Category Archives: Cricket

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.



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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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.”

What Set Sachin Apart

I wanted to return from my blog sabbatical to comment, briefly, on Sachin’s retirement. Much has already been said, and much of it has been quite moving and well-written, but I want to ask: Compared to Ponting or Dravid–No. 2 and No. 3 in the all-time batting runs category–why did Tendulkar enjoy such a visceral connection with cricketing fans? Hypotheses:

1) Sheer longevity: I forget the statistic, but a huge percentage of India’s population is under the age of 30. For them, Tendulkar has been around since childhood, an impressionable period. The other members of the Fab Four did not emerge until the mid-1990s, and even then, they were not fully established as legends until the early 2000s.

2) Better than the rest: This is a less obvious point than it seems. For a long time, Sachin was by far the best player in the Indian team. That was not the case for Ponting, who was indeed excellent, but also surrounded by Australian riches. I would not say Sachin ended his career as the best player; indeed, I think for a portion of time, Dravid really deserved more respect than he got–but compared to the general mediocrity of the 1990s, “Tendu and Ten Don’t” spoke to the gap between India’s potential and its (rather depressing) reality.

3) The Kallis Factor: Jacques Kallis should be regarded by all as the foremost cricketer of his generation. There’s no arguing with the statistics, and there’s no doubt that the South African team would be much, much weaker without him. The reason no one talks about Kallis, however, is that he is South African, an excellent cricketing nation, but also, in the grand scheme of things, a backwater. (Don’t misunderstand me — I love South African cricket, and I’d rather watch its variety, but cricket is not the No. 1 sport in South Africa.) To be on top in India guarantees at least 500 million people care about you; to be on top in South Africa means…what?

4) Believing in Magic: Tendulkar was fortunate to play for India because in the rest of the cricketing world, God is dead. Other preeminent cricketers, many equally capable as Tendulkar, will never capture his scale of public adulation because irony and cynicism are much more potent factors in other countries. I wonder, however, if in the age of mass advertising and the IPL whether Indian fans will not also grow more curmudgeonly. Is part of our sadness about Tendulkar’s retirement an acknowledgement that we generally believe less in magic now? That we have lost a sense of the transcendent and mystical?

Cricket Sightings in America: NYC Edition

(For previous posts in this series, see: here and here.)

Was walking on the subway platform on my morning commute, when I stopped at this ad:

Go Park


Do you see it? Cricket: As American as canoeing, digging dirt, and a hot dog. Happy July 4th!


India’s Youth Transformation Has Been A Long Time In The Making

When India won the Champions Trophy, Nasser Hussain (and a few others) marveled at how quickly India has filled the holes left behind by out-of-form/retiring legends (such as Yuvraj, Sehwag, Zaheer, Tendulkar). I’m not sure “quickly” is the right word — since at least the 2007 World Cup, India’s official policy (first formed by Greg Chappell) has been to find and support younger players. A number of players currently at the top of their games — Dhawan, Karthik, Jadeja, Rohit Sharma — are on second-run tours in the national team, and it took a fair while before India dropped non-performing seniors (both in the Test and ODI formats of the game).

Am I merely quibbling with an off-hand remark? My point is that other teams in search of new batting talent (like Australia and Pakistan and the West Indies) should not think that India’s current largesse is the magical inevitability of having millions of dollars and a large supply of potential players. That certainly helps — as Dhoni said in his acceptance speech, one reason Indian fielding is so good now is that players aren’t deathly afraid anymore that they’ll die diving on brown maidans. But India has succeeded now because of many failures in the past (8-0 overseas, 2-1 against England), and giving youngsters time and space to perform is a messy, chaotic process.

I will say that it’s much more fun to watch a team of hungry youngsters win than a pack of entitled (but truly awesome) veterans. Watching this team, I was reminded a little bit of the 2007 World Cup T20 lads (of whom only Dhoni, Rohit Sharma and Karthik remain) — the naive self-belief and the raw (but untested) talent. During the final, I was amazed to find myself feeling that India, even with its top and middle order largely gone, would still achieve a good score, and that some bowler — Jadeja, or Ashwin — would take the wickets at the right time. That expectation of victory…well, it’s downright Australian. Time will tell where this team goes from here — will they follow the path of the WCT20 squad, or somewhere else?

Insulting The South African Cricket Team Properly

Just so we are all clear:

In order to use the current Champions Trophy as evidence that South Africans are (and forever will be) “chokers” at ICC events, they will have to lose a game after being in a seemingly commanding position. Mere losses do not count. We should be especially swayed by moments of utterly inexplicable irrationality, preferably while running between wickets. And if South African players turn daft after being called ‘choker’ on field by opposing players, we will have a prize exhibit on our hands (I’m referring here to the excellent tactic used by the Kiwis against Faf Du Plessis during the 2011 World Cup).

It could be argued that South Africa has preempted the ‘choker’ line by losing its most formidable players to injury. To take this point of view would be charitable and reasonable, especially given that the South Africans have some of the best players in the world right now and generally deserve more praise than scorn. However, as I have yet to decide how I feel about Du Plessis, I am not sure what point of view I shall take. Time will tell.

And for the record, I’d like to see either Pakistan or South Africa come through on this one. Pakistan, because they are now (and usually are) the most interesting team, and South Africa, because, well, they’re due.



OK, Cricket May Be A Little Complicated

A quick follow-up to my previous post on this subject: I imagine that some of you watched the wonderfully amateurish (and downright charming) coverage of the Ireland v. Pakistan game. Now, imagine that you were at the ground as a curious spectator. You’ve heard of this game “cricket” and you know the basic gist, but you don’t know much more than that. Let’s also assume you were rooting for Ireland.

Would you still be a fan of the game after the result? Ireland scored more than Pakistan did, but had a higher target because of the D/L method. At the end of the game, it wasn’t immediately clear if Ireland had lost or tied with Pakistan, and as with most instances in which D/L is at play, even the on-field captains appeared to be confused.

Now, think again to yourself in the stands, watching all this unfold.

— “Wait, didn’t Ireland score more than Pakistan?”

“Yes, but see, Pakistan had the potential to score higher if they had known they were only going to have 47 overs at the start of their innings, so they post a higher target.”

— “OK, but how do you calculate how much more they could have scored?”

“It’s on the ICC website, I’m sure. Or Wikipedia.”

I’m being a little harsh, because obviously the game was thrilling — Kevin O’Brien was doing something none of us expected. But the result only confirmed what many people think about cricket — this is a really complicated game that appears not to want more fans. If I’d spent more than four hours in all that wind and rain and gloominess, I would have wanted more clarity at the end. I can only imagine my German brother-in-law, who enjoys baseball, saying, “Huh? Where did Pakistan’s ghost runs come from exactly? Bullshit.”



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