Category Archives: Indian Players

Pay No Attention To Cricket Press Conferences

If you write about the latest happenings in cricket, you have two sources: the stuff cricketers say at post-match appearances, and the stuff cricketers do, on the field. As a general rule, it’s better to focus on the latter — What does a batsman’s stance reveal about his thinking? What does a bowler’s seam position reveal about his level of skill? What does a captain’s field placements say about his strategic nous?

Another reason to ignore press conferences is that they are almost completely and utterly useless. The latest piece of evidence: days after India’s bowling coach declared Zaheer Khan to be among the “top six” bowlers in the world, Khan has been dropped for the fourth test. When you consider Khan’s possible replacements — Ishant Sharma, an uncapped bowler from Delhi, and Ashok Dinda — you realize just how arbitrary and useless that “top six” comment was.


We Can’t Get Over Tendulkar

I’ve been mostly disappointed by the discussion about Tendulkar’s retirement. One problem is that we don’t have an appropriate baseline for comparison — after all, once you’ve declared man to be God, it’s hard to find the yardstick to measure immortality. So, some people say: Is Current Tendulkar not as good as Old Tendulkar? Others say, Is Tendulkar better than the alternative (i.e., a young, inexperienced player, but one with promise)? Still others say, Is Tendulkar better than Kallis or Ponting?

Part of the issue here is that we can’t compare Tendulkar to the merely good. Once we start to think that Tendulkar is as capable as, say, Gautam Gambhir or Andrew Strauss — both extremely competent players, but not likely to be part the pantheon — then we might as well admit that all is lost. It’s a strange and demanding dynamic. A Cricinfo writer whose name I forget argues that we should let Tendulkar play on because it would be more exciting to see him “struggle.” This is cruel — like that last scene in Gladiator where Russell Crowe’s character has to fight with a stab wound in his back. Besides, Tendulkar hasn’t been completely godly since at least 2006, when Wankhede booed him after another period of wretched form. We’ve seen the man cope ably with age, but we’ve seen him fall plenty in the past five years.

For what it’s worth, my test is: Is current Tendulkar good enough to play in the team? I try to borrow the blindfolds from Lady Justice and ask, “If this were another player — Player X — and I were handed his file as a selector, would I say, Let’s keep him going?” And looking at his record — no centuries in almost two years, an appalling 2012 average — I don’t see any reason to keep Player X in the team.

One thing, though: To see Ponting get his send-off reminded me of all that was wrong about the way Dravid and Laxman left. I’d hate to see another Indian retirement emanate from a news conference. Do it on the field, and do it right. We owe that much to you, and you owe it to us. Deal?

How Much Time Does A Hundred Buy You?

One of the more problematic tasks facing cricket fans is to objectively analyze a batsman’s form. You would think this would be easy — just look at recent innings, average trend lines, and learn from the data. But that’s not how it actually works. Take Virender Sehwag, the latest Indian centurion. Here’s a guy who hadn’t scored a Test century in two years, and yet now, one (admittedly impressive) innings later, I see Indian fans posting Facebook statuses hailing Sehwag’s “redemption.”

Part of the trouble is that it’s not clear how much time a hundred buys a batsman. Can you score a century and then hand in a bunch of single-digit innings without fear of punishment? How long could you pull that trick? Our perceptions are also clouded by the context of the innings — say that you score a century in notoriously difficult places like New Zealand, while every other batsman in your team fails. This won’t be reflected in your career averages, but fans will pick up on the story and be happy to give you more leeway when your inevitable failure arrives. Finally, I imagine that for many people, first impressions last — I’m willing to give Sehwag a break because I was there when he first arrived on the scene and looked like a meaner, simpler Sachin Tendulkar. I’ve called these impressions “cricket crushes” — feelings that affect your evaluations of players and lead you to assessments not fully based in reality or data (e.g., for me, Irfan Pathan and M. Kaif). Ask yourself: If V.V.S. Laxman hadn’t scored 281, would he really have earned such a special place in our hearts?

All of this isn’t to dismiss Sehwag’s performance yesterday. That was a fine innings, and I don’t believe that he’s just a flat track bully — the boys at Test Match Sofa confirmed his overseas average tops 40, which is more than respectable for an Indian opener. No, what I’m saying is that I’ve lost some patience with Sehwag. I’m not content just yet with one hundred.

