Saturday, April 28, 2007

A couple of predictions for the final

Here's a prediction before the start of the big final: Sri Lanka will lose if it bats first. If Australia bats first, it's anybody's game. Most of the games at the World Cup between the major teams have gone to the side chasing. That's because the opening bowlers have a distinct advantage due to the 9:30 am start and losing two or three early wickets has been the norm. South Africa lost 5, which shows Graeme Smith was wrong to choose to bat after winning the toss.
Second prediction: If Sri Lanka replaces Fernando with Maharoof, that would be a mistake. Maharoof will go for plenty and may cost Sri Lanka the match. Fernando was expensive in the semi-final, but that's because umpire Rudi Koertzen upset him with two warnings for running on to the danger area of the pitch. Fernando could get Ponting with the kind of fast incoming ball that castled Tendulkar.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Lefties more vulnerable to Malinga

Wow... Wow... Wow... Commentator Michael Holding's ball by ball exclamation after each Lasith Malinga delivery summed up his mesmerising opening spell in the semi-final against the Kiwis. Now I'm waiting for the final 'wow' when Malinga traps Hayden and Gilchrist LBW if the Aussies get through to the finals, or Graeme Smith if it is the Proteas instead.
He made the ball curve in to Fleming's pads from outside off-stump, which is very difficult to do right arm over the wicket, and extremely difficult to face at 145 kmph for a left-hander. Malinga is able to do that because the ball is over middle-stump at the point of delivery, creating a different angle from what batsmen are used to from conventional right-arm over-the-wicket bowlers.
For a right hander, Malinga poses a different problem. Ross Taylor, who came in after the fall of Fleming's wicket, also looked all at sea, but had to get a nick to get out. He just kept playing and missing outside offstump instead. As for the Malinga ball pitching on the stumps and straightening, that's easier for a right-handed batsman to get behind, whereas the left-hander tends to play across the line to be trapped LBW. So the key to the finals may well lie in what Malinga does to the left-handers who dominate the top of the Aussie line-up.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Cricket's equivalent of self goal

Michael Vaughan and Duncan Fletcher have done to England what Rahul Dravid and Greg Chappell did to India. The Bridgetown, Barbados pitch is one of the liveliest in the Caribbean, England bowled Bangladesh out for 143 here, and yet Vaughan chose to bat after winning the toss. England got bowled out for 154. Dravid and Chappell had similarly opted to bat first against Bangladesh on a pitch where the Sri Lankans had in a previous match struggled in the early overs even against the lowly Bermudans. Both England and India thus knocked themselves out of the World Cup.

Monday, April 16, 2007

It's the netas, stupid

"To my mind, it's the netas in BCCI who are the actual culprits. They have no understanding of the game. Hence, the present plight," wrote a reader named Roma in response to my article in DNA... Chappell or Sachin: Who's the bigger problem?.
Restrict players' advertisements, get younger players, appoint Indian coaches: these knee-jerk reactions after the World Cup debacle prove Roma's point about the politicians and officials running Indian cricket.
Even a half successful Indian team makes the board's coffers overflow, such is the marketing potential of the game in the country. So it is not as though the board is lacking in motivation to put together a team that can win. The problem is it has no clue how to do this, nor will it delegate power to somebody who can.
Reforming the administration of cricket in India is a long and complicated process, and not doable beyond a point unless the government too thinks it's a worthwhile pursuit given its potential to lift the mood of people and project a winning image of the country. But even within the current setup, a lot can be achieved simply by making the jobs of chief selector, coach and captain dependent on an acceptable level of performance within a reasonable timeframe.
Chappell and Dravid, for instance, failed not just at the World Cup but for a long time before that. The drubbing in the Windies and then Malaysia, the failure to pass muster at the Champions' Trophy even in home conditions, and the whitewash in South Africa was ample evidence that the team had gone into a decline. It was bad enough no corrective steps were taken before the World Cup, but to continue with Dravid as captain now is to be like the proverbial ostrich with its head stuck in the sand.
Chappell probably had to go, from the board's point of view, because he was becoming too much of a bother. But in his place is a milky way, a bunch of asteroids. Ravi Shastri as manager, Venkatesh Prasad as bowling coach and Robin Singh as fielding coach have no track record in the international arena for these jobs. Why can't the richest cricket board in the world simply appoint a proven coach to take charge of the national team and try to turn it around?
That's what happens in football, basketball and baseball. The richest clubs pay astronomical sums to hire the best coaches in the belief that leadership counts most of all.
In cricket, traditionally, the leadership has come from the captain. Imran Khan goaded Pakistan into a World Cup winning unit, Mike Brearley was virtually a non-playing England captain but created a match-winning all-round weapon called Ian Botham, and Pataudi taught India how to win, at least at home, by conjuring up the idea of a spin trio.
But that's changed. Today the successful teams have proven coaches backing up the captain to leverage all those tricky factors: toss, playing eleven, batting order, rotation of bowlers, field positions, timing of power plays, plans for each opposition bowler and batsman, and perhaps even the sledging if the ICC will not stamp it out. And that covers only what is manifested on the field. There are more fundamental matters such as work ethic, mental attitude and team spirit. Does a coach, for instance, back up a player who throws away his wicket in the team's cause?
Then there is the vital aspect of grooming young players, which Chappell and Dravid failed to do. The only new batsman for India in this World Cup after 2003 was Robin Uthappa and he was a last-minute inclusion. Compare that with the Aussies who have groomed Michael Clarke and Michael Hussey into top performers since the last World Cup. Or take the Ganguly era which saw the emergence of Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif.
The chairman of selectors Dilip Vengsarkar says the country lacks talent. Wrong. What's lacking is leadership. Otherwise you wouldn't have a board responding to the World Cup debacle simply by taking money out of the players' pockets (and indirectly lining its own), without holding the selector and captain accountable, and leaving a vacuum in place of the foreign coach. The only sense one can make of all this is that the board would rather keep a firmer hand on the reins instead of appointing a proven coach of international standing. But do they realise they're killing the goose that lays the golden egg?

