactly like death, because some do hang around in various forms. But the new relationship with fans is what makes it so unbearable. Retired cricketers are like grandmothers and relatives you know you should call, but don’t because you’re an awful person. Occasionally, they nag at you and say, “Remember all that I did for you? Remember when I broke my fingers for you? Remember when I hurt my body day after day for you?” And when they hear nothing back, all they get is an angry quote in Cricinfo.

DuckingBeamers on Reverse Swept Radio

The wonderful folks at Reverse Swept Radio kindly featured my blog on their weekly podcast. I recommend all of their work, but I like the part where all sorts of lavish praise is thrown my way the most. You can listen on Episode 15, just past the 30-minute mark. I’ve also noticed that more bloggers are talking to each other — The Cricket Couch is doing an excellent job on this front, as are the people at Test Match Sofa. More, more, more.