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No country for old men

May 2, 2013

So, there’s a T20 cricket tournament on, and there are hot women in cheerleader costumes gyrating to Bollywood songs on set. And there are whirlwind centuries being made by the likes of C.H.Gayle and S.R.Watson, bucketfuls of wickets being taken by the likes of J.P.Faulkner and  A.Mishra and am sure physics-defying catches by the likes of K.Pollard.

With the torrent of games, the various team colours all merge into one psychedelic blob and it’s impossible to track who’s done what to the extent that it takes the fastest ever century in the history of the game to emerge from the humdrum to make a splash. Ask any “die-hard” fan about what are Virat Kohli’s scores over the course of the tournament and I’d guarantee a blank look followed by an angry bellow of “RCB!” I doubt most players, especially the internationals are losing sleep over their team’s lackluster performance in an environment that’s more exhibition than serious competition.

But seems there’s one constant in it all, unblinking scrutiny of Tendulkar’s batting. I’m guessing he’s scored about as many runs in the tournament so far as Gayle probably scored in his lowest scoring game, before taking guard.

Going by the facebook and twitter feed updates, he’s been looking like a creaking octogenarian, with a walking stick for a bat, blindfolded. And that’s probably a generous description.

Some hilarious takes on Tendulkar’s performance…

Now, this is NOT a “jump to Sachin’s defense” kinda post, lord knows I’ve done enough of those on this blog. This is more a sense of wonderment about the hold he has had on us, and still continues to. I’ve followed the above gentlemen on twitter for a while because of their takes on, on sports and other topics, often wrapped in sparkling satire. Overall, hold them in high regard.

Now, without having seen nearly any IPL games, am sure his batting must be way below the standards of even competent openers in this format. Am also sure there are umpteen other underperformers strewn about and his failures are probably not even impacting his team all that much anymore. So, really, Tendulkar’s failures should ‘rationally’ get about as much airtime as those of a Yuvraj or an Utthappa. And yet, there is so much passive aggressiveness in the comments I come across, still fixating on his performance. Like cranky old men muttering their disapproval of the weather, the noisy neighbourhood kids, the universe.

I suspect this is a trait shared by those of our generation, the one that grew up watching Tendulkar bat in a time when India would be 12/3 in their 2nd innings by the time they cleared immigration on foreign tours. And I think the sly comments are a withdrawal from a decade and a half of rushing home to TV sets to look for his easily identifiable frame to be at one end before exhaling or acknowledging family members.

The fix of watching a Tendulkar rearguard was a powerful one and over time, even as the team needed it less and less, we, the 90’s viewer generation didn’t quite wean ourselves off. So, in a world, where the Kohlis, Pujaras, Dhonis fittingly take center stage, we still peek to check on Tendulkar’s score and let loose with a tirade about “why doesn’t he go away”. Or like the wittier among us, tweet satirically.

The new (old) world order

December 9, 2012

On one side of the world, Ricky Ponting, the last of “The Invincibles”, called it a day and the South Africans quietly attained what they have looked good for, almost ever since they re-entered international cricket. On the other side, a constantly improving English side have finally exhausted every excuse that the delusional Indians threw at them and beat them on poorly prepared surfaces euphemistically called “rank turners”.

Irrespective of what ICC “rankings” say, the two best Test sides in the world by a distance are South Africa and England. Australia now is a distant 3rd with the rest bunching together in a pack further back with little to separate them. While it might be too much to expect either of those sides to dominate world cricket like the Australians used to, the English have the balance to outplay most other sides on current form.

A whole-body CT scan of world cricket today would highlight India as a candidate for the ICU. The statistics aren’t necessarily the giveaway. Since the start of 2009, India has won 11 of 18 home test matches and 6 of 22 away test matches. This isn’t drastically worse than how they have fared in the past. It is the nature of the wins and losses that indicate the problem. The losses have been one-sided and the home wins have come largely on tracks that were embarrassingly underprepared. With the current England series, the shortcut methods have finally backfired against the unlikeliest opponent, traditionally, the worst players of spin bowling. In balance, India now has the worst fielding side, an average pace bowling attack, a below-average spin-bowling attack and a perennially underperforming batting lineup.

Hardly surprising given how the BCCI hasn’t even tried to disguise its lack of interest in the traditional format as it has directed all efforts toward sustaining the IPL. With bits and pieces players becoming flavours of the month based on 8 and 12 ball innings, there are no batsmen pushing for places in a format that requires more than the attention span of a goldfish. Slow bowlers, mis-classified as spinners see more dividends from perfecting darts than understanding the vagaries of flight and drift. A few promising quick bowlers have emerged, but with the national captain publicly demanding turning crumbling tracks, there is little incentive for them to stick around long enough to learn their craft instead of adapting to reduce pace and introduce variations.

