Saturday 29 September 2007

Misbah’s misery and Gatting’s loneliness

Mike Gatting must be a relieved man.

Since he played that outrageously fluffed reverse sweep to hand over the 1987 World Cup to Australia, Gatting spent the subsequent two decades fending the simple questions “Why, Mike, why?”

After a prolonged loneliness, Gatting finally can take heart now that he has a company in Misbah-ul-Haq.

Coming back after a three-year gap, poor Misbah did everything right in the Twenty20 World Cup final until a rush of blood got the better of his sang froid. He went for that scoop shot that ballooned up only to find S Sreesanth at short fine leg. Pakistan were to finish bridesmaid.

In all probability, we won’t see Misbah scoop again. He must have touched the willow and vowed to banish the shot from his repertoire. Despite all his heroics in South Africa, Misbah runs the serious risk of going down to cricket history as the poor chap who came agonizingly close to break Pakistan’s long-standing jinx against India before a moment of madness did him in.

Misbah was not to emulate Miandad, that street-smart, street-fighter who, some 21 summers back, hit Chetan Sharma for a last ball six to leave a dent in the psyche that India took years to overcome.

I have this uncanny feeling that both the World Cup finals – the 1987 Australia-England and the Indo-Pak Twenty20 summit clash -- cricket took its sweet revenge.

Both Gatting’s reverse sweep and Misbah’s scoop shots are common in their deep contempt for custom. It defies tradition and throws the copy book out of the window. Both stand for wickedness that goes in the name of improvisation, a necessary evil arising out of the art, science and commerce of ODI batsmanship.

Both the hideous shots have found ample practitioners in Pietersen to Nixon (reverse sweep) and Misbah to Uthappa (scoop). But in the end, it was poetic justice that the same cheekiness, the same contempt for custom boomeranged! The shots that fetched them loads of runs, brought their peril too. And both came in the summit clash for the Holy Grail of ODIs. Indeed, cricket hit back with vengeance and the timing could not have been better!

Tuesday 25 September 2007

Of sang-froid and India's Captain Cool

Leading Team India can be scary. With a billion-strong population ready to garland and guillotine you with equal fervour, you can always feel the sword of Damocles hanging precariously over your head. Refreshingly, Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s leadership is neither blighted by the fear of failure nor is swayed by success.

The best thing about Dhoni is that even in the toughest of times, he does not forget to flash that disarming smile. During the bowl-out against Pakistan, in the do-or-die tie against South Africa or in the high-octane semifinal against Australia, Dhoni has always been a man in control of his emotions. In fact, at times, he seemed incredulously unexcitable by what was happening around. Shoehorned into captaincy, Dhoni makes you optimistic that he is not going to fall victim to the Too-Much-Too-Early syndrome which has claimed many a potential leader.

In contrast, his predecessor continues to baffle me. Despite having a set of sparkling teeth, Dravid hardly flashed them on-field. The only plausible reason maybe that Dravid is not the one to flaunt things. Or he did not find it fashionable. Or maybe he thought flashing a smile would dilute the seriousness of the nature of his job.

But the fact remains that Dravid took his job too seriously. An introvert person, so as a skipper, he would further withdraw to his self-imposed cocoon whenever going got tough. His brooding eyes would further sink into the socket, the shoulders would droop and he would seem as irritable as someone whose girl friend has eloped with his best friend and they took his car along with them.

Sourav Ganguly was another character, who polarized opinion like none else and he too was a spectacle as a skipper. In the gung-ho Ganguly era, latecomers just needed to have a look at the animated skipper, and not the scoreboard, to realize that the match was heading for a nail-biting finish.

Ganguly would ferociously chew his nails and spit them out is if those belonged to Greg Chappell. In adversity, Ganguly often resorted to manicure, whether he’s out there fielding or cooling his heels in the dressing room. It was only when he was batting that he was not biting – his fingers, for a change, safe behind the gloves.

