Sunday, October 2, 2022

India's Cricketing Identity



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Sport, often, has a way of elevating itself beyond the imagination of the most ardent fans. Sport can inspire people to great feats and define teams and nations by the actions of the sportspeople.

Jessie Owens discredited Hitler’s theory of white supremacy in his backyard by winning four Olympic medals. This despite Owens himself not having the freedom to exercise his own rights at home in the USA. We also remember Lutz Long his vanquished German opponent who graciously accepted defeat and much to the Chancellor’s discomfiture boldly congratulated Owens.

We know of Smith and Carlos of the 1968 Mexico Olympics who raised their fists in salute to the civil rights movement in the United States. The courage of the Australian athlete, Peter Norman, who stood in solidarity is etched in sport lore. He dealt with the ostracism at home by his racist administration with great dignity and achieved great honor across the world rising above the pettiness of his countrymen. In time, the rest of Australia came to his point of view.  

Many more such stories abound of courage by Indian cricketers such as Lala Amarnath, CK Nayudu, Vengsarkar and others. These players defied authorities and inspired both their teams and the people of their country. There is no greater honor than representing one’s country at the global stage to most sportspeople. And such honor to represent means that the conduct of the sportspeople reflects on the country and its people. The way a sports team or a sports person plays his sport representing his nation says a lot about the country itself to outsiders even in this day and age of the internet. In our recent memory, we’ve seen many a downfall from Ben Johnson (Canada) to the recent Russian doping scandal that led to shame for the country.

India has been emerging recently as a strong sporting nation with medals in Olympics and Commonwealth games. India’s athletes are moving up the sporting ladder with creditable displays in sports ranging from track and field events to badminton, boxing and the like. It’s no longer an anomaly to see an athlete from India contend for gold.  As an emerging sporting nation, the world’s eyes are on India. The world watches because India is a giant, raucous democracy and its growth inspires many other fledgling nations who are also on the same path. Across the border from India is China. A country with its authoritarian government has already made its mark in world athletics. Where India goes next and how it gets there is of enormous interest to others.

It is in this context that one must evaluate the recent events on the cricket field where Deepti Sharma ran out Charlotte Dean at the non-striker’s end in an inconsequential game to win it. The series was already won. This game could have gone either way, and India had the upper hand. England had to get another 15 or so runs with only a wicket in hand, though they had plenty of overs to get them in. As such, Indian bowlers had plenty of opportunity to win the game. The game was thus tantalizingly poised. In such a situation, India chose to run out the non-striker denying the public what I consider a proper cricket outcome.

A lot of ink has been spilled, name calling, accusations of deceit and cheating have been traded between former and current cricketers, journalists, twitteratti and trolls. Most have staked out their positions and taken sides. What’s striking is that almost all the Indian elite – cricketers and commentators – have defended this action as an appropriate tit for the runner’s tat of frequently leaving the crease early. Many have cited rules and breaking of rules and bowlers being put in uncomfortable positions. Some have gone to the extent of citing culture and colonialism and suggesting this as a form of defiance and rebellion.

However, the context of the game is important and India’s reputation as a sporting nation is at stake. Deepti Sharma didn’t run out a non-striker in the middle of a game. It wasn’t just any other run-out. It was done to end the game. It was done to deny Charlotte Dean, a tailender, the opportunity to script a story book finish and perhaps begin another legend. Sports thrives on these types of heroic stories. Its great for the growth of sports and would have inspired many more women perhaps to take up cricket. On the other hand, had Deepti or another Indian bowler got the last wicket, Indian girls would have been equally proud of the sporting accomplishment of their team and would have been equally inspired. By choosing not to fight the good fight against an England player bending the rules by leaving the crease, Deepti chose the easy way out. She signaled to others that she didn’t have the stomach for a good fight. That she and her team-mates didn't have one more heroic effort in them to pry out the last wicket. That they were simply content to win a game with minimal effort. And that winning at all costs was very important because that's what they deserved.