Monday, April 9, 2007

No coach is no solution

It's strange that the BCCI appoints bowling and fielding coaches when it's the batting that primarily let India down at the World Cup. More than that, what India needs is a thinking coach, as I've explained in this article on page 16 of DNA Sunday, which is reproduced here...

Tom Moody was up on his feet in the pavilion, cellphone to his ear, gesticulating. Down below, a member of the Sri Lankan support staff ran round the boundary to a spot near one of the outfielders. The flurry of activity at the end of the penultimate over of the Sri Lanka-England match signalled a critical moment not just in the match but the tournament itself, because whichever team pulled off a victory in the next over would in all likelihood make it through to the semi-finals of World Cup 2007.
England, needing 12 runs for victory, had its hopes pinned on young Ravi Bopara, who had rescued the team from a precarious 133 for 6. The Lankan wise heads went into a huddle: who should bowl that last over? Shouldn’t it be their most experienced bowler Chaminda Vaas?
The ball went to Dilhara Fernando, who was not even in the playing eleven for the Lankans at the start of the Cup. Somebody made the call, correctly, that his extra pace was a better bet and that he had it in him to hold his nerve.
The last ball in the over was straight, fast, and short of a length, not the usual yorker Bopara was expecting. He missed, was bowled, and England fell two runs short.
With such experienced hands as Sanath Jayasuriya, Muthiah Muralitharan, captain Mahela Jayewardene and Vaas on the field, did the Lankans need that input from Moody?

Insights are the key
Often a key insight can only come from a detached, intelligent view away from the heat of the action, and that is one of the myriad ways in which a modern cricket coach can be the most important member of the team.
Consider the fact that it’s only the coach and captain who are really motivated to put the interests of the team above those of individual stars, because their jobs primarily depend on the team’s performance, or at least they should.
So unless the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) finds a replacement for Greg Chappell who not only has solid credentials as a coach but is also then empowered to direct the show, it’s the superstars who will call the shots, despite the conflict of interest when team decisions impact players and their endorsements.

Taming the variables
Cricket coaching today is not just about batting and bowling tips or fielding drills. More than in any other physical sport, success in cricket depends on strategy and tactic as much as performance. That is because of the number of variables at play: the weather, the pitch, the condition of the ball, field placements, different kinds of bowling and batting, the strengths and weaknesses of each player, and, finally, the mind games.
Bob Woolmer, who pioneered the use of computer-aided video analysis to deconstruct the opposition, was the first to recognise how much more a coach could bring to the table. He probably picked it up from the New York Yankees, the fabled American baseball team, who even employed a former IBM scientist to use data-mining software to generate intelligence on the best ways to deal with batters and pitchers.

Decisions from the gut
Today, the most successful coaches in cricket are people like Dav Whatmore and John Buchanan, who were not legends as players, but will put in the donkey’s work that goes into supporting a team with dossiers of information. Of course, data can only take you thus far and no further. As Jack Welch advises in his book on winning: “There’s never adequate data. Make decisions with your gut.”
Whether by gut or data, India got a lot of decisions wrong at the World Cup: batting first against Bangladesh, pushing Sachin Tendulkar down the order, replacing Anil Kumble with Harbhajan Singh for the Lanka match, not taking Ramesh Powar to the Cup…
Sri Lanka, by contrast, got a lot of decisions right: opting for new talent such as Upul Tharanga and Chamara Silva in place of former captain Marvan Atapattu, and yet not being blinded by the preference for youth to deny the claims of an ageing Jayasuriya.

