Saturday, April 18, 2009

Three's Company

Tiger Woods, Derek Jeter and (the curiously fast-fading) Roger Federer show up in a new commercial that does its own take on "Staying Alive" by the Bee Gees.

Here's the original, for reference.

Friday, April 17, 2009

For the record

A few of you have asked me privately about this and I want to go on record:

I will not write about the IPL Season 2, just as I shunned writing about season 1. I shall only do so when they start treating all cricketers the same - whether they belong to the ICL or not.

I cannot believe how long they have been allowed, with the backing of the BCCI, to run roughshod over the right of so many cricketers around the world. Every time a Board steps up and seems to be taking a stand (Sri Lanka and Pakistan come to mind right away) they disappoint me by then cowing down to the pressure exerted by the BCCI.


P.S. And this piece of news simply makes my resolve much stronger.

The history of defeat

A billion people rejoiced when India's historic Test series win in New Zealand was completed recently***. This article is not totally about celebrating that. Sort of.

Quite a few columnists have taken umbrage with the fact that MS Dhoni settled for the safest option possible (draw first, win second) in the third Test with India leading 1-0 and holding a commanding lead at the end of the 3rd day's play. A couple of examples will suffice - Sharda Ugra in India Today, Samir Chopra on CricInfo and on his blog - Eye on Cricket, and Harsha Bhogle.

I have not come here to praise Dhoni or to bury him.

I like MS Dhoni's captaincy and admire his knack for picking moments in the match where he needs to assert himself. For the most part, he has been spot on in his judgment of these moments. I can see why he chose to be so conservative with the Kiwis on the mat, even as I disagree with his choice to do so. I believe he weighed the long-term over the short-term and took it in his stride. He figured that getting rid of the bogey of a 41 year drought, brought upon mostly because of how infrequently India tours New Zealand, was a bigger burden than winning big. He did not want to risk even the remotest possibility of a 1-1 situation, at the expense of a series win, historical precedent notwithstanding (no team has scored more than 418 runs in the 4th innings to win a Test match). Fair enough. I am willing to give the man the benefit of the doubt in this situation.

The point that many of the columnists made is that Australia would have been more ruthless and would have gone for the kill, etc. But India is not Australia. It aspires to be one on the Test arena and (in my opinion) is just a wee bit short of South Africa and on par with the current Australian team. What this team is really battling is the perception that we have of Australia. The Australian teams of the 1980's were in the doldrums after the retirement of the Big 3 (Chappell, Lillee, Marsh) and it took them a few years of scrapping around under Alan Border before they began winning again. The 1987 World Cup win began their ascendancy, but it was not until the early 1990's that they began to do better. Even then, it went through Mark Taylor to Steve Waugh before the juggernaut emerged. The juggernaut that won everything in sight and, more importantly, was willing to risk losing in order to win everything (classic example - the India tour of 2001, where such an eventuality did happen).

I see this Indian team as being in the Mark Taylor phase of captaincy. It has just gone through the period of rebuilding and inculcating self-belief through Sourav Ganguly, and is now slowly reaping the rewards by having players (Gambhir, Sehwag, Harbhajan, Dhoni, etc.) who have not felt the debilitating sense of loss that comes from being regularly thrashed by the best team of the time. By my estimation, Sourav Ganguly is unsurpassed in the captaincy stakes in one aspect - in that he captained the Test team to at least one Test match victory in 8 different countries, missing out only on New Zealand and South Africa. Even Ricky Ponting has done it in just 6 nations. Steve Waugh won in 8 Test nations, too, missing out on Sri Lanka and Bangladesh (who he never played against).

This was MS Dhoni's first Test series outside India and he is very aware of how perceptions can be built up. He plays up his Captain Cool image to the hilt, though I suspect this is genuinely in his nature to be so, and realized that it was important to be known as a winner both home and away. I think this is what he meant when he said a benchmark had been set. Henceforth, for a few months (or Test series) he has the cushion of throwing back the fact that we have won a series abroad (both ODI and Test) to repel any criticism of the Indian team being tigers at home and kittens abroad. Sadly, we do not play any Test matches until at least November so a lot of the goodwill that this series win generated will dissipate by then.

A final point that the columnists make is that they are afraid that this conservative approach that Dhoni adopted might become terminal. As India begins to justify it's #3 (or #2 or #1) ranking with more regularity in the future, I suspect he will be a lot more ruthless. This one time I am willing to give him a mulligan. His history up to this point does not indicate that being conservative is a natural option for him. Let's just sit back and enjoy the next few years without reading every tea leaf he leaves behind in his wake.

I was very happy with the series win and that was paramount for me. (Very few remember that the Chicago Bulls were 15-2 in the playoffs when they won the 1997 NBA title, but everyone that cares about the NBA remembers that they won the title that year). MS Dhoni probably felt the same way, too.

The ultimate goal before leaving for New Zealand was to win the ODI and the Test series (one T20 match does not a series make).

Mission accomplished.

