Category Archives: Dhoni

The Odd Sensation Of A Series Loss

Has it really been since August 2009 since India lost a Test series? Have I forgotten what an Indian loss even feels like?

Faced with a possible 4-0 whitewash, Indian fans have to contemplate two separate problems: 1) Was the last year or so a dream? Was it a mirage? When India’s detractors said the team wasn’t all that; the bowling attack was weak; the performance in South Africa and Australia so-so — were they right? 2) What does the future hold? This brings up two sub-questions. One, when the Fab Three retire, is the Indian backbench thin? Two, will we see not just the end of India’s greatest batting generation, but the end of a worldwide batting trend? Imagine a cricketing world without Ricky Ponting, J. Kallis and Chanderpaul. Will bowlers finally return to the scene?

Here are my (very tentative) answers: 1) India never truly performed to its potential. Over the past year or so, I have tried to overcome my Nervous 1990s Attitude and adopt a default position of believing in the Indian team’s abilities. There have been many moments that justified this shift (Napier is a good example), but the evidence wasn’t overwhelming. The truth is that India never played to win series; they played to win (or draw) Tests. I tried to deal with this issue by saying that the Indians played “meh” cricket — a style that implied superiority but never rubbed the opposing team’s nose in it. This may have been naive on my part.

2) Looking at the Emerging Players Tournament, I see more than a few acceptable replacements. Pujara, Badrinath, Vijay, the Tiwarys, Pandey — these guys could be part of a solid batting line-up. The same with the bowling department: Vinay Kumar, L. Balaji, R.P. Singh, Irfan Pathan (oh, Irfan!). But all these players need to be given time and guidance to prove themselves. Look at England’s approach: not too long ago, Alistair Cook was widely considered to be a failure and worked out. Ian Bell was considered beautiful fluff. J. Anderson was thought to be a one-swing wonder. Stuart Broad was fighting for his place in the side before this series. Kevin Pietersen had been out of form for a while (and the same with Andrew Strauss). But each was given some time and string to work things out. Some were sent back to county cricket, others were dropped. (Strauss even played a warm-up game before the India series.)

My point? Once promising players have been identified, India’s think-tank needs to look after them. That means asking some of them to give up an IPL season and spending time in England or Australia. That means keeping tabs on everyone’s injuries and fitness needs. That means giving each player specific guidelines and telling them how to improve. (I thank Samir Chopra for discussing some of these issues with me.)


When Cricket Meets Philosophy

Over at his new Cricinfo blog, The Pitch, Samir Chopra cites Aristotle to make his case that M.S. Dhoni is a sucker for withdrawing the infamous appeal:

For Aristotle, generosity, like all the moral virtues, is a mean between two vices, one of deficiency and one of excess. The modern parlance for the vice of excessive generosity is being a sucker. A sucker is not being truly generous, because he gives where there is neither need nor desert.

I don’t know much about Aristotle; I never cared much for the Ancients. But it turns out the Indian dressing room didn’t use the golden mean rule, but rather the Golden Rule, spelled out by various philosophers through the ages. Let’s cite Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments as an example:

As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation. Though our brother is on the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person, and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations. Neither can that faculty help us to this any other way, than by representing to us what would be our own, if we were in his case. It is the impressions of our own senses only, not those of his, which our imaginations copy. By the imagination, we place ourselves in his situation.

Smith famously goes on to say humans try to behave as if an imaginary “impartial spectator” would approve. Now, even though I don’t know as much about Aristotle as I should, I still like the sound of Smith’s model better. The Golden Mean sounds almost crude in its “split-down-the-middle” approach. On the other hand, Smith asks people to put themselves in their friend/foe’s shoes and try to relate. And that’s exactly what the Indians did, according to Rahul Dravid:

“If it was Laxman there or Sachin [Tendulkar] there, I don’t think our guys would have felt nice about it. And that was one of the things discussed when we first came in, what if it was one of our guys? Would we have liked it? And the general feeling was no.”

