Sunday, August 29, 2010

Let's Get Real

"Oh Amir, how could you?", "What were they thinking", "They sold out". Add a thousand lines and it still doesn't make a difference. Everyone thought this was happening, no one could prove it. Now there's some proof (allegedly) and people are asking boards and cricketers to prove they're innocent because "We pay our good money to watch these guys play".

Oh and this isn't confined to cricket. NBA fans get all rabid at the business end of every season despite a former referee's claims that he was asked to call games a certain way to ensure series went the distance. Baseball fans in New York and Boston are crazy about their teams even though some of the greatest names in the history of their franchises were on Performance Enhancing Drugs. Pete Rose, the all-time hit leader in the history of Major League Baseball is banned from even entering a Major League ballpark. His absence from the Baseball Hall of Fame still attracts criticism but the league won't bestow up him that honour. It remains to be seen if the likes of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Roger Clemens will make it to Cooperstown. While the sport isn't as popular as it was a few years ago, it still enjoys a big enough status for players to earn 8-figure salaries.

Cricket deals with such issues rather leniently. Cricket South Africa retired Cronje's jersey number. Kapil Dev has made it to the Hall of Fame, as has Wasim Akram after Justice Qayyum let him off because he had a soft corner for the fast bowler. Cricket Australia banned Shane Warne for 12 months when he tested positive for a diuretic at the 2003 World Cup. The legspinner didn't play a single ICC event after his comeback as he decided to concentrate on test cricket. Many consider him the greatest spinner in the history of cricket. The PCB banned and then reinstated Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif when they tested positive for Nandrolone in 2006. Why? Apparently they were tested under the PCB banner and not by the ICC, so it was the PCB rule book that applied. The rule book said a player who was unaware of what he was taking could be pardoned, hence Akhtar and Asif were let off. The whole of Pakistan rejoiced. Five months later both of them were declared unfit for the ODI World Cup, a tournament where WADA was the authority conducting the tests. Yesterday some Pakistani fans were trying to assuage their fears by saying the players had done it for the flood victims.

How would people react if Sachin Tendulkar were suspected of being involved in some form of fixing? What if he tested positive for a banned substance? Do you really think fans would ever believe it even if the truth hit them in the face? I have already heard former cricketers act scandalised at the mention of match-fixing, asking if Tendulkar would ever do it because they know no one would have the balls to even explore the possibility of it happening.

So let's just admit we're suckers for cricket. We didn't stop watching the sport when India's greatest allrounder cried crocodile tears on national television. We laughed and cried with our teams even after Hansie Cronje admitted to fixing games. And we sure as bloody hell aren't going to miss the two-test series between India and Australia. Enough of the sanctimonious articles asking for an overhaul. Enough of feeling devastated by an 18-year old sensation allegedly bowling no balls on demand. This will continue and we will continue waking up at odd hours to watch what might be an 11 on 11 tag team match right out of the Vince McMahon's group of creative writers.

Trust is the biggest ingredient of any healthy relationship. It holds true for that between a sport and its fans as well. But how many times have we allowed players to betray our trust? We must be idiots of the worst kind to let bookies, agents, officials, players take us for granted time and time again. There is a remote in our living room and none of these people can force us to use it to make ourselves heard. Do we use it? Only when we've sufficiently gratified the masochist in us.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Ravindra Jadeja and the Number Seven Spot

While a lot of people are jumping off the Indian bandwagon after the tri-series in Dambulla, the team is more or less settled once some of the players come back from rest/injury. That is not to say I'm confident of India winning the World Cup, just that most of the spots in the XI are more or less taken. Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Suresh Raina and Mahendra Singh Dhoni are sure to be in the XI. Yuvraj Singh's spot should be under question but it's his to lose, I think the selectors will pick him in the XI over others. Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra, Praveen Kumar and Harbhajan Singh are also sure to make the XI, although I think India are better off playing Pragyan Ojha as the frontline spinner but that's not going to happen.

