Sunday, May 05, 2013

When Reputation Trumps Reality

The Indian Premier League is showing more & more signs of coming of age, with players on opposite teams taking on one another. I can imagine the purists shaking their heads at players jawing each other, but from the league's perspective it can only be good news as it shows players are willing to look beyond nationalities and stand up for themselves and the team they are part of.

Most of us remember the spat between Harbhajan Singh & Sreesanth which led to the former being suspended for the remainder of the first IPL season, thereby increasing his team's chances of making the semifinals. There was another incident in 2010 involving Harbhajan when he gave Tirumalasetti Suman quite a send-off and was fined for it.

But for the most part, Indian players who were regulars in the national team seemed to only pick on the lesser names. They were easy targets as the average fan neither knew nor cared much about these no-name players who were part of the IPL mainly because the rules say that every team can have at most four international players in the eleven. Also, you did not have to worry about the awkward situation in the Indian dressing room as most of the uncapped players will likely never play for India.

Manvinder Bisla is one such player. There is a good chance the 2012 IPL Final will be the highlight of his career. His "Jyadrath moment" as Arnab a.k.a. Greatbong calls it in this discussion before the start of this IPL season. You know you aren't a popular player when even fans of your team think you're not good enough. Thankfully, Bisla doesn't care much for reputations. It's why he urged Shane Watson to throw the ball when the bowler shaped up to rip one at the stumps (Here's the video of the entire game. Jump to the 2:05:10 mark to see the incident).

But he didn't stop there as he gave Watson's captain Rahul Dravid a piece of his mind. Now, we don't know if Watson or Dravid said anything to Bisla since the cameras never captured it. What the cameras did capture was Bisla's captain Gautam Gambhir pointing to the umpires who started the duel. It is quite clear in the video I've posted in the last paragraph.

However, that's not how most people saw it. Since Gambhir has built up quite a reputation of being a hothead who picks fights with opposition players, it was assumed that he "sledged" Rahul Dravid. Since Rahul Dravid has the reputation of being one of the nicest guys in world cricket, everyone was up in arms that a nobody like Bisla was "sledging" the great man.

Firstly, nobody knows what Bisla said to Dravid. Since Dravid is captain of the Royals, he is responsible for the conduct of his players. That includes Watson. One could say that Bisla should have complained to the umpires, but then he was never the instigator so the responsibility for whatever happened should have been on Watson. Infact, Watson was captured on camera mouthing off to presumably Gambhir or Bisla after the umpires intervened.

Secondly, everyone would have praised Bisla had he taken on an opposition captain who was either not Indian or wasn't as respected as Dravid. I don't see how Watson's actions should be seen any differently depending on who his captain is. Neither do I see why Bisla should temper his protests just because Dravid was the opposition captain.

I am glad Bisla didn't, and I commend Gambhir for standing up for his teammate. There are a lot of occasions when I feel he lets his emotions get the better of him & gets into needless arguments. This wasn't one of those times. I hope more of these lesser known players stand up to the big names in the future. But what I hope for a lot more is for fans to look beyond their heroes and see a situation for what it is.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

IPL 2013: Home/Away Records and Lazy Punditry

A recurring narrative during this IPL season has been that of how home teams have won most matches. We have so far had 46 matches of which 33 have been won by the home team. Four teams - Bangalore (6-0), Hyderabad (4-0), Mumbai (4-0) and Rajasthan (5-0) are yet to lose at home.

It made me wonder if there has been such a pattern in the league in the previous seasons. Apart from Rajasthan in 2008 & Chennai in 2011, I cannot remember any side winning all their home games in a season. So I had a look at the results from all the IPL seasons held in India i.e. 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and as it turns out, the highest home win % is indeed from this season. The next highest was in 2010 when the home team won 55% of the matches. Here's a chart showing the numbers season by season.

Commentators have been discussing among themselves and asking players about why home teams have been winning so many matches. There have been the usual explanations of how teams prepare pitches at their home venue to suit their style of play.

Well, from what I have seen, the pitches at Wankhede and Sawai Mansingh Stadium aren't too different from those at Chinnaswamy, yet Bangalore lost at both those venues while they have won all their matches at home. In any case, the pitch factor would have been in effect in each of the previous seasons so why didn't we have more results going in favour of the home side until this year?

There is also the explanation that players get tired from all the traveling and living out of a suitcase during their road trips, but again that's been the case in all the previous seasons as well.

There have been some sub-narratives within the main one of home teams dominating matches. The first is that the Kolkata needed to exploit their home advantage in order to make the playoffs, and that their failure to do so has pushed them to the brink of elimination.

If the pundits had bothered to find out, Kolkata did not make the 2012 playoffs on the back of winning on doctored pitches at home. Infact, they had a 3-4 record at the Eden Gardens (Their game against Deccan was rained out). So the problem for Kolkata this season is not that they are 3-2 at home. The problem is that they are 0-5 away so far when they went 7-1 on the road in 2012.

They had a scoring rate of 7.53 runs an over in 2012, while they're scoring at 7.59 runs an over this season. However, they're giving away 7.66 runs an over this season as opposed to just 6.89 an over in 2012. There is no real explanation for it because their roster is virtually the same. While they are missing Shakib Al Hasan this season, he played less than half their games last season. They don't have the services of Wasim Akram this season, and while I think they were wrong in letting him go, I am talking from a position where I have no idea what Akram brought to the team.

The other sub-narrative is that of Chennai being unbeaten on the road while everyone else is struggling to win away. Mahendra Singh Dhoni was asked about it and he talked about how the squad was more of a family instead of a professional set up, and how the management knew its cricket through being involved with the sport for years. How the players weren't asked what went wrong after a loss, but were told what went wrong.

While all this is true for 2013, it has been true for previous seasons as well. Yet, Chennai have at various points in the past struggled away from home. They had a 2-5 away record in the 2010 and 2011 seasons. So why are they 4-0 this season while the rest of the league is a combined 9-33 in away games?

There are two very obvious reasons for it. The first one is that they are simply the best side in the league this season, a status they haven't had in the five seasons prior. Sure they're the only side to have made the last four in each of the previous seasons. But they haven't finished top of the table in any of them. They are better this season because of a number of reasons. They have a deeper and more quality batting lineup this season than any of the previous ones. Ravindra Jadeja is playing better than he ever has. Chris Morris has provided them a fast bowling option they have lacked in all but 2010 and 2011 when Doug Bollinger was at his best. Most importantly, they finally have Michael Hussey for the entire season. Why is he so critical? Well, he only has the highest average of all Chennai players. He averages 43.77 which is more than 7 runs higher than their next best batsman. Infact, they dropped him for one game this season & promptly lost to last-placed Pune.

The second reason for Chennai being unbeaten on the road is the opposition they've faced. Delhi, Kolkata, Pune and Punjab are the bottom four teams in the league. In Mohali, Delhi, Kolkata & Pune, they are a combined 7-11. Take out their losses to Chennai and they're still only 7-7. On the other hand, the four teams Chennai have yet to visit are a combined 19-0 at home.

None of this is meant to suggest that Chennai will lose all their remaining away games. Will they win all their remaining road games? Probably not. Will they all of a sudden be struggling because they're on the road? Definitely not. It would be foolish to think that the least flawed of the nine teams would turn into an average side just because the opposition is strong. All I'm trying to say is if the experts are willing to do something other than offer cliches and peddle sponsor names during their commentary stint, they can easily tell the viewers why Chennai have the kind of record they do.