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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.

The Boy From Bandra

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Sachin Tendulkar is on a different planet. Like Usain Bolt he’s left the competition to settle matters between themselves as he blazes ahead. Can we please have a bold 80-point newspaper headline saying ‘He Bats On’? Three lengthy breaks from cricket and two career-threatening injuries that needed surgeries are now years behind him and bowlers around the world are paying for the period where he was vulnerable, scratchy and out of sorts.

Tendulkar has been single-minded in his pursuit of excellence and in the past few seasons he’s looked like getting a big score almost every innings. From January 2008 there has been just one series in Sri Lanka—and a solitary Test against South Africa before that—where he hasn’t got to a three figure score and he’s scored one or more hundreds in all the other nine Test series’ that India has played since then.

Sambit Bal, the editor of Cricinfo, wrote a piece on Tendulkar and the art of stealing a single and concluded it saying: “Fifty Test hundreds are but a formality. A hundred international hundreds are there for the taking. Tendulkar, though, endures not in the pursuit of milestones, but because he can’t fall out of love with cricket. And above anything else that’s the reason why he remains the most-loved cricketer.”

Tendulkar has always been reluctant to take a runner as the single is a vital part of his batting and he has said it more than once that only he knows the speed with which he has played the ball and also whether he’s played it to the right or the left of the fielder. He judges a single to perfection. Opposition captains have said that on some days they know they are up against it when Tendulkar is scampering for quick singles and is alive to any possibility of an extra run.

During India’s 2007-08 tour of Australia Peter Roebuck in an article for the Sydney Morning Herald also wrote about Tendulkar’s mastery of pinching a run and it came pretty-close to defining how Tendulkar approaches a Test innings in his new enlightened avatar.

“Among modern batsmen, Sachin Tendulkar is the master of the single. In some respects, it is not much of a claim. It’s a bit like saying Roger Federer has the best ball toss around. Tendulkar has many other more colourful qualities: a blistering straight drive, a cart that is liable to land in the fifth row, a square cut that singes the turf, a fine sweep and a defensive stroke played with a sculptured left elbow.

Comparatively speaking, the single tucked to mid-wicket seems innocuous. But the true masters do not disregard the little things. Moreover, four singles amount to a boundary, and can be more safely collected. Also, a single taken from a precisely-pitched delivery is profoundly discouraging.”

A mere 2.8 per cent of Tendulkar’s Test dismissals have been a result of a run out—out of the 250 times he’s been dismissed in 280 innings just 7 have been run outs. And if one is feeling fair then half of them can be said to be his mistakes and the other half that of the partner and we can give an odd one to an exceptional bit of work in the field; which leaves you with three badly-judged runs in a Test career spanning 21 years.


The single also has other fascinating aspects to it. What it does to discourage the bowler is another story and a different side of the coin is what it does for Tendulkar in the middle. A four from the first ball can be the result of having been offered a gift first-up or a brilliant ball that goes for a streaky boundary. Neither of it does anything remarkable for Tendulkar’s confidence. On the contrary, a well-played-and-placed single reveals to Tendulkar the speed at which the ball is coming off the deck—unless it is a full toss—the bounce in the wicket and his own timing.

A couple of singles and watching a few balls from the other end are enough for the Master to assess the conditions and he is up and running. In this watchful initial period he makes the adjustments and decides the strokes for the day and also those to be kept in his back pocket for some other day. The day he got his and the 50-over format’s first double hundred (unbeaten) against South Africa he got the strike on the third ball of the first over by Dale Steyn. Sehwag had just got a reprieve as Steyn failed to latch on to a tough chance and a single followed. The next four balls of Steyn were all on a good length and he was getting the ball to shape away from the right hander. All four balls found the middle of Tendulkar’s bat, who played them off the front foot in the region between cover and the bowler for no runs. Playing four balls and watching four from the other end and he was set. He fetched 15 runs from the next six balls that he faced and the rollicking show started.

This is from an earlier piece of mine on how he started his innings at the Eden Gardens against South Africa when he got back-to-back Test hundreds: Tendulkar joined Sehwag and tapped the first ball he played, a 147 kph full delivery outside off from Morkel, to point for a single. That was the beginning of an assured partnership in which Tendulkar gave another display of his class and his mastery. He played the ball with that natural and intriguing intimacy that he has displayed in the last few seasons. He was solid in defence and gave no bowler even a hint of a chance. It was just beautiful batting.