One final point about Chopra’s post. Near the end, Chopra asks if England will now reciprocate and behave in the true spirit of the game by, say, ending all the sledging and letting English bowlers have a go at Tendulkar in the nets. There is a prominent strain in philosophy that argues that morality should not be transactional; i.e., people should not do good with the expectation of getting something in return. (I think Kant was big on this line of thought, but I could be wrong.) I don’t know how realistic this is, but I like the idea that Dhoni could have said, “I want to deal with this issue on its own merits — not whether or not batsmen should walk, or sledging is stopped, or catches are challenged, or that Stuart Broad is an absolute filthy bastard for implying Laxman is a cheat  — but only this issue, right here, and right now.”

And now I’m sounding like a pragmatist

A Tale Of Two Cricket Models

When India loses at Trent Bridge — and I don’t need to see the odds to be fairly certain they will — I want to see plenty of fingers pointed at the BCCI. I know Indian fans aren’t always a reasonable lot, and tend to either vilify or worship the players in the middle, who, to be sure, have a fair amount to do with the end result of a game. But, but, but!

What we are seeing in the middle isn’t just 22 players fighting for the spoils, but two very different models of sport administration working against each other. Close observers of the Flower regime regularly note two motifs: its ruthlessness — cherished players are cast aside if they are not performing — and its methodical approach to strategy. India has a different take on the game: first, it commits its players to outrageously demanding schedules that require athletes to jump around continents like they were a hopscotch board. And second, at the same time, its fans demand increasing returns. Won a T20 World Cup? What about the ODI? Won the ODI WC? What about No. 1 in Tests? Got that? Why not 2-0 against the West Indies? Drew for the first time in South Africa? Why not 2-1?

Look at this team: Praveen and Ishant have bowled their hearts out without a break; Gautam Gambhir is coming off an injury (that he and his IPL overlords should have checked way before hand); Zaheer Khan looked plump and unfit after a month-hangover from the WC; Dhoni — God bless him — has run from a WC to an IPL and a West Indies tour. Meanwhile, Sehwag remains injured (from this wonderful IPL thing) and the other batsmen were expected to cope and adapt to swinging bowling and colder weather in a jiff.

On the other hand, look at the English. Indian fans point to the Dominica Test as evidence that India is not ruthless enough; I look at the English team setup and say that’s what ruthless is. A single-minded pursuit of victory that begins well before the first ball is bowled. A well-rested team that knows what they are supposed to do and how they can do it together. A team that relies just as much on practice and strategy as they do on individual brilliance. Quit talking about that Tendulkar ton already and get down to business.

The Lord’s Test Doesn’t Count

Do you remember when, as a child, you played games with friends and the “doesn’t count” argument incessantly came up? I seem to recall any number of great sporting moments challenged because “someone moved before they were supposed to” or “I wasn’t ready” or “You said this was the crease, not that.” Doesn’t count. Do it over.

Well, that’s basically what the Indians should take away from the Lord’s Test. When I read Sambit Bal’s column on the English performance, I was a bit stumped — a class apart? Were the English bowlers really that much better than Praveen Kumar’s five-fer, or Ishant Sharma’s fiery spell on Day 4? Apart from Harbhajan v. Swann, the only way the English bowlers came out on top of this dogfight was in the numbers. That is, they had one more than we. (And the one we didn’t have wouldn’t have allowed 400+ in the first innings.)

Now, it’s true that the Indian batsmen could have done better. Each one who made it to double-digits and failed to Trott-ify the opposition committed a crime, but I’m still amazed the Indians batted out more than 90 overs and came within two hours of reaching the draw. Given Gambhir’s elbow; given Tendulkar’s mysterious viral infection; given Zaheer’s hamstring, I’m inclined to agree with Dhoni when he says everything that could go wrong, did. Lay off.

This isn’t to say that I don’t want some criticism lobbied somewhere. In an ideal world, after this team won the World Cup, they would have rested, enjoyed their rewards for a month and a half, then headed back to England and roared back to form during two three-day matches and plenty of team exercises. Instead, they had a week of mayhem, then the IPL (during which time, one may recall, they lost Sehwag and Gambhir to injuries), then headed (mostly) to the West Indies (where nothing much of note occurred), only to arrive in a cold, foreign land a quick moment later.

