Why is Mumbai cricket treated with so much reverence, really?

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Ranji trophy: Pride of the Indian domestic scene. Image source: 1.

If one had read the sport pages in the lead up to the next Ranji trophy fixtures over the last few days, the focus on the Mumbai’s 500th game (earlier known as Bombay) would have been unmissable. For long, the self-congratulatory club of the Mumbai/Bombay Ranji trophy team (henceforth referred to by its more recent name) hasn’t let the rest of the country forget that it has been the domestic dada of Indian cricket, with a bevy of scarcely believable records.

This year’s season is the 84th edition of the premier Indian long-format domestic competition. Mumbai has won 41 of those titles. To put this into perspective, other champion teams like New South Wales and Yorkshire (in a longer time period with lesser number of teams) have 46 and 33 titles respectively. The second team in the Ranji trophy title honours list is Mysore/Karnataka—which is far behind with 8 titles. Even in league football, Manchester United, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich don’t boast of such dominance.

At the height of Mumbai’s powers, they won 15 seasons on the trot before their streak was broken by Karnataka in the 1973-74 season (and after that, won three more making it a total of 18 titles in 19 years). Even in their so-called lean patch from 1984-85 onwards, Mumbai have won only 11 titles in 32 years. With such statistics, it isn’t surprising to see Mumbai players feeling that the Ranji trophy is their birthright.  No doubt, Mumbai is the biggest “brand” in Indian domestic cricketing history. But is the influence of this champion team on Indian cricket all positive, or is it basically bluster?

Take for instance their playing record. In 499 matches, they have won 242 matches, drawn 231 and lost only 26. In Win-Loss ratio terms, it is an insane 9.3. But in terms of Win%, it is only 48.5%. In comparision, the winning-est team in international test cricket, Australia, won ~47% of their matches. For a team that is known for their winning mentality and towering over every other team, this suddenly doesn’t look as impressive considering that it is in the domestic arena.

Mumbai cricket is also known for the famed “Bombay school of batsmanship” or “Bombay gharana”, which produced many batsmen of repute. Newspapers and sports websites have been singing paeans about their never-say-die, stubborn, khadoos attitude. But one needs to see how many of those dominated the world stage over their entire career. Two names—Gavaskar and Tendulkar—are no-brainers in terms of them commanding a spot in a hypothetical World XI; the test match arena didn’t get to see much of both the excellent Vijays—Manjrekar (the founder of the school) and Hazare; Vengsarkar was a great batsman for half a decade; the cupboard is now barren. Hopefully Rahane can fill in their gigantic shoes. Several other Mumbai players have extremely tall feats in the Ranji trophy and served India with distinction at many instances—Rusi Modi, Ashok Mankad, Ajit Wadekar and Polly Umrigar, but they were never consistently world-class. But did you notice a bigger problem? All of them were primarily batsmen.

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The Bombay bowlers club: Five bowlers (Khan, Mankad, Gupte, Shastri and Ghavri) from the Bombay/ Mumbai Ranji teams have captured more than 100 test wickets for India. Only Gupte and Shastri were not imports. Image sources: 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 .

Where are the world-class bowler from Mumbai? Sorry, the bar is too high. Where are the Mumbai bowlers who had a long careers in the Indian test team? Mumbai bowlers are conspicuous by their absence either in the most career wickets or in the most wickets captured in a season Ranji trophy records. The Mumbai bowlers who have the most wickets for India are Zaheer Khan and Vinoo Mankad, both having claims in a dream India-XI, but were imports or “outsiders” from other Ranji sides. Raj Thackeray would have certainly been incensed. One would have to go back as far as Subhash Gupte to find a “Bombay-bred” bowler who played for India.

In 2010, ESPNcricinfo had a fantasy exercise to select an all-time Indian test team. Needless to say, the team was picked by a distinguished jury (with a knowledge of the game far greater than mine or any average Indian cricket fan). Obviously Tendulkar and Gavaskar made it to the team (duh!), and apart from them, in spite of a glorious history, it is slim pickings in the 39 member pool for the Mumbai players—Gupte, Vengsarkar, Tamhane, Umrigar and Merchant. Seven Mumbai names in a 39 member shortlist. One bowler.

Contrast this with other cricketing dynasties. New South Wales: Trumper, Bradman, Border, Steve Waugh, Gilchrist, McGrath, Bill O’Reilly, Davidson, Lindwall; Yorkshire: Boycott, Hutton, Sutcliffe, Root, Trueman, Illingworth; Barbados: Greenidge, Worrell, Weekes, Walcott, Hall, Sobers, Marshall, Garner (my due apologies to the illustrious players that I may have missed out). Even if a post-war cutoff is applied, the batsmen in each list certainly dwarf Mumbai’s, and they also produced world-class bowlers to boot. Lest I be accused of “jealousy”, I would like to state on record that my home state Karnataka perhaps has contributed as many world class players—if not more—as Mumbai (same goes for Saurashtra, by the way); besides, their bowling roster occupies the pride of place in Indian cricketing history, and they were some of the most self-effacing cricketers as well.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’d like to reiterate that bowlers are the match winners in the longest format of the game. At best, a batsman can set up a match, and occasionally win the team the match by chasing down a lofty 4th innings score. A batsman may score 500 runs in an innings but if the bowling lineup cannot muster 20 wickets (lesser if a declaration is involved), a team cannot win. Based on historical trends, it can generally said that batsmen score runs in victories and draws, whereas the bowler has great wicket tallies only in wins—which shows their starring role in the longest format.

There was a time when the Indian team was dominated by players from Mumbai (and naturally, there were suspicions of a Mumbai-bias in selection). Seven Mumbai players represented India at Lords in 1952; in the immortal 1991 Ranji trophy final, the Mumbai team had 8 test capped players. Back then, players either had to be from Mumbai, or had to perform against them to be noticed; if not, you didn’t exist in terms of national reckoning. Many players shifted to Mumbai for this reason as well. Perhaps this tendency of piling on meaningless runs and glorifying individual batting statistics came from Mumbai as well? Which other cricketing culture laps up monstrous scores in school level cricket (case in point: Pranav Dhanawade)? Mumbai’s draw percentage is ~46%. This reeks of a dominance built on the basis of batting alone. Of the international sides, who has the highest draw%? It is India, with ~42%. No doubt, their inimical influence of worshipping batsmen (and many of their meaningless landmarks) has crept into Indian cricket. Prowess gained by racking up tournament victories built on the basis of first innings lead is hardly the ideal preparation for an international class competition. If Mumbai deserve their accolades for their batting history, a large part of the blame for giving bowling its due should be shouldered by Mumbai cricket.

On this basis, one could conclude that the influence of Bombay on the Indian test team is overstated and they brutalized teams by virtue of their endemic advantages–an organized cricket culture was non- existent outside Bombay till the 1960s; turf wickets, 3 day games and other basic infrastructural facilities were not the norm in other regions until recently, and their bowling revolved around the defensive tactics of testing the patience of a batsman with a 7-2 field. Additionally, the top 2 teams in the trophy hardly faced each other in the final as the tournament had a zonal format where only one team qualified from a zone till the 1970s, at the height of the Mumbai empire.

Its inward looking culture is symptomatic of a narrow worldview satisfied with domestic hegemony rather than global excellence. It is rather surprising that for a city that prides itself on a keen, calculating mind and the business of getting things done, has contributed very little in the business of winning test matches for India through its bowlers. Ramachandra Guha too has noted the absence of world class bowlers in the Bombay all time eleven, something which Makarand Waingankar has tried to apologetically explain in his “A Million Broken Windows” (many erstwhile competitors of Bombay cricket, clearly enamoured by its Ranji trophy winning mentality, of have tried to explain this recurring deficiency in the book).

But the most annoying, grating part of Mumbai cricket? The endless stream of “anecdotes”, “distilled wisdom” and narratives of a self- aggrandizing, narcissistic, pretentious team filled with circle jerks, so enamoured and infatuated with their incestuous selves. Tendulkar has a great straight drive? Obviously, in his formative years, he played in gullies with tall buildings and narrow roads where scoring straight was the only way to go. Why is a Mumbai batsman khadoos (never mind most of them didn’t display it in the international arena)? You tell me—why would a hard-working, middle-class boy, who travels for three hours along with a heavy kitbag in neutron-star-dense local trains just for a chance to bat, give up his wicket so easily? The resilient spirit of Mumbai, the will to make it is so overpowering, all-pervasive and part of the city’s cultural fabric that each kid is supplied with oodles of this secret sauce. Got out at 47 trying to force the pace in a lost cause? Why, he should have knocked the ball around for a fifty and then tried to force the pace. How strong was your Bombay team? Back in my day, getting into the Bombay team was tougher than getting into the Indian team. Of course, this was if you were a batsman or a keeper. Bowlers were always welcome. This list goes on and on..

Viewing the excessive backslapping bonhomie that is in full force with every new season from the outside seems revulsive, especially when more illustrious teams with greater achievements and contributions in the world arena go about their business in a quieter manner. That we were regaled with the same self-congratulatory tales time and time again, even in recent times, speaks volumes about a nation’s cricketing history riddled by chronic underachievement and insecurity.

No doubt, Indian cricket owes much of its early cognition of cricket to Mumbai—the first ever Indian team to tour England were the Parsis, most of whom were from Bombay; the precursors to the Ranji trophy—from The Bombay Pentangular to all the way back to the Presidency match were based in the city. But in today’s age, it is best to move on from the Mumbai-centric cultural imperialism and set higher standards and goals as a cricketing team.

In a pleasant coincidence, some of India’s best results and its best ever winning record in its test history have come in the decade when the Indian team has very few Mumbai players; one wonders if it is merely a correlation, or a causation.

Disclaimer: Some of the images used in this article are not property of this blog. They have been used for representational purposes only. The copyright, if any, rests with their respective owners.

 

 

 

 

 

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Indian wrist spinners no longer second class ODI citizens

Ignored no more: Anil Kumble suffered a bias against wrist spinners throughout his ODI career. Image source: 1.

The shoe is finally on the other foot.

For years now, wrist spinners in India had to wonder what they had to do to get the selectors’ attention. After Anil Kumble’s last one day international (ODI) in 2007 till the end of 2015, a grand total of three wrist spinners had played for India in ODIs (not counting the batsmen-turned-part-timers, of course). In case you’re wondering about their names, they are Piyush Chawla, Amit Mishra and Karn Sharma—who played a cumulative 55 ODIs in these 8 odd years.  Spare a thought for poor ol’ Amit Mishra—the man with an ODI average of under 27, and the Indian with the most IPL wickets—but hardly got a chance to play against the big boys.

Player name Matches played Wickets Bowling average
Amit Mishra 28 47 26.14
Piyush Chawla 25 32 34.90
Karn Sharma 2 0

Table 1: List of Indian wrist spinners who played for India in the ODI format between 20th March 2007 and 31st December 2015

Coincidentally, Indian badminton has experienced an upswing since 2007. Is this due to a case of young boys with powerful wrists taking up the game after being dissuaded by the fates of Indian wrist spinners unfolding on and off the field? Jokes aside, back then, it wasn’t a stretch to call Indian wrist spinners as second class ODI citizens. Why, even during the peerless Anil Kumble’s playing career, after Harbhajan Singh burst on to the scene, the legend didn’t feature many times in the Indian team—missing 153 games in the process.

If one had switched on the television or an online stream to watch the latest ODI series featuring India, he/she would have certainly wondered what the fuss is all about. With Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal spinning a web against the Sri Lankans and the Aussies in the middle overs, the hard times faced by the practitioners of wrist spin seemed to be a distant memory; even forgotten, perhaps. However, old timers will note that the dark decades of the ‘70s and ‘80s were the worst for a wrist spinner when they were on the list of endangered species all over the cricketing world.

Spin bowling started losing favour in the early 1970s. John Snow headlined the 1970-71 and 1972 Ashes with Derek Underwood playing a parsimonious support act. A few years later, after losing test matches against the Australians and Indians in the 1975-76 season, Clive Lloyd’s West Indies turned to build a four-man demolition squad of fast bowlers which would terrorize batsmen world over for more than a generation. Naturally, other teams followed suit with fast bowlers of their own; even India, who often opened with a gentle medium pacer before tossing the ball to the members of the spin quartet, had found Kapil Dev in the golden age of fast bowling. The ones to suffer from this fast bowling tilt were the spin bowlers, and the situation only turned from bad to worse during the subsequent decade of the 1980s.

