Saturday, October 27, 2007

Cricket in the 'Burgh - part 7: Surviving the storm

The opinions expressed in this post are solely that of the author who, on occasion, had an out-of-body experience and was able to watch himself play.

Also, in order to keep some suspense about the 2007 season, when I provide a link to a player's page I shall link to the page that shows his 2006 stats.

Game 3: WVUCC versus Hurricanes

Unlike some other teams in the PCA, WVUCC think tank does not tolerate indiscipline. Prior to the game against the Hurricanes, many players opted to skip practice. Consequently, when game day rolled around, the Mountaineers followed the "no practice = no play" rule and dressed only 9 players for the all-important match.

The Hurricanes are a team that came into existence in time for the 2007 season. Two players - Naveen Peiris and Anu Chopra were familiar foes, having played for the Strikers in the 2006 season. Of the two, the Mountaineers were vary of Anu, but truly in awe of Naveen. Easily the most feared batsman in the league, Naveen is a left-hander with a lot of patience. His preferred mode of attack is to flick and pull for sixes while driving in the V for singles when the boundaries are not on offer. Last year he scored nearly 700 runs at a strike rate of almost 150. But his best quality is his unflappable temperament and sportsmanship. Before the day was done the Mountaineers got a first-hand account of just that aspect of his.

Naveen won the toss and put WVUCC into bat. C.S. Manish began in his usual, sedate manner while Arvind Thiruvengadam began like a man whose hair was on fire. For the third straight match he hit the first delivery he faced to the fence. Two more boundaries followed in quick succession but he could not temper his aggression and paid the price, holing out to cover.

Sohail Chaudhry came in, flicked a six and square-cut a boundary, before perishing off Ajay Belambe's bowling. The pattern of the innings was beginning to emerge. Batsman after batsman came in, played a cameo, and departed when set. At one end Old Man River was keeping his end of the bargain, inching his way along with his dabs to third man and fine leg. At the other end, Ashok Varadarajan and Amol Bhavsar both began with sixes and then perished in trying to needlessly repeat the strokes. For all their experience, the two have a distinct weakness against spin bowling as they are often caught between pre-determinedly defending the ball or hitting out, with no medium level of aggression.

When Manish departed, pulling a short ball to the deep midwicket fence, the Mountaineers were in trouble at 81 for 5. Stepping into the fray was Sumanth Dommaraju. In 2006, Sumanth impressed the think tank with his sharp fielding and confident batting. With a typical Hyderabadi-style propensity to flick balls on the off-stump to the leg-side, Sumanth is always a candidate for an LBW but when his head is over the ball, it is almost impossible to dismiss him that way. The Hurricanes found this out the hard way. Steadying the ship and teasing along the strike, Sumanth nurtured the Mountaineer innings past the 100 mark and, as he began to run out of partners (remember WVUCC played with just 9 players), he opened up and found the boundaries (5 fours, and 1 six) at opportune moments.

With his bowlers unable to finish the job, Naveen brought himself on and removed the wickets at the other end. WVUCC ended up with a below-par score of 138 for 8 in less than 20 overs. A little more application by any of the top 5 batsman and the remaining 5 overs could have been milked for many more critical runs.

But a score on the board still has to be chased. A splendid spell of new ball bowling by Sohail (3-1-8-0) was just the pressure-building start that was needed. Harshesh Patel, on debut, was a little more wayward and Amol Bhavsar quickly filled the gap with an outstanding display of bowling (4-1-11-2). With just 7 fielders to man the ground, the think tank decided that Ashok's prowess in the outfield was more valuable than his keeping. Sohail reverted back to his primary job - wicketkeeping - after bowling his opening spell. Standing up to the stumps, Sohail cramped the batsmen's foot movement with the ever-present threat of being stumped off a fast bowling looming over them. (This isn't hyperbole, in the 2006 season, Sohail once stumped an opening batsman while standing up to a fast bowler).

