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.

Advertisements

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.

551614-jadeja-and-ashwin22-pti.jpg

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.

Disclaimer: The images and videos 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.

 

 

 

Is there a point to watching matches in the stadium?

Wembley_Stadium,_illuminated.jpg

The new, modern Wembley stadium. Image source: 1.

Two thousand six hundred and eighteen.

In case you’re wondering what this number represents, it is the number of toilets present in the new Wembley stadium at London, which was constructed in 2007. Unsurprisingly, it is a record for the maximum number of toilets present in a venue. Somewhere, many stadiums worldwide are metaphorically turning their heads away in embarrassment.

2816. It is a number worth repeating over and over again. What is even more surprising is that this stadium which was constructed at the eponymous area of Northwest London is primarily used for footballing activities of the English football team. It must be remembered that football is a game normally played over 90 minutes, give or take a few based on interruptions, injuries or playacting (or both). Add a 30 minute buffer on either side of the game along with a 15 minute interval, the whole exercise is done within three hours—enough time for a human with normal excretory functions to contemplate a visit to the facilities.

Take_That_Wembley.jpg

The biggest acts routinely have concerts in the Wembley stadium. Image source: 2.

Assuming Wembley is fully packed and that everyone toilet is equally accessible for everyone, one toilet roughly serves 35 people over the course of three hours. Very reasonable indeed. It must also be noted that Wembley also hosts a variety of programs other than football—rugby, American football, boxing and music concerts to name a few.

Now contrast this with going to watch a game of cricket at a cricket stadium in many venues across India. Remember, it is a game that lasts 6-8 hours in the longer formats, with a far greater chance of er…..feeling the pressure.  Picturing enough ammonia generation to manufacture Nitric acid by the Ostwald process? You’re not far off from the truth with that visualization. This is just one case where watching the game at home (or selling your kidneys, depending on your predilections) is a better option.

Is there a point at all of turning up to watch a game of cricket at the cricket stadium?

In the days of cricketing yore, going to the stadium was the only way one could hope to see their heroes in action. Back in those days, if you were lucky to be close to a stadium, you could catch a game involving the national team in a match once or twice a year. Most of the times, the venues would not be used, or, would host only local matches.

Slowly but surely, mass media in the form of radio and television have now shrunk the spaces between the fan and the action. Fans today have access to top class broadcasting. One can only imagine the kind of experiences future fans would have with the advent of virtual reality.

Today’s television broadcasts vastly surpass the experience of watching a player live in the stadium. Multiple camera angles guarantee that one set of viewers don’t have to only view players’ posteriors for half the time, but are guaranteed a complete view of cricketing action. Action replays add a more forgiving window to fully absorb and assimilate the various happenings of the match. Missed an outrageous catch? Did the player look to deliberately handle the ball? No problem—the television screen will resolve it for you.

Then there is the issue of cost and convenience.

A Direct to home (DTH) package for sports costs a fraction of the ticket price, and this is for the cheap seats alone. Seat numbers are still not a universal feature; a first come first serve basis ensures an arms race to the best seats (that too on flimsy plastic chairs) within a stand. A knock-on effect of this is that fans have to arrive a good two hours before the start of the match.

Cabs are expensive—places where the stadiums have been built are far away from most of the city (Rajkot, Hyderabad, Pune come to mind). Parking is a nightmare. Buses and trains to the venue are overcrowded. The demand for these far outstrips supply the moment the match is done. Fans have to contend with overpriced food and severely diluted beverages—a respectable name for highway robbery and sophisticated titration experiments. And then there is the dreaded trip to the loo that we talked about at the start—something that shouldn’t be attempted without the aid of assisted respiratory equipment.

Considering that old stadiums were built at a time before the penetration of television, it is natural that they were designed maximize for gate receipts for the one or two paydays that the association would have in a year. Would you rather care for the comfort of the spectators when you could cram in a few hundred extra when people would do anything to get in? However, in the IPL era, the rarity of the occasion that demanded a visit to the stadium has gone down with too many me-too matches.

Wankhede_Mumbai.jpg

Rain can cause frequent interruptions to the game of cricket. Image source: 3.

What about the opportunity cost? The time spent on the road, and to get a good seat could be used for something useful. A podcast perhaps? Forty winks? Snuggling up to a good book? Picking up a new hobby? Catching up with near and dear ones? A night out on the town? And what if the match turned out to be a damp squib like the ones in the Champions trophy so far? Worst case scenario at home, I could change the channel zapping around commercial breaks (or as the cut the cord-ers prefer, stream the latest episode), lazing around in my jammies. What could go wrong?

Yes, I might miss a chance to take a selfie with my favourite player—it is easier to win a lottery anyway. I might miss the ritual, communal experiences of singing along chants and soaking in the atmosphere as a player goes about his business in the middle. And, when and should the truly awesome match present itself in a venue that I have braved to experience, I will miss having the “I was there” know-it-all, smug punchline when I converse with my friends. But I certainly won’t miss the weary commute, the maddening crowds, or the overpriced food. And, I’d rather save up on the continence for older age rather than risk overusing it in my youth.

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

 

Kumble-Kohli gate: A thought experiment

Picture1.jpg

Oh dear, what can the matter be? Image sources: 1 and 2.

In case my inflated sense of self-importance is not ridiculously high and you are Anil Kumble, Virat Kohli, or a BCCI office-bearer who has stumbled into this article, please do not read it further. Your collaboration and focus on the Champions Trophy is paramount to us. This article is for the rest of us who are wondering how on earth could there be trouble in paradise. As a country, we are inexplicably forgiving of the corrupt, shockingly indifferent to the violent, shamefully accepting of the discriminant, so unsurprisingly, this is the one thing that leaves us numb, feeling unreal.

As the public, I hope we have set enough precedent with our spiteful intolerance of your failure on a cricket field. Don’t you dare assume the right to question our perpetual mediocrity just because I question the sporadic mediocrity in yours. If you’ve benefitted socially and financially from the adulation of fans like me which have added mythology to your workplace and made you a superstar, the criticism comes with the territory. But I see your point. I do burn your effigies and pelt stones anyway, so you might as well have a verbal shot in the dark.

