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The Nagpur Nightmare Can Haunt India

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In the build-up to India’s most-crucial Group stage clash, captain MS Dhoni in his pre-match talk a day before stressed on the importance of a start from the trio at the top that could then allow the explosive middle-order to play its A-game. “If we have slightly longer partnerships at the top, the explosive power of our middle and lower-middle order can be used more in the positive way,” he said.

Sachin Tendulkar, Gautam Gambhir, and Virat Kohli form the technically-accomplished core of India’s top order and Sehwag as a devastating plunderer completes the picture. On Saturday, when India came out to bat in front of a full house the tension in the atmosphere was palpable. Sehwag hit a boundary off the first ball and was then beaten a couple of times in the opening over by Steyn. Morkel came from the other end as Tendulkar took guard to face his first ball of the match. Unlike Sehwag, the Master betrayed no nerves and played his first ball on the up, right under his eyes, with his front foot movement so precise that it looked calibrated to the last millimetre. He opened his account with a single of that first ball and Sehwag was back on strike. The third ball took the edge and went slightly to the right of van Wyk, who couldn’t move a muscle as the ball raced to the fence and Sehwag got a reprieve.

Morkel was bowling with good speed and extracting disconcerting bounce making it difficult for Sehwag but Steyn leaked runs from the other end. Lance Klusener had said the previous day that playing at home India would feel the heat but it was the South Africans who looked dazed at the start. A regulation catch was dropped in the second over and the third over went for 14 with an overthrow that cost five and a huge wide by Steyn another five. Morkel overstepped in his second over and was lucky India couldn’t cash in on the free hit. It was a frenetic start despite Morkel keeping things tight by giving just 9 of his first two overs.

The momentum shifted decisively in Morkel’s third and the innings’ sixth over when the floodgates opened with three hits to the fence. At the end of 5 overs India had 33 on the board and they leaped to 70 in just three more overs with the help of eight boundaries; Morkel conceding six of them in his two overs. At the end of 15 overs the scoreboard read 128 for no loss; Sehwag was 62 in 54 balls and Tendulkar was 57 in just 37 balls.

On the big stage of a pressure game Tendulkar was at his absolute best and it is difficult to describe how beautifully and brilliantly he batted from that first ball onwards. It was a knock that had the stamp of inevitability. He knew he was going to get the runs and if getting them had meant dodging bullets he would have done that and yet stood his ground. Even by the lofty standards of the Master this was a special knock in a crunch game where the nerves could have been frayed at the start. A commentator reflected on the first 25 overs or so saying that amidst all the commotion at the centre—where catches slipped, the South Africans conceded extra runs on more than one occasion due to overthrows, the world’s premier fast bowler lost it in the third over of the innings and conceded 14 runs, and Graeme Smith didn’t know where to hide—one man was calmness personified.

There has been a lot of useless talk before the World Cup about doing it for Tendulkar; useless because the World Cup is not about individuals. But if one were to just consider it for argument’s sake then here was a perfect stage set by the genius and it only needed some backing up. India’s veteran cricket writer R. Mohan in his beautiful piece said, “It takes far more than the world’s greatest batsman to swing an ODI even if he is Superman who once scored a double century to seal a game.” In the 90s Tendulkar did it alone on many occasions as he knew that his wicket meant the game was done for India. This is a different team though and he may well have been under added pressure to play the big shots in the powerplay with the knowledge that traditional accumulation would deny his team extra runs as the power-hitters were in the dressing room. He now knows better.

Dale Steyn, the man of the match in Nagpur, picked up 5 wickets but for his first seven overs he toiled hard and went for 46 runs without a wicket to show. His partner Morkel bowled six overs for 50 runs with the wickets column being empty. The threat was not just taken care of but had been dismissed out of sight.

What then happened to India? How come the explosive batting line-up Dhoni was referring to went off like a cheap cracker? It wasn’t a choke as umpteen newspapers proclaimed in bold and big headlines on the front as well as the sports pages. A choke happens in a situation where a team has victory in sight but to get there it has to absorb some pressure (little or big) and not let the situation, the opposition, or its own hesitancy/lack of belief get to it—when it gets to the team you can say they choked. At 267 for 1 in 39.3 overs with Steyn having just three overs left and India having nine wickets in hand even the remote possibility of pressure had been taken out of the equation. What unfolded was far worse than a choke as India imploded without any pressure at all. And unlike a choke, where a team loses wickets by being tentative, India blazed its way to hell. They fuelled and lit their own pyre.

The first problem was the batting order and it started with number three. Gambhir is a really good player and if an early wicket had fallen he was an ideal choice but he has not been in the best of form and a crunch game was not the time where he should have been sent up to find his feet, especially after a blazing start. Virat Kohli has been in terrific touch for more than a year now and he also did exceptionally-well in South Africa earlier this year and India needed a player high on confidence and scoring freely without risk to allow Tendulkar to breathe easy for a while. Kohli at number seven is a complete waste as he is not someone who bludgeons the ball but plays conventional and smart cricket.

