Friday, March 30, 2007

Spare a thought for Kumble

It was deja vu to see Anil Kumble sitting in the balcony, eyes shaded, jaws clenched, watching India get knocked out of World Cup 2007, just as he had done during the finals of World Cup 2003. The man responsible for a majority of India's Test match victories over nearly two decades was kept out of the action when it mattered the most in two World Cups in succession -- and for no good reason. Harbhajan Singh, who took his place both times, was ineffectual in the last World Cup and even more so this time. [Read Who takes the rap for these?]
Sourav Ganguly, who was the captain in 2003, might have had some justification for preferring Harbhajan, because his exploits against the Aussies in 2000 were still fresh, although even he should have noted how Harbhajan's spinning and wicket-taking abilities had fallen away after his wrist injury which preceded the World Cup. It is harder to fathom what made Rahul Dravid discount the value of his Karnataka mate.
Maybe Chappell and Dravid went by Kumble's record against the Lankans which is not so impressive. But that was because of those old masters Aravinda De Silva and Ranatunga. I wonder how Chamara De Silva and Tharanga, who had little exposure to Kumble, might have fared against that in-dipping flipper. Now we'll never know.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Who takes the rap for these?

1. Harbhajan went wicketless against a side like Bangladesh on a pitch where the Bangla spinner Razzak took a 'fifer' against us. And yet he was picked for the do-or-die game against Lanka where he again failed to provide a single breakthrough in his spell of 10 overs for 53 runs after the Lankans were on the ropes with the early dismissal of their three most important batsmen - Jayasuriya, Sangakkara and Jayewardene. Harbhajan has lacked penetration ever since the wrist problem he developed four years back which required medical intervention. He seems unable to give the ball the kind of rip that Ramesh Powar does. But the selectors, coach and captain still kept hoping for miracles from Harbhajan, instead of responding to the claims of Powar who was pivotal in India's only emphatic one-day victory in recent times, the 5-1 whitewash of England. Not taking Powar to the Windies was a mistake, and picking Harbhajan ahead of Kumble compounded it.
2. What was the logic in dropping Sehwag after the South Africa series, then reinstating him in the World Cup squad? If the selectors wanted him to go back to domestic cricket to work on his game like Ganguly did, that needed much more time than a couple of weeks. And if he was needed for the World Cup, he had to play all the games against the Windies and Lanka to regain his poise. All right, it was Dravid, not the selectors, who wanted Sehwag, but then why did he let him be dropped in the first place? The warm-up series would've allowed him to experiment with Sehwag's batting position instead of having to do it at the World Cup. [Read What to do with Sehwag]
3. The return to form of Sourav Ganguly gave the team management the perfect opportunity to push the struggling Sehwag down the order. Instead, Sachin Tendulkar was moved to the middle order to make way for Ganguly, and the other opening slot alternated between the newbie Uthappa and out-of-form Sehwag. It destabilised both the top and Sachin, who had to adjust to a middle order role at the eleventh hour after notching up a few good knocks as an opener in the run-up to the World Cup. [Read Give the first 10 overs to the bowlers, where I advocated opening with Sachin.]
4. And, of course, choosing to bat first against Bangladesh after winning the toss, ignoring the fact that even Bermuda made early inroads into the Lankan batting in the previous match on the same ground because of the morning moisture, led to... The double jeopardy at Port-of-Spain.

What 'process' without leadership?

It's all very well to talk in generalities about how Chappell did not get to implement his 'process' and how he did not get the 'young' team he wanted. Let's take specifics.
Which senior player did Chappell not want? Ganguly? He was the best performer at the World Cup and the 'man of the series' in the warm-up against Lanka. Which young player did Chappell want instead? Raina? This promising player's performance nosedived under Chappell's tutelage, and he now has to revive it in domestic cricket. Chappell was also reported to have been dead set against Sehwag. That's irony. One of the first things Chappell did on taking over as coach was to project Sehwag as the future captain.
The contradictions in Chappell's statements, decisions, and 'processes' are symptomatic of the inept leadership that is Indian cricket's biggest handicap. And that includes the board, the selectors, the coach and the captain.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Blame the board for picking Chappell

