Category Archives: Test Match

Giving Into Despair

Samir Chopra has an excellent post on why this latest defeat — India’s sixth in a row overseas — hurts:

But the problem is that even that minor comfort of disastrous novelty is not present in the current circumstances. For the Indian loss at SCG was made singlularly rank by the utter familiarity of it all: India are playing overseas; when their batsmen bat, the pitch turns green and hilly; when the opposition bats, a squad of alert groundsmen runs out, flattens the pitch and mows the grass; when India bat again, the gremlins take up their usual positions underneath the pitch…

What gets my goat is that I just don’t know why any of this is happening. I don’t mean that in the way of a victim of sudden misfortune; I mean there is no evidence to explain why such talented and in-form batsmen (like Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman) aren’t scoring. Apart from Gambhir’s noodling, I haven’t seen anything from the middle order that screams fault or failure. Over at A Cricketing View, Kartikeya explains the slump all has to do with the off-stump and how well the Australian bowlers have built pressure by hunting in a pack in that area. O.K., but how is it that a team that was able to stare down a much more attacking and well-respected line-up in 2003 (and even 2008) fail to do so again here?

So what do you do? Some people will inevitably point to age and grumble about the lethargic fielding. That needs to be qualified, given Dravid’s (and Ponting’s and Kallis’) recent efforts. And yes, these old folks aren’t stellar in the field, but I seriously doubt Jonty Rhodes or Paul Collingwood would have changed anything on Days 2 and 3 at the SCG. Hence my despair: given the record, given the evident form…why is this happening?


Sins Of Star Cricket Commentary

If it’s hard for a bowling side to watch batsmen pile on the runs, as the Australians are doing in Sydney right now, it’s even harder for the audience to listen to the commentary. Moments like these are a real challenge for the microphone-wielders: what do you talk about when it’s clear just where the Test match is headed and there are few strategies or tactics to dissect? Here’s what Ian Chappell and Co. tried out:

1) Female streakers. A truly bizarre moment: Chappell sees Michael Clarke hug Ricky Ponting after reaching a double ton. “I’ve never seen the need to hug anyone on a cricket field,” Chappell said, betraying yet another sign that his hyper-masculinity may all be an elaborate attempt to compensate for a secret penchant for cross-dressing. He then qualified his statement, noting he did in fact hug two streakers once. “What gender?” Shastri asked, mischievously. “Female,” came the fast reply (God forbid the other option!). I think Chappell then went on to suggest the women in question were strippers. I’m really not sure.

2) Ian Chappell discusses the other boring Test match. What’s better than discussing the current one-sided Test match unfolding languidly before your eyes? The other boring Test match across the world, namely Sri Lanka receiving a pummeling from Kallis and Co. I can just see Chappell’s producers pleading with him through his ear-piece to talk about the weather, or Sydney tourist attractions instead.

3) Tip Foster. Apparently, there was once a dude who captained England in both football and cricket and did reasonably well in both. He scored 287 on debut in Australia. He also died early from diabetes (at age 36). I know this because one commentator — Dean Jones? — decided he needed to talk about it, and Wasim Akram repeated the exact same thing a moment later.

4) Diabetes is really terrible. Just to follow up on Tip Foster — Wasim Akram issued a public service announcement on how to avoid diabetes. (Hint: it involves not eating biryani every day.)

Have We Hyped India’s Batting Line-Up?

The Reverse Sweep goes over India’s recent overseas batting:

For the record and in reverse order the sorry tale of inepitude against Australia, England, West Indies and South Africa reads: 191, 169, 282, 283, 300, 244, 224, 158, 288, 261, 286, 347, 201, 252, 246, 364, 228 and 205.

During this sorry run these are the averages of India’s top seven: Gambhir 25.00, Sehwag 20.54, Dravid 47.66, Tendulkar 42.71, Laxman 32.15, Dhoni 27.00, Raina 25.92 and Kohli 13.75.