The combined average for Kohli at number 3 and 4 is 52.90 while at number 6 and 7 it drops to 12.66. Dhoni picked on the top order needlessly as they have done reasonably-well in the tournament and his emphasis on the explosive game of the middle-order belies its fragility and builds a case for wanton hitting.

South Africa was under the pump at 144 for 1 after 18 overs and Smith would have given his life for a sedate partnership compared to the carnage that had taken place. The next 18 overs yielded just 93 runs and South Africa clawed their way back into the contest. Even Tendulkar lost the pace of his innings with Gambhir finding it difficult to break free.

The bigger mistake was to send Yusuf Pathan up the order and I am not saying this out of retrospective intelligence. The move was disastrous for two reasons and the first is that the team management should have considered how Pathan has done in different situations. In 9 innings before Nagpur where he has batted up the order (batting positions number 3, 4, and 5) Pathan averages 14.11 with three ducks and two single-digit scores and not a single half-century—that average has now fallen to 12.70. In 26 innings at number 6 and 7 Pathan has an average of 42 with two hundreds and three fifties.

It is no secret that Pathan struggles against fast bowling and since India had already taken a powerplay, South Africa was always going to use their strength and would not have foolishly obliged the Indians by bringing on a spinner against Pathan. The other reason why his promotion was a mistake has to do with the message that it sends to the dressing room. It means that we are going hell for leather even at the cost of digging our own grave. Was the middle-order under undue pressure to cash in big time after a great start to demonstrate that the captain’s belief in their explosive abilities was not unfounded?

This game has made it clear that the explosive middle-order can implode any moment and they should be chastised for their approach rather than given encouragement for their suicidal ways. India’s middle-order showed a complete lack of understanding of the game’s situation. Dhoni himself could do nothing to take charge of the situation and shepherd India at the finishing line. It wasn’t an epic fightback that brought South Africa back into the game and Steyn didn’t bowl a hostile and unplayable spell. It was a complete abrogation of responsibility by everyone bar the trio at the top that let South Africa in.

Tinkering with the batting order was not a good example of out of the box thinking. A good one would have been to take the batting powerplay right after 15 overs with the instruction of playing normal cricket to Sehwag and Tendulkar. That would have caught the South Africans by surprise and it would have forced Smith’s hand to either bring back his strike bowlers, who had gone for plenty, or operate with lesser bowlers to two set players in a powerplay. Either way India would have benefited and could have been above 170/180 in 20 overs without breaking a sweat. And South Africa would have been gutted with the game killed for them.

Instead this game has thrown India’s campaign in disarray and though this team has shown character and bounced back on several occasions the biggest disadvantage here is the lift that the South African team would have got from it. They were dead and buried after the England game and were down and out against India after just 25 overs before India handed over the impetus to them. Graeme Smith saying that it is a massive win for us is actually an understatement.

There are matches that have little bearing on a team’s campaign bar their result and there are those that have psychological implications that go well beyond the immediate and sow seeds of self-doubt in the camp. This match potentially has the power of going beyond the Saturday and India would do well to remember the lessons and forget the game. How they bounce back from here would be the thing to watch out for and it would be very interesting to see their approach if they meet South Africa again in the tournament.

Obama And The Balance Of Expectations

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On November 6, US President Barack Obama will pay a tribute to the victims of 26/11 from the heritage wing of the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai—the place where massive destruction and bloodshed took place for the longest duration during the siege in Mumbai in end-November 2008. That’s where his trip begins and that is where we will know what he feels about the fact that almost two years down the line there has been no effective progress on bringing the perpetrators of that massacre to justice.

Then again it is naïve to expect the U.S. to help us in bringing Pakistan to book when the United States is itself incessantly-struggling in trying to make Pakistan follow a completely dollar-funded War on Terror. The contrast of the Pakistan, United States, and India triumvirate can be seen in the light of the spring 2010 Pew Global Attitudes survey released in July end for Pakistan and late October for India.

Looking at the survey and the recent congressional polls in the U.S., Obama may now have the distinction of being more popular in India than he is in his own country. The numbers also say that the US has a positive image in India. The good news for India is that its citizens are upbeat about their economy and have confidence in their leadership. Incredibly, “more than eight-in-ten (83%) say the U.S. takes the interests of countries like India into account when it makes foreign policy decisions—the highest percentage among the 21 nations surveyed outside the U.S.” I am with the minority and open to consider my views again after President Obama leaves.

Right next door in Pakistan America’s overall image remains negative despite the fact that it is spending $7.5 billion in civilian aid. And just two weeks or so before Obama’s India visit the United States approved a further $2 billion military package to Pakistan. Irrefutable proof that money can’t buy you love.