The Hurricanes, wisely, did not look to force the issue and at 36 for no loss they were in the driver's seat with Naveen still to come. The Mountaineers were looking for a crack and when Krish Kalyanaraman mis-hit a ball to be caught and bowled by Amol, the floodgates had been temporarily opened. The Mountaineers quickly went about taking the wickets on offer - one eye on the score and one eye on the big guns to follow. At 56 for 3, Anu and Naveen got together and began a very sensible partnership. Without looking to score boundaries they took the singles when available and bided their time. Sohail pushed the field back, looking to see if the batsman would be willing to take singles all the way to victory.

With less than 60 runs required (and 7 wickets in hand), Sohail tried the wildest of wild cards - the faux off-spin of Manish. Naveen and Anu were not taking any risks against the regular bowlers, so the think tank felt that offering a lamb to the slaughter might induce a mistake. The third ball of the over produced just that when Naveen unwisely tried to play against the turn and lofted the ball towards deep mid-wicket. The ball took the outside part of the bat and hung in the air for a long time. Abishek Muralidharan came running in from long-on, reached the ball, and then dropped it!! To add insult to injury, the next ball, a full toss, was smashed over square-leg for a huge six, easily clearing the trees that protect the trail-walkers on the hillside. Manish's first over went for 13 runs, and with the miss, possibly the match, too.

With both batsmen looking rock solid, something special was needed, and in the next over, when Anu unwisely took off for a run that wasn't there, Arvind collected an accurate throw from Sohail and negated Anu's despairing desperate dive back to the crease, a breach was made. All WVUCC had to do was scuttle the ship around Naveen and they could make a match out of it.

The first ball of the next over needs its own paragraph. Manish, the lamb, came back for one last attempt. Naveen danced down the pitch to meet the ball and Manish pushed it wide down the leg-side. Sohail collected the ball and whipped off the bails even as Naveen was turning back to the crease. As the Mountaineers began rejoicing they realized that the square-leg umpire had not given Naveen out!! Incredulous! Naveen turned to Sohail and asked him if he thought he had completed the stumping in time, and when he received an affirmative reply, he walked off the ground. If it was possible for Naveen to rise in our esteem, it went up even further after this classy act of sportsmanship. 105 for 5 after 15 overs, 34 runs to win in 60 balls, 5 wickets to go.

Having obtained the twin breakthrough's he needed, Sohail went on the offensive, bringing in the fielders, and bringing back his best bowlers. With the pressure mounting after every dot ball (the Hurricanes were constantly reminded about the mounting pressure by the vociferous Mountaineer fielders) the Hurricanes began pressing and crashed spectacularly, losing the next 5 wickets for just 23 runs.

An undermanned WVUCC won by 14 runs. In the 2006-07 seasons, WVUCC played no less than 7 games with fewer than 11 players . The Mountaineers won 6 of those contests! There is something about having missing pieces in the field to cover for that brings out the best in every WVUCC player. With no one to back them up, the players are forced to put a price on their abilities - whether batting, bowling, or fielding - resulting in some sterling performances. This win against the Hurricanes was no different.

Coming up next was a grudge match against the 2006 champions - the PittsPunters - who had never lost to the Mountaineers. There is a lot of bad blood between the two teams to make this more than just a game. The match lived up to its billing...but more on that in my next post.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Cricket in the 'Burgh - part 6: Inching to a big win

The opinions expressed in this post are solely that of the author who, on occasion, had an out-of-body experience and was able to watch himself play.

Also, in order to keep some suspense about the 2007 season, when I provide a link to a player's page I shall link to the page that shows his 2006 stats.

Game 2: WVUCC versus Gladiators

After the loss to the SteelZags in the season opener, the resolve of the Mountaineers was tested. Next up were the Gladiators, led by Zeeshan Babar. The Mountaineers had not-so-fond memories of Zeeshan's prowess from the previous season. Zeeshan is a good fast bowler who tends to get discouraged if he does not get a wicket in his first couple of overs. As a batsman he bats like Shahid Afridi, swinging his bat like there is no tomorrow. The Gladiators are a very experienced team but take some time getting into the swing of things. The strategy against them was simple - when bowling, attack with our best bowlers up front and, when batting, preserve wickets to frustrate the bowlers even if it means the run rate takes a hit.