Alright, minor digressions on the Indian primer of hypocrisy aside, what could possibly have belied our conviction that this was a match made in heaven? What were the events that unfolded? Let us indulge in some thought experiment and reconcile all the parameters, balance the probabilities and backtrack to what the triggers may have been. More importantly (and sadly), this role play might tell us how this is going to end.

As a consumer of content in today’s digital era, I cannot overemphasize the importance of sieving the ground truth from all the noise. Elections and regimes are won and lost by the noise, after all. So let’s start with the most credible piece of information we have. In fact, let us confine ourselves to just the synopsis – “BCCI is inviting applications for the head coach post”.

If we didn’t see this coming, the first and foremost reason is that team India has been performing well. This is completely contrary to the degeneration loop that often leaves us wondering about the starting point – was it bad performance, team disharmony, ineffective enablement(coaching) or was it just poor selection to begin with. However obvious it be, there goes a huge parameter in our equation of scrutiny.

To the young Indian public, Ravi Shastri sports the image of a playboy-binger-rhetoric-howler, ad-nauseum. But Ravi Shastri the player, was the champion of champions, always punched his guts above his weight, and Ravi Shastri the coach-cum-director stepped in during every crisis. There is no doubt he should be revered in the context of Indian cricket. But Kumble is always the man who bowled with the broken jaw who also put Australia in their place. There are no multiple personas, no chinks in the armor, no joke is on him (except perhaps his famous dives/slides during his heyday). Every member of the Indian cricket team will start with utmost reverence.

Let’s start our roleplay on that note. You are now a player in the Indian cricket team that is in transition. You started off by embracing his modus-operandi in pure awe, but you do not see it as constructive anymore. You pick up the vibe that your confidants share your empathy. If you are a strong character, you brought this up directly with Kumble. If you are someone shy, you funneled it through those who can voice your opinion. Either way, it looks like he put his foot down. He has publicly defended Pujara’s strike rate, he’s put his money on using a bowling-led approach in tests, and having an emphasis on match fitness. The individual merits in each case may be debatable, but the results aren’t.

Over a period of time, discontent of the methods brewed dislike of the person. You wonder if the leader of the pack shares the same empathy. You bring it up with him. This is when things get tricky. If Virat heard you out and didn’t find your concerns justified, he shut you down. If he had shut you down, this is a smaller matter. You are eventually feeling disconnected from the scheme of things and working towards your non-selection. But the headline didn’t read – “Player ABC is dropped due to reason XYZ”. So, your performance, fitness and mental conditioning has been good. In this case, you are a convert for good—from awe to knee-jerk skepticism caused by the change, and back to awe. Also, the positive reinforcement is there for the entire team to witness. But, neither of these was the outcome. Were you injured then?

Based on the outcome, it does seem like Virat feels you are right because he either wasn’t a believer of Kumble’s methods, or that you were an exception. Imagine you are Virat Kohli. You have put your body and mind through hell and come out clean for the betterment of your performance. It is hard to believe though that the fitness freak that you are would find Kumble’s methods to be gruelling. If anything, you now have a coach who is willing to play the bad cop in enforcing the fitness regimen you truly believe in. But that clearly wasn’t the case either. Cleary, the outcome suggests that you have taken the player’s case and attempted negotiation with Kumble. And Kumble has either attempted to address them and failed, or perhaps shunned it, and there begin the escalations—a potential power struggle of coach vs captain, only, in this case, you have the team’s backing and are one of the first names on the team sheet in all 3 formats.

As this reached levels of intolerance, you possibly reached out to those you could trust, empathize and fix this. BCCI personnel are too volatile, and approaching BCCI makes it too formal. Despite your escalation, you wanted containment. Your objective was not nuclear. That brings Saurav and Sachin, who truly believe in you and truly understand Kumble- the best mediators to handle these powerful personalities. Irrespective of how the permutations played out, their skype calls failed to reconcile. It failed so badly.

Kumble isn’t staying as the coach for the next term. It would need someone to pull off a mass psychological miracle. Let’s fast forward to where speculations began. If you are running the BCCI, what is the first thing you do when this escalates to you? You try to contain this and scheme a PR spin on this matter, announce that Kumble leave is set to leave due to “personal” reasons, retain him on a per-series basis, find a replacement and announce gratefulness for his willingness to extend for a few months despite his “situation”. This is the most graceful way to handle the situation—albeit farcical—as it begs to make it into an autobiography. Nonetheless, that is what you do as an organization. But your hand is forced and you are asking for applications during the Champions Trophy. You couldn’t take this up until after because of contractual obligations with Kumble who wants to leave in his own terms, or you have already made the decision to sack Kumble, either of which has the same implication – his being with the team in England is the actual PR exercise. Thus, the premature end to Kohli-Kumble alliance.

But the mess doesn’t end here.

Irrespective of Kumble’s credentials, the premature end to his tenure directly implicates the committee that contrived to have him in the first place. There is also the little matter of the public fallout between Ganguly and Shastri, which some say showed a semblance of improvement as Ravi Shastri howled out “Dada, the prince of Bengal” during the IPL inauguration. I just think that was Shastri doing his job. So, that pipe is still clogged, fresh wounds yet to heal, so calling in the crisis man would be unlikely. Oh, and this also thwarts the attribution of Greg Chappell’s failure to his tough-guy Australian-ness. The members of the panel preferred a coach in background in the mould of John Wright and Gary Kirsten. Going by history, it seems that the only question that counts in the matter of Indian coach is this: “Where does a candidate personality lie in the dictator-sycophant spectrum?”

