Sunday, June 14, 2009

Friday, March 13, 2009

The importance of momentum

India will probably use tomorrow's fifth ODI at Eden Park as a chance to test its bench strength as part of the buildup to the 2011 World Cup. After all, the same policy has been applied in dead rubbers in recent past series. If this occurs, it could prove to be quite a mistake. With the exception of the matches against England, which was cut short anyway, India's ODI assignments in the last year have either come after the Test component of a tour, or were standalone tournaments.
This time however, India are really only half-way through the campaign.
The Tests are still to come, and India have not won a series in New Zealand for 41 years. New Zealand are palpably weak in the premier form of cricket, but all the pressure is on India, who are now expected to regularly win overseas despite failing to do so in the past. India currently have the momentum, and their batsmen would never have expected to do so well, especially after the insipid batting failures during the previous tour. Nor were New Zealand likely to have expected such a battering. As Daniel Vettori despondently mused after India sealed the series in Hamilton, perhaps 500 would not have been enough to withstand Virender Sehwag's assault.
India has never confronted the New Zealand bowlers in such a poor state on Kiwi territory. Given their past struggles in this part of the world, they are unlikely to have a better chance of a drought-breaking triumph in the near future. Now is not the time to cede their psychological gains by resting Virender Sehwag or another batsman, or allowing Rohit Sharma the opportunity to have extended batting practice tomorrow by elevating him up the order. Rohit and other young batsmen will have more chances after the T20 World Cup, when India play a bilateral series in the West Indies and tour Zimbabwe. This is particularly true for the latter engagement, which is likely to see the rotation policy used far more liberally. There is little that Rohit could gain in one match that could justify giving New Zealand's bowlers a chance to regain confidence before the Tests.
India must be ruthless and go for the jugular. On so many occasions, an aggressive and in-form batsman such as Adam Gilchrist has been able to demoralise a bowler to such an extent that their tail-end or out-of-form partners appear to be transformed into a much more formidable proposition. Question marks over the recent form of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman remain, the latter's customary form against Australia not withstanding. India's ODI batsmen have New Zealand on the run, and now is not the time to allow them to settle before the Tests.
The likes of Anil Kumble and Sourav Ganguly never had the satisfaction of recording a Test triumph in New Zealand to their CV. Now that they have been selected, Dravid and Laxman do not deserve the same fate, especially the former, who stood out amid the chaos six years earlier and has done so much in the past to rectify India's abysmal touring history. Now that the boot is on the other foot, it should not be lifted mid-fight.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Raina's golden opportunity

His talent has never been in question, but Suresh Raina’s international position has perpetually been questioned. Now he has a better opportunity than ever to prove his doubters wrong.

In his first stint in the ODI team, beginning mid-2005, Raina failed to convert his undoubted potential into runs. When he did make a start, he often failed to capitalise, usually through a lapse in concentration. In 36 matches he passed 40 on only three occasions, his time-truncated middle-order innings notwithstanding. However, Greg Chappell was a great supporter of Raina, and that was what counted. Raina had a longer run than others with his performance. This could hardly be unexpected, as Chappell was one the greatest fielders of all time, and as an Australian, was always going to value fielding and fitness much more highly than the Indian establishment. Nevertheless, criticism of Chappell’s inclusion of Raina rankled the Australian; during a commentary stint when Raina was in the middle of a free-flowing innings for Chennai Super Kings, Chappell’s flowing praise prompted Aamir Sohail to remark that his co-commentator gave the young man so many opportunities. Sohail didn’t directly criticise Chappell, but the mere hint of it was enough to palpably raise tensions and leave Chappell speechless for the next minute or so.

Since Raina’s return to the team, he has scored 887 runs at 43.50, and is clearly India’s best fielder. In the 26 matches since his recall, Raina has effected three direct hit run outs; most of his compatriots are too slow in getting to the ball, not to mention the errant aim of their throws at the stumps. He certainly seems to be working hard on this component of his game; when I saw the Indians train at Adelaide Oval last season, many of the others were busy joking during fielding practice. Some, most notably the seniors, were daydreaming when John Gloster was reading out the stretching regimen. It didn't seem as though I was watching a professional, let alone a world-level team. Raina was one of the few that stood apart. Little wonder that aside from a few of the youngsters, India's fielding is so mediocre and milked by the opposition.

Raina is a dazzling and attractive strokeplayer, but unfortunately for him, it's weight of runs that ultimately counts. Some will point out that his figures are inflated by two centuries against Hong Kong and Bangladesh. However, that still leaves 670 runs at 35.26. And what about the fact that all of Raina’s innings came in the familiar innings of the subcontinent?

True enough. Raina has only made 73 runs at 14.60 in limited opportunities outside Asia. Which is why this tour could be so important to his career. Aside from the prospect of establishing himself as an ODI player of world class, he also has an opportunity to stake a place for a Test batting position.

Aside from the traditional conservatism of Indian selectors, one of the reasons that Rahul Dravid has been persevered with for so long despite his barren form is his track record of excellence overseas. With India aiming for cricket dominance, and trying to exorcise its history of weakness on foreign soil, a Test series win against a weak New Zealand outfit was a must. India have chosen to retain Dravid, but with no Tests outside the subcontinent in the next nine months, it may well be his swansong, with a lengthy window in which his replacement can settle into Test cricket in friendly playing conditions. In this case, the ODI players have the benefit of opportunities to prove themselves in overseas conditions. With Rohit on the bench, and the likes of Virat Kohli, Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara not in the squad, Raina has the audition stage to himself, an opportunity to shine solo.

