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.

 

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.

 

 

Making a case for cricket worldwide: faster, higher, stronger

Recently, ICC’s chief executive, Dave Richardson, dropped hints about Cricket’s governing body making a decision regarding applying for an Olympic spot. The prospect of cricket at the Olympics has been a long and twisted saga—something that could easily be confused for a soap opera.

Cricket was penciled in as an event in the very first modern Olympic Games at Athens in 1896; it was listed in the original program but was later shelved due to an insufficient number of entries. Four years later in the 1900 Paris Olympics, only four teams entered the fray—Great Britain, Belgium, Holland, and the hosts, France. Belgium and Holland withdrew from the cricket competition after their co-hosting bids were turned down. Therefore, the final match was contested between the teams of the two nations across the English Channel, Great Britain and France. Great Britain won the 12-a-side match contested over two days; cricket never featured in the Olympic Games since.

The game of cricket has 105 full members from across the world. However, only 10 of these members are full members with “Test status”. Even though the ICC may claim that the game is followed by more than a billion fans, it is dependent on the subcontinental teams to do the heavy lifting. Puzzlingly, the playing field of the game’s marquee tournament—the ODI world cup—was shrunk to 10 teams after the latest edition in 2015. During a time when FIFA was open to a 48 team world cup, cricket’s decision to keep the minnows at the margins was widely decried. Understandably, the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) labelled this reorganization as a retrograde step. At the same time, it called for T20 cricket to become an Olympic sport. T20, with its underdog friendly nature, was rightly labelled as the format to globalize the game by Sachin Tendulkar.

The earliest that cricket can feature again the in the Olympic Games is in 2024 through one of two methods. In the first, the host nation gets to make a case for the sports to be included in its Games—before the 2016 Rio opening ceremony, the organizing committee of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics nominated skateboarding, karate, surfing, sportsclimbing, and baseball/softball. Selection of a sport would require the host city to have a venue with a culture of the said sport, and this selection is not binding on future Games hosts. Meaning, if cricket makes the cut in 2024, it could be dropped in the very next edition.

The other route is the IOC path which involves significant funding, both at the ICC level and at the individual cricket board level. This is far more lucrative for the ICC as it would open up millions of dollars in government funding needed to establish infrastructure in each country. To give an example, cricket in China could get a 20 million USD boost if it were included in the Olympics; lower down the affiliate country road, government funding could lead to a significant spike in finances that is in several multiples of the ICC’s own influx. Needless to say, Olympic status would give the game a big marketing boost in several new countries as well. Then why did the ICC take so long mulling over its options?

There are many reasons as to why cricket took so long to mobilize popular opinion. For one, the English Cricket Board had an issue with the Summer Olympics clashing with its traditional cricketing calendar. The BCCI’s messy relationship with the ICC, and having to go through the IOA for approval is another matter altogether. Development of local infrastructure at a new country with no history of the game is going to be a hard sell; no bums on seats for an alien sport is not appealing to broadcasters as well. And what about the primacy of the World cup itself? Would the Olympics, another quadrennial tournament, supersede it?

Cricket is under threat from other popular sports who don’t have to contend with multiple formats. According to a recent article in The Cricket Monthly, cricket’s place in the global popularity stakes is quite fuzzy. Therefore, if the game of cricket is to survive and thrive, it needs to expand its horizons. The present system is broken with the smaller teams getting only a handful of fixtures thrown at them once in a while. How can an upcoming team improve itself when it cannot get the necessary oxygen of competitive fixtures to grow? This problem has been further exacerbated with the contraction of the World Cup.

It is instructive to note that football grappled with some of these problems before settling on its eventual format at the Olympics. FIFA, like the ICC, did not want the Olympics to rival the World Cup in prestige. However, the Olympic Games require the nations to send their strongest contingents. Meaning, it must involve the strongest players. How different would this be compared to the World T20 then?

Then there is the issue of the teams involved. Football has its own qualifying tournament, and takes 16 teams to contests in the Olympic Games. Who would be cricket’s teams? Would there be a quota from across the world? If it becomes another T20 tournament featuring 6-8 teams as Dave Richardson suggests, how would it take care of inclusion?