The irony is that with the resources and time diverted to the shortest format, India’s T20 performances since the first world cup, make the inaugural tournament win out to be a fluke. In retrospect, Misbah’s poor shot judgment in that final leading to an Indian win could’ve been the worst thing that has happened to Indian cricket.

Short. Sharp. Six! – Ponting

February 25, 2012

A true pitch. A reasonably quick bowler. A short of length. The batsman rocks back, stands tall, the toe of the bat starts a scything arc from fine leg, moving parallel to the ground, gathering speed as it meets the ball in front of the batsman’s chest and carries on to complete the arc at square leg. Resounding crack of bat on ball as the ball goes speeding through square leg, past the boundary.

Living and watching cricket in the subcontinent, while having enjoyed some of the most ridiculously talented wristy batsmen to ever play, I’ve always felt malnourished when it comes to great back foot batting. Most good length bowling would arrive at the batsman, barely thigh high, well placed for the efficient clips off the waist that most batsman are good at. For me, when there was bounce on a surface, the kind where a ball not pitched quite short passes the batsman above waist height, the equation seemed to change. Like paddling a raft on a docile little stream that had turned into a raging foaming level 5 beast of a river. Adjustments needed to be made, the lunging front foot needed to be recalled post-haste, the weight even had to go on the toes as the batsman tried to tame the additional dimension of the bounce.

And when there was bounce, there was always, to my uneducated eyes, one batsman who looked at home.

Who looked like his technique was built, to take on bowlers looking to get the ball chest and shoulder high. Decisive. Aggressive. Majestic. RT Ponting.

Contemptuously dismissive of any half-hearted attempts at bouncers, rarely ducking out of the way, sometimes swaying out but always evaluating the possibility of sending the ball into orbit. Even his forward defensives were purposeful, with a large stride and some back lift, almost like a boxer looking, then aborting a punch, while looking for the next opening. He has had his problems early on, the most documented, the tendency to plant his front foot and bring his bat around it to the ball coming in, making him vulnerable to the LBW. Past that, you rarely watched the clock on a Ponting innings, a stream of punchy strokes, both sides of the wicket, front and back foot.

Perspective is a funny thing. Mostly it helps add depth to our understanding of an event or person. For example, Andy Flower’s test match average of 51.54 while impressive in itself, takes on heroic proportions considering the side he played in. Sometimes though, too much of it crowds out what should be fairly simple. He played and even lead most of his career in juggernaut-like Australian sides, only to preside over their decline, poetically heralded by a quick bowler hitting him on the grill and drawing blood. His abilities as captain, have been criticized, as the team struggled to find its new normal. But all of that only obscures the batsman that he has been. And that is one of the most entertaining batsmen to have ever played this game, especially, off the back foot.

If a dramatic rendition of cricket were to be set up with a hulking brute of a fast bowler, menacing look on his face, steam escaping from his nostrils, pawing the ground in anticipation before thundering towards the crease to bowl short thunderbolts, Ponting would be facing, and the crowd behind deep square leg would be fetching.

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The pitch. The hype. The WACA.

January 12, 2012

Western Australian Cricket Association. No other venue in test cricket evokes the buzz that this serene looking ground, situated in probably the most isolated big city in the world does. Cricket writers suddenly turn war correspondents using phrases like “lethal”, “pace battery” in describing what’s in store for batsmen. Talk of “all-pace attacks” start to do the rounds. Cricinfo posted a picture 2 days before the game with the curator crouched in front of what looked a section of the outfield but was in fact the playing surface.

Relative newcomers to the game would be forgiven in thinking that maybe the ground had been built on an old improperly cleared minefield.

A cursory look at two numbers puts things in perspective. In 38 test matches at the WACA, 1234 wickets have fallen, 32.5 wickets / test match at an average of 32.58 runs per wicket. In comparison, at the innocuous sounding Wankhede in Mumbai, 725 wickets have fallen in 22 tests (33 wickets / game) at an average of 29.58 runs per wicket.

Hard bouncy surfaces are not the stuff of nightmares for good batsmen, and the Indian lineup is a good one, make no mistake. The ball coming on to the bat with true bounce on a fast outfield should get more than a couple of the batsmen thinking “big-daddy hundreds” as R Shastri likes to call them. Batsmen can play back to fuller length deliveries knowing that the ball will still arc over the stumps should they miss the line. That said, seam bowlers have the luxury of knowing that any edges will carry to the slips and can afford to bowl a fuller length while still hitting the shoulder of the bat.

What can unravel visiting teams is uncertain footwork from batsmen standing and hanging their bats and bowlers pitching too short. The Indian team will do well to block out the hype surrounding the nature of the pitch and just play the ball instead of the tons of newsprint. What will be harder for India is to get the likes of Umesh Yadav and Ishant Sharma to bowl a full length, which with a hint of seam or swing can be incisive.