It's a delicious irony that the two teams which beat India at the World Cup are coached by men who were eager, even desperate, to do the job for India -- Dav Whatmore of Bangladesh and Tom Moody of Sri Lanka. But the Indian cricket board chose to go with a big name -- Greg Chappell.
Chappell was a legend as a batsman and also did well as a captain. But he had little success as a coach, and now his India sojourn is ending in disaster. The team had already fallen from number two to six in the ODI rankings before the World Cup, and will now go to the bottom of the heap of the eight major cricket-playing nations.
Compare that with Whatmore's achievements -- doing the unimaginable in 1996 of taking Sri Lanka to the pinnacle, and now the equally amazing feat of putting Bangladesh in the Super 8.
Coaching in cricket today requires more than a batting tip or a fielding drill or pep talk. Dav Whatmore, Tom Moody, John Buchanan of Australia, Mickey Arthur of South Africa, John Bracewell of New Zealand, none of them were legends as cricketers, but all of them have done way better than Chappell as coach, and it's no accident.
It takes donkey's work to systematically analyse video recordings for each player's strengths and weaknesses, and prepare a dossier for each opposition batsman and bowler. That's the sort of thing you can expect from a Whatmore or a Buchanan, not a Chappell. It also takes a lot of experience to hone the unique, supportive role that a coach plays, and it comes from many years of working up the ranks as a professional coach, unlike a big name who parachutes into the job after a long and distinguished career as a cricketer.
The mistake the Indian board made in 2005 was to look at Chappell's track record as a player, not a coach.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Not convinced by the Bermuda bash

The Sri Lankans will not give Sehwag the luxury to free his arms for his favourite off-side shots. They will also not stand transfixed by Kumble, leg before wicket, like deer caught in the headlamps of a car. It was that great Sri Lankan bat Aravinda De Silva, after all, who was the first to work out that Kumble should be played like an inswinger not a spinner, which the Aussies and everyone else then picked up. As for Yuvraj, the Lankans will take note of his own admission after the Bermuda match that he got a lot of balls in his hitting zone which he was able to despatch over the midwicket boundary.
The basic problems remain unresolved, the most important being the instability at the top which can only be fixed by sending Sachin or Dravid out to open with Sourav. A stronger attack, on a lively pitch, will expose Sehwag again. He can be better used to do a demolition job in the middle. And Uthappa seems like a moth drawn irresistibly to the rising ball outside off-stump. He needs more time in international cricket before he can come to terms on such wickets.
In the bowling too, Zaheer lacks support at the other end. Agarkar has made no impression with the new ball. And later, it took an embarrassingly long time to get the last two Bermudan wickets. The only recognised batsman in the Bermuda line-up, David Hemp from South Africa who plays county cricket in England, remained unbeaten on 76, his top score in international cricket.
Dravid will be tempted to go with Agarkar because he recently snapped up Chris Gayle a couple of times with the ball that comes in to the left-hander. But I feel Sreesanth is better equipped to get that vital early wicket of Jayasuriya. On these tracks, he will get bounce and movement with his high-arm, wrist-behind-the-seam action, like he did in South Africa. But he can be profligate and hasn't played a game yet at the World Cup. Will Dravid now have the guts to effect a make-or-break change for the Lankan match?

This is no Irish joke

Nearly all of Ireland's players are amateurs who have taken time off from work to play. But qualifying for the Super 8 means asking for one more month's leave... A quandary for victorious Irish

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Pulling the wool over our eyes

It's hard to comment on a game that is losing all credibility. Now every time a captain makes a wrong move or a batsman plays a false shot or a bowler gets tonked around, the first thought will be if it was fixed. Hansie Cronje's mysterious death and now Woolmer's leave no doubt about the magnitude of the stakes. The string of top cricketers' names linked to fixing gets longer and few are inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. This fixation with betting is turning a beautiful game into a WWF show.

Is this cricket or roulette?