While President Obama is hugely popular in India he is extremely unpopular in Pakistan—only 8 per cent of Pakistanis express confidence that he will do the right thing in world affairs, his lowest rating among the 22 nations surveyed.

“The Pakistan Army, which is surely the most powerful mercenary force in history, simply sends a bill and Washington brings out the cheque book. Obama explained why: it’s known as ‘helping Pakistan in helping us in Afghanistan,’” wrote the editorial director of India Today MJ Akbar.

This isn’t an entirely new thing as it began when Zia-ul-Haq started milking Washington for all he could when the Afghan jihad began. “He turned down Jimmy Carter’s initial offer of $400 million in aid, dismissing it as ‘peanuts,’ and was rewarded with a $3.2 billion proposal from the Reagan administration plus permission to buy F-16 fighter jets, previously available only to NATO allies and Japan.” (1)

The scale of skimming by the ISI officers was baffling. “In Quetta in 1983, ISI officers were caught colluding with Afghan rebels to profit by selling off CIA-supplied weapons. In another instance, the Pakistan army quietly sold the CIA its own surplus .303 rifles and about 300 million bullets. A ship registered in Singapore picked up about 100,000 guns in Karachi, steamed out to sea, turned around, came back to port, and off-loaded the guns, pretending they had come from abroad. The scheme was discovered—the bullets were still marked ‘POF,’ for ‘Pakistan Ordinance Factory.’ ISI had to pay to scrub the Pakistani bullets of their markings, so if they were used in Afghanistan and picked up by the Soviets, they couldn’t be exploited by the communists as evidence of Pakistani support for the mujahedin.” (2)

Any doubts that money is now being used for its intended purpose were cleared by a New York Times story roughly a year before the Mumbai attacks. The NYT had reported that US aid for the War on Terror had been diverted by Pakistan to shore up its capabilities against India.

Terrorism and the complexities of dealing with the ever-dangerous and deteriorating situation in Pakistan would expectedly be at the heart of discussions between Obama and the Indian leadership but whether there would be some tectonic change in the equation remains to be seen. The main aim of the Obama visit will remain economic as he faces harsher realities back home. Obama is coming with 200 CEOs of American firms and he hopes to encourage business deals to reinvigorate the US economy and thereby also improve his re-election chances for 2012.

As far as the expectations of India are concerned the early signs are not too encouraging as there hasn’t been a clear positive sign either on India’s bid for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council or on dual technology transfer. There have also been American concerns over outsourcing. Surely the Obama contingent must have thought about the fact that the visit is not all about what America wants.

According to another NYT story, “corporate America mainly hopes the visit by the president can help better define the common economic interests of the United States and India and build on the trade and investment foundations the business community has already laid.

Harold McGraw 3rd, the chairman of McGraw Hill and one of the executives in the Obama entourage, said the visit was ‘all about economic and job growth for both the U.S. and India.’ India is America’s 14th-largest trade partner, he noted, but ‘should be a lot higher.’”

Obama comes to India as a well-regarded leader of a country that is well-liked, going by the Pew survey, and between his increasingly-growing home concerns and what he can take from India he must also ensure that what he leaves behind, at the very least, keeps that popularity in place.

Sources: For 1 and 2 from the writings of Steve Coll. Others New York Times and Pew Research Center.

Give Mohammad Amir Another Chance

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A billion dollars can’t buy you an ounce of the talent that oozes out of Pakistan’s young left-arm fast bowler Mohammad Amir. Is there anything that an aspiring fast bowler would not trade to-have-even-half of what this 18-year-old boy has in abundance? And is it, therefore, a rational question to ask that why would the proud possessor of such rare gifts betray his calling? And what is it in the cricketing world that is even remotely as valuable as what Amir already has?

Money, and more money. The answer, if proved, is not surprising but shameful as it says less about Amir and more about the world of grown-ups in which he is no more than just a cog. Amir has made the cricket this summer worth watching: That eagerness to grab the ball, the jouissance in his delivery stride that is akin to the flight of an eagle, and the bite that is as venomous as the sting of a viper. He’s engineered batting collapses, made the ball talk with late movement and perfect length, and on certain days he’s looked like taking a wicket almost every ball.

What has the ICC or the various cricket boards done this summer apart from making big bucks by striking lucrative deals? What portion of the money that cricket generates trickles down to the players who shed their blood and sweat on the field and what portion goes to bloating-and-gloating cricket administrators? I don’t know the answer, I’m just curious.

I find it difficult to blame young Amir and exonerate the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), the International Cricket Council (ICC), and the seniors of the Pakistani cricket team. A boy of 18 would not have even dreamt of doing this had it not been for the corroding influence of his team’s seniors.

The best of mankind’s youth start out in life with a sense of enormous expectation, the sense that one’s life is important and that great achievements are within one’s capacity. The great Wasim Akram had 45 scalps after 14 Tests and Amir at the same juncture has 51. It could be a stellar career. Now the administrators would hang this young boy knowing fully-well that what he has done comes nowhere close to what they do all of their lives.