(*** Do a "billion" people really care about the Indian team? Seriously? That is nothing but a marketer's tagline. Sachin Tendulkar does not carry the weight of a billion people "on his shoulders" when he goes to bat, commentators and writers just like to project that he feels that he does. A majority of the folk in India don't give a damn about Sachin's score and, I am sure, don't really care whether we beat New Zealand or not. If a billion people really felt that passionately about Indian cricket, the IPL would still have been in India.)

The methodically mad phoenix

In 2007, Virender Sehwag was jettisoned from the Indian Test squad mostly because of a series of failures in the ODI arena. He made the Indian team to Australia in 2007 in controversial circumstances at the expense of Aakash Chopra, and waited. The Sydney Test of 2007 was seminal for many reasons, but the least momentous one was the decision to go back to Sehwag for the next Test. That victory in Perth was followed by a brilliant rearguard action at Adelaide, made possible by Sehwag's 151 in the second innings. Two innings of coruscating (and contrasting) brilliance followed - 319 against South Africa on a featherbed of a pitch and 201 not out against Sri Lanka and the marauding Murali and Mendis. Since then he has frustrated his supporters no end. He hasn't scored a century in his next 20 innings, though he has crossed 30 in ten of them.

But what lingers in the mind are those mammoth centuries and no one knows how to put up big scores better than Sehwag (and this includes the Don and Lara***). His last 11 Test centuries (out of a total of 15 so far) have all been over 150, a streak unmatched in Test history. Just read this list and you will see what I mean: 195, 309, 155, 164, 173, 201, 254, 180, 151, 319, 201.

(Contrast this with Ricky Ponting, the man I consider to be the most feared and remorseless batsman in Test cricket over the past 5 years. For his career, he has crossed 150 just 12 times (out of 37 centuries), and just once in the last three years.)

Happily for Sehwag, the team has done well in spite of his recent relapse into mediocrity (by his high-scoring standards) and it has saved him the scrutiny he probably deserves. As India's focus shifts towards the shorter version of the game for the next six months, a parting gift for this Test star came in the form of Wisden's Cricketer of the Year award for 2008. A significant achievement for a man who began the year on the bench as his team played their biggest opponents in Sydney. Ravi Shastri salutes the man and his accomplishment.
Virender Sehwag had to beat off the strongest of challenges by Graeme Smith to become the Leading Cricketer in the World for 2008. Sehwag did so by taking the task of opening Test innings to a new level. He sought, and often achieved, mental domination from the first ball by scoring faster than any other opening batsman has ever done on a regular basis in Test cricket: 85 runs per 100 balls in the calendar year, without any soft opponents (Smith made 488 of his Test runs against Bangladesh); Sehwag also scored at 120 per 100 balls in one-day internationals.

He hit the fastest Test triple-century ever, from only 278 balls, against South Africa. Sehwag and India softened up Australia by defeating them 2-0 in India, for Smith and South Africa to beat them in Australia. Sehwag broke a mould as well as records: he set up the highest successful run-chase in Asia, and the fourth-highest to that point, by striking England's bowlers for 83 from 68 balls at Chennai
***P.S. Yes, I know that Don Bradman had an incredible 12 double centuries out of 29 total centuries in his career. In this post, I am simply talking about streaking big scores together, once the century is made. For those that are curious, over a career, no one has more scores over 150 than Sachin Tendulkar (18 out of 42).

Books and their covers

With over 18 million (yes, million) views and counting, the latest Youtube sensation is a video from a reality TV show in England, Britain's Got Talent. In spite of knowing that the performance was going to be fantastic, I still had goosebumps when Susan Boyle first started to sing. Appearances can be deceptive, never more so than in this case. Watch it completely for yourself, if you haven't already. Even the song she chose to sing was so perfect (click on the right side on "more info" for the lyrics).

Click on this to access the video.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Catching on

It took some time coming, but Rahul Dravid finally managed to snare catch number 182 to cross Mark Waugh on the all-time list for most catches by a fielder. And once the pressure was off, he picked up #183 soon after.

He is being hailed as India's best slip fielder but I wouldn't go that far. I can think of two or three others who were just as safe or reliable but there is no denying that to a spinner he is brilliant. Sambit Bal got lucky and was able to celebrate this achievement when it happened.

Huw Richards of the New York Times put together an informative article while avoiding a lot of the hyperbolic comments that usually accompany world records. In fact, of all the articles that discuss this achievement, this one is the best I read for the even note it maintains. A lot like Dravid, dare I say?
That Dravid’s feat will occasion less excitement than Sachin Tendulkar’s achievement in becoming the highest-scoring test batsman says something about the status of fielding in relation to other cricketing skills. While it is one of the game’s oldest clich├ęs that “catches win matches,” the fielding statistics that are recorded are extremely limited.

The day the earth stood unlit

To commemorate Earth day and in an unparalleled attempt to bring some awareness to the energy crisis, all over the world people turned off lights for an hour on March 28th, 2009. Click on the photographs to see how cities around the world looked with some famous monuments in darkness.
More than 1,000 cities in over 80 countries observed Earth Hour 2009 on Saturday March 28th, as homes, office towers and landmarks turned off their lights for an hour starting at 8.30 pm local time to raise awareness about climate change and the threat from rising greenhouse gas emissions.