Imagine if Greg Matthews had run Maninder Singh or Ravi Shastri out in the amazing Madras (now Chennai) test that ended in a tie. Imagine if he had done it the very last over before Shastri scored the single to secure the tie. How sad would it have been to the public to have been denied that story book ending? Does it really matter who does this? India or someone else? Imagine if Abey Kuruvilla was done in by the great Kapil Dev in that epic Ranji Trophy final between Bombay (now Mumbai) and Haryana. And more recently if Rishab Pant was cut down at Gabba in this manner. Now imagine if this sort of running out non-strikers becomes a regular feature. How many great finishes would the sport lose?

By staking out the position, Indian cricket and many supporters have on this issue, they are being extremely short-sighted. They want to show a middle finger to the rest of the world that talks about spirit of the game and fairness. They also point to everyone else's past mistakes to justify this. The reality though is that it suggests a nation bitter at its place in the cricketing world. Its perhaps a larger reflection of a disappointed and angry nation that’s upset that China and others are leaving it behind while its potential is being wasted away. It’s the act of a bitter team that feels entitled to win but is unable to. India wasn’t losing because Dean was sneaking a few inches. India hadn’t lost the game yet, but it was clear it had lost the will to fight.  

The larger picture though is the brand of sport India wants to play. This isn’t an enjoyable brand of any sport, let alone cricket. Taking the fun out of a sporting context simply to win at all costs is going to reduce cricket to a farce. India has to reckon with its cricketing identity. It sits on the largest talent pool in the world. This is not how its going to gain the world’s respect. There’s still time to put the genie back in the bottle. India needs to stop resorting to these tactics. Captains, commentators and others need to come out and ask difficult questions. This isn’t a question of whether a player was following rules. This isn't Deepti Sharma or Ashwin's cross to bear, but that of a culture of cricket being developed in India for the foreseeable future. 

Bodyline, underarm and other larger events have occurred that changed cricket forever. These were all well within the rules. The purveyors of those tactics didn’t come away with their reputations enhanced but with notoriety. India is deciding to choose Jardine over Bradman and Chappell over dignity of sport. India must think hard and long before choosing to follow such false heroes.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

India's away campaign in 2018



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In any other time in Indian cricket, 4 Test wins across consecutive tours to South Africa, England and Australia in a 12 month period, would be hailed without conditions. This is however not any other time in Indian cricket. This is the time of Virat Kohli. The one of a winning mindset. The one who puts team goals before individual milestones. The one who wants his bowlers to bowl fast. The one who doesn't mind losing a Test in the quest for a victory. The one who appears willing to live and die by outcomes of cricket matches an not by the number of 100s he and his mates score. 

Virat Kohli is not your regular Indian great. Winning is a large part of who Virat Kohli is. In order to win, Virat Kohli is willing to put the building blocks needed to seek victories. He batted for the coach he wanted, he pushed his players to be more fit, he invested in fast bowlers, he embraced a no-excuses mindset and he created a team culture that did not honor seniority by default. 

And he talked of winning abroad. 

Some saw the spark and a glimpse of what was in store in his first match as captain in Adelaide 2014. Even as India lost that Test, they lost going for an improbable win. 

Since that Test, Virat Kohli has taken India to number one in Test rankings. India have won pretty much everything in sight at home. Outside India, they have won in Sri Lanka and the West Indies. While winning in West Indies is not as hard as it used to be, winning in Sri Lanka as India did after 22 years was special. 

When it comes to winning in England and South Africa, Virat Kohli's India has not broken new ground and in fact under performed in comparison to some of the previous teams who have won tests and drawn series in South Africa and won Test series in England. While the series win in Australia may go a long way in giving the Kohli-Shastri team some breathing space, overall the combined outcome of the 12 Tests in South Africa, England and Australia is a bit disappointing. 4 wins, 7 losses and 1 draw does no justice to the promise of Virat Kohli from 4 years ago. 

I had expected more.

Even so, when you dissect the Test matches, you can draw some conclusions that may lead to a more optimistic outlook for India in the future.

India now have a Test team that can capitalize when conditions and turn of events are even slightly in their favor. Except for the rain in Sydney, India won all Tests when they batted first and when their bowlers were presented the opportunity to bowl last in helpful bowling conditions. They even delivered under pressure of defending smallish first innings targets set by their batsmen. The 250 in the first innings at Adelaide and 187 in the first innings at Johannesburg come to mind. India now have the bowling to get them back in games when their batsmen fail to provide the first innings cushion. Prior to the 2018 tours, in Tests since January 2000, India had lost 15 tests on the road when their batsmen scored 250 or less in the first innings; 11 of them either by an innings or 10 wickets. 