Would the entire Commonwealth Games scandal come out in the open and the guilty punished? Will we get to know who made what-should-not-have-been-made in the IPL scam? I am doubtful. Although I am pretty certain something would be handed over as punishment if the spots stick to the three accused in the Lord’s Test. Columnist Pradeep Magazine said that the system that pollutes the mind of someone so young should take the blame—the PCB, the ICC, and the team seniors was what he said categorically.

In her introduction to the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of The Fountainhead author Ayn Rand wrote: “It is not in the nature of man—nor of any living entity—to start out by giving up, by spitting in one’s own face and damning existence; that requires a process of corruption whose rapidity differs from man to man.” The youth getting corrupted says a lot about those that are past their prime and are running the affairs of the world.

Now there is a lot of talk about how the involved players should be punished severely and that an example should be made of them so that it serves as a deterrent for the future. Should we turn a blind eye towards the bigger problems that the sport faces and hang those few found guilty of spot-fixing?

Suddenly you have players from most countries talking about how they were approached by bookies and how they did or did not report the incidents. Why is all this talk coming out now? Mohammad Amir is an insanely-talented cricketer and that is to his credit but he is also a product of a corrupt environment. That corrupt environment will now punish him and would then claim to have cleaned itself. That, alas, is called justice.

If cricket is to be salvaged as a sport then the cleaning up must begin at the right place, at the source of corruption. The rotten cricket administration that makes the big bucks on the backs of talented players needs to be made accountable and the brouhaha that is being made about the tip of the iceberg has to stop. Australian writer Gideon Haigh wrote after the Lord’s Test: “Corruption has become cricket’s gravest challenge, and it neither begins nor ends with the Pakistan cricket team.”

Shane Watson rightly questioned whether the ICC really wants to eradicate match-fixing and spot-fixing from cricket due to fears the problem might run too deep.

Watson said the fact a newspaper was responsible for highlighting the irregularities involving Pakistan’s recent performances showed the ICC’s system was unsuccessful. “The ICC anti-corruption unit is not really working,” he said during a sponsor’s function in Sydney. “That’s totally to do with the ICC, so they really need to step in and really get to the bottom of it. Maybe they don’t want to get to the bottom of it because it might run too deep.”

Mass murderers get away in this stinking dunghill of a world. Criminals sit in public offices and racists set agendas for nations. Amir deserves more than a second chance given the kind of people we put up with every day of our life. Don’t forget, he’s just 18.

Ecstasy For The Cricket Fan

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For a fan of the game a good day of Test match cricket is an adventure that is more exciting, intriguing, and entertaining than a season full of senseless versions of the shorter-form. Wednesday, the 21st of July 2010, was one such day; and it gave fans a double scoop of edge-of-the-seat cricket. This is how fans of Test cricket want to be spoiled.

Only that I wish that Australia playing Pakistan at Leeds was simultaneously available on some other channel when Ten Sports was beaming India against Sri Lanka.

India’s day in Galle began with seven wickets in hand and a mountain to climb. The wicket was good to bat on and Sehwag raced to his hundred as Sri Lanka chose not to begin with their main weapons. On his second last innings with the ball in hand, Muttiah Muralidharan was the sixth bowler to be introduced in the morning. India was 216 for five and Murali had the lone wicket of Tendulkar from the previous day against his name.

Dhoni and Yuvraj had got starts and an enterprising partnership was developing. Dhoni hit two fours in that first over from Murali and a couple of overs later Yuvraj smacked a six of Herath. That was the 50th over and at 238 for 5 India was not out of the woods but a recovery was looking possible. Then Murali bowled as if he had been storing venom since the morning and India was floored.

A ball from outside off broke sharply and snaked in to shatter Dhoni’s leg stump; 252 for six. An over later Murali came from round the stumps and drew Yuvraj forward to defend and there was just the precise turn needed for an outside edge to first slip. Dhoni and Yuvraj had put together 74 runs in 15.2 overs and given the situation of the match this was quite an aggressive stand with a run rate of almost five. To then have both batsmen out defending is a Murali marvel.

India bowled out for 276 with the phenomenal Murali claiming his 67th 5-wicket haul.

Lanka imposed the follow on and India was pegged back immediately. The first innings dismissal seemed to have been playing on Gambhir’s mind and Malinga exploited his dilemma brilliantly. Wrapped in front by an in dipper in the first innings Malinga sensed that Gambhir was on the lookout for that ball and this time he gave him one that went away an induced the error. Sehwag went in a similar fashion to his first innings dismissal; chasing a wide one which Mahela plucked out of air at gully.

