Wednesday, December 08, 2010

IPL Player Retention and Auction Dynamics

The list of players retained by IPL franchises is out and it’s no surprise to see Mumbai and Chennai retain their full quota of four players. Rajasthan have retained two while Delhi and Bangalore have retained just one player each. Some of the choices like Tendulkar, Pollard, Dhoni, Raina and Sehwag are obvious ones. There are a couple of picks that surprised me, namely Shane Warne and Virat Kohli. Not because I don’t think they are good enough to be retained but because I don’t think Bangalore and Rajasthan would have had to bid $1.8 million and $1.3 million respectively should these two players have gone into the auction. I assumed the $1.3 million figure for Warne as Rajasthan also retained Shane Watson. Come to think of it it’s also a stretch to believe Watson would have drawn a bid for $1.3 million let alone $1.8 million.


So how does one explain this? Well, one thing that needs to be noted is the franchises may not be paying the retained players the same amount as that they lose from their auction money. For example, it could very well be that Mumbai Indians are paying Tendulkar, say $2 million, but they’ll lose on $1.8 million from their payroll. Conversely, they could be paying him $1.5 million and still lose $1.8 million before going into the auction. In essence, the amount a franchise pays to a player it retains has been negotiated internally.


It’s easy to understand teams retaining players on a salary higher than what they lose before going into the auction, especially if the owners are as rich as Mukesh Ambani or N Srinivasan. But there is an interesting scenario wherein a team might choose to lose a higher amount from its payroll despite paying him less. In their brief history Rajasthan have been the smallest spenders in the IPL. It hasn’t affected their performances a lot. Afterall, they won the inaugural IPL and were just one win away from a semi-final spot in the last two seasons. It could very well be that Rajasthan got Warne and Watson to settle for a lot less than $3.1 million put together, thereby avoiding a scenario wherein the franchise could get into in a bidding war and either lose them or have to pay an amount greater than what they signed these two for. This may also explain them not retaining Yusuf Pathan who might have declined the salary Rajasthan were offering him. Afterall, he could well go for more than $900,000 or whatever amount Rajasthan were willing to offer. Sure they now have just $5.9 million for the auction, but if Mumbai and Chennai are confident of building a squad with just $4.5 million each then Rajasthan wouldn’t have a problem building theirs with $1.4 million more to play around with.


How does all this affect the auction? For starters, half the teams are going into it with a smaller purse than the other half.


Team

Auction Money (USD)

Players Remaining

Average Price (USD)

Deccan

9 million

25

360,000

Kochi

9 million

25

360,000

Kolkata

9 million

25

360,000

Pune

9 million

25

360,000

Punjab

9 million

25

360,000

Bangalore

7.2 million

24

300,000

Delhi

7.2 million

24

300,000

Rajasthan

5.9 million

23

256,521

Chennai

4.5 million

21

214,285

Mumbai

4.5 million

21

214,285


Some of the spots will be taken up by domestic players who won’t go into the auction. These players include Ambati Rayudu, Siddharth Trivedi, T Suman, Mithun Manhas, Iqbal Abdulla. However, anyone who has played for India will go into the auction. This means players like Cheteshwar Pujara, Umesh Yadav, Abhishek Nayar, Saurabh Tiwary, Ashok Dinda, Venugopal Rao will be able to test the market.


Now we have a situation in which some teams have more leverage going into the auction. But there is another variable in this whole process as teams don’t know the order in which players would be bid on. Hence, there could be a scenario in which a team is forced to bid an excessive amount for a player just because he happened to be among the first few names out of the hat. As a result, they may not have enough money to bid on a lot of other quality players later on in the auction. Mumbai and Chennai are in the weakest position as far as the auction is concerned, but they’ve covered up well through the players they’ve retained. They just need to guard against getting into a bidding war early on in the auction as it would be difficult to have a proper squad if they have to spend $1 million or more on getting a good keeper-batsman (Mumbai) or a wicket-taking fast bowler (Chennai). The other teams could identify the missing pieces in Mumbai or Chennai and try upping the price of players who these two teams might need desperately.


I don’t know if all this sounds interesting to most people. It does to me because I think this is where the businesspeople in the franchises need to think hard about getting the slightest edge over the others. Players will be locked in for three years and if the suits screw up at the auction there will be a lot of trouble on and off the field. One just needs to look at the Kolkata Knight Riders and the Bangalore Royal Challengers from the first season to realize the importance of player acquisition.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Shut Up and Bowl

I'm going to come straight to the point before getting into the details. Harbhajan Singh has got to go. Not permanently, as every cricketer deserves to come back if he shows that he's improved, but atleast for the time being.