Indeed, hardly any skipper in contemporary cricket symbolized and reflected his team’s tooth-and-nail fight against adversity the way Ganguly did. It would be fascinating to know the average damage caused to Ganguly’s nails per match.

It is often said that success does not come without a price and you have to admit that the Prince of Kolkata sacrificed a lot, in terms of nail growth, before he emerged as India’s most successful captain.

Prior to that, we were used to watching myriad of emotions on a babyface and Sachin Tendulkar was as expressive as a pantomime artiste of the first order. So involved in the game that every setback found an instant, and poignant, manifestation in him. He would fidget, grimace, grit teeth, wink, gawk at, yell at himself, kick up dust, shrug shoulder, tug at jersey and resemble a sulking misanthrope, convinced that the wicked world had hatched a conspiracy to doom him.

For Tendulkar, it was a matter of life and death. So instead of being the leader who would lift the morale when the chips are down, the Little Master would, invariably, be the mourner-in-chief.

In contrast, Dhoni proved he can maintain sanity in adversity. The unnerving, and innervating too, pressure could not hamper his decision-making ability – as evident from asking Robin Uthappa, Harbhajan Singh and Virender Sehwag to take the bowl-out against Pakistan or inviting Joginder Sharma to bowl the last over in the semifinal against Australia.

Dhoni proved that he has the ability to keep his mind insular, isolated from the whirlpool of occurrences around him. Make no mistake, the passion is there but not to the extent that it cripples the mind and clouds the vision. A lot is said about the need of involvement but at the same time, a little detachment probably helps a captain to put things in perspective and thankfully, Dhoni has that rare quality.


Saturday 22 September 2007

RP Singh: The Forgotten Hero

In the phalanx of India’s wobbly dobbers, he is the least visible. But think efficiency and you wonder at RP Singh’s amazing ability to escape attention.

He’s not the pin-up boy that Irfan Pathan is; the simpleton doesn’t break into a jig ala S(howman) Sreesanth. But as evident from India’s UK tour and the ongoing Twenty20 World Cup, RP does not lag when it comes to taking wicket, supposedly the primary responsibility of a bowler. The slogathon called Twenty20 World Cup has seen many a bowlers’ blood on the floor but RP not only escaped unscathed but also came through with flying colours.

Indeed, Rohit Sharma may have stolen the thunder – and the Man of the Match award – with his maiden (unbeaten) fifty in the do-or-die match against South Africa, but it’s actually RP to whom MS Dhoni owes a drink.

Defending a so-so total of 153, few gave India a chance but RP clearly had other ideas. He trapped Herschelle Gibbs and removed Graeme Smith in his first over to trigger a collapse which the hosts could not recover from. The left-arm seamer then crashed one through Shaun Pollock’s gate and then removed Albie Morkel, the joint topscorer, to tilt the match and writing was clear on the wall by then for Smith.

You can’t take anything away from Rohit Sharma’s knock but you don’t need to be a pundit either to realize that it was RP’s 4-0-13-0 figure that won the match. But then, cricket has always been a step mother to the bowlers’ tribe and Rohit bagged the MoM award.

There was enough evidence that RP has mastered the art of creating difficult angles that poses all sort of uncomfortable questions to the batsmen. He has this natural flair for swinging the ball both ways and right-handers often found themselves at sea against the one which he brings into them.

RP benefited from his apprenticeship under Zaheer Khan whose prodigious swing had the English batting order in serious nervous disorder in the Test series. as a result, RP arrived a much improved bowler in South Africa and the results are before us to see.

In the Indian pace attack, RP stands out because of his reticent approach to cricket. It’s not that he is low on adrenalin or tends to cower behind the sandbags. But the soft-spoken UP lad prefers to let his ball do the talking. He prefers swing to swears, yorkers to yelling and slower to sledge, which is just perfect with the spirit of the game.

With Irfan Pathan doing little to warrant a comeback and an erratic Sreesanth hardly looking bankable, RP has emerged as a vital cog in the Indian pace attack. And provided the focus is there, RP is definitely here to stay.