So, considering what this English team did to the Australian opposition, take my word for it: this Test didn’t count. On to next one!

‘Meh’: India’s Strange New Path to Cricket Dominance

Over at Deep Backward Point, Devanshu Mehta has done us all a service and tried, prosecuted and defended India’s decision not to chase victory against the West Indies. After reading blog posts from across the spectrum, Mehta arrives at a conclusion (via Jarrod Kimber) likely to satisfy all sides.

But I want to come to this party fashionably late and add two cents. I count myself part of the crowd defending M.S. Dhoni’s “cowardly” antics, in part because I had an over-powering sense of deja vu to guide me last week. The feeling came from events in 2007, when India — then under Rahul Dravid — decided to settle for a 1-0 series victory against England in England (a historic moment) and close up shop at the Oval. (Dravid scored 12 off 90-odd balls, a strange and cautious effort that botched the victory narrative.)

Then, as now, the same criticisms were voiced. No tenacity. No ‘killer instinct.’ A feeling of caution out of step with modern and shiny and confident India. But since 2007, according to my shaky use of Cricinfo‘s Statsguru, India has played 43 Tests, of which it has drawn 16 and won 19 (can someone check this, please?). In that same period, Australia played 43 Tests and won 21. Not a huge difference. Perhaps I’m not comparing the right teams; after all, India’s supporters don’t want it to be like Australia circa 2008; they want it to be like Australia circa the last 15 years.

OK. So let me make another point.  When Dravid scored those 12 agonizing runs, S. Vaidyanathan hypothesized the man was haunted by the specters of previous batting collapses in Bridgetown and Cape Town. He had something to prove — a series victory in England — and he wanted badly to do so. Last week, the Indians had nothing to prove in the Carribean. That’s a crucial difference. Whereas Dravid’s timidity came from a source of insecurity, Dhoni’s  came from a generation that has perfected the whatever shrug. “Meh,” as the youngsters like to say. The thinking goes like this: I have a T20 World Cup. I have an ODI World Cup. I have the No. 1 Test ranking. I have a series victory in the West Indies, with a second-rate team that included a brand-new opening pair. Meh.

Some cut-throat fans may not appreciate such an attitude. But as an ethical stance, I prefer it to seeking out-and-out dominance, which seeks the emasculation of an opponent.  Meh also comes from a place that implicitly acknowledges past achievements; indeed, it is only justifiable when such laurels can be cited (otherwise, it would be reprehensible). Meh achieves the same stance of superiority — we really couldn’t be bothered about this right now — even as it allows space for the other team to celebrate a small victory. Win-win.

In Defense Of Daryl Harper

Daryl Harper has withdrawn from the Third Test between India and West Indies, in what looks like a monumental fit of pique. Apparently, Harper — almost universally hated by every cricket blogger — is angry at the criticism he’s had to withstand from Indian players (including from M.S. Dhoni), none of who has been punished. Examples:

Indian newspapers widely reported that “a very senior member of the side” had claimed that the entire team did not want Harper to officiate in the final Test. “We don’t want him – you can quote it as the reaction of the entire Indian team,” was the alleged remark.

Another India player allegedly said: “It’s Daryl Harper six not out,” complaining that Harper had made three bad decisions in West Indies’ favour.

Regular readers know that I view the cricket umpire as a mythical demi-god who cannot be questioned. I have explained this before, but briefly, it relates to Hobbes’ reasoning in the Leviathan. Because all men are equal, all men have an equal claim to power. But that would lead to anarchy, so instead we consent to a sovereign and let him/her rule. You can question how much power you’d want to give in political societies, but on the cricket field, this makes a lot of sense — and anyone who has played pick-up cricket with more than three South Asians knows the values of this advice. Games without authoritative umpires quickly fold into silliness and disputes about rules and “who’s keeping score.”