I haven't read anything from the men who matter about Harbhajan's prolonged run of poor bowling.  Maybe they're unaware of it. Maybe they don't have enough faith in the alternate options. Afterall, neither Ojha nor Mishra has performed much better than Harbhajan. What's more, they don't make Ravi Shastri make outrageous claims about them being allrounders.

But how is it that no one has picked up on Harbhajan blaming everyone but himself everytime he doesn't perform? A few years ago he had a problem with the Kookaburra ball. He made no secret of the fact that he didn't like the ball as its seam wasn't as prominent as that of the SG ball and that it went flat very quickly. It was never a problem for Murali or Warne. Even Vettori seemed to do okay with that ball and he played his home games on pitches that weren't necessarily suited to his bowling.

One could give Harbhajan the benefit of doubt here as he was still new to test cricket and didn't get to practise with the Kookaburra enough as more often than not Kumble was India's pick for the lone spinner in away tests since his brilliant performance Down Under in 2003-04. Over the years though, Harbhajan has played tests in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Australia and the West Indies. He has also played a lot of limited overs cricket around the world so one would think he would have learnt to use the Kookaburra better. If he has he's surely done a great job of hiding it, for his test record in these countries is very mediocre.


He's done well in New Zealand and the West Indies but struggled elsewhere. It's hard to say he's suffered because of the ball or that he's adjusted to it.

So what about his performances at home with the SG ball that he seemed to like so much? They're nothing to write home about either. An average of over 35 with a strike rate of 76.5 would be unacceptable for the lead spinner of an attack that has thrived on spin in Indian conditions.


It is all the more disappointing considering he averaged a little less than 24 and had a strike rate of just 55 until the end of 2005. The last 5 years should have been a period in which he graduated to the status of a world class spinner who took wickets in all conditions. Instead, he's been reduced to making excuses for his performance by blaming the groundsman. It's interesting that while he says critics think he bowls well only when he takes wickets, his opinion of the pitch itself changed based on the number of wickets he took on it, as just 5 days before his criticism of the pitch he was quite happy about it after taking 4 wickets on that day. And I'm not even getting into the fact that he took the last 4 wickets to fall in the New Zealand innings after Zaheer Khan had struck the telling blows by getting 4 of their top 6 (Oh wait, I just did).

Daniel Vettori, on the other hand, has 11 wickets in the series and has had to bowl at the stronger batting lineup than the one Harbhajan has bowled to. He also has to lead his side unlike Harbhajan who is utterly incapable of even leading his team's bowling attack. Vettori has quietly gone about strangling the Indian batsmen even when the pitch hasn't offered much turn or uneven bounce. He's kept Sehwag quiet by the batsman's free scoring standards and really tested Tendulkar in the first test by conceding just 7 runs off the 65 deliveries he bowled to him. It might have had a role to play in Tendulkar stepping out to him and losing his wicket on Day 3 of the second test as Kartikeya suggests. Unlike Harbhajan, Vettori has used his experience to his advantage instead of being stuck on the condition of the pitch.


The team management has stuck by Harbhajan through his worst times as a cricketer when he was accused of racially abusing Andrew Symonds. A lot of people, some credible and some not so much, backed him as they believed his version of the story. They have also backed him despite 5 years of performances ranging from average to downright pathetic. Yet, he's shown no sign of even admitting that he needs to improve. It's about time Dhoni or Tendulkar told him to Just Shut Up and Bowl.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Cricket with the FT - By Lionel Barber

A couple of days ago I received an email asking me to spread the word about an article in the Financial Times. The article is from Lionel Barber, editor of the Financial Times, titled ‘Cricket with the FT’, which talks about his day playing cricket with Imran Khan at his hilltop home overlooking Rawalpindi and neighbouring Islamabad.

Please note that the article is not mine and I haven't had any part to play in the writing of it. Do go through it and scoot over to the original which is on the FT website.

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Cricket with the FT
By Lionel Barber

Our black four-wheel Toyota accelerates uphill, weaving past potholes and buffalo, en route to the hilltop home of Imran Khan. Hours earlier, aboard a Pakistani air force helicopter, I toured for two hours the areas north of Islamabad devastated by the worst floods for nearly a century. So I ask myself: which is the riskier journalistic venture: flying in a Russian-built M1-171 over a terror-stricken, nuclear-armed country often described as the most dangerous on earth or squaring up to the bowling of Imran, one of the finest cricketers of his generation?