Let’s not trust whatever we hear, but trust based on what we didn’t. And that brings us to the lone shining light in this dark episode. We didn’t hear any rumor of a spat or factions within the team. We didn’t hear of any power struggle either and that is a critical piece of information. We didn’t hear a fallout between Kumble and Dhoni, or Dhoni and Kohli. That Dhoni is staying under the radar shows how he controlled the compelling urge of throwing himself into the mess to “fix” it. That tells you a bit about the man and bodes well for the unit.

The false hope that I am clinging onto, is that this was all plotted and schemed by the BCCI to get rid of the most vocal member who was throwing down the gauntlet to increase player and coach salaries, and that this connivance would hit the light, and Kumble would continue to coach happily ever after.

Disclaimer: The images used are not property of this blog and have been used for representational purposes only. The copyright, if any, exists with the respective owners.

The Batting Avengers

The year is 2030. A group of aliens have landed on Earth and made their way to the BCCI headquarters. For some unknown reason, they’re interested in the game of cricket. Since this hypothetical situation is set in the world of cricket, India happens to be at the centre of the universe. Therefore, this time, we will imagine that a big spaceship landed in the middle of Madhya Pradesh rather than somewhere in the United States as Hollywood portrays it all the time.

In 2030, citizens are waking up to newspaper editorials bemoaning the absence of a genteel, father figure like Virat Kohli from the Indian team and are wondering what the world has come to with the boisterous, unruly bunch dotting the lineup. Bangladesh have become the second best team in Asia and are challenging the big teams regularly in all formats. The structure of international cricket has changed with the BCCI pulling the plug on international engagements, and have expanded the IPL to include the test and one day internationals. The international game now has friendlies and the big tournaments; T20 is still king of club cricket though. The Royal Challengers Bangalore are yet to win a title—both sets of fans (their fanbase and their opponents) regularly give vent their contrastive feelings through communal drinking. Perhaps this was Mallya’s business plan all the way along.

Somehow, in the midst of all this, rather incredibly, the one day international (ODI) format is still in vogue. It has withstood the onslaught of the shorter format. Some things haven’t still changed though: Australia are still an annoying team that everybody hates; England are yet to win a World Cup; Bishan Singh Bedi is still critical of the establishment; there is still no distinction between the English and South African teams either on the field or matters of birth—they both choke at the final hurdle with regularity.

The aliens barge into the BCCI office and throw a cricketing challenge: the best alien players will face-off against Earth’s best in a winner-takes-all ODI series. And since the aliens wish to be taken very seriously, they make sure that they go through the Supreme Court lest their intentions are mistaken to be frivolous.

The stakes are high in this hypothetical series. The all-powerful aliens would spare Earth of its subjugation if the earthlings were to win—teen guna lagaan and all that. The heads of various cricketing establishments get together to assemble a team of Earth’s mightiest heroes to fight the aliens in an Avengers-meet-Armageddon premise. Since this would be mediated by the Supreme Court, it is perhaps more appropriate to call it the Justice League.

This hypothetical fanboy exercise is a culmination to parts 1 and 2, where we’ve looked at batsmen who outperformed their peers in a run chase and setting a target respectively. Who would make the cut amongst the batsmen culled from the history of the ODI format? Could we use analytical techniques to come to arrive at this bevy of bewitching batmen?

What do we already know about ODI batting?

The ODI format hasn’t been a structural monolith, but has continuously evolved with time. As a case in point, Sunil Gavaskar infamously batted through 174 balls for his 36* in pursuit of England’s 334 in 60 overs in the inaugural world cup; though other openers of the time didn’t follow the soporific approach, they largely batted with an aim to preserve wickets at the top of the order. It is hard to imagine today’s ODI openers having the same approach. Run-rates have been on a continuous upward climb since the 1992 World Cup, and so have been the attitude of batsmen at the top of the order.

An ODI batsman has to master two variables during his stint in the middle: one, the wickets remaining; two, the balls remaining. For a batsman facing a target, the runs to get forms the third variable which determines his approach. Therefore, in general, the effectiveness of an ODI batsman is determined by how many runs he scores per dismissal (batting average) and how fast he scores his runs per 100 balls (strike rate). The product of the two—labelled the Batting Index (BI)—has been used by ESPNcricinfo and others as an index to benchmark batsmen against the average batsman of their times. By dividing a batsman’s BI with the corresponding product of an average batsman (positions 1-7) during their career (BI baseline), a BI ratio has been used to ascertain the various levels at which various batsmen outperformed their peers. As it can be seen in the below tables, the BI baseline has seen a continuous increase with each era at all batting positions.

1

Table 1: Variation of Batting Index (chasing) across the batting order in different time periods

2

Table 2: Variation of Batting Index (setting) across the batting order in different time periods

Additionally, the analyses from the first two parts revealed several other insights. One, it has shown that chasing a target and setting one are two different propositions with respect to the BI. Two, in the first three eras of the ODI, the middle order was the best place to bat. In the present day, the BI values are more or less flat across the top 5.

3

Table 3: Variation of BI chasing(%) using setting target as a reference. Eg. BI chasing is 15% higher for 1&2 compared to BI setting between 71-84. (BI chasing-BI setting/BI setting)*100

In the previous two exercises, this BI concept was further developed to see which batsmen dominated the world with their performances during different ODI eras (9 in total) by computing and comparing BI ratios while setting and chasing ODI targets. A BI ratio of 1.4 implies that a batsman’s BI is 40% higher than the BI baseline during a particular era. A BI ratio level of 1.4 is extremely rare, and less than 20 players have achieved it during each era (with a minimum runs scored cutoff, of course) either while setting the target or chasing one. Many batsmen have shone in one particular era but have struggled to maintain their lofty heights in other eras—barring a few batting maestros. A champion batting team has boasted of a handful of these players—in the form of their lives—and has generally tasted international success during the era.

Now would this ODI series be played with fielding restrictions? Under lights? Two balls? 50 overs? Will Tendulkar be marked as the marauding player of the late nineties or as the player who would time the ball and nudge around for boundaries in the mid-noughties? Would Rohit Sharma be considered as an opener or as a middle order player—why is he considered at all? So many questions.