Image: AFP

Monday 17 September 2007

...And Shatters a "Team Man" Myth

As Rahul Dravid abdicates Team India captaincy, despite its frills and thrills, one could not help but sink into a state of depression as petty selfishness gets the better of a quintessential team man, who leaves the job admitting he is weak at heart and incapable of bearing the burden anymore.

Ian Chappell and Co. wants to believe us otherwise, but Dravid’s decision stemmed from uncharacteristic petty selfishness and its horrendous timing exposes a man who is so touchy about his own craft that he does not hesitate to sacrifice collective interest in the altar of perfectionism.

That Dravid wanted to leave head held high with his dignity intact sounds alright. He wants to concentrate on his batting sounds okay too. But it’s, unmistakably, Dravid the batsman, who is at the centre of concern and not the team!

Roll back the years and you have a Dravid who threw weight behind Sourav Ganguly, shed ego and though reluctant, stood behind the stumps on one dayers, moved up and down the batting order just to serve the team’s purpose. And he was still successful, prompting Sunil Gavaskar to say every time Dravid walked out to bat, he could see a tri-colour fluttering.

Dravid’s out-of-the-blue decision has plunged Indian cricket into deep leadership crisis. Indeed, the timing could not have been worse. Ricky Ponting’s men are packing their bag before they barge into the country for a seven-match ODI series. Thirteen days to go and Team India still does not know who’ll walk out with Ponting for the toss.

And it came when selectors just don’t have enough options around. An ageing Sachin Tendulkar, his ODI retirement being the subject of speculation till the other day, has been sounded out to take over, while Ganguly’s name is also doing the rounds.

Dhoni, meanwhile, looks certain to be saddled with the burden of ODI captaincy, whether the poor Jharkhand lad is ready for it or not. In such a case, the stumper with flowing tresses would have more on his platter than he can possibly eat. The Too-Much-Too-Early syndrome has had many a casualty and Dhoni might soon join the list.

But, you can’t actually blame the selectors. Show me the options!

Those were the days when Virender Sehwag was shoehorned into vice captaincy, hoping he would take over the reins one day. But with his form deserting him like a fickle girl friend, the Nawab of Najafgarh fell by the wayside and let alone captaincy, a comeback as a player would be like hitting the jackpot for Sehwag.

Yuvraj Singh’s story has been more or less the same. His off-the-field lifestyle has often blighted his performance with the bat and failing to cement his berth in Test side scuttled his case.

That leaves Dhoni as the last Indian hope and thanks to Dravid’s rather untimely realization, instead of being guided to the pool, Dhoni is about to be thrown into the deepest end. And he can’t be faulted if he sinks, rather than swims.

Image: AFP

Wednesday 12 September 2007

Bloodbath at New Wanderers, what next Mr Speed?

(Gayle sets butcher-the-bowler trend)

It’s not often that you feel sad when your predictions come true. Same must be the case with those who prophesied World Twenty20 would be a bloodbath of the bowlers. ICC’s version of ethnic cleansing kicked off at the New Wanderers, Johannesburg and the results are appalling.

Consider this, 36 fours and 18 sixes—Chris Gayle contributing 10 alone – and this was just the first match of the tournament! In stark contrast, only eight wickets fell. Now if the tribe of bowlers feels like being subjected to something like a state-sponsored terrorism, they can’t be blamed.

The scorecard of the West Indies-South Africa tie was an eye-opener. The strike rate gives you a better idea of the mass slaughter. Of the 12 batsmen who wielded the willow in the match, only one – Dwayne Smith, who scored one run off four balls and is reportedly looking for a counselor to talk him out of depression – had a strike rate below 100. Dwayne Bravo didn’t get a chance to face a ball and remained not out on zero.

Gayle, first centurion in T20 internationals, leads the strike rate chart for his side with 205.26, while Dwayne Smith (102.94), Marlon Samuels (150), Shivnarine Chanderpaul (110), Ramnaresh Sarwan (150) and Denesh Ramdin (150) also went hard after the bowlers.

