Category Archives: Test Match

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.

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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.”

The Polarization Of Cricket Is Nearly Complete

In 2012, I suggested that the cricket world was about to become neatly polarized — the brown teams would reassert dominance in South Asia, and the white teams would guard their respective fortresses in England/Australia/South Africa. India’s recent series loss to England at home hinted of another possibility, but I think it was more of an anomaly committed by a team in transition (?). At any rate, no one cricket team can now fully dominate the rest.

To watch Indian spinners confound the Australians over more than a month laid bare an old truth of cricket: white people can’t play spin, and brown people — er, non-Pakistani brown people, rather — can’t bowl fast. As happy as I am about the India victory, I live as ever in deathly fear of the upcoming tour of South Africa. Can anyone imagine Ishant Sharma and B. Kumar taking wickets there? Will R. Jadeja and Dhoni and Vijay and Dhawan — all key planks of the new Indian batting order — survive the inevitable barrage of swing and pace? Will we see another terrible drubbing abroad?

In one sense, the last few years of cricket have been some of the most exciting. No team has been good enough to transcend the boundaries of the post-colonial world. England threatened to do so (winning in Australia when no one has, and winning in India when they rarely have), but they were also whitewashed by Pakistan in the Middle East. South Africa are forever contenders to take up the mantle left by the West Indians and the Australians of yore, but they still lack a quality spinner (and have yet to recently win — rather than merely draw — a series in India). Australia, meanwhile, look unlikely to thrive for another few years, at least until people like Warner, Cowan, Hughes, Watson etc., fully mature.

And the same goes for the brown teams: Sri Lanka are not far away from the retirements of two of their greatest batsmen; Pakistan’s batting remains problematic, and India’s pace cupboard, while well stocked, seems filled with ingredients either not ready for use or past their expiration date.

I imagine we’d all prefer closely fought series, and the recent whitewashes will feed criticism that cricket’s home advantage is just too strong. But isn’t it a beautiful thing to see a pace bowler thrive in his native jungle? Weren’t we all amazed and thrilled to see spinners at both ends throwing darts at batsmen surrounded by fielders? We will likely have to wait some time until a new generation of cricketing heroes emerge and succeed universally; until then, I’m happy to watch these minor characters perfect their limited — but entirely well-suited — set of skills.

 

 

Three Thoughts on Australia’s HomeworkGate

1. Michael Clarke says that the punishment came after a series of incidents, and not just one. Let’s assume he’s telling the truth — that is, let’s assume he didn’t rest four players (including his best pace bowler) because they didn’t complete a “mundane” assignment (more on that later). Let’s also realize that the issue involves more than silly paperwork. The culture of an organization — in this case, a cricket squad — is immensely important. (John Wright, India’s first successful foreign coach, once marveled at how junior Indian cricketers would have to bring tea to the seniors– a tradition that no doubt unleashed waves of resentment, entitlement, etc.) For a team like Australia, where most of the players haven’t played many Tests, this period marks a dangerous moment: the rookies don’t know the traditions or the rituals or the customs, and they could set Australia on a course very different from the one it’s been on for the past 15 years. Listen to what Clarke says:

“We can’t accept mediocrity here. This is the Australian cricket team. Maybe I am biased [but] there is a big difference between this team and other cricket teams. If you play for Australia there is a lot that comes with that and standards, discipline, culture that is all a big part of what we are talking about here.” [emphasis added]

Clarke sees the future, and it’s bleak. He probably knows that Australia will likely not dominate the way it did in the 1990s and 2000s, but there’s a still a lot of room between South Africa and Bangladesh. We can disagree about where culture comes from, or how best to enforce its norms. [The Indians tend to favor a fatherly foreign coach who leads by example (Kirsten apparently moved Indian cricketers to become fit because he was, as a 40-plus-year-old, more capable than they were) or by gentle coaxing. Not really sure what moves Australians.]

2. I find it a bit strange to read posts about how Australia’s management technique appears to be ripped straight from Office Space, a 1990s film that lampooned the tedious, bureaucratic and often meaningless rituals of American managerial culture. So some people didn’t file their paperwork before a deadline! Big deal! What if they were training all day? Yeah, except this is what modern athlete management looks like. It means that players have to file tons of paperwork to let coaches know their fitness levels, how much they need to train, and rest, etc. When we were all praising England’s player management, what did we think we were talking about? This is the “price of modern cricket,” as I wrote in 2011 — someone records and analyzes hundreds of hours of video footage, then tells bowlers what’s wrong with their action, and then the players train obsessively to correct it. Or players go on the field wearing instruments strapped to their arm to measure every single step they take. The reason I find the Indian approach to cricket exasperating is that it is largely unplanned, ad hoc, and driven by often competing (and fickle) impulses.

3. In 2010, I quoted from David Foster Wallace’s incredible profile of Michael Joyce, in which he examined the kind of intelligence that is needed to succeed as a modern athlete. Wallace’s conclusion — that you have to completely zone out as many intellectual distractions as possible — suggests modern athletes are, basically, a special kind of dumb. Now, in that post, I wondered whether the same could be said of cricketers, whom I like to think are a breed apart from their colleagues in soccer or rugby or swimming or even tennis. The sheer complexity of Test cricket and its length of time require both discipline and strategic nous.