The Gladiators played into WVUCC's hands by opting to bat upon winning the toss. In the morning the ball does not travel as quickly over the outfield as it is still damp from the dew and the fielders are fresh and able to run harder for longer periods of time. Ahmad Choudhary (Ahmad bhai to everyone at WVUCC) could not get going and was cleaned up by Avinash Manivannan. By the time Avinash and Sohail Chaudhry finished their opening spells, the Gladiators were 24 for 4 in 8 overs. The stage was set for Amol Bhavsar to take charge and he did just that. With his disarming two-step run-up, Amol speared the ball on the good length spot and let his speed and movement (predominantly outswing) do the rest. A spell of 5 overs, 4 for 17 by Amol ensured that the Gladiators were primed for Sohail and Ajay Nayak to come back and dismiss them for 96.

The PCA league adopts a bonus point system. Every win is worth 4 points, a tie or washout worth 2. If the winning team gets to the target in less than 20 overs (the games are 25 overs) or restricts the losing team to less than 80% of its total, then an additional bonus point will be accrued.

97 runs in 25 overs. Step one was to prevent an early collapse, and who better to do the job than C.S. Manish. If you had to pick a batsman in the PCA league to bat for a whole day without scoring a run, most people would blindly pick Manish. The onus of frustrating Zeeshan was placed on him and he did just that, carefully watching out the increasingly frustrated captain while Arvind Thiruvengadam tried to pick off the single's and two's at the other end. The Manish-Arvind opening pair are superb between the wickets and pride themselves on taking two runs with a dab to the square-leg umpire.

After seeing off the opening thrust, Arvind departed with the team score at 28, dismissed by the very impressive left-hander Usman Lone. The stage was set for Sohail to take off. Content in the knowledge that the other end was secure Sohail did what he does best, nonchalantly flicking and square-driving sixes. 35 runs in 15 balls with 1 four and 4 sixes pretty much describes his impact and the march to victory was a mere formality after that. The strategy of holding back paid off and WVUCC got to the target in 19 overs to also secure the all-important bonus point.

After two matches, WVUCC's record was 1-1 and up next was a team that was new to the PCA - the Hurricanes - but was led by the most feared batsman in the league - Naveen Peiris.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Cricket in the 'Burgh - part 5: And so it begins...

The opinions expressed in this post are solely that of the author who, on occasion, had an out-of-body experience and was able to watch himself play.
Also, in order to keep some suspense about the 2007 season, when I provide a link to a player's page I shall link to the page that shows his 2006 stats.

Game 1: WVUCC versus SteelZags

The opening game of the 2007 was a doozy, pitting the two teams that led the league in 2006 - SteelZags and WVUCC.

The SteelZags are led by Ram Paluri, a very correct left-handed batsman who plays in straight lines, except when he gets short-pitched balls that he likes to deposit beyond the brook at midwicket. WVUCC identified this as his one big weakness. The normal good length ball outside the off-stump would not do, as he was classy enough to simply hit through the line and loft it over cover. Instead a trap was set to give him a short ball outside the off-stump and let his cross-batted instincts take over. And take over they did! He predictably went across the line and ended up lofting a catch off the splice to be caught at mid-off and was gone.

The SteelZags bat well as a team - apart from Ram they do not really have a prolific scorer - and focus primarily on stitching together partnerships, chipping away at the opposition's plans. As the innings progressed they batted efficiently, hitting boundaries when the opportunities presented themselves, but mostly content to bide their time and take the extras on offer. Not surprisingly, this being the first game of the season, the bowlers had a tough time controlling the ball, giving up 10 no-balls, 27 wides. (In all fairness, the SteelZags returned the favour when their turn came but the effect of chasing 170 on the board is different from chasing 140).

The SteelZags finished at 169 for 7 in 25 overs. A word about Edgebrook Field (click here for a picture) will put the total into perspective. The ground is basically a soccer field with extended yardage on the longer sides. It is surrounded on the two longer sides by a trail, which marks the boundary. On one side of the trail flows a bubbling brook, on the opposite side is a dense woodlot. The long boundaries on either side are flanked by parking lots. The square boundaries are quite short (about a decent lob wedge distance) and wreck havoc on the bowlers analyses if they err even a little bit.