This leaves just one spot realistically up for grabs. Ravindra Jadeja is the frontrunner for it even though he hasn't exactly distinguished himself in the many chances he's got. Potential contenders for his spot are Yusuf and Irfan Pathan, Robin Uthappa and Ravichandran Ashwin. Ashwin is part of the squad and maybe he should have got a chance during this series. Uthappa is coming back from injury while Yusuf Pathan is currently out of favour. No one knows the status of Irfan Pathan.

All this means Ravindra Jadeja is in the side almost by default. A look at his numbers shows he scores less runs per dismissal (31.47) than he gives away per wicket (41.55). Also, he scores his runs slower than the rate at which he concedes when he's bowling (Strike Rate of 76.97 and Economy Rate of 4.84 i.e. 80.67 per 100 balls). Surely this is exactly the reverse of what you'd expect from someone playing as an allrounder.

So where does Jadeja rank in comparison to players who bat at number seven for their respective sides? In the last 24 months only 9 players have batted in that position 10 or more times. Here's a look at their batting record for that period.



If one were to rank the 9 in terms of their average and their strike rate, Jadeja would be ranked 7th and 9th in the list. Since we're looking at Jadeja as the fifth bowler, I thought it was only fair to include the bowling statistics for these 9 players when they didn't open the bowling (Not that they have opened to bowling too often).


Jadeja ranks 4th in terms of economy rate and 7th in terms of average. Ranking all 9 players on the four parameters, this is what it looked like.


Player
Batting
Bowling
Total
Average
Strike Rate
Average
Econ. Rate
Shahid Afridi
8
1
4
2
15
Elton Chigumbura
4
5
3
5
17
James Hopes
2
4
5
3
14
Ravindra Jadeja
7
9
7
4
27
Mohammad Mahmudullah
1
7
8
7
23
Angelo Mathews
5
8
1
1
15
Yusuf Pathan
3
2
6
9
20
Kieron Pollard
6
3
2
8
19
Luke Wright
9
6
9
6
30

Even though Afridi's two hundreds didn't come at number 7 it shouldn't be surprising to see his name at or around the top of the list. But not many would expect James Hopes to be among the top players. Angelo Mathews and Elton Chigumbura are also up there. Jadeja ranks second last in this list, even behind teammate Yusuf Pathan. This is not to say Pathan should take his place, but it does put Jadeja's performances into perspective.

Now this is only a very basic way of looking at the performances of the 9 players. Obviously ranking them doesn't account for how much better or worse they are. For example, there is very little difference between the economy rates of Mathews and Afridi who are ranked first and second on that parameter. However, the gap between the economy rates of Pollard and Pathan is much higher even though they're ranked eighth and ninth respectively.

I'm sure people can dig deeper and rate these players instead of ranking them. It would be a much more accurate way of comparing them. However, at first glance it does seem that Ravindra Jadeja ranks pretty low in comparison to his peers. It remains to be seen whether he gets more opportunities and if not, whether the replacement can do better. All I can say is India might pay the price of not having a good enough player at number 7, be it a batsman, bowler or allrounder.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Congratulations to Arjun Atwal

Arjun Atwal became the first Indian to win a tournament on the US PGA Tour. It was a special achievement for him considering he's the first qualifier to win an event on the tour in 24 years. Not that the Sports Authority of India has contributed anything to his success, or that of the likes of Jeev Milkha Singh and Shiv Kapur for that matter, but I hope this win gets adequate coverage in the print and electronic media here. The sheer size of our population means there are plenty of people who have the time and resources to play and follow the sport. Promoted well, golf tournaments can bring in a lot of money to cities hosting them - A point that is lost on most people when they talk about sporting events. Just think of the number of jobs the IPL has created, not to mention the money it brings to various industries (Airline, Hotel, Power, Catering, etc.)