Fixing a time and location for our sporting encounter has proved a challenge. Imran is a professional politician these days, the founder and head of the opposition Tereek-I-Insaf or Movement for Justice. He is also a prodigious philanthropist. Inside two and a half weeks, he raised 2.5bn rupees to help the flood victims; now he is in the middle of a 20 million dollar annual fund raising exercise for the cancer hospital he set up in his native Lahore in 1996 in memory of his mother, a victim of colon cancer; and he is expanding Namal college in the rural north, built in association with the university of Bradford, where he is chancellor. Plainly there is not much spare time for anything, let alone cricket with the FT.

Yet the man who greets me in his airy and stylish home is in excellent physical shape. He is tall, sinewy and, at 57, still strikingly handsome. The mop of ebony black hair shows no sign of fading, let alone receding. He is wearing a white shalwar and cream kameez and brown Peshawari chapal (sandals). By contrast, I have brought a new cricket bat, new pads and new batting gloves, courtesy of Farhan Bokhari, the FT's long time Islamabad correspondent. And I have lugged my quasi-antique protective box (Dulwich College 1st XI 1971-72-73) all the way from London. Is Imran Khan taking me seriously?

"I almost didn't make it," says the great all-rounder and six-hitter, by way of confirmation. Like many of his countrymen, Imran is enraged by the stand-off between President Ali Asif Zadari and the judiciary which is challenging the president's right to immunity against longstanding but unproven corruption charges. Imran has ill-disguised contempt for Zadari, the widower of former president Benazir Bhutto. "We were ready to go out on the street at any time," he says with a booming laugh. "We were ready to go this morning."

Imran talks rapidly, just like he used to bowl. I first saw him play in The Parks in Oxford in the summer of 1975. Two things stick in my mind: Imran's wonderfully high action which allowed him to generate far more pace and bounce than most mortals; and the fact that the Varsity side, which Imran captained, was playing Somerset, an exciting county ream which included Viv Richards, the swashbuckling West Indian batsman, and a promising young fellow all-rounder by the name of Ian Botham.

It is time to break the news, Imran and I were contemporaries at Oxford but we never met at the crease (thankfully - Ed).

"Really?"' exclaims the maestro, "What years? And which college?"

Imran has obviously become accustomed to every Tom, Dick and Harriet claiming to have been at Oxford with him in the 1970s. But he appears satisfied by my own credentials (St Edmund Hall 1974-78). I ask Imran what he makes of the recent betting scandal involving the Pakistani national cricket team.

"It's more prevalent than you think. It could be going on everywhere."

Toward the end of his 10-year reign as Pakistan's cricket captain, Imran remembers being woken up in the middle of the night by an anonymous caller claiming four members of his team had been bribed to throw the game. Imran summoned his side the following morning, "I told them I knew how well each of them could play and if anyone did not perform I wouldn't just have them banned I would personally ensure they went straight to jail."

Imran retired from cricket in 1992 aged 39. In fact, he tried to stop earlier but the fearsome dictator General Zia-ul-Haq literally bounced him out of retirement, insisting he carry on playing to serve the national interest. Imran calculated a few more years of celebrity would help him raise money for his cancer hospital so he went along.

Since retirement, he has only played twice, both times alongside his two young sons playing against their cousins on Ham common near Richmond, London, after the titanic Ashes series of 2005 which England won. Imran says he no longer plays or watches though his boys are passionate. Enough of the excuses, I say. It's time to play cricket!

We stride out into a magnificent garden overlooking Rawalpindi and neighbouring Islamabad. Having inspected the makeshift wicket, I mutter about uneven bounce and speculate, in my favourite Richie Benaud accent, that there could well be some turn for the bowler. Finally, after a semi-professional roll of the shoulders and twirl of the bat, I prepare to take strike.


© Alixandra Fazzina/Noor Images

Imran's first delivery is a slow loosener. I move forward to the pitch of the ball and skew it 15m into the would-be covers near the house. Mental note: move feet more adeptly. Imran's next delivery is slightly faster. I play a forward defensive stroke with the bat slightly angled to leg; Imran says he is impressed and asks me what grade cricket I played at Oxford. A couple of games for The Tics (The Authentics; Oxford University second and third team) I reply proudly.

