Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Shooting Yourself in the Foot

A few months ago I wrote a post on a parameter to gauge how efficient a partnership is. Yesterday was a classic case of a team getting it wrong and losing a chance to gain an advantage.

Virender Sehwag set out like a house on fire like he always does, scoring 64 off 63 before close of play on Day 2. India were chasing a mammoth score of 642 on a flat pitch and needing to win this test if they wanted to win the series. The only way it could happen was if Sehwag batted through the day, and even then the odds for an Indian win would have been tall.

Well they certainly didn't help themselves in trying to shorten them. The pair did decently well on Day 2, working at an efficiency of 54 percent. However, for some inexplicable reason Vijay ended up taking a lot more strike on the third morning. He faced 62 of 90 balls from the start of the 21st over to the end of the 35th. His scoring rate (32 off 62) during this period was decent by test standards Sehwag at the other end was scoring much faster (21 off 28). The partnership efficiency for this passage of play was just 31 percent.

What it also did was slow down Sehwag's charge as he was getting hardly any strike. Even before he got out on 99 he had been dropped at backward point when he was on 89 and had offered a half chance to backward short leg. The man likes to see runs being scored and the opposition always looks to get him out by cutting off his boundaries, although he's smart enough to keep his tally going by taking the singles on offer. However, he can't do anything about the score if he doesn't get the strike. It sounds very simplistic and obvious and yet if you see most of his innings you'll see he invariably ends up facing less deliveries than his partner(s).

I'm not privy to what was discussed in team meetings or on the pitch but if I were Gary Kirsten I'd instruct my batsmen to look for singles when they're batting with Sehwag. Put away the odd bad delivery but the first instinct should be find a gap and get Sehwag back on strike. Not only will it increase the scoring rate, it will also get the other batsmen going and they won't be stuck when Sehwag is finally dismissed.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The anti-superstar

It is no secret that fans the world over love and cherish their sporting heroes. These heroes do things most of us can only dream of. Some have style, some have charisma, some have raw power and aggression. Some have all of these. But every great sporting dynasty has a rock which cleans up the mess left behind by his team's stars. He's not very flashy, doesn't look hot in jeans, doesn't court media attention. He just keeps going out his job of helping his team win matches.

Derek Fisher does it for the present-day Lakers. The Yankees have Derek Jeter. The treble-winning Manchester United had Roy Keane, the feat being emulated recently by FC Barcelona and Inter Milan who have for years relied on Xavi Hernandez and Esteban Cambiasso respectively. Cambiasso was also big for the Real Madrid from the pre-Galacticos era. Coming to cricket, Australia had Damien Martyn to solidify their famed batting. The West Indies had, at different times, Rohan Kanhai, Alvin Kallicharran, Richie Richardson, Carl Hooper, and Shivnarine Chanderpaul.

This brings us to the team that is at the top of the table right now. Whether India is the best team in the world is an argument for another time and place. For now, I'm going to focus on the rock in the Indian team. It might come as a surprise to some but the person I'm talking about is not Rahul Dravid. No, Dravid averages a shade over 40 since the West Indies tour of 2006. That he has held onto his number 3 position is more a case of his reputation preceding him.

Here's a look at the performance of Indian batsmen since that tour:

No surprise that the two openers lead the team in terms of batting average, although Gambhir hasn't played a test in Australia, England, Pakistan, South Africa or the West Indies during this period. Sehwag's claim to being one of the best is quite legitimate, although he doesn't get past fifty as frequently as some of his teammates (Gambhir 46%, Tendulkar 41%, Laxman 40%, Dhoni 37%, Sehwag 34%). Ofcourse he makes up for it by scoring the biggest hundreds of all Indian players. Meanwhile, VVS Laxman averages almost as much as Sehwag during this period. Skeptics can point to the high number of not outs, but they are overlooking the fact that even though he hasn't get a lot of hundreds, his efforts have been crucial in that he's come in to bat with the team either in trouble or looking to score quickly to enforce a declaration. A lot of times he has had to shepherd the tail as he bats at 5 or 6. Moreover, he has the second-best percentage of 50+ scores so clearly he's been batting really well.

Laxman's performance looks even better when you consider he's been consistently prolific even away from home. Here's a look at how Indian batsman have fared on the road since the West Indies tour.

Tendulkar leads the team when it comes to away performance while Laxman is a close second. Sehwag is third but his average and percentage of 50+ scores drop considerably when he plays away from home. One thing these stats don't tell you is that Laxman has been better than Tendulkar if you exclude performances against Bangladesh. In fact, his average drops to 44 if you take out that opposition. Laxman, though, has maintained his performance by averaging 50.52 if you exclude his innings against Bangladesh. He's also more consistent than Tendulkar, going past 50 in 42% of his innings while Tendulkar has done it in just 34% of his innings. There is definitely a case for Laxman being the most reliable middle order batsman in the side.

So where does Laxman rank among middle order batsmen (Positions 4 to 7) across all teams? Pretty high actually, he has the fifth highest average since September 2006.