I'm watching various news channels to see if they've put it on breaking news - They haven't. I'd like to think it's because the time is 2:48 am right now, although that shouldn't be an excuse for channels where there is always someone to track the news filtering in from the rest of the world. Considering Atwal was either in the lead or tied for it at the end of each of the first three rounds, someone should have followed his progress. All this makes these news channels campaigns in support of our athletes rather hollow. What is their credibility if they can't even report a first in Indian golf but cry themselves hoarse everytime the Olympics and Asian Games come around?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

You Don't Necessarily Need 20 Wickets to Win a Test

It irritates me no end when experts talk about a side needing 20 wickets to win a test. At the risk of sounding pedantic, I'm going to point out that there have been 131 tests in which a team lost despite losing less than 20 wickets. Ofcourse most of the teams that lost in such a manner did so because one or more of their batsmen were either retired hurt or absent hurt.

However, there have been numerous instances in which a team has declared either or both its innings and gone on to lose. South Africa lost at the SCG in 2006 because Graeme Smith was ready to risk losing the series 2-0 if it gave him a chance to level it at 1-1. He declared both innings and Australia chased down the target on the back of a second hundred in the game from captain Ricky Ponting. Less than a year later Shane Warne masterminded the collapse that broke England's spirit for the remainder of the series. Warne and his mates had looked insipid in the first innings when England piled on a score of 551/6 before declaring their innings. India's historic win at Chennai came after Kevin Pietersen had declared England's second innings with one wicket remaining.

Sure these occurrences are rare (Statsguru doesn't allow me to sort the declared innings from the others), but they do happen. More often than a team winning despite scoring less runs than the opposition. How many times has a team done that? Never. Why? Because in test cricket, just like in any other sport, you cannot win if you don't score more than the opposition. And yet experts keep talking about how bowlers win you matches, how you're not a world class side if you don't have a strong bowling attack, how you can't win if your bowlers don't have the ability to take 20 wickets.

Saying you need 20 wickets to win a test is the biggest cliche in cricket. You can say it because it's not like you can take more than 20 wickets. But can anyone predict the number of runs to win a test before the start of the match? Obviously not, because in order to win you need atleast one more run than the opposition although you could win by scoring a lot more as well. On the other hand, you could score a lot more runs than the opposition and yet not win! So while scoring more than the opposition is a necessary condition to win a test, it may not be sufficient. But taking 20 wickets is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition to win.

If you took a snap poll among cricketers on who has the better bowling attack between India and Pakistan the verdict would be overwhelmingly in favour of the latter. A similar poll on the batting strength of the two sides would result in India getting the vote over their neighbours. And yet it's the Indian team that hasn't lost a series in two years (They have won 5 during this period, 4 if you exclude Bangladesh), while Pakistan have lost two series and not won any during the same period.

The only two teams both have faced during this period are Sri Lanka (Home and Away) and New Zealand (Away). India beat Sri Lanka at home while Pakistan drew against Sri Lanka (The first test was drawn and the second one was cut short after the attack on the Sri Lankan team bus). Pakistan lost to Sri Lanka 2-0 away from home, failing to chase a sub-200 target in one of the tests while India drew their series in Sri Lanka 1-1, chasing down a 200-plus target in the final test. Coming to New Zealand, India beat the Kiwis 1-0 and it might well have been 2-0 had it not rained on Day 5 with India needing just two more wickets. Pakistan, on the other hand, drew their series 1-1. You can say Bond didn't play against India and New Zealand won the only test he played against Pakistan, but Pakistan would have lost had it not rained on Day 5 of the final test at Napier.

This isn't an exercise in proving India is better than Pakistan when it comes to test cricket. I've used these two teams because they have forever played contrasting styles of cricket. A few years ago Pakistan were clearly the better test side because they had batsmen like Saeed Anwar, Javed Miandad, Salim Malik, Inzamam-ul-Haq to go along with bowlers like Wasim, Waqar, Imran, Shoaib, Saqlain. Compare that lineup to the current lineup that has only one batsman averaging over 40 and you know why Pakistan aren't among the top sides in the world. In contrast, India have figured out ways to win in all conditions with Zaheer Khan being the only consistent performer. Each of their top 4 averages over 50 and the number 5 batsman averages almost 60 over the last 4 years, while the captain averages over 60 when he's leading the side.