The next ball catches me slightly unawares and I fall into the old bad habit of tipping over to the leg side, a technical flaw never ironed out at school. Quietly cursing, I compose myself for the next ball, an off-cutter which grips the grass and darts into me, catching the left glove but not so viciously as to offer a chance to a would-be short square leg. Imran's dog, a female shepherd called Sherni (Lioness) barks approvingly at his master's cunning delivery.

I decide it is time to take the offensive. Imran is barely bothering to bowl with a run-up and although his action is still admirably high, the pace is more than accommodating. For some reason, he is also complaining about the weight of the white ball. His shirt is carrying a small island of sweat. The next delivery is full length and I hit it with a straight bat but without quite timing the shot.

Imran compliments me on my drive and bowls the last ball of the over, another full-length delivery. And this time I do everything right: the feet move quickly, the bat-lift is high and the follow-through is confident. Ball meets bat and races past Imran 50m or so to the edge of the garden and on down the hill into the underbrush.

Imran is momentarily surprised but immediately gracious. "Good shot, but we will not find the ball now."

I had imagined floating a few Freddie Titmus style off spinners to the Great Man but I rapidly sense this is the time to retire to the pavilion. And so we march in together, honours even. Imran signs the bat and then reverts to politics, talking eloquently and passionately about Pakistan, Afghanistan and the counterproductive Americans military presence. As I take notes, I look briefly around the room. Three tribal swords from Waziristan on the wall, two beautiful carpets hanging to the left and right - but not a cricket trophy in sight.

"I auctioned them all for the cancer hospital," explains Imran. He never realised his own sons would share his passion for the game. As we bid farewell, I sense that I have been in the presence of not merely a (great) player but also a gentleman. The product of a bygone age, not just in cricket but also in politics.

Lionel Barber is editor of the FT

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PS: Since this isn't my work I would appreciate it if readers didn't comment on this post and would share the original piece in FT.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

A Little Bit of Respect

For the Black Caps wouldn't be uncalled for. I had the misfortune of catching some of the coverage on the news channels and it would be an understatement to say that it was patronising toward the Black Caps. This is a team that hasn't lost more than a test in a series against India since 1988. Granted the two teams haven't played each other all that often and not in a series with more than 3 tests, but it still says something about the spirit of the Black Caps.

Suhas has been painting it black on his blog and has done a good recap of the last 3 times the Kiwis toured India. A lot of fans have been advocating a multi-tier test league with the Kiwis being relegated to the second tier. The popular opinion is they are no match for the Indian team and the big sides should be allowed to play among themselves because money is the overriding factor in the sport and playing weaker sides affects the bottom line. It's a very convenient "solution" as it assumes the status quo won't change anytime soon.

At a time when other sports are doing their best to make themselves as global as possible, the cricketing elite seem to be leaning the other way. I really don't agree with it and those who know me know this well enough. Inclusiveness is the very essence of sport. For years the West Indies sent their best players to the subcontinent even though the Aussies saved themselves for better conditions. Those Caribbean Gods were the hottest ticket in whatever town they were in and didn't not show up just because a town wasn't fun enough for them.

While the Kiwis have never achieved that sort of acclaim, no side has competed the way New Zealand have despite their limitations. They were the last side to beat the Windies before they embarked on a 15-year run of not losing a test series. They have also won a series in Australia, something none of the subcontinent sides have managed in their history. Since 1995 they have also registered series wins in the West Indies and England, something neither Pakistan nor Sri Lanka have managed during that period.

None of this has a bearing on the series that starts in a little less than 7 hours. But it does point to a side that has the ability to compete and the record to show for it. Undermining them is not the same as calling Bangladesh an ordinary test side, and Virender Sehwag copped a lot more flak for saying something that was proven right in the series - Bangladesh did fail to take 20 wickets in either test that series. The Kiwis might be coming off a whitewash in Bangladesh but let's not forget it was a different format. Let's also not forget that India recently lost both its ODIs to Zimbabwe but it didn't affect their performance in the test series in Sri Lanka.


As an Indian, I am obviously hoping we win all 3 tests. But then I hope for it every series. However, and it seems highly unlikely, it won't be the worst thing if the Kiwis win a test as long as it's not the first test: I'm going for that game and I don't want to see us lose when I'm at the game :)

Monday, October 25, 2010

Tough Love for Young Cricketers

Most people I talk cricket with know how much I detest the hype around Rohit Sharma. In fact, there's an ongoing storyline about Nohit on Bored Cricket Crazy Indians and Naked Cricket spent his vacation time in Goa stalking Nohit to find out what he was up to.


