Feb 242009
 
 February 24, 2009  Posted by at 12:51 pm Sports, Take a Bow Tagged with: ,  2 Responses »

I had promised as far back as December 2007 that I would pay a tribute to India’s retiring generation of cricketers. I never really blogged much after that promise, until the start of this year. As a result I more than missed the bus. 2 of the 5 cricketers I had hoped to profile have already retired and another is under immense pressure to perform. In any case by the time this “Fab Five” retires India will have pretty big shoes to fill, hence the inevitable void.

If you know me personally you are probably aware of my passion for cricket. And if you don’t know me personally, here are 3 things I should tell you:

  1. My stated hobbies on Orkut include “memorizing cricket statistics”
  2. You can find evidence of the above in some questions that I post on Cricinfo.
  3. Even without a dish antenna here in the US, I manage to follow every ball bowled in every match that India plays, thanks to the Cricinfo commentary. I avoid sopcast, mind you, so Cricinfo commentary and my extremely fertile imagination help me create the whole picture in my mind quite effortlessly. In addition I follow every international match that takes place, though not necessarily ball by ball.

Anyway, back to the point. The cricketers I am going to talk about are:

  1. VVS Laxman
  2. Anil Kumble
  3. Sourav Ganguly
  4. Rahul Dravid
  5. Sachin Tendulkar

I initially set out to pay my tribute in a single article, but then I realized that of late consulting has affected my brevity and I have been writing pretty long articles. So I split this out into 5 different posts. Hope you like it.

The first player I will talk about is VVS Laxman.

Some good players raise their level of play to a stratospheric level when faced with a tough opponent. Laxman is one such player and the opponent he likes so much is Australia. Though people remember him for the epic 281 at Eden Gardens, he has a lot of noteworthy innings.

  • 167 in Sydney against Australia, 2000 – This innings should have given the Australians ample warning about things to come. Though India lost the match by an innings, Laxman’s 167 was breathtaking. More importantly his score was almost 64% of India’s total of 261 – something that fell marginally shy of breaking the oldest record in cricket – the one that Charles Bannerman set in the very first test by scoring 165 out of Australia’s 245, a whopping 67.35%!!
  • 281 at Eden Gardens, Kolkata against Australia, 2001 – The innings of a lifetime! Australia had won 16 tests on the trot, crushing India in the previous test by an innings. Here they set up a solid 445 in their first innings and bundled out India for 171. Following on, when India lost its first wicket, in an inspired move captain Sourav Ganguly sent Laxman in at one down – a position typically occupied by Dravid. Then India lost 3 more wickets, including those of Tendulkar at 115 for 3 and Ganguly at 232 for 4. India still needed 42 runs to make Australia bat again.

    What followed was the stuff of dreams. Dravid joined Laxman at the crease and the 5th wicket partnership lasted a whopping 376 runs. The pair batted throughout the fourth day and thoroughly wore out Australia on a hot and humid summer day in Kolkata. The sad part was Laxman missing out on becoming the first Indian to make a triple century on the 5th morning. But the battering was so severe that Harbhajan Singh and the Indian spin attack played havoc. And quite incredibly, Australia LOST!!

    I remember sitting at the office during the last half hour of the match, unable to concentrate. One of my good friends, Ashish Goel called up his home, asked his wife Alankrita to put the phone’s receiver near the TV, then switched on the speakerphone at his desk. And all of us shared the thrill of this spine-tingling victory.

    There have been only three instances in the history of cricket where a team following on has won a match. Australia has been at the receiving end in all three and this was the third instance. This match had such a profound impact on cricket in general that teams have been very reluctant to enforce a follow-on ever since.

  • 154* at Kolkata against West Indies, 2002 – This was in the third innings of the match, after West Indies had built a first innings lead of 139. India was in the danger of being bundled out for a poor score after being 4 down for 87. Laxman joined Tendulkar in the middle and took India to safe shores. India managed to draw the match.
  • 148 at Adelaide and 178 at Sydney against Australia, 2003-2004 – Two big centuries, two 300+ partnerships and an utterly frustrated Australia. By this time Laxman was a permanent fixture in the test team and his confidence was sky high. These innings were sublimely beautiful. The Adelaide innings came when India was in a tough situation. Again his partner in crime was Dravid, but this time Laxman played the supporting role. The Sydney innings was in Tendulkar’s company. Tendulkar had adopted a monastic approach, leaving any ball outside the off stump because of his dismissals that series. But Laxman had no such reservations and he delighted in feasting on the Aussie attack.

