Friday, March 16, 2007

Taking the Middle Road

The World Cup has finally begun and teams would be looking to score points over each other at every possible stage of a game. All teams have either the muscle upfront or the firepower at the end, some have both. But these brute forces would be of no use without the stealth in the middle overs. Click here a look at how teams have fared* in the period when the field was spread out and before the slog overs** since the beginning of 2006***.

South Africa have usurped the number 1 position from Australia, and part of the reason could be their dominance of sides during the middle overs. The Proteas are the most prolific team in the middle overs, scoring at a rate of 4.91 runs an over, while averaging 41.24 during this period.

Unfortunately for their opposition, they haven't returned the favour when they're bowling. They are the most miserly of all teams when it comes bowling in these overs, conceding just 4.02 runs an over. What's more, they have the best bowling average too, with each wicket costing just 22.59 runs, a record Glenn McGrath would be proud of!

Australia have scored their runs pretty quickly too, they're third on the list with a run rate 4.87. They also have the best average of the bunch, scoring 47.78 runs for every wicket they lost.

But their bowling has been quite indifferent. In fact, Australia have the worst economy rate of all bowling attacks at 4.97 runs an over, 3 of the biggest successful run chases and another close shave of 342 spoiling their figures considerably. The one silver lining is they have picked wickets regularly during this period: they have the second best average at 32.69.

Sri Lanka have maintained the tempo set by the openers by scoring at 4.91 runs an over, although their average at 35.16 is a bit on the lower side. But their slow bowlers have kept it tight by conceding just 4.68 runs an over and with Muralitharan in the attack they've managed a commendable average of 34.94 runs a wicket.

India had a great start to 2006 with series wins against Pakistan and England. But they had a horrid run thereafter, before they brought Ganguly back and moved Tendulkar to the middle order. Their scoring rate has fluctuated with their fortunes, before finally stabilising at 4.81 runs an over. They also have the third best average at 40.38 runs per wicket.

But with the middle overs being the least inopportune time to bowl their part-timers and the opposition looking to take ones and twos against an average fielding side, they have conceded 4.71 runs an over and taken 80 wickets in 34 games at 41 runs apiece.

New Zealand have been struggling with their top order and it has meant that their middle order has had to consolidate the innings before increasing the run rate. They have managed a reasonable run rate of 4.81 runs an over, while their bowlers have kept the opposition in check by conceding just 34.53 runs per wickets at 4.68 runs an over.

The West Indian batting has been as fickle as the English weather, and their record
shows the positives and negatives cancelling each other out. They have scored their runs at an average 4.68 runs an over.

While their ploy to strangle opposition batsmen with the ostensible off-breaks of Gayle and Samuels has seen them concede just 4.48 runs an over, the lack of wicket taking bowlers means they concede these runs at 48.52 runs a wicket.

Inzamam-ul-Haq and Mohammad Yousuf have carried the Pakistan batting in the middle overs for quite some time. But with the Pakistan captain not enjoying the form from 2005 and Yousuf not being as prolific as he is in test matches, it has been left to the likes of Abdul Razzaq and Shoaib Malik to go for the big shots in the slog overs. This is reflected in their record, with Pakistan scoring at a mere 4.21 runs an over during the middle overs.

Their bowlers have also struggled, with Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif either being out injured or banned for a lot of games and Umar Gul missing a few games due to injury too. This has seen Pakistan concede 4.94 runs an over and taking just 33 wickets in 22 games at 56.42 runs apiece.

England have just 7 wins in 23 games during this period and it is no surprise when you consider they are the slowest batting side and the costliest bowling unit for almost forty percent of the match. They have managed a run rate of just 4.17 runs an over while losing 78 wickets at 27.24 apiece in just 23 games.

Their bowlers haven't compensated for the shortcomings of their batsmen, going at 4.95 runs an over and picking up a wicket for almost every 43 runs.

* Rows denote Runs scored/Overs faced/Wickets lost/Scoring rate/Batting average. Columns denote Runs conceded/Overs bowled/Wickets taken/Econ. rate/Bowling average.

The period comprises all non Power Play overs before the 40th over of an innings.