India's bowling has improved but only compared to their own bowling from previous teams. Both in South Africa and in England the home team out bowled India. Previous pace attacks from India were so abysmal or good only in spurts that an attack that consistently takes 20 wickets seems above any criticism. To win Tests however, you have to out bowl the opposition bowlers consistently. On the tour to South Africa, the home bowlers did not match up to the exploits of the South African pacers and in England the home teams all rounders proved too much for India's bowlers to match in skill and variety. 

On difficult pitches India's batting hasn't been able to produce one of those freakish performances that defy norms and conditions. The pitches on offer have been tough and the fourth innings targets have been tricky. As a collective batting unit, rarely across the 7 losses; all when batting second; have India's batsmen been blown away, any more than the home batsmen have struggled. Batting conditions have been tough across the 3 series. To compare the averages of batsmen in this series with previous performances on more friendly pitches and conclude that India's batting has let themselves down is misleading. The only way India could have won any of those 7 tests they lost is if their bowlers would have out bowled the home team bowlers or their batsmen produced a freak performance. Singling out only one aspect is trying to ignore the context of conditions. 

Winning in Australia is satisfying but the performances across the 3 series which was the most anticipated away season was ultimately humbling. 




Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Australia Gains the High Ground



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The condemnation from the Australian media, past cricketers, commentators and the Prime Minister himself was swift and furious. The ink had barely dried on Steve Smith's arrogant acknowledgement of cheating and self absolution, claiming that he was "still the best man to lead" the Australian team. This is a player who has been on a Bradmanesque run making streak. Almost single-handedly holding the team's weak batting together to give their bowlers enough to win matches.

Now we hear of a possible life ban. His deputy, Warner, often in the cross-hairs of the behavior police, and Australia's second best run-maker in the team is also being potentially benched. An unheard of fierce response to an offense that is not the highest offense in the ICC's list of things that can get you in trouble.

There's glee, schadenfreude and a merry goulash of emotions emanating from all over the cricketing world. Past players, current players, commentators, bloggers have all been piling on. The reaction from many thinking people has been one of confusion. Unclear as to why Cricket Australia and the public would be willing to dump their best and second best player for a seemingly trivial offense. That too when the perpetrator has acknowledged, apologized, received the due punishment from ICC and is ready to move on.

The tendency of most boards is to "back their players" when charged with offenses. Most recently, South Africa mounted a furious six hour defense of Kagiso Rabada to dumb down a serious charge. India has routinely thrown tantrums when their players were caught on camera messing with the ball or charged with offenses that would lead to bans. Pakistan has deemed it worthy to forfeit a match and work "posthumously" to get their captain acquitted.

Australia taking the opposite route. Not only are they not backing their players, they are throwing the kitchen sink at them. They are putting the spirit of cricket above a book of ICC rules. Australia have always been proud of playing hard, but "fair". The people had been supportive of the players as long as they felt they were not cheating. But that thin string of trust has been broken by evidence and followed up with a banal apology.

No Australian till now had ever been sanctioned for cheating (ball tampering). Siddle came close but was found not guilty by the referee. Australia has never appealed against a match referee's decision for any offense. They have lived up to the commitment to the process. Contrast that with the responses from other nations.

Australia is willing to let go of their best players to maintain the sanctity of their country's hard won image of fair play. There is no better way to demonstrate commitment to fair sport. Those who see shallowness, opportunism or hypocrisy in this are well-served to look into their own country's responses. The best way out of darkness is sunshine and the Australian PM, public and board are willing to lose the cricket games to ensure that their integrity and sanctity is not put in doubt.

Australia has refrained from spinning a yarn around this, not played the victim and is copping it on their chin. Past players have spoken with one voice. Not one player past or present has come out in support of the players or coach seeking a more lenient view.