That’s pretty damning, but the post goes a bit too far when it suggests India’s batting is more myth and propaganda than actual merit.* Here are the career overseas averages for the players listed above: Gambhir: 49.75**; Sehwag: 46.21; Dravid: 54.13; Laxman: 46.40; Tendulkar: 55.61;  Dhoni: 35.07. (I’m not going to include Raina or Kohli because they’re too green at this level.) Those averages don’t suggest a line-up inept in the overseas circuit (though, admittedly, their averages in England and Australia specifically are likely to be much less flattering).

So why do these batsmen suddenly look like they’re playing in 1990s highlights? I don’t know and I haven’t seen a good answer from anyone. I wrote in an earlier post that India’s team management seemed to think that the England series was essentially a fluke compounded by bad luck and injuries. You can see why they didn’t seek radical change: Gambhir’s poking around off-stump works well in South Asia, but not so well against the swinging/seaming ball; Dravid and Tendulkar look great; Sehwag is and always has been a lottery and no one — no one — knows what’s going on with Laxman.

Whatever the cause, India’s batting-line up now looks like Sri Lanka’s: it all rests and falls with two men, Mahela and Sangakarra (or Dravid and Tendulkar in this case). Get to them (through a volatile opening pair), work hard to get them out (by restrictive lines and good luck), and you have a suddenly weak Laxman, Dhoni (not the best Test batsman) and a tail that goes from No. 6 down. If India fails to post a reasonable total in Sydney, the counter-narrative will begin to gather some momentum and more folks will be talking about “flat track bullies.” Either way, the series will be lost; Dravid’s (and possibly Laxman’s) retirement will be hastened, and a generation of fans will ponder why a team with such obvious promise and talent failed to rule the world at the start of the 21st century.

* I think it’s also a tiny bit unfair: teams like South Africa, Eng, and Aus will have higher batting averages in South Asia because pitches there are generally more welcoming (at least for the 1st innings). [I’m too lazy to check this hypothesis out — am I right? Are subcontinent averages for batsmen from these countries high?]

** Gambhir’s overseas average is inflated by performances against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. On the other hand, he has done well in New Zealand and South Africa, which aren’t kind to most batsmen (let alone Indian ones).

The Follow-Up Question For R. Ashwin

This is what R. Ashwin — given the unenviable task of facing Indian reporters after Day 2 — said about India’s defensive field with Australia at 99/3:

“What else do you do with 190 in the pocket?” Ashwin said. “You’ll have to save every run possible. Supposing you get two or three wickets later on, and someone is having a good spell, we have those runs to play with later. That has got to be the only idea. It’s common sense. Nothing else.”

But please, sir: “Given that Australia’s run-rate did not dip below 4 through the day, doesn’t that mean you failed both at taking wickets and containing the batsmen? Wouldn’t you rather have conceded a few boundaries if an attacking field meant your chance of taking a wicket increased?” Good Lord, I sound more and more like Ian Chappell with each passing day.

Dissecting Virat Kohli

Since the England tour, cricket bloggers and commentators have tried to understand what ails India’s vaunted batting line-up. Sriram Veera gives the best analysis I’ve seen of Virat Kohli, the latest member of the No. 6 club:

He was (is?) by his own admission a touch desperate to prove himself in Test cricket. “I probably started thinking too much about Test cricket, thinking it’s a huge, huge change. Maybe I shouldn’t have and should have been more relaxed. I should have taken all that (ODI) confidence into the first Test, and I should have gone in with the same approach…”

With Kohli, intent is key. The 50-over format provides him with that context, what to chase, a target to set, that helps him focus and fine-tune his game. The open-ended nature of Test cricket straitjackets him. Even in ODIs, it’s the chases he revels in more than batting first.

I’ve always had a difficult time understanding why great ODI batsmen have a tough time in Tests. There really shouldn’t be that big a problem adjusting to the change in format — David Warner and Virender Sehwag are examples — but I can see why the whole “bat without end” thing could be confusing.