*** Only matches which were at least 45-overs a side and yielded a result.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Final Fifteen

The Indian team for the 2007 World Cup has been selected. Call them the Men in Blue, Guru Greg's boys, Team India or any cliche, everyone seems to have an opinion about it. The selection has been dissected, analysed and criticised a million times on every news channel in the past week and as expected, it left almost everyone content but not elated. I am going to try and justify or refute the selection of the fifteen.

I believe Ganguly, Dravid, Tendulkar and Yuvraj were assured of their place before the Sri Lanka Series. While Yuvraj may have been on the comeback trail after a serious injury, his place could never have been in doubt as he was the best ODI batsman for India before the injury and never really suffered from lack of form. Besides, his fielding and slow bowling were always going to work in his favour. Robin Uthappa had a terrific domestic season. He scored 854 runs in 7 games at 65.69 runs an innings at a breakneck pace of 81.56 runs per 100 balls in what has essentially been a bowlers' Ranji Trophy. He had a dream debut for India but was dropped subsequently, but he came back with a bucaneering 70 off 41 balls to edge Gautam Gambhir out of the reckoning.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Dinesh Karthik have given the selectors a happy headache on the power of their performances as well as their work ethic. While the latter hasn't shone at the International stage, he has shown immense guts, intelligence & fielding prowess to merit a place in the side. With Dravid leading the side and being 34 years of age he shouldn't be expected to keep wickets if Dhoni gets injured.

Agarkar and Harbhajan have been the most consistent bowlers for India in the past 18 months, with the former having taken 66 wickets in 45 ODIs in that period & the latter playing the holding role in the middle overs so well that he has the 4th best economy rate in International Cricket since 2006. The fact that these two run fast and have strong arms also works in their favour. Zaheer Khan has made a terrific comeback into the side and his recent exploits would have been much better chronicled had it not been for our obsession with batsmen. Munaf Patel has bowled well whenever he has been fit and his ability to extract bounce and make the ball nip off the surface while maintaining a tight line is priceless. He may be a walking wicket and a big liability in the field but Pathan's horror spell with the ball meant Munaf was a shoo-in for the squad once he proved his fitness in the firs two ODIs. He went one better, by picking up 6 wickets in those two games.

Virender Sehwag has been devastating at the top of the order but has failed to kick on to make big scores like he so often has in the test arena. A horror run of form coupled with questions regarding his fitness and commitment to the side meant he was treading on thin ice. Fortunately for him he had a very good ODI series in the Caribbean last year where he had scores of 95 and 97 and an average of 47.40. He is an intelligent bowler and his off-breaks could well be useful if the tracks are slow.

Pathan at his best provides India the option of going in with five bowlers. He is definitely not the all-rounder all of India craves for but at his best he can give you two or three top order wickets and quick runs down the order. One feels he has been selected on the basis of the potential he has and because he is the best bat among the bowlers. Like Agarkar and Harbhajan, he too is quick in the outfield and has a strong arm.

That leaves us with two slots. These were filled by Kumble and Sreesanth, the old warhorse and the young tyro. The former has been one of the most lion-hearted cricketers I have seen play for India while the latter is a bundle of energy.

I am surprised by the unanimous acceptance of Kumble's place in the squad, some have even gone so far as to say he might be a better option than Harbhajan. I am not quite sure where they're coming from, considering Kumble hasn't turned in a single performance in the past few years that would make you sit up and take notice. He has taken 46 wickets at 45.26 in his last 50 matches. Even his economy rate has been bad: He has conceded 4.83 runs an over as compared to his career economy rate of 4.31. His batting hasn't even gone downhill, it's in free fall and he is worse than VVS Laxman when it comes to fielding and running between the wickets. By contrast, Ramesh Powar has the 8th best average of all ODI bowlers since 2006. He has taken 24 wickets at 25.45 in 16 games during this period and is the ideal foil for Harbhajan as he batsmen will look to attack him because of Harbhajan's frugal bowling. This plays right into his hands as he gives the ball a lot of air and gets it to dip on the batsmen. People need to look beyond his portly stature to realise he is quite swift in the outfield and does have a decent arm. I would have gambled on him rather than pick Kumble, but the selectors decided to go with experience and I have a feeling the captain was more comfortable having him in the side.