With 31 results in 38 test matches, one thing is certain. There is no place for timid defensive cricket at the WACA.

Open letter to Mohammad Amir

August 31, 2010

You’re 18 years old. Tall, thin to the point of anorexic. Left handed. And you are part of an endangered species. You can bowl a cricket ball at blinding pace, and make it do things in the air and off the pitch. In your last 11 innings where the opposition involved Australia and England at home, you’ve taken 30 wickets at an average of 19.80. You’ve made some of the best batsmen around look very circumspect and have received praise from some of the game’s great quick bowlers. Even in the arcane world of Pakistan test team selection you are guaranteed to be among the first 3 names down on the team sheet as your more experienced peers start to show the unmistakable signs of age and substance abuse.

What do you do next?

It’s really not a trick question. You concentrate on staying fit, look at adding some muscle to sustain your bowling, you watch and learn. You bowl frighteningly fast and you enjoy it. In the process you arouse many a marketer, publicist and IPL team owner to pay you obscene amounts of money to endorse shampoos, wear jerseys held together by sponsor logos. You pay off your family debt, buy swank pads in downtown Lahore, custom-order Lamborghinis. For your other urges, you blow off steam at IPL parties and partake of the buffet of ‘international’ escorts, ahem, models, all in the name of contractual commitments.

But, always! You always get back to the nets the next morning and wear your ego on your sleeve as you try to knock the batsman’s head off.

What you don’t do, you damn fool, is to agree with lesser talented team-mates, to bowl rigged no-balls. Don’t you get it?! Or we’ll have nothing but the middling medium pace of the Kulasekharas, the Praveen Kumars and the Tuffeys, the coma-inducing finger-tweaking tedium of the Swanns and Jadejas. The front-foot swagger of the Dilshans and the Rainas as they cart yet another six over midwicket. You fuckin’ idiot! Cricket needs your kind to survive!

Neutral venues, neutral supporters, better sport

August 2, 2010

The best thing about being an Indian viewer of the Football World Cup was that you were there only for the football. Sure, I had my evolving list of favourites through the tournament.I started off as a staunch Argentinian supporter, donned the German black-red-gold tricolour from the rounds of 16 upto the semifinal and ended the tournament hollering for a Dutch equaliser. In between I whooped when Drogba took the field, injured shoulder and all for Cote D’Ivoire (conveniently called Ivory Coast) and watched in awe as Portugal steamrolled the North Koreans. I was able to quickly turn up my nose at the poorly prepared French and the Italians and watched them fittingly eliminated in the first round. All I was interested in was, good football.

Cricket has seldom afforded us that luxury. Be it the world cup, a tri-nation or a bilateral series, an Indian cricket fan is burdened with expectations of victory.

It didn’t matter if a victory was only made possible by an opposition more efficient at self-destruction than our own or an inside edge that skims the varnish on leg stump before snaking to the boundary to accrue the winning runs.Win and all was well, lose and it was doom and gloom.

How many Indian viewers would be able to recall any good passages of play from the 2007 World Cup in the carribean, especially after India were dumped out in the 1st round? This tendency is not limited to just Indian cricket fans but to the legions of passionate team supporters around the world.

The advent of neutral test matches seems to have changed that for me. As India set out to cross the pond to play yet another series against Sri Lanka, Pakistan ‘hosted’ Australia in England and played some stirring cricket. Compared to hour  after hour of tedious uninspiring cricket in Sri Lanka, watching the Mohammeds, Asif and Aamer, the former wobbling seaming circles around the batsmen, the latter hurrying through them  for pace, was way more satisfying. The Australians done with Pakistan continues to play entertaining, albeit, inconsistently against England. India and Sri Lanka in the meanwhile, grind on, intent on avoiding defeat than to take games by the scruff of the neck. Is it a coincidence that the team with the most potent bowling attack in world cricket today has had the least exposure to the shimmer of the IPL? But that’s another discussion. For now, I’m much more keen to watch the next England V Pakistan game while probably not even bothering with following the other one online.

Maybe we need more neutral venues classified on the basis of competitive conditions and inspired teams rather than compulsory ‘watching grass grow’ series like the one on in Sri Lanka.

Getting punched in the nuts

May 15, 2010

You know how it is when watching one of those shows titled “World’s wankiest bloopers” or similar. Where people send in video evidence of their attempts at getting eliminated from the gene pool. The skateboarder coming down the metal railing of the staircase to be met with an immovable object. Or a father and toddler dancing to some music before the son punches the father in the nuts without warning. Yeah, those videos. The ones that make you laugh and cringe at the same time. That’s how it was for all non-Pakistani fans in yesterday’s T20 Semi-Final.

For Pakistani fans, it must’ve been like the dude that’s having a good time and gets punched in the nuts by his 4 year old. Painful.

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