Particularly, one of the most difficult cricketing skills to master—wrist spin—had few takers during the dark decades of the ‘70s and ’80s when Pakistan’s Abdul Qadir was fighting a lone battle to keep the art alive. Since wrist spin involves spinning the ball using a full flick of the wrist and fingers, it is notoriously difficult to control and even more difficult to master. Invariably, a wrist spinner would bowl a bad delivery every other over which would duly be dispatched to the boundary. Hence, they were often labelled as high risk options, especially with teams coming to grips with ODI format where run containment was a premium. In the aforementioned time period of ‘70s and ’80s, fast bowling was seen as the key to test match success and spin was largely relegated to a defensive role; there were fears that wrist spin would totally disappear from the circuit. Batting skills against spin also took a backseat.

  Player name Matches Wickets Bowling average
1 Abdul Qadir 57 216 32.31
2 RJ Shastri 69 141 39.51
3 Iqbal Qasim 32 131 24.99
4 JE Emburey 55 120 39.65
5 B Yardley 19 89 28.64
6 Tauseef Ahmed 28 87 29.57
7 JG Bracewell 35 82 37.28
8 Maninder Singh 34 81 38.8
9 PH Edmonds 33 76 39.76
10 DR Doshi 23 74 34.35
11 NS Yadav 26 70 38.71
12 SL Boock 21 57 35.22
13 NGB Cook 15 52 32.48
14 RJ Bright 20 46 41.13
15 RA Harper 24 45 27.82
16 ND Hirwani 7 42 20.71

Table 2: List of spinners who captured the most test wickets in between 1st January 1980 and 31st December 1989.

The list of spin bowling wicket takers in the trough of the 1980s tells the tale of wrist spinning gloom and doom. Ploughing a lonely furrow for the tribe of wrist spinners, the effervescent Abdul Qadir is perched firmly at the top with 216 wickets at a bowling average of 32.31; Ravi Shastri, with 141 victims off his left-arm-whatever at a bowling average of nearly 40, followed. Fourteen more finger spinners dot the list after Abdul Qadir, before the next wrist spinner appears in this list, namely Narendra Hirwani—who snared 42 wickets (16 of them in one game). Finger spinners were dotting the team sheets with such regularity that drinking games involving their inevitable selection could have been invented.

The face of wrist spin would change with the emergence of Shane Warne, Anil Kumble, Mushtaq Ahmed and co. in the 1990s. For nearly a decade and half, they bamboozled batsmen with their guile, control and variations. Shane Warne dragging Australia back from the dead in the 1999 World Cup semifinal and Anil Kumble bundling out six Windies for 12 runs are fond memories of that era. Unfortunately, after their retirement, wrist spin went underground for a few years yet again. In the era of ODI cricket that followed the retirement of the various wrist spinning doyens, the field turned barren with captains choosing safety and miserly spinners of the orthodox and mystery variety. However, in what has been a pleasant twist, the art-form has seen a renaissance in recent times. The lessons from the slam-bang nature of T20 and the fielding restrictions in the middle overs of the ODIs (hitherto the “boring” part of the ODI) have turned the situation on its head.

Player name Matches Wickets Bowling average
Imran Tahir 40 62 27.67
AU Rashid 46 68 32.05
A Zampa 26 37 32.62
MJ Santner 37 38 37.07
M M Ali 41 28 59.50

Table 3: List of ODI spin bowlers with the best bowling averages since 1st April 2015 against the top 9 ODI nations (minimum 25 wickets). All stats accurate till 4th October 2017

Since the 2015 World cup, finger spinners have found the going tough in ODI cricket. The most successful spin bowlers since the last World cup have all been wrist spinners (minimum of 25 wickets against the top 9 ODI teams). In what has been a clear role reversal, New Zealand’s Mitchell Santner has been the only reasonably successful (if you can call it that) finger spinner at a bowling average of ~37. After getting drubbed in the recent Champions Trophy final against Pakistan, though a bit late to the game, it is no wonder that India turned to wrist spinners of their own.

This recent revival of wrist spin in ODIs has been due to a host of factors. One, pitches all over the world have been flat with the conditions being loaded in the favour of batsmen (the average score since 1st April 2015 has been 272 runs); fielding restrictions have only added fuel to the fire with fewer boundary riders in the middle overs—meaning, today’s batsmen are going hell for leather more than ever; factors such as dew—which are almost a given during day-night matches held in the subcontinent—make it more difficult for the finger spinner to thrive.

Therefore, in today’s times, the best antidote for aggressive batsmen (the majority of whom are right handers) is to impart more spin on the ball and take it away from their preferred hitting zones on the leg side. Funnily, wrist spin needed batting to evolve to current T20-fuelled ballistic levels and to be countered with a high risk, high reward bowling deterrent.  With the spinning of the powerplay wheel and a combination of other factors, wrist spinners are surviving and thriving by remaining relevant even on the dreariest of surfaces in the shorter formats. It is early days still, but following worldwide trends, Indian wrist spinners are perhaps no longer second class ODI citizens.

Disclaimer: The image used in this article is not property of this blog. It has been used for representational purposes only. The copyright, if any, rests solely with its owners.

 

 

 

 

MS Dhoni hasn’t merited an India T20I spot in a long while

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MS Dhoni not quenching the thirst of T20 fans anymore. Image source: 1.

After India were duly blanked in the second T20I of the ongoing India-New Zealand series, there were some murmurs about Dhoni’s performance. Chasing a steep target of 197, Dhoni came into bat in the tenth over at 67 for 4 with 130 runs to get in 65 balls, with Virat Kohli for company. If an Indian fan had tuned into the broadcast from then on, it must have felt like Kohli and Dhoni were batting into two different matches. Here was a team under pressure after a top-order failure and having to score 2 runs in every ball with no recognized batsmen after them, but their approaches to the chase on hand couldn’t have been more different.

Kohli was batting on 36 off 22, and got a boundary nearly ever over from then on; Dhoni, on the other hand, struggled to keep pace with the number of balls bowled at him—with only two sixes keeping him afloat of the run-ball parity count till the last 2 overs. Yes, he did muster three more big hits later and ended up with respectable figures, but they didn’t count in the context of the match. This was one instance when the scoreboard didn’t tell us about Dhoni’s batting contribution with respect to the requirements.

Speaking in the post-match show, V V S Laxman did not mince words “…Kohli’s strike rate was 160, MS Dhoni’s strike rate was 80. That’s not good enough when India were chasing a mammoth total…I still feel it’s time for MS Dhoni to give youngsters a chance in T20 format. It will be an opportunity for a youngster to blossom and get confidence playing international cricket”.

Ardent fans would also recall the botched chase in the West Indies, the only ODI match India lost on the West Indian tour. Though it was a low score, India rapidly found themselves in a spot of bother, losing 3 wickets cheaply. The asking run-rate never climbed to alarming levels until late in the innings, and it was assumed that India would coast to a comfortable victory considering the West Indies weren’t the strongest ODI outfit. Dhoni had limped to 26 off 56 balls with 89 still to get in 114 balls, and no boundary would come between overs 20-38. The writing on the wall was there for everyone to see when Dhoni was dismissed 14 runs adrift of the target, having scored a solitary boundary. What grated further was that an exciting prospect like Rishabh Pant was taken all the way to the Caribbean, but only got to play in the solitary T20I.

Dhoni is nowhere close to be done in the ODIs—his showings against Sri Lanka, Australia and New Zealand confirm that there is plenty of ODI cricket left in him. But with him not getting any younger, is it time to pass on the wicket keeping baton in T20Is? Is there any basis to Laxman’s statements?

Looking at M S Dhoni’s overall T20I record, it wouldn’t be an understatement to call it as underwhelming. Over the 11 years, Dhoni has batted 68 times—between positions 3 and 7. His run tally is 11th amongst the players who have batted between similar positions; his batting average is quite healthy in 13th place (minimum 10 innings). But in the matter of strike rate, he lies at a lowly 68th place.

Over the last 5 years, a bowling team in a T20I has captured a wicket every ~17.8 balls (not very different from the overall figure of ~17.6 balls). This implies that the average team loses less than 7 wickets in a given match. Therefore, wickets are overvalued in T20Is (or 30% of the wickets are not utilized in an average match). On the other hand, each ball represents 0.83% of the available scoring opportunities for the batting side. Unlike an ODI, a batsman cannot take an over to “play himself in” in a T20I (like Dhoni did so). Hence, for a T20 player, strike rate is a far bigger asset compared to the batting average (runs per dismissal).

Of all the Indian men who have batted in at least 10 innings in positions between 3 and 7, Dhoni’s strike rate is second from last. But this alone can’t be held against him as it is also true that the Indian team has traditionally played a few T20I matches in a year. Why, another illustrious player—A B de Villiers—also has an ordinary T20I record compared to his stellar club showings. Can we therefore turn to a tournament like the IPL where more data is available and pick up some clues?

Over the ten seasons of the IPL, Dhoni has faced ~260 balls per season on an average. He’s had more good years than bad years (from a strike rate perspective). Overall, his numbers look really good—he’s well ahead of all of his Indian contemporaries in the strike rate stakes, barring Sehwag. On the basis of his overall IPL record, it is no surprise that his spot had never been under threat. And it is not like keepers such as Dinesh Karthik, Parthiv Patel, Naman Ojha or Sanju Samson have been knocking at the door with their exceptional performances in the IPL or other domestic T20s.

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M S Dhoni’s batting record in the IPL ordered by season

However, the above table also shows that Dhoni’s ability to find the fence and his strike rate have taken a beating in the last 3 years, as seen in the lower than usual balls per boundary (4 or 6) and strike rate. The last two times he had ordinary campaigns (in 2009 and 2012), he was able to redeem himself in the next editions. But whether he will still be able to do that after the age of 36 is anyone’s guess. He probably isn’t the player anymore to take India home from a hypothetical scenario of 60 runs to get from 6 overs with 5 wickets in hand, leave alone yesterday’s match. Needless to say, the latest Dhoni T20I showing is a microcosm of his limitations in this format, and his inability to get going right from the start.

Yes, M S Dhoni is an all-time legend in the ODI format, probably in the league of Tendulkar, Richards, Akram and McGrath; he may very well have delivered the World T20 in 2007 and impressive showings in the recent editions of the World T20; but recent evidence points to his inability to keep pace with the batting demands of the T20 game. Make no mistake, his keeping ability, fitness, tactical nous are surefire hits in the T20 format, but on the basis of striking the ball (like the Dhoni of 2006 vintage) he’s holding the team back. This isn’t to suggest that the T20 door is closed to him; considering that wickets are overvalued, he could be considered as a pure wicketkeeper batting at number 7 or below—with a bevy of hard hitting batsmen and all-rounders above him in the batting order. But pragmatically speaking, the selectors should have bid goodbye to him in the T20Is long time back; Dhoni certainly wouldn’t need the T20Is to get himself an attractive IPL contract.

With India playing only the odd T20I per tour, the stakes are quite low in the overall scheme of things. Besides, there is no World T20 in 2018 due to a cramped schedule, which raises the question what purpose these bilateral T20I fixtures serve.  India have had a wretched T20I record during the last one year with victories against a greenhorn Sri Lankan team and a demoralized Australian team masking their overall deficiencies, and are in need of freshening things up. Hence, they should use the opportunity to audition the newer, younger models such as Rishabh Pant and co. with a view of finding clues to a solution of a much bigger, impending problem—the long-term successor to Dhoni in the ODI format.

Disclaimer: Some images used in this article are not property of this blog. They have been used for representation purposes only. The copyright, if any, rests with respective owners.

Kohli in sight of Tendulkar’s ODI records

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Following in the master’s footsteps. Image source:1.

In what must have been news to cricket followers all around the world, Virat Kohli didn’t get an ODI hundred in the five match series against Australia. He scored only 180 runs in five innings with a highest score of 92, sixth in the previous ODI series run aggregates. Gasp! He couldn’t convert his previous ninety to a hundred. The nerves must be getting to him. What a failure. Lest the army the fans of Kohli are up in arms against my insensitive remarks retweeting and abusing me in droves, let me clarify that I was only being sarcastic.

Now, with no sooner than the first ODI in the series against New Zealand, he’s got his hundred, ending his “slump”; in his 200th match too, to bring up a pretty statistic. This puts him alone at 31 ODI centuries, one clear of Ricky Ponting, and with only Sachin Tendulkar ahead of him. Though the result of the match didn’t go his way even after Kohli’s contribution, scoring his 31st century in his 200th match (all stats correct until 22nd October 2017) is remarkable. It is no surprise that VVS Laxman compared Kohli’s appetite and place in the modern game to the diminutive legend from Bombay.

