Tuesday, December 19, 2006

One Eyed?

I've often been labelled as being a bit one-eyed in my support of (and faith in) Team India in cricket. A recent episode wherein I questioned my friends' lack of belief/faith in the team (in response to a comment around "I think they let South Africa get away in the first innings (of the 1st test in the ongoing 2006-07 series between South Africa and India). They should have bundled them out for less than 84"!!!!) got me into an argument mode and then led me to a deeper inquiry of why I have so much faith in this team than any other past teams.

Believe me, I have been a believer in Team India only after Mohammed Azharuddin departed as captain. That one event (and the concommitant dragging down of Manoj Prabhakar) turned me from being a non-believer into one that has faith in this team. It marked what was probably, in my view at least, the brightest spark in Indian cricket. The structuring of this current team (I am talking Test team here by the way) commenced at that point in time, in my view. It has then progressed through the captaincy of Sachin and Ganguly before it rests very comfortably in Dravid's shoulders.

Listen to Dravid's interview on Cricinfo and decide for yourself on the clarity of the thought process in this group. He clearly states, even amidst the euphoria surrounding the win, that there are areas where the team can improve. The team knows that the South Africans will be hungry and will come at them hard. They know they have areas to improve. They aren't getting carried away. They want to play a 2-day game prior to the second Test to iron out a few areas where it can improve.

It is such clarity of thought that convinces me that Team India is worth reposing faith in.

It is possible that India may still lose this series. It would be disappointing if that were to happen. But it could happen. The South africans will come back hard at India. But I believe there is a will to fight it out; a strength to guts it out; an ability to back it up with performances...

Ganguly (along with John Wright) taught this team pride and self-belief. Dravid (along with Greg Chappell) is providing them with collective steel and process-hygiene ("focus on the process and not the outcomes").

I have faith in them as a Test group. Yes, they will screw up every now and then. Yes, they won't score 95,965 runs every time they go out to bat. Yes, Saurav Ganguly will play a rash stroke and get out for 25. Yes, they will bowl out the opposition for "only" 84! Yes, they will never have either the fighting spirit or the energy of the Australian team. And every now and then, they will make a complete hash of things, as they did in Pakistan earlier this year in the Tests. But, more often than not, they will play their hearts out and play with pride. And that's enough for me!

Meanwhile, while I still remain a great fan of Ganguly (play with pride and play with spirit... a leader who has inspired his players to give off their best) Dravid is providing inspirational leadership in his own way:

Sunday, December 17, 2006

To sledge or not to sledge

Ian Chappell introduced it. Well no, Percy Sledge introduced it, thanks to his epic "When a man loves a woman". Today, almost everyone does it. The Indians too get in on the act.

Sledging is an artefact of cricket. It is here. I dislike it. But it is here. And it will stay. Steve Waugh called it "mental disintegration". It is when a player (typically from the fielding team -- and more often than not, the bowler or the wicketkeeper) insults the batsman to mentally disturb the latter's concentration. It is a form of gamesmanship that I detest.

However, when the Indians sledge it is often seen as incorrect. Yet, when sledged, if Nel hangs his cheek out, Nel is seen as being fiesty or cheeky! Duh! Where's the logic?

Let me state very clearly that I am not a fan of sledging in any shape or form. I hate it when Nel carries on. I dislike it when Sreesanth carries on. I detest it when McGrath carries on. It is just not a pretty sight and is a blight on cricket.

However, it does happen. One has a choice here. Either you are in it. Or you are not.

If you are in it, you just need to jump in head, feet and all. There are no half measures. And as they say, when you throw a stone in the gutter, expect a splash!

Samir Chopra, in his blog seems to indicate that Indians should not sledge. He asks the Indian team to take Jacques Rudolphs' comments seriously! Ahem! Why? If anything, I'd ask the Indians to get better at it. If Sreesanth wishes to sledge, good luck to him. He needs to ensure that that instrument works effectively for him!

Rudolph talked about Sreesanth's sledging as an act of "stupidity"! Hmmm! I wonder what he makes of Nel's antics?

I'd get the Indian team management to offer lessons in sledging. Those who are interested in adding this arrow to their quiver should take it up and refine this through diligent practice.

The resurrection of Ganguly

At the time of writing this (end of the 2nd day's play), the first test between India and South Africa is excitingly poised. India has an overall lead of 311 with 3 days to play. Laxman and Dhoni are still batting for India. I'd be very surprised if India lose this one. For the first time, India will have won a test match in South Africa.

When/if it happens, this will be an impressive achievement for a team that has traditionally done poorly in South Africa; a team that travels poorly; a team that just suffered a 4-0 whitewash in the recently concluded ODI series against the same opposition (one game in the series was rained off).

Apart from some excellent bowling in the first innings by India, my view is that India is in this position mainly because of the efforts of three people: Saurav Ganguly, Zaheer Khan and V.V.S.Laxman --- the forgotten people in Indian cricket over the last year or so.