Then the two guys who have the record for the highest number of century partnerships between them in the history of Test cricket showed just how assured India has felt on so many occasions when these two have been on the crease. Tendulkar and Dravid put together 119 runs for the third wicket in 40 overs and there was just about half an hour to go before the close of play when Malinga came on to bowl.

Malinga’s spell on Wednesday evening turned the Test decisively in Sri Lanka’s favour. With the ball reversing Malinga had Dravid flicking a full delivery with Sangakkara waiting for the uppish shot at leg gully. In his next over Malinga had Tendulkar turning the face of his bat to another full delivery expecting the shiny side to take the ball towards his leg stump but the ball somehow held its line and missed the bat to hit the Master’s pad.

Resurrection after that double blow became impossible as VVS Laxman was left stranded after India lost Yuvraj towards end of play and Dhoni early the next morning. Harbhajan had an extremely poor match both with bat and ball but the tail added some vital runs to give Lanka at least something to chase. Sri Lanka in Murali and Malinga had two strike bowlers who delivered at crucial junctures while India had no one who was consistently effective.

At Leeds Pakistan bowled Australia for 88 runs in helpful conditions after Ponting had won the toss and decided to bat. Mohammad Aamer and Asif took three wickets each and Umar Gul picked up two in an excellent display of swing bowling. Pakistan backed up the bowling effort by positive batting and made 248. Australia then came out to bat 170 runs behind in the second innings and Aamer started brilliantly by hitting an ideal length and line right from his first ball. He was unlucky not to have had Ponting given lbw off the first ball the Aussie captain played. The nineteen-year-old Aamer bowling at a lively pace and getting the ball to talk is pure delight to watch.

The bowling attack of Pakistan has looked far superior to that of Australia but their batting lacks experience and that is what cost them the game at Sydney in January. The batting and the anxiety that a raw bowling attack can have—in Sydney Australia was on the mat at 257 for 8 in their second innings. Just 51 runs ahead and Hussey standing with Peter Siddle and Bollinger to follow; the ninth wicket added 123 runs. Chasing 176 for a win Pakistan were bowled out for 139.

In the Galle Test match India, the number 1 Test team in the world at the moment, has looked extremely poor and despite one full day being washed out Sri Lanka had an easy win. Apart from a brief period on the third day the bowling attack was toothless—Herath and Malinga at number 8 and 9 scored 80 and 64 runs respectively—and the strong batting line-up has also not been good enough for a rescue.

It would now require a lot of character for India to come back in this Test series and hold on to their number one position. It would also be interesting to see if Pakistan can level the two-Test series at Leeds. This is a joyous time for the cricket fan.

John Howard Loses Support

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“That bloke’s making me look ordinary! He’s ruining my career!” said Phil Tufnell, the bad boy of English cricket in the 1990s, while stripping all his insecurity about Shane Warne.

India too finds itself in a situation where all that ails the cricketing universe is painted as its doing. The Australian, which presents itself as the heart of the nation, has had a ball in covering John Howard’s failed bid for ICC president-elect. Have a look at these supercilious comments from Malcolm Conn, the long-serving cricket writer for the Australian.

“It is more than anti-colonial resentment that has led the Afro-Asia bloc of the ICC to snub John Howard’s nomination as president. The former prime minister was rejected by the International Cricket Council for two far more pragmatic reasons: money and power.

There was a collective fear that he would ask awkward questions about one and do his best to dilute the other. India is cricket’s king-maker. It generates up to 80 per cent of the game’s wealth. But with enormous power comes responsibility.

By voting with an anti-colonial bloc instead of upholding the process it helped put in place, India has, once again, abused its power, just as it has by demanding the sacking of umpires and threatening to abandon tours if things did not go its way. In the end, cricket will suffer.

The ICC is a multi-billion-dollar organisation with a board run in the same way that poor park cricket associations have operated for 100 years. Howard lost the last federal election because he was considered from the past, not the future. At the ICC, he would have brought enlightenment—a frightening thought for men used to operating in dark corners.”

Now how did Malcolm Conn know that there was a collective fear that Howard would clean the ICC and member countries, especially India, had vested interest in not allowing that to happen? I guess it is not a good question to ask as Howard and those who are championing his cause are somehow the “unblemished upholders of fairness”.

So it is India’s fault, incredibly, that it generates 80 per cent of cricket’s wealth. Indian sports journalists are pretty happy to put the BCCI in a tight spot and there wouldn’t be much of a problem if Conn was doing so; but most of the stories in the Australian lack merit and are merely opinions masquerading as news.

“I might have more than 5,000 Test runs, but he makes 40 million bucks a movie,” Kiwi batsman Martin Crowe once said about his cousin and Hollywood actor Russell Crowe. You see money talks; whether it’s in New Zealand or in any other country. And to blame India for generating 80 per cent of cricket’s revenue is an exercise that reeks of envy.