I am leaving the single for now to look at the stratosphere that Tendulkar has made his home in the last three seasons or so. Just in order to have a frame of reference and make a comparison we can look at the other modern batting giant Ricky Ponting.

On December 26, 2007 India squared up against Australia in the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne and began their long tour of four Test matches to be followed by the last edition of the traditional tri-nation ODI series—the Commonwealth Bank Series.

Ricky Ponting and Sachin Tendulkar came to this series having had very contrasting two years prior to this much-awaited Test rivalry. Ponting was peeling centuries from 2005 to 2007 and perhaps had the greatest run by a batsman in the modern era. Three times in this period Ponting made a hundred in each innings of a Test and overall in 28 Test matches he made 13 hundreds and 12 fifties at a phenomenal average of 74.68.

Sachin Tendulkar had a miserable period in which he had two surgeries, made comebacks to the playing XI after lengthy breaks, and was even booed by his home crowd at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai against England, when he got out, ironically in the context of this piece, having scored just a single off 21 balls. In 22 Test matches in this period he made three hundreds and nine fifties at a modest average of 42.72. Two of his hundreds came against Test minnows Bangladesh and one against Sri Lanka in New Delhi.


On that day in Melbourne the bowlers did well but in the course of the Test match the batting let the team down and India lost the match by a massive 337 runs. Tendulkar made an attacking 62 in the first innings of that Boxing Day Test and Brett Lee got him on 15 in the second. Ricky Ponting failed in both innings making 4 and 3 runs.

At the end of the Test match Ponting had 9515 runs at an average of 58.73 with 33 hundreds and 38 fifties in 113 Tests. Tendulkar after that Test had 11366 runs at an average of 54.90 with 37 hundreds and 48 fifties in 143 Tests. Ponting’s exceptional period of the past few years and Tendulkar’s miserable run during the same time had narrowed what seemed like an unbridgeable gap till the end of 2002.

In November 2002, Tendulkar was 19 hundreds clear of Ponting and in the period that followed and established Ponting as a modern great he made 21 hundreds as opposed to Tendulkar’s four and the gap narrowed down to just two after Ponting scored successive centuries at Brisbane and Adelaide in the 2006 Ashes in Australia.

That was the closest that Ponting came as Tendulkar was about to embark on another streak of brilliance. A brilliance as captivating as his majestic and dominating batting in the 1990s—for some, and I am one of them, this period has been even more satisfying than his demolition of bowlers in his heydays. This is Tendulkar the batting Buddha; a Tendulkar as close to perfection as an ascetic blessed with benediction after decades of rigorous and loving pursuit of the Lord.

From December 26, 2007 Ponting has played 36 Test matches (65 innings) and made 2742 runs at an average of 42.84 with six hundreds and 17 fifties. And from the same starting point Tendulkar has played 29 Test matches (51 innings) for 2951 runs at an average of 65.57 with 12 hundreds and 11 fifties. The overall batting record for Ponting now stands at 12250 runs in 148 Test matches at 54.68 with 39 hundreds and 55 fifties. For Tendulkar it is 14240 runs in 171 matches at 56.96 with 49 hundreds and 58 fifties. So despite playing seven Tests (14 innings) less than Ponting the Master has still surgically opened up the gap.

In the ODIs there is no comparison as Tendulkar has been phenomenal and has played some career-defining innings. The first-and-only double hundred in a limited over game, a brilliant match-winning hundred while chasing in a final in Sydney and a 138 to win a tournament final in Sri Lanka. The magnificent 175 in a losing cause against Australia and a 160 plus in New Zealand are some of the highlights of his performance.

Overall Tendulkar in 442 ODI matches has made 17598 runs at 45.12 with 46 hundreds and 93 fifties. Ponting in 351 matches has 13072 runs at 42.85 with 29 hundreds and 79 fifties.

