Friday, May 25, 2007

Whatmore's parting shot?

Bangladesh ticked Whatmore off during the World Cup for expressing an interest in coaching India. There were also reports of Bangla displeasure over his consultations with BCCI officials during the current tour. So perhaps Whatmore got his own back by persuading Bangladesh to inexplicably put India in on the easiest of pitches. But India did not quite do enough with that magnanimity: 326 at a rate of 3.67 per over is below par against a weak opposition on a flat wicket where the team lost not a single wicket during the day. It was understandable Jaffer and Karthick started cautiously, but to carry that on till tea was too much. And, at the end, Tendulkar was over-cautious, getting just 9 off 31 balls. But then, who knows when he will get another chance to score a century!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Sachin and Dravid to open

Wasim Jaffer, like Gautam Gambhir, keeps coming back into the team, flops, goes back to domestic cricket, scores tons of runs, and the cycle repeats. When are we going to take a decision on whether he has it in him to be an international level Test match opener? According to me, he does not have the technique to play the new ball against international attacks. He is unable to leave the rising, outgoing ball. And he gets bowled or LBW too often because he plays too loose away from his body. Even a bit of deviation finds him out. And he's not a Sehwag who can compensate for these technical flaws with brilliant unorthodoxy. He's great on flat wickets, against weak bowlers. Let's leave him there.
We have no option is the usual counter to this. I think until we spot a player on the domestic circuit with the potential to be an international opener, it's better to convert middle order bats into openers than to keep rotating players whose shortcomings have been exposed time and again. Okay, we converted Sehwag, and now look what's happened, you will say. Even though Sehwag notched up an amazing Test match average of over 50, I've always felt he should have stayed in the middle order. He's a devastating stroke-player, especially against spinners. We've possibly ruined a great career by making him an opener. New ball bowlers now know exactly what to bowl at him, he keeps getting out in a few set ways, and you can see what it's done to his confidence.
Okay, so what's the option? Of all the players who have turned out for India in the past few years, there remain only two who have the technique to be Test match openers - Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar. They know how to leave the rising ball. That's the key. You will point out that Sachin's already been struggling in Test matches for the past couple of years (except against Bangladesh). But that's the point. How much worse can it get for him? And who knows, it might just give him a fresh lease of life in Test cricket, just like the opening transformed his one-day career.
Apart from having the necessary defensive technique, and all his experience as a one-day opener, Sachin would get maximum value for his strengths of timing and placement as an opener when the field is attacking. And we know it helps his game when he gets going, instead of being bogged down in the middle order as he tends to do these days. I wish he had retired in time, but if he must continue, maybe the Test match opener's slot is what he should eye. Not going to happen, but worth thinking about.
Imagine with Dravid and Sachin opening, the options it would open up to pack our middle order with strokemakers and also to try out newcomers.

Monday, May 21, 2007

A pause, to look back

“Lock, whose arms always seem to be on puppet strings so quickly do they shoot upwards to register success, misfortune, a snick - or, sometimes, seemingly, even the time of day - turned himself backwards on his heels so far that with his arms at full stretch he represented nothing more than an agitated and exultant symbol of interrogation.” That was Jack Fingleton's description of English spinner Lock's appeal for LBW against Australian Neil Harvey at the Oval in 1953. That was another era of Test cricket, and cricket writing.

Friday, May 18, 2007

What good is a coach, anyway?

"When was the last time you saw an Indian cricket captain in action and went 'Wow, this guy is GOOD'. And, if that is the case, and if our players shut themselves down to any new thoughts, then irrespective of how good the coach is, it's a fool's errand," wrote Homer in response to my piece No coach is no solution. It got me thinking. And I do remember going 'Wow' when Pataudi led India to a victory over the West Indies at Eden Gardens, persisting with Chandrashekhar on the last day despite a string a longhops threatening an early end to the game, and the emotional Bong crowd booing the Nawab for keeping their favourite son Prasanna on third man duty. But such moments have been few and far between. Ganguly had some, although he was tactically poor in the field. I think he resurrected Dravid's one-day career by insisting that he keep wickets in the 2003 World Cup. It made Dravid relax by securing his place in the side, which had been under a cloud until then. It also allowed the top order to play freely, knowing there were many bats to follow, even if the seventh man did not himself contribute much. Azhar had his moments too, the way he handled the spinners, and the flexibility and fluidity with which he moved the field in and out in one-day games, depending on the approach of the batsmen. Dravid, to me, is the most uninspiring captain we've had, but he had his moment too - sensing that the inexperienced Murali Karthik, who had run through the Aussie second innings in the fourth Test in Mumbai in the 2005-06 series, was too tight to finish off the job, and bringing Harbhajan on instead to take the last two wickets with only a few runs to spare. So, I think a good coach, adequately empowered, can perhaps get these moments a little more concentrated. Who knows, we might yet see a Dave Whatmore swing his shirt over his head!

