Category Archives: Test Match

The Polarization of Cricket

Pakistan’s whitewash of England — and India’s whitewash in England and Australia — suggest cricket is returning to a polarized world in which the white teams can’t do well in Asia, and the brown teams can’t do well in White-Land (Aus-Eng-S.A.). In the 2000s, we saw India amend this rule when it won series in England and drew series in Australia and South Africa, and we saw Australia complete its world domination when it won in India.

No more. What happened to England — and to India — showcased pitch determinism at its best; the English batsmen couldn’t deal with spin on dry (Asian) pitches, and the Indians couldn’t handle seam or swing on (English and Australian) pitches. It’s possible that these whitewashes will feed a vicious cycle, wherein home teams ask for skewed pitches (we’ve seen this already from Gambhir and Sehwag), resulting in more and more one-sided victories. On the other hand, it’s also possible that the ICC pitch inspection program may lead to more standardized pitches, or that India’s board will finally wake up to reality and prepare pitches that aren’t roads designed to give five days of cricket.

Why is this happening now? Well, with England, we know the answer — they were never really all that good at playing in South Asia. But more broadly, the impending retirement of the batting greats — Kallis, Ponting, etc. — will give way to mere mortals less cosmopolitan in their approach to batting. Once the titans who bestride the globe leave, we’re left with the warlords who jealously guard their turf.

On Virat Kohli’s Anger

Sharda Ugra and Satadru Sen both have very good essays on Virat Kohli’s displays of anger over the Australian tour. Since I’ve long been a supporter of the spirit-of-cricket meme, I too have a problem with players flipping the middle finger at crowds and mouthing sister-fucker as part of a debut century celebration.

But I want to add a cautious dissent: analysts and commentators often offer tributes to hyper-rational players who, possessed of a “cricketing brain,” are able to astutely judge a match situation without allowing it to overwhelm them. What is conjured up is a homo economicus figure straight out of the Enlightenment (and maybe the Victorian era): cool, calm, without emotion.

This model, however, has been under attack in the social sciences, particularly in the field of behavioral economics, for about two or three decades now. We know that the human mind relies extensively on emotions in decision-making and that particular situations often dictate how a brain operates. It’s not that we are all irrational, only that we are predictably irrational in many ways (for e.g., we tend to worry much more about potential losses than we’re happy about potential gains). It’s not a battle between emotion and rationality, but perhaps choosing between the right emotions (anger could lead to a Kohli century, or, as we all know, to the dark side).

Which is all to say that I don’t particularly mind it when players draw upon emotions — in this case, anger — to power their on-field behavior. We’ve seen it time and time again — I wrote about Yuvraj Singh’s anger after being sledged by Andrew Flintoff in the 2007 World Cup, when he hit six sixes off Stuart Broad. There’s also Zaheer Khan, who began his comeback on an England tour after having jellies thrown on the pitch by a mischievous Alistair Cook. I clearly haven’t thought through my take on how emotions work, but I know at least some of the time, they do. So let anger, pride, sorrow, fear work its way into our understanding of cricket.

A Note On The Indian Batting Legends

The consensus on India’s batting failures runs like this: They are clearly past their prime and need to go, but thanks for the memories. There are vocal minorities that push the harder view — Tendulkar isn’t all that; Laxman needs to be dropped immediately and can’t move his feet; Dravid can’t sight the ball (Ganguly even had the nerve to question his technique, which I found rather surprising). The overall narrative: These are aged players, they are in decline, India needs to be rejuvenated.

Let me propose an alternative story: While some claim these last eight Tests have exposed the Big Three, what if these men — through their sheer talent (and fortuitous grouping) actually masked the structural weaknesses in Indian cricket for the duration of their careers? What if these men, fighting an unresponsive and politician-riddled system, managed to take an always mediocre team and make them — for a brief year or two — unbeatable? What has been exposed isn’t Dravid’s technique or Laxman’s legs, but the fact that other than a few diamonds, there’s a lot of dust in Indian cricket. The dam, in other words, has burst, and our excessive reliance on these men — and our classically Indian tendency to worship — deserves more criticism than anything else.

There are many holes in this narrative, I admit: a) It’s possible these men, thanks to their deservedly thick reputations, managed to delay change and reform (much the way Ganguly resisted changing the ODI team under Chappell); b) Old teams, like old firms, are slow to adapt and move; it was common in Dhoni’s early ODI tenure to shift batsmen around and force everyone to be flexible; by contrast, no one dared suggest switching up the Test side because the “record on paper” seemed too good to mess with; c) The problem with my counter-narrative is that it doesn’t address the main issue — India’s bowling is the problem, not the batting (see Kartikeya Date for more on this); d) Why blame the system at all? Didn’t these guys come from it? Hasn’t it amply rewarded them?

All good points. For the sake of generosity, though, I prefer my interpretation of history. We had two of the most prolific batsmen in the history of cricket play at the same time, with a capable back-up squad that included Sehwag, Laxman and Ganguly — and all we got was…what? West Indies? Australia? So, no, I don’t feel all that disturbed by the collective slump — I just think we should be talking more about Indian cricket as a whole now and whether these guys carried its burdens for too long, not “When are these guys going to retire already and let Kohli take their place?”

