Category Archives: Indian Players

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.

 

 

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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?

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?

Why Spot-Fixing Offends

When a spot-fixing scandal emerges (and it seems to happen with an increasing frequency lately), cricket fans turn to their ethics textbooks. Is there a moral distinction between throwing a game (“match-fixing”) and throwing a wide, no-ball, or a given number of runs (“spot-fixing”)? If spot-fixing aims to ‘fix’ such small, mundane events, is there really cause for life-bans or moral opprobrium? This was the source of the argument between Harsha Bhogle, who pointed out the degree-of-difference on Twitter, and Dale Steyn, who replied that stealing a dollar or a bank still amounts to stealing.

I’m not that invested in this discussion because spot-fixing offends me for another reason. Cricket is now a modern game, which means that we have professional athletes who make a difficult bargain: In return for two to three decades of hard work, many injuries, and terrible odds for national selection, we offer them (a small group of them, anyway) money, fame, and the chance to be part of a country’s biggest moments. The money comes from the fans (mostly from their televisions), and advertisers. Policing these new commercial boundaries is difficult and often incoherent: We are willing to accept loud, incessant ads between overs, but we’re uneasy about inserting them into the game (“Karbon Kamaal catch,” “Yes Bank Maximum,” etc.). We’re still not sure how we feel about a player abandoning his country’s Test side for a made-up IPL franchise, but we’re extremely uneasy about an Indian team that either hides or misdiagnoses injuries for fear it may hurt a player’s chance to play in the IPL. We also understand the need for sponsors, but we’re not happy to see one of them own both an IPL franchise and head the organization that owns the IPL and the Indian national team.

So now we have spot-fixing, which offends me because it basically abolishes these commercial-athlete boundaries (however made up they may seem). In essence, a bookie turns an athlete into a private employee and asks him to do his bidding over the most trite affairs — Place your towel into your pants! Shake your wristband! Give me a no-ball! The player becomes a financial product — a secret investment akin to an insider trading scheme. What’s forgotten is that a player (presumably) worked hard to reach his particular level, and his skills are now not subject to chance or fate or another player’s abilities, but to some shady operator at the end of a cellphone. What’s also forgotten, of course, is that a fan fully expects to see these skills. To watch the best do their best — that’s what a spectator can reasonably ask for.

Spot-fixing enrages me because it makes explicit what I’d prefer to repress. I know that cricket is a commercial game now, just as another modern sport is, and that it has been so for a long, long time. But I still prefer not to think of the game as a series of financial transactions, even though increasingly, the money equation seems to determine what we watch on our screens. We’ve made all sorts of bargains ourselves, as my second paragraph indicates, that we forget how much we have given away. The real difference here isn’t match-fixing v. spot-fixing; it is trying to place spot-fixing on a spectrum that now includes sponsorship, ads, conflicts-of-interests, and bad faith

Tendulkar Wants You To Feed Him

Dhoni, on his first encounter with Sachin Tendulkar:

“I think that was in a Duleep Trophy match in Pune in 2000-01 or 2001-02 season. I was in East Zone squad and was carrying drinks. Tendulkar made 199 in that match and he was batting when I went onto the field to serve drinks to my team-mates in the drinks break.

“Suddenly, he asked me, ‘Can I have a drink also?’ That was my first meeting with Tendulkar, my idol. I did not speak a word to him and ended up serving a drink to him.”

Yuvraj, on his first tryst:

“My first conversation was when I was looking at him in awe at the dressing room, suddenly he said, ‘please pass on the biscuits.'” To this Tendulkar replied [at the launch for Yuvraj’s autobiography], “I have not got those biscuits till now.”

Harbhajan Singh The Truckdriver

Rahul Dravid makes Harbhajan Singh interesting:

To have played 100 Tests for India is proof of both effort and determination, and Harbhajan has overcome many obstacles in getting this far. Between the time he made his debut for India and his 2001 breakout series, he ran into trouble at the NCA, had difficulties with his action, was dropped from the team, and lost his father, which made him the sole earning member of his family at 20. I remember talking to him about that time, and he told me that he had had thought of migrating to the US and earning a livelihood driving trucks [emphasis added].

Two points: one, it’s very rare for cricketers to talk in specific terms about the sacrifices — and, often, the impossibly difficult choices — they have to make. Every young kid in India wants to be a national cricketer, but you have to be a little insane to still want it after you become a teenager and realize the arduous path to achieving the goal. You have to be completely crazy to pursue cricket (especially in pre-IPL money days) when you know that your family could face potential ruin if you fail.

Two: Rahul Dravid is an incredible writer; a much better writer than commentator (in my view). I take a dim view of the recent trend to turn the commentary squad into a band of ex-cricketers; often times, I think amateurs and ardent spectators make for better dialogue. But if we must have ex-cricketers, then I want them to do what Dravid does — to explain the strange, surreal world of being an international cricketer without devolving into pointless nostalgia (a la Gavaskar), worn-out catch-phrases (a la Shastri) or braggadocio (a la Shane Warne). For all the new camera angles and HD technology, the experience of being a modern sportsmen remains a mystery to most. Dravid has made me understand Harbhajan just a little better now. (Which isn’t to say I loathe him any less.)

 

 

Is India’s Decline Cyclical, or Structural?

In economic circles, a major debate concerns the nature of the Great Recession. One school holds that the downturn is just another ride down the familiar cycle of boom and bust, while the other argues that it reflects instead structural issues that are unlikely to go away soon (like, say, a workforce ill-adapted for the tech age). It occurs to me that such language — if not the rigorous tools of economics — might also be useful to discuss Indian cricket’s current malaise. (By now, I think it should be fairly well-accepted that there is a problem in Indian cricket; the English did as much as they could to settle the matter last month.)