So what’s the problem? Well, we now have something the Victorians didn’t — HotSpot and cameras, for one. And people look at replays and see wrong decisions and act as if they’ve been cheated all along. “What do you know,” they say, “the umpire is fallible!” This is the wrong lesson entirely: it was precisely the umpire’s fallibility (i.e., his human-ness) that led to us give him absolute powers. Now, even if you want more technology in the game, or don’t think much of my argument, the fact is both teams went into the Test series knowing fully well that Harper would be in charge. He’s made bad decisions, but he’s still the umpire — so lay off him, and do your job.

I supported Steve Bucknor when the Indians raised a fuss about him at Sydney, and I’ll support Harper now. Complaining about umpires mid-series is a terrible display of sour grapes; it also complicates the umpire’s mind-set (if I give a bad decision against the Indians, they’ll go home and cry to their BCCI overlords). If you choose not to have DRS in a series, and if you agree to play under umpires, and if you agree with the ICC’s umpire training and testing program, then shut up and play the game.

Sachin Tendulkar As An Actor

Via Poorvi, an excellent story from India Today about Sachin Tendulkar’s scheme to score a tax deduction on revenue earned from his commercials:

Tendulkar had claimed deduction of tax under Section 80RR of the Income Tax Act. The section states that a person can claim tax deduction if he is a playwright, artist, musician, actor or sportsman and the income for which deduction is claimed is derived by him in the exercise of his profession.

When the assessing officer asked Tendulkar to explain the nature of his profession, the master blaster submitted that “he is a popular model who acts in various commercials for endorsing products of various companies”. He further stated that the income derived by him from ‘acting’ had been reflected as income from “business and profession” whereas income from playing cricket was reflected as “income from other sources” since he is a non-professional cricketer. Tendulkar explained that the claimed deduction in tax was from the exercise of his profession as an ‘actor’.

Fascinating stuff. Read the tax officer’s bemused attempts to understand — and ultimately reject — Tendulkar’s argument. (Key quote: “If Tendulkar isn’t a cricketer, who is?”) This little bit of dishonesty on Tendulkar’s part raises some important points, namely:

1) I don’t know enough about India’s tax code, but while I think it’s laudable to include a tax break for artists and playwrights, I also know more loopholes mean more problems. A tax code’s complexity is positively correlated with incidents like these, where people try to fit their lives to the legal language to save some bucks.

2) On another note: in an earlier post, I argued that Test cricket allowed for more intriguing narratives and characters:

[J]ust as in a long novel, where authors foreshadow major events with strategically planted seeds, Test cricket has its own dramatic devices. Take Ishant Sharma’s burst on Day 1, which many commentators said partially explained the collapse that later occurred in the post-Tea session. Or take the marks left on a pitch as bowlers complete their run-up. Those habits of routine become potentially explosive on Day 5, when balls land in their place and explode.

So perhaps Tendulkar’s fault lies not in arguing that he is an actor, but rather, that commercials were his primary stage. Test cricketers have to play a number of different roles in their team — batsmen, for instance, have to “play to the situation” (unless they’re Sehwag). One minute, they must be the ‘consolidator,’ or the ‘anchor’; the next, they’re given license to go wild and score like a maniac.

Or take Dhoni. At the start of his career, Dhoni “played” one character — the big shot. Over time, he has changed, and now wears a more responsible persona. The challenge for cricketers is to embrace different roles as they go through their career. Some are better than others; I’d say Tendulkar is among the best. Shakespeare couldn’t have scripted him better, really.

Dhoni, Former Railway Ticket Collector

I’m always curious to know what cricketers did before they hit the big-leagues. Given how long the odds are — 11 people out of a huge pool of talent — it’s wise for athletes to invest in a back-up plan (e.g., Kumble = engineering; Sangakarra = law). This is Dhoni’s past:

India Cricket Captain M S Dhoni is still to receive about Rs 4,000 as arrears from his former employer Railways with whom he had worked as ticket collector. “An amount of Rs 4,000 is still due to him and we wish to inform him about this,” said a senior Railway officer, who fondly remembered him as a “bright player” in the South Eastern Railway cricket team.