I don't think those of us who bag him really hate the guy. We can all see he has the ability to bat genuinely well, just that he doesn't make that ability count as often as he should. A few years ago there was another player who had impressed everyone with his exciting batting at the Under-19 World Cup in 2004, two years before Rohit Sharma was the mainstay of the Indian team at the Under-19 World Cup in 2006. That player was Suresh Raina.

Raina made his international debut a little over a year after the 2004 Under-19 World Cup. He played a few decent innings but didn't do enough to nail down a place in the side and was rightly omitted from the squad for the 2007 World Cup. Until that point he had played 36 matches and scored 612 runs at an average of 26.61 and a strike rate of 72.68. The Indian middle order was very strong so Raina didn't get a lot of time to bat. He had just 28 innings in those 36 matches and he batted at number 6 or below in 19 of them. Not the best way to cement your place in the side. Few people succeed in that role at the start of their career. Hussey did it but unlike Raina he had a lot of experience albeit not in the lower middle order.

Raina made his comeback on the back of a strong performance in the 2008 IPL. He's batted in various positions but looks to have matured into a batsman who can adapt to the situation. I think his primary role in ODIs is going to be that of a finisher. In addition, he's India's number 3 in Twenty20 cricket and has had a good start to his test career. The test series in South Africa should be a good test for him.

Rohit Sharma's career has followed a somewhat similar path. Just like Raina, Sharma made his international debut roughly a year after he played the Under-19 World Cup. He too has played some brilliant innings but hasn't shown the consistency required to cement a place in the side. Even their numbers are quite similar, as Sharma in his first 41 matches has scored 695 runs at an average of 24.82 and a strike rate of 72.24. However, and this is not to bag him, Sharma has batted in 38 of those 41 games (Raina had 28 innings in his first 36 matches) and he's got a lot more opportunities to bat in the top 5 (25 times in 38 innings compared to 9 in 28 innings for Raina). Since the start of 2010 Sharma has scored a couple of hundreds but has still not been consistent enough. Meanwhile Virat Kohli has done a lot more in the chances he's got and with the hundred at Vizag should have sealed a place in the 15 for the World Cup.

Sharma is just 23 years old and if he sorts out his game he should have a long career ahead of him in all formats of the game. Just like Raina in 2007, maybe an exclusion from the World Cup squad for 2011 might be needed for Sharma to work on his batting and come back the same way Raina has. If he does, we might just have to stop calling him Nohit!

Monday, September 13, 2010

IPL 2010 Schedule

In the previous post I had looked at how the schedule for the next IPL season should be like. This one is about the schedule for the last season and analysing how games were spread between teams and venues over the course of the season.

  1. There is a slight disparity in the number of night games for each team. While four of them played 9 night games each, Chennai had 8 night games while Kolkata and Mumbai had 11 each. Deccan had 12 night games, perhaps justified since they didn't really have a home venue.
  2. There was a very even spread of the number of weekend games for each team. Six of them had 6 six weekend games each while Bangalore and Delhi had 5 each.
  3. Six of the eight teams had 5 home games at night while Rajasthan and Bangalore had 4 each. Considering Bangalore had one less game on the weekend maybe it should have had 5 home games at night. Rajasthan played 4 of their home games at Ahmedabad so maybe they could have had 5 home games at night too, although I had been to a couple of those games and both were sold out.
  4. Again, there was a very even spread of the number of home games for each team on a weekend. Six of them had 3 home games each while Bangalore and Delhi had 2 each.
  5. There was a little bit more variance when it came to the number of travel/rest days for each team compared to what I have proposed for next season. I guess it makes sense because there were a lot of days on which there was only one game. Sure the league could have given Bangalore more days at the expense of Kolkata but it's not like the difference was huge.

2011 IPL Fixtures: Changes and Additions


In my last post I came up with a draft for IPL fixtures for next season. Since then I've revisited the schedule as well as looked at the one from last season in order to see how evenly were matches spread out last season. The factors to be considered were:
  1. Number of night games.
  2. Number of weekend games.
  3. Number of home games at night.
  4. Number of home games over the weekend.
  5. Number of rest/travel days.
 Based on these factors, this is the schedule I came up with.


