Sunday, June 27, 2010

Only a Question of Intent

Professional athletes the world over do what most of us wouldn't even dream of. They look extraordinarily good when the going is good but perhaps the greatest indicator of their commitment to excellence is how they react to being exposed of their shortcomings. On a macro level, it shows how far a team or an establishment is willing to do to achieve the desired goal. Indeed, it also shows how high they have set the bar for themselves.

The Germany v England match in the Round of 16 of the FIFA World Cup got me thinking about it. In many ways, the Indian cricket is similar to the England football. Both are under constant scrutiny, the players are among the most handsomely paid professionals of their sport, they have a rabid following, and both fall short on the big stage every single time. You could make a recent addition to the list - The Indian Premier League is supposedly the best cricket league in the world just as the Barclays Premier League is supposedly the best football league. I don't know how you define the best in this case but it seems people are increasingly going by the level of interest and the money involved. However, that's a discussion for another time.

The English have traditionally favoured a direct approach to football. There isn't as much focus on the technical aspects or encouragement for players to show their creativity. They have only one major international title to show for it and the team gets exposed at the world stage every two years. They have tried different coaches - English and Continental - for their international team and yet the best they have managed in the last 20 years is a semi-final appearance at the 1990 World Cup and another one at Euro 96. The players who shine so brightly in the uber-competitive Premiership always seem to stutter at the international stage.

A parallel could be drawn with Indian cricket. Those who have watched the side over the years will tell you it suffers from the same problems now as it did 20 years ago. There aren't enough quality fast bowlers, the fielding is abysmal, and there is a general lack of fitness awareness. It's fallacious to say current Indian cricketers are fitter and play better out-cricket than their their predecessors because the comparison has to be drawn with their present-day counterparts. Since the final of the 2003 World Cup, India has failed to progress to the knockout stage in 6 of the 7 ICC tournaments. The lone success came at the first ever Twenty20 World Cup in 2007. They are now under their third foreign coach and each of them has highlighted the need for a proper system that needs to be built from the grassroots level. To use a cliche, they have advocated the need for a bottoms-up approach rather than a top-down one.

Yet, nothing has been done about it. The batsmen who are coming through look hopeless on a wicket which has something for the bowlers. The fast bowlers lose their pace, control and fitness after a season or two. They all talk about the distractions that come with this life and yet none of them have been able to cope with it. The same excuses are brought out time and again - Our grounds aren't in good condition, we don't produce good pitches, selection is biased, and so on. The list is endless and you will hear former cricketers pay lip service to it everytime the team is exposed at the international level.

And yet, if you look around you can see establishments change their culture because they admit their follies and recognise the need to set things right if they are to be competitive. Germany crashed out of Euro 2000 and Euro 2004 at the group stage and while they made the finals of the 2002 World Cup, it seemed more like a case of them being there by default and they got found out by an inspired Brazil.

The Germans decided to set things right after exit from Euro 2004. What had always been a strong, efficient, meticulous German side was now being turned into one with flair and creativity. They embraced the possibility of being slightly vulnerable at the back by adding the threat of their players going forward. It can be seen from the fact that Germany are European Champions at every age-group and the average age of national squad is just 24. The early signs were seen in 2006 when Jurgen Klinsmann led them to a memorable performance at home where his team played attacking football throughout the tournament. Perhaps it was too early for them to go all the way and the Italians played a tactically brilliant game to eliminate them in the semifinal. 2008 saw the Germans go a step further only to be beaten by a Spain side that had been trying to win with the very approach Germany had embraced. Now the Germans have taken their customary place in the quarterfinal of the World Cup and should provide us a memorable contest when they take on the Maradona-inspired Argentina on Saturday.

There is a very obvious lesson that can be learnt from this German team. You could probably say the same about the England cricket team. These two have said goodbye to their past and embraced a different system simply because they have set their sights on being the best and are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their goal. It's difficult to let go of something you have believed in for generations but it can be slightly easier if you are clear about your goal. The results may not come immediately either but if you have the right people in place they will stay focused on the path they have chosen.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

It's Not Too Hard To Admit You Screwed Up

A perfect game is a rare sight in Baseball. It's probably rarer than a 10-wicket haul in an innings - There have only been 20 perfect games in the history of Major League Baseball. An MLB season comprises over 2500 games and the first perfect game was recorded in the year 1880. There have been 1958 tests and 2986 ODIs and a few more T20s. The total number of innings when you combine all these matches would be around 14,000. There have only been two ten-wicket hauls in an innings in the history of international cricket.

Why am I making this comparison? Well, it has something to do with how cricket umpires, and a lot of baseball umpires, refuse to acknowledge their mistakes and are opposed to the use of technology in order to reduce the number of mistakes. It is in this backdrop that Jim Joyce, an MLB umpire for 21 years, openly and unconditionally apologised for costing the Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game. It wasn't a case of the umpire making a wrong call midway through the game - It would have been the last out and the game would have ended right there had he got it right. No Tigers pitcher has ever pitched a perfect game. The team has been around for over a hundred years and has won Four World Series alongwith 10 American League Championships. Suffice to say the team has been home to a number of great players.