Writer Gideon Haigh has more than a passing interest in the BCCI and the IPL. And I am not just talking about his last three pieces, though they are the ones that have brought him ‘fame’, but about the immense hard work that he has put in for more than a year in deconstructing the BCCI and the IPL. On March 26, 2009 Haigh wrote a piece about the IPL being hosted in South Africa.

“The fact is that the IPL would be occurring in Antarctica if there were direct flights, and it suited World Sport Group. And in that sense the Indianness of the tournament is more pronounced because it is imposed: the point is not to bring an attraction to another country but to create a satellite India on that country’s soil. And there is an old-fashioned word for such a form of exploitation: imperialism,” Haigh wrote.

I fail to see the similarities; in what way was India’s agenda forced on South Africa and who exactly was being exploited and how. South Africa readily accepted the offer of hosting the IPL on their land and the IPL came home after the two-month period unlike the East India Company that set the example of what exploitation means.

For many fans of Test cricket in India—there are scores who care a hoot about Twenty20 and useless ODIs—Haigh has been the go to writer. In a piece headlined ‘The Indianisation of cricket’, Haigh concluded with these words: “Power begetting responsibility, the sustainability of that model is another matter. The BCCI should understand that it is one thing to have earned the right to wield unipolar power, another to demonstrate deserving it.” Most cricket writers in India would agree with it. No one ever said that the BCCI or the IPL are beyond reproach.

It also does not mean that John Howard is beyond reproach. Haigh’s three-part defence of Howard’s candidature concludes with his piece titled ‘Cricket’s fig leaf of democracy’: “People in a room having a vote is not democracy. It depends on who they are, how they got there, and how faithfully they follow the rules of their organisation. Not even lots of people voting freely does a democracy make. Lots of people voted freely in South Africa in the days of apartheid; many more did not. Lots of people voted in Zimbabwe in 2008; guns spoke louder.”

Zimbabwe and its despotic regime are rightly condemned by the writer but he fails to mention that John Howard had no qualms about travelling to Harare in order to ease tensions and garner support. Also he fails to take note that Howard was resistant to the one genuine political cause in cricket’s history; the sporting ban on South Africa during the apartheid years.

Indian writer Mukul Kesavan got it bang on target in his piece titled ‘What was cricket Australia thinking?: “For Indians committed to cricket, specially Test cricket, the rottenness of cricket administration in general, and India’s cricket administration in particular, isn’t news. What is news is the spectacle of someone like Haigh, a liberal critic, quick-stepping around Howard’s record on race and then coming up with absolution.”

Howard has not lost any respect—he had little in the first place. On the other hand Haigh, despite his harsh criticism of the way the game is run in-and-by India, had a lot of following among people disappointed by the increasing deviation of the game towards the shorter format. It is sad that he lost some of his goodwill trying to defend a divisive politician.

Melbourne-based author Christian Ryan put Howard’s past in perspective in his Cricinfo column and he shows how the one word that describes the policies of Howard best is divisive.

“Still, in the hour of junk cricket’s ascendancy, it is tempting to suppose that Howard, who likes his cricket best when its plots and subplots reveal themselves slowly, in soft sunshine, over five days, could do the game some good.

But would he? Would he really? In answering that question, it would be sloppy thinking not to consider his history as prime minister of Australia.”

It is not India or the BCCI that has decided Howard’s fate. It is Howard’s own putrid history that has led to his undoing here.

The Bloody Purge Of Pakistan Cricket

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“After Kardar’s retirement, Pakistan cricket was thrown to the wolves, the cricket bureaucrats whose progeny still rule the game,” Imran Khan once said of Abdul Hafeez Kardar, the father figure of Pakistani cricket.

Pakistan has come down hard on their players after the team’s utterly-dismal showing Down Under. Some action was expected after the team’s winless campaign in Australia, however, it came as a shock that the knife was used in such a fatal and deep manner to render Pakistan cricket bleeding and on life support. You can almost feel that the players have been hard done.

These are players at the heart of the hullabaloo that was created in Pakistan when the IPL did not pick anyone from the victorious T20 team of Pakistan. The treatment of the players by their own Board is far more sinister, evil and ugly than the one that was meted out by the private enterprise of Indian Premier League.

The PCB banned Younis Khan and Mohammad Yousuf, from playing for Pakistan in any format for an indefinite period, while handing out one-year bans to Shoaib Malik and Rana Naved-ul-Hasan. Shahid Afridi and the Akmal brothers were fined Rs 2-3 million for various transgressions and put on six-month probations.

Team discipline has been an eternal issue with Pakistan cricket and the mutterings of serious rifts are constant companions. The irony in what Ian Botham said years ago could not have been keener: “They’ve always had a lot of talent, a lot of good players, but they’re like eleven women. You know, they’re all scratching each other’s eyes out.”