Fortunately, cricket doesn’t have to look beyond football’s own compromise. Since 1996, Olympic squads from the “stronger” UEFA and CONMEBOL associations can only have 3 over-23 players in their squad. Therefore, the strongest footballing nations typically have poor Olympic records; the African nations have duly benefitted from the exemption. In the case of cricket, the test playing nations could similarly send similar contingents of under-23 and a sprinkling of top players to compete with other teams who can send full strength squads; this would bridge the skills gap to some extent and give the newer teams a shot at winning a medal. Once the rest of the world catches up with the test playing nations, this could be reviewed once again.

As of now, the traditional cricketing nations have nothing to gain in terms of an Olympic medal as the game’s biggest and prestigious contests happen in Test matches and the ODI World cups. The Olympics should hence be pegged as a high visibility showcase with a commitment for initiation into cricket. This will no doubt go a long way in grabbing mainstream attention in new countries, and attract newer audiences.

 

 

 

No county for IPL men is a problem for team India’s test match preparation

By early 2006, Zaheer Khan had gone a full circle from being India’s darling at the ICC knockout trophy, to a player who had middling returns and injury problems (and spent quite a bit of time on the sidelines of the Indian team). In a bid to stage a return to the Indian team, he joined Worcestershire in the English summer of 2006. In Worcestershire, Zaheer Khan figured that he had to stay fit throughout the entire season, seam the ball more, and make some adjustments with his bowling action. Along with Graham Dilley, the Worcestershire bowling consultant, he shortened his run-up and improved the balance in his delivery stride.

He had a highly productive county stint, picking up 78 wickets in 16 games at ~29 runs per dismissal, en-route to topping the Division Two wickets list and back to national reckoning.

Upon his return to English shores in 2007 as an Indian player, he had fashioned the first Indian series win in England since 1986. He was also instrumental in India’s ascent to the summit of the test rankings. Coincidentally, his bowling statistics in both the Test and ODI format took an upturn post his county stint, and he also racked up some great fast bowling numbers as well.

Nearly two months after winning the 2011 World cup with the Indian team, he labelled his county stint as the turning point of his career in an interview to GQ India

“Yeah, in many ways it was [the turning point of my career]. It was really important for me to play at the highest level, and to get back in to the Indian side. I always knew I had the potential to perform but somehow I was not able to deliver. The stint at Worcestershire helped me understand the game, why I am playing and other things in terms of preparations for matches and bowling on different kind of wickets. It was a great learning curve.”

In the very same interview, he recommended a county season to young Indian bowlers.

It wasn’t just Zaheer Khan who had a marked improvement after a spell in county cricket. Kapil Dev played for Northamptonshire and Worcestershire in the early 1980s. Kapil Dev’s best phase as a fast bowler for India overlapped with his period in county cricket. Tendulkar and Dravid were huge hits at Yorkshire and Kent respectively; several other Indian players too benefited from the exposure the county circuit offered.

For long, the English county cricket circuit remained the ultimate finishing school for cricketers where cricketers rubbed shoulders with top overseas professionals. Recently, Wasim Akram and Michael Holding paid homage to county cricket’s role during their formative years; it is also instructive to note that they bemoaned the absence of top professionals due to the crowded cricketing calendar but still reckoned it to be the best place to learn fast bowling.

The English cricket season runs from March to September—a totally complementary time to the Indian domestic season. However, post 2007, the IPL has occupied the Indian cricketing calendar in April and May, making Indian professionals less attractive to English county sides. There is also the point of disparity in potential earnings. Why would anybody in their right mind choose toiling away in a faraway country, doing your own chores, and earning peanuts (relatively) when one could earn much more from a two month long jamboree bowling four overs at a time (for the bowlers) for 14 matches in front of millions of adoring fans? It would be hard to see someone like Zaheer Khan making this choice today.

In fact, the IPL question loomed on the horizon recently. Virat Kohli, having failed miserably in the 2014 tour to England, expressed his desire to play a few county games in order to acclimatize before the next English tour. But the extent of his participation remains doubtful for the reasons mentioned above.