Sreesanth has been terrific in the test arena. His wrist position at the time of release and seam position have come in for a lot of praise from all quarters but he seems unable to adjust his length in the One-Day game and has gone for over 6 an over in 11 of his 27 ODIs. India had gone in with 4 seamers for the World Cup in South Africa and it's baffling as to why they have picked 5 for this one. It might be due to Munaf's fitness and Pathan's loss of form with ball, but I believe it's a very defensive attitude.

There were three other names which were discussed by the Indian fans.

VVS Laxman was the most popular of them with people questioning the need for 4 openers in the side. I don't think we have 4 openers who can only bat at the top of the order, in fact Sehwag, Ganguly and Tendulkar started off as middle order batsmen and can easily score quickly in the middle overs. Laxman averages just over 20 in 38 innings while chasing and even while batting first he doesn't do well against sides other than Australia. He can't bat anywhere except number 3 and is a major liability in the field. I don't see any of his supporters substantiate their arguments with facts.

Suresh Raina was supposed to be the young Indian hope just 12 months ago. Unfortunately he has suffered from the second season syndrome and his batting was too indifferent for his fielding to make up for. But he has age on his side and he should be one of the certainties in four years time.

Mohammad Kaif's is a very peculiar case. He had a very good tour of the Caribbean last year and has always done well when pushed up the order. He averages 47 at number 3 and could easily anchor the innings in case one of the batsmen got injured. His fielding is world class and the side needs it desperately: He could well be the official substitute fielder of the side in the Caribbean. But this team management seemed to back Raina ahead of him every time they had to choose between the two. As a result, a prospective future captain has been left in the wilderness wondering if he will ever get the respect he so richly deserves.

All in all, it's a side picked with the focus on experience over youth every time there has been a toss-up between the two, but it's a situation forced up on the selectors thanks to India's poor run of form in the last season. Hopefully the Final Fifteen of 2007 will join the family of the Fabulous Fourteen of 1983.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Winds of Change

Cricket has forever been a colonial sport. For all the vagaries and intricacies of the game, it has not been able to register a beep outside the erstwhile British Empire. While the game and its fans have gone through some changes over the years, they remain largely the same. It is still prone to the possibility of neither side coming out on top and the fans, especially those of the longer version, are purists who wouldn't mind sitting through 5 days of mind-numbingly slow cricket before looking at the silver lining in a draw/tie.

Every ambitious entrepreneur looks to expand his business to new horizons. Every explorer looks to go where no man has gone before, from Columbus to Amundsen to even the fictional James T Kirk. Sadly, the torchbearers of cricket have not always shown the same zeal in taking the sport outside the Empire.

Cricket's encounter with the One-Day Internationals was just as accidental as Columbus's discovery of America. One has to thank the rain Gods for providing us the first Limited-Overs International during the rain-affected MCG test in 1971. The ODIs have gone through a whole lot of changes thereafter, with the emphasis being on entertainment for the masses. But increased workloads, a general sense of instant pleasure and competition from other sports have meant the ICC has to come up with a more "entertaining" brand of cricket. What's more, the ICC has finally awakened to the idea of making cricket a global sport. Better late than never,eh?

Twenty20 is the first real endeavour by the ICC to take cricket outside the Empire. There have been feeble attempts like the Sixes competition and Max Cricket in the past, but they were confined to the nations which introduced them. The early signs are encouraging enough. Twenty20 is already a rave in England and South Africa, and it was the most popular cricketing event in the Caribbean thanks to Allen Stanford, an enterprising and cricket-crazy businessman from America.

The basics of line and length and technically correct batting still apply, but the game moves at such a fast pace that the straight drive with the high elbow turns into a flamboyant lofted drive over the bowler's head. The cuts are more ferocious, the sweeps more cross-batted and the hooks become pulls. Twenty20 is a brand of cricket to which a fan can relate to, as we see international players play like most of us did in school or college.