If it's Whatmore, what next?

I ended my last piece on Whatmore - What more do we want? - with the hope, somewhat in vain, that if he is selected, he should then be sufficiently empowered. Let's expand on that.
The Indian cricket board is taking its time to find a replacement for Greg Chappell. It can mean either of two things: that the board had no contingency plan in the event of a flop show at the World Cup, even though a flop was only to be expected given the earlier flops in Malaysia, South Africa and the Champions Trophy; or, to be more charitable, that it wants to pick the right man for the job. Now, if Whatmore is picked, what next?
In business or sports, leadership is the most important thing. So the first issue to be resolved is whether the administrators, selectors and players will rally around Whatmore as the national cricket team's leader. Or will he be expected to play a mere supporting role? I think in today's cricket, it's better for the coach to take the leadership position. Strategy, tactics, SWOT analyses, work ethic, talent scouting, psycho support, media management, team building, infrastructure, support staff - there's a lot on the plate, and it's best for the captain to focus only on the operations part of it: mainly, to think on his feet during the game and lead from the front by putting his own game in order.
The second pre-requisite for Whatmore to have any chance of being effective is a long tenure, say till the next World Cup. This would insulate him a little from the vagaries of cricket board politics. Look at the number of years that John Buchanan served Australia - Eight. It helps the players too by bringing some continuity in processes, assessments and strategies. Of course, there needs to be an exit clause in case things go badly wrong, but which cannot ordinarily be invoked.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

This time it makes sense

It's deja vu. India is again undecided about the number of bowlers it wants to pick for the first Test against Bangladesh. "We do have the option of playing five bowlers in these conditions considering the weather, the wicket and what we are trying to achieve in this game," said Dravid. The last time India went in with five bowlers, it allowed England to square a home series in Mumbai. The decision to go in with five bowlers usually betrays indecisiveness, arising when a need is felt for three spinners, coupled with a reluctance to go in with just one pace bowler. But, in the current instance, there's enough cause: its' quite crazy playing Test cricket in the sub-continent in May. You do need five bowlers, and five batsmen and a wicket-keeper should be good enough to post a winning total against Bangladesh.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Learn from the Aussies, mate

"I had to look at the calendar, I thought it was April 1," said Jason Gillespie on being informed he had been offered a new contract to play for Australia. The 33-eyar-old fast bowler has lately been creating havoc in county cricket after being out with injury and loss of form. It just goes to show that for the best team in the world, it's form and fitness that count, not age and seniority. The most important thing is to get the best players out there, give rest to players when they need it, keep out injured players, and generally manage the team in a transparent and fair way. New players should only take the place of unfit or out-of-form players. Arbitrarily giving new players a game or two against weak opposition like Bangladesh has been done in the past too, and has done nothing to build our bench strength. That's simply not the way to go about it. Team building means to identify new players with potential, induct them into the team when opportunities come, and then give them enough time to prove themselves before reassessing their worth - not suddenly running around like headless chicken looking for new players, as India and Pakistan are doing after their World Cup debacles. Cricket Australia was the first to announce a new set of players after the World Cup. These are not spring chicken that Australia thinks will serve them in the next World Cup. They are the best set of players currently available to help Australia keep winning. As for the future, the domestic circuit has been made strong enough to ensure quality in the supply line. The 25 players chosen know they will play for Australia for at least a year, which gives them confidence and security to concentrate on their game. Conversely, players in the wings know that they will have another crack next year at getting a Cricket Australia contract if any of the contracted players don't shape up during the year, because the administration can be ruthless in dropping players regardless of seniority. In India, we've taken a step backward by abolishing the contract system which means players will be chosen on a series to series basis, which is unsettling. It shows the indecisiveness of the selection and administration. It means we're not in a position to say these are the 25 players who can play for India for a year from now, and these are the guys who are out and can go back to domestic cricket for a year to try to improve or regain form. It also means more power to the administrators and selectors, as everyone hangs on to every sattement they make for clues to who's in or out. More discussion on this in an earlier post - A punishment for success.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

What more do we want?