Therefore, any exercise that compares a player from, say, 20 years ago with a current one is fraught with difficulty and some ground rules must be set. A cut-off of at least 75 innings at 30 runs/dismissal until 31 December 2016 seems reasonable as it brings 143 batsmen under scrutiny, the least amongst these having scored 1874 runs. The individual metrics used to obtain BI are the traditionally used batting average (runs/dismissal) and strike rate (runs/100 balls) with runs made in all international ODI matches until 31 December 2016 being used in the analysis.

Rather than just ground-breaking statistical peaks, the duration for which the batsmen dominated the rest of the field will be given its due (readers can peruse era-centric values in the earlier pieces) unless the lofty peaks cannot be overlooked. And, the analytical criteria has to take the vagaries of setting/chasing, ODI eras, and the batting position into consideration.

The method used in the first two parts (using a common BI baseline across the board for a particular era) is a good first cut, but it heavily favours the middle order batsmen. How fair is it to use the same BI baseline for Vivian Richards (a middle order batsman) and Gordon Greenidge (an opener) when the BI baseline for openers is ~30% lesser than that of a middle order batsman in the first era? Traditionally, the BI baselines for middle order batsmen are the highest, but this method divides everyone’s BI with the average batsman’s (1-7) BI.  The BIs of batsmen batting at 6 and 7 are especially lower than the top five, and hence are under-represented in the various tables seen in parts 1 and 2. So what about players like Kapil Dev who batted at the end of the middle order for most of their career? What about batsmen like Kohli who’ve been fantastic in the chase but merely good while setting the target? Hence, a tweak has to be applied to the BI baseline which is based on the batting opportunities that the batsman got during his career.

The Average batting position (ABP) is a number representing the average of all the batting positions batted by the batsman. While the ABP alone can’t be taken as a sacrosanct figure (as a similar ABPs can be manufactured with different mashups of batting position distributions), it does have its utility as it can give a rough indication of a batsman’s most frequent batting position.

Using the same principle, the fraction of innings batted at each position, era, and set/chase can be multiplied with the respective BI of all batsmen who batted in similar circumstances (values in tables 1 and 2), which can then be summed to get the BI baseline (weighted) for that batsman. In a sense, we would be comparing the particular batsman’s  BI with a hypothetical, composite, average batsman—one that would have batted in identical conditions with respect to batting positions, set/chase and ODI eras during his career.

Now to the selection of the batsmen.

Up until 31 December 2016, an ODI match has produced ~54k wickets in ~2 million deliveries bowled—or a wicket every 37 balls. Top ODI batsmen average ~40-50 runs per dismissal at a ~90 strike rate, and hence 7 such capable batsmen would suffice for the heavy lifting.

Ideally, the batting order should comprise of seven competent batsmen with one of them being a wicket-keeper and one of them should also serve as the 5th bowler (and two more in the batting order should be able to bowl a few overs as a backup). The seventh player could also be a bowler or a bowling all-rounder, but for the purpose of this exercise we will be looking at all-rounders who were primarily known for their batting prowess but could also bowl the full quota of their overs. The selected batsmen would mostly bat in and around their most popular batting positions. The selection will be divided into different phases—openers, numbers 3, 4 & 5, 6, 7 based on BI baseline similitude in different eras.

4.jpg

The peerless Sachin Tendulkar leads the way among batsmen who have batted primarily in the opening slots. His overall performance is nearly 1.6 times a hypothetical batsman afforded similar batting opportunities during the course of Tendulkar’s career eras. What is even more remarkable is that Tendulkar had a middling record as a middle order batsman until 1994, and his overall numbers have to be seen in this context.

A notch below him are Gordon Greenidge and Hashim Amla, separated by the third decimal point. It must be noted that Amla is an active batsman (as are Warner and de Kock) who has batted in 147 innings compared to Greenidge’s 127, and there is no saying which way his career statistics would move over the next few years. His innings/50+ score is amongst the highest and hence he would shade Greenidge on this count. Gilchrist, Hayden and Sehwag have had fantastic records as well.

The number 3 batsman needs to be a pivot onto the middle order, and be able bat in a variety of ways; if an early wicket should fall, he must be able to compensate by scoring big, or if given a good opening stand, provide a stable platform and take the match to the endgame. A big scoring ability, and way to keep the scoreboard ticking are key attributes.

5.jpg

In a relatively short career span, Virat Kohli has separated himself from the rest of the chasing pack, followed by Dean Jones. Kohli towers over his contemporaries such as Williamson and Root who have good credentials at number 3. Ponting, Lara and Kallis have excellent numbers in spite of their lengthy careers. A special note needs to be made about Pakistan’s Zaheer Abbas who outperformed his peers at a very high level but didn’t make the cut as he batted in only 60 innings.

The middle order is backed by two batting bulwarks who select themselves without a semblance of a contest. Keep in mind, many of the players in the other tables have batted in a variety of positions from 3 to 6 all through their career.

6.jpg

Due to the BI baseline (weighted) tweak, Richards climbs down from his top position and is overtaken by de Villiers. Perhaps we have an answer to which current day batsman is closest to Richards’ level of performance which was two decades ahead of its time. Richards’ illustrious contemporaries like Greg Chappell and Clive Lloyd have played lesser innings than the cut-off (and have much lower ratios).

7.jpg

India’s MS Dhoni shades Bevan and Hussey for the number six slot due to his high BI ratio, his finishing ability and his big hitting capabilities. He’s also the favourite to take the wicket-keeping position ahead of Adam Gilchrist.

Now for the last batsman who should be able to hit the ball a mile from the word go. There is also the small matter of selection of an all-rounder who can bowl a bit. Where would this all-rounder play? At the top? In the middle order? Or at the end?

8.jpg

Lance Klusener has outperformed his BI baseline at levels higher than the middle order champions; 75 innings old Jos Buttler has made a promising start to his career as well but his selection would be based on future feats. Who knows, he may be able to displace Dhoni from the wicket keeper slot. Other all-rounders such as Symmonds, Watson, Kapil Dev and Kallis are multiple notches below Klusener’s levels of performance. Viv Richards and Tendulkar would be able to roll their arms over in times of bowling need.