The Surprising Dhoni Referendum

I don’t know how this happened so fast, but professional cricket writers have given us a strange storyline: If India doesn’t do well against England — that is, really well, as close to whitewash well — then M.S. Dhoni’s captaincy will be imperiled. This is strange because a) when Dhoni lost seven overseas Tests in a row, we all shrugged our shoulders (well, most of us did) and b) when India failed to progress in the T20 World Cup, we all quickly cited complicated NRR arithmetic and counterfactuals to forgive him. So why are suddenly giving him an ultimatum?

I imagine this is how the Indian fan’s mind works: We know that the national side is so terrible overseas that any victory is a gift from God; an overseas loss is merely confirmation of reality and the cruel fates, which we cannot change. But India at home is something else; it’s all we have in cricket — it functions the way the “Indians invented zero” line does in arguments about the relative worth of civilizations (“Sure, we are surrounded everyday by horrifying poverty, but we did think up 0, you know”). If India fails at home, then we are, really, nothing.*

Well, I think it’s all silly. If there was a time to seriously reevaluate Dhoni, it came last year, when he failed to achieve the holiest chalice of them all — a victory in Australia. At this point, he is merely a caretaker captain — someone to warm the seat until we can figure out how to replace him (and Laxman and Dravid). Everything that we need to know about Dhoni as a captain, we know. He can do nothing now until 2014, when the next overseas Test takes place, to change his legacy. I have a lot of respect for Dhoni — double CSK champion, T20 champion, ODI winner, No. 1 Test team, and all that — but he is now what Clinton was post-1998 impeachment: a placeholder until the next big election.

Sandeep Patil Scares Me

Specifically, this little bit:

Asked whether the selectors had any specific long-term goal for the team, Patil said “No, we’re going match by match and series by series. Every match is going to be important and we want the Indian team to do well in each of those matches. Let’s not talk about the season ahead of us but this series against England that is coming up.”

It’s possible Patil meant nothing more than the usual cliche about taking each innings ball by ball. It’s more likely, however, that Patil hopes to abide by India’s long tradition of haphazard, knee-jerk and one-off selection strategy. To understand how a real thinker might approach selecting 11 cricketers, read Harsha Bhogle:

In an ideal world the new selection committee should sit down to pick two teams: one that will play the first two Tests against England, and another that will take the field in July 2014 in England, or even in November 2014 in Australia. For India to regain the No. 1 slot, both those have to be winning teams. And so if the latter teams have to be competitive, it must influence the way they pick the current team, because some investments made in players, like those made by banks in high-profile corporations, have begun to look poor.

Bhogle goes on to highlight the major problems in India’s team — the openers, the problem with the spinners and fast bowlers, what to do about Sachin Tendulkar, what to do about M.S. Dhoni’s workload — that need to be solved, or at least approached during relatively “safe” home series. The latest selection choices, however, don’t suggest much progress. Ask yourself: Is Yuvraj really the answer to 2014 Australia? Do we think either R Ashwin or P Ohja can do the job abroad? And once Zaheer leaves, are we really to depend on Umesh Yadav and Ishant Sharma?

Explaining Dhoni’s Caution

Akash Chopra, easily among the best cricket writers around, offers an interesting take on the ‘new Dhoni’ — that is, the Dhoni averse to risk and generally cautious:

It is sad to see Dhoni succumb to a safety-first approach – one that promotes complacency, where guarding an advantage becomes more important than acquiring one. In life, as one achieves success, the ability to take risks falls in almost the same proportion. When Dhoni first became captain there was very little at stake, so he could punt without worrying too much, but as the stakes got higher, every defeat was ruthlessly dissected and criticised, which may have led him to believe defeat was not an option.

This theory seems plausible; we know that most democratically elected governments typically lose steam after the first term as new ideas grow stale and the default position moves from ‘change’ to ‘preservation.’ Dhoni may have made some bold changes in 2007, when the old order was slowly crumbling, but five years on, any new change will involve hurting a constituency that he has supported in the past (Sehwag? Raina? Piyush? Gambhir?). Five years is also a terribly long time in cricket, especially Indian cricket, and Dhoni must now be exhausted. Who has the heart anymore to take risks?