Agreed, Ganguly played a rash stroke in the second dig. However, the maturity, tenacity and will that he displayed in India's first dig was nothing short of sensational. He is a strange man with some strange inadequacies. However, he is also a pugnacious fighter. These were the qualities he showed as he shepherded and then commandeered India's first innings. These were the qualities that got India the first innings score that she could bowl at.

Sadly these were the qualities that were absent in the Indian middle order in the previous year or so. The middle order has looked far too brittle. The faith that the new management had placed on the new turks (Yuvraj, Kaif, Raina, et al) wasn't fully repaid. The young turks will come good one day. They will have their day. But for the moment, it appears to me that Ganguly and Laxman have seized the second opportunity that they have got.

Realistically speaking, Laxman was never really out of the Test game. However, his absence from the ODI scheme will now be seriously questioned. It is conceivable that, Ganguly will also make a bid to be in the ODI frame.

All of this is good, in my view.

I have always maintained that Ganguly was never accorded the farewell that a good and honest servant of Indian cricket deserved. This second coming will afford that courtsey to him. He can now chose the time and manner of his going.

My hope is that he choses it well and sagaciously this time.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Pitching double standards in cricket

For as long as I can remember, there has been a strange double-standard in cricket. What is right for the Aussies, New Zealand, South Africans and England (ANSE) seems not quite right for India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan (ISP). The ANSE quartet has viewed every ISP move with suspicion and vice-versa. This needs to be curbed and cured for cricket to prosper, in my view.

Let us focus on pitches as an example where this malaise plays out particularly gallingly.

It is almost impossible for Indian and Sri Lankan curators to curate a WACA or Wanderers or Basin Reserve type pitch in Bangalore or Faisalabad or Kandy, in my view. The best that they can do is to prepare a drop in pitch flown in from Perth or wherever. But after a few seasons the pitch will return to its natural conditions. The local environment, the micro climate there and soil conditions determine the nature of the pitches to a largeextent. And so it should. One does not travel to the Carribean to expect to see Trafalgar Square in the rain over there. One goes there to experience the weather, the people the climate and the dust that prevails in the Carribean. My own view is that pitches are the way they are in places they are in because that is precisely what the local environmental conditions afford.

To expect a fast and pacy pitch in Kandy is as alien a concept as an expectation I'll have for a warm, sunny and sweaty day in Moscow in December! Most of the ANSE teams feign surprise and express disgust when faced with the type of pitches they see in Bangalore and Kandy. Well I think the respective Boards must ask their respective players to grow up and get used to it. I haven't seen Sri Lanka complain when they tour New Zealand. In 2002-03 India toured New Zealand. The pitches were under-prepared, fast and low. So much so that even the El Nino factor was cited as a lame excuse for the pitch conditions. No one complained. The team got on with it. Badly no doubt. But they got on with it.

Almost every ANSE team that tours ISP countries whinge, moan and complain about the nature of the pitches. Unfortunately, there is a terribly silly move by the ISP countries to go the other way and prepare artificially fast pitches in the face of these constant complaints from the ANSE teams. This is plain silly, in my view. These whinges should, in fact urge ISP curators to prepare more pitches that turn squarely on day one! After all, it requires technique to play spin, just as technique is necessary fro playing pace.

For example the pitch that was prepared in Nagpur when Australia visited India in 2004 was more of an Aussie pitch than most Aussie pitches! Why? Why prepare such pitches for ISP teams? ISP countries should prepare more pitches like the one they did in Mumbai for the final test of the series that had Ponting spewing. In that series, Buchanan, the Aussie coach complained and whined about the pitch in Bangalore and called it "terrible" from the moment he saw it. He found something else to whine about the moment he saw Australia score 474 in its first innings!

I am not saying ISP countries shouldn't play on fast pitches. I believe ISP countries should prepare a mix of bouncy pitches, fast pitches, green tops and dust bowls for their local competition. But just as one expects nothing by fast, bouncy green tops on a tour of New Zealand or South Africa, one should expect nothing but huge turners when teams visit India, Sri Lanka or Pakistan. And that is fair enough, in my view!

Now, take the example of "instructing" groundsmen on the preparation of wickets. I do not think it is fair enough for the local coach or the local Board to instruct its ground-staff on the nature of pitches that they will prepare. The theory is that local ground-staff should prepare pitches that the local soil conditions afford them. Almost all ANSE teams that visit the ISP countries whinge and complain and adopt the high moral ground. Yet there is no sense of outrage when we see, for example, Micky Arthur, the South African coach, instuct his ground-staff to prepare fast and bouncy pitches.

What makes that ok?

Why the hue and cry when Ganguly instructed his ground-staff to prepare spinning pitches in India?

Is is ok just because it is fast? Or is it ok just because it is ANSE?

Cricket needs a rethink.