The final is scheduled for a Friday but it can obviously be pushed back to a Saturday. I think Saturday is the best day to have the final as people don't have to worry about being late for work/school the following day. Also, this schedule leaves enough room to have the wildcard system I had proposed in an earlier post. Here's a summary of how the games are spread out keeping the aforementioned factors in mind.

  1. Each team has 7 night games.
  2. Eight teams have 4 weekend games each. Mumbai and Rajasthan have 3 and 5 respectively.
  3. All teams have either 3 or 4 home games at night. Rajasthan who have 5 weekend games naturally have 3 home games at night while Mumbai who only have 3 weekend games have 4 home games at night.
  4. Eight teams have 2 home games each on weekends. Rajasthan have 3 while Mumbai have 1. Another reason why Mumbai have more home games at night than Rajasthan.
  5. Five teams have 19 rest/travel days each while the other five have 20 rest/travel days. You can't make it any more even than this.
As I mentioned in the last post, I have colour-coded the fixtures and given each team a specific code so that you can regenerate the schedule by simply reassigning the team codes. Again, first name in a fixture indicates the home team.

I will compare this schedule to the one from last season in another post.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Draft for 2011 IPL Fixtures

Since the IPL has come out with its format for the next three seasons, I decided to come up with what I think would be a good fixture list. It's based on what I felt would be the right way to split the 10 teams but I will also provide a key to ensure the fixtures can be tweaked just by changing the respective codes of the 10 teams.


Please note:
  1. I have colour-coded the fixtures. The ones in light blue are games within the pool while those in dark blue are ones between teams from different groups.
  2. The first team name in a particular fixture is that of the home team.
  3. All teams play an equal number of day-night matches.
  4. Total number of travel/rest days for each team.
  5. There are some instances of a team playing on consecutive days, hence the matches on these days are scheduled at the team's home. For example, Punjab play Deccan and Kolkata on consecutive days at the start of Week 4. Hence, both games would be held at Punjab's home venue. Likewise for Kochi against Bangalore and Kolkata in Week 5.
  6. The season ends with two of the most intense regional rivalries in India. Bangalore host Chennai while Delhi travel to Mumbai for the last game of the regular season.
  7. You can tweak the fixtures by simply changing the team code. This ensures that this fixture list can be used year after year by just rotating the teams.
  8. I have checked the fixtures for the last IPL season and it seems on an average a team had 23 rest/travel days. According to the schedule the number is 19.5. However, you can always space out the fixtures and make the IPL a 7-week tournament.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Changes in Indian Premier League

The Indian Premier League has finally come out with the changes for the coming season. I have to say I'm quite happy with most of them although it wouldn't be surprising if people blindly criticise whatever the league has done. There are a lot of stakeholders in the IPL and it's impossible to please all of them. The best one can do is be mindful of the interests of fans, players, franchise owners, sponsors, broadcasters, etc. and ensure long-term benefits aren't compromised for short-term gains. So let's look at the key points:

Format
There was a fear that with two new teams being added there might be 94 games in a season. While franchises might have been keen to have more matches, this may have been detrimental to their cause in the long run as players would have either been tired by the end of the season or would have to be rested for some games. In both scenarios, you're compromising the quality of cricket and that's a definite no-no as far as fans are concerned. Reducing the number of games per team was also not practical as the business model was based on teams playing a certain number of matches.

Under the new format, there will be 14 more games in the season but each team will still play the same number of games in the group stage as they did last year. The 10 teams will be split into two groups with each team playing those from its group home and away. Each team will also play four teams from the other group either home or away, and the fifth team from that group home and away. I've come across people who found it a bit difficult to understand so I should point out that this is kind of similar to how the National Football League draws up its schedule (Click here and here).

The one different thing I would have done would be to simply create two permanent divisions - North and South (Don't get stuck on the names, they can be called anything). There are already 4 teams from the South and it makes sense to have them all in the same group. Ditto for the 3 Northern teams. This greatly reduces the amount of travel and also helps build regional rivalries which are a key factor in generating and sustaining spectator interest. Keeping this in mind, the two groups would be:

Group A: Delhi, Punjab, Rajasthan, Mumbai, Pune.
Group B: Bangalore, Deccan, Chennai, Kochi, Kolkata.

Also, I think the teams that finish in identical positions in their respective groups should be the ones that play each other home and away next season. For example, if Punjab and Kolkata are the lowest ranked of the 5 teams in Group A and B respectively then they play each other home and away in 2012. Similarly, if Delhi and Chennai have the best record in their respective groups then they play each other home and away in 2012. What this does is creates a competitive balance because the teams that have performed badly play each other one more time than they play the better teams while the ones that perform well play each other one more time than they play the lesser sides.