The position of Virat Kohli as an all-time legend in the ODI format of cricket can be taken for granted even if he were to retire today (and let me assure you, he won’t). When he approaches the end of his career, he will probably be spoken of in the same breath as Vivian Richards, Sachin Tendulkar, M S Dhoni and A B de Villiers. A batting average of nearly 56 runs per dismissal despite the fact that he bats most frequently at no. 3; one of the fastest to the various multiples of 1000 runs milestones and centuries landmarks; a shiny World cup winner’s medal in his cabinet with a stabilizing innings that resurrected the chase; a record number of centuries in a run-chase, and the list only goes on. It is hard to believe the sheer number of records that he boasts of despite being nearly 29 years old.

It is also scarcely believable that he’s just about entering the prime of his career. As a yardstick, the immensely talented, yet rounded-at-the-edges Sachin Tendulkar played for India in his 40th year. Given Virat Kohli’s focus on athletic fitness and his lithe frame, how long he can play at the highest level if he can maintain his batting form is anybody’s guess.

For a different generation, Sachin Tendulkar was that benchmark of ODI excellence. In the late 1998, the then Indian skipper Mohammed Azharuddin (remember him?) became the highest run scorer in ODIs. Before him, it was West Indian Desmond Haynes who had set the ODI record for most runs in a career at 8648 runs in 1994. Haynes also had the record for the most ODI centuries in a career (18). In his record-breaking year of 1998, 25 year old Sachin Tendulkar swiftly moved from 12 ODI centuries to 21, obliterating the latter record. With his then run tally at ~7500 runs, it was just a matter of time before Tendulkar would scale the Mount Everest of ODI cricket.

Tendulkar was only done 14 years later in 2012, and finished with nearly every batting record worth having in ODI cricket. The most runs at 18426; the most number of centuries (49) and half-centuries (96); the first man to scale the 200 run barrier in a single ODI innings (cricket’s own version of Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile), and so on—you get the idea. How close is Virat Kohli to beating Tendulkar’s records? Is it possible at all? There needs to be a detailed appraisal of their records before any conclusion can be drawn in this matter.

Virat Kohli made his first ODI hundred in his 13th ODI innings. Coming in to bat at no. 4 at the fall of Tendulkar’s wicket in a steep chase of 316 runs against the Sri Lankans at Kolkata, Virat Kohli made a composed 107. Ably supporting Gautam Gambhir who headlined the chase with a 150, the two batsmen hunted the target down with minimum fuss. In his early days itself, Kohli had displayed a keen sense to chase down a target in a team which already had capable chasers.

In contrast, Tendulkar’s first ODI hundred came in his 76th inning, against the Australians in Colombo. It is worth remembering that Tendulkar batted in the middle order before 1994 in ODI cricket; an inspired promotion in New Zealand changed Tendulkar’s ODI fortunes. In fact, Tendulkar’s ODI hundred gathering prowess is not dissimilar to Kohli’s insatiable appetite today: from his 1st to 31st hundred, the master took 196 innings, whereas the protégé has taken 180 innings in these run-inflated times. It could be argued that Tendulkar’s run appetite was more gluttonous than Kohli.

Player name Runs per inns. Player name Inns./100 Player name Inns./50+ score
HM Amla 47.619 HM Amla 5.96 IJL Trott 2.50
V Kohli 46.292 V Kohli 6.19 Babar Azam 2.50
AB de Villiers 44.256 Q de Kock 6.76 V Kohli 2.53
JE Root 43.956 DA Warner 7.07 HM Amla 2.58
IJL Trott 43.369 S Dhawan 8.18 JE Root 2.68
Q de Kock 43.250 AB de Villiers 8.60 KS Williamson 2.73
DA Warner 43.131 JE Root 9.10 AB de Villiers 2.76
Zaheer Abbas 42.867 SR Tendulkar 9.22 S Dhawan 2.81
KS Williamson 42.303 ME Trescothick 10.16 IVA Richards 2.98
S Dhawan 42.089 LRPL Taylor 10.41 Zaheer Abbas 3.00
SR Tendulkar 40.765 HH Gibbs 11.43 F du Plessis 3.00
CG Greenidge 40.425 CG Greenidge 11.55 CG Greenidge 3.02
IVA Richards 40.246 WTS Porterfield 11.56 DM Jones 3.04
ML Hayden 39.568 RG Sharma 11.64 JH Kallis 3.05
MJ Guptill 38.417 MJ Guptill 12.00 SR Tendulkar 3.12

The extent of run-inflation can be sensed by looking at the names and time periods of the players who clocked in the highest runs per innings (RPI) in the history of ODI cricket. 10 out of 16 players with the highest RPI are still active today, with Kohli at second place; so are a similar 10 of the 15 players with the lowest innings per century. To add to the latter point, the top seven are from today’s times with Tendulkar in eighth. Even the innings per fifty plus score (which is a lot more accommodating of middle order batsmen) tells a similar story—top 3 batsmen are dominating ODI cricket like never before. No doubt Virat Kohli has been an excellent performer, but he’s clearly in the same league as some of his other illustrious contemporaries when compared to Tendulkar, who was in a league of his own—as were Richards, Greenidge, Jones and Abbas at other times as well.

Nonetheless, Virat Kohli could possibly overhaul Tendulkar’s records given time. This is highly dependent on whether he manages to stay at the same performance levels for the rest of his career. If we assume that he does manage to perform at 90% of his present ability from now on, he’d need another 229 innings to overhaul Tendulkar’s tally of runs, and 129 innings to overcome his hundreds tally. Given that he’s played about 200 matches for 192 innings, and he’s needed nearly 9 years to reach this point, he’d need a full decade to overcome Tendulkar’s run tally at the theorized 90% Virat Kohli cadence; the hundreds tally is a lot more in sight—“only” six more years. Of course, he could entirely lose form and fade away, but given his progress so far, he’s at a point at his career where he can entertain thoughts about his end-career ambitions.

Back when Tendulkar was breaking every record in the book, his ODI records looked unscalable, out of bounds of the realms of possibility, and set for posterity. Now, with this new run machine Virat Kohli at nearly 9000 runs (sure to pass it by the end of the year), and at 31 ODI centuries, at Everest base camp, Virat Kohli has Sachin Tendulkar’s ODI record peaks in sight. Don’t bet against it happening; after all, nothing motives Kohli more than a target to chase.

Disclaimer: The image used in this article is for representational purposes only and is not the property of the blog. The copyright, if any, rests with the respective owners.

 

 

 

The terminators

Which is the unluckiest team in sport?

In the 2016 World Series, the Chicago Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians in the 112th edition of the Major League Baseball’s championship series. Until then, the Chicago Cubs, incredibly, had not won this championship for a record 108 years. The 2016 appearance in the World Series was their eleventh; they had lost their last 8 summit series in over a century. “Lovable losers”, they were called; always a bridesmaid, never the bride—in other words.

The same undesirable epithet could be applied to the Netherlands national football team. Thrice they made it to the finals, but to this day, they have never lifted the men’s World cup. In club football, Germany’s Bayer Leverkusen (dubbed “Neverkusen”) certainly made a good case for themselves around the turn of the millennium with four second place finishes from 1997 to 2002. Particularly, in 2002, the team lost in the finals of the DFB-Pokal and the UEFA Champions League, and surrendered a five point lead atop the league table in the last 3 matches. Spare a thought for Leverkusen’s star midfielder Michael Ballack who would get another loser’s medal—his German teammates would lose the World Cup final as well (he missed the final due to suspension).

So near, yet so far, yet again: The England team at the 1992 World Cup final. Image source: 1.

In ODI cricket, this dubious distinction belongs to England. Thrice they made the ODI World Cup final, only to lose it all the three times. To date, England have not won the prized 50 over trophy (it won the World T20 in 2010). I the first loss they were never in the hunt against a champion West Indies team. The other two losses must have certainly rankled; they were the best chasing team between 1987 and 1992 (South Africa had only played a few matches) and yet managed to lose both these chases. The first one could be attributed to Mike Gatting’s infamous reverse sweep, but what happened against Pakistan? What did the numbers have to say, in the manner of the best players and teams with the ball in the first innings of the ODI?

As investigated in the previous articles of this nature, ODIs can be split into 9 convenient eras—each containing at least 250 matches and one major ICC tournament—with the last one ending by 2016. Over the course of these nine eras, different factors and rulings have provided a shot in the arm for different protagonists of a cricket team. The blazing away in the powerplay was first demonstrated by Martin Crowe and team, in rather thrilling fashion, in the 1992 World Cup. The exploitation milking of the bowlers in the middle to end overs was taken to an extreme in recent times with A B deVilliers as the headline act (stroking a 44 ball 149 in the 2015 World Cup), prompting the ICC to change the powerplay regulations once again. The previous throw of the powerplay dice—along with two new balls and flat pitches—have now given a shot in the arm to the wrist spinners. Hence, a detailed appraisal of the data is necessary to understand the evolution of bowling second in the ODI game through the course of its history.

1a

Ranges of individual wicket hauls and run tallies in an ODI innings of approximately equivalent frequency distribution

As explained in the previous article, bowling differs from batting in many aspects. For starters, specialist batsmen are not usually called in to bowl, and a bowler can be called into bowl at any time in the innings provided he/she has overs left in their quota; wickets are also relatively finite compared to runs. Based on the comparision of frequency distribution of wicket hauls and run-scoring patterns, a four wicket haul could perhaps be compared to the bowler’s equivalent of hundred runs and a three wicket haul being the analogue of an individual score of fifty.

In a one-day international (and T20 as well), matches can be won by either run containment or bowling out the opposition. As an aside, one could mischievously suggest bean counters playing a part in the case of rain-affected games, but we’re only talking about the on-field factors. Therefore, the ability to take wickets and/or the ability to prevent the opposition from scoring runs are of paramount importance in the limited formats of the game. Of particular interest are the economy rate (runs per six balls), big haul percentage (% of innings with more than 3 wicket hauls) and bumper haul percentage (% of innings with 4 or more wicket hauls). Since information from ball-by-ball outcomes is not available for all ODIs, the analysis will be limited to information which can be gleaned from scorecards. Like last time, we will proceed to examine the trends in these factors before moving on to take a look at bowlers who were proficient in the second innings of the ODI.

1b_ER.JPG

Variation of economy rate with bowling order at different time periods (data for second innings only)

The strategy to bowl in an ODI varies between the first innings to the second. In the former, the focus is on limiting the opponent to the lowest score possible whereas the second one has a specific target score in mind (getting them all out is common to both). The variation of the economy rate showcases the evolution of the ODI in general; the opening bowlers were played with utmost caution in the first two eras. The economy rate of the opening strike bowlers has seen a steady upward trend ever since 1993; in recent times, their economy rates have been worse off compared to the later regular bowlers. The specialist spinner (or more accurately, the no. 5 bowler) suffered in the earlier days of the ODI; today, their ER is in line with the opening bowlers. The part time bowlers have predictably suffered a lot more than their regular counterparts, especially in the previous era.

2_3+ haul.JPG

Variation of Big haul% with bowling order at different time periods (data for second innings only).

The propensity to rack up a haul of 3 or more wickets has been relatively in the same ballpark for regular bowlers through the course of history of the ODI second innings. The opening, no.3 and no.5 bowlers have traded positions with each other during the various eras, with the recent eras being the most favourable to the opening bowlers. Oddly, the sixth era (02-04) saw the no. 7 bowler being as effective as the regular bowlers. While this may have been a statistical quirk, it might also be due to the targetting of the part-time bowlers by the opposition batsmen (and getting out).

3_4+ haul.JPG

Variation of Bumper haul% with bowling order at different time periods (data for second innings only).

Examining the trend of picking up four or more wickets shows a variance across the bowling order. The opening bowling slots were not the best place to pick up a bumper haul in the old days of the ODI; the number 3 bowler was the most successful in the first few eras. Probably, the batsmen had a habit of seeing off the new ball bowlers and then taking the first change bowler head on. In the last two eras, the rate of taking bumper hauls is indistinguishable between the first three bowlers in the bowling order. Here too, the part time bowler (no. 6) was as productive as the others during one era.

The overall metamorphosis of ODI bowling in the second innings can be captured by the metric of Bowling Index (BoI). For the uninitiated reader, it is the product of the bowling average and the economy rate divided by 6. For a bowler, both of these are highly valued (lesser the value, the better). Since the BoI is a multiplication product, a low value would indicate a low value of its constituent factors. This metric has been used at ESPNcricinfo, and by other analysts as well.