Amazing, no? Can you imagine running into a young Dhoni to ask for a one-way ticket? (Though, if you were around Jharkhand at the time, you’d probably ask round-trip.) Such a precipitous rise — however rare it may be in India (and elsewhere) — helps explain why he excites fans more than others. Who hasn’t had this dream before? (Aside: do you think lower-class blokes make for better captains? Discuss.)

How Not To Thank India’s World Cup Team

Disturbing news from Karnataka and Delhi. First, to the south:

The Karnataka government would allot free housing sites in Bangalore to each of the 15 members of the Indian cricket squad that won the World Cup, chief minister BS Yeddyurappa announced on Sunday.

And from the north:

Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit on Sunday announced an award of Rs two crore for Indian cricket team captain MS Dhoni and Rs one crore each for four Delhi players after their victory over Sri Lanka in the World Cup final on Saturday.

I hate to state the obvious (really, I do, Shastribot), but surely this money could go to more deserving people? Like the millions of poor in each state? As any good elitist Bandra boy should know, Sachin Tendulkar isn’t suffering for adequate housing. The team isn’t likely to starve for more endorsement options either:

Dhoni charges Rs. 6-7 crore per endorsement per year and already endorses around 19 brands, including Sony, Pepsi, Reebok and Big Bazaar, leaving only a handful of categories such as financial services and four-wheelers he is yet to enter. That may happen now.

Pakistan Did Not Lose Because Of Dropped Catches

There’s a prevailing theory in cricket — call it the “missed chance” formula — that tries to parse through victories and defeats based on a team’s lost opportunities. For those not familiar with this explanation, you’ll find a good example from Osman Samiuddin on Cricinfo:

But there are some rules in life you cannot defy, some batsmen you really cannot give a chance to. And if you give Sachin Tendulkar four chances – not one but four! Tendulkar! – you cannot expect to win a game, no matter what else you do. It was one of his least fluent recent innings as well but in the drops of Misbah, Younis Khan – their two best catchers -Kamran Akmal and Umar Akmal, went the game. It is as simple as that.

Samiuddin is careful to add caveats in his column, so I don’t want to sound like I’m picking on him. But I have a real problem when commentators wonder aloud how “expensive” a dropped catch may be, and do that that thing where they calculate the number of runs scored after the incident in question. This logic assumes a linear narrative — that is, batsman is dropped, batsman goes on to score runs, therefore, drop led to defeat.

But it’s also entirely possible that different realities are created with each ball. Say, for example, that Tendulkar got out on the first catch he offered to Younus Khan. Isn’t it also possible that Virat Kohli and Yuvraj Singh would have gone on to carry the innings and not get out to consecutive deliveries? Obviously I can’t be certain, because situations in cricket constantly change (as anyone calculating odds for bookies understands), but it’s likely Tendulkar stayed on and told his partners to take more risks because he planned to anchor the innings. Take Tendulkar out from this equation, and presto — different game trajectory.

I don’t mean to condone dropping catches (especially four off the same batsman, which is testing my argument). But people keeping close score would have noticed India didn’t have a flawless fielding experience either: Dhoni missed a stumping (off Younus Khan, I believe); Yuvraj did not run Umar Akmal out (at a time when many believed he was taking them home to victory), and Ashish Nehra did not cleanly catch Afridi. None of these mistakes proved decisive because other opportunities arrived (hell, I could even argue that some of these chances spooked the Pakistani batsmen into giving more chances).

So why did Pakistan lose? Well, Hafeez and Shaufiq played crap shots; Afridi did not call the Powerplay soon enough; the pitch was difficult to score off, especially against spin; Akmal and Razzak received unplayable deliveries and Misbah ul-Haq should have played higher in the innings. I’d focus on any of these, not Pakistan restricting India to 260 — a good score to chase, as M.S. Dhoni himself admitted after the match.