Laxman seems to derive sadistic pleasure in tormenting Australia. 6 of his 13 test centuries and his top 4 scores are against them. Most of the time he is a delight to watch – wristy, aggressive and with an array of strokes to rival the best. He has somehow not made much of an impact on ODIs, though 4 of his 6 centuries are against Australia in this format as well. Some of his ODI innings are remarkable too, like his 103* at Brisbane (against who else, but Australia!) and his 107 at Lahore against Pakistan in a match that helped us win the historic ODI series.

He has always been a stable influence on the middle order and is an expert on extracting the most from the tail. He also works excellently in tandem with Dravid. With his teammates being more high profile Laxman often doesn’t get the credit he deserves mainly because he bats so far down the order. I forever will remember him for one thing. 281.

Status: Still strong in tests, but out of ODIs.

Next up: Anil Kumble

Feb 042009
 
 February 4, 2009  Posted by at 5:09 pm Sports, Take a Bow Tagged with: , ,  No Responses »

Last Saturday night, or actually the early hours of Sunday, 1st February, I was up watching the Men’s final of the Australian Open – a match-up between the two best tennis players in the world: Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. The world rankings say that Nadal is #1 and Federer is #2, and if the current form is any indication, Nadal is bound to catch up and overhaul the career Grand Slam mark that Federer sets.

But for as long as Federer is an active player, he will remain my favourite. Being a right-handed player with a single-fisted game myself, albeit of phenomenally less talent, I love watching the beauty of his play – so effortless, so graceful, yet so fascinatingly dominating. He is the reason that I resumed playing tennis after a 15-year hiatus.

Which is why I was really sad on Sunday morning. These two opponents have provided 3 thrilling encounters, all in the finals of grand slams – 2007 Wimbledon, 2008 Wimbledon and 2009 Australian Open. All were 5-setters, and the first one resulted in a victory for Federer, while the other two had Nadal triumphing. The two defeats, though worthy of the finals of Grand Slams, left me feeling very sorry for Federer. Here was a person on the cusp of history on both occasions – about to set an open-era record by winning his 6th successive Wimbledon in 2008 and his record equalling 14th Grand Slam at the Australian Open in 2009. Both the times Nadal halted his quest.

When asked to speak at the award ceremony of the Australian Open, he broke down and I guess most people could feel his pain. Sheesh – someone who has reached at least the semi-finals of every grand slam since 2004 and the finals of all but two of them, who has missed winning a calendar grand slam on two occasions, being thwarted by another genius surely must hurt. Particularly since Federer’s problems against Nadal are more in the mind rather than the ability. Throughout the Australian Open Federer had a first serve percentage of around 70%, but in the final it dropped to 51%. It is as though his form deserts him while playing Nadal. It was quite different in Wimbledon 2007, when the match kept see-sawing till Federer hit his groove in the fifth set. Nadal’s level of play remained the same, but Federer was sensationally sublime, as he is with every opponent other than Nadal. The result was that Federer convincingly won the last set. If only Federer can do that more often against Nadal! Till then I feel it is difficult for Federer to cross the number 14.

At the end of the day the greatest gesture of the Australian Open came from Nadal, when he put his arm around a distraught Federer to console him. The best moments in sport are highlighted by the victor commiserating with the vanquished, when the vanquished could well have won an engaging battle. Take a bow, Federer & Nadal at AO 2009, you join Andrew Flintoff consoling Brett Lee at Edgbaston in 2005 and Brett Lee applauding Sachin Tendulkar at Adelaide in January 2008 as my favourite sporting moments!

Mar 112008
 
 March 11, 2008  Posted by at 3:26 pm Pinched It, Sports Tagged with: ,  No Responses »

At the end of the Commonwealth Bank Tri-Series Cricket tournament in Australia in March 2008, there was a hilarious comment posted on the website of an Australian newspaper:

Securing the services of Matt Hayden: $375,000
Securing the services of Ricky Ponting: $400,000
Securing the services of Andrew Symonds: $1,350,000
Making these Australians eat their own words in their own backyard – Priceless
There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else there’s BCCI.

– Comment by “Sagar”, Melbourne Herald Sun
Apr 062007
 
 April 6, 2007  Posted by at 8:31 am Sports Tagged with:  No Responses »

Reams of newsprint have been expended on India’s recent Cricket misadventures. I resolved to keep myself away from making any comments, but felt inexorably drawn towards breaking my resolution. Well, anyway, the straw to break the camel’s back has indeed landed on the camel’s back, so let me get started with it already.