Test cricket is a different beast compared to the other two limited formats. The ODI and T20 can be won by run containment; whereas, a team needs to learn to take 20 wickets in order to win a test match. Therefore, coaxing the batsman to make a mistake when there is no necessity to score runs, or manufacture a wicket, is quite different proposition compared to the challenges of the limited formats. Consequently, the struggle for survival while batting is a different challenge compared to going hell for leather in the shorter formats.

Assuming the ICC rankings to be a barometer for excellence, the fact that very few players are present in the top 10 of all the 3 rankings (Virat Kohli, Joe Root, Kane Williamson, de Kock, and no bowlers) shows that only a few are able to master the challenge doing well in three formats seamlessly. For example, Ashwin was in the limelight for his shorter format success initially, but there have been murmus about his shorter format prowess being on the wane.

Since success in test cricket is dependent on developing a good bowling unit, the Indian think-tank should do all it takes to prepare one for greater challenges abroad. The BCCI should identify premier test match specialists, and send them to county cricket before the next round of overseas fixtures. The Indian team has done well recently at home, but the legacy that it will leave for the future generations to come will be dependent on their overseas results.

With Pujara and Ishant Sharma not being chosen by the IPL franchisees, they wouldn’t have any problems with the IPL or county cricket choice. However, players like Mohammed Shami, Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, Ashwin and Umesh Yadav will feature in the IPL. The Indian team think-tank would do well to send these players to England for a season or two in order to sharpen their weapons; a reciprocal agreement with other countries wouldn’t hurt either. It should also consider compensating them financially for a loss of IPL earnings; the BCCI certainly can afford to do so, and with the world’s top cricketers playing in the IPL, Indians would be the overseas professionals of choice in various counties. In short, the BCCI should institute a county scholarship program to build on the recent successes, and look to construct an all-weather test team which can consistently matches home and abroad.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The India Australia series provided a bowling-led blueprint for greater challenges abroad

Indian batsman K L Rahul drew the curtains to a closely contested series between India and Australia in the Border-Gavaskar trophy with a punch to midwicket. With that brace, Rahul had scored six fifties in the test series, becoming only the first Indian batsman to do so since 1983.  For a batsman who was pilloried as an “all or nothing” batsman having scored 4 hundreds and 7 sub-16 scores in his first 11 innings, key contributions to the Indian cause must have been sweet, no doubt. At the end of the hard fought series, Rahul’s show with the bat will count as yet another batting success for the Indian team.

That the Indian cricketing setup is obsessed with batting is an open secret. India’s biggest heroes in the test arena are its champion batsmen. Ranging from Vijay Merchant to Hazare to Gavaskar to Tendulkar to Dravid to Laxman to Sehwag, India have been blessed with a bevy of bewitching batsmen. The latest incarnation of the batting superstar is the captain of the Indian team in all 3 formats—Virat Kohli himself. India’s next batting champion was duly anointed at the end of the India-England series after Virat Kohli scored 655 runs over 8 innings. Another double hundred in the Bangladesh test, and he had outscored Bradman and Rahul Dravid with 4 double hundreds in 4 successive series. Normal service had indeed resumed.

Somehow, this series didn’t go according to plan in terms of the batsmen. Virat Kohli scored 46 runs in the series with an average of 9.2. The rest of the Indian batting too, found the going difficult with the bowler-friendly pitches on offer (barring Ranchi). Only Pujara and Rahul can be counted as batsmen who had a good run, each scoring over 390 runs in their 7 innings. Sure, Jadeja, Saha, and Rahane did make key contributions, but only the aforementioned two batsmen did well consistently throughout the series.

The series was won on the basis of fantastic bowling. Barring the 451 runs scored by Australia in Ranchi, the Australians couldn’t rack up more than 300 runs in a single innings. India’s incisive bowling was the main reason why they got into advantageous positions throughout the series. In the Dharamshala test, Australia were comfortable at 144/1 on the first afternoon before a Kuldeep Yadav inspired bowling attack bundled the Aussies for 300—what would be later on termed as a below-par effort for the surface. In the second innings too, taking out 3 batsmen before the first innings deficit was wiped out contributed to the comfortable Indian victory on the fourth morning.