A friend messaged me in the morning: “Anyone subscribing to both TOI and HT will be confused just as I am. TOI P1 lead says India’s best hope is for Sri Lanka to beat Bangladesh tonight. And HT P1 lead says India’s best hope is for Bangladesh to beat Sri Lanka…”
This is like one of those arguments on how a word is spelt, which ends with the discovery that both are right.
Hindustan Times is straightforward. If Bangladesh beats Lanka, all that India will need to qualify from Group B is a simple victory over Lanka without worrying about run rates, because Lanka would be out of the tournament with two losses. But in that case, Bangladesh would qualify from this group with India, and carry forward the points it has won with its victory over India.
The Super 8 is a round robin, with each team playing every other team, except the one it had already encountered in the first round.
So, considering that India has to beat Lanka in any case to qualify, it is to India’s advantage for Lanka to beat Bangladesh and qualify with India for the Super 8, as TOI points out. India would then start the next stage of its World Cup campaign with the two points it gets against Lanka. Suddenly, from being down in the dumps, India would be ahead of four other teams in the Super 8, with two points in the bag and two easy points to be had against Ireland. (They surely can’t strike twice!) Besides, all the other teams in the Super 8 will have to face Lanka rather than have an easy ride against Bangladesh.
But there’s a twist in this scenario: TOI assumes Bangladesh can’t match the 243 and 257 run victories over Bermuda that Lanka and India posted. But what if Bangladesh wins the toss and sticks Bermuda in. Imagine Bermuda getting around 150, as it did against India, and Bangladesh knocking off those runs in 18 overs. That’s not so difficult because Bangladesh can sacrifice wickets with not much chance of being bowled out in 18 overs. And that would be equivalent to a 250-run victory margin. As I pointed out earlier, high net run rates are easier to achieve while chasing against a weak team. [Read Flaw in the net run rate system]
Anyway, what India really needs tonight is a big win for Lanka, which takes Bangladesh out of the net run rate stakes. A narrow win will open another Pandora’s box of calculations, which I’ll save for tomorrow.

Monday, March 19, 2007

A flaw in the net run rate system

There is now one more reason for the Indians to put the opposition in to bat if they win the toss. Group B faces the prospect of its standings being determined by net run rates. And it's easier to boost your net run rate batting second against a weak team like Bermuda, because of a flaw in the system. Let me explain this with an example, but you have to be patient because it involves a little arithmetic.
Sri Lanka got a net run rate of 4.86 against Bermuda with a victory margin of 243 runs. To do better than that, while batting first like Sri Lanka, India would have to score say 400 and bowl Bermuda out for 150, for a net run rate of 5.00. Now if Bermuda were to bat first, and get 150, India would have to knock off those runs in the 19th over for the same net run rate of 5.00. The second way is easier because it requires a scoring rate of 8 an over for 20 overs and not the full 50.
The catch in the system is that the net run rate takes no account of the number of wickets a team loses, unlike the Duckworth-Lewis system for rain-shortened games where a complex algorithm works out the potential runs a team could have got in 50 overs, based on both the runs scored in the reduced number of overs and the wickets in hand.
So, in the scenario I described, India would go hell for leather for a short burst of around 20 overs with a run rate of 8 or even 9 or 10, without worrying about how many wickets are lost in the process, presuming of course they don't get bowled out. To do that for 50 overs, which is what they would need to do if they bat first, is much harder.
I haven't seen any team, including the Australians who are otherwise redoubtable when it comes to systems, working this little quirk in the rules into their gameplan. I mean the rule of thumb should be to always bat second against the minnows. Instead, you generally see the big teams opting to bat first and knock off as many runs as they can. But it's not the number of runs, only the net run rate, that counts. This may well be a big factor in the Super 8 which is a round robin this time, and the first team to figure it out will have a little extra going for it.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Double jeopardy at Port-of-Spain

It was more of an advantage to bowl first at Port-of-Spain than at the other Caribbean grounds. In Jamaica or St Lucia, the bowlers might have brought India back into the game. Not so in Trinidad where the pitch flattened out so much during the day that there was little left for the Indians by the time it was their turn to bowl, and Bangladesh only had their own nerves to overcome to chase down the target of 191. After all, it was on this ground that India reached a world record target of 404 to win a Test match against Clive Lloyd’s team.
So if Dravid meant what he said in response to a query at a pre-match press conference that he wasn’t looking at the pitches, he was letting the Indian team down. To ignore the effects of an early 9:30 a.m. start on these pitches relaid for the World Cup under the supervision of that dangerous West Indian fast bowler of yore, Andy Roberts, which I described in First clues to the pitches and Give the first 10 overs to the bowlers, was an exposure of the poor thought, preparation and decision-making that characterises the ‘Chappell-n-Dravid way’. Remember how they allowed a struggling England to level a Test series in India by needlessly going in to the final match with five bowlers, and making the batting vulnerable?
It’s another matter that India should have been good enough to beat Bangladesh under any conditions. The point is the failure of a captain and coach to take advantage of winning the toss even after having the opportunity of observing the conditions over four days of World Cup cricket before their turn came. It took less time than that for the Kiwi captain to figure out that he had to send England in to bat. The Bangla skipper too was quite clear that he would have opted to bowl if he had won the toss.
And it wasn’t just the toss. To insist on opening with an out-of-form, low-in-confidence, technical-flaws-exposed Virender Sehwag, instead of going for the stability of Tendulkar or Dravid himself to join Sourav at the top in these conditions is more fundamental. I was pleasantly surprised when I heard talk some time before the World Cup that Sehwag would be sent back to the middle order, because I felt he would be dangerous on these small Caribbean grounds against the slow bowlers. Then they picked him for the World Cup at Dravid’s insistence and I thought ‘Hey, these guys have got it!’ That evaporated quickly when Vengsarkar revealed in an interview that the selectors had gone along with Dravid on the understanding that Sehwag was going as an opener. The rot runs deep. [More on this in What to do with Sehwag]