4_BoI.jpg

Variation of Bowling Index (second) across the batting order in different time periods.

Eyeballing the values of BoI during the different time periods of ODI history, it can be seen that the game has changed significantly from the initial days. The opening position has largely been the best place to bowl throughout ODI history; nowadays, with two new balls, the opening bowlers have posted better figures compared to the previous era. The spin bowlers (Nos.4 and 5) have typically struggled amongst the regular bowlers and the first change bowler has BoI values somewhere in between. The part-timers have been mainly cannon fodder except for around the turn of the millennium when they boasted very good BoI values. Once again, it must be reiterated that the bowling position information is not as reliable as the batting position; but in the absence of ball by ball data across all ODIs, this is the best available measure.

5_BoI percentage change.jpg

%Variation of BoI (second) with BoI (first) as a reference. The positive and negative values have been coloured in green and red respectively.

One of the easiest ways to understand the differences between bowling in the first innings and bowling in the second innings would be to compare the BoIs between the two. The above table shows the variation of the BoI (second innings) with respect to the BoI (first innings). For the benefit of easier reader visualization, the positive and negative values have been coloured in green and red respectively. For example, BoI (second innings) was ~20% higher than BoI (first innings) for opening bowlers in the first ODI era. Since a higher BoI implies an inferior product of bowling average and economy rate, a positive difference (green) indicates that it was easier to bowl in the first innings. However, across the board, it can be seen that it has been generally easier to bowl in the second innings compared to the first (due to the overwhelming number of red/negative values).

Like the previous articles, the overall BoI (across bowling positions 1 to 7) will be used as a baseline for each era. This may no doubt cause some under-representation of bowlers who bowled later on (especially spinners), but this is a good first-cut method in itself. In order to make the selection process more robust, a healthy wicket cutoff has to be applied keeping in mind the typical number of ODIs played by bowlers in each time period. A cutoff is necessary to weed out statistical quirks (eg. Sunil Gavaskar had an ODI bowling average of 25), but at the same time it should not be unusually high to limit the playing field and eliminate a deserving bowler. As the ODI format gained popularity only in the 1980s, lower cutoffs should be imposed on bowlers from the first two eras. Therefore, the cutoff for the first two eras has been kept at 20 wickets, and for the subsequent time periods, it has been raised to 25 wickets. Now that the cutoffs and baselines are in place, we can proceed to take a look at the champion bowlers in the second innings of the ODIs across ODI history.

6.jpg

Bowlers with best BoI ratios (second innings) in the first 3 ODI eras.

In the first three time periods, the West Indian bowlers dominated the second innings ODI bowling charts. Apart from the usual suspects of Garner, Holding, Roberts and Marshall, Patrick Patterson and Winston Benjamin also came to the fore. Other legends such as Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Kapil Dev, Dennis Lillee, Richard Hadlee also feature in this lists, which shows the similarity of test match bowling and opening bowling in ODIs back in the day. Barring Abdul Qadir, spinners largely had a tough time during the early eras.

7.jpg

Bowlers with best BoI ratios (second innings) in the middle 3 ODI eras.

In the post-“opener enlightenment” period of the ODI, fast bowlers from Pakistan, Australia and South Africa excelled in the middle 3 eras. All-time great ODI bowlers such as McGrath, Pollock, Donald, Akram, Murali, Warne, Waqar and co. made their presence felt with their deeds on the field. Many spin bowlers featured frequently in the tables signifying a revival of spin bowling. More importantly, Muralitharan topped the BoI ratio charts in two successive eras with BoI ratio values in excess of 2.5 which is all the more significant considering that he was a spinner.

8.jpg

Bowlers with best BoI ratios (second innings) in the last 3 ODI eras.

The highest BoI (second innings) ratio was achieved by Sri Lankan mystery spinner Ajanta Mendis in the seventh era, but he hasn’t been able to replicate his form ever since. The last three eras have also seen the emergence of several ODI specialists such as Kyle Mills, Sunil Narine, Jacob Oram and others. Several players from the “minnows” have also made it to the list. The last statement is not intended as faint praise—it is commendable that they still managed to dominate their counterparts with the limited opportunities afforded to them. Several spinners (many of the “mystery” variety) have also done well recently.

Barring the freakish BoI ratio values of Muralitharan and Mendis, the rest of the top bowlers of each era had BoI values less than 2.5. Additionally, the distribution of BoI ratios has been different across time as well. Some eras have been dominated by bowlers, whereas, in some others they have struggled to scale BoI heights. Therefore, a BoI ratio cutoff of 1.40 (like the batsmen) can be used to separate the bowling champions from the “merely good”. The choice of 1.40 is quite deliberate as only handful of bowlers have breached this level in each era. The 1.40 level represents a 40% better performance (in terms of BoI ratio) with respect to the average bowler (bowling positions 1-7) of the particular era. What about the longevity of these bowling champions?

9.jpg

Players having a high level of BI (1.75 or 1.40) across multiple eras.

Very few bowlers have been able to consistently outperform the field in the second innings of the ODI for a long period; almost every bowler in the above table can be considered to be an all-time great. The degree of longevity and excellence of these bowlers can be captured by counting the number of multiple appearances at a particular BoI ratio level. In the above tables, the bowler’s name and his nth appearance (in brackets) at 1.75 and 1.40 BoI levels have been documented.

For instance, Richard Hadlee made his second appearance in the 1.75 level in era 2 (bowling second). Apart from Hadlee, only Holding, Akram, McGrath and Muralitharan have been able to scale such heights (>1.75) in more than one era. The 1.40 level has been breached by several other fantastic bowlers—Pollock, McGrath and the rest. Several other bowlers such as Saqlain Mushtaq, Brett Lee, Ntini, Vettori, Shakib and others narrowly missed making the cut narrowly. Compared to the batsmen, it has been a lot tougher for bowlers to perform at high BoI levels for multiple levels; no doubt, they are less favoured by the ODI format compared to the batsmen.

Now to the teams which had these bowlers. At any point of time, did a team have a battery of these match-winning bowlers in the second innings of the ODI?

10

The countries with the most number of good second innings bowlers (BoI ratio>1.40) in each ODI era.

Taking all eras into account, between five to thirteen bowlers were able to clock a BoI ratio of more than 1.40, showing the exclusivity of the benchmark. Barring two eras, one single team had the highest stockpile of champion bowlers in the second innings of the ODI. Overall, teams from Pakistan, South Africa, Australia and West Indies were blessed with bowling personnel who outperformed their peers in more than one era.  The champion second innings bowler is probably Wasim Akram who spent four ODI eras in the BoI ratio>1.40 bracket (2 of them >1.75). Quite simply, there wasn’t another ODI bowler who dominated the second innings for as long as Akram did—which brings us to the 1992 World cup final.

The 1992 World cup final was contested between arguably the best ODI side of the time (definitely the best chasing side) and a resurgent Pakistan. Pakistan had barely scraped through the group stages courtesy of a rained out match against the very same England side after being all out for 74 (which would have knocked them out). Nearly at the brink and facing elimination, the Pakistan team rallied around a mythical Imran Khan speech, where the team embraced the spirit of a “cornered tiger”. After beating the fancied New Zealand twice, the team booked a spot in the final.

In the final against England in front of a record crowd at the MCG, the Pakistan team posted 249/6 in the first innings thanks to late flourishes from Inzamam and Akram. Akram would then star with the ball as well; after prising out Ian Botham out early, he would be called into service again in the 35th over. After being at a perilious 69/4, England’s two champion chasers—Allan Lamb and Neil Fairbrother—would add 72 runs in 14 overs, setting up the match for a thrilling finish. Who would give way? The unstoppable force or the immovable objects?

Death rattle: Wasim Akram exults after castling Chris Lewis. Image source: 2.

What happened next is part of cricketing folklore. The force was certainly with Wasim Akram. Bowling around the wicket with the old ball under lights, Wasim Akram would conjure two unplayable deliveries, courtesy some hostile reverse swing at extreme pace. The first one would swing in and straighten just a touch to beat Allan Lamb’s stroke. The second one was even more emphatic—poor Chris Lewis has no chance when he brought his bat down to a vicious inswinger which snaked its way to the stumps. The sullen, yellow duck television graphic accompanying Lewis’ walk back to the pavilion signalled how the situation had changed; the chase has been snuffed out in a matter of two deliveries. Wasim Akram running across the pitch with his forearms raised in celebration is one of the indelible images of the World Cup history. A champion bowler had stopped chase-masters England in their tracks, and consigned them to the bridesmaid spot for the third time in five world cups.

Disclaimer: Some images used in this article are not property of this blog. They have been used for representational purposes only. The copyright, if any, rests with the respective owners.

 

Are the ODI days of Ashwin and Jadeja numbered?

ODI fates of Ashwin and Jadeja hang in the balance. Image source: 1.

What a difference a few years can make.

Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja did not feature in the ODI squad for the home series against Australia. When Ashwin and Jadeja were rested for the series against Sri Lanka, there were a few murmurs about that decision. Sri Lanka are a young team in transition; perhaps a case can be made for “resting” players in the “easier” tours. Why, many a times, India caps have been given to newcomers on tour to West Indies and Zimbabwe before. Perhaps it was one of those times.

Therefore, one couldn’t blame the fans for expecting that it would be business as usual soon, and that the two experienced campaigners would be making a return to the ODI squad. After all, a strong Aussie squad awaits the Indian team in Chennai—barring Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood who have missed the flight to India due to injury. Now, there is no Ashwin to spook David Warner, and the Man of the Test series, sword wielding Jadeja can’t be called to turn the game on its head this time around.

A few years ago, such a scenario would have been unfathomable. Both Ashwin and Jadeja began their India careers as specialists in the limited overs formats (ODIs and T20s). Both were stellar performers in the Indian Premier League for their respective franchises and were given their ODI debuts fairly early (June 2010 and February 2009). In fact, they were made to wait for a while for their test debuts (November 2011 and December 2012) and this shows how they were perceived by the selectors.

Ardent followers of the Indian cricket team might recall some of the criticism levelled at these two cricketers back then.  Ashwin was often labelled as “guilty” of trying out too many variations during this phase of his career. And what about Jadeja? What about his two triple hundreds? Cue scoffs and guffaws. An aberration of the Indian domestic system. He was largely seen as a limited bowler who was somehow lucky to have made it to the test team.  And Michael Clarke—he of the twinkle toes and fabled player of spin—was his bunny. What luck! Meme makers and the “Sir Jadeja” were having many busy days. Now? No one’s laughing. At him, that is. They’re all (me included) laughing at the opponent looking foolish, having being bamboozled by his cunning utilization of left arm bowling angles. And Ashwin? Let’s just say that everyone’s looking forward to the South Africa tour in anticipation rather than trepidation.

But it is true that their stock has fallen in ODIs as they have climbed the ladder of test match bowling competence. India have played 42 matches since 1st April 2015 (basically after the 2015 World Cup). They have been largely successful, winning 26 matches with a team bowling average of 30.95 and given away runs at 5.33 runs per over (bowling economy rate). During this time period, Ashwin and Jadeja have played only intermittently, and have featured in less than 50% of the matches—15 and 17 respectively. On the bowling average stakes, they both feature last on the list of Indian bowlers since the last World cup (minimum 10 wickets); in terms of economy rate, not much better. Looking at these numbers, it is no surprise that they don’t find themselves in the team.

Bowling average (since 1/04/15) Economy Rate (since 1/04/15) Career Bowling average Career Economy Rate
Ravichandran Ashwin 40.58 5.36 32.91 4.91
Ravindra Jadeja 67.83 5.25 25.87 4.90

 

Truth be told, it has been a tough time for finger spinners for a while now. Since the last world cup, the average run-rate has been 5.41 runs per over. Generally, pitches have been flat in the ODI format across the world with big scores being the norm. Fielding restrictions have added to the problem with only four men patrolling the boundary in the middle overs. When pitches have little or no assistance for spin, a wrist spinner is considered a more potent weapon against rampaging batsmen. Wrist spin (in the mould of Shane Warne) involves spinning the ball using a full flick of the wrist and the fingers, releasing the ball from the back of the hand, so that it passes over the little finger first. This imparts a lot more spin and bounce and therefore comes into play on flat pitches as well. But it is known to be notoriously difficult to control, and even more difficult to master.