I also like the knockout format for next year. Until now, teams have had no reason other than pride to play for top spot in the league. As Deccan and Chennai have proved the last two seasons, you really don't need to finish top of the league to win. It only takes two good games once you've got into the top four. Under the new format, the top two teams can make the finals even if they lose one game while the ones finishing third and fourth have no margin for error and have to win three games instead of two in order to be crowned champions. This should ensure teams will fight it out almost till the end so that they can finish in the top two.

If you had to pick a hole in this format you could say there might be a situation in which four teams might run away at the start and the others wouldn't have much to play for. The league could've looked into a wildcard system wherein the top two teams get a bye in the first round. The team that finishes third would play the sixth placed team while number four would play number five in the wildcard round. After that you'd have the usual semi-finals with the top team facing the lowest ranked team left after the wildcard round and the second-placed team would face the next lowest team. It would add two more games to the schedule.

Player Retention and Salary Structure
The initial IPL player contracts were for a period of three years and the league hadn't thought of how they would be structured going ahead. With the league being such a hit in India and two new teams entering the fray there were quite a few entities whose interests had to be looked after:

1. The players obviously wanted to maximise their value because a lot of them performed exceedingly well and they could see how well the league had done.
2. The 8 existing franchises wanted to retain some of their players but they wouldn't want to break the bank in order to do so.
3. The 2 new franchises would want to be allowed to be in a position to buy any player and hence wouldn't want the 8 existing franchises to be able to retain any players.
4. Fans would like to see the best players of their franchise and/or homegrown players to remain with them but they would also like to see certain players from other teams to be in theirs.

The league has increased the salary cap to $9 million so that's a good thing from the players' perspective. However, it is the point of retention that I'm wary of. By leaving it between the franchise and the player, the league has opened up possibilities of players being paid a part of their salary under the table. For example, let's assume Chennai retain Suresh Raina on a contract of $900,000 and the Super Kings owner N Srinivasan ensures Raina is bumped up to a Grade A contract for the national team. Also, the chairman of selectors is the brand ambassador for that franchise. He can ensure Raina gets picked for the Indian team even if he's struggling. If you think this is outrageous then think back to when the Mumbai Indians were ready to offer Ravindra Jadeja a salary that was FIVE times what he was entitled to under the league rules.

I would have rather liked to see all players go into the auction and then whatever price he commanded his original team could sign him for that amount if not at a premium. For example, if Pune put in the winning bid for Sachin Tendulkar at $2 million Mumbai would have the option to sign him for that amount or at a premium of say $50,000. That way the 8 existing franchises can theoretically retain any number of players and there would be no danger of paying players under the table.

Well these are my thoughts on the new rules. I'm sure there are other ideas out there as well that might improve the format and/or salary structure. Feel free to share them.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Dr. Swann and the Spin Revolutions

One of the most enduring attributes of sport is the ability to unearth greatness generation after generation. Sunil Gavaskar had carried the Indian batting on his shoulders for the better part of decades. When he retired in 1987, people started obsessing over the fragility of the Indian lineup. However, Mohammad Azharuddin had already established himself as a top class batsman by then.

It took only more two years for the nation to witness perhaps its greatest batsman take centre stage. 16-year old Sachin Tendulkar showed the flair and tenacity to thwart a world class batting lineup - bloody nose and all. With Tendulkar nearing the end of his career Sehwag has taken over the mantle of being the most feared batsman in world cricket.

Coming to a more global scale, the eighties saw people proclaim the end of spin bowling. Kim Hughes made a statement that legspinners had no role in the game. The West Indians talked about picking a spinner if he could turn the ball at 90 miles an hour. Infact, only 12 spinners took 50 or more wickets during that decade, with only two of them averaging less than 30 runs per wicket. What's more, only Iqbal Qasim had a strike rate of less than 70 while Abdul Qadir with a strike rate of just over 70 being the only other bowler with a sub-80 strike rate.



However, the nineties saw the renaissance of spin bowling. Three of the greatest spinners in the history of the game made their debut. Interestingly, none of them had a good start to their career. Anil Kumble was the first of the three to make his mark with a six-for in South Africa and followed it up by tormenting the English batsmen in a 3-0 sweep at home. Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan debuted within months of each other but took a while to get going. Although the Australian legspinner produced a master performance to turn a test in Sri Lanka, he shot to fame with what was labeled "The Ball of the Century". He didn't stop bamboozling batsmen around the world, especially the English, until a little over three years ago. Murali took the most time to develop into a world class bowler, he wasn't rated very highly until the 16-wicket haul against England at the Oval. Soon after he developed the doosra which was pioneered by Saqlain Mustaq and gave batsmen even more headaches.