With Western Australia signing up Tom Moody, and John Buchanan having already thumbed his nose at India, that leaves Dav Whatmore as the last one standing for the job of India coach. Well, almost, because the board can surprise us by appointing somebody like Mohinder Amarnath, Sunil Gavaskar's favourite, despite his lack of any significant international coaching success. Sandeep Patil, who took Kenya to the semi-finals of the 2003 World Cup, would be a more credible choice, but I think an Indian coach would have the added burden of having his decisions seen through the prism of parochialism. I've always felt Whatmore's the best candidate, and who knows what might have been if he had taken over from John Wright. Now it's a much more difficult task to rebuild this team, but Whatmore can draw on all his experience in the sub-continent, first the fantastic one of helping Sri Lanka get the World Cup, and now the equally remarkable one of forcing the big teams to take Bangladesh seriously. The two experiences were different: in Sri Lanka, his job was to build on the proven talents of Arjuna Ranatunga, Aravinda De Silva and Muthiah Muralitharan to create a world beating outfit; in Bangladesh, it was the challenge of a start-up operation which began with basic processes which led gradually to a self-belief that they could compete, and win, at this level. Most of all, what sets Whatmore apart from other foreign coaches is that he seems to work well with spinners, and that's a strength that I feel we should again learn how to capitalise on. Of course, at the end of the day, any coach can only be effective to the extent he is empowered.

Friday, May 11, 2007

The punishment for success

It's interesting that two of the most dangerous batsmen in the World Cup were both openers and left-handers who made comebacks. Sri Lanka's Sanath Jayasuriya is 37 and last year he had retired from the game after a long run of poor form. Similar was the return of Mathew Hayden at 33 after being dropped from the Australian team. Sound familiar? Sourav Ganguly, a left-hander and an opener, came back into the Indian team against all odds after Chappell and More forced him out, and with some justification because his game had gone to pieces. But, like Jayasuriya and Hayden, he used the break from international cricket to work on his fitness and iron out the flaws in his batting that had become the targets of bowlers. But that's where the similarity ends. Ganguly finds himself out of the Indian ODI side in spite of averaging over 60 in his last ten innings, being the man of the series against Sri Lanka before the World Cup, and doing better than most of the other Indian batsmen at the World Cup. Of course, 'resting' him for three ODIs against Bangladesh isn't a big deal, but it sends out the wrong signal - that performance and fitness, hard work and determination don't count for much in Indian cricket. Ad hocism rules. Why would Ganguly need a rest after cooling his heels for a year and a half? Give younger players a chance by all means, but let them take the place of jaded or non-performing players. In any case, Ganguly's replacement Gautam Gambhir has had several opportunities to prove himself and by now it should have been apparent that he does not have what it takes to make the cut. There are some players who make tons of runs in the domestic circuit on easy tracks against weak bowling but whose faults get exposed at the international level. Gambhir seems to be of that ilk and his failure in the first ODI against Bangladesh was a familiar sight. He might get a few in the next two matches but would prove nothing. It is Bangladesh, after all, even if we have made them look like Australia.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Game's over, for smaller players

This might seem like whining after the Aussie win. So I must preface this piece by acknowledging that the Aussies have a great system in place for cricketing excellence and that's why they succeed. My argument is that the gap between the Aussies and the rest will only widen if the trend towards flattening and hardening of pitches around the world continues. I wrote about this on page 16 of DNA Sunday. The article is reproduced here...

Big Is Successful
In a Super 8 game at the World Cup, Australia's big, burly opener Mathew Hayden strode down the track to off-spinner Marlon Samuels. The West Indian saw him coming and floated the ball a little wider and shorter. Hayden, off-balance, lunged at the ball anyway and hit it one-handed over long off for six.
Is that wielding the willow or does it hark back to primitive man swinging a club? Is cricket regressing to a stone age where physical attributes hold more value than subtlety and dexterity?

Homogenised Wickets
To watch Hayden advance towards bowlers and swat the ball cross-batted, makes you wonder: Would he have got away with that against Anil Kumble on the Ferozeshah Kotla track where he got 10 Pakistani wickets in an innings? And to see Glen McGrath bang the ball in and mouth expletives, gets you thinking: When have we seen McGrath rejoicing on a Chennai wicket?
It’s the age of the tall, strong, aggressive cricketer, all right, but that’s at least partly because blinkered cricket administrators around the world are rolling out flat, hard, bouncy pitches, in the misguided belief that you need a standard surface that produces lots of fours and sixes in one-day matches, and goes the five days of a Test match without cracking up. In the process, the game gets skewed in favour of a certain type of cricketer: bowlers who can get bounce, and batsmen who can handle bounce.