In general, a score of 150 should be considered par. Anything up to 175-180 is gettable. Beyond 180 the balance shifts towards the bowling side. So 170 was on the cusp. Gettable but still a tough one.

WVUCC began with a bang, taking 16 runs from the first over. Arvind Thiruvengadam hit the first ball of his season handsomely over cover for a 6. Disaster struck in the second over when C.S. Manish overextended after completing a first run and was caught napping, run out at the non-strikers end. 17 for 1 quickly became 40 for 5, until Ashok Varadarajan and Abishek Muralidharan steadied the ship and settled everyone's nerves with a good partnership, bringing up the 100 without being unduly troubled by any of the bowlers. WVUCC reached 135 for 5, needing just 34 runs with 5 wickets left when Krishna Konduru, who gave up those 16 runs in the first over exacted his revenge, scything through the batting. In the proverbial blink of an eye WVUCC was all out for 150, with three overs still left in the bag.

With that loss, WVUCC continued a dismal trend against the SteelZags. This was their 4th game against the 'Zags over the course of two seasons and they had yet to beat them. (Things would only get worse the next time the two teams faced off later in the year).

But the season had begun and WVUCC had something tangible to work on in the practices ahead of the next game against the Gladiators.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Cricket in the 'Burgh - part 4: Think tank strategies

The opinions expressed in this post are solely that of the author who, on occasion, had an out-of-body experience and was able to watch himself play.

Before the season started Sohail, Manish, Ashok, Abishek and Arvind sat down and charted some of the strategies and goals for the season.

The team would always be selected by a consensus opinion of the five. Once the team was decided, all the players would be encouraged to give inputs at any time, but the final on-field decisions on bowling changes, batting orders, and field placement would come from one man - Sohail.

Each player would be told what his role in the team was and practices would be set up such that their roles would be reinforced. Practices would simulate match conditions and at all times all the players would be on the bubble. Of course, missing practices automatically disqualified a player from playing in matches.

By far, the biggest emphasis was on team discipline. Under no circumstances would indiscipline be tolerated. WVUCC would play less than 11 members , but would not compromise on this point.

So, dear friends, if you are still reading these posts, the stage has been set and the 2007 season is about to begin. Sit back and enjoy the ride.

Cricket in the 'Burgh - part 3: Dramatis personæ

The opinions expressed in this post are solely that of the author who, on occasion, had an out-of-body experience and was able to watch himself play.

Before we get to the season, here are some of the major characters we shall be hearing from as the season progresses:

Captain: Sohail Chaudhry
Someone once said that the WVUCC was a "one-man team". We beg to differ - WVUCC is a 3-man team. Sohail is the leading run-scorer, the leading wicket-taker, and his primary skill is actually that of a wicket-keeper. He is the rock of the team and the calmest person in the biggest of storms.

Vice-Captain and opening batsman: C.S. Manish
A stodgy, cautious fellow at the crease (in 2006 he had the lowest strike rate of any batsman who scored at least 100 runs in the PCA at a little over 65 runs per 100 balls), Manish more than makes it up with his mouth. Until the emergence of Arvind, many an opposing team had to endure a constant stream of mindless chatter from him.

Opening batsman: Arvind Thiruvengadam
Thin, wiry and articulate, Arvind likes hitting in the V and the cover region. Fielding at cover-point keeps him really close to the batsman and he does not miss a single opportunity to remind the batsmen of the enormity of the task ahead of him. In addition, he is turning into a very reliable bowler in the death.

Middle-order pillar: Abishek Muralidharan
Tall and upright in his stance, Abishek is one of the best looking batsmen in the league (and he himself is not bad-looking either) but 2006 was a series of Laxman-ish cameos. What he is missing is one long innings to show him what he is capable of. Once that key turns in the lock, the bowlers of the league better watch out.

Wicket-keeper: Ashok Varadarajan
By a far, far, far, margin Ashok is the best fielder I have ever played with, be it close to the wicket or out at the boundary. The safest of catchers, in the 4 years I have seen him play I can count on my fingers the number of catches I have seen him drop. And I am even counting the ones during our practice sessions! With the wicket-keeping spot opening up, Ashok volunteered and took to it as if he was born to do just that.