The two greatest test sides were so good because they were extremely strong in both disciplines. It's not like Marshall, Holding, Garner and Roberts had a bunch of bunnies batting in their side. Greenidge, Haynes, Richards, Lloyd is as strong a top four as you'll get. The Australian juggernaut had Hayden, Langer, Ponting, Waughs, and Gilchrist. They have combined for over 150 test hundreds!

The point I'm making is there are different ways to be a quality test side. While being a strong batting side doesn't guarantee it, being a great bowling side doesn't either. Remember, you can't win unless you score more than the opposition but you can win even if you take less wickets than them.

Edit: David Barry just showed me how to filter out finished innings so that we only have innings which were declared.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Dismissing a Batsman for 199 is Against the Spirit of Cricket

It was a foregone conclusion that once Suraj Randiv deliberately overstepped the line to deny Virender Sehwag a hundred the media would use it to mint money. Anyone who thinks those reporters and newspersons kept harping on it did so out of their commitment to upholding sportsmanship probably believes that Stuart Broad is a man.

So while most media outlets were busy criticising the actions of Randiv, NDTV 24x7 decided to play Devil's Advocate. They called on Chandu Borde to make the whole "Anything goes on a cricket field" argument. That's perfectly fine, but how exactly are you making your case by saying "We ran out Sobers when he was on 199"? The Spirit of Cricket is a pretty vague concept, but surely dismissing a batsman by fair means cannot be against it. No one would have criticised Randiv had he dismissed Sehwag for 99, if anything he would, or atleast should have been applauded for going after the batsman even though the match was all but over. And that really is the essence of being an aggressive cricketer - You are always looking to score runs or taking wickets.

A lot of players seem to think being petty and abusive is the same as being aggressive. Stuart Broad, Harbhajan Singh, Sulieman Benn and Shane Watson are the torchbearers of this group. It's pretty sad that Benn is the only one whose behaviour has resulted in censure from the inside, with Chris Gayle sending him off the field when the bowler wasn't ready to implement his captain's plans.

I am glad SLC took it upon themselves to nip such behaviour in the bud by banning Randiv for a game. Sure the Indian media went overboard with its criticism, but that doesn't change the fact that Randiv did deliberately bowl a no ball. He's still young and maybe he'll be wiser after this incident. Just a few days ago he got the same batsman out stumped on 99. If he focuses on denying batsmen milestones that way he'll have a long and successful career ahead of him. I hope the other boards follow suit when one of their players indulges in an act of petulance, and you can be sure the next incident isn't too far away.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

VVS Shows Time Travel is Possible

Can there be any other explanation for his presence in modern-day cricket? He really is a player from a bygone era when scoring runs was meant to be done with panache and running between the wickets was a chore. You could say Michael Vaughan and Damien Martyn might have also been time travellers, but both gave away their disguise by being decent runners. VVS, meanwhile, continued to play those ridiculously wristy drives and flicks that must come with a statutory warning. With Dravid's fielding fading he has also been India's best slip fielder for the past decade.

And yet he never gets the recognition from those outside the team. Sehwag is the marauder, Dravid is/was the wall, Tendulkar is God, Ganguly was the leader, Kumble was the workhorse. It was only the mighty Aussies who recognised his brilliance and adorning him with the name Very Very Special Laxman. Maybe the difficulty with pronouncing Vangipurappu Venkata Sai Laxman had something to do with it, but we will give the Aussies the benefit of the doubt here.

Cricinfo has been running a segment on the All-Time XIs for test-playing nations and presently they're inviting readers to pick the All-Time Indian XI. The top pretty much pick themselves and this leaves room for just one middle order batsman. I'm reasonably sure readers will pick Laxman over others but I have a sneaking feeling that the cricinfo panel will go for either Gundappa Vishwanath or Mohammad Azharuddin.

Perhaps it's because Laxman doesn't have what people refer to as matchwinning innings. Today's hundred was Laxman's sixth in a winning cause. In the last 14 years Dravid has 12, Tendulkar 16, Sehwag 7. What goes unnoticed, however, is the number of fifties he's scored in matches India has won. Laxman has the highest percentage of 50+ scores among all Indians in matches won during this period.