The Cyclical Case: I fear that the Indian selectors largely hold true to the business cycle model; how else to explain their obsessive loyalty to Sehwag, Gambhir and Co., after so many defeats? Their argument goes something like this: the batsmen are out of form, yes, but all they need is time to recuperate, stay in the middle, and come back. It’s that saying — “One innings away from good form” — that rules the thinking.

The Structural Case: Structuralists have been grumbling for at least a year or two now, and their argument has gathered steam after the Test losses. Their argument does not enjoy widespread acclaim in part because it is so depressing, and in part because it has stayed the same for decades. To wit:

a) India’s domestic cricket scene has suffered and fails to produce enough cricketers worthy of the international level;

b) India’s docile pitches spoil our batsmen, who are incapable abroad, and these pitches (along with an upper-class bias against activity) also deprive the country of genuinely quick bowlers to succeed Zaheer Khan;

c) The IPL, now past its infancy, has started to skew incentives — youngsters chase the quick buck and learn to slog; as a result, the Test format suffers.

What is so alarming about the structuralist argument is that it posits that post-Dravid/Laxman/Tendulkar/Ganguly, India will not be able to replace them and instead face a steady decline in quality unless the above factors are addressed. The problem, of course, is how to explain the Golden Four: if the same system produced them, why couldn’t it produce more?

Stop Blaming Tendulkar’s Non-Retirement On Indians’ Silly Minds

Mohinder Amarnath, now on a revenge comeback tour, says:

“Indians are very emotional and we hang on to our past,” he said. “Sachin is a great player, but one can’t play for forever. He’s not the same anymore.”

I’ve heard this argument fairly often in the past decade, and it usually comes from Indians in powerful positions. They say things like, “Indians have a hero worship problem,” or “Indians can’t think strategically about X issue because they just can’t calm down.” The subtext is the same one peddled by British colonialists: The natives aren’t really rational.

Now, yes, it’s true many Indian cricket fans are, er, passionate about the game. Western commentators often seem bemused at the open expression of ecstasy in Indian crowds when the national team does well, and the sharp silences that follow when the  team does badly.  I think the outpouring has more to do with the different social conventions of showing joy — or, really, any emotion in a public space — in India and the West, and shouldn’t be used as evidence for the statement, “Cricket is religion in India,” often trotted out lazily by Indian and white man alike.

At any rate, there are both good and bad reasons to keep Tendulkar. Even if you approached the problem sans emotion, it’s not clear you’ll get to the conclusion that I reached last week (i.e., sack Tendulkar). But the larger question is, Why shouldn’t we think emotionally about Tendulkar — or Dravid or Laxman? In the last fifteen years, we have seen the development of two — possibly three — of the greatest batsmen ever produced by India, and possibly the world. Isn’t it entirely natural and human — not specifically “Indian” — to have some difficulty contemplating the end of such careers? Imagine Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, and Michael Schumacher all contemplating retirement from the same team in the same year — what, are you really not going to be “emotional” about it? These are special people, and these are special times.

Keep in mind that Ricky Ponting, clearly past his prime for about a year, wasn’t shoved; before he announced his retirement, the selectors of a supposedly ruthless and hyper-rational cricket board publicly sounded their confidence in him. And when he did retire,  Michael Clarke started to tear up next to him. My point is that a) It’s not necessarily emotion that’s clouding the Tendulkar retirement issue; and b) Even if emotion were involved, there’s nothing deviant about the “Indian mind” complicating the matter.

That’s what I meant when I said we can’t get over Tendulkar. To contemplate his retirement is, really, to contemplate mortality — it’s a terror for the human mind.

The Infuriating Case Of Parvinder Awana

I don’t follow domestic Indian cricket as closely as others, so I don’t know as much as I should about promising prospects for the national side. As a result, Parvinder Awana is pretty much a stranger to me, even though he’s apparently been on people’s radars since at least 2004. While Awana, the latest Indian fast bowler messiah (after Ishant, Varun Aaron, Umesh Yadav, Sreesanth, Munaf, etc.) may fully deserve his place in India’s international squad, I think his journey to selection shows what’s wrong with India’s planning process. Evidence:

Awana expected to be on the plane to the Caribbean for an A tour after the IPL [in 2011-2012], but was overlooked by the selectors…However, an injury to RP Singh opened a slot for Awana. He played one game on tour and took three wickets. He was overlooked again for the A tour of New Zealand but was picked for the A team’s match against England at Brabourne Stadium. He went wicketless, but his two five-fors this Ranji season were a timely reminder of his talents.

Ideally, you’d have a system that spotted talent in young players and then nurtured it through a testing process that ultimately leads to an international debut. Instead, what I think we have in India is a haphazard system that flirts with a promising player but then insists on making the courtship as stormy as possible. Awana misses out on an ‘A’ tour — basically, among the more surer ways of finding a spot in India’s national team — to R.P. Singh, last seen plucked from a Miami nightclub to play against the English. Singh then disappears; Awana takes three wickets but cannot secure a spot on the next A tour (but he does get called for the tour after that).

The Indian team has done something similar (and equally annoying) in the past: it will pick a player as part of a touring squad. This player will not get a game, and he will then be dropped for the next tour. It’s never clear why this happened — did the player not show any promise in nets? Did he piss someone off? I don’t know if Awana will get a game soon — Dinda probably deserves first pick — but I’d hate to see Awana then fall back into IPL obscurity, or worse, into the level of hell where V.R.V. Singh now lives.