For South Africa, Justin Kemp (209.09) tops the table, while Graeme Smith (133.33), Herschelle Gibbs (163.63), architect of the win with a 55-ball knock of 90, and AB de Villiers (177.77) used the long handle to deadly effect.

In contrast, the economy rates of the bowlers can melt any heart of stone. South African Makhaya Ntini, number one in ICC rankings till the other day, was not allowed to bowl his full quota of four over after conceding 19 runs in his first two overs. Shaun Pollock (4-0-52-1) got a sound thrashing, even though it was Graeme Smith and Albie Morkel who bore the brunt of the Gayle-storm, going wicketless and conceding 16 runs of their only over.

Among the West Indians, Fidel Edwards managed an economy rate of seven for his three overs which also fetched him a wicket. Daren Powell (8.5) was the other bowler to manage an under-10 economy rate.

But life was miserable for Ravi Rampal (13), Dwayne Smith (18.50), Dwayne Bravo (14.62) and Samuels (10.50) and their nightmares would feature Gibbs and Kemp in lead roles.

ICC chief executive Malcolm Speed’s optimism bordered on insanity when he opined that bowlers would have a crucial role to play in this crash, bang and wallop format. Now if playing the cannon-fodder means crucial in his dictionary, one has no case to go carping about.

Image: Getty Images

Friday 7 September 2007

Dump the rogue: Cricket would be better off without Shoaib Akhtar

Geoff Lawson can’t be faulted if he packs his bag and catches the first available flight to Australia. After all, this was his first assignment with the Pakistani cricket team and what a way to begin!

Shoaib Akhtar, that rogue in flannel, has been sent home from Johannesburg for using the long handle that has left his new ball partner Mohammad Asif with a bruised thigh. Instead of playing in the Twenty20, the erratic ‘Rawalpindi Express’ will now be cooling his heels, admiring his supreme talent to run into trouble.

"I'm human and made a mistake in the heat of the moment. Asif said something to me that made me lose my temper. I apologised to him, but I was very upset," Shoaib told a channel.

And before one could doubt him being sincerely apologetic, Shoaib himself shatters the illusion when he compares his conduct with Zinedine Zidane’s headbutting of Marco Materazzi in the soccer World Cup final.

Now Pakistan Cricket Board might be interested in finding if Asif said something about Shamaila, Shoaib's sister.

PCB has already slapped an indefinite ban on the perennial controversy-courting speedster but it seems already too late. Shoaib has been both the ‘Rog’ and rogue in the Pakistan dressing room. He was more interested in tantrums than performance. Here you had a player who was so engrossed in putting up a show that he never hesitated to sacrifice team’s interest to achieve that.

Bob Woolmer, may he rest in peace in a world devoid of the likes of Shoaib, cried hoarse but could not convince the narcissist in Shoaib to cut down on his spectacular, and nothing else, run up, which often resulted in slow over rate for the side. Seduced by the speed-gun, Shoaib never felt for the colours he donned.

PCB had its share of the blame too. Shoaib would not sweat out with the team in the nets; would have his own physio -- Tauseef Razzaq – with him. Spoilt to the core and shamelessly pampered by a patronizing PCB, Shoaib gradually started believing he was bigger than the team.

Shoaib has proved a dismal disgrace not only for Pakistan, but the game of cricket as well. His very presence in the dressing room has been embarrassing for his captain (ask Inzamam) and depressing for the youngsters. His selfish approach to the game has scuttled many a team strategy and PCB would do well to permanently slam the door on the crook and breathe easy.

Image: AFP

Take a bow, Jhulan!

So it’s official. Blue Billion, eat your heart out. They maybe demigods back home but the naked truth is the Men in Blue simply do not match up to the best in the business. And you have International Cricket Council (ICC) to vouch for that.