Tendulkar is busy ensuring that only the name of Sir Donald Bradman be taken in the same breath as his. And even there more and more former cricket greats are now handing over the title of the greatest batsman of all times to Tendulkar; as apart from the Don’s staggering Test average Tendulkar is head-and-shoulders above the legendary Australian in many other significant ways. The Boy from Bandra is more than a match for the Boy from Bowral.

VVS Laxman: A Bad Wicket Genius

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The older lot in the Indian dressing room knows it all too well and now the younger generation got to witness it at the P Sara Oval in Colombo: Vangipurappu Venkata Sai Laxman is a bad wicket genius. Laxman’s flawless hundred had Murali Vijay giving him a bow when he was returning to the dressing room while Dravid and Tendulkar could just not stop smiling.

Captain MS Dhoni was effusive with praise when talking about Laxman’s innings. “He (Laxman) proved today why he is called very, very special,” Dhoni said. “He always comes up with innings that have a huge bearing on the game. It was very important for him to score runs as the team needed it most to level the series. I think it is a very special innings. Hopefully, he plays plenty more innings like this for us.”

The wicket didn’t seem like a fifth day surface because Laxman was in his groove. On this very wicket the home team had lost the cream of its batting for a handful of runs the previous morning and it was the same wicket where India lost three frontline batsmen in quick time on the fourth day’s evening.

Laxman came to the crease early on the fifth morning, India tottering at 62 for four, to join Tendulkar who was on 15. Twenty four balls and five runs later a ball by Randiv took the inside edge of Tendulkar’s bat and flew from the pad to the right of short-leg where Dilshan failed to grab it. Tendulkar murdered the very next delivery to the mid-off fence and the game-plan changed to going for runs. The 24 balls after the dropped catch went for 17 runs; the bat-pad becoming the turning point from where Laxman and Tendulkar took the attack to the Lankans.

Laxman was also troubled by back spasms during his knock but he continued without a runner for as long as he could and then finally asked for one. His batting, though, was unaffected and resplendent. He drove, pulled, flicked, dabbed, and worked the ball with ease and got his runs at a strike rate of almost 70 with 12 hits to the boundary.

‘Oh ho, ho, ho, ho’. That is how Sunil Gavaskar described some of Laxman’s strokes during India’s 2003-04 tour of Australia. Gavaskar recited it during the Sydney Test where Laxman scored a sublime 178 that was studded with 30 fours. Gavaskar also explained on TV that in Mumbai when someone plays shots like the ones Laxman was pulling off then all you say is ‘Oh, ho, ho, ho, ho’. Laxman scored two big hundreds in that tour (in Adelaide and Sydney) and a 75 in Brisbane that he rated as his best.

The Australians won the return series in India by taking the first Test in Bangalore, drawing the second, and mauling India on a green top in Nagpur in the third before a rank turner awaited the two teams in Mumbai. The Indians batted first in Mumbai and were bowled out for 104 and Australia responded with 203. The wicket was getting tougher by the hour and India needed above 200 to give the Aussies a target of 100 plus batting last.

India was 14 for two and Laxman on 8 when Tendulkar joined him in the sixth over. One run came from the seventh over of the innings bowled by Jason Gillespie and then the Aussies bowled three maidens on the trot. Then the counterattack started and Tendulkar hit three fours in an over to Gillespie and Laxman hit three to McGrath. At the end of 10 overs India was 15 for two and at the end of 12 they hopped to 41.

Laxman made 69 with 12 fours and combined with Tendulkar, who scored 55, to give India a total to defend. Needing 107 to win the Aussies were bundled out for 93 and India salvaged some pride out of an otherwise disappointing series.

In the Sydney Test in 2008, Laxman again batted at number three and scored an impressive hundred that revived India after the hiding in Melbourne and under the pressure of big first innings runs in the New Year Test. The crucial performance of the tour came in the second innings in Perth. India took the first innings lead of 118 runs but the team was in a tough position in the second when Laxman joined Irfan Pathan at 125 for 5. The stylish Hyderabadi was the last man to be dismissed on 79; with the team total at 294 and a target of 413 for the Aussies. India went on to create history by becoming the first team from the subcontinent to win at Perth.

