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The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones

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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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The Australian Coverage Was An Embarrassment

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Some publications and cricket writers in Australia have a tendency to pounce on a visiting team if they have an indifferent start to their campaign or lose the first match badly. The press takes no time in writing them off as spoilers of a summer entertainment that is considered a natural right of the Australian public that enjoys healthy competition. Apart from a few brilliant writers like Gideon Haigh, respected the world over and those like Greg Baum and Peter Roebuck who give every visiting side its due; a lot of the Australian media sometimes forgets the essential thing while writing about visitors: the context. The West Indies have been the latest sufferers after their capitulation inside three days at the Woolloongabba, Brisbane.

The coverage accorded the West Indies after their defeat inside three days at the Gabba even by the expected low standards was harsh. It is a different matter that West Indies picked themselves up and the next match was a draw and the loss at Perth was close and could have easily gone the other way. Australia made 520 batting first and when the West Indies came out it was a Gayle thunderstorm and not the Fremantle Doctor that struck the WACA.

Gayle was the first wicket to fall having made 102 in 72 balls out of the total of 136 runs for the first wicket; he struck nine fours and six sixes in the counterattack. The team could only manage 312 and that gave Australia a lead of 208 going into the second innings. The West Indies blew the Aussies apart for 150 in the second innings and in their chase of 359 runs just fell short by 36 runs.

During India’s 2003-04 tour of Australia, Steve Waugh’s farewell series, the two words that India heard in the lead up to the first Test at the Gabba were ‘chin music.’ The Gabba is an Australian fortress where the last time Australia lost was in 1988 against the West Indies and for India in Brisbane what could one say in a preview. “Playing an Indian team softened by early defeat at Brisbane—as seems inevitable—will be the perfect platform to greater things. Steve Waugh’s retirement at the end of this series might symbolise, to the sentimental, the end of an era—but by no means will that bring an end to Australia’s dominance in world cricket,” wrote Amit Varma of Wisden Cricinfo India. Seldom have series results been predicted before even a ball is bowled but such was Australia’s domination in home conditions that it is the Indian team that should be hailed for their performance rather than admonishing the writer for getting his series preview wrong. It was a 1-1 draw and Steve Waugh’s farewell series was saved more by Steve Bucknor and Billy Bowden in the second innings in Sydney than by their batsmen. It has been written about and the Cricinfo coverage can be accessed to see the merit in this assertion.

Veteran writer and commentator on Caribbean cricket Tony Cozier said that no one is more painfully aware of the rapid disintegration of West Indies cricket than West Indians themselves. The proof has been before our eyes for at least a decade now, at our once-filled grounds, on our television screens, in our newspapers.

“For all that, the abuse and scorn heaped on the team in the Australian press following its defeat in the first Test in Brisbane last week—by an innings and in three days—was undeserved. Comparisons with Australia’s similar decline in the 1980s, when their overall win-lost ratio in 92 Tests was 18-36 (5-16 against West Indies), were conveniently ignored.

Instead, we had this supercilious comment from Malcolm Conn, the long-serving writer for the Australian: ‘Have the West Indies really sent their full-strength team to Australia? Surely the real team must be still on strike, because if this is the best the combined might of the Caribbean can muster, then Test cricket is in terminal decline.’

He was in the Caribbean with the Australian team in 1984 when West Indies did not lose a single second innings wicket in the five Tests, winning the series 3-0 on the way to six successive victories. As I recall, no one suggested then that Test cricket was in terminal decline because of it.

Nor was there any consideration by the West Indies board that the series ‘should be cancelled and all tickets refunded’, the line Ben Dorries came up with in the Brisbane Courier-Mail after the Brisbane match. And, as bad as the Aussies were back then, they were not chided that their Test cricket had become ‘a complete and utter joke’, another of Dorries’ pearls.

Fortunately there are those of substance and influence with a more sympathetic, and realistic, take on West Indies cricket, men such as Greg Chappell. “I’m hopeful that some of the work that’s being done to help West Indian cricket become strong again is successful because I think they’re a very important member of the cricket family,” Chappell said.”

Dhoni Can Blame It On The Rain

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The good news after the washed out match against Australia is that the mathematical probability for the Indian team to make it to the next stage is not over as of yet; there is a slim chance riding on a lot of factors going India’s way. The bad news is that some of the crucial factors are not in control of what Dhoni and his men do.

India has to hope that Pakistan beats Australia in the second last match of Group A. And if it wins, then India has to ensure that it beats West Indies by a margin that takes its net run rate above that of Australia.
This reliance on mathematical possibilities is quite a depressing situation for a team that has been flirting with the number 1 position in the ICC ODI rankings. Despite all the consistent play that has taken India to the top of the charts, this is not an unfamiliar situation for the team.

Remember the World Cup in West Indies; a loss against Bangladesh in the first match and it was two must win games for India. Bermuda was easy but the loss to Sri Lanka was the end of our campaign. It was also the end of a period defined as ‘commitment to excellence’ by former Australian legend and India’s pre-World Cup coach Greg Chappell.