First change bowler: Amol Bhavsar
Bowling from a 2-step run up, when in song, Amol uses his huge shoulders to rate amongst the fastest bowlers in the league. A very good fielder off his own bowling, he probably holds the WVUCC record for the most caught-and-bowled dismissals. When he puts his head down, he can also be an effective late-order slugger.

Middle-order batsman: Sumanth Dommaraju
The quietest guy in the team, the last time someone officially heard Sumanth say anything on the cricket field, Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister of India. As an infielder, he gives Ashok a run for his money and possesses a flat throw that is the envy of many a player.

These are some of the players who have already played for the team in the 2006 season. As the 2007 season progresses more players will be introduced to you. As that happens they shall be providing their own descriptions with their deeds.

Cricket in the 'Burgh - part 2: Off-season blues

The opinions expressed in this post are solely that of the author who, on occasion, had an out-of-body experience and was able to watch himself play.

Every off-season for WVUCC is filled with apprehension. All the players in the team are students and when they graduate and move on, the team composition changes. Members of the WVUCC committee never know if they will have enough new recruits to start the next season! Old-timers like Sohail Chaudhry, Ashok Varadarajan, Amol Bhavsar, and C.S. Manish, among others, experience this tension every year.

The 2006 edition was one of the strongest bowling WVUCC sides ever assembled (Karthik Venkatasubramianiam and Hari Menon formed the most awesome opening pair) and replacing them was the key to a successful 2007 season. The secondary concern was strengthening the batting order but, with a year or two under their belts, Arvind Thiruvengadam, Abishek Muralidharan, and Ashok were ready to step up to the plate.

A preliminary team meeting was held early in 2007 and with great anticipation St Francis Field was booked. By tapping on the shoulders of former players WVUCC was able to marshall enough money for much-needed equipment purchase. By the end of the season, WVUCC had a very comprehensive kit and eased the perpetual worries of the players.

On the first day of practice, no less than 22 players showed up!

and the 2007 season was well on its way!

Cricket in the 'Burgh - part 1: A new season begins

The opinions expressed in this post are solely that of the author who, on occasion, had an out-of-body experience and was able to watch himself play.

In the 2006 season, West Virginia University Cricket Club (WVUCC) joined the Pittsburgh Cricket Association (PCA) after a many years in the Midwest Cricket League (you can go find the links to that league yourself, if interested!)

Led from the front by Sohail Chaudhry, it did not take long for WVUCC to establish itself in the league as one of the better teams. A total of 7 teams played each other three times (for a total of 18 regular season games). In a quirky season WVUCC finished runners-up in the regular season standings without ever defeating the Steelzags or the PittPunters in three chances each (click here for the 2006 season scoreboards).

Unfortunately, the lack of success against the elite teams in the league caught up to WVUCC in the semi-finals when the PittPunters steamrolled past them, eventually going on to win the championship.

Here are a couple of photographs of the team members during a practice session at St. Francis Field in Morgantown, WV (I blogged about it here last year).

The loss to the PittPunters rankled all off-season and when 2007 began a revamped WVUCC approached the new campaign with a firmer resolve...

Breaking rules

The first cardinal rule of my blog has been to never refer to anyone by their full name in a post. The second rule has been to never show people's faces in photographs.

In the next few days I am going to break those two rules for a specific set of posts that I want to do about the exploits of the West Virginia University Cricket Club, in particular focusing on their 2007 season as a member of the Pittsburgh Cricket Association.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Being prepared is half the battle

On the cricket team I "coached" we had a very good batsman (AM) who had one major flaw. When he was the non-striker he would not take a start. Consequently, he would be in his crease even after the batsman had played a shot and, more often than not, watch where the ball was going before taking off for a run. It took a lot of goading on my part before he changed his ways.

Naturally, towards the end of the season, in a crucial game he was run out when a straight drive by the batsman ricocheted off the bowler's arm onto the stumps with him too far out of the crease! Nevertheless, in exchange for that one freak dismissal, AM was able to score umpteen runs for the team and finished the season as our leading run-scorer.