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Give the first 10 overs to the bowlers

That's two matches in different venues between major teams where both sides lost early wickets - NZ v England in St Lucia and the Cup opener between the West Indies and Pakistan in Jamaica. It confirms my suspicion that the opening bowlers would have more of a play due to the early starts on these relaid pitches than was anticipated before the tournament. [First clues to the pitches]
Of course, Port of Spain, where India starts its campaign on Saturday, has one of the more docile grounds, and Bangladesh is not much of a threat despite putting one across New Zealand in a pre-tournament warm-up.
It's worth speculating nevertheless if the Indian think tank will respond to what is becoming apparent about the conditions. Will we persist with the opening combo we used back home against the Windies and Lankans - Ganguly-Uthappa, Uthappa-Sehwag, Sehwag-Ganguly? Or will we opt for more stability at the top with Tendulkar or Dravid, the only two in the team who find it easy to leave the rising ball. I'm reminded of Sunny Gavaskar's formula for a Test opener - give the first hour to the bowlers, the remaining five are yours. For an ODI, that would translate into caution for 10 overs and plunder for the next 40 with wickets in hand.
You might argue about not cashing in on the initial field restrictions, but I would say that's better than losing two or three early wickets and getting bogged down in the middle on a slowing track where you need to feel free to step out of the crease. In fact, on these small grounds, fours and sixes can be had with a little enterprise even with the field spread out, especially by good players of spin.
The most out-of-the-box approach would be to open with Tendulkar AND Dravid to negotiate the first spell, and then unleash our string of hitters - Ganguly, Uthappa, Sehwag, Yuvraj and Dhoni. Midway through the tournament, if the grass and moisture dry out, we could switch back to Ganguly and Uthappa as openers.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Poor advertisement for cricket

The argument goes like this: if you don't let the minnows come to the World Cup, the game will not spread beyond the eight main countries. But to dish out a 203-run whopping of Scotland by Australia as the second game of the World Cup that happens once in four years is hardly a great advertisement for this sport, which competes for attention with other sports and entertainment programmes. So how do we have our cake and eat it too? Here's an idea.
Right now the format for the first round is a copy of the football World Cup with a round robin within each group of four, to eliminate half the teams. That is okay for football where you can get enough teams capable of competing at that level. What cricket needs is a knockout in the first round.
It would work like this. The teams would be paired off according to their ICC ODI rankings, with number one taking on No. 16, number two vs No. 15 and so on. That way the best of the minnows, which is currently the ninth-ranked Bangladesh, would get a crack at the worst of the top eight, hosts West Indies in this tournament.
And we would have to endure only eight mismatches, instead of the numbing 20 games involving minnows in the present format. We can then get into the round robin format in the second round with the eight top teams. In fact, with fewer matches in the first round, we can also have a round robin in the semi-finals, and a best-of-three finals. After all, to have six weeks of World Cup cricket, and then everything hinging on that one final game, which can get influenced by the toss or weather, is hardly ideal.
The only downside to this format would be the possibility of a freak result such as a Scotland knocking Australia out of the tournament at one shot on a dodgy pitch. Or maybe that's just the kind of spice the World Cup needs at the very outset to build up the buzz instead of dampening it with boring games.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