“Nothing calms you like Laxman,” Rahul Dravid wrote when Laxman moved past the 100 Test mark. That calming influence could be the reason that Laxman has been involved in three partnerships of over 300; two with Dravid and one with Tendulkar and all against Australia. The Wisden rated Laxman’s magnificient 281 against Australia at the Eden Gardens as the sixth best Test innings of all times.

Laxman has manoeuvred India’s ship out of choppy waters many a times even though he hasn’t enjoyed that kind of safety for his own place in the side. On second thoughts it may not be such a bad thing for Laxman as we all know that the tougher the situation the more are the chances that Laxman would come good.

Written by Deepan Joshi

August 9, 2010 at 9:23 pm

A Colombo Classic

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‘Match turning out to be a classic’ was what Justin Langer said after the fourth day’s play of the second Test of Australia’s 2004 tour of India. It was a four Test series and Australia had won the first Test in Bangalore by quite some margin. Ricky Ponting was unavailable for the first three Tests due to a finger injury and Sachin Tendulkar returned to Test cricket in the third Test in Nagpur after his first layoff due to tennis elbow.

Australia had not won a Test series in India since 1969-70, when Bill Lawry led them to a 3-1 win in five Tests and India was holding the Border-Gavaskar Trophy as they had drawn the previous series in Australia 1-1 and had won the one prior to that in India 2-1.

The feeling at the end of today’s play at the P Sara Stadium in Colombo was reminiscent in some ways to the one in Chennai at the end of the fourth day. The fifth day in Chennai was washed out and a green top at Nagpur sealed the series for Australia; but at the end of the fourth day in Chennai everything was tantalisingly poised. David Boon reckoned later that India would have chased down the 210 left for the fifth day while Geoffrey Boycott said that India should not mind the draw too much as over 200 runs on a fifth day surface was advantage Australia.

The fourth day had started with great promise for India as Australia was 150 for four; effectively 9 for four with Hayden, Langer, Katich, and Gilchrist back in the hut. The nature of the pitch and the state of the game made Mohammad Kaif say that India would prefer to chase less than 100. Kumble had destroyed Australia in the first innings taking seven for 48 and turning the game from 136 for no loss to 235 all out.

The prospect of Kumble and Harbhajan on a crumbling wicket with a handy lead gave enough hopes of squaring the series. Night watchman Jason Gillespie was standing with Damien Martyn and play going to the fifth day was not even a distant thought. Then frustration and more frustration unfolded for India as the fifth wicket partnership put on 139 runs, and more importantly, ate up about 56 overs. That partnership killed India.

Today in Colombo was a similar frustration for India, although at the end of it the match is tilted in favour of the Lankans and not precariously-balanced as it was on that sultry evening in October 2004. The Sri Lankans did their best to commit hara-kiri in the morning session with Randiv, Mahela, Sangakarra, Mathews and Prasanna Jayawardene falling within 24 runs. The score was 87 for seven; effectively 76 for seven.

The unbelievable collapse was followed by an even more unbelievable rearguard action that saw Lanka post 267 runs with Samaraweera getting 83 and Mendis 78. There weren’t many missed opportunities and Dhoni did try all sorts of bowling changes but made the big error of being defensive when the team should have gone for an all out attack.

The small session with the bat also left India bleeding as Sehwag departed for a duck and the poor series continued for Dravid and Murali Vijay. Unlike the Chennai Test, there is a good chance that this Test in Colombo would go on to be a classic even after the fifth day and that would be a great result for Test cricket.

Written by Deepan Joshi

August 7, 2010 at 1:47 am

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 Unrivalled Tendulkar And The Pugnacious Ponting

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Daryll Cullinan during commentary in the first Test at Nagpur brought out an interesting statistic and shared it with L. Sivaramakrishnan and asked the former India leg spinner what he thought about it. Cullinan said that when Ricky Ponting scored his first Test hundred Sachin Tendulkar had 11 and since then Ponting has scored 38 hundreds while Tendulkar has made 35 (now 36) so who do you think is the better batsman.

Interestingly Cullinan did not say anything explicitly but made his choice apparent by his line of questioning in which he challenged the assertion of Siva, who picked Tendulkar, by things like match-winning knocks and scores on bowling-friendly wickets and performance in big matches etc.