There you have it—the cricketing world’s version of The Avengers to avenge the earth. The batting order would read: Amla, Tendulkar, Kohli, Richards, de Villiers, Dhoni (wk) and Klusener. Fancy a bowl against these mighty men?

 

 

 

 

 

The IPL isn’t the flagbearer of innovation that it should be

“Who wants to watch a batsman’s bum for half the match?”

Until the seminal World Series Cricket tournament envisaged by Kerry Packer, television coverage of cricketing action used no more than five cameras in total. The bulkiness and the cost of broadcasting camera equipment restricted the deployment of additional television cameras.  Therefore, the main views were all from one end. Indian cricket fans may remember the grainy footage from India’s maiden World cup triumph in 1983 totally obscured the front-on view of the winning moment when Mohinder Amarnath trapped Micheal Holding leg before wicket, before running to the pavilion before hordes of jubilant spectators descended on the ground. Kerry Packer would have none of this, and reportedly told his producers that very sentence, making his intentions loud and clear. Television coverage would later change for the better, and since then, many inside edges and roughly half of leg before decisions would no more be shrouded in mystery. This was one of the ways that World Series Cricket (WSC) had revolutionized the way the game was played and followed.

The premise of World Series Cricket is somewhat related to that of today’s T20 leagues—it was a revolution whose time had come. Back in 1976, Australian media magnate Kerry Packer tried very hard to secure television rights for the Australian home cricket season for his network, but was beaten to it in spite of making a better offer due to a cozy relationship between the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Australian Cricket Board. Additionally, during the time, there was a perception that cricketers were not paid well enough to make a living from playing the game.

After he was rebuffed for his offer, he went about signing the game’s best players through Tony Greig and Ian Chappell to set up a parallel cricketing universe. The establishment reacted and a legal wrangle ensued; they tried to ban WSC contracted players and many a series was played between “official players” only. Packer responded by claiming that ICC was seeking to force the players’ hands and break the contracts. Justice Slade ruled that banning cricketers would be an unreasonable restraint of trade, and awarded close to a quarter of a million pounds in costs to Kerry Packer’s side. There were constraints though—he wasn’t able to label his matches as test matches or use traditional venues.

It was in this necessity that the invention of World Series Cricket as a product came to the forefront, whose legacy can still be felt even today. WSC proceeded to lease stadiums (Australian rules football, a trotting ground and a general venue) in the major cities. Kerry Packer’s groundsman, John Maley, developed drop-in pitches which were grown in greenhouses. Packer also ambushed the viewers with slick production and marketing, making the cricketing action as a “manly”contest between the fast bowler and the batsman. The key to the success of WSC was the signing up of the top cricketers from across the world, all too happy to be paid what they were worth.

Other innovations drove the game forward, and kept Packer’s WSC afloat. The first season of WSC saw low attendances but a pivot towards floodlit matches and one-day matches saw an increase in footfalls and television ratings. The predecessors to the ubiquitous modern-day cricketing helmet were used for the first time in WSC, and the focus on fast bowling both highlighted the dangers and authenticated the seriousness of the cricketing product. Coloured clothing, white balls, fielding circles were introduced as well; aggressive marketing, replays, funky graphics, stump microphones and many other features of the cricket viewing experience that we take for granted today were developed during its time.

On the other hand, another revolutionary product—centered around the T20 format—has not created a similar impact with respect to technological innovations. The Indian Premier League (IPL) championed by Lalit Modi and co. was launched amidst much fanfare in 2007. The parallels with WSC are not difficult to see; the new league promised astronomical riches for the players, and the world’s top players had been signed for a cricketing tournament fuelled by a marketing blitz. However, this exercise was “official” unlike the WSC’s premise. A decade ago, the IPL seemed to be more of a reaction to Subhash Chandra’s Indian Cricket League (ICL), which was closer to WSC in terms of narrative (thwarting of media rights bid, secret signings of players, banning of players, playing on non-regular grounds). The underdog wouldn’t win the fistfight with the establishment this time around—after a couple of popular seasons, the ICL raised the white flag. The IPL may be India’s (and indeed, the world’s) pre-eminent T20 tournament, but the ICL was the first to showcase the commercial potential of the format on Indian shores.

Coming to think of it, the IPL does not boast of many innovative ideas even though Lalit Modi claims it to be ahead of its time. The format originated in England; the IPL was modelled on various sporting leagues across the world like the NBA; the concept of super-over and cheerleaders were adopted directly from the World T20; the Spidercam was first seen in the ICL; Flashing wickets first made an appearance in the Big Bash League (BBL). It is an uncomfortable truth that the richest T20 league in the world is not at the forefront of technological innovation in the game of cricket.

There is more—in the mid-nineties, various people in the Indian cricketing establishment had flirted with the possibilities of an inter-city cricketing league coexisting with India’s domestic structure but the project was turned down. In a sense of delicious irony, the name of the company which was registered by Lalit Modi was Indian Cricket League Limited, which never took off.

Perhaps I’ve been a bit too harsh. The IPL is here to stay and has generated a whole new economy. It has generously provided a livelihood for cricketers who have may not have a chance to be international player. It has no doubt brought a whole new set of fans to the game. And, if one were to look deeply, the IPL and the BCCI can lay claim to an innovation that was solely developed on Indian shores—the strategic timeout.

Trouble at the top

What a difference one series can make.

Going into the One-Day International leg of the India-England series in January, the Indian team looked in a spot of bother. Since 2008, India’s top order has been consistently amongst the runs and has delivered good starts. On the other hand, the middle order had found itself without lumbar support, and had regressed as a batting unit.