Cricket Transitions Are Messy

We know that India will enter its transition phase soon enough, so I want to issue a warning to all Indian cricket fans: this could get ugly. Maybe not uglier than seven consecutive overseas Test defeats, but pretty ugly. Look at India’s ODI team and the Chappell/Ganguly/Dravid/World Cup 2007 imbroglio; England post-Michael Vaughan; Australia post-Ashes 2010. No team escaped without significant embarrassments, internal turmoil and (to be fair) eventual success.

India is lucky that they will be playing at home for the rest of the season, but that just means we’ll be in for some major heartbreak in 2013. Doesn’t it boggle your mind when you think of all the players the Indian ODI squad tested before it settled on the finalists for the 2011 World Cup? And what exactly will we do with our bowling line-up, which has yet to come to terms with Anil Kumble’s retirement, as well as Zaheer Khan’s impending one?

So, this team needs a lot of space and time. It also doesn’t need false hope. Again, victories aren’t home aren’t the issue. I also suspect that the batting golden age we’ve seen over the last decade and a half — Tendulkar, Ponting, Dravid and Kallis all played at the same time, you know — will likely end soon. This is just a hunch on my part (or maybe a misguided hope), but we’ve seen the rise of some pretty impressive bowling lately and I’d like to see them take the lead for a bit. Which means don’t start hating on batsmen (cough, cough, Virat Kohli) when they don’t immediately perform.

I say this as if I’m addressing some mythical Indian fan, when, really, this is all just addressed to myself. Like I said before: I’m scared.

Lay Off Saeed Ajmal

Here we go again: another South Asian off-spinner takes a few wickets (at the hands of some clueless white men), and the commentators start yapping about his action. Saeed Ajmal gave the performance of his career after a week of breathing fire to anyone who would listen. Matt Prior had the decency to say he couldn’t care less about his action, but here’s Bob Willis:

“The delivery that I have a problem with is the doosra,” Willis said. “The ICC have accommodated this delivery; they changed the rules to allow these bowlers to bend their elbow 15 degrees, which is what makes it so difficult for the batsmen.

“The authorities are now allowing these mystery spinners, unorthodox offspinners to bend their elbow to a degree. If they are going to be allowed to do that then England have to address this and decide whether we should be teaching our young spinners to bowl like that as well.”

Let me say this once more: the rules were not changed to accommodate any specific type of player. They were changed because the science showed that it was impossible for the human eye to see any inflexion below 15 degrees. I know that Willis — and many, many others — refuse to accept this tale, but to indulge in silly conspiracy theories makes them sound, well, positively South Asian. If you believe the ICC committee that decided this rule based its decision on something other than science, then show me the evidence.

And here’s some pseudo-science from the Daily Mail, which purports to do what an independent ICC panel didn’t and make the case against Ajmal’s arm. I’m not sure taking a crappy picture and putting an angle on Ajmal’s arm is going to beat the 3D modeling the ICC panel used, but at this point, I’d rather stick with the authorities than a tabloid. The real danger is that these people will do to Ajmal what they did to Murali; that is, it’ll come to the point that even when commentators finally agree about the validity of his action, they’ll still bring it up to say it’s cleared, only serving to reinforce the ambiguity behind the whole affair.

Let’s nip this in the bud, people, and enjoy the prospect of an overseas defeat for England. Let the revenge begin!

One More Quick Note On the Indian Cricket Transition

So far, the most criticism has come in for India’s batsmen. That makes sense because of the scorecards, as well as Dhoni’s own self-diagnosis (that the bowlers did their jobs, but the batsmen did not). But we shouldn’t forget that India’s bowling line-up is also on a fine edge and that solving its problems will likely be harder than anything else.

Kartikeya (over at A Cricketing View) knows the data and arguments better than I do, but once Zaheer Khan goes — which can’t be long, given his injury-prone body — we could see repeat after repeat of the England tour. In Melbourne and Perth, the Indian bowlers did reasonably well (barring David Warner’s innings, there would have been little to choose between the two sides), but I’m not entirely convinced Ishant Sharma, R. Ashwin or Vinay Kumar are the answer. (I’m happy with Umesh Yadav and Varun Aaron, but I’d like to see how those fast bowlers handle the rigors of international circuit.)

Are we happy with Ohja or Harbhajan? Who will lead our pace department once Zaheer goes? We have suggestions for improving the batting side because Indians know how to bat (generally). But to deal with the bowlers, we’ll need to start talking a little bit more about our cricket academies, our flat pitches and whether or not the IPL is getting in the way of bowlers touring English counties.

 

What An India Victory at Adelaide Would Mean

Very little, I’m afraid. I understand the sentiment behind calls for a younger batting line-up, but I’m still skeptical. At this stage, there’s only face to be saved and even though they’ve had fourteen consecutive innings to prove themselves, I’d like to give the Big Three two more.