Of course, another explanation — one that seems popular on Twitter — is that Dhoni was never a tactical genius to begin with. Sure, he may have taken a few risks here and there, but he’s always preferred defense and attrition to out-and-out attack. No, what’s changed is that the team he leads has gone from dependable and aggressive to out-of-form and outmatched. Dhoni sees the talent slide but does not know its cause, how to reverse it or how to diminish its damage. Dhoni himself hasn’t changed; the team has — and for the worse.

Unfortunately, as Chopra rightly notes, these are momentous times for Indian cricket. The batting order, as well as  the pace attacks, are in for a period of transition. The last transition in Indian cricket saw a tumultuous fallout between coach and captain; this one may avoid that fate, but we could instead see a return to the Indian norm of inconsistency and wasted talent. The time calls for experimentation and adventure, so Dhoni may as well become young again. 2013 is the new 2007.

Can We Predict When Batsmen Will Fail?

The Great Recession has unearthed a number of flaws in the economics discipline, but none as damning as its relatively primitive ability to forecast future economic conditions. Few experts predicted the onset of the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, and the Obama Administration has consistently underestimated the severity of the recession, predicting 8% unemployment in a couple of years of post-stimulus conditions. Of course, the future is difficult to divine, but as I was reading the latest literature about our failing economic models, I wondered: Is it possible to predict when batsmen will fail? And why do batsmen’s forms fluctuate, much like the business cycle?

I ask this because Indian cricket fans are now faced with a puzzle as bewildering (if not as remotely important) as the causes of the Great Recession: Why is a batsman of Gautam Gambhir’s obvious talent failing?  Remember that only two years ago, Gambhir’s Second Coming was being hailed as the chief reason behind India’s ascent to the No. 1 Test championship spot; he and an attacking Sehwag gave India a crucial advantage and protected a famed, if occasionally brittle, middle order. In less than two years, he scored a commanding eight centuries, and some of them came in most trying conditions. And yet, now, Gambhir is not that far from an ignominious drop; one or two more failures, and we’ll start to hear chants of Rahane and Rayadu on Twitter.

But do we know exactly why a batsman’s form dips and rises? Let me suggest two rudimentary models:

1) A batsman bursts on the scene and produces a string of excellent innings. Bowlers (and video analysis experts) then respond with a specific tactic meant to expose a particular weakness (for example, an inability to hook a short ball, or a tendency to go after wide deliveries). Batsman then either adapts and adjusts (a sign of greatness), or sticks to what he has learned and done again and again in practice sessions and fails. What happens next depends on a lot — the coach, the captain, etc. Gambhir drifted off to obscurity, rejiggered his game, learned some grit and returned to the top again.

Second model (obviously related to the first): 1) Batsman bursts on the scene. His many centuries start to give him a bit too much confidence. He underestimates certain bowlers, who expose him with moderate-to-good deliveries. Or, he suffers a little bad luck and has a few failures in quick succession. Not used to doing badly, this player then starts to sulk. The press starts to question his place in the side, and this criticism is both strange and frightening. He responds by doing the worst thing a modern athlete can do — he starts to think. But cricket, like all of these games, is a game of seconds and inches, and there’s no time for conscious thought. From confidence and bluster, we see the roots of failure.

A related problem, however, is our perceptions of a batsman’s form, which may be detached from the empirical reality. (This is a known issue in social science; Republicans tend to think the economy is doing worse than it actually is; the reverse is true for Democrats.) A good example here is Darren Sammy, who is not the most talented cricketer, but has shown himself capable of taking one or two crucial wickets in every game he plays. Take another — Shane Watson, a man who is consistently underrated by most (including me). Before the T20 World Cup, I wouldn’t have predicted his success — and yet, there he was, picking up the Player of the Tournament award. There are some players whom I will always expect to fail, even though their record more than justifies their place in a side; conversely, there are certain players — Yuvraj Singh in Tests, for example — whom I will always expect to do well, only to see the opposite.

All this said, though, I still believe that a batsman’s form is a mysterious affair. It’s one thing if you’re a batsman, you get found out, and you disappear. It’s another, however, if you’re like Rahul Dravid, and you do well for years, suffer a year or two of failures, and then reemerge as a Great One. So I guess I have two final questions: Why don’t we see any more 99.94s, and when (and why) will Virat Kohli fail?

