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.


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


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 :)