Leading the fightback

In the entire history of the game (Test cricket), look who has the highest average when his team is following-on. It is revealing that of the four times VVS Laxman batted after following-on, the one time he failed the Indian team lost.

Not that it matters, but it does put that achievement into perspective when you see that Don Bradman's teams lost 3 of the 4 times they followed-on.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

The paceman cometh

Zaheer Khan has developed a totally unique way (among bowlers) of celebrating his wickets. He holds his arms aloft in the Rocky Pose and slowly does a full 360 degree turn savoring the response of his teammates (see image #11), while they rush to mob him. On the second day of the Basin Reserve Test match, he got to hold the pose 5 times. While he got lucky on a couple of wickets, he thoroughly deserved the 5-for as they were numerous other balls in the spell that deserved wickets and did not get them.

Enough people have written about his removal from the Indian team, his subsequent rejuvenation after putting in the hard work at Worcestershire (where he saw a 40plus Graeme Hick, with no prospects of an international future, train harder than anyone else everyday) and his triumphant return. John Buchanan may be yelling from the roof-tops about his multi-captain approach but the Indian team has already practiced it - most visibly during the 2003 World Cup when there was a batting, bowling, and fielding captain. Thesedays, when the fast bowlers are operating, watch closely. MS Dhoni does not set the field, Zaheer Khan does. Dhoni is content to let ZAK take over, relying on the pacer's judgment and instinct, only taking over when the plan does not seem to be working and damage-control is required.

Yesterday, Harbhajan Singh also stepped up. Basin Reserve is noted for its strong cross-breeze and it takes a bowler of great heart to keep running into it over after over. Ewen Chatfield's role on the New Zealand team of the 80's was not just to keep one end quiet while Richard Hadlee ran amok at the other, it was also to keep running into the wind. Harbhajan bowled unchanged for 23 overs, even picking up 3 wickets in the process, albeit one (of Ross Tayor) that wasn't. (While on that, how Ross Taylor not display even a split second of anger or disappointment at that terrible decision from Daryl Harper is beyond me).

At the end of the day, India are effectively 233 for 1. The only way New Zealand can win this Test match is to throw caution to the winds and attack. Try to get India all out under 250 and then chase down whatever target is put up in the manner of an ODI. They will not be able to play the waiting game and bat out more than a day. This Indian team has too many weapons, starting with the tactical nous of the captain, to let them play the survival game.

Now, dear Kiwi, do you see why New Zealand did not prepare bowler-friendly pitches for this series? It was the New Zealand team that they were afraid of, not the Indian one.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Six of one, six of the other

The first day of the third Test between India and New Zealand was one of those rare days when supporters of both teams found reasons to cheer.

India made 375 runs in 90 overs. New Zealand took 9 wickets. India scored 185 runs in the post-tea session after being 190 for 5. New Zealand gave up 68 runs without a wicket in the first hour, and 185 runs in the last session and still managed to get the Indians almost all out.

The first day of the third Test between India and New Zealand was one of those rare days when supporters of both teams found reasons to jeer.

Ironically, take the second paragraph of this post and flip the perspective of the supporter and you will find the very reasons for anguish.

At this point in time, India has the advantage. New Zealand needs to win. In order to do so they have to not only overhaul the Indian total, but also score enough to put pressure on them when they bat second. Also, they need to do this at a fast rate.

Probably the worst thing for India was that they did not get all out at the close of play. On the second day, early on in the morning when there is enough swing available, the tail-enders will be wasting time trying to add more runs to the total. Let's assume that India gets all out in the first over of the day. New Zealand will need to bat all day and into the third day just to get a big lead. Based upon the way the pitch is behaving I don't think they can bat without losing wickets through the day, so it is going to be a tough task to expect the Kiwis to take a big lead.

I know one thing - MS Dhoni will not let them score at more than 4 runs an over. He does not mind looking ugly in order to get results.

Many folks around the world, especially in New Zealand, have been wondering why the hosts have prepared such batting-friendly pitches. I think the Kiwis know that the Indian bowling line-up is much better than their own and if given a juicy wicket the Kiwis were more likely to collapse. Secondly, this Indian batting line-up is clicking on almost all (barring Yuvraj) cylinders and are wiser for their experience in 2003.

Preparing bland pitches was not done to protect the Indians, it was done to protect the Kiwis. Day two promises to be a great one for followers of Test cricket. It's a shame, really, that India is not scheduled (as of now) to play any more Tests in 2009.

One parting shot - should India declare at the overnight score?

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Numerically speaking

If numerology has anything to do with fate, then you heard it first here - Jesse Ryder will score either 0, 12, or 21 in the Third Test match against India.

Update: Ryder scored 3 runs (2+1) but took 12 balls and 21 minutes to do so (as pointed out by Nish (see comments). Cue the spooky music!