The ICC shortlist for its annual award doesn’t include a single player from the bunch led by Rahul Dravid. However, for India, the lone saving grace is Jhulan Goswami, that beanpole from the women’s team who is in the fray for the Women Cricketer of the Year award.

Australian captain Ricky Ponting is gunning for his second Sir Garfield Sobers Trophy as the Cricketer of the Year, even though the field has ‘former’ Pakistan run-glutton Mohammad Yousuf (who has deserted Pakistan Cricket Board and defected to Indian Cricket League), spin-phobe Kevin Pietersen and West Indian Shivnarine Chanderpaul of the anti-glare-strips-beneath-the-eyes fame.

The initial ICC long list had Zaheer Khan and Anil Kumble in the 'Test Player of the Year' category, while Yuvraj Singh figured in the ODI list. But when ICC announced a pruned up list, the Team India troika could not be sighted there.

Instead, Jhulan shines in company of Lisa Sthalekar (Australia) and Claire Taylor (England) and whether she wins the award or not, she has already stolen a march over her spoilt cousins in the Team India ranks. And for those unfamiliar with her, Jhulan bowls at a steady 120 kmph, slightly better than what a certain Irfan Pathan does these days.

For those who have not seen Jhulan in action, imagine Glenn McGrath undergoing a certain operation and turning up with the cherry in his…er…her…I mean, whatever, hand. The same, smooth run-up and the ability to land the ball on its seam delivery after delivery.

Jhulan was India’s vice captain in last year’s tour of England and left serious psychological dent in the opponent camp with her scorching pace. Thanks to her show, her side won the Test series there, and she the Player of the Series award.

So while we gloat and bloat over Dravid’s men’s comeback in the ODI series, spare a thought for Jhulan and take our hats off.

ICC Shortlist:

Cricketer of the Year: Shivnarine Chanderpaul (WI), Kevin Pietersen (Eng) ,Ricky Ponting (Aus) Mohammed Yousuf (Pak)

Test Player: Muttiah Muralitharan (SL), Kevin Pietersen (Eng), Ricky Ponting (Aus) , Mohammad Yousuf (Pak)

ODI Player: Matthew Hayden (Aus), Jacques Kallis (SA), Glenn McGrath (Aus), Ricky Ponting (Aus)

Emerging Player: Ravinder Bopara (Eng), Shakib Al Hasan (Bang), Shaun Tait (Aus), Ross Taylor (NZ)

Captain of the Year: Mahela Jayawardene (SL), Ricky Ponting (Aus)

Associate ODI Player of the Year: Ashish Bagai (Can), Thomas Odoyo (Ken), Ryan ten Doeschate (Neth), Steve Tikolo (Ken)

Umpire of the Year: Mark Benson, Steve Bucknor, Simon Taufel

Women's Cricketer of the Year: Jhulan Goswami (Ind), Lisa Sthalekar (Aus), Claire Taylor (Eng)

Image: Touchline Photo

Thursday 6 September 2007

Of Dhanuka, a Twenty20 massacre and shape of things to come

(Dhanuka Pathirana, the smiling assasin)

For those who still cling on to the hope that bowlers might have a role other than being just the cannon-fodder in Twenty20, it’s time to come out of the illusion.

Sri Lankan all-rounder Dhanuka Pathirana, a veteran of 46 first class matches created a mayhem by smashing 277 off 72 balls, 29 sixes and 18 fours being the highlight of the bowlers’ bloodbath in a the Saddleworth League match. Reports claim he was playing with a borrowed bat.

His side Austerlands amassed 366-3 in 20 overs, re-writing Somerset's county record of 250, and won the match on a better run rate as Droylsden made 37-2 before rain stopped play.

Pathirana later said,

It was like a dream and I think I did some serious damage to some of the vehicles in the car park.

So when the Twenty20, the ICC attempt at an ethnic cleansing, kicks off in South Africa later this month, low-flying South African Airways planes and the hapless bunch of bowlers would have every reason to worry.

Image: Oldham Advertiser

Tuesday 4 September 2007

ICL fallout: Shoaib blackmailed PCB to get charges dropped!

