Thursday, June 28, 2012

What is the ‘sacred cow’ for the BCCI?

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The specific history of Tony Grieg is inconsequential. In fact, given his past it is commendable that he spoke openly about his views on India.

We ourselves, on this blog, have been saying the same things with regards India, for over a year. Even while India was still #1 in the ICC Test rankings; we have been saying that India’s ranking has no “business case” and hence a matter of time before India disintegrate.

Tony Greig’s views on India were fairly straightforward…

  1. The BCCI is pursuing money above all else
  2. India’s stars are seeking a “fools proof” (not fool proof; mind you) when it comes to the DRS
  3. The IPL is good but perhaps might cannibalize Test Cricket in India
  4. India has the power and has used that power to block anything that is not viewed as aligned to her own interests
  5. Test cricket is secondary to other forms of cricket for Indians. Players, administrators and paying public alike

I think his views very much reflect the unstated and implicit BCCI agenda. That does not make the BCCI agenda wrong or unworthy just as it does not make Tony Grieg’s views worthy of the criticism it has received in the Indian media.

T20 cricket and the private money it is brining in and influencing mainstream cricket, is like that 3rd daughter in the movie Fiddler on the Roof. With each daughter Tevye, the father expands his belief system to be able to accept his daughters’ choices, till finally the youngest one makes a choice that is too far removed from what he is willing to compromise.

With the IPL people like me and obviously Tony Grieg…we worry what is the ‘sacred cow’ for the BCCI. What will they not allow in their pursuit of making billions? Once we know where the bottom is we will stop worrying.

I had hoped that Test Cricket is that sacred cow.

But then we have the Sachin Tendulkars who skips Test Tours to play the IPL, flirt with Roger Federrer and the BCCI allows it. So obviously it’s not sacred.

The BCCI may have every right to pursue their vision for cricket and they may well succeed in that just like Tony Greig has every right to speak his mind against it and everyone in India will reject it because of something ridiculous like the color of his tie or the choice of his perfume.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Reset expectations

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India have lost 8 away Tests in a row.

Their once powerful batting is a sad….well its just that; once powerful…

Their players pay lip service to Test cricket, hide injuries in appearing at the IPL and routinely skip international tours.

Their analysis of why the losses are piling up, is an appalling…”If you look at it, in each of the matches we lost in Australia, it was that one partnership that was the difference”…This is what Sachin Tendulkar actually said. I would rather he just say, "You know the average Indian cricket lover is a pathetic, dim witted fool. He is likely to buy any bull shit I say. So I am not even going to come up with a reasonable analysis of why we are losing so many Test matches"
3 of their players, including the current captain, bicker about captaincy in the media.

They  have become a team of delusional, self centered, rich and market savvy cricketers.

They talk about themselves endlessly; always forgetting that losing 8 tests in a row gives them no platform to do any talking whatsoever.

There is no one who the team thinks has the ‘stature and experience’ to show them the mirror.

They celebrate individual feats the same way Spain celebrated winning the soccer world up a couple of years ago.

They are not even the top 5 Test teams in the World. In fact I would argue, even Bangladesh and West Indies are better Test teams. Visiting in the more hard part of the summer in England, the West Indian batsmen gave a far better account of themselves than India’s greats.

Their only truly in-form batsman and the only one who lived in the real world, Rahul Dravid has retired.

With this backdrop, let us celebrate that India ‘A’ actually went, competed and won a Test Match in the West Indies.

I find articles lamenting the ‘missed opportunities’ by our youngsters a bit off the mark. Most of them are not written with an appreciation that at present India is probably the worst Test cricket team in the world.

When you start from there, I will take a 1-2 loss and be satisfied.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Sharma, Rahane big losers

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Rohit Sharma may have just blown the opportunity of a lifetime. In a situation tailor made for him and many others to showcase their pedigree, Sharma and Rahane messed up. While many pundits may argue that Tendulkar's delayed retirement and sundry reasons led to a loss of confidence and destruction of great talent, my merciless assessment is that he doesn't have it!

For a cricketer that is 25 (around the age that Dravid, Laxman, Sehwag and others were hitting their high notes), Sharma sure does not demonstrate the hunger and desire to be a top class test batsman. There was a six in the 12 runs that he scored in the first innings. For someone searching for runs and under the microscope this defies logic. If Rohit does not have it in him to gut out and score the tough runs that test cricket demands so often, maybe we we're far too optimistic. Contrast that with Tiwary's innings and I have to believe that Tiwary is a nose ahead in the derby.