What we see as spectators — scorecards, instant replays, pop analysis — is obviously different from the batsman’s reality in the middle, which revolves more around bowling spells, waiting for the new ball to age, judging the evolving character of the pitch, batting to the end of a session…Different ball game, as they say.


I Just Don’t Understand India’s Batsmen

Somewhere on this earth, a young cricket fan with an intense hatred for Team India holds a collection voodoo dolls in his closet. He brings it out at crucial moments for the team — say, away tours against prestigious teams — and he pokes the fabric with glee when he wants the most effect.

How else to explain the bizarre dip in form from Gambhir, Sehwag, Laxman, No. 6 (be it Yuvraj, Raina, Kohli or — inevitably? — Rohit Sharma) and Tendulkar? During the lunch break today, Dean Jones told an almost incredulous Ravi Shastri that he still believed the Indian line-up could pull it off. Less than an hour later, Dravid, Laxman, Gambhir and Kohli were all back in the pavilion.

Clearly, Jones hadn’t been keeping up with this team. Yes, it’s a great line-up; yes, it’s scored many runs and has much experience. But for the past decade, a prosecutor could easily point to evidence of brittleness — innings when batting collapses meant this line-up couldn’t even last 50 overs (Sydney 2007/8 would be a chilling Exhibit A, umpire errors or no). These guys have crafted great moments, it’s true, but hungry enough oppositions have learned to snake through.

So what ails them? Nobody really knows. Gambhir enjoyed a couple of great years, now he’s hit a dip and looks like he’s in need of his fix at the start of each innings.  Sehwag’s method relies chiefly on confidence and bravura, and as long as the runs are scored, his self-belief becomes self-fulfilling. String enough low scores, however, and soon enough commentators will start talking about “rashness,” a terrible technique, “look at those feet!” Dravid and Tendulkar are the only pillars left, but Dravid’s cracking under the weight and Tendulkar never wins games for India anyhow. Meanwhile, Laxman — so good at soaking pressure and leading counter-charges — well, I really have no idea what’s wrong with Laxman.

The tragedy of Melbourne was that India was really this close to victory. A couple of tailender wickets, or maybe just a few more lucky boundaries in the first innings, and it was theirs to be had. But they need to learn that if none of the Golden 4 can perform, they all need to pitch in (a la R. Ashwin). We’re all getting an early look at what the future holds for India: less genius, more hard graft and modesty. Not unlike, er, Australia.

The Activist LBW Decision Returns

It’s a weird feeling when Ian Chappell agrees with you. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be happy or crawl into a dark space and slowly rock myself back to sleep. Here’s what happened:

Ed Cowan received another marginal decision today; he was adjudged LBW padding up to a beauty from Umesh Yadav. The only problem was that HawkEye showed the ball missing off-stump. Chappell, seeing this, goes on a tear (that he brings up again during the tea break) and says if a batsman pads up to a ball, he shouldn’t even have the right to review.

Like Chappell, I have argued in two previous posts that umpires rightly take a harsher view of batsmen who pad up to balls. Batsmen, after all, are supposed to use their bat, not their pads, and if they happen to find themselves in a spot of bother (like Cowan), umpires should be a bit more tough in imagining the trajectory of the ball. As I said before:

The big problem with technology in this case is that it involves standardization, and in removing the human element, we also take out a crucial piece of the game’s drama. I say, unshackle umpires — let them decide how much consideration, say, ‘height’ deserves; let them decide if a batsman’s shot was stupid enough to get them hit on the pads, and above all, let them rule on whether or not a batsman failed at his most basic mission: to hit the ball.

I was rightly pilloried in the comments for giving umpires a bit too much subjective allowance. But I really don’t have a problem with Cowan’s dismissal, even if the ball wasn’t going to hit the stumps. As Chappell said: “Batsmen are supposed to score runs.”

The DRS Debate Is Getting Out Of Hand

I understand that different people have different opinions on DRS and the current series-by-series policy. I have long been an opponent of any additional use of technology in the game (I’m an old man in many other ways), but I want to note just how unjustly skewed the debate has become.