Other countries have defined patriotism to mean that any "smear" on their reputation is to be dealt with fierce outrage and potential retribution. This approach serves to embolden perpetrators to bend rules in the name of national honor (winning games). Australia, refreshingly I may add, has taken the approach that no one is allowed to compromise the honor of the nation by cheating in the name of the nation. Australia have attained the moral high ground and the hypocrites stand exposed. India, South Africa and others would do well to follow the Australian example instead of doubling down.



Friday, January 19, 2018

Something fishy about the South African pitches



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When South Africa toured India in the winter of 2015, the Nagpur Test lasted 247 overs. A little shy of 3 days assuming a 90 over day. The Capetown Test in comparison lasted 230 overs. And yet after the Nagpur Test questions were raised about the the pitch. It clearly seemed like the pitch had played out of character in comparison to previous Tests on the same ground. A combative Ravi Shastri; the architect of the "Hirwani Test"; had argued the right of the home team to make pitches that suit the strength of the home team.


It left a bad taste in the mouth for purists and Ian Chappel, who'd rather not have host captains meddle with pitch preparation. There was no real evidence of that but Ravi Shastri's comments did not help rule that possibility out.



South Africa lost the Nagpur Test by 124 runs. 40 wickets fell and The highest score in 4 innings in that Test was 215 that India scored on the first day. India too struggled to bat on the pitch



The ICC promptly called out Nagpur for the pitch not meeting Test standards. Or something like that.



Take the Capetown Test, the first Test on India's the ongoing tour of  South Africa.



India lost the test by 72 runs. 40 wickets fell and The highest score in 4 innings in that Test was 286 that South Africa scored on the first day. South Africa too struggled to bat on the pitch.



The Capetown pitch too played out of character. Just like in Nagpur, the scores in this Test at Capetown deviated from the norm. Yet the reaction from commentators which included ex-players was that this was a great Test match. No one questioned the pitch. Just that it had "spice". The ICC is unlikely to sanction the pitch.



The shortness of the Test even compared to the short Nagpur Test was perhaps masked by the fact the official 3rd day in Capetown was washed out.  Another factor could have been that India gave a much better account of themselves and thanks to some sparks from Hardik Pandya, and Bhuvaneshwar Kumar did not get blown away, like the South Africans were at Nagpur. Yet another factor that masked its shortness and prevented any questions about the pitch was that the scoring rate at Capetown across the Test, was 3.3 runs per over as compared to only 2.6 runs at Nagpur. So the Capetown Test was indeed more exciting than the Nagpur Test. There was more attractive cricket.



The single biggest factor though I feel that the pitch was never brought into discussion and assumed to be true and sporting was that India did not make an issue out of it. They had promised not to do so because otherwise it would have been hypocritical.



India seemed to have boxed themselves into letting South Africa and popular opinions; which do not always lend kindness to a traveling Indian team; run away with dictating the narrative of the pitches. So much so that in the second Test, they let Morne Morkel get away with setting the narrative that the Centurion pitch was "like playing in the subcontinent". India did not counter. They could not.



The rivalry between South Africa and India has deteriorated to a point that both sides are scared of losing at home to the other and not confident of winning in typical home conditions.



India started it.



I was hoping South Africa would take the high ground which would lead India to follow suit.

Monday, July 17, 2017

India Coach: Kumble has himself to blame



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When Anil Kumble was plucked out of nowhere and inserted as coach of India's national team, he was staring at a 13 Test home season and a mildly strenuous tour of the West Indies. 

He was in charge of a team that was already the best in the world in Test cricket. He had friends in high places who had put him as coach in the first place, removing his predecessor Ravi Shastri on what can be called a technicality. In Virat Kohli, he had a captain who had in the previous year and a half showed a willingness to play for wins at all times. A captain who seemed to have developed specific ideas on how to go about doing it. 

A 5 bowler strategy; albeit which was occasionally sacrificed, banking on pace - no more just bowling in the "right areas", a premium on scoring rate; which put Cheteshwar Pujara's spot under pressure early on and lastly fitness by example. Those ideas were already bringing in the results. India's batting had a memorable tour of Australia in 2014/2015 and when India's fast bowlers joined the captain's vision, they won an away Test series in Sri Lanka for the first time in 23 years. 