The other test matches too had similar showings. Maxwell was dismissed at 331/5 at Ranchi, and India duly mopped up the rest of the wickets for 120 additional runs before propping up their Pujara-Saha inspired mammoth score. At 63/4 in the last innings, the Australians had to dig deep to stay alive in the series. Similarly, in the Bengaluru test, after India were bundled out for 189 in the first innings, it was their bowlers who limited the deficit to 87 runs; after the Pujara-Rahane show which got the bowlers a reasonable target to defend, the Indian bowlers were at it again, snuffing out any remote chance of a victory. It was an inspired show under duress, after Smith had told the press that they were a session or two away from regaining the Border-Gavaskar trophy. Even in the first Pune test, India had limited Australia to two sub-300 scores in spite of fielding lapses; it was their twin batting failures that had let them down.

In short, it was India’s bowling which shone throughout the series. Three bowlers snared more than 17 wickets each at less than 28 runs per dismissal. Of the players who have captained their sides for more than 20 test matches, Virat Kohli is at the top of the W/L charts. Granted, he is yet to go through the complete tour circuit around the world, but his learnings from his tenure so far would have given him enough lessons about building a successful test team.

Result Batting average Bowling average
Win 41.48 23.72
Loss 22.69 43.49
Draw 42.11 44.14

 

Over the last ten years, batsmen and bowlers have averaged ~33 and ~34 runs/dismissal. The disparity due to batting and bowling averages is due to extras and dismissals such as run-outs. While the exact same numbers may not repeat all through cricketing history, the truism of taking 20 wickets win a test match by bowling well ring loud and clear. In fact, the primacy of bowling in test match success is quite obvious from the above table. Good batting performances usually occur in wins and draws, but more often than not, a victory in test cricket is affected by an exceptional bowling unit.

In other words, good batting is mandatory not to lose a test match but is not alone sufficient to win it. With an ineffective bowling attack, it was no wonder that Indian teams led by Ganguly, Dravid, and Dhoni were unable to win more than a single test per overseas series. It is still early days in Kohli’s captaincy, but it is safe to say that the bedrock of his team’s victories were due to the champion bowlers at summit of the test rankings—Ashwin and Jadeja.

When India resumes touring duties against sides smarting from the test reverses, in the 2017-18 season, the think-tank needs to look no further from the blueprint of this 20 month long test run, and from earlier successful teams. In the earlier W/L list, only 6 captains among the top 25 had a bowling unit that averaged more than 30 runs/dismissal. Simply put, India needs to assemble a similarly effective bowling unit if it has to be successful in unfriendly overseas conditions as well.

 

 

Did Pujara bat too slowly in Ranchi?

The recently concluded debut test match at Ranchi produced a fascinating encounter between the two top teams of the test format. Each team had landed one big blow to the other in the previous two encounters, and the second victory was likely to be decisive; two wins for Australia, and they would retain the Border-Gavaskar trophy. A win for India, and it would be an affirmation of their prowess at home.

pujara-best-test-cricket.jpg

Another brick in the wall: Pujara’s recent exploits have propelled him to a career high ICC ranking. Image source: 1.

In the midst of all this, the Indian number 3—Cheteshwar Pujara—scored a crucial double ton. He hadn’t scored one in the test format for a while despite his reputation for racking up big scores. In this prolific first class season, he has amassed 7 hundreds and 9 fifties at 87.26 runs per dismissal. The ICC rankings have taken note, and he has climbed to a career high no. 2 ranking in the test batting charts.

In spite of scoring 202 runs, and having occupied the crease for more balls than any other recorded innings either by an Indian or any player in Indian conditions, it didn’t take a lot of time for his detractors to point to his “slow” innings. A strike rate of 38.5 was bound to rile a few T20 hipsters, especially when India couldn’t seem to dismiss the last 4 Aussie batsmen and win the match.

This is not the first time (and certainly not the last time) that aspersions have been cast on Pujara’s abilities. Why, about a year ago, Pujara was not a certainty in the test side with the team management favouring K L Rahul and Rohit Sharma in his place. The reason? Strike rate. Espncricinfo’s S Rajesh weighed in with his analysis and concluded that his strike rate pace in overseas conditions had taken a dip. Thankfully, the Indian coach Anil Kumble stepped into the breach and clarified that strike rate was a factor only for test match bowlers.  This nod of approval seemed to have done his confidence a world of good.  Although, IPL franchisees overlooked him yet again, with perceptions having played some part.