Next Generation
Of course, you would point to Sri Lanka’s Muthiah Muralitharan and Lasith Malinga, but their success has come out of freak actions which are difficult to replicate. Australia too has players like Michael Clarke and Ricky Ponting, who rely more on technique and timing than strength and height. But, it’s a dying breed, as Ponting himself admitted, when asked if Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara and himself were the last of the Little Masters: "The next generation will be power batsmen. I really think that is the way the game is going. It will be the same with the bowlers. All the wickets around the world are pretty flat now and you need big, tall bowlers who are going to get extra bounce."
Even if that statement was calculated to add to the ‘aura of invincibility’ around his team, it also raises the question if the game is becoming one-dimensional through a loss of diversity. How boring would this World Cup have been, for instance, if not for Sri Lanka? Malinga’s slinging action and Murali’s back-of-the-hand off-spin added a whiff of spice to an otherwise bland main course. But these innovations coming out of the sub-continent’s tennis ball cricket culture are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Disappearing Arts
Where are the classic swing bowlers like Kapil Dev and Ian Botham, or finger spinners like Bishen Singh Bedi and Erapalli Prasanna? From wicket-taking bowlers, Saqlain Mushtaq and Harbhajan Singh were reduced to playing a containing role, then banished. Chaminda Vaas is one of the last surviving swing bowlers but it’s only the odd occasion now when he finds the right conditions to be effective.
Bangladesh’s easy victory over one of the top teams, South Africa, on the slow turner in Guyana, followed immediately by a rout at the hands of the weakest team, Ireland, on the bouncy track in Barbados shows just how much of a difference the pitches make. Bangladesh’s strength lay in its left-arm spinners, who got some purchase from the spongy surface in Guyana, and Ireland’s in its tall pace bowlers, who got bounce from the hard surface in Barbados.
Guyana was an anomaly. The top five bowlers in the World Cup were McGrath and Tait, who are tall and strong, Murali and Hogg, who are uncommon wrist-spinners, and Malinga whom one can only describe as a sling bowler. No classic finger spinner or swing bowler in that lot, and that’s no surprise either as the wickets are becoming increasingly homogenised. Brian Lara caught all the flak for the Windies’ poor show, but Andy Roberts, the former great West Indian fast bowler, had a hand in it too by relaying the pitches before the World Cup, mixing in clay and grass to make them harder, faster and bouncier, which are not West Indian strengths these days.

Different Pitches
Time was when we had three broad categories of pitches: the flat, hard tracks in Australia, South Africa and the West Indies, which favoured bowlers who are tall and strong, and batsmen adept at pulling and cutting the rising ball; the green, moist conditions in England and New Zealand, where bowlers needed to exploit swing and seam, and batsmen required the technique of playing late and close to the body to negotiate those; and, finally, the rough, uneven wickets in the sub-continent, where both bowlers and batsmen had to be supple in wrist and nimble of foot – Oriental attributes ideally suited for spin.
As recently as in 2005, Australia lost the Ashes in England to the seam and swing of Harmison and Hoggard. Even in India before that, the Aussies won the series only because they were saved by rain in Chennai, and cricket board politics produced a green top in Nagpur to embarrass Sourav Ganguly.
For many years, teams from outside the sub-continent despaired at the thought of playing in India, where their fast bowlers would find no grass or bounce, and their batsmen would be left groping against a trio of crafty spinners. Then a pitch committee suddenly laid out fast tracks in Mumbai and Bangalore to help India learn to win abroad. All it did was to let a bemused South African team roll us over in back-to-back Test matches, our first defeat at home in more than a decade.

The Good, The Bad…
The notion that India must produce pitches suitable for fast bowlers in order for our players to do well overseas has always struck me as odd. Has anybody ever advised the Australians or South Africans to change their home wickets into slow turners in order to get used to sub-continental conditions or to nurture finger spinners in their countries?
Why are flat, hard pitches which favour taller bowlers and batsmen described as “good wickets”, and abrasive, dusty surfaces which favour smaller, quicker-footed and wristier players dubbed “bad wickets”? Good for whom, and bad for whom? Why not prepare pitches that are unapologetically spin-friendly? Isn’t it just as thrilling to see a spin trio at work as it is to marvel at a pace battery?

And The Astroturf
To have the whole world playing one brand of cricket is a stultifying prospect. This is what astroturf did to hockey, remember?
Traditional hockey played on a rough, uneven surface suited the wristier Indians and Pakistanis who were more adept at trapping and dribbling with a hooked stick than the Europeans. Legend has it that Dhyan Chand’s stick was suspected to contain a magnet, so closely did he control the ball. Astroturf negated those magical skills. With the ball now hugging the surface as if on a billiards table, trapping became a matter of laying the stem of the stick flat on the ground. Hard-hitting penalty corners gained ascendancy over field goals.
Can you imagine what it would do to tennis to dig up the grass at Wimbledon and lay out an artificial surface in its place? Right now you can expect Roger Federer to get more value for his shots on grass and thus get the better of Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon. Nadal would return the compliment on clay where he can leverage his athletic prowess to chase down anything Federer can throw at him and return it with twice the power. Obviously, if you were to make all the courts grass or clay or astroturf, one type of player will dominate everywhere.
That’s what is happening in cricket with “good wickets” being prepared or even imported and “dropped in” on more and more grounds. The result is a dying out of skills such as Boycott’s defensive technique on a seaming track in Headingley, or a nonchalant Azharuddin flick to square leg off a Murali fizzer. Now it’s mostly slam, bam, see you later, mate.