Keeping the powder dry
And it wasn’t the choice of Fernando to bowl the last over that won Sri Lanka that vital match against England. It came earlier, when they held back the third set of five powerplay overs, with field restrictions, which most teams try to use up as quickly as possible. They waited till the 30th over to bring the field in, and Muralitharan tossed the roughened old ball up to England’s main striker Kevin Pietersen, who could not resist trying to hoik it into the wide open spaces over midwicket. It was the doosra and Muralitharan pouched the leading edge with glee.
That’s the joy of cricket: the thought that goes into it. And the Indian cricket board, being the richest, can employ the best coaching mind, going by his track record as a coach, not a player. But is the board capable of picking the right leader and empowering him?

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Chappell or Sachin: Who's the bigger problem?

[This is from my article at the DNA website.]

To reduce a team, which was once considered the Aussies' only serious challenger, to the state it is in today, takes a multitude of factors, and Greg Chappell may have been one of them. But to blame it all on Chappell now would be to again brush everything under the carpet, and miss the opportunity provided by the World Cup debacle which has forced a hard, critical look at fundamental problems, including that hitherto sacrosanct one of Sachin Tendulkar's impact on this team.
Take for example the matter of Tendulkar's fitness, which has been one of the great pre-occupations of Indian cricket, to the extent of making everything else secondary. In 2004-05, when the Australians arrived in India to conquer their "last frontier", almost the entire cricket establishment was caught up with the rehabilitation of Tendulkar, who was recovering from his 'tennis elbow', instead of focussing on helping the team to tackle the Aussies. Tendulkar was even picked for the first Test in Bangalore, although there was no chance of him playing. Then it transpired Tendulkar needed to be with the team so that the physio could work on him. Instead of carrying an injured Tendulkar around, the selectors could have given a leg up to players like Badani, Sriram and Ramesh who were scoring runs by the ton in domestic cricket at the time.
Tendulkar himself once acknowledged the untapped potential of one of these players after a Challenger Trophy final when he refused to accept the sycophantic award of 'man of the match' and handed it over instead to the one he felt deserved it more - Sriram. But such magnanimous gestures do not amount to much if opportunities to groom young players are lost because positions in the team are not vacated by senior players even when they are injured. And while India fussed with Tendulkar's elbow in the 2004-05 series, the Australians under Buchanan were plotting how to turn the tables on the Indians. They came up with the match-winning tactic of getting Michael Kasprowicz to bowl off-cutters which turned into fast off-breaks on the rough pitch in Bangalore, thus getting the Indians' own conditions to work against them. This was a team not pre-occupied with McGrath or Warne; they built their strategy around Kasprowicz who was the man for these conditions.
So the real challenge for the Indian board is not replacing the coach. That's a relatively small matter compared to that of putting the needs of the team above that of individual stars. That cannot happen in a culture where a Tendulkar can walk in and out of the team after an injury break without having to prove his form and fitness in domestic competition. What moral right can anybody then have to insist on current form rather than past stats as the criterion for selection of other players? Besides, nothing can be more of a demotivator for young players than to see a senior player getting special treatment.
Tendulkar put forward to the media the way he was always joking around with the younger players as a testimonial to the bonhomie between seniors and juniors. Surely, it would take concrete action more than funny words to build up team spirit. What is the responsibility that a player of Tendulkar's stature has shouldered, apart from batting? Even on the ground, until recently, he used to hang around in the outfield, instead of taking up the more vital close-in catching positions where he would also have been in the thick of the planning and action. Only now he has come into the slips because it suits him -- he has a dodgy shoulder.
When the team loses, the ones taking the rap are the coach and captain, a position that Tendulkar gave up. And yet, he now takes up the cudgels for the senior players against the coach, like a godfather!
So the bigger problem for Indian cricket is to figure out what to do with a superstar like Sachin Tendulkar whose rich endorsements make it infinitely worth his while to continue to give his "heart and soul" to Indian cricket, regardless of whether that translates into victories for Team India. Tendulkar may be only 34 but he started young at 16 and 18 years of international cricket have taken their toll. He has struggled with one injury after another which have clearly affected his performance and even altered his approach to the game which is now more workmanlike than dominating. What he probably needs is a long break to be able to work on his game in domestic cricket, like Ganguly or Jayasuriya or Hayden or Lara before him. But will he have the courage to do that at this stage of his career? Or will the board have the courage and vision to take that decision for him?