It is also a more convenient form of cricket to watch. The game starts at 6 in the evening and lasts about 3 hours. It's ideal for a family to spend some quality time together, there is some popular music in the audio system, the parents can unwind after a hard day's work and the kids can watch and play some unadulterated cricket. There's something in it for those who're not at the stadium too, with player interviews from the dugout and real-time conversation with the on-field players. Channel 9 did something really interesting during the recent Twenty20 game between Australia and England. They actually got Adam Gilchrist to give ball-by-ball commentary for an entire over. It was truly amazing and if that were an interview with Channel 9, it's safe to say Gilchrist came through with flying colours.

While there is a lot of skepticism among the players, it is definitely more appealing to the casual viewer who only seeks entertainment from the game. While it is a wonderful effort to woo a target audience comprising people of all age groups, it also presents the opportunity to market the game in places like mainland Europe and America where the psyche of people is more result-oriented. The one complaint they have about cricket is how can two teams play for 5 days and still not produce a result? You can see where they're coming from, as they have grown up on penalty shootouts, overtime and extra innings.They would no doubt find the idea of a bowl-off in Twenty20 quite thrilling, although the Poms would be very jittery considering their record in Penalties.

There was a lot of opposition from all quarters when One-Day Internationals came into existence. The purists thought it didn't really test the qualities cricket was supposed to. Perhaps they were resistant to change, but One-Day Cricket was there to stay. But the "visionaries" who championed the cause of the shorter version of cricket are now skeptical of Twenty20 for the exact same reasons and it once again highlights our tendency to resist change. 36 years after the first Limited-Overs International, Twenty20 is threatening to replace 50-over matches as the most popular brand of cricket. Let it be known that both forms are children of the same glorious family that is cricket, and we need to embrace both for their different qualities. Twenty20 is here to stay...

Sunday, January 07, 2007

One Step Forward and Two Steps Back

The Indian team concluded a testing tour of South Africa and their performance over the past 18 months have resulted in the side coming full circle since Greg Chappell took over.

Greg Chappell had a vision for the Indian team, and he seemed well on-course to make it a reality until last May. Sourav Ganguly had been condemned to first class cricket, Laxman and Kumble were considered test specialists, and the One-Day side had a youthful if not professional look to it. Irfan Pathan and Mahendra Singh Dhoni were the new pin-up boys of Indian cricket and Yuvraj Singh's exploits in the shorter version were Bevanesque.

But all this changed with one slower ball from Dwayne Bravo. Instead of registering a nail-biting 1-wicket win and a 2-0 lead over the West Indies, India crashed to a heart-breaking 1-run loss with Bravo bowling Yuvraj out with a slower ball after the latter had sent the ball screaming to the fence off the last two deliveries.

The rest, as they say is History. India lost the One-Day series 4-1 with Pathan & Dhoni being rendered ineffective (the former has still not recovered thereafter). That was followed by an historical yet unconvincing 1-0 test series victory over one of the weakest West Indian side in ages.

India have worn the tag of "chokers" for the past few years for their insipid performances in the finals of One-Day tournaments. In the next few months Rahul Dravid & co. set about eradicating that reputation by making sure they didn't reach the finals altogether. They had two do-or-die matches against World Champions Australia and lost both. They were in with a shout in the first one but Dinesh Mongia chose to put more faith in numbers 9,10 and 11 than in himself, and India remained winless when chasing in matches against Australia since 1998. The second defeat was even more debilitating as it came at home & in the Champions Trophy, a tournament in which India had knocked out the World Champions twice.

By now, the warning bells were ringing loud and clear with calls to bring back those who had for years served Indian cricket with distinction. A change in the selection panel saw a slight change in personnel, with Kumble getting the nod for the One-Day series in South Africa. The young brigade comprising the likes of Kaif, Raina, Mongia and Pathan were already under the cosh for their poor form over the past few months, and this tour was a baptism by fire for them, with the South African bowlers testing their technique and temperament with searing pace or subtle movement. Dhoni was the only one to give a good account of himself, the rest were promptly sent back & it was time to call on Laxman and Ganguly. Both played a couple of crucial knocks in the context & look set to make a comeback to the One-Day side.

The juggernaut that began with the sacking of Ganguly looks to have come to a halt and the Indian side bears a very similar look to the side that reached the finals of the 2003 World Cup against all odds. Expect the Indian version of Dad's Army to be the nucleus of the World Cup side. Only time will tell whether they will be as successful as their Australian counterparts.