Test cricket is strange because it reduces the likes of Arun Lal and Mark Ramprakash to also rans. It takes the likes of Sehwag and makes them world class openers. But to get that opportunity players have to combine talent with hunger and intense desire. Rohit Sharma just doesn't seem to want it enough. Rahane can be forgiven because he is still not knocking that door down as urgently. Plus, Sehwag, Gambhir and Murali Vijay may be be the first preferences anyways. Sharma was and is that imminent next best thing waiting to happen. And somehow he's just not stepping up. Apart from that terrific CB series down under, he doesn't seem to have much to show anymore other than t20 mishmash.

From being his no. 1 fan, I'm now tired of waiting. And wait all of those apologists for Tendulkar's delayed retirement- it is time for the great man to quit. The team will find itself in due course, Sharma or Tiwary or whoever. Just like Gavaskar didn't wait for his second coming, there's no reason for Tendulkar to wait for a suitable replacement. In effect, Tendulkar may have implied that Gavaskar was selfish to retire while still being able to score runs and "serve". Sorry that was nasty, but it is essential defense against those that say that age is not the criteria, etc.

Overall the tour may be a mini success because it confirms Pujara's pedigree. It shows us our bowling options. Shami being the find along with a modest start for Darekar. Tiwary showed his willingness to gut it out although he didn't manage to get that game changing one. Sharma started reasonably with a 94, but didn't do enough.

The selectors have their data. Let's hope they make good calls.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Ranji Trophy Re-Tinkered

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Once again changes have been made to the Ranji Trophy in a bid to make it'know I don't know. For years now, domestic cricket has merely been treated as a tournament to feed the international pipeline. Since the objectives were not clearly stated by Ganguly, Kumble et al, I'm assuming that once again the priorities are to produce the next Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman, Sehwag et al. It doesn't appear to me that the priority is to produce competitive games that would challenge the best and the worst teams. But I could be wrong, because the newspapers simply didn't help me understand why the format was being changed.

From a personal stand-point, I like the NFL format more than any other that I know. There are 32 teams in 8 divisions with four in each conference. The "Final" is played between the winners of the conferences. However, the 16 games played during the season are smartly determined based on previous season performances. A healthy divisional rivalry system is maintained that gives bragging rights to fans that love their team beating a division rival. Note the huge rivalry between the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers or New York Giants and Washington Redskins. Such rivalries spur revenues as well as interest and intensity in games.

I can picture an annual southern division rivalry between Chennai (Tamil Nadu) and Bangalore (Karnataka). A set of home and away games between these two teams would be great for cricket. A Bombay v Pune or Delhi v Haryana or Punjab rivalry would likewise be good too. While NFL rivalries go back more than 60 years now, it would be great if Ranji Cricket would build such a foundation.

Dividing the team into fluid groups that can change every year means that there are no enduring rivalries. Such contexts then become the equivalent of a derby as opposed to a boxing match between two top boxers. A race for points exists in the NFL too, but the context pours a lot more interest for fans and sportsmen alike to treat every game as an important one, even in a losing season.

The changes made to the bouncer rules and the focus on good pitches is a welcome step. Follow up on the pitches is critical if this plan is to work. My belief is that we will start seeing more green tops in India in the next several seasons. This is because every team has unearthed some good fast bowlers. Spin is under atrophy in India and will take a few more years before it comes back in business. For now Ashwin seems to be the standard bearer. Despite his not-so-great performance in Australia, people see his obvious talent and temperament. But I digress. Hopefully, this tilt towards green tops will make the matches much more interesting.

Some level of marketing needs to be done to make the matches more popular. Perhaps busing people in from rural towns or building decent grounds with good seating is required. I watched a game in Vijayawada once and it was pathetic to say the least.

I also think a season ending Irani Trophy is a great idea. Champions vs Rest of India has been a great concept and keeping the game fresh will be a good change. In addition, it will test the temperament of the best when in form as opposed to waiting for the next season, by which time a lot of water would have flown through the Godavari (or not).

The Duleep Trophy has been meaningless for several reasons. Chief among which is a lack of context. In addition, hastily assembling cricketers together is a bad idea. In fact, it might  also lead to a zone full of batting riches to leave out some contenders and other zones could include mediocre players. Never understood this.

Having the Vijay Hazare Trophy winner play as one team in the Challengers too is a great idea. This would make the Challengers a little like the Irani Trophy pitting the best team against the "best available rest of the country talent".