First clues to the pitches

The big imponderables in this World Cup are the pitches. In 2003, we knew the South African pitches would be hard and bouncy, and the only exception was Port Elizabeth where the Australians squeaked past Sri Lanka in the semi-finals on a slow turner. This time, in the run-up to the matches, most people predicted slow and low stuff because that's been the trend in the Caribbean. Queering matters, however, are two factors: most of the pitches have been relaid for the World Cup, and nobody is sure if they will behave quite the same as before; secondly, the matches have an early 9:30 a.m. start, which means overnight moisture will assist the seam bowlers until the sun has time to dry out the pitch.
The opening game in Jamaica would therefore have been the object of close scrutiny by all the teams searching for clues to how the pitches will play. For one thing, Umar Gul of Pakistan and then Taylor and Powell for the West Indies got more than the expected bounce, and both teams lost early wickets before stabilising in the middle. Now the pitches are new, and we don't know if the bounce will die down as the tournament wears on. But if it remains as bouncy as this, tough luck for Sourav.
Another point to note in the game was the contrasting fortunes of the two Pakistan spinners Danesh Kaneria and Mohammad Hafeez. Samuels and Lara got stuck into Kaneria, who was supposed to be the main threat. It was the part-timer Hafeez, though, who came in to bowl in the 30th over, stemmed the flow of runs and got rid of both Lara and Samuels.
Hafeez bowled flat, and his off-breaks were hard to put away on a pitch where the ball was holding up and turning. Kaneria's loopy leg-spin by contrast sat up nicely to be tonked for sixes in the small ground. Harbhajan, unlike Hafeez, tends to give the ball overspin, as does Kumble, and I wonder if they will suffer Kaneria's fate. How badly we're going to miss Ramesh Powar, who would have been twice as difficult as Hafeez in these conditions!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Sunny-Punter sledge-fest

"Have a look at how many Test matches they have won (three out of 12 in 2006)... He (Gavaskar) has been a big part of that. He has been a selector and he has been on the coaching committee." Ouch!
When it comes to a scrap, you can expect an Aussie to be on the front foot, and Ponting did just that to deflect Gavaskar's latest salvo. “Australia’s come-uppance at the hands of England and New Zealand has gladdened the hearts of not just the other aspirants for the World Cup but also the followers of the game. There is not the slightest doubt that in the last decade or so the Aussies have been awesome in batting, bowling and fielding... But they have also been awful in the way they have sometimes behaved on the field," wrote Gavaskar.
I think both have skirted the real issue, which is the ICC's ineptitude in ironing out wrinkles in this sport. Why should the fielding side be allowed to disturb the concentration of a batsman, through abuse or even banter? It's all very well to smile and pass it off as the fast bowler's machismo. But there's a simpler word for it: cheating.
The Aussies under Steve Waugh systematised it into a gameplan. Of course, other teams, including the Indians, have tried to copy these tactics, but they just aren't very good at it. In fact, most of the Indian bowlers themselves lose their rhythm when they try to turn on a little aggro, except Sreesanth who has winkled out a few wickets with his antics. More than Greg Chappell, what we should have imported from Australia was a sledging coach.
This sort of thing used to happen in tennis too. The tantrums of 'Superbrat' McEnroe and 'Nasty' Nastase were as much about working themselves up into a lather as throwing their opponents out of kilter. But the WTA has totally stamped out all that. So you can enjoy a virtuoso dismantling of Nadal by Federer, punctuated only by the occasional clenched fist or hard stare.
Or take golf. Can you imagine whispering a few obscenities into an opponent's ear when it's his turn to tee off? Should cricket be less of a genteel sport?

Monday, March 12, 2007

What to do with Sehwag

Dravid might as well have let the selectors leave Sehwag out. To pick him and then not know what to do with him is worse.
It's wishful to think Sehwag will miraculously become his old self during the World Cup. He's got sorted out at the top of the order. He plays from the crease, so a pitched up ball coming in to his pads makes him a candidate for LBW or bowled. He likes to slash, so the away going ball that cramps him for room gets him caught behind. He's not a ducker or weaver, so the one dug into his ribs gets him caught fending round the corner. All the new ball bowlers now know exactly what to bowl to him, and it's nice for them to be able to come to that nervous time at the start of an innings with a clear plan. That's round one to the opposition.
Initially people said Sehwag should keep on playing his 'natural' game. A few months of that, and he was advised to be more selective in his shot-making. So then he got tentative on top of everything else. These days he seems to oscillate between temerity and timidity. It's asking too much of him to deliver as an opener in this frame of mind, except against the likes of Bangladesh.
But imagine a change of scenario. Sehwag comes in to bat after 20 overs, with the ball having lost its shine and seam, bounce and movement, none of his weaknesses exposed. He then has the shots to devastate any opposition. And we all know how easily he can knock a spinner out of the park, especially in one of the smaller Caribbean ones.
So there's the irony. Dravid was right on the button to insist on taking Sehwag along, because he's a potential match-winner. After all, in 1983 it was that one knock of 175 n.o. against Zimbabwe that made all the difference. Such a knock only a Sehwag or a Dhoni can deliver in the current Indian team. But will the penny drop in the Indian think tank that the addition of Sehwag's hitting power in the middle overs and the unleashing of the surprise package of Uthappa at the top could take India all the way in the Caribbean?