All Kumble had to do was to understand this blueprint and build a rapport with the captain, his team and treat them as equals. More importantly, treat them like adults. Ravi Shastri before him, tends to do just that. He becomes one of them. This is not to say that this is an ideal strategy for a coach. For another team, for another time, Shastri may just be the wrong man for the job.

It is pretty hard to argue though that this particular Indian team with abundance and variety of skills, a professional approach to fitness led by a captain with definitive ideas on winning and early results that validated his leadership; needed anything more than a catalyst coach. A coach who would focus on removing any roadblocks with the board and help the team execute this blueprint. 

If Anil Kumble now finds himself out of a coaching job, it is quite baffling that he has botched up a very easy assignment. What really irks me about the whole Kumble episode though is that he has managed to walk away with all the sympathy and the media and ex-players have tried to paint Virat Kohli as the "spoilt brat". The people, the experts and the media seem hurt that a legend was treated unfairly. Is being a great leg spinner for your country an insurance against future job firing, without your value even so much as considered.

There are however 2 things one must credit Kumble for. 

One of that is the pitches. Ravi Shastri is a hawk when it comes to over engineered pitches. His only Test has captain and the few Tests with him as the Team director (coach) for home Tests have coincided with pitches that were minefields. There is admittedly no evidence of a coach having an influence over pitches but Ravi Shastri has wholeheartedly defended India's right to engineer minefields, claiming that "everyone else does it too". Under Kumble the pitches have been true and Kumble has a higher sense of spirit of the game than Shastri. The later is more like an Australian; willing to challenge norms if not the rules outright. 

Secondly, he seemed to have played a role in getting Chetashwar Pujara back into the team after he lost his place to what Virat Kohli claimed as an inability "to force the pace". Pujara is a valuable player at a crucial spot and his dropping may be a case of Virat Kohli being too aggressive for the sake of being aggressive. Notice how England have been struggling to win Tests without a solid number 3. 

In sum though, Anil Kumble has probably only himself to blame for his inability to forge a working relationship with Kohli and to get on board with his blueprint. This is after all Kohli's team and the choice of Kohli over Kumble in a situation where the 2 are not on talking terms, is the most logical one. It should have been made without showing Virat Kohli in bad light.

And what of the Cricket Advisory Committee (CAC)?  Their job is actually easier than Kumble's. It also comes with no apparent accountability. How do we know for sure the CAC is doing its job well and what's the consequence of not doing it well? Who is to tell Sachin Tendulkar not to show up for work and face the wrath of crazed fans and a worshiping media? 

This committee exists to advice on the selection of a coach. It is understood by most reasonable people that an advice is kind of a recommendation. On the 2 instances they were tasked with the mundane job of finding a coach; a job most boards and the BCCI themselves carry out without much fanfare; the CAC have raised eyebrows. 

The CAC consists of Sachin Tendulkar, Saurav Ganguly and VVS Laxman. Very important people and big names all. Just because a job is carried out by important people doesn't make the job itself any more important than what it originally is. It was to simply recommend a coach. 

Instead, the first time around they offered the job to Anil Kumble who had not applied for it; removing Shastri because he chose to interview via Skype and the second time around they seemed reluctant to give Virat Kohli, the coach he wanted and when they did offer it to Shastri, they  seemed to sneak in 2 more of their classmates as batting and bowling coaches. 

Leaving their on field exploits from their playing days, aside the CAC have not shown the maturity, the ability to rise above personal friendships, remain on the sidelines and do what's right for Virat Kohli and Team India. There is no bigger conflict of interest in cricket today than the CAC recommending their classmates for important jobs in the day to day functioning of the cricket team. The committee, if needed at all, needs to be more diverse and educated on the basics of cricket administration. Right now its just runs and 100s heavy. 

That leaves Virat Kohli and his role in this episode. So far he has played it with a straight bat, like his new coach would have liked and managed to stay above the immaturity shown by his seniors in using the glory of their playing days to garner sympathy and writing letters leaked to the press playing the victim.

In my books Virat Kohli comes out of this episode the clear winner by simply staying out of it and knowing how to get what he wants to execute his strategy to win Test matches for India.