It is essentially a subjective judgement, with all due respect to statistics, but one can use facts to build an argument like Cullinan did. I’ll pick the Test Cullinan spoke about, where Tendulkar got his 11th Test match hundred, and use a way different to the one he used to make a comparison. It was a Test match that started on January 2, 1997 and Cullinan played in that game which South Africa won by 282 runs at Cape Town. Tendulkar was a ‘23-year-old veteran’ and the captain of his team and he made 169; an innings that began in complete crisis and helped India avoid a follow on after SA had put 529 on board.

After the Cape Town Test, Tendulkar had 3284 runs in 47 Tests (72 innings) at an average of 50.52 with 11 hundreds and 15 fifties and 179 as his highest score. At the same juncture of 47 Tests (74 innings) Ricky Ponting had 2830 runs at 42.87 with 8 hundreds and 14 fifties and 197 as his highest score.

The age is an important issue here and Ponting was just a month or so shy of being 21 when he made his debut while Tendulkar was 16-and-a-half. Why is age an issue? At 21, the body of an athlete is better prepared for the rigours of international cricket and at 16 it is more vulnerable to them.

My point here is not destiny but the simple observation that cricket at the junior level is organised age-wise, unless someone is exceptionally-talented—a 22-year-old, in all likelihood, would hammer the attack if clubbed with the under-16 team. Shouldn’t the first 47 Tests of the career of Tendulkar, where he grew from being 16 plus to 23 plus, compare unfavourably with the first 47 Tests of Ponting, where Ponting grew from almost 21 to around 27? The records present a totally-different picture. Tendulkar took only a couple of seasons to dazzle like an exquisite, polished and rare diamond; a Kohinoor. And he got world-wide recognition early in his career. It is difficult to choose between Brian Lara and Tendulkar as they are both natural and brilliant in their own way.

Ponting was a late bloomer and an average player till as late as about the end of 2001 and it was only in 2002 that his batting started to flower. In 2004 Tendulkar had a freak injury and then another one and he went under the knife twice and that cost him the better part of three seasons—the comparison started only when Ponting began scaling the Everest and Tendulkar began falling in a bottomless gorge.

Coming back to international cricket after lengthy breaks and to get going again is a very demanding task and though Tendulkar found his mojo in 50-over cricket he looked a pale shadow of his former self in the Test matches. The rub of the green also went against him a few times and on one rare fluent day he got a howler from Steve Bucknor at the Eden Gardens; he had got a reprieve in the previous match in Mohali so it did even out in that sense. What caused Tendulkar and his fans the anguish was the fact that he was getting his rhythm going after a long period? There was an outcry in India with the 2003 decision that Bucknor gave in Brisbane also boomeranging. A newspaper summed up the mood with a big bold headline saying ‘BUCKNORED’.

Christian Ryan wrote an evocative piece headlined ‘An Australian sort of hero’, when Tendulkar completed 20 years in international cricket, describing the maiden first-class innings of Tendulkar in Australia: “From the beginning, the relationship was about something bigger than admiration and affection. When Sachin Tendulkar set foot in Australia he brought with him rain.”

Lismore, on the far north hippie trail of New South Wales, was the strange location for Tendulkar’s maiden first-class innings in Australia. Lismore had not seen heavy rain in months. And when the Indian team arrived on a Friday, November 1991, it poured all morning. The net session was cancelled but the three-day match began on the scheduled Saturday, November 23: “Conditions were grey overhead and green underfoot, which made predicting the ball’s flight path tricky. The bowling was top-shelf—Whitney, Lawson, Holdsworth, Matthews, Waugh, Waugh—and the batting a little gormless, all except for the one who was 18.
Under the Oakes Oval pines he took careful guard, his head still, his footsteps like tiny, precise pinpricks, going backwards mostly, unless the bowler overpitched. Fifteen hundred people saw this, the great Alan Davidson among them. Davo was dumbfounded: “It’s just not possible… such maturity.”

Tendulkar hit 82 that afternoon, when no one else passed 24, then 59 out of 147 in the second innings. When Australians hear Indians grouch about their hero going missing in an emergency and having no appetite for a scrap, it always comes as a shock.”