A typical example of India’s weakness was seen in the second semi-final of the 2015 World Cup between Australia and India. Set a target of 329 in fifty overs, the team kept pace until the thirteenth over. One wicket soon became three in the space of 31 balls and India’s chase was dismantled on the spot. India slowly limped towards a 95-run defeat with the result never in doubt the moment the middle order stepped into the chase.

The India-England ODI series was a temporary analgesic to India’s batting worries. India’s top order failed in each match, and the middle order duly delivered with big scores. Yuvraj Singh found fluency, Dhoni rediscovered his big hitting, and the India had a new batting dynamo in Kedar Jadhav – who ended up as the top scorer. All boxes ticked, India’s Champions Trophy defence in June seemed back on track.

However, the Indian Premier League has shown up the deficiencies of the Indian team in the top order. The splitting headache is back again.

Rohit Sharma has only just returned from injury; he’s still getting into his groove. He’s been put under pressure by many a legs-spinner’s googly. To make matters worse, he is not batting up the order for the Mumbai Indians team. KL Rahul was another contender, but has sat out of the IPL with a shoulder injury; he is all but ruled out of the Champions Trophy.

Ajinkya Rahane, one of the regular contenders for the opener role in overseas conditions, has not produced any big innings to throw his hat into the ring; Shikhar Dhawan has two fifties in 11 matches for Sunrisers Hyderabad (at the time of publishing). The beacon of consistency that has been Virat Kohli hasn’t stamped his authority in the tournament at all – a dry spell which he has run into after the India-England series.

In fact, the statistics pages of the IPL shows up the Indian team’s deficiencies in broad daylight. As of May 8, seven Indians, namely Suresh Raina (second), Gautam Gambhir (third), Shikhar Dhawan (fifth), Robin Uthappa (sixth), Sanju Samson (seventh), Rahul Tripathi (ninth) and Manish Pandey (tenth) occupy slots in the top-10 run-getters (the Orange Cap standings). Only Gambhir and Uthappa among these names, have scored more than thee fifty plus scores.

The strike rate statistic is even more revealing. Ajinkya Rahane’s strike rate after 12 matches hovers around the 120 mark, Shikhar Dhawan’s is marginally better at 126.79. In an era where eight runs per over is par for the course (a SR of 133.3), their IPL 2017 strike rates are out of tune with the requirements of the modern Twenty20 game.

However, India needn’t look further for inspiration – the 2013 Champions Trophy is a case in point of getting results against the grain. The top run scorers in the 2013 IPL edition had more foreigners; Rohit Sharma still batted in the middle order; no Indian opener had set the stage alight with tall scores or with the big blows. Looking back, the selection of Shikhar Dhawan was an inspired punt considering his showing in the IPL 2013 (311 runs from 10 innings at a 123 SR, three fifties); perhaps it was on the basis of his performance in the India-Australia Test series. Come to think of it, India’s squad selection to the Champions Trophy was a little bit of a shot in the dark.

Sachin Tendulkar had bowed out of the ODI format in late 2012; Sehwag and Gambhir weren’t able to maintain their high standards. It was in this scenario that Rohit Sharma was promoted as a naturalised opener in the ODI format. Until 2012, Rohit Sharma was an underwhelming middle order batsman averaging a shade under 35 runs per dismissal at a strike rate of 80. The elevation of Rohit Sharma to the opener’s slot changed his fortunes – ever since, he has scored over 3000 runs, scoring nearly 53 runs per dismissal and striking at 89 runs per 100 balls.

The selection of Shikhar Dhawan was even more inspired; he had made one fifty plus score in four outings before the 2013 Champions Trophy. He hadn’t played for Delhi in the 2012-‘13 Vijay Hazare trophy. However, in the opening match of the Champions Trophy against the South Africans, the big booming drives were back in business and India were up and running in the dog-eat-dog world tournament. He led the batting charts by the time India lifted the trophy in Birmingham (as did Ravindra Jadeja, with the bowling charts).

On the basis of historical form, Rohit Sharma deserves to walk into the opener’s slot. The identity of his batting partner is still shrouded in mystery though. Would it be wise to recall Gautam Gambhir? Will Dhawan be able to get back into his stride? What about Ajinkya Rahane? Is it worth taking a punt on Robin Uthappa? Going into the 2017 edition of the Champions Trophy, India would do well to channel the spirit of 2013.

Setting the agenda

1.jpg

In the air: Sourav Ganguly spinning the coin at the toss between India and Australia in 2003. Image source: 1.

“It is tails” said Ranjan Madugalle, the match referee, on 23rd March 2003, to resounding cheers from the Jo’burg crowd. Sourav Ganguly now had the chance to decide what the Indian team should be doing after winning the toss against the Australians in the World cup final.

The same Indian team had folded for 125 against the Aussies in the group stage match, and there was some effigy burning; the same Aussies, who had crushed every opponent so far, had not been beaten in a World Cup fixture since their loss to Pakistan in a group stage match back in 1999.

There was some context to India’s batting collapse in the earlier match—on the preceding tour to New Zealand, the much vaunted Indian batting lineup couldn’t muster more than 219 in over 11 international innings on severely underprepared pitches. Understandably, they were severely short of confidence when they landed on South African shores. On the upside, the Indian fast bowlers had a spring in their step after bowling on green tops.

After the debilitating loss against Australia, the Indian team turned a corner, won eight matches on the trot, and reached the final. Did they have a chance against the invincible Aussies?

“Sourav you’ve won the toss. What will you be doing?” boomed Michael Holding with his Jamaican accent.

Fans could barely hear “We’ll have a bowl” in the midst of the din, already having assumed that the result of winning the toss was a foregone conclusion. Wait, what did he just say?

“Why is that?” asked Holding, thrusting the microphone forward.

“Because it’s it’s a bit damp…. Uhhh it’s because of the rain in the morning. We’ll have a go at this first”.

This was like turkeys voting for Christmas, so to speak. Was the earlier result playing on his mind?

“So you’re hoping that your fast bowlers will get a bit of purchase on this surface and you’ll get a couple of early wickets?”