Or does it? Tom Moody’s reaction to the sacking was basically, ‘Well, fast bowlers aren’t the best at writing reports.’ But Mickey Arthur presumably wasn’t asking for intellectual manuscripts; he wanted his cricketers to reflect and think about their game. It’s a very common exercise in coaching — “Tell me what you think you did wrong” — as it forces you to get out of habit and to see your flaws. Wasim Akram once said that he’d often be frustrated when batsmen-captains hoped to get him to bowl better by saying cliched stuff like, “Line and length, line and length.” Wasim would think, “But why am I not bowling line and length right now? Why am I failing?” So, this wasn’t really that ridiculous an assignment at all — if you want a bunch of players who can analyze their strengths and weaknesses and express them clearly enough, then this makes perfect sense to me.

Have You Ever Watched A Test All The Way Through?

A hypothetical: Let’s say you’re either unemployed or wealthy enough that you don’t have to work. And then, let’s say there’s a Test match between reasonably interesting teams (like India and Australia). Assume there are no competing demands on your time. Would you really sit through all 30 hours of cricket?

I’m thinking about this because Gavaskar and Bhogle were talking recently about how scintillating the Chennai Test was — more than 1,200 runs scored, some 30-odd wickets, and an innings (from Dhoni) that will likely go down in the history books. And yet, even during that supposedly amazing Test, there were long stretches of nothing happening. Take, for example, the very end, when Sachin Tendulkar hit two consecutive sixes and then decided to play a maiden over with only one run left to win. As I watched, I thought about the absurdity of the situation: India, with eight wickets and all of time available, keeping everyone waiting.

The cricket fan’s standard defense against the “nothing ever happens in Test cricket” critique is to say, “Well, are you really sure nothing’s happening?” On Day 2 of the the second Test, Pujara and Vijay batted an entire session and scored a handful of runs — something like less than two runs an over. To the untrained eye, this was cricket at its worst — two very capable batsmen tiring out mildly competent bowling. But a cricket fan would say the pair was in reality setting up the rest of the day, particularly the post-Tea session, when they plundered their way to five runs an over.

Perhaps, but confess, all ye fans: Did you watch the morning session through without getting bored? Or did you do as I do — put the cricket in the background, browse the Internet, and occasionally check in with the game?

 

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.

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.

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?

Dealing With The West Indies’ Mediocrity

For a while, there was a dominant theme among cricket writers dealing with the downfall of the West Indies. During each Windies series, they would search for signs of renewal, then either find them or conclude that none exist and bemoan the loss of a great cricketing legacy. Now, however, thanks to some better-than-expected outings in India, Lord’s and at home from the West Indians, these writers have sharpened their pens: This team does reasonably well (given the circumstances), but where is Gayle and the other Bravo? Why can’t Darren Sammy do more? Why can’t they string more good sessions together?

Let me humbly offer an alternative to this fit of rising expectations: the most I ever hope for from any two teams is to be entertained. There’s a lot of bonus stuff apart from that, but if two teams give me a reason to watch, the end result largely does not matter (if India is playing, I’ll add a big asterisk to this statement). So, for me right now, I watch the Windies because of Chanderpaul and Bravo, and occasionally a supporting actor (Samuels, or Roach, or Bishoo). I also have come to appreciate their brand of attritional cricket, which may not ever deliver victory, but is a) a throwback to olden times; b) a “price” on victory; and c) perfect for the setting in England. I can’t tell you how much joy I derive from nothing happening on a cricket field.

So, then, does it matter to me that the Windies will lose this series? Not really. Should I get myself into knots about their performance? Again, not really — as long as the above factors are in play, I’m happy. Jarrod Kimber may argue that this attitude is condescending; as he memorably writes, the whole reason we like the Windies is that they are underdogs, occasionally play above expectations, but rarely challenge a preferred team. But I think most writers on the Windies suffer from the past, and so watching the Windies play now is always a reminder of what-use-to-be. I much prefer my approach: find something to like, enjoy it, and then move on.

Relive The 2005 Ashes

I saw this documentary on television once and then spent years on the Internet trying to find a copy (mostly for the Stephen Fry commentary). There are great cameos from Mike Atherton (who explains why Shane Warne was so difficult to face), as well as Simon Hughes, whom I adore. There’s also a great dissection of the Warne-Ponting relationship. If you feel any need to indulge Flintoff/Simon Jones nostalgia, or “the swing works the oracle again,” spend the hour-plus watching this:

P.S.: Now that I think about it, the 2005 Ashes aren’t as significant as they were at the time, mainly because of the 5-0 drubbing that followed, but also because England went on to win in 2009 and 2010. Winning against Australia in Australia was monumental, and the hectic, manic Tests of 2005 seem almost amateurish compared to the clinical nature of their expedition down under. Still, watching these Tests is watching something real — the closeness of the games overshadows the guile, strategy and effort; only sheer desperation and human emotion are left.