An IPL like marketing buzz needs to be created and people in small towns need to be provided better amenties to encourage them to come see matches and cheer their town and state sportsmen. The IPL drew crowds this year with good marketing and improving the conditions for spectators. Likewise, Ranji too can do the same.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Darekar passes first test

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Akshay Darekar claimed 6-67 in the second innings on a somewhat helpful wicket and passed his first high level international test. His economy rate has been below 3 in both innings and he bowled 20 overs in both innings. He may have to double that in some test matches if he were to play test cricket. His physical endurance is still something of an unknown. It's too soon to claim that he is Bedi's second coming, but it's a promising sign.

Shami Ahmed has continued his good form from the first match. He must now be looked at as a serious prospect for India. Much like Praveen Kumar perhaps, he may be the one with the X factor to prise out wickets at critical junctures against the grain of play. Hopefully, Awana gets a game and he too can show us what he is capable of doing.

Ashok Dinda must be a shoo-in for the T20 World Cup later this year. His bowling has progressed in leaps and bounds. His figures are simply too stingy to ignore. 8 maidens in 18 overs in the first innings, followed by just 22 runs in 13 overs in the second. India's bowling riches are staggering at this point. It's the batting that suddenly looks vulnerable.

Rahane and Mukund continue to disappoint. Rahane, who was knocking on the doors of ODI and test cricket has to be disappointed with his inability to get going. Pujara has done enough to be the first claimant to any vacant test slots. Rohit Sharma's 94 in the first innings of the first test, though, is not enough to cement his claims. Temperament is critical in test cricket and Sharma hasn't yet demonstrated that.

However, the way the match is poised right now, offers both Manoj Tiwary and Rohit Sharma the perfect opportunity to come good and lay claim to be the ones to write the story of India's test future. Pujara came good in the last match when faced with a similar situation. It's upto both Manoj Tiwary and Rohit Sharma to do what their captain pulled off. This requires heart and skill. While skill is something that both players clearly possess, it remains to be seen if they have the stomach for gritting it out under pressure and coming good.

Tomorrow is the day when we'll know if Rohit Sharma belongs.

Sharma and Tiwary joined the procession as India A crashed to 94 all out. Not good news at all.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Of Artists and Entrepreneurs

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In discussing Test cricket, I often hear about the inability to attract enough fans. And therefore by some inference that it shouldn't be played at all because it requires "investment". However, many cricketers themselves consider test cricket as the highest form of cricketing art. Why then is there this raging debate? No one asked Claude Monet to paint. He did and some folks loved his paintings and paid millions for it. If everything were to be percieved through the lens of popularity and a customer centric view, then Monet would have been asked to paint homes and potraits. But he didn't. He went "rogue" and it was ok. This is art.

When cricket was first played, I doubt if people were thinking about how many people would watch it. I also doubt if it anyone was thinking about anything else except having fun. But as sports grow they acquire a life of their own. Commercialization of sport has brought "entertainment" to fans. Unlike the US sporting tradition, where commerce and loftier goals are only conveniently mixed, Cricket is trying an experiment where unpaid board members seemingly espousing loftier goals are trying to run the sport with a commercial interest at heart.

Basketball and football in America as run by the NBA and NFL are commercial entertainment activities. They are not non-profits or social welfare organizations. So they are driven by the same interests that drive any entrepreneurial venture. An employer-emplyee relationship exists between the "owners" and "players". Notice that the clubs have to permit players to participate in the Olympics. How often have tennis players from the US and other western nations not played Davis cup? Several. This would be sacrilege for Indians.

So why is everyone concerned about attracting crowds to games? So what if a game is played to empty stadia? Should they not be played at all? Why should formats be tinkered with and rules be constantly updated to make the sport more spectator friendly? Would an artist stop painting if he thought that no one would buy his works?

The answer is that the commercialization of sport has led to this ever lasting greed for more spectators, and more profit. But should profit be the motive for cricket. Should the fan base be "grown"? When Cricinfo was first started, was profit the motive? Those that painstakingly put stats and archives together didn't think for a second that they were going to grow the "fan" base.

I know that there is no going back. But if I were to appeal to the "powers-that-be" that they should let the fans take care of their entertainment needs and that cricket should be left alone, what would I be met with? I'll bet it'll be an incredulous stare to start with and a recommendation to visit a therapist next.

Let test cricket be played, even if to empty stands. Let ODI cricket be played though only in context. Let T20 be played to initiate the raw talent to high level sport. But let's not play all these to "attract" fans. Let's play all these so that players have fun and fans have fun watching awesome sporting feats individual and team. Let's not manufacture any more entertainment.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Pujara begins A tour in Style

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Any doubts about whether Pujara belongs at the top level should have been set to rest by his performance in the recently concluded India A match versus the West Indies A team. Having already made a very credible debut against Australia, Pujara was laid low by an IPL injury (bait alert for Golandaz). Pujara worked his way back and in the very first opportunity to step up, he did and how. A very composed 96 in a chase interrupted repeated by two falling objects - rain and wickets.