Since the 2015 World cup, spinners have generally had it bad but wrist spinners have ruled the roost. The three most prolific bowlers have been wrist spinners—Adil Rashid, Rashid Khan and Imran Tahir. If Nabi’s figures are asterisked for mostly playing against the associate nations, the most successful finger spinner has been New Zealand’s Mitchell Santner—that too at nearly 34 runs per wicket. With these trends, it is no wonder that India have turned to the wrist spin of Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal; Axar Patel’s finger-spinning returns have been an improvement on Jadeja’s.

What now for Ashwin and Jadeja? Will they be limited to test matches only?

Bowling in test matches and the limited overs are two different forms of the game. In a test match, a match can only be won by capturing 20 wickets (unless there is a declaration). On the other hand, in the limited overs forms, run containment is another route to victory. Bowling in test matches is a game of patience as it involves coaxing a batsman to make a mistake when he has to compulsion to score; setting up a batsman and forcing an error is of paramount importance. In the limited overs? The spells are often not as long, and conceding a limited amount of runs is often seen as positive returns for a bowler as matches can be won on the basis of run containment as well. Therefore, the skill needed to bowl in the different formats vary widely. It is not a surprise to see them falter in the limited formats having seen them become better bowlers in tests.

Given their age and their experience, it is hard to see the door being firmly shut on them. Perhaps they will be in contention should one of the wrist spinners fail—more so Jadeja. Ashwin’s fielding makes him a bit of a liability, and with the focus firmly on fitness he may find the going a lot more difficult. It is also good that the BCCI have a vision for them keeping in mind the challenges that the Indian team are going to face shortly. Ashwin has been sharpening his skills on the county circuit, and with Jadeja rumoured to be looking for a county team, it is nice to see a plan in place for the overseas tours. In any case, the official word is that these two have been “rested” rather than “dropped” for the ODI tours.

It would be great if they could focus only on test matches and aid the team’s quest in history when they tour abroad, but such a wish is inherently unfair. They deserve the right to compete on fair terms in all formats. Besides, the match fees for limited overs matches are a significant chunk of revenue as a cricketer, and no cricketer in their right mind would want to throw it away given their short shelf life. The desire for a spot in the Indian team has made cricketers do strange things—Cheteshwar Pujara tried his hand at bowling in order to bolster his chances of an ODI recall. Ashwin and Jadeja may not find it difficult to find IPL contracts, but will a sportsperson’s self-belief allow them to accept defeat in the shorter formats and focus only on the longer one? How will their test match form change as a consequence? What remains to be seen is how this will transform them as bowlers.

Disclaimer: The image used in this article is not the property of this blog. It has been used for representational purposes only. The copyright, if any, solely rests with the respective owners.

Fixing the Indian ODI middle order

Indian cricketer Yuvraj Singh (R) and ca

Middle order champions: India need to give the newcomers a fair chance before the 2019 World cup. Image source: 1.

After the dust settled on the Champions trophy 2017, the Indian team embarked on yet another one day international tour just days after an important international tournament, followed by a tour to Sri Lanka. Many seasons ago, before the advent of the Indian Premier League, months April to June were not occupied with cricket apart from the odd tour to England and West Indies (that too, once in 4-5 years). However, the realities of modern-day cricket mean that cricketers and fans don’t get a break from non-stop cricket these days.

With no World T20 in 2018, the next big trophy that India would be competing in would be the 2019 ODI World Cup in England. As per the ICC future tours program (FTP), this is the snapshot of India’s ODI calendar before the 2019 World Cup:

Versus Location ODI Matches Tentative schedule
Sri Lanka Away 5 Jul-Aug 2017
Australia Home 5 Sep-Oct 2017
Pakistan* Home 5 Nov-Dec 2017
South Africa Away 5 Jan-Feb 2018
Sri Lanka* Home 5 Mar 2018
Asia Cup Home 4+1 (final) Jun 2018
England Away 5 Jul-Aug 2018
West Indies Home 5 Oct-Nov 2018
New Zealand Away 5 Jan-Feb 2019
Australia Home 5 Feb 2019
Zimbabwe Home 3 Mar 2019

 

According to the calendar, India has a maximum of 53 matches. However, there are several variables. The format of the Asia cup hasn’t been decided yet— it is in June when the monsoon can play havoc; worse, they may not qualify for the final. Pakistan? The lesser said about the situation the better, but other teams can be expected step in to fill the breach in the calendar. According to the BCCI’s latest announcement, the Indian home season will have 3 ODIs with New Zealand (instead of 5 against Pakistan) and 3 against Sri Lanka (down from 5 again). And, how India treats the Zimbabwe fixtures remains to be seen—as it usually plays a weakened team.

The last time India won the ODI World cup in 2011, the least experienced member in the Indian squad, Piyush Chawla, had played 22 matches—but he wasn’t one of the primary members of the squad. Above him, Virat Kohli had played 45 matches, with every other member in the squad having racked up more game time than him. This approach taking mostly experienced teams to World events has played rich dividends for India as they have reached at least the semifinals of every tournament since 2011.

Therefore, it is only fair that the players earmarked for the next World Cup be given an extended run. The players should also become comfortable with their roles and be battle hardened by the time the Indian team steps on to the English shores in 2019. The 2018 tour against a tough England side will give a good opportunity to assess their progress as well, which brings us to the thorny issue of the Indian team selection for the Sri Lankan tour and beyond.

In the Champions Trophy 2017, the Indian side did well to reach the final. However, their over-reliance on the top order came unstuck in the final where they were comprehensively beaten by an inspired Pakistani team. The tournament laid bare some of the old wounds that have been hurt the Indian team for a while now.

Over the last two years, the Indian top order has been in great health with 4 Indian top order batsmen among the top 15 of the world batting averages (minimum 500 runs). Unsurprisingly, India’s top order has averaged a whopping 59 runs per dismissal over the last two years, nearly 13 runs higher than the second placed team. The strike rate hasn’t been bad either. Meaning, the top order carried on with its business in the Champions trophy as well.

However, the story is quite different in the middle order. Though India’s average is in third place overall, 17 players have played between positions 4 and 7. Of the top 9 teams, only Sri Lanka has tried more players. And, only 3 Indian players have amassed more than 300 runs in the middle order over the last 2 years, with only Jadhav and Dhoni among the top 15 ordered by average. Not only has the top order done really well, but they have also robbed the middle order of valuable audition time.

Both Yuvraj and Dhoni are trusted old hands in the Indian team, but truth be told, there is only space for one of them in the middle order. The Indian team is one of slowest in the middle overs—meaning, the middle order has not adequately cashed in the starts the top order has provided them. Both Yuvraj and Dhoni have found strike rotation a little more difficult than usual lately, and this has hurt the Indian team. Make no mistake, on the days when they’re able to stay in for long and make up for the balls eaten up initially, they look spectacular. But, on the days they’ve not been able to convert, their recent returns on investment haven’t been up to the high standards that we have taken for granted all this while.

Both will be 37 in 2019, and the extent of depreciation of their skills is a big question mark at this stage. Back in the day, Yuvraj Singh was an electric fielder in the side but the recent banter with Zaheer Khan served as a reminder about his present state as a fielder. The World Cup 2011 may have been won on the back of the all-round exploits of Yuvraj Singh, but he’s not rolled over his arm a lot in the recent years—raising question marks on his overall value to the side.

This assumes greater significance considering the frailties that India have shown in the bowling department. The pace battery had a good showing, but Hardik Pandya cannot yet be trusted to bowl his 10 overs at this stage. Besides, the Indian spinners have struggled to stem the run flow as well. Simply put, it would serve the Indian team well to develop part-time bowlers to shoulder the load. Kedar Jadhav is only one part of an answer, and he might have had a good run with the ball over the last six months, the fact that he’s bowled only 379 balls in his List A career (which includes his 235 ODI deliveries) shows that he’s not yet the kind of part-time bowler than Sehwag, Ganguly, Tendulkar, or Yuvraj were in their bowling prime.

For his part, Dhoni has been impeccable behind the stumps and his fitness has been as good as ever. Yes, Dhoni hasn’t been able to match his usual standards but his recent record is still among the top 10 middle-order batsmen in the world currently. Besides, keeper-batsmen alternatives like Dinesh Karthik haven’t exactly taken their chances and Pant is still an unknown quantity. Given his status as an all-time ODI great, he deserves a longer rope. Simply put, in a metaphorical selection fistfight between MS Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh the batsman, there is no contest.  With the limited batting opportunities that Jadhav and Pandya have got, they have shown that they deserve an extended set of chances.

Considering all these factors, with a heavy heart, the Indian team has to look beyond Yuvraj Singh for the ODI challenges that lie ahead. He’s been a brilliant player for the Indian team and a bonafide all-time India great, but younger players like K L Rahul, Manish Pandey (who had a splendid run for the India A side in South Africa) and the rest lie waiting in the wings and they deserve their chance to prove themselves (or not) for the 2019 World Cup. It would also serve the Indian team well if one of the batsmen (apart from Jadhav) would work on their part-time bowling skills as well.

Disclaimer: The image used is not part of this blog. It has been used for representational purposes only. The copyright, if any, rests with the respective owners.

The ultimate miracle

kapil-devs-1983-world-cup-victory-to-be-framed-on-silver-screen-1423721758

Look ma, I won the cup: A beaming Kapil Dev receiving the 1983 World Cup at Lord’s. Image source: 1.

66-1.

Almost every Indian sporting fan from an earlier era will probably instantly recognize these odds. For the uninitiated, these were the odds that the bookmakers were offering when Kapil Dev led the Indian team against the West Indies in their inaugural match of the 1983 World Cup.

66-1. Meaning, a 670 quid payout for a 10 quid punt (including the 10 from the initial bet). Dazzling odds, yes. But would anyone take a chance on the Indian team of the 1983 World Cup, even at those odds?

Let’s see what the Indian team had produced so far. Until the 1983 World Cup, India had won only 12 out of its 40 matches. In terms of Win-Loss ratio, it was ahead of only Sri Lanka, a team which had obtained test status only the previous year (Canada and East Africa had played only in the World cups). In the World cups, the team had done even worse—India had won only one match, that too against lowly East Africa. Coming into the tournament, the Indian team even lost a warm-up match against a team of farmers and salesmen. Now, looking at this evidence, would you fancy a bet?

It wasn’t that India didn’t produce good ODI results; just that they were rare. Earlier in March 1983, they had scored a morale boosting victory against the mighty West Indies in Berbice. They even managed to beat them in their opening match of the World Cup—so their result in Berbice was no fluke. They looked down and out of the World cup when they were struggling at 17 for 5 against Zimbabwe—having been crushed comprehensively by Australia and West Indies earlier—but for Kapil Dev’s once-in-a-lifetime innings. With England safely negotiated in the semifinals, the two-time champion team of West Indies would face them in the finals. Gulp. No chance, isn’t it? But how large was the scale of the challenge that was presented to them in the finals?

The one day international (ODI) in 1983 was vastly different from the matches that are played today’s age. Back then, it was played largely during the day, with a red ball, each innings lasted 60 overs, and hadn’t seen various iterations of fielding restrictions. Winning totals were much smaller and batsmen at the top of the order played the game as if it were an abridged version of a test match. Keeping this in mind, is there a way to mine the various statistics over the course of ODI history and come up with a way to measure the effectiveness of an ODI bowler?

As explored in earlier articles, the ODIs can be conveniently split into nine eras, with the last one ending on 31st December 2016. These eras contain at least one world tournament of significance, and have enough matches to observe trends.

1

Defining era: Each time period has at least 250 matches.

The game of cricket may be based on a contest between bat and ball, but there are some inherent differences between the roles played between batsmen and bowlers. For example, it is quite routine for all eleven players to get to bat in an ODI innings but very rare for more than seven bowlers to bowl in an ODI innings. Also, subsequent batsmen get a chance to bat only once a previous one is dismissed (unless injury plays a part), but bowlers can bowl any two or more non-successive overs in an innings provided their individual quota has not been exhausted.

The primary currency of a bowler in cricket is wickets. Compared to runs that can be scored by a batsman, they are relatively finite. For instance, the maximum tally that an ODI bowler can amass in an ODI innings is 10, but a batsman can in principle make 200 (or more) runs. Therefore, an approximate measure of equivalence between individual batting and bowling achievements has to be obtained before we proceed to dissect bowling statistics.