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Pivotal game of the Super 8

Australia and New Zealand with three wins each and Ireland to come have practically booked their semi-final berths. South Africa, with two wins, is the best placed among the other teams to qualify, because its only loss has been to the Aussies. Sri Lanka too has two wins and a loss, but it still has the front-runners, Australia and New Zealand, to play. England, strangely, has had only that solitary game against Ireland in the Super Eights so far, besides its loss to the Kiwis in the group stage. I would say therefore that England is almost on par with Sri Lanka to qualify, which makes today's match between the two a virtual knock-out. The only other interesting match so far in the Super Eights has been the one in which South Africa was cruising to victory against Sri Lanka until that four-wicket burst by Malinga nearly turned things around.
Mahela Jayewardene is looking forward to an easier track after the difficult starts the team has had in Port-of-Spain and Guyana. I'm not so sure. It's true Australia scored 322 batting first on this ground against the Windies, but that was built on one towering century by Hayden. The Windies got bowled out for 177 against the Kiwis on the same ground. I think Sri Lanka might struggle if it bats first. Even against India it was only the ineffectual bowling in the middle overs by Harbhajan and co. that let Lanka off the hook. Jayasuriya did get a wonderful century against the Windies, but I think the English bowling is better.
Of course, if England bats first, all bets are off. Sri Lanka will be better placed, not because of its pace bowling, but by virtue of not having to face the English bowlers in the early morning conditions. It's funny to read how England's batsmen are preparing for Malinga with sidearm throws from practice bowlers... England prepare for Malinga. It will be funnier still if Muralitharan turns out to be the wrecker-in-chief again.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Pawar's dilemma: To find a leader

As long as the Indian team won about half its one-day matches, which it had done until recently, the board could let things drift even if the performance was below par given the available resources. But an inept coach and weak captain have brought things to such a pass that inaction is not an option with the ad revenue at stake.
Replacing Greg Chappell is the easy part. Dav Whatmore, John Buchanan, Tom Moody or Sandeep Patil -- each one of them has had more success as a coach than Chappell. Of course the board would prefer somebody more pliant, but that can hardly be expected to lift the team out of the morass it finds itself in. Sunil Gavaskar has been plumping for Mohinder Amarnath but that would be another mistake: this time, it should be somebody with coaching, not cricketing, laurels. [Read Blame the board for picking Chappell]
Finding a replacement for Rahul Dravid is trickier because the best qualified for the job is obviously Sourav Ganguly. BCCI chief Pawar would have liked to go with his Maharashtra star Sachin Tendulkar, overlooking his previous failures as captain, except that his form and fitness have brought his own future into question. Kumble has announced his retirement from the one-day game, and none of the younger experienced players can be assured of places in the side. Yuvraj Singh's name has come up, but he only looked good against Bermuda.
Apart from Dravid, Ganguly's the only one who can hold his own in the current team. He has shown amazing mental toughness and self-belief to keep working at his game and fitness to be able to force his way back into the team after a long gap. These are also the traits that made him India's most successful captain. Reinstating him is more likely to rejuvenate Indian cricket than continuing with Dravid or giving Sachin a second chance.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Ian Chappell upsets the applecart

In a TV show titled 'Match ka Mujrim' a couple of years back I was surprised to see Sachin Tendulkar featured as the villain of the piece based on viewer feedback. It was the start of a diminishing of idolatry. This went a significant step further last week when the disfiguring of Indian cricketers' posters did not spare Sachin, that too in his own Mumbai suburb of Bandra. And now one opinion poll after another brings the refrain 'Sachin should retire' in chorus with Ian Chappell who suggests that Tendulkar these days plays more for stats than to win games for his team... Look into that mirror, Sachin.
For Ian, the turning point was the slow, painstaking double century in the final, drawn Test at Sydney in 2004. For me, it took a little longer, until the first Test at Mohali during Pakistan's tour. India got a big first innings lead, and Tendulkar came out to bat in the second innings just after lunch on the third day. He started cautiously and you could sense he was getting set for a hundred on an easy track. But as the day wore on, I lost interest in whether the 'great man' got his century or not. What was more important was that it was the first time I was seeing him play an obviously selfish game.
Everyone knows the Mohali pitch slows down with each passing day and it gets harder and harder to take wickets. So India had to capitalise on its huge lead by scoring quickly in the second innings. Instead, in four hours of batting that afternoon, India went at 2 runs per over with Sachin at the crease, and it was perhaps fitting that he fell in the closing moments of play nowhere near his hundred. Ultimately, India ran out of time on the fifth day as Pakistan escaped with a draw in a match that India had all but sewn up on the third day itself.
After that I would notice from time to time how Sachin would appear to put his self-interest above that of his team in one-day matches too, where he chose the sheet anchor's role even when there was no need for it. Some of these games India lost in spite of high scores from Sachin, a syndrome that had afflicted Rahul Dravid in the middle of his one-day career until he was dropped from the team.
I'm no longer surprised therefore by the TV vox pops and opinion polls that show little sympathy for the fallen idol. The only incongruity is the steadfast defence of Tendulkar by former Indian cricketers, but that has more to do with the intricate web of advertisers, officials, players, and commentators that characterises Indian cricket.