“I definitely think so if they can put the ball in the right place the way they’ve bowled… we’ll definitely get some purchase”.

Why did he have to think? All he had to say was “Bat”. One syllable. Was it so difficult to say?

“Ricky, would you have done anything different?” asked Holding to the Australian captain, who was barely able to conceal his delight.

“No, would’ve had a bat, actually. It’s always nice to bat in big games in finals I think so we would’ve had a bat”.

See! He was thinking straight. Why couldn’t Ganguly think more like him?

Sure, Ganguly might have had some grounds for bowling first; but, what did the numbers suggest, in the manner of successful chasing teams?

If scores of scarred Indian fans haven’t minimized the window by now, they would recall that India failed to chase 360 in the final. Back in 2003, 360 was an unassailable target. In an article on ESPNcricinfo in January, the metamorphosis of the ODI game has been captured in a snapshot: A first innings score of 300-324 guaranteed victory before 2001 (and this included 60 over games) 9 times out of 10; since 2013, the corresponding figure has slipped to less than 3 times out of 4. The par score has increased from ~225 to ~270 as well.

2

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

These results aren’t surprising, considering the evolution of the ODI game. Like the previous article about chasing teams, if we were to demarcate ODIs into 9 eras, the increase in strike rate (runs/100 balls) for batsmen (1-7) follow a similar upward trend, with the latest era batsmen scoring at 30% higher rates (compared to ~65 in era 1).

However, there are various nuances across the batting order. In general, the effectiveness of an ODI batsman is determined by factors such as how fast one can score his runs (strike rate), his ability to not get dismissed (Not out%), and his propensity to score a big amount of runs. Like the last time, here too, we will be examining the trends of these factors before moving on to take a look at the top batsmen who were proficient in the first ODI innings.

3.jpg

Staying power: The variation of strike rate and not out% across eras

Ever since Martin Crowe’s team revolutionized ODI batting with Greatbatch’s fireworks at the top of the order in 1992, the role of the ODI opener has never been the same since. The strike rate of the opening batsmen (1-2) has steadily risen over the years, with the greatest bump happening in the era post-1992. The strike rates of no. 4 and no. 6 batsmen have taken a drastic upward turn in the latest era, probably due to the effect of fielding restrictions in the middle overs.

The Not Out% shows some unusual patterns; the probability of an opener staying not out is still miniscule, but batting later has its benefits. Of particular interest is the no. 4 (no. 5 as well) during the 2002-2004 era. Probably, teams were trying to emulate the Michael Bevan template of batting through to the end (observe the strike rate in the same era being lower than the opener or no. 6). Understandably, the NO%  is much lesser when compared to the chasing values (~20%) for middle order batsmen (4-6), since teams batting first have a different mandate (maximizing their resources) compared to while chasing (staying in touch with the required run rate, while conserving wickets).

4.jpg

Striking it big: Incidence of big scores in different eras, across the batting order.

The propensity of making big scores is a bit different as well. Batsmen batting in the top 4 have had the best chance to register a 50+ score (~1 in 4 innings). Due to increased strike rates, the batsmen at number 6 have had greater opportunities to chip in with big scores recently.

The occurrence of 100+ scores across the batting order shows some unusual trends; the percentage of innings resulting in a 100 increased till 02-04, decreased subsequently, and then rose sharply in the last 2-3 eras. In fact, the 13-16 era was the most productive in terms of individual 100 scores. No doubt, the tinkering of the fielding restrictions in the middle overs has helped some of the middle order batsmen to amass big scores.

The overall evolution of the ODI game can be deduced by observing the Batting Index benchmark (BI). For the uninitiated reader, it is a product of the batting average (runs/dismissal) and the strike rate (runs/100 balls), divided by 100. For a batsman, the ability to score more runs before getting dismissed, and in a lesser number of balls is highly prized. Since it is a multiplication product, a high BI value implies that the constituent factors are high as well.

5.jpg

Setting a benchmark: Variation of Batting Index (setting) across the batting order in different time periods

The progression of ODI batting can be observed by cursorily glancing through the BI values across the batting order in different eras. Batting was easier at numbers 3 & 4 in the first two eras, before the openers caught up in the post-Greatbatch eras. The numbers have been fairly stable amongst the top 6 overall, and have tailed off at number 7. The effect of four fielders in the middle overs is there to be seen in the latest era; numbers 3 and 4 have the highest BI values in the table.

6.jpg

Two different games: Variation of BI chasing(%) using setting target as a reference. Eg. BI chasing is 15% higher for 1&2 compared to BI setting between 71-84. (BI chasing-BI setting/BI setting)*100

A simple way to understand the differences in Batting indices while setting a target and chasing a target would be to compare the two. The above table shows the % variation of BI (chasing) with BI (setting) as a reference. The positive and negative differences are shown in green and red respectively. For instance, BI (chasing) was ~15% higher than the corresponding BI (setting value) for openers in the 71-84 era. Of late, BI (chasing) has taken a beating across the batting order.

From the statistics seen so far, we can conclude that batting first and batting second are two different ball games; the lower order batsmen (6-7) suffer comparatively while chasing. The opening batsmen influence have had a greater influence in the chase compared to batting first. Hence, for a chase, the top 5 batsmen influence it more often than not; and, while batting first, the top 6 influence most games.

In this article, the overall BI (batting positions 1 to 7) has been taken as the baseline. This may cause an under-representation lower order batsmen since their BI is not at the same level. However, a universal baseline is much easier to apply across the board and hence will be used in this analysis as well. Similar minimum run based cutoffs have been chosen (minimum 500 before era 3, and 750 runs for all eras post 1988) with respect to batsmen batting between positions 1-7 while setting a target in different eras.

Once the bar has been set, the identity top-20 batsmen by BI ratios (w.r.t the 1-7 BI setting baselines) can be easily found out independent of the match context. Since the BI is a temporally dynamic index, comparing different batsmen across eras is also taken care of to some extent.

7.jpg

Target setting champions in the first 3 ODI eras.