2

Frequency distribution of individual wicket hauls and run tallies in an ODI innings

Career statistics pages for bowlers often parade the five wicket haul as the bowling equivalent of a hundred. However, the frequency of occurrence a 5 wicket haul (~1%) is lesser compared to a score of 100 and above. That being the case, the quantum of the bowling benchmark has to be adjusted accordingly. ~42% of ODI innings end with a single digit score, which can be roughly equated to a zero wicket haul. Of course, sorting by magnitude has its own problems as a case can be made for a 2/13 haul or 34(13) being better than a 3/80 or 42(120), one of many other such discrepancies; but in the absence of other simple methods this can serve as a decent approximation to equate individual batting and bowling performances.

3

Ranges of individual wicket hauls and run tallies in an ODI innings of approximately equivalent frequency distribution.

Tweaking the batting benchmarks for a roughly equivalent level of frequency of occurrence of various bowling hauls in ODI history, we have our individual bowling benchmarks of equivalence. A score of fifty five and above has occurred almost as frequently as a tally of three or more. Perhaps, an ODI fifty could be compared to a three wicket haul. Proceeding with the similar logic, a 4 and above wicket haul corresponds to a score of 86, and a fifer with 114.

Since there are no fractional wicket hauls, we could perhaps anoint a four wicket haul as the equivalent of a hundred (on the basis of ~3.5 being closer to ~2.3 compared to ~0.96) instead of the traditional five wickets in an innings. We’d also like to bring to the readers’ notice that 100s are not counted as 50s in cricket (unlike what we’ve done here)—i.e. a 50 in cricket statistics is a score between 50-99 (scores of 100 or more are accounted separately as 100s and do not add to the 50s tally even though they are technically a score of 50 or more runs). Armed with this information, we can now look at various bowling statistics.

There are several factors which can influence bowling in ODIs. ODI matches can be won by bowlers either by run-containment or by bowling out the opposition, or both. Accordingly, run restricting ability and wicket taking ability of bowlers are important. Therefore, we will examine the economy rate (runs per 6 balls), the big haul percentage (% of innings with 3 or more wickets) and bumper haul percentage (% of innings with 4 or more wickets).  It must also be noted that precise information (ball by ball) regarding when the bowler came in to bowl is not present for all ODIs, and hence several assumptions will have to be made only on the basis of information available (the bowling position).

4_ER

Variation of economy rate with bowling order at different time periods (data for first innings only)

The run containing ability of a bowler is represented by his Economy Rate (runs conceded per over). It is the analogue of a batsman’s strike rate (confusingly, the balls bowled per dismissal for a bowler is called strike rate as well). In the early ODIs (mainly in the 1st era), ODIs were 60 overs long. It can be seen that the opening bowlers were treated with utmost respect and were the most frugal of the bowlers. Since the 4th era, the opening bowlers have been on an upward trajectory in terms of economy rates; not only do they have to face the brunt of adventurous opening batsmen in the powerplay, but they also generally return to bowl in the death overs. As a result, their rates have surpassed the regular bowlers. The fifth bowler’s ER has been flat until the last era, where it has increased by 10%–this is no doubt due to the assault they have faced recently in the middle overs. The part time bowlers have always been expensive and have shown anomalous trends of late.

5_3+ haul

Variation of Big haul% with bowling order at different time periods (data for first innings only).

Bowling at the start of the innings is a sure-fire method to rack up a haul of 3 or more wickets. Opening the bowling has given the bowler a 3 wicket haul once in ~6 innings; bowling at the number 3 slot is thereabout as well. The number 5 bowler has traditionally suffered in terms of big hauls but recent trends indicate that it is on the upswing. A 12 over quota hasn’t exactly helped the opening bowler to get more big hauls in the earlier eras; perhaps it is an indication of batsmen taking lesser risks against them in the early days of ODI cricket.

6_4+ haul

Variation of Bumper haul% with bowling order at different time periods (data for first innings only).

The gulf is starker for a bumper haul (4 or more wickets)—the opening bowlers have a much greater chance of getting the bowler’s equivalent of a hundred compared to the rest of the bunch. The number 3 bowler has caught up with the opening bowler after a great rally from the mid ‘90s. Number 4 and below, the propensity for a bumper haul is ~2% or lower.

Using this information, which metric can be applied as the baseline for a bowler’s prowess in an ODI? The bowling average (runs conceded per wicket) represents the wicket taking ability of a bowler to a large extent. Coupled with the other important factor—the economy rate—a bowling index (BoI) can be generated. Hence, the product of two divided by six will be used as a metric to benchmark bowling performances over the course of ODI history. This is a metric that has been used as a baseline in other websites as well. Needless to say, since this is a multiplication product, a low value would signify a low value of its constituent factors.

7

Variation of Bowling Index (first) across the batting order in different time periods.

Looking at the evolution of BoI values across the bowling order at different points of ODI history, it can be seen that the ODI game has changed considerably since its inception. Opening the bowling has been highly profitable in terms of amassing good bowling statistics until 2008 with a clear advantage over the rest of the bowlers. Bowling later on in the innings gets harder in terms of BoI baseline values, and this would clearly affect spinners. However, the spread of BoI values has flattened out across the regular bowler slots in the last two eras. In general, the BoI values for numbers 6 and 7 are more than the regular bowlers except in a few cases where the number 6 bowler has outperformed them. This could also be a case of a part timer slipping in a few overs before the regular bowler. Again, it must be stressed that the bowling position is as reliable an indicator compared to the batting position. For instance a number 3 bowler could bowl just over number 3 and then return to bowl only in the death overs. But in the absence of more data across the board, this proxy indicator is better than no information being used.

For the purpose of this article, the overall BoI (across bowling positions 1 to 7) will be selected as the baseline for each era. This would no doubt cause an under-representation of bowlers who bowled later on, but this is a good enough method for the time being. We also have to set wicket cutoffs for different eras keeping in mind the number of matches played by the bowlers. Since ODI cricket gained popularity in the 1980s, the cutoff for eras 1 & 2 will be 20 wickets, and 25 wickets for all subsequent time periods. This minimum cutoff would ensure that each bowler would have played at least a handful of matches bowling first, and would eliminate statistical quirks to a large extent. Now that we have the criteria in place, we can proceed to look at the bowlers with the best BoI ratios (w.r.t the 1-7 BoI baseline) across eras.

8

Bowlers with best BoI ratios (first innings) in the first 3 ODI eras.

In the first three eras, the mighty West Indies team contributed many bowling champions—Marshall, Garner, Holding, Roberts, Ambrose and co. Other test bowling greats like Lillee, Imran, Hadlee also feature prominently in the lists. Maninder Singh and Abdul Qadir feature high up in the dark days of the spin bowling that was the eighties.

9

Bowlers with best BoI ratios (first innings) in the middle 3 ODI eras.

After the teams recalibrated themselves to take advantage of the powerplay, Saqlain Mushtaq bamboozled them with his many variations—the first instance of a spin bowler topping the table. The usual suspects of McGrath, Akram, Donald also make an appearance in multiple eras, but the presence of Heath Streak from a team like Zimbabwe (with no adequate support) is a significant achievement. Even in the middle 3 eras, opening bowlers have largely dominated the BoI tables barring Muralitharan and Saqlain.

 

10

Bowlers with best BoI ratios (first innings) in the last 3 ODI eras.

In the last three eras, many bowlers from the smaller teams have made it to the top rungs of the tables; this is more likely due to playing amongst themselves. This is not to diminish their achievements—they still managed to dominate their peers with the limited opportunities that were given to them. Several one day specialists have also made it to the list—Maharoof, Hafeez, Mills, Bollinger and others, showing their recent importance in the one-day format. Over the course of ODI history, many bowlers managed to breach the 2.00 mark with many hovering in its neighbourhood.

It must also be noted that the top bowlers did not maintain the same distribution across BoI values in different eras. For instance, in era 5, the top 10 are present between ~2 to ~1.6 whereas the field is much deeper in the earlier eras. Therefore, a BoI ratio cutoff of 1.40 (like in the case of batsmen) has to be applied to get a list of bowling champions. This 1.40 benchmark represents a 40% better record (in terms of BoI) with respect to the average bowler in a particular era (bowling first). But how long were these wonderful bowlers able to perform at world-beating levels?

11

Players having a high level of BI (1.75 or 1.40) across multiple eras.

Very few players have been able to excel the field over longer periods of time; most of them are excellent test bowlers as well. In the above table, the player’s name, and his nth appearance (in brackets) at a particular BoI ratio level has been recorded. For example, Allan Donald made his second appearance at the 1.75 level (bowling first) in the 5th ODI era. Only McGrath, Darren Gough, and Pollock have been able to maintain their dominance over three time periods; although, it must be remembered that the first era was 14 years long and Garner’s achievement has to be seen in this context. The 1.75 level has been breached in two eras only by four bowlers; the mind boggles at what Shane Bond might have achieved if not for a career cut short by injury. Several leading bowlers like Holding, Hadlee, Akram, Lee, Donald, Pollock, Kapil, Streak, Warne, Harbhajan, Steyn, and Shakib narrowly missed the 1.40 level at different points in ODI history. Overall, it has been a lot tougher for bowlers to maintain a high level of performance with respect to their peers—showing the tilt of the format towards the batsmen.

To which teams did these wonderful bowlers belong to? Did a single team have a monopoly on the world’s leading bowlers in the first innings of ODIs?

12

The countries with the most number of good first innings bowlers (BoI ratio>1.4) in each ODI era.

In every era, only a few bowlers have surpassed the 1.40 BoI benchmark, showing its exclusivity. In the fourth era, five teams boasted of two bowlers each from that elite list; in six other eras (Kenya wasn’t at the same level as Australia), one team had the runaway lead in terms of elite bowling arsenal. However, on-field success hasn’t necessarily followed the topmost team in the manner of batsmen in the chase, once again showing the influence of batsmen in the ODI format. Only the Australian and West Indies teams had personnel who outperformed their batting and bowling peers in the first innings. No doubt, they were the undisputed champion teams of their times, which brings us back to the 1983 World cup.

So, what were the on-field odds stacked up against the Indian team when they batted first in the 1983 World cup final?

Batting first, India had to contend with four red-hot pacemen—Roberts, Garner, Holding, and Marshall—all with first innings BoIs in excess of 1.5.l; unsurprisingly, they dislodged eight Indian batsmen that day, that too conceding only 106 runs in 42.4 overs. Undoubtedly, India’s total of 183 was low but they were also facing the most fearsome bowling attack of the time with 4 bowlers with BoI ratios greater than 1.5. Besides, West Indies were also the best chasing team at the time (with 3 top chasing batsmen in Greenidge, Richards and Lloyd). What chance did India have?

Incredibly, what followed was nothing short of a miracle. The back of the West Indian innings was broken by two dibbly-dobbly men who captured 103 wickets in 108 tests for India. And, if there was any doubt on the result being an outlier, this victory was only one of six such results in 32 matches between India and West Indies in the 1980s. No doubt, this result rankled the West Indians more than anything else. Without the shadow of a doubt, one of the greatest upsets in sporting history—which transformed the cricketing landscape—was produced on one such day when pigs sprouted wings and flew in the sky which contained a blue moon.

Disclaimer: Some images used in this article are not property of this blog. They have been used for representational purposes only. The copyright, if any, rests with the respective owners.

The overseas bowling puzzle for India

The recently concluded, enthralling test series between India and Australia represented a watershed moment for the Indian cricket team. In the process of defeating Australia in the final test in Dharamshala, it became the third country (after Australia and South Africa) to hold all bilateral trophies in test cricket (concerning its own team, of course) at the same point of time. From Steven Smith’s quip of being one or two sessions away from the Australian team retaining the Border-Gavaskar trophy after the Pune reverse to winning the series at Dharamshala, this was a stunning reaction from the Virat Kohli led team. Of course, India having played most of its recent tests at home has contributed to some part of this achievement; greater challenges lie abroad.

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The spin twins: Who will make the cut in an overseas test? Image source: 1.

The bedrock of this match-winning juggernaut has been built on the foundation of a well-oiled bowling unit. Leading from the front are India’s two match winning spinners, Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin. Ranked 1 and 3 (Ashwin was ranked at 2 when the series concluded) on the ICC player rankings, they have been at the forefront of dismantling opposition teams at home—emulating the illustrious Bishan Singh Bedi and Bhagwath Chandrashekhar, who occupied the top two slots way back in 1974. Ashwin even managed to breach the elite 900 ranking points level, hitherto unscaled by Indian bowlers.

However, the two spinners took contrasting paths during the extended home season.  Ashwin took off from where he left, becoming the third player (after Malcolm Marshall and Imran Khan, no less) to snare four consecutive Man-of-the-series awards with his showing against the New Zealand team. However, he ran into a wall (relatively speaking) in the form of the English team. He wasn’t able to run amok against Bangladesh or Australia either; his batting form tailed off as well.