Persisting with the same attack that won India the Compaq Cup final in Colombo may have cost heavily.
In that final, 18 overs were shared between Yuvraj, Pathan and Raina. Pathan was hammered at 9 an over in his four over spell and Yuvraj was decent at 4 an over. Raina was superb with 8 overs for 26 runs and a wicket. RP Singh went for above seven an over, Ishant and Nehra were not too different. None of the fast bowlers finished their quota. Harbhajan won the match with his five-wicket spell.

Also India had piled 319 runs with a top-class 138 from Tendulkar and a finishing kick of 56 not out by Yuvraj. There was no Yuvraj here who gave India a buffer of 20 extra runs and six frugal overs in Colombo.

What if India had to defend a modest total? And what about restricting a good batting line-up on a decent surface? In Colombo Sri Lanka was all out for 273 with 3.2 overs left; it was a 46 run win but that does not tell the story that the chase was on till the 42nd over. Sri Lanka was 60 for no loss after 7 overs. RP, Ishant and Nehra flogged out of the attack.

Harbhajan was brought in the 8th over with the field still up and he rattled Dilshan’s middle stump with his 5th ball. Jayasuriya hit two consecutive boundaries in Harbhajan’s next over and then took a single. Then a scrambled seam doosra with some over spin on the off stump line drew Mahela forward but he could only manage a leading edge that looped straight back to the bowler’s hands. Two big wickets in two overs for Harbhajan inside the first power play changed the tempo of the chase.

Still the chase was on and the scales turned in India’s favour when Raina had Kapugedera. Then Harbhajan took two in two in the 45th over to reduce Lanka to nine down and completed the formalities by removing Mendis in his 10th over.

The match before the final was even more instructional. Sri Lanka made 307 batting first. India used seven bowlers. Here also Raina bowled 3 overs for just 14 runs and took a wicket; Harbhajan was superb giving 37 runs in 10 overs for a wicket. All the others leaked runs in the range of 6.42 and 7.25. The chase was disastrous; we were effectively out of the contest by the 25th over. India lost by 139 runs.

Did it occur to the captain and the team management that there were some serious concerns? In the last four innings in which he came out to bat before the Centurion game, Yusuf Pathan had spent 5, 8, 4, and 12 minutes in the middle for a combined total of 2 runs. He was hammered for 9 an over and had two ducks and two singles in four outings with the bat. What was the role he was picked for?

Was their any concern for Dhoni and the team management when they went ahead with this composition in a crunch game? An abysmal RP, a low on confidence Ishant, no fifth bowler and to top it all a complete misuse of the only world class bowler in the team. So it wasn’t that you felt three bowlers short you were actually 4 bowlers short with only Nehra at your disposal.

To get the best out of Harbhajan you have to use him like a field marshal uses his most potent weapon; the way he was used when the Sri Lankan openers had hit 60 in 7 overs and it was still the first power play. It was Dhoni who let Harbhajan down at Centurion and not the other way round.

I don’t know if Rohit Sharma was available for selection but he’s played 41 matches and has four fifties to his name. The simple reason that he had in the company of Tendulkar guided India home in a tense one-day final against Australia in Sydney should have been reason enough to consider his case seriously.

The quality that Rohit would have brought to the team apart from his obvious batting talent was his experience and unruffled temperament. India was in a solid position when Kohli came up the order but his inexperience and not his form let him and the team down. Another six or seven overs later he could have pulled that risk easily.

Inexperience sees the five dot balls while experience knows that there is a long way to go and numerous opportunities to cash in will come. Inexperience is a lack of awareness of the state of the game while experience is exactly the opposite.

Raina would have been a much better promotion; the left right combination would have made it difficult for the spinners to choke runs. His natural ability to strike the balls in his zone would have been an added advantage.

The Centurion game was decided in the passive period between the 15th and the 25th overs. Pakistan was under the pump at 65 for 3 after the 15th over and they crept to 108 for 3 by the half way mark; 43 runs without losing a wicket. India was 97 for 2 at the end of the 15th over and by the end of the 25th they were 138 for 4; 41 runs and two big wickets.

Dhoni used the most ineffective bowlers at his disposal when Pakistan was reeling under pressure and Younis used his most effective bowlers when India would have been content to develop a sedate partnership. Ajmal and Afridi would not have been as effective if Younis had allowed a few overs to pass with just containing the batsmen as his motive. A set Kohli with Dravid would have played them much more effectively.

The most consistently-successful part-time bowler coming into the series was Suresh Raina; yet Dhoni didn’t give him the ball and preferred to experiment with Kohli and Pathan at a critical juncture.

The ice-cool Mahendra Singh Dhoni had a bad tournament; an awful one in fact. He knew exactly that his attack had no bite except Harbhajan; he needed Amit Mishra in the playing XI and also a replacement for RP. He could afford to be a batsman less and play Kohli at number 6 with Harbhajan to follow. Now he can just hope and pray for the Gods of fortune to oblige.

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