In the first two eras, Vivian Richards was the master blaster in the first innings. It is also worth recalling that he was top chasing batsman in these two eras as well. Other West Indian greats such as Haynes, Greenidge, and Lloyd are also in the top-20. All-rounders such as Imran Khan and Kapil Dev feature in this list, despite their low batting positions. In the second era, the Aussies dominate the table with Steve Waugh, Jones, Boon and Marsh. Other players who did well batting first were Zaheer Abbas, Gower, Lamb, and Inzamam. It can be seen that the top-10 has been dominated by middle order batsmen.

8.jpg

Target setting champions in the next 3 ODI eras.

Over the next three eras, opening batsmen started to feature a lot more in the higher positions: Lara, Tendulkar, Ganguly, Kirsten, Gilchrist, Jayasuriya, Mark Waugh—all registered good BI ratio values. Other ODI regulars such as Bevan, Ponting, Ranatunga, Aravinda de Silva, Kallis, Mohd. Yousuf are present as well. Pakistan’s Abdul Razzaq makes an appearance in the top 3 of era 6, despite him batting lower down the order.

9.jpg

Target setting champions in the last 3 ODI eras.

In the last three eras, the middle order batsmen have made a comeback: Dhoni, Hussey, de Villiers, Duminy, Pietersen, Sangakkara, Taylor and Yuvraj Singh. The presence of Ireland’s Paul Stirling amongst the familiar names is a big achievement.

Overall, the lists have been dominated by batsmen who have batted in the top 5 positions. The presence of Kapil Dev, Boucher, Razzaq, Imran Khan, Oram, Flintoff and Symmonds in the top-20 show that it is easier for a lower order batsman to make an impact while setting a target as compared to in the chase. Nevertheless, a small tweak to the index must be formulated to take care of the representation of the lower order batmen.

From the above tables, Viv Richards’ BI ratio of ~3.17 towers over everyone else. Many batsmen such as Tendulkar, Sehwag, Amla, de Villiers, and Abbas have crossed the 2.5 mark. It must also be noted that the spread of BI ratio is not the same across eras; for instance, the top batsman in era 1 has a BI ratio of ~3.17, but the corresponding top batsman in era 6 is only at ~1.99.

In order to take care of this, a BI ratio cutoff of 1.40 can be applied across the board. The choice of the 1.40 BI ratio benchmark is specific, as it narrows the list of elite batsmen to at least 8 players. This ratio of 1.40 represents a 40% better performance, vis-à-vis an average batsman (1-7), while setting a target.

How did these wonderful batsmen fare across different eras?

10.jpg

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

Only a few players have been able to consistently outperform the rest of the field across different eras; this can be highlighted by the number of times these players have featured multiple times in the BI ratio lists. Needless to say, some of the greatest ODI batsmen feature in this list of players who have crossed BI ratios of 1.75 and 1.40 in different eras.

In the above table, the player’s name, and his nth appearance (in parenthesis) have been indicated at different eras. For example, Miandad made his 2nd appearance at a chasing BI ratio>1.40 in the second era (84-89). It must also be noted that a player’s nth appearance in the 1.75 column is not reported in the 1.40 column, even though it is obvious, but for one exception—Sachin Tendulkar. Tendulkar breached the 1.40 barrier in era 4, and remained above the 1.75 level (and 1.40) in the next 4 eras. No other player has been able to sustain that level of performance for 4 eras, leave alone 5. However, it must be remembered that the first era is 15 years long.

In the 1.40 list, many players such as Jayasuriya, Kallis, Lamb, Boon etc. have made their nth appearance across in non-contiguous eras. And, only five players have breached the 1.40 level in more than 3 eras—Tendulkar, Dhoni, Ponting, Jayasuriya and Kallis. AB de Villiers and Amla are active players, and can make it into this elite list if they maintain their present form.

What about the teams then?

11.jpg

Setting the agenda: The countries with the most number of good target setters in each ODI era.

Across eras, only 8-18 batsmen have crossed the 1.40 BI ratio level, which indicates the exclusivity of the benchmark. In five eras, one team led the charts in terms of the stockpile of elite players; barring South Africa in the latest era, the top team with the highest number of high quality 1st innings batting personnel has won international tournaments. Of particular interest is Australia’s stranglehold of champion first innings batsmen from 1994 to 2008.

So, could Ganguly have done things any differently in the 2003 World Cup final?

Australia, due to having fanstastic target setting batsmen, were the pre-eminent ODI team for five eras. India too, had equivalent resources while batting first between 1998-2001, but couldn’t keep up with the Aussie might in the next era. Wisden wasn’t wrong in its assessment that this team (without Shane Warne, mind you) would have beaten a Rest of World XI. And then there was the small matter of them being the champion chasing team as well.

Zaheer Khan might have been overexicted, and conceded 15 runs in the opening over; the two wickets that Ganguly was hoping for due to the purchase off the wicket never came until the 20th over, when the Aussies were comfortable at 125/2; two formidable batsmen, in the form of Ponting and Martyn, familiar with the art of setting a target, stitched together a massive partnership.

That man Ponting would more than compensate for his sedate first 50 off 74 balls—by scoring his second 50 off his next 29 and finishing with 140 off 121, taking Australia to 359. The Indian bowling lineup which had bowled like a dream for most of the tournament were demolished into submission; Srinath, the elder statesman, conceded 87 runs in what was his last ODI game.

What if India had collapsed batting first, like in the group stage game?

While individual predictions about a specific match can’t be made (and this is what makes the sport fun), take a moment to consider this: against the Aussies in their pomp (1 Jan 1998 to 31 Dec 2008), India had the best winning record against them while batting first; they only won five out of 27 matches batting second (fifth). After Tendulkar’s twin assaults in desert stormTM and desert storm reloadedTM, India hadn’t won a single match chasing against Australia until late 2007. No wonder the CB series victory against Australia in 2008 was a watershed moment.

On this basis, India had a better chance to win the match if they had batted first. Sigh. If only…..

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