Of course, injury might have played some part in his less-than-stellar showing; during the home season, Ashwin bowled over 700 overs and picked up 82 wickets (a record). He was first picked for the Ranji trophy quarterfinal match against Karnataka, and subsequently withdrew due to a sports hernia to recuperate. The same injury reared its ugly head after the India-Australia series, and the bowler rightly gave the IPL a skip.

On the other hand, Ravindra Jadeja went from strength to strength as the home season progressed. He maintained a high level for the first three series, and was the standout performer in the Border-Gavaskar trophy, usurping his teammate Ashwin from the top of the ICC rankings. He too missed the initial matches of the IPL, but his improved test match prowess hasn’t exactly boosted his IPL showings. Both of these bowlers were ineffectual during the Champions trophy.

Versus team (number of tests) Ravichandran Ashwin Ravindra Jadeja
Wickets Bowling avg. Wickets Bowling avg.
New Zealand (3) 27 17.77 14 24.07
England (5) 28 30.25 26 25.84
Bangladesh (1) 6 28.50 6 24.66
Australia (4) 21 27.38 25 18.56
Recent ODIs        
Champions trophy 1 167 4 62.25

This raises an interesting conundrum with tours to Sri Lanka in July-August and away to South Africa in December-January: what will India’s bowling combination be when it tours different countries?

When India last toured many overseas countries in 2014, Ashwin had been left out of the eleven seven times in nine test matches. He was dropped after he bowled 42 overs at the Wanderers with nothing to show in the wickets column. The man who replaced him in the next test was Ravindra Jadeja—who toiled for 58.2 overs in the first innings, but got 6 wickets. Even the unheralded Karn Sharma leapfrogged him in Adelaide.

Ashwin didn’t impress when he got the chance in England or Australia either. After a period of introspection, he turned a corner and has been a different bowler since. But the question remains—who will be the primary spinner when India tours? What would be done with Kuldeep Yadav, another interesting prospect?

Fortunately, there exists a period in India’s recent cricketing past when the team faced a similar conundrum—the spinners being the previous Indian coach Anil Kumble, and the man who Ashwin replaced, Harbhajan Singh.

Between Harbhajan Singh’s debut test (25th March 1998) and Anil Kumble’s final test (2nd November 2008), India played toured many a country abroad. In 20 of these matches, both Kumble and Harbhajan featured.  Sometimes, one player was favoured over the other—Kumble made the cut 26 times, whereas Harbhajan was picked 12 times.  Is there any evidence that playing one or two spinners led to the other bowling better?

  Alone Together
Kumble 34.35 35.38
Harbhajan 38.60 40.27

The effect, if any, is quite marginal. In fact, the statistics show that both spinners bowled marginally better alone (overall bowling figures are woeful, nonetheless). The choice of bowling combination is revealing in terms of the opposition strength; they featured in tandem mostly for tests against “weaker” nations like Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and West Indies, and against stronger opposition at well-known spin friendly venues like Galle, The Oval, Sydney and their ilk.

Keeping this in mind, it will be interesting to see the Indian team’s approach when it lines up against teams abroad. Would it pick one over the other? Will the team management play both in a five bowler combination, and hope for the lower order to click? Which two spinners will they play? Will there be a third spinner in this equation on overseas rank turners? Here is the flexible approach that Anil Kumble had advocated before his time as the Indian coach:

“We have gone into this theory of three seamers and one spinner the moment we sit on an aircraft which travels more than seven hours – that’s the mindset… If your 20 wickets are going to come with two spinners and two fast bowlers, so be it. If it comes with three spinners and one fast bowler so be it.”

To his credit, Kumble stuck to his philosophy during his tenure. Now if India worked out a bowler management program to go along with an approach like this, it would have a great chance of competing with the best sides overseas. But with Kumble being no more associated with the Indian team and Ravi Shastri yet to air his views regarding this in public, the Indian team’s strategy remains to be seen.

Disclaimer: The image used in this article is not the property of this blog. It has been used for representational purposes only. The copyright, if any, solely rests with the respective owners.

 

That ’90s show

(Hindi)

Hum honge kaamyaab, Hum honge kaamyaab,

Hum honge kaamyaab ek din;

Ho ho man me hai vishwas, pura hai vishwas,

Hum honge kaamyaab ek din.

The decade of the 1990s in Bangalore was a quaint time. Before the word “Bangalored” entered the lexicon, it was a genteel town, mostly content with itself. The city had not grown to today’s extent and one could commute between any two points of the city within half an hour. Kids, armed with a half-ticket, a heavy bag and basket in tow, made their way to school on a daily basis.

The city was a lot cooler back then; hibernal reinforcements routinely appeared over school uniforms. Getting the cooties was a somewhat fuzzy concept until middle school due to the mixed-gender seating configurations. These were probably the scenes across much of urban India.

The proliferation of satellite television was not yet complete, even in the cities. Most of the class watched the same TV programming, designed with a please-all approach with a keen eye on the demographic driven timeslots.

The post-school early evening slots were the preserve of school kids; general entertainment held sway late evening onwards; and mythological serials united the family on weekends. Except, when a politician died and statewide mourning was declared with accompanying cancellation of traditional programming, uniting kids all over in inadvertent, concomitant grief, albeit for the loss of TV-watching time. And then there was cricket.

Cricket overriding routine programming was the lesser of the evils. Television had not yet percolated down the pyramid, but the state-run channel routinely telecasting cricket matches brought the sport to the large swathes of the country, usually through a communal watching experience.

It was in this backdrop that a lot of us were introduced to watching cricket. Discussing the happenings of the latest match was routine; discovering unknown players through a stealthily arranged round of the frowned-upon Big Fun® trump cards (Clash!) was a guilty pursuit; rattling off Jadeja’s and Vaas’ light-year-long names was amusement; chattering about cricket in hushed tones – while the ribbon-wearing, pigtailed, pinafore-clad girls sang patriotic songs along with swaying their heads – during the assembly was our first brush with rebellion.

1.jpg

The morning assembly: The scene of painful, morning ritual. Image source: 1.

The morning assembly.

In the sun.

Patriotic songs.

Anthems were anathema.

The routine was a recipe for resistance.

One such song that made its way to the morning assembly was “Hum honge kaamyaab”, loosely translated to “We will be successful”. Set to the tune and theme of “We shall overcome”.

(English)

We shall overcome, we shall overcome,

We shall overcome someday;

Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,

We shall overcome someday.

2.jpg

We shall overcome: Folk singer Joan Baez (L) with Bob Dylan (R). Image source: 2.

The original—supposedly derived from an early 20th century hymn—was a protest song during the Civil Rights Movement, and was popularized by folk singers such as Joan Baez. The namesake phrase also found mention in speeches by Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson, no less. The anti-communist protesters caught on to it by the late 1980s, after which it found large-scale adoption.

The choice of words in the opening line is indicative; overcome, signalling hope; shall, instead of will. Pedantic, standard British English speakers would have taken note of the transgression with the first person pronoun.  Regardless, shall represented a strong intention no doubt, but a weaker one than will; although, it ran the risk of dilution with its offer of a suggestion rather than an impolite assertion.

No scope for such nuance with the Hindi version though. The Kannada version was worse; it translated to “We will win”. No other song explicitly exemplified the “loser” tag like this. The brazen craving for naked success, not a hopeful wish for overcoming odds.  The desire of the destination, rather than the journey.

Yet, no other song captured the mood of the Indian cricket team’s journey in the ‘90s. Yes, the same team we supported blindly and didn’t have a freakin’ clue as to why. Patriotism perhaps?

In any case, it didn’t explain why people still hung on to the Indian team. Sure, we racked up our first test victories overseas and were no longer the whipping boys by the 1960s. Rapid strides were made in the 1970s. The barometer of success was defined in clear-cut terms: winning away from home. The 1980s saw a decline in test-match fortunes but one-day successes more than made up for it; two world event victories and a semi-final appearance in the 1987 World cup meant that cricket had weaned away a chunk of audience who had grown up hearing the heroic tales of Hockey, and were now witnessing apocalypse on AstroTurf.

Hockey, a more time-friendly sport with a glorious winning tradition, had lost its audience for far less.

What chance did the Indian team of the 1990s have? The less said, the better.

(Hindi)

Hum honge kaamyaab, Hum honge kaamyaab,

Hum honge kaamyaab ek din;

Ho ho man me hai vishwas, pura hai vishwas,

Hum honge kaamyaab ek din.

By all counts, it was Indian cricket’s lowest ebb. We are not taking to account the whispers about match-fixing, by the way.

One overseas test match victory over the entire decade.

One.

That too against Sri Lanka, which had got test status a mere decade ago.

One solitary test victory in a 3 test match series, not a one-off test match.

One.

Equal to Zimbabwe’s record for the decade.

Zimbabwe, who had won against Pakistan in Peshawar. Oh, we had lost away to Zimbabwe as well.

We had the worst away record, both in terms of Win% and W/L ratio – you take your pick. Our only redeeming feature was an excellent home record.

It was not just the losses that rankled; it was the manner of abject surrender. Our batting meltdowns were the stuff of legend, with a lone fighting hand offering token resistance on a burning deck: Tendulkar’s defiance at Jo’burg (111 out of 227, next highest 25, FOW 27/2); staged robbery at Port Elizabeth by the one-armed bandit, Kapil Dev  (129 out of 215 next highest 17, FOW 27/5); Tendulkar’s spirited resistance at Birmingham (122 out of 219, next highest 18, FOW 17/2); Tendulkar’s and Azharuddin’s twin assault at Cape Town (putting on a 222 run stand in 40 overs after being reduced to 58/5); that man Tendulkar again, tall amidst the ruins in Melbourne (116 out of 238 next highest 31, FOW 11/2). These were the better times, when we had something to show.

When it was bad, it was gut-wrenching.

Collective ineptitude came to the fore when the team was subjected to tremendous pressure in Kingsmead – probably enough to form diamonds 800 miles west in Kimberley – and the team duly obliged with a 100 and 66 all-out collapse. The inability to chase 120 at Barbados (only Laxman managed double figures) was a body blow to the nation’s sporting psyche; to misquote Shakespeare, a Rose by any other name would not smell as sweet. On the Australian tour of 1999-00, until Laxman made his 167 in Sydney, Kumble was the third highest scorer for India with 103 runs in the series (behind Tendulkar with 278 and Ganguly with 177).

Similarly, at home, when Tendulkar was dismissed 17 runs adrift of the target with three wickets in hand, a sense of preordained gloom descended as the last rites of the match were conducted in front of our eyes by the Pakistani pallbearers in Chennai. The Indian batting in tests was abysmal –  especially overseas – and was dismissed for a sub-250 score 23 times in 18 test matches during the ‘90s, losing 15 (3 draws) of them in the process.

Granted, the team had to cope with the Dukes and the Kookaburra; some experts attributed our losses to the lack of balls. We agreed.

(Kannada)

Naavu gedde geltivi, naavu gedde geltivi

Naavu gedde geltivi, ondu dina;

Ho ho nannagide vishwasa, purti vishwasa,

Naavu gedde geltivi ondu dina.

The lack of match-winning bowlers proved to be the impediment to India’s success in the test arena. However, the ODI format did not have any hang ups about dismissing a side to win the match. India could now bank on outscoring the opposition. Runs were mandatory, wickets were optional. No team played as much ODI cricket as India during the decade. ODI series were dime a dozen, named after cigarettes packaged drinking water music CD  rolled-packaged-tobacco-ready-for-combustion, consumer electronics companies, the odd motor company and fizzy drinks; nothing official about it.

Still, India’s returns in the ODI scene during the fateful decade were middling, at best. In fact, the rules of the format cut both ways; no more did India have the safety net of a draw.

The change of format didn’t insulate us from the heartache of close losses, though. The procession started with the two close losses in the 1992 World Cup against England and Australia. The second one was particularly agonizing – five needed from four balls with two wickets in hand soon became three off the last ball and a run-out consigned India to a one run defeat. India never really recovered from this start and limped right through the tournament to finish seventh; defeating Pakistan was the only consolation.

India lost multiple close matches (4 of them at less than 10 run margins) and some big ones against Sri Lanka to a multitude of reasons – a collapse of 7 wickets for 21 runs; a collapse, a mini-recovery, and another collapse chasing 171; crowd trouble following – wait for it – a collapse. You guessed it alright.