What would be the position of Cullinan if asked to comment on whether Australia had the best bowling attack for the better part of two decades; an attack having phenomenal bite. It is an answer that Ponting can’t give because for no fault of his he never had to face up to them. For that answer we can look at Tendulkar; and much as I hate doing this at Cullinan as well.

Cullinan has a batting average of 12.75 against Australia and against Australia in Australia it further dips to 4.42 with 10 as his highest score. Harbhajan Singh has a better record than that with four fifties and an average of 21.83 against the Aussies; Cullinan missed having a fifty against the Aussies by 3 runs. The Aussie attack had his number and was just too good for him.

The first time he came up against them Craig McDermott nailed him for a duck; the same McDermott who told South African fast bowler Allan Donald that Tendulkar was going to be the best. And the same Donald who first bowled at Tendulkar in an ODI at the Eden Gardens and said that it was blatantly clear (Tendulkar made 60 plus) that he was going to be a player to remember.

“He is No. 1 in my book—the best player I have ever had the privilege of bowling to. There’s Steve Waugh and there’s Brian Lara, who was wonderful in 1995, but Tendulkar is a class above, consistently special,” Donald said.

Sachin Tendulkar averages 56.08 against Australia with 10 hundreds and 11 fifties; and against Australia in Australia his average goes up to 58.53. The bowler who tormented Cullinan the most admitted to having nightmares about Tendulkar stepping out and hitting him for a six over his head from the rough outside the leg stump on wickets suited for spin bowling.

The genius leg spinner paid the ultimate tribute: “Sachin Tendulkar is, in my time, the best player without doubt—daylight second, Brian Lara third.” What can be bigger than what the Australian captain Mark Taylor said after the three-Test series in 1998 and the ODI series after it in Sharjah: “We did not lose to a team called India…we lost to a man called Sachin.”

On the instinct of Tendulkar, Ryan wrote: “Every bolt and screw in the Tendulkar technique seemed put there to aid the getting of runs. Tendulkar was a run-getting machine, except no machine could also be so graceful—or instinctive, for that’s what it was, instinct, which told him that the way to bat was to attack. He didn’t learn this. He knew it, inside himself. Runs were what counted.

…You occasionally hear it said wistfully that Tendulkar is the Australian Shane Warne could have been. It is a neat line but it undersells what they have in common. For if any two modern cricketers might be soul mates, it is Warne and Tendulkar, grandmasters of their arts. Bowling legspin comes as naturally to Warne as batting does to Tendulkar, which is to say, as naturally as the rest of us find breathing.”

Tendulkar now is a batting sage. To see him build an innings brick by brick, by keeping the good balls out and dispatching the bad ones to the boundary, is a deep and fulfilling joy that no amount of slam bam cricket can give. He is solid in defence but not dour; that phase where he just hung around and looked purposeless is long gone.

In the 50-over game he can still play the innings of a lifetime. Just look at his masterful performances after the 2007 World Cup; after six scores in the nineties he broke the jinx by an unbeaten match-winning 117 in the first Commonwealth Bank Series final in Sydney while chasing and made 91 in the second final at Brisbane to beat Australia at home. He made 163 not out and left the crease when he had a chance to get to a double hundred against New Zealand as he did not want to take a chance with a minor niggle flaring up before the Test matches. Then he made 138 in a final against Sri Lanka in Colombo.

Four match-winning knocks and three of them in tournament finals but it didn’t stop there and he produced another magical innings of 175 against Australia in Hyderabad that almost single-handedly carried India to the mammoth target of 350 and with a little more support it was an innings that would have seen India through.

Sunil Gavaskar, the other genius in the history of Indian batting, described how Tendulkar just practised the cradle movement on the morning India was to bat at the Eden Gardens; just the forward and back foot defence. Just that. Apart from the brief period, where physical injuries perhaps hampered the ‘psychological’ approach of Tendulkar, scoring runs comes as naturally to him as maternal affection to a new mother.

Ricky Ponting, the best exponent of the pull shot, has done much better in South Africa and in the middle part of this decade. Tendulkar has not had that kind of success against South Africa. The Little Master, though, is in a league of his own; a league that even the great Sir Donald Bradman didn’t mind sharing.

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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