There were some more quality spinners in the game during this decade - Saqlain Mustaq invented the doosra, Mushtaq Ahmed who had an amazing wrong 'un, while Daniel Vettori and Harbhajan Singh made their debut in 1997 and 1998 respectively. In all, 15 spinners took 50 or more wickets this decade with 8 of them averaging less than 30. In addition, 7 of the 15 had a sub-70 strike rate. Part of it could just be down to strike rates generally following a downward trend from the 1960s.




Kumble, Warne and Murali continued their dominance well into the next decade and were joined by Harbhajan Singh who even managed to keep Kumble out of the side for a brief period. Vettori had his moments too, as did Saqlain Mustaq and Stuart MacGill. Towards the end of the decade it started to look like cricket might lose the charm of spin bowling. Warne retired in 2007, Kumble wasn't as menacing and eventually retired in 2008, and Murali was also losing his bite. Harbhajan Singh, who was supposed to take over as the world's premier spinner still hadn't adapted to foreign conditions and the Kookaburra ball. Worse, he wasn't as effective as he used to even at home. As a result, only 3 of the 18 who took 50 or more wickets in the 2000s averaged less than 30. The good thing, though, was 4 of these 18 had a strike rate of less than 60 and 3 more having a sub-70 strike rate. Again, part of it could just be down to strike rates generally following a downward trend from the 1960s.




It was in this backdrop that England finally picked Graeme Swann in their test side. Swann had played a few ODIs before that, making his debut in 2000 before being in international wilderness for seven years. It was in his comeback series in Sri Lanka that he caught my attention with a Man of the Match performance against Sri Lanka, tossing the ball up and inducing false strokes. Indeed, two of the four dismissals were caught and bowled.

Swann's latest challenge was perhaps the sternest one faced by spinners in international cricket. The best in the world have come to Indian shores and left with their reputations tarnished. The Indian batting was stronger than ever, for the first time featuring two prolific openers to set up a strong and experienced middle order. It didn't count for much: Swann rocked the batting by taking the wicket of Gautam Gambhir and Rahul Dravid in his very first over. He has gone on to take a wicket in the first over of a spell 22 more times. Talk about instant impact.

Eight wickets in a two-test series against the best batting lineup in the world must have done wonders to Swann's confidence. But it wasn't enough for Andy Flower who persisted with Monty Panesar in the first test against the West Indies in Jamaica. However, Swann got his chance in the next test and promptly got a five-wicket haul in the first innings. England couldn't force a win but Swann's place in the side seemed to be safe and he hasn't looked back since then. As seen above, he has the third-best average among spinners for the last decade. No shame being third in a list which has Murali and Warne occupying the top two positions. He also has the fourth best strike rate among the lot.

Since his debut in December 2008, 12 bowlers have taken 50 or more wickets in tests. No surprise that Dale Steyn has the best average and strike rate in the list. Asif has the second best average although it should be noted that all 12 of his tests have been in conditions ideal for his style of bowling. Swann is third on the list, no mean achievement because spinners have generally tended to average more than fast bowlers. It's interesting that Zaheer Khan has the second best strike rate. 9 of his 12 tests during this period have been in the subcontinent and only 2 against Bangladesh. Swann has the fifth-best strike rate, again a major achievement when you consider even the best spinners in the post-war era, Warne and Murali included, have an inferior strike rate to their fast bowling peers.


It should be pointed out that he's achieved all this with a clean action and without a doosra, displaying the old-fashioned virtues of beating batsmen in the air. Another impressive aspect of his bowling is the number of balls he forces batsmen to play on the front foot, thereby giving them less time to adjust. Last but not least, he is one of the few right-arm bowlers who starts around the wicket to left-hand batsmen. It's something James Anderson would do well to replicate.

It's a pity he's already 31 years old. In some ways, he's had the kind of start Michael Hussey had to his career. While he has been good in different conditions and against all opposition, his place in the pantheon of spin Gods will be sealed only if he sustains this level of performance for another 5-6 years. Test cricket will be all the richer if Swann manages to do so and in the process inspires others to take up the art of finger spin.