Cricket writer Kamran Abbasi has been scathing and, in my view, brutally-honest in his criticism: “The reasons are several, some known others only to be guessed. Unfortunately the whole episode is an exercise in passing the buck. The architects of the disastrous failure of Pakistan cricket have investigated their own performance and decided to blame some other people, the players.

When it comes to sympathy I have none for failed administrators and bureaucrats, who cling on to Pakistan cricket like leeches sucking every drop of lifeblood from a once vibrant national enterprise. These inquirers have a misplaced sense of justice: he who has sinned has cast the first stone. Isn’t the PCB’s latest diversionary investigation a brazen attempt to save the skins of senior board members?”

Botham’s cheeky comment apart there has been a long period in Pakistan cricket where they had a man who led with distinction and moulded the raw talent of the country into a serious cricketing force. As a captain there would be few, if any, who could match Imran Khan’s leadership qualities and have so much to show in terms of team performance.

I have heard Imran Khan say more than once on TV shows that the greatest team that ever took the field was the West Indian team of the 1980s but there have been few who have spoken much about the team that the West Indies could never really conquer during their years in the ascendancy.

When cricket was a war zone in the 1980s with the West Indies possessing a lethal battery of fast bowlers there was only one opponent that stood its ground amid the debris that the great West Indian team left in its wake. Rob Smyth did a commendable piece on the Pakistan team led by the great Imran Khan that stood up to the West Indian juggernaut that crushed much of the cricket world and wondered why that fabulous team of Pakistan finds no mention in cricket’s pantheon?

“This was a team that had almost everything, based around their two contrasting champions: Imran Khan and Javed Miandad, lover and streetfighter, stallion and rapscallion, regal leader and rascally lieutenant. Not that they were alone; quality and ruggedness oozed from every pore. There was an ultra-patient top order, including Mudassar Nazar, the resourceful Ramiz Raja and Shoaib Mohammad, whose methodology made Chris Tavare seem skittish; the majestic middle-order pair of Miandad and the bad-wicket genius Salim Malik, buffeted by Imran at No 7 and the wicketkeeper-hitter Saleem Yousuf at No 8.

Then there was the most beautifully-varied bowling attack imaginable: Imran and Wasim Akram, swinging and reverse-swinging the ball at paint-stripping pace from different angles, and the magical legspinner Abdul Qadir. So lean was the rest of the body that they could even carry traces of flab: the roles of sixth batsman and fourth bowler were never really filled.”

As threatening and demolishing as West Indies were they could never get the better of Pakistan even once during the period when Imran led them and both teams can lay claims to how precariously close they came to winning a series against the other. The clashes between the two teams during the late eighties are unbelievable scraps and if that was what Pakistan produced in every single series against the might of West Indies then this decline of Pakistan can again be compared ironically to that of the West Indies.

An indifferent performance from Pakistan amid some sparkling cricket is what keeps the fans going but a meek surrender like the one in Australia was certain to cause unrest among those who have seen the battle-hardened side of Pakistan cricket. That the unrest would lead to an act comparable to a surgical incision of “malignant tissues” just serves to show the furious side of cricket administration in Pakistan.

This is what Cricinfo’s Pakistan editor Osman Samiuddin said: “Nothing is permanent in Pakistan. It is worthwhile to bear in mind the summer of 1976, when a similar battle erupted between board and senior players. It was a petty pay dispute, but it soon flowered into an almighty ménage a trois of ego clashes between the country’s prime minister, Zulfiqar Bhutto, a close aide and minister Abdul Hafiz Pirzada and the board chairman AH Kardar.

Kardar sacked six big names, including Imran Khan, before a major tour to Australia. Within days, however, Pirzada—with Bhutto’s tacit consent—had taken temporary control of the board, reinstated the players and Kardar fell in a matter of months. Old folks say that marked the beginning of unchecked player power in Pakistan cricket, the rise of the superstar. Some might see 2010 as the end of it.

There are only whiffs in today of what happened 34 years ago—for one, the players then had tremendous public support—but with an administration as bereft of goodwill, public trust and support as this one, nobody will bet against a similar endgame.”

Cricket: ‘A Boulevard Of Broken Dreams’

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India is ranked the number 1 Test team in the world right now while Bangladesh is at the bottom of the pile and compared to India’s 3957 points the hosts have a measly 255; even then the cricket has been entertaining and has fluctuated like only Test match cricket can. Bangladesh bowled well on the opening day of the series and their lower order has batted with purpose and skill on more than one occasion.

This is about all the Test cricket that India was originally supposed to play in an entire season; five Test matches, which have now become seven—courtesy the two that we are playing against South Africa at home. The shortest form of the game is celebrating and cricket has expanded its fan club and found new and rich sponsors; the business end is thriving.

Journalist and writer Alan Ross once said: “In other sports, people have no time to think; a cricket match is a storehouse of thought, of thought occasioned by the game itself, by the beauty, wit, or intelligence of one’s companion, or simply a private unravelling of problems, personal, political, moral.”