A few issues keep popping up and that make me believe that this whole drama is more due to misrepresentation of facts in some media reports, misreading of media-reports in some other cases or reading a bit too much between the lines in a few others. I will cite two articles here:

  1. The prediction of Chappell’s report to the BCCI
  2. The report on Tendulkar’s rebuttal

Quoting from the first:

From all accounts, Chappell’s report, due to be submitted to the board before April 6, will be scathing in its criticism of the attitude of the senior players including Sourav Ganguly, Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag and Harbhajan Singh. It is learnt that Chappell, and some members of the board, believe that the return of Ganguly, and later on Tendulkar’s captaincy aspirations, had a destabilising effect on the team, forming groups within the eleven and perhaps stifling the growth of some of the younger cricketers trying to make a mark.

As a direct fallout of this report, most of the cricket fans in India went up in arms against one party or another. Some people went about rubbishing Chappell for his high-handedness and others wanted to consign Tendulkar to a similar fate for his poor form over the past few years. But the operative phrase in the report was “From all accounts, Chappell’s report, due to be submitted to the board before April 6, will be scathing in its criticism of the attitude of the senior players including …”. Did Chappell’s report on April 6 actually do that? I will address that shortly.

What happened next? Tendulkar spoke out to the press and said (from the second link above):

“Again, it’s not that we are defending ourselves. We do realise that we played badly and, as a team, we take full responsibility for that. But what hurt us most is if the coach has questioned our attitude.”

Again, the operative word here is “if”. Tendulkar never said anything about having a bad day or even about having a rift with Chappell. His only remark was that if the coach questions his attitude, he will be hurt.

The rest of the report is speculative:

His statements come in the wake of reports that many members in the team have rallied together against Chappell and Dravid and want Tendulkar to take up their case to the board. Cricinfo had reported on the crisis in the team , one largely owing to the rift between Chappell and the senior players, and Tendulkar’s statements reinforce the players’ stance.

I don’t see any comments by Tendulkar in the entire article making any allusion to a rift or to players asking him to pick up cudgels on their behalf. So isn’t this a case of reading too much between the lines? I think a lot of people let emotions override their thought process and jump into hastily formed conclusions, causing massive misunderstanding – something that never gets corrected. The press is a major reason for this, because it tries to sensationalise irrelevant bits of news with attention-grabbing headlines, then leaves the fire simmering. I guess this incident will go the same way.

Jul 032006
 
 July 3, 2006  Posted by at 4:05 pm Sports Tagged with: , ,  1 Response »

Disclaimer: I mean no offence to baseball-lovers. The following is my attempt to explain some quirks of cricket by drawing parallels to baseball.

One of my stated hobbies on Orkut is “Memorising Cricket Statistics”. This may seem weird. Hell, it is weird. But it is fun. I guess it follows as an extension of liking both, cricket and numbers.

Most of my American friends find it difficult to understand an Indian’s obsession with cricket, the same way most Indians (and in fact, most non-Americans) find the attraction of Americans to baseball quite queer. To a bystander it does often seem funny that cricket is a game where you could play a match over 5 days and still not have a winner!

The Other Laws of Cricket
You have two sides, one out in the field and the other in the clubhouse. Each man that’’s in goes out, and when he is out he comes in and the next player goes in until he is out. When all the players are out, the side that was out comes in and the side that was in goes out to get those players that are coming in out. Sometimes players are still in and not out. When a player goes out to go in, the players who are out try to get him out, and when he is out , he goes in and the next player in comes out and goes in.

There are two men called umpires who are all out all the time, they decide when the player who is in, is out. When both sides have been in and all players are out and both sides have been out twice after all the players have been in, including those who are not out, that is the end of the game.

Now do you understand cricket? To avoid complicating matters more, we haven’’t got to the ““silly mid on”” and ““sticky wicket” scenarios.

What, then, is the reason that a country of over a billion people obsesses over cricket? The reason is hard to pinpoint, though I believe that it is because individual brilliance in a team game is never showcased better than in cricket. Football (not the American breed) is the quintessential team game. In cricket, though, more often than not you have outstanding individuals in ordinary teams.

Then there is a question of skill. I know next to nothing about baseball, hence given my rudimentary understanding of the game baseball experts might find my knowledge of their game as superficial as a layman’s understanding of cricket. The little that I know of baseball tells me that you have to thump the ball as far as you can and run like your life depends on it. Cricket is different. Often it is not about thumping at all.

Douglas Jardine: Like most batsmen I can play one or perhaps two different shots to any given ball, whereas Bradman can choose between four or five.

Percy George Fender: Oh, he doesn’t choose. He just plays the first shot that comes into his head. But he has no technique. Now he can get away with it on those true hard Australian wickets. But put him on one of our green strips, with Morris, seaming the ball late… Oh no, he is too unorthodox. Now take the third test in Melbourne. On at least three occasions the ball was short-pitched, screaming out to be hooked. He played a cover-drive.

Douglas Jardine: At least two of those balls went for four. That is the power of Bradman. He’s learnt that the batsman’s sole objective is to score runs and he’ll play whatever shot, unorthodox or not, which best fulfils that purpose. It makes it almost impossible to set a field to him.