Chasing after the ball, running quickly even when you pop up an easy catch so in the very least you cross-over, throwing to the keeper every time you get the ball, running after the ball in pairs just in case the first person fumbles, running the first run hard when the ball rolls towards the fielders in the deep - these are all some of the attributes of our team. And it paid huge dividends in our matches. (More on that in the next few days, I promise).

When a team of rank amateurs like us know these fundamental things, why is it so hard for a team of professionals like the Indian cricket team to understand them? Next time you watch the Indian team look out for how often the fielders in the deep wait for the ball to come to them as opposed to charging forward to meet it closer to the 30-yard circle. By charging forward they achieve two things - the tired batsman cannot simply amble across for a single, and the throw the fielder has to make is shortened, therefore he can throw it to either end, if necessary. Another example - Sourav Ganguly at the non-strikers end is a lesson is how not to back up. He stands with his bat inside the crease even after the ball has been delivered. The number of runs he could have scored would have been greater if only he ran with more purpose when the ball is hit because he would have been on strike a lot more.

There are many other similar things that come to mind, but Sambit Bal does a better job of talking about it here, while providing reasons for a 4-2 defeat that could easily have been 3-3, or even 2-4, in India's favour.

Selectorial shenanigans and name games

The only absolute truism in Indian cricket is that your selection to the team depends a lot more on who you, let me rephrase depends on who knows you rather than any on-field talent that you may possess.

Read this fine piece by Siddhartha Vaidyanathan regarding how the teams were selected for the ongoing Challenger series and you will understand what I mean. The absolute kicker for me is that a player with just 2 first-class centuries (yes, just TWO) is a shoe-in for all the prestigious sub-Test teams simply because of who his father is.

Shakespeare probably did not factor in nepotism when he wrote about roses being roses and smelling just as sweet. The stench here is definitely not rosy.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Skipping to glory

Long-time followers of this blog know that one of the greatest pleasures for me is to skip stones on a lake. In the past I have written about some stone skipping stories here and here.

I did not know skipping stones was a serious enterprise - a friend sent me an article that talks about a guy in Pennsylvania who recently set a world record in skipping stones!

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Paradigm shift

Here is India's only chance of beating the Aussies - make bowler-friendly wickets.

We will not be able to out-bat the Aussies. The reason is simple - in the current Indian team only Yuvraj Singh and MS Dhoni are playing without fear of failure. Everyone else has one eye on the scoreboard and the other on their place in the team.

Unless we reduce the Aussie score to a number that does not require multiple batsmen firing on all cylinders, we will not beat them. Simple as that. Here is my prediction for the remaining 4 games of the series. India will not win a game if they do not score more than 325 batting first. And India will not chase a total of more than 240 successfully.

So there.

Just say no

The Indian cricket team is being shellacked by the detemined Aussies in the ODI series. The current team could give the Aussies a run for their money, IF the playing fields were level.

Check out this article that describes the the type of off-field pressure the Indian team has to deal with. A lot of it is of their doing, but I sense this is the norm not the exception. No wonder they appear jaded.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Measured maniac

What I have seen of MS Dhoni has impressed me. He has a reputation of being a slogger, but I have seen that he is not a mindless slogger (I can think of only one occasion when he slogged without heed to the situation). His innings are crafted based upon the situation and he makes up for a lack of a purist's technique by inventing shots of his own.

I think he is right person to lead India in the ODI's and the Twenty20's. (For Tests, I am still hoping VVS Laxman gets chosen as the captain). Right now he is enjoying his honeymoon phase. In the coming weeks he will realize how fickle the media is in their quest for TRP's and sales.

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan describes the man of the moment, and finds attributes that will hold him in good stead when the inevitable storm approaches (pardon the pun). Not to be outdone, Dileep Premachandran has a little to say, too, after MSD led India to the championship.

Speed gun

The fastest bowler in the world is an Indian. No this is not a typo. On top of it, this person is also the recipient of this year's ICC Cricketer of the Year award.

But no parades were arranged, no meetings convened, to celebrate this achievement, lending further credence to my notion that Indian fans are not cricket-crazy, they are Indian men's cricket (when-they-are-doing-well) crazy.