Perhaps the fate of his international career was written in his debut test. Laxman came in at number 6 with India just 61 runs ahead in the second innings. 13-year old me with my three friends had lost all hope alongwith the Ahmedabad crowd which disrupted the game by throwing missiles onto the field. We left after India lost the sixth wicket. Laxman, however, battled on with Kumble and was the 8th man out, scoring 51 of the 98 runs India scored while he was at the crease. It seemed like a testing but gettable target before Srinath bowled the spell of his career and blew the South Africans away with 6/21. He was deservedly named Man of the Match but VVS on debut had made it possible by playing the kind of innings he would turn in regularly over the next 14 years. To put his effort into perspective, he was only one of two batsmen to post a fifty-plus score in the whole match.

Most people will remember Laxman for his brilliant innings against the Australians, but the hallmark of his career has been his fighting fifties in low scoring games, especially away from home. His efforts at The Wanderes and The WACA are footnotes in the stories of those tests, as are his efforts in steadying the team after collapses at Lord's and The Oval. But it is hard to imagine the team pulling off those results without VVS Laxman.

It is only a matter of time before Laxman declares his international innings. When he does, India will miss the man who for years has been The Stockade behind The Wall. Good thing then that he scored an invaluable century in the fourth innings at the P Sara Oval to help square the series. It should keep the century mongers off his back while he goes about his business until he decides to call time.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Who Makes These Draws???

There must be some really stupid people incharge of domestic competitions. A few months ago I had written on BCC! about how the rules of the knockout stages of the Ranji Trophy made no sense. Subsequently Mumbai benefited from playing Haryana instead of Uttar Pradesh in the quarters and went on to win the title. They did put in a solid performance against Delhi in the semis and played out one of the most memorable finals against Karnataka, but it doesn't change the fact that neither they nor Uttar Pradesh should have been seeded higher just because they made the finals of the previous Ranji season.

The 2010 Champions League starts in a little over a month and I happened to visit its section on cricinfo earlier tonight. There was some rubbish about branding, positioning, etc. and they've hired Amitabh "Serial Brand Ambassador" Bachchan their brand ambassador. I don't know how it makes any sense and I also find it contradictory that they want this to be as big as the UEFA Champions League but are only focusing on the Indian market. But I'll go along with it anyway.

Then I checked out the draw for the tournament. Now the format this year is different from what it was in 2009 because you don't have any English teams. Therefore, this is the break-up of where the teams come from.

India: Chennai (Champions), Mumbai (Runner-up), Bangalore (Third Place)
Australia: Victoria (Champions), South Australia (Runners-up)
South Africa: Warriors (Champions), Lions (Runners-up)
Sri Lanka: Wayamba (Champions)
New Zealand: Central Districts (Champions)
West Indies: Guyana (Champions)

Surely the way to go about this would have been to have 3 champions in each group, with the runners-up from India, Australia and South Africa drawn in the group other than the one the champions from their country were drawn into. Instead each team in Group A won its domestic T20 competition, while Guyana are the only team in Group B to have won their T20 competition.

T20 might be the most unpredictable of the 3 cricketing formats, but it's a bit of a stretch to put Chennai, Victoria, and the Warriors in the same group. Below are three possible combinations which I believe are better than the good folk running the tournament have come up with.


Group A
Group B

Group A
Group B

Group A
Group B
Chennai
Mumbai

Chennai
Mumbai

Chennai
Mumbai
South Australia
Victoria

South Australia
Victoria

Lions
Warriors
Lions
Warriors

Warriors
Lions

Victoria
South Australia
Wymb/CD/Guy
Bangalore

Bangalore
Wymb/CD/Guy

Bangalore
Wymb/CD/Guy
Wymb/CD/Guy
Wymb/CD/Guy

Wymb/CD/Guy
Wymb/CD/Guy

Wymb/CD/Guy
Wymb/CD/Guy

I think the best option would have been the first combination - Winners and Runners-up from India, Australia and South Africa go into opposite groups while #2 and #3 from India are paired together, and each group has 3 champions. I'm sure some people might disagree, in which case I invite them to share their point of view :)