– From Bodyline – The Mini-Series

Every game is about scoring runs and getting the opposition down. Bradman happened to be the best batsman ever, but there have been several players for whom the above statements hold true. Now, would it be possible to say the same in a game like baseball? That is not to say that baseball-type slogging isn’t a part of the batsman’s repertoire in cricket. You do have some pretty brainless heaving exhibited by players like Shahid Afridi which would not be out of place in baseball.

There is, then, the whole different aspect of bowling. The very fact that you get to pitch the ball before it reaches the batsman opens up a new vista of options that would be quite out of place in baseball. You could have a bowler bowl really fast, the way you would ideally like to pitch in baseball and you could have the classic art of spin exhibited by slow bowlers to fox batsmen. Personally I like the sight of a menacing fast bowler sending down a thunderbolt to a batsman and the batsman promptly dispatching the ball to a corner of the field.

Greg Thomas was bowling to Viv Richards in a county game. Viv missed a superb outswinger, and Thomas said “It’s red, round and weighs about 5 ounces.”
Next ball Viv hits Greg Thomas out of the ground and replies, “Greg, you know what it looks like. Go ahead and find it!”

Running between the wickets is akin to running between the bases in baseball, I guess. But often it can lead to hilarious results due to a breakdown of communication on the field. Records of players like Inzamam-ul-Haq and Sourav Ganguly tell their own tales in this aspect.

“Bomber” Wells, a spin bowler and great character, played for Glocuestershire and Nottinghamshire. He used to bat at No.11 since one couldn’t bat any lower. Of him, they used to paraphrase Compton’s famous words describing an equally inept runner.

“When he shouts ‘YES’ for a run, it is merely the basis for further negotiations!” Incidentally, Compton was no better. John Warr said, of Compton “He was the only person who would call you for a run and wish you luck at the same time.”

Anyway, when Wells played for Gloucs, he had an equally horrendous runner as the No.10. During a county match, horror of horrors… both got injured. *Both* opted for runners when it was their turn to bat. Bomber played a ball on the off, called for a run, forgot he had a runner and ran himself. Ditto at the other end. In the melee, someone decided that a second run was on. Now we had *all four* running. Due to the confusion and constant shouts of “YES” “NO”, eventually, *all* of them ran to the same end. Note – at this point in time, the entire ground is rolling on the floor laughing their behinds out. One of the fielders – brave lad – stops laughing for a minute, picks the ball and throws down the wicket at the other end.

Umpire Alec Skelding looks very seriously at the four and calmly informs them “One of you buggers is out. I don’t know which. *You* decide and inform the bloody scorers!”

Harold “Dickie” Bird’s From the Pavilion End

While the batsmen and the bowler are in the thick of the action, the fielders too have their part to play. I don’t think catching the ball in baseball does the batter any harm (or does it?). In cricket it surely does. So a napping fielder often gets a good hiding from the bowler.

Fearsome English fast bowler Fred Trueman extracted an edge from the batsman, which flew straight into the hands of Raman Subba Row at first slip. The ball however went right between Row’s legs to the third man boundary. Fred didn’t say a word. At the end of the over, Row ambled past Trueman and apologised sheepishly. “Sorry Fred. I should’ve kept my legs together”. Trueman retorted in classic fashion “Not you, son. Your mother should’ve!”

Perhaps more than in any other game, the most thankless job is that of the umpires. Not only have the poor souls have to stand and watch an entire game, they also have to listen to at least one appeal each over (which makes it a good number of them in the course of a match) and then have each of their decisions scrutinised very thoroughly.

Lot of our appeals against the New Zealand players were turned down. Chandra in particular had a really bad time with a lot of legitimate decisions going against him.
He finally bowled the batsman out and turned to the umpire, “Howzaaaat?”
The umpire said, “He is bowled”.
Chandra’s reply was a classic, “I know he is bowled. But is he out?”

Sunny Days by Sunil Gavaskar

The humour, though, is not restricted to the field. There can be a fair bit beyond the field too.

Jack Crapp, who was born on 14th October 1912, played seven Tests with reasonable success but is best known for the amusing, and possibly apocryphal, story of a misunderstanding with a hotel receptionist. When Crapp reported to the front desk, he was asked “Bed sir?” Presuming he had been mistaken for Alec Bedser, he replied, “No, Crapp.” The receptionist duly directed him to the first door on the right.

Well, this article has been the most unfit among the lot with the subject, “Eloi and Morlocks”. So what was my real motivation behind writing it? Nothing, I guess I just wanted to rant against baseball and show how cricket stands out in spite of or because of its idiosyncrasies!