Rohit Sharma punctuated his talent with his errors and continued to frustrate in ways that only some players can. If anyone can irritate spectators after scoring 94 runs, it's a sign that he is almost Gower-esque in his ability to make his fans mad. He may be forgiven to think that he made up for his batting mis-step with a bowling performance that made one sit up and take notice. Unfortunately, very few except the most rabid fans remember Allan Border and Viv Richards' bowling exploits. Sharma needs to fix his discipline issues if he is going to take over from Sachin anytime in the near future.

Tiwary and Rahane didn't really stake claim, but there's more opportunities yet. The importance of Rohit and Pujara immediately making an impact cannot be under-stated. Normally, India's test teams begin the first test by giving up. These two went into a A tour with a mind-set that is exactly what the fans ordered. Another reason why the time for change is NOW!

On the bowling front, Shami Ahmed turned out to be the pleasant surprise. Bhuvaneshwar Kumar delivered too. However, at best these guys can play ODIs and warm the benches. India has a decent set of first string bowling riches. Even though none are tearaways. Umesh Yadav, Ishant Sharma, Irfan Pathan, Praveen Kumar and Zaheer Khan are doing ok.

For the next game, Darekar should play ahead of Rahul Sharma. Ashwin needs a good spin partner and apart from Ojha, Darekar's left arm spin might be a good stock bowling option. Rahul Sharma needs more time to develop his spinning capabilities. A leg-spinner is always risky unless he is accurate and actually spins the ball. Kumble was an exception that is unlikely to repeat itself.

Hopefully, Awana (flown in as a replacement for RP) and Darekar get some opportunities in the next couple of matches and we get to assess what's in the pantry. All in all a great start for the A tour.

Friday, June 1, 2012

2nd grader announces retirement from international cricket

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In a meticulously arranged press conference that could have put Rahul Dravid to shame, a 2nd grade student from the deep interiors of North India; Tinku Sharma; today announced his retirement from Tests, ODIs and T20 Internationals cricket for India. He will be available to play in T20 leagues across the globe
It is indeed a reflection of the time we live in on many dimensions, the least of which is why the press even showed up for such a non-event to cover announcements from non-entities.
There isn’t any reason for anyone to care for or even know who Tinku Sharma is. He is just a normal kid. Well, as normal as one can be, growing up in the villages of India being raised by a father who is smitten by the IPL. Tinku, has not played any organized cricket and the only remotely verifiable claim of his cricketing orientation and expertise comes from his father’s recounting of the repertoire of shots his first born possesses at such a young age including the switch hit, dilscoop, the sweep (reverse of course) and the lofted shot over mid wicket.
As the press conference unfolded, many wanted to know the reason why some one who does not even represent India would announce retirement from the game.
“Well, I want Tinku to focus on the IPL and if he ever gets good enough to be picked for India, it would be a loss of millions of dollars to our family” said Sharad, Tinku’s father who is a Post Master at the local post office and a man of meager means.
Another dimension of this is of course the lure of the IPL and its long term impact.
Critics of the IPL were quick to point out the bad influences of the IPL that is driving young cricket enthusiasts away from the desire to play for their country.
Kirti Azad, a key member of the World Cup winning 1983 Indian cricket team, used this development to go on a hunger strike to protest the far reaching impacts of the IPL and the undesirable choices it is forcing our children to make.
In response, The BCCI is said to have initiated the process to recover all monies paid to Kirti Azad during his playing career; adjusted for inflation.
Ravi Shastri however countered that saying “When someone gets a stomach upset, it's because of the IPL. If someone gets an outside edge, it's because of the IPL”. He was suggesting that blaming everything on the IPL is the trend these days. He further implied that all less than profusely praiseworthy observations about the IPL need to be treated as “criticism” driven by jealousy or ignorance of market economics or both.
BCCI inside sources revealed that Ravi’s name will be forwarded to the President of India for Champion of Bharat Ratna
Tinku, who is a huge fan of Kevin Pietersen and considers him his God said, “Yes there is Sachin Tendulkar I am told but ever since I started watching cricket I think Kevin is more Godier than Sachin. Sachin can play only with one hand”
Sachin Tendulkar when approached for a comment said, “I started batting right handed on my own. No one can tell me which hand to use. I will silence all my critics”
Rajeev Shukla (IPL) and Ratnakar Shetty (BCCI) in a joint statement said, “If and when we decide to have an auction for 2nd graders in the IPL, Tinku will be considered. As for this retirement, we have yet to receive anything in writing”.