If an umpire makes a call that is confirmed to be “correct” by Hotspot or EagleEye, the commentators will merely note that it was a good decision, and how difficult it is to be an umpire today. If they’re being really charitable, they’ll show what the umpire saw in real time. That’s it.

If an umpire makes a “bad” call that is revealed to be as such by technology, however, all hell breaks loose. The wronged batsman will lay out his personal views in the post-match press conference, the commentators will have an extended discussion about what went wrong, and Twitter catches fire. Little is said about the number of correct decisions that are made, and how they outnumber the bad ones. Even less is said challenging whether or not technology has delivered an “objective” review (in the case of Cowan’s dismissal, for example, I’m still not sure what happened). In other words, the scales are not equally placed: a “bad” decision receives many times the attention that a good decision does.

The anti-DRS crowd (with whom my allegiance lies) will lose this battle if it keeps being played out this way. Some bloggers (A Cricketing View, for e.g.) have done admirable work questioning the assumptions that technologies like ball-tracking and what not use. At this point, I can only hope broadcasters will slap a label that reads “This recreation is loosely based on true events” whenever Hawkeye is displayed.

How Weak Cricket Teams Take Wickets

While Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid were holding off the Australian attack just after tea on Day 2, Sourav Ganguly and Tom Moody raised the question that has haunted Australian cricket for the past few years: How do they take wickets without Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath?

Moody responded with an interesting thought he didn’t complete. “They have to find other ways to take wickets,” he said. That may sound obvious, but the larger question is more interesting: how do you change strategies to better take advantage of mediocre/good talents (as opposed to the once great ones you had)? How do you best manage declining talent?

They say that the tennis player Brad Gilbert (who went on to coach Agassi and others) never had any great weapon in his arsenal (no big serve, or forehand, or anything like that). Instead, he consistently stayed among the best by running around the court, forcing opponents into long rallies and ruining their rhythm. That’s what I’m talking about: when you don’t have great players, how do you find other ways to win games?

This is a lesson Australian cricket hasn’t yet been able to answer. Take, for example, Australia’s disastrous two-Test tour of India in 2008. At one point, the Australians decided they would remove a huge deficit by simply attacking, an approach that worked when the batting line-up included Adam Gilchrist at 7. This time, though, it fell flat on its face and they lost wickets quickly.  They looked like a gang of over-aged bullies.

So what do you do instead? What teams do you know that out-perform their individual team members’ averages? (Pakistan, maybe?) I don’t know enough about cricket to answer, but I imagine the answer involves more patience, less attacking; more restrictive fields that build pressure rather look for striking gold; more variety in bowling…? Send any feedback to Cricket Australia, please.

Don’t Say Test Cricket Is Alive

The Alternative Cricket Almanack has a great post on Test snobbery, T20 triumphalism and the contradictions facing all cricket  fans. You should read it in full, but here’s my favorite passage:

I’m not suggesting we should just roll over and let the spectacularly incompetent ICC destroy everything that’s good and holy about this crazy game we love so much, but I also believe that constructive and realistic ideas are our best bet if we’re ever going to change anything for the better. Saying that more Tests need to be played without at least recognizing that so many ODIs and T20s are not only being played to fill the ICC Blazers’ bank accounts, but also in order to be able to continue to play as much Test cricket as possible, isn’t going to get us anywhere. Same goes for the rage which the postponement of the Test Championship was greeted with. And, for the “This is why we love Test cricket!” hysteria these days when a Test match does not end in a 600 & 147-1 and 790-6dec draw.

Some other key points:
1) Just because no one shows up to watch Test cricket doesn’t mean it’s dying. It just means Test cricket is really expensive, time-consuming and not easy to appreciate live.
2) Stop it with all the Test cricket is dead talk. You’re freaking everyone out.
3) The Test championship may not matter as much as, say, better over rates. Or boards that clearly don’t know how to manage funds.