The point remains though—was Pujara’s innings a “slow” effort? Was it selfish of him to grind his way to a double hundred? Did he cost India a victory? Let’s look at the match situation.

The Australian team amassed 451 runs in 137.3 overs taking nearly five sessions away in terms of time. The pitch was good for batting, and there was no guarantee that it would be easy to bowl on in the second dig. Therefore, a good first innings score was essential to minimize the fourth innings target.

To make matters worse, Virat Kohli had injured himself and had spent considerable amount of time getting his injured shoulder treated—despite the team management’s thumbs up, there were no indications about how it would affect his batting. Rahane wasn’t in the best of form despite his crucial fifty in Bengaluru, Karun Nair was a greenhorn with one amazing innings, and the lower order had seen its worst ever collapse in the Pune test. After a second successive bowling pitch at Bengaluru, it is reasonable to assume that the Indian batting wasn’t at its most confident self.

Pujara came into bat at 91/1 in the 32nd over—a comfortable position, but with nearly 9 tricky overs to negotiate. He remained unbeaten scoring 10 runs off 26 balls overnight. The match situation gives a lot of clues about his batting strategy.

Picture1.jpg

Table 1: Innings progression of Pujara’s 202 in the context of the match

The next morning, India began sedately in pursuit of the huge first innings score. Understandably, both batsmen were circumspect and were eager to not give Australia the advantage. His low strike rate is justifiable here. In the second session, Pujara scored 70 runs at a ~75 SR, a far cry from his “slow” image. Note that these runs were scored when India were 193/2, a full 258 runs behind the Australian score. The match situation changed completely by the time tea was taken; India had lost Kohli and Rahane, and were still 148 runs adrift from the target. Pujara was still batting, with the greenhorn Karun Nair for company and a lower order bereft of confidence.

When Ashwin was dismissed at 328/6 in the post-tea session, India were still a long way away from the Australian score. Over the last 5 years, India’s last 4 wickets had averaged 29 runs per tail-ender wicket. An additional 120 runs would have brought parity, but there was no way of knowing how many runs the tail was going to produce in the aftermath of the no-shows at Pune and Bengaluru.

Given all this, the Indian team was fully justified to score at a slow rate. And, since the run rate was low due to parsimonious Australian bowling, the best chance of winning the match was to bat once, and bat big. Therefore, the two wicketless sessions which vaulted India to a no-loss position in the match is great test match batting. Besides, Pujara (12 off 20 balls from 190*, when he could have slowed down to get to the milestone) and India accelerated (RR of 4.54)in the final session, showing great match awareness.

Indian fans may argue that India should have batted faster in the second session; after all, they were only 16 runs in arrears. A gung-ho approach might have worked, but it is worth examining what might have happened if they couldn’t pull it off. A 50 run lead would have yielded nothing in terms of the result; the Australians wouldn’t have batted with the sword of defeat hanging over their heads. In all probability, it would have petered out to a dull draw. Who knows, if Australia had erased the deficit and gone hell-for-leather, India might have had to survive some uncomfortable moments in the manner of the Rajkot test against England.

The assessment of needing 100 overs to get 10 Australian wickets was spot on—over the last five years, the Indian bowling unit averaged 48 balls/ dismissal (or 8 overs). They had even reduced the Australians to 63/4 but couldn’t press home the advantage.

Ever since Dravid retired and Pujara moved to one drop, no number 4 batsman in the world has been coming to the middle to face an older ball. India have been losing their second wicket by the 26th over, until recently. He can crank up his strike rate when needed—his test record has shown that he usually bides his time before accelerating. No wonder Kohli called his contributions under pressure as priceless.

In conclusion, Pujara’s innings kept Australia at bay all through the test match, and gave India a genuine shot of going 2-1 up in the series. To criticize his monumental effort and calling him a one-trick slow pony is a great disservice to his talents, and those arguments do not acknowledge the cricketing circumstances of his knock.

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.