Sidharth Monga To The Rescue, Sort Of

Sidharth Monga has an incredibly good essay on the state of the Indian team. Key paragraph:

With the team in flux, India need a more assertive and proactive Dhoni, both on and off the field. A Dhoni prepared to make the tough calls, eager to shape his own team, more Imran Khan than Viv Richards. A captain who demands certain standards of the team, one who refuses to carry non-performers. A captain prepared to take on some pressure by asking for the team he wants, and not sulk later. If he can win a match in three days and still criticise the groundsman for not giving his side enough home advantage, surely he can be forceful in selection matters too? He even has a fresh set of selectors, a clean slate if you will, to work with.

I think Dhoni’s strategy has been, as Monga suggests, to stand back, stay cool and let the brilliance he knows his team is capable of to show. When the brilliance does not show — as, with India’s case, is about every other game — then he does not have much to offer. Some captains know how to do much with little; Dhoni can only do more with more.

That said, Monga’s article suffers from a lack of concrete suggestions. I suppose Dhoni could make more of a stink, but it’s never clear in India how much you can win by fighting the system. Monga’s scenario seems to work like this: New selection panel meets. They talk to Dhoni, who raises a fuss about “non-performers” and asks for particular needs (new pace attack, new openers). Selectors respond. Isn’t it entirely plausible, however, that the following unfolds: New selection panel meets. Dhoni tells them what they need. Selection panel leaks. Rumors of team infighting emerge. Sehwag, one of those called “non-performers,” throws a fit. When hearing that he has been dropped, fans go crazy and Cricinfo runs a story headlined: “Was India right to drop Sehwag?” Already dealing with enough pressure, Dhoni sinks and sulks.

The deeper problem, of course, is the lack of talent. I’m not so worried about the batting because we do have some options there. But the bowling…once Zaheer goes, well…perish the thought.

Giving Dhoni A Break

We all read the articles before the Twenty20 tournament that called the series “wide open.” While we didn’t get any minnow upsets, we all know that this format is unpredictable, rewards temporary blips in success (i.e., Shane Watson) and requires a healthy dollop of good luck to prosper. So, yes, India should not have lost as badly as they did against Australia, but I’m more than willing to accept Dhoni’s counterfactual that had the rain not been so bad, they might have trimmed the margin. That seems reasonable to me, and four wins out of five matches can’t be easily dismissed.

On the other hand: I don’t think many Indian cricket fans or cricket critics have adequately come to terms with India’s performance over the past two years. What’s wrong or right with this team? There was little to no introspection after the overseas Test drubbings of 2011, and now inertia seems to be the guiding principle. But urgent problems loom: Gambhir and Sehwag are failing; our fast bowlers have only Zaheer Khan to intimidate (and, for about one over, Irfan Pathan); our middle order is occasionally strong, but we’re not yet sure about Rohit Sharma or Yuvraj Singh (or, in overseas situations, Suresh Raina). Even if we accept that this team performed well in the T20 World Cup, we are still left with several uneasy questions, which no one seems to be able to answer convincingly.

So, is this team good or bad? And another question: Test your conscience — compared to Australia and Pakistan’s performances, do you really believe India deserved to progress to the next stage?

The Unfortunate Return of Harbhajan

Why is it that the certain Indian players you wish would make a comeback — Mohammed Kaif, anyone? Anyone? — never get a look-in, but Harbhajan Singh forever returns, like a bad rash? I don’t mean to begrudge another man’s success; obviously, taking four wickets on a comeback match is an ideal storyline (spoiled only slightly by the fact that the wickets in question were English, never the best players of spin). Indian fans, I suspect, will always have a special place for Harbhajan thanks to his Eden Garden heroics all those years ago. He is a charming rogue, and because he performs at just the right moments, he leaves a more indelible mark on our memory than the consistent, boring, two-wicket-a-match types.

But, but, but! We never questioned Harbhajan’s ability to seize the big moment. Like Freddie Flintoff, he is a Big Moment Man: when the plot calls for a twist, he will provide it. No, what remains to be seen is whether Harbhajan will turn into the lifeless, risk-averse, boring bowler once the spotlight turns away and the pressure recedes. On the other hand, could a better, threatening R. Ashwin lead to a better, more hungry Harbhajan? Has what Harbhajan needed all these years is a little competition for his place in the team? Can our stage accomodate two leading roles?