Cricket now has no time to think and the speed at which it travels is dizzying and causes nausea. I don’t complain much as there are other benefits. One of them is that my wife is very happy as she knows that I have all the time to be with the family at the expense of a Twenty20 game or even a 50-over one. A good Test match makes me immobile and captive; a prisoner to the inherent beauty of its form. It needs a good sporting surface and then there can be five days of endless possibilities that sometimes produce something beautiful and almost magical.

That is not how everybody likes it and the fuss is all about what is popular and marketable. Enter the Board of Control for Cricket in India. And they are not going to listen to my old-fashioned mother; who, by the way, is on my side and knows the difference between a brutal 20-over assault and the subtle morning session of the opening Test of an overseas tour. It is quite natural to presume that the governing body of cricket in this country—and for good or bad, the financial powerhouse of the game in the world—would also know the difference. On the evidence of it I am not too sure whether they know the difference. And if they do; then what the board finds alluring is different from what this post finds alluring.

About four years ago, I was lucky to be at a training programme where I met an accomplished financial journalist and training editor who was brilliant in explaining all kinds of economic activities by breaking them down to simple basics that he had already hammered in for the participating group on the opening day of the week-long programme. We worked around a lot of charts and market graphs and he then came to the volatility of the market and showed how the financial markets have historically followed a pattern. Look at the fundamentals and if they don’t support the highs of the market then smart money is soon going to swallow stupid money. When the dotcom graph was going up, one just had to walk in dressed and spell a domain name and the venture caps were ready with the money—it may not have been that bad but it surely wasn’t as good as they told us. The sign to look out for a dangerous situation is that when the last person you associate with ‘investing in the IT stocks’—for example, your neighbourhood taxi-driver; with due respect to him —starts talking about precisely that then it is high time that you exit the market. Someone is playing it up. And if that someone is you and your gang then enjoy the spoils; otherwise better save whatever little you have before the burglary happens.

That playing it up is what the IPL is all about. And Preity Zinta—regardless of my bias in liking her as one of the few achievers from my hometown state of Himachal Pradesh—Shilpy Shetty and Shah Rukh Khan and some others expounding on the game are the equivalent of the ‘neighbourhood taxi-driver’ talking of the dotcom revolution with the big difference being my due respect to the imagined taxi-driver. Six gorgeous sixes in an over to a frontline fast bowler places Yuvraj in the company of the great Sir Garfield Sobers; but being a cricketer Yuvraj knows it too well that he still has to make his bones and he knows that they will not be made in front of cheerleaders.

The team owners are the stars and they have an audience, but it is largely a time-killing soap opera audience; an audience that is the enemy of the cricket lover in the same manner as a ‘harlot is the enemy of a decent woman’. This is not an audience that would be reading Harold Larwood’s biography by Duncan Hamilton, or A Corner of a Foreign Field by Ramachandra Guha, or the brilliant biography of Australian spinner Jack Iverson by Gideon Haigh. This audience would not be interested in Boria Majumdar’s Once Upon A Furore nor Harsha Bhogle’s Out of the Box; and this audience would not be visiting the website Cricinfo fifty times in a day. And it gets me worried and makes me sad that it could be this audience that decides the future of the game.

The BCCI is a master of all conditions and unlike the great Sir Donald Bradman it has even mastered playing on “one of those ‘sticky dogs’ of old, when the ball is hissing and cavorting under a hot sun following heavy rain.” On a few occasions when the BCCI has found that it is at odds with the government it has clarified that it is a private and independent body that functions like an enterprise. So it is not answerable to the government. In fact all the parties here, the government, the BCCI, the IPL administration and the franchise-owners, distance themselves from each other as and when the need for it arises.

I am not too sure about the other boards but something that Shane Warne said a few years ago tells me that there are no exceptions. It had something to do with Mark Waugh having voiced a ‘harsh opinion’ about Warnie on air. Warne gave a polite mouthful saying that he understands that his mate Mark Waugh has retired and he’s somehow got to make a buck. Simple horse sense. And something that Gideon Haigh wrote confirmed my own hunch that there is no board that is not willing to prostitute itself. “While the West Indies seemed to tour every other summer, Australians were denied a Sachin Tendulkar Test innings for almost eight years. The reason? India were not perceived as sufficiently bankable—and this is worth remembering lest it be imagined that the BCCI somehow introduced the evils of money to a cricket world of prelapsarian innocence.”

If India is playing 35 days of Test cricket in a season and that too because the board found itself on a sticky wicket after writers and fans and the Little Master himself said that five Test matches in a season are just too few then do I need to tell you where the priorities lie.

I have always been over-optimistic but here I am worried. And that is because I realise that even though I am the one who has invested so much of his life in cricket yet it may turn out to be that my wife has the last laugh. And to rub it in she may choose to do it while having a packet of chips during an IPL match.

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