It’s not only BCCI top brass which is squirming in the heat turned on them by the Indian Cricket League. If recent media reports are to go by, ICL has created havoc on the other side of the Line of Control where Pakistani cricketers have resorted to arm-twisting and blackmailing their board, claiming they have multi-million dollar offers from the breakaway Indian league and they can take the plunge any time.

Shoaib Akhtar’s action maybe suspect but his propensity to throw tantrums is not. The “Rawalpindi Express” recently got all disciplinary charges dropped against him, reportedly after he threatened to join ICL. Having already lost four cricketers – including the run-glutton Mohd Yusuf – to ICL, PCB surely couldn’t take chance and hence Shoaib escaped scot-free. The penalty and charges were brought after the pacer had left a training camp in Karachi without informing the manager.

Even those players who have not been approached by the deep pocket ICL organizers are also creating pressure on the board. And those who have been approached, like Shoaib, Mohd Asif and Shahid Afridi, are quoting figures that are really difficult to believe and PCB insiders feel it’s just a ploy to keep the pressure on.

PCB thought they had cut the rogue in Shoaib Akhtar down to size and chairman Nasim Ashraf insisted the erratic pacer would be punished for his indiscipline. But post-ICL, things have gone sea change and PCB is among the first to feel the heat of the breakaway league.

Image: AP

Sunday 2 September 2007

Dravid deals the final blow to Chappell!

Tension is a good thing within a team, but it needs to be creative, not destructive. John Wright had similar problems at the start but unlike Greg he was prepared to adapt. By the end he [Wright] was more Indian than the Indians...Rahul Dravid told Mike Atherton in Sunday Telegraph.

Life comes full cycle for a certain Gregory Stephen Chappell. Sitting in his Adelaide abode, Chappell probably thought the nightmare of his Team India was behind him. How wrong he was. One episode was yet to be enacted, and it was to come from the most unexpected quarter. Chappell, not even wildest of dreams, could have imagined that of all people, it would be Dravid, his protégé, who would deal the final blow.

Dravid’s comment hints Chappell created a tense dressing room and it had a “destructive” influence on the show. Okay, Wright too had teething problems, but “unlike Greg, he was ready to adapt”. And, Dravid points out, Wright was “more Indian than the Indians”. Now that says a lot and makes interpretation redundant.

One shudders with the thought but had George W Bush opted for cricket coaching, he would have been Greg Chappell, the Team India coach. During Chappell’s stint with Team India, the Aussie ring-master echoed Bush with the message that was both hidden and loud -- you are either with us or you are against us in the fight against Sourav Ganguly. And no prize for guessing which camp Rahul Dravid belonged to.

In fact the likes of Kapil Dev and Ravi Shastri in fact went on to pan a sweetheart like Dravid for taking the backseat and allowing Chappell to call the shots on every major issues.

Chappell has been sent packing, along with his “Commitment to Excellence’ mantra, after he burnt his fingers and all five of them -- the one with which he often thumbed his nose at India’s cricket populace; the assertive index, which he often flashed at the likes of Sehwag, Yuvraj, Zaheer and Harbhajan; the middle which he was notoriously attending to in Eden Gardens.

Make no mistake, Chappell was never short on ideas. But the passion and the attachment was simply not there. He always saw it as yet another deal and his pursuit of success was devoid of any emotional bond. Indian cricket was never a paragon of all cricketing virtues but Chappell’s idea of reform was devoid of love for a country, which is unique in every aspect.

If Wright was successful, it was because he sacrificed a lot. He never allowed his ego to come in the way of team’s interest and did not have a hidden agenda or a personal vendetta. Ganguly owes half his success, if note more, to this self-effacing Kiwi. If Wright succeeded, it was basically because he was a good human being and unfortunately one can’t say the same about Chappell. Dravid’s comments are bound to leave a wound somewhere in his heart, but Chappell probably deserves it.

Image: AFP