 Note that he has the highest average for Indian batsmen during this period (This doesn't include his innings at number 3). Again, these numbers look even better when you consider he has maintained his performance away from home. It's all the more admirable considering he's played everywhere except in the West Indies and Pakistan during this period. Here's a look at how he compares with other middle order batsmen away from home during the aforementioned period.

Samaraweera and Clarke drop out of the top 5 and is replaced by AB de Villiers whose home conditions have been kind to bowlers and Sachin Tendulkar thanks to his strong performance in Bangladesh (4 hundreds in 4 tests). Jayawardene is still up there but has been very inconsistent, although he's converted each of his five fifties into hundreds. AB de Villers tops the away list and is sixth otherwise. This augurs well for the youngster who has made no secret of his ambition to be the best batsman in world cricket. Shivnarine Chanderpaul has also been consistently prolific, once again proving that it's important to have a solid batsman to anchor the batting. It's a pity he's surrounded by so many mediocre players, in another era he might have been part of a leading test team.

It's hard to find faults with Laxman's performance over this period. People have tended to get carried away by Sehwag's brilliance and Tendulkar's second coming, but Laxman has been matching them all this while without getting a tenth of the recognition and respect. Even now, opposition players consider Sehwag the key wicket despite Laxman being at the other end. Maybe this plays into his hands as bowlers might relax a bit when bowling to him. It is in this backdrop that one feels happy for Laxman being regarded so highly by the best team in the world in recent years - They have considered him Very Very Special ever since they got  Laxmaned at the Eden Gardens.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

How Dysfunctional Can Cricket Get?

The inevitable has happened. John Howard's push for becoming the ICC Vice-President has hit the mountain of a roadblock that all but Cricket Australia could see. This has kicked off a fresh round of accusations and counter accusations from the sides on either side.

Cricket Australia is miffed at its candidate being shafted without the boards having a logical reason to do so. Maybe they're not aware of all the Australians who can't stand the sight of their former Prime Minister. Maybe they thought their Big Brother attitude toward New Zealand would go unnoticed by the cricketing fraternity. One doesn't know how it managed to convince its neighbour to not back Sir John Anderson, a man with extensive experience as a cricket administrator. Is it surprising to see this happen when a few months ago Inderjit Singh Bindra's push for an ICC post was considered dangerous for the sport simply because he's Indian?

Australian journalists are talking about the ICC being split along racial lines. They usually start their editorials with their general dislike for Howard the politician and go on to state that it shouldn't be the reason boards object to his candidature, and that it isn't. They point to Zimbabwe's objection being a result of Howard's stand against the Mugabe regime, to which others point to his indifference to the apartheid regime in South Africa. They refuse to believe the man was opposed to his countrymen touring Zimbabwe because of the lessons he learnt from his indifferent stance toward South Africa.

Sri Lankans can't get over the fact that Howard called Muralitharan a chucker. Howard isn't the only man to call him that and I don't see why he had to be politically correct about a cricketer's action just because he was Prime Minister. One of the greatest spinners in the history of the game has shared Howard's view. It led to Murali consider filing a lawsuit against him. Apparently an international umpire was asked not to call Murali for chucking in the final of a World Cup. He refused and he didn't stand in that game, although that may have nothing to do with his stand on Murali's action.

These things only point to people wanting a puppet heading the ICC. An impotent and incompetent man completely devoid of any opinion or the will to act on one, not that John Howard is a man of impeccable character. It's probably a good thing that he won't be heading the ICC in two years time. One hopes it will be Sir John Anderson instead.

But neither is Sharad Pawar. The man hardly has a legacy of uniting people, he was the brains behind the biggest split in India's biggest national party. His tenure as the country's Agriculture Minister has seen hundreds of farmers committing suicide and steady increase in food prices. Coming to his cricketing legacy, he has his fingers in the IPL pie (Not that other politicians and BCCI officials don't). When he lost the BCCI election in 2004, his protege Shashank Manohar got the curator at the VCA Stadium to prepare a green top in order to help Australia win. The Aussies weren't going to look the gift horse in the mouth and duly demolished India to win their first series in the country in 35 years.

As for the fans, the Asians are happy to see their boards having so much leverage over the so-called white countries. One can increasingly see them wanting to get back at the white boards for decades of subjugation. Some are happily wishing for a split in the cricketing world so that their team doesn't have to share any money with the countries that are equally responsible for making the sport so popular in their country. On the other hand, the whites can't come to terms with the power shift and want to go back to the good old days when they had all the power.

While all this is happening, cricket drifts from one meaningless series to another. England and Australia are about to finish an inconsequential ODI series, India will play their second test series in Sri Lanka in two years and the Kiwis will join the two nations for a tri-series for a second year in a row. We still don't have a structured international calendar which sees teams playing each other equally over a period of time. There is major disparity in the amount of money the sport generates in various countries. The governing body can't arrive at a consensus on how to implement the UDRS.

These are just the issues I can think of off the top of my head. There are many more but I'm not going to hold my breath over them being solved. The administrators, players and fans involved with the sport are a bunch of retards who can't understand the simple fact that it's time to put the past behind them and look at making cricket a truly global sport. I hope they rot in hell alongwith the sport - I have other sports to capture my imagination if that happens.