It's really heartening to see Joyce realise his role in the game as that of a facilitator who enables players to go about displaying their ability for the millions who follow the sport. He has shown the way to officials who tend to think they're as important as the players and that nobody is allowed to criticise them when they make mistakes. It's high time they realised technology is only there to help them make the right decision, somewhat like an insurance cover for the times they get it wrong.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Why Don't You Show You Belong?

Let me start off by saying my opinion on whether Bangladesh should be playing test cricket doesn't count. The ICC has made the decision for whatever reason and that's that.

But it's getting tiresome to read about Bangladeshi players trying to prove a point to those who think they don't deserve to be playing test cricket. A few months ago unnamed media personnel took pleasure in Bangladesh getting the better of India for one day of a test match after Virender Sehwag had called them ordinary and that they couldn't beat India because they can't take 20 wickets - Bangladesh have taken 20 wickets in only 4 of their 67 tests. The match predictably ended in a comfortable win for India with Bangladesh vindicating Sehwag by not being able to dismiss his side twice. Ofcourse the narrative after the game was that of the Bangladeshi side running India close.

Bangladesh have now played 67 tests, a reasonably big number to take stock of where they stand. I looked at how they compare to the 9 other test playing nations over their respective 67 tests from the time they started playing test cricket.

W/L Ratio
Bat Avg
Bowl Avg
Avg Diff

It doesn't matter what category you look at, Bangladesh are dead last. New Zealand match them in terms of their Win % over their first 67 tests but have a much better Win-Loss ratio as well as a much lower difference between their batting and bowling average. It's not even that teams that started playing test cricket later have necessarily inferior records. West Indies started playing almost 30 years after South Africa but have a considerably better record. Pakistan started playing test cricket in the early fifties and they have a better record than New Zealand and India, and pretty much at par with South Africa. It's interesting to note that even Zimbabwe started off just as well as India.

It's about time Shakib and his teammates realised they need to stop behaving like they're entitled to something just because they have test status and start winning some tests, or atleast drawing them. They need to realise the odd good performance by one of their players isn't going to get them there and it's the whole team that needs to put in a more disciplined and consistent effort if they want to be respected by the cricketing community.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

India Kiss Goodbye to Potential Medals at Asian Games

The BCCI has taken it upon itself to not send either a men's or women's team for the 2010 Asian Games to be held in Guangzhou from November 12 to 27. This is the official line from the board:

"We would not be able to send our team, both men and women, for the Asian Games in China because of international commitments," the BCCI chief administrative officer Ratnakar Shetty said in Mumbai. "We have communicated the same to the Indian Olympic Association."

The news of India not sending a team to the Asian Games came out last night. Yet, none of the TV channels have picked up on it. Come the Asian Games they'll lament the lack of gold medals. Wonder what's stopping them from taking up this issue before the games.

Right. We're hosting New Zealand for a full series in November. The Kiwis haven't toured India since 2003 so it's quite right for the BCCI to not scrap a series against them. Not like they can, they haven't hosted New Zealand for this FTP cycle. I checked the upcoming fixtures for India and New Zealand and as of now there is nothing scheduled for players of either team from September until the 2011 World Cup. It's probably because the itinerary for these teams hasn't been finalised. We know India are playing Australia right after the Champions League and will tour South Africa after the home series against New Zealand. Also, the Kiwis are touring Bangladesh for two tests and three ODIs. This only leaves the month of November for the series against the Kiwis. But why exactly are we playing Australia again? We've already hosted them for two ODI series and a test series during this FTP cycle. It's just an arrangement between the two boards whereby they'll flog this rivalry till nobody is interested. Bit like the scores of ODIs we've played against Sri Lanka since 2008. Even New Zealand toured Bangladesh in October 2008, so why are they touring the country again this year?

Does it really make any sense to be playing some teams way more often that required? Not really. But this is what you get when boards are only looking after their own interests, not that the BCCI is the only guilty party here. The people won't care, they get to see their players frequently. It's not like there's much else to watch on television anyway.

This is just about the men's team. What about the women? Considering their performance at the world stage they should be a shoo-in for the gold at the Asian Games. Again, I'm not aware of the ladies being tied up in a series during the Asian Games.

The board continues to enjoy huge tax exemptions from the central and state governments, has control of stadia at dirt cheap rates and is provided free security from state police. It's quite obvious this shouldn't be happening, more so now that the BCCI has refused to send its players to the Asian Games. But how can this change when you have so many politicians involved with the BCCI?

And what about the players? We hear them talk about how much pride they feel in playing for their country. Why hasn't a single cricketer - current of former - come out and said the BCCI should be sending its players to Guangzhou? Surely this will increase the suspicion on them for taking performance enhancing substances. First they refused to accept the controversial whereabouts clause and now they've been silent over their non-participation at an event that is likely to be the subject of a lot of testing.