I know what you’re thinking. What about the time Rajesh Chouhan smashed a six? Or the Kanitkar boundary? And the time Srinath and Kumble took us to victory in Bangalore? We beat Pakistan in the World cups. Surely it wasn’t all that bad?

I’ll see you and raise you: Basit Ali, Derek Crookes, Franklyn Rose, Stuart Law, Ali Brown, Matt Horne, Ricardo Powell, Peter Martin, Paul Adams, Henry Olonga – we’ve made heroes out of all of them. A montage of Ghar aaja pardesi from DDLJ’s soundtrack greeted the performances of Chanderpaul, Dipak Patel and Ravindu Shah. We won only 17 of the 45 games we played against Pakistan, capiche? I digress.

May I interest you in a match where we lost 8 wickets for 46 runs in 8 overs, and the game? How about the game where we had the South Africans at 18 for 3 in 11 overs and allowed them to amass 235; generous Indian hospitality to the rescue. In return, when we needed to get 46 from 7 overs with 5 wickets in hand, we dutifully folded?

Should I go even lower?

Alright, what about the time when a hobbling Salim Malik shepherded Pakistan to victory via a 44 run-a-ball stand with Saqlain for the 9th wicket? Or the match where Prabhakar and Mongia inexplicably refused to chase 63 in 54 balls with 5 wickets in hand? And the match against Zimbabwe, of the 1999 World cup vintage, where we lost 3 wickets for 3 runs, with 7 runs to get in 11 balls, setting up our exit in the Super 6 stage? Any lower than this, we would have found enough oil to power us in the new millennium.

What about the dramatis personae? Incidentally, none of the trump cards bearing Indian names were the highly valued “Gold” ones. Why? Their calling cards evoke more memories rather than their names.

Wouldn’t you remember Vikram Rathour for turning to wicket-keeping in order to stage a return? Recollect Abey Kuruvilla and (Who is) Noel David after the phrase rotator-cuff became a part of your vocabulary? Nilesh Kulkarni, the one who got a wicket off his first ball in test cricket and then was flogged for 195 runs as Sri Lanka piled on 952? Or the flamboyant domestic A-listers Atul Bedade and Amay Khurasiya, who scored one 50 each to whet the appetite and then had a vanishing act for the next 10 ODIs? Or hark back to Prabhakar’s predicament on the cusp of retirement—resorting to off-spin post a 33 run mauling in 2 overs?

Unpleasant memories haunting you yet? Wait, there’s more.

Devang Gandhi, who followed the path of non-violence and turned the other cheek on being bounced in Australia? Gyanendra Pandey, who was rather more known for domestic violence off the field than on it? The now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t enacted by the great-Indian-fast-bowling-hope Prashant Vaidya? Or Lakshmi “the next Kapil Dev” Ratan Shukla, who sent down overstepped on his very first delivery after being compared to the legend by an overzealous, errant commentator? The vernacular Dodda Ganesh, of the flippantly facing Alan Donald fame? Also, can you cast your mind back to the time when you eagerly awaited – the hard(ly)-hitting batsman – Sujith Somasunder’s debut at the opening slot, only to see him score 16 from 63 balls over 2 ODIs?

That these doyens of the domestic game could not translate their performance to the global arena was frustrating, to say the least. The last instance was particularly irksome for a Karnataka lad like me; my state had contributed 8 players to the Indian team in the late ‘90s and had won the Ranji trophy thrice over four seasons. Any expectations of Pax Karnataka (perhaps you’d prefer Carnatica) were swiftly doused by the events of the match.

(Marathi)

Amhi honar yeshaswi, amhi honar yeshaswi,

Amhi honar yeshaswi ek diwas;

Ho ho manat aahe vishwas, purna aahe vishwas,

Amhi honar yeshaswi ek diwas.

It wasn’t that the regulars covered themselves in glory all the time. They were, as all sportspeople, capable of mildly annoying us with their quirks and idiosyncrasies from time to time.

Let’s get the easy ones off the chest: Dravid, when he started off, and, Kapil Dev, at the end, got stuck in the middle for far too long; Kumble, who was rebuked by Kapil Dev for poor fielding, would let a cry of anguish every time a misfield happened off his own bowling, but was perfectly capable of falling in a heap –  like a ripe jackfruit –  at gully, and letting the ball through (God bless his timely inside edges to the boundary); the quintessential “I’ll make a comeback” Venkatesh Prasad headline; his batting exploits are all too well known, with the nightwatchman experiment being abandoned after he watched a ball go all the way (to the stumps) in his very first innings at the elevated position. Gavaskar would have been proud.

Further along the recesses of the memory: Sidhu going home mid-series, abandoning the team on tour; Ganguly often cradling the ball in his run-up; tumbling over the ball and blinking at his fingers post-misfield as if it were a difficult trigonometry problem; routinely running out a partner (you’d be hard pressed to find someone to whom he’d sacrifice his wicket to, Tendulkar included); PTSD-stricken Srinath underarming a throw from fine leg as the batsmen sauntered along for an additional run; developing a knack for safely landing an ugly, ballooning hoick towards midwicket between three converging fielders; expanding his range to include a slower delivery in his ODI game, except, that it would be a leg-side wide.

It was in moment like this that our bonds with Sachin Tendulkar were born, and cemented for posterity. Sure, he often crouched when he got bowled, and fiddled around his box too much. At times, he could retreat into his shell, as if he were batting under a hex. But most of us remember his defining image during the decade, the one in which he often walked on water.

Of course, there were other competent Indian batsmen before his time; most would bide their time and distinguish themselves from the heap; some could take on the bowling, briefly flicker before going into the night. He was different. He illuminated the entire room, dispelling the darkness and showing us the light. Here was a boy with a curly mop, goofy grin and impish tricks up his sleeve, ready to take on the world in a way hitherto unknown to us. He was the wizard who waved the willowy wand.

Often, he would perform stunts which needed a parental advisory; he was a trapeze artist, human flame thrower and a lion-tamer, all rolled into one; we were the willing audience as our ring master capered down the track to dismiss the bowling; the others – jokers in the pack – would earnestly attempt his high-wire acts, only to see their pants pulled down, much to the amusement of the crowd; we were the ones who marvelled at the sheer audacity of his geometrical constructs beyond the realms of possibility as we grappled with our humdrum geometry lessons.

Yet, it was not just his feats that defined Tendulkar; understanding his pedestal in India’s consciousness involves digesting the prevailing socio-political-economic milieu. Two prime ministers hailing from the nation’s first family had been assassinated in the space of seven years. No single political party enjoyed majority. The country’s sovereignty was challenged at its North-Western borders. The nation was bankrupt; every big infrastructure project was funded by the World Bank.

Millions were severely poor with no access to food, basic healthcare or primary education; photographs of impoverished citizens and squalor routinely made the cover of Western magazines. Anybody with some dreams would make a beeline to make a life for themselves abroad. And why not? For, endless lines existed for essentials such as cooking gas and telephone; getting your hands on a two wheeler was akin to winning the lottery; stable employment in a government establishment was the raison d’être.

Thus, cricket was labelled as a profligate pastime, at best; at worst, as the Englishman’s opiate conspiracy to enslave and dullen the masses. Cricket hadn’t yet seen the kind of money which would render the benefit circuit irrelevant later on.  Trenchant critics (like my father) would often invoke the (apocryphal?) Bernard Shaw quote regarding the number of fools watching and playing cricket. Over and top of all this, our team was terrible. A “Keen contest on the cards” headline metamorphosed to “Facile win for ________ (India’s opponent)” with worrying regularity. Supporting India in those times was not easy, especially with losses mounting.

(Bengali)

Amra korbo joi, amra korbo joi,

Amra korbo joi aek din;

Ho ho mone achhe vishwas, puro achhe vishwas,

Amra korbo joi aek din.

A total of 21 players played less than 5 test matches for India in the decade. 43 players who partook in the selection carrousel played less than 20 ODIs. As an Indian fan, those were terrible times to watch cricket. Here’s Tom Hanks’ monologue, as Chuck Noland of Cast Away:

“We both had done the math. Kelly added it all up and… knew she had to let me go. I added it up, and knew that I had… lost her. ‘cos I was never gonna get off that island. I was gonna die there, totally alone. I was gonna get sick, or get injured or something. The only choice I had, the only thing I could control was when, and how, and where it was going to happen. So… I made a rope and I went up to the summit, to hang myself. I had to test it, you know?…..”

Saying goodbye to cricket was quite difficult. We fans devised several coping mechanisms, you know?

Hey, don’t judge us. It was hard out there.

Some of us turned capricious and moped, upon being mocked by our nemeses for the latest no-show; some of us took to gallows humour to enliven the moribund moments of the match; others took to following other sports. Pete Sampras was around the horizon. So was Michael Schumacher. And a certain Manchester United seemed to keep on winning as we struggled to wrap our tongues around the enunciation of Juventus and Sevilla.

We could now hedge our support, hope for someone to win at the end of the year and nurse our morale, right? Could we give up on cricket altogether? Gulp. Lump in throat.

“….Of course. You know me. And the weight of the log, snapped the limb of the tree, so I-I – , I couldn’t even kill myself the way I wanted to. I had power over nothing. And that’s when this feeling came over me like a warm blanket. I knew, somehow, that I had to stay alive. Somehow. I had to keep breathing. Even though there was no reason to hope. And all my logic said that I would never see this place again…”

Get busy living, or get busy dying.

It was Tendulkar’s chutzpah which kept us going. Never mind that the rest of the team was terrible. As long as he was there, we had a chance. He seemed so happy to compete for the country, in the midst of mediocrity, believing in our cause; we were the daft pricks contemplating not watching cricket and abandoning the team.

We sensed the electricity in the air when he took guard. He was our messiah who would bring us our deliverance from the mess.

Out of the 221 ODI innings that Tendulkar played during the tumultuous decade, he crossed fifty 68 times. India won 46 of those matches, a whopping 75%. There was daylight between him and second place (Azhar, with 27).  The gulf in ability was starker in tests; twenty five 50+ scores away from home (13 each for Azhar and Dravid).

Heck, he didn’t even have to bat sometimes; he took 2+ wickets in an ODI 16 times and triumphed 12 times. When he barged in to bowl the last over of the Hero cup semi-final against South Africa, we knew something was up.

“…So that’s what I did. I stayed alive. I kept breathing. And one day my logic was proven all wrong because the tide came in, and gave me a sail. And now, here I am. I’m back. In Memphis, talking to you. I have ice in my glass… And I’ve lost her all over again. I’m so sad that I don’t have Kelly. But I’m so grateful that she was with me on that island. And I know what I have to do now. I gotta keep breathing. Because tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring.”

And just like that, the tide would turn. After the match-fixing scandal, Ganguly led the team. No, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. There were several hiccups along the way. We would fall back on our old habits. We would make a hero out of Douglas Marillier. We would find Avishkar Salvi. Our last three wickets wouldn’t last the extra half an hour which would have drowned out the result in the ten days of rain that followed at Kingston. Coasting at 159/5 after 34 overs, with 77 to get in 96 balls, we would somehow contrive to lose the match. We would drop Chris Cairns in the ICC Champions Trophy 2000 final, one of the 14 ODI finals we would lose under Ganguly. We would not choose to bat first after winning the toss in a World Cup final, c’est la vie.

But, we will always have those two immortal matches – the 281 which would break both the Aussie juggernaut and the 236* four minute mile; and the Natwest tri-series final. Both were accomplished with the minimal involvement of Tendulkar. He had served his time, and so had we. No doubt, we watching our idiot boxes opened up a Pandora’s Box the previous decade; but what our parents didn’t account for, was Tendulkar being our hope fairy.

“Remember that hope is a good thing, Red, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies” – Stephen King

A collective chuckle emanated from the generation of ‘80s and ‘90s when M S K Prasad was recently named India’s selection committee chairman. Every member of the committee (culled from 5 to 3 members after the Supreme court intervention) belonged to the same epoch of 21 and 43 who were part of the musical chairs. They were now in charge of the jukebox.

We, somewhat snootily, smirk in a condescending manner when today’s kids claim to be Indian cricket fans. They probably didn’t switch off the TV after Tendulkar was dismissed in the 2011 World Cup final. They probably treat victory as an entitlement. They probably idolize Kohli, he who offers certainty rather than hope.  Must be fair-weather, bandwagoner fans, no? Besides, where is the fun in that?

What do they know of Indian cricket, which only the masochistic generation know?

Note: An edited version of this piece was first published in the Summer 2017 edition (NW Issue 18) of Wisden’s The Nightwatchman quarterly. Interested readers could buy the issue here.

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