Say Rohit Sharma does come in Laxman’s place and does reasonably well. What exactly would that achieve, other than the untimely end of a great career? Some argue it would set the stage for the transition the Indian Test side so needs, but I think that stage is already well set for this year. We all know the retirements are coming in 2012, so why not wait one more Test? And even if Sharma does well, it’s an innings that will go to waste, since India won’t play abroad for a while. One year from now, when India ventures abroad once more, will an Adelaide Test debut matter all that much for Sharma?

Let him cool his heels. I’m not one for nostalgia or sentimentality, but I’m not a fan of mass hysteria either. It’s over, we lost, and chances are, we’ll lose the last Test too. But at this stage, I’d rather give this lot a nod of the head, some thanks and say farewell. Down with the ship we go. (Hmm, perhaps a little more sentimental than I thought.)

Praying For The Whitewash?

Devanshu isn’t happy with Venkat Ananth for pulling for a whitewash (which would, presumably, force the BCCI to reform):

The weird thing about Mr. Ananth’s article is that what he ultimately wants is an ideological victory– for the BCCI to change to suit his ideal. And it’s a worthy ideal.

But he’s willing to give up the present. He’s willing to give up on short-term victories, on short-term miracles. He’s willing to give up on the grind. Like a comic book villain, he wishes for short-term devastation, so that he can build a new world order.

Tough call. My own position is that while I’d like to avoid the whitewash (if only to avoid the sight of smiling Australians), I wouldn’t be destroyed by one. And that’s because I’d like to see some BCCI officials squirm and, obviously, see some changes made in the way India runs its cricket. The more likely outcome? India lose 4-0 (or 3-0); Indian fans start calling for Laxman+Dravid’s heads; the BCCI announces a powerless review (like the Bowles-Simpson Commission) and, one year later, we have promptly forgotten everything.

New world order, anyone?

Making Sense of the Squabbles in the Indian Team

I don’t really believe that there are fights in the Indian dressing room; perhaps reporters are misinterpreting general dissatisfaction with 2-0 (er, 6-0) with anger at the captain. Like the other South Asian countries, India has a long, sordid history of discordant cricket teams and captains without authority, but Dhoni’s tenure has proven (mercifully) an exception.

I do want to make a quick point about this coverage: You really don’t know about what’s going on in the minds of cricketers on the field. I just read that remarkable essay from Chris Rogers, the one-Test wonder who opened at Perth in 2008 against India. It’s a wonderful read because  it shows some of the pressure and other factors that television spectators, sitting in the comfort of their homes, may miss. (Like, for e.g., the 40-degree weather, and what it does to the mood after long day on the field, or the chance comments made by the Perth crowd on the way to the pitch.)

This is something no amount of technology or replays will show. Players don’t offer that many insights; they simply say “didn’t bowl in the right areas,” as if begging the question is an answer. But we forget the human touch when we watch the T.V. — that bowlers get tired; that captains may have arguments in the dressing room; that the coach may not be entirely respected (though we’ll probably hear that). This is the paradox of modern spectatorship: we know so much more about shots and technique and patterns and gossip, but at the end of the day, we are across the world wondering just why, say, Sehwag decides to do what he does…

Dropping V.V.S. Laxman Isn’t A Good Idea

I’m surprised to see the knives have started to come out for V.V.S. Laxman. Cricinfo collected advice from former players — always a source to be taken with caution — and a couple suggested bringing in Rohit Sharma in Laxman’s place. E.g., Sanjay Manjrekar:

“I would still drop VVS [Laxman] and get Rohit [Sharma] in for next Test. Makes long-term sense. Give Virat [Kohli] one more Test … just to be sure he does not belong here. VVS averages 20 in last 12 overseas innings. Even if he gets a good score in next Test, it will not serve India long. Also if Virat, before the tour, was India’s next big thing, should he not get more than two Tests on his first stint in Australia?”

The issue is that it’s silly to “make long-term sense” when you have a more pressing short-term goal — namely, avoiding a consecutive overseas whitewash. After this tour, India won’t play another overseas game for a year, giving youngsters ample time to fill in big shoes in less difficult terrain than the WACA. Besides, whatever success India has earned abroad has come from Sehwag, Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman. Let’s give them two more Tests, please.*

One small point to end: I think a reasonable case can be made that the weakest link in the line-up is Sehwag, who too often gets out early to an impetuous shot, exposing the middle order to a newish ball. I know people — i.e., Ian Chappell — like him for the attacking option he offers India, but I’d rather have two staid openers who kill the new ball than someone who leaves the No. 3 at his every beck and call.

* Did anyone else catch the anger in Sourav Ganguly’s voice when he started to talk about Michael Hussey? Ganguly said it was strange and ridiculous that Hussey was under pressure, given the Ashes series he had less than a year earlier. “Just because of his age,” Ganguly said, letting off more than a whiff of bitterness about the circumstances that led to his own retirement.  I imagine Ganguly is secretly happy that his former position has yet to be permanently filled — but is there a lesson here about age and retirement? Is it better to let older players stay on if you don’t have a good replacement, or is it better to let them go and try and blood newbies on the spot? (Call this the Jay Leno-Conan O’Brien conundrum.)