It’s an opportunity that he would be loath to miss. If he does well, he could even oust Yuvraj from a middle-order berth before Dravid moves into the sunset. So far, he has started promisingly.

The innings in the first T20 was a composed and stabilising innings when many others around him, vastly more experienced, lost their composure. In the opening ODI at Maclean Park in Napier, Raina played a dynamic and momentum-changing innings after New Zealand had threatened to derail India’s powerful batting. Mahendra Singh Dhoni was awarded the man of the match, but he was struggling until Raina counter-attacked and broke the shackles. In reality, Raina’s innings was the decisive factor and could have been the difference between a score of 230 and 273.

One surprising facet of New Zealand’s bowling to Raina was the conspicuous absence of the short ball. Raina has often played bouncers in an ungainly way, and then appeared to lose his composure briefly afterwards. That Jacob Oram, who played alongside Raina at Chennai, either failed to notice or act on this, seems careless for international standards. Raina will no doubt be conscious of the need to improve this aspect of his play, but in the meantime, his opponents would do well to see that his full blooming is delayed, or stopped altogether.

Last year, Dhoni led an extremely young and inexperienced team to Australia, then coming off the back of a second consecutive World Cup campaign without defeat, and a 4-2 series win in India. Against the backdrop of widespread scepticism, India fashioned a victory in a series of closely contested matches. Leading the way was Gautam Gambhir, another highly regarded southpaw previously maligned for not fulfilling his potential. Gambhir subsequently regained his Test position, and hasn’t looked back since.

This year, Raina is in Gambhir’s position. The stakes are even more tangible, with impending retirements in the middle-order looming ever closer. The opportunity and rewards are greater, and Raina needs to make the most of it.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Why is Ishant in the T20 team?

As India seeks to seize the No. 1 ranking in world cricket, it is now expected to win regularly on foreign soil. With the loss of Anil Kumble and the ineffectiveness of Harbhajan outside India, the burden on the improving pace attack on the current tour of New Zealand will be greater than ever.

None more so than Ishant Sharma, who has dazzled cricket watchers across the world in the last 15 months with his rapid rise. It was not the raw statistics and wicket count that impressed, but Ishant’s ability to manoeuvre the batsman and make world-leading batsmen look inept.
At the same time, there has been ongoing concern about the depth in the Indian pace attack, with former players persistently raising the possibility that Ishant and Zaheer Khan could burn out.

And with good reason too. Both Ishant and Zaheer bowled far less Test overs in 2008 than Mitchell Johnson and Brett Lee, and were injured just as often. As a result, the Australian duo took many more wickets and were therefore more effective, although the Indian pair were deemed to be far craftier and skilful. But it isn’t how one looks, but what one achieves, and a classier player is only as useful as the workload he can shoulder.

At times, Ishant had been troubling the batsmen immensely, but was taken off and the pressure was released. The famous spell against Ricky Ponting in Perth is a case in point. But for a late change of heart, Ishant would have been relieved an over earlier and Ponting would have been reprieved.

One fact that went unnoticed in that mesmerising performance was the dropoff in Ishant’s performance as the day wore on. Up to Ponting’s dismissal, he had conceded 35 runs in 11 overs, beaten Australia’s two best batsmen many times, with many of the runs not coming from the middle of the bat. Thereafter he conceded 28 in six overs against lesser batsmen; three of these overs were against tailenders. It was a similar tale in the first innings. Ishant had taken 2/14 in five overs of seam bowling, but in the next two overs he conceded 20 runs to end with 2/34 from seven.

Clearly, Ishant’s stamina is a weakness, and it is something that needs to be rectified, lest India intends on regularly playing five bowlers, plays on a spate of bowler friendly pitches that result in short matches. Neither scenario is likely to occur. In the meantime, careful management is needed. The importance of both Ishant and Zaheer was shown by the absence of both players in the first two Tests against South Africa in 2008; their replacements were ineffective even on a green surface at the Motera.

Given all this, it’s hard to understand why Ishant has been selected in the Twenty20 matches against New Zealand. Workload aside, Ishant’s case for inclusion in the shortest form of the game on grounds of cricketing merit is dubious.

In 18 T20 matches, he has scored taken only nine wickets at 47.55 with an economy rate of 7.19, and has never taken more than one wicket in a match. Typically, he has bowled too much of a Test line-and-length, which is unsuited for T20. Combined with his propensity for overstepping and conceding free hits, this has made his bowling vulnerable to six-hitting. He is neither a useful hitter nor a spritely fielder. Furthermore, the amount of frenetic diving done by outfielders is only likely to test the resolve of his ankle, the main source of his recent injuries.

This is one dilemma where all sides of Indian cricket can prosper, something that can be rare with zonal selection politics, factional wrangling on the board, and persistent derision of administrators due to perceptions that they are interested only in money and not success.

Given the enormous financial windfall that the BCCI garnered from the Indian Premier League, which was in no small part due to India’s dramatic and unexpected victory in the 2007 World Twenty20, successfully defending the crown in England should be high on the agenda. Not for cricketing reasons or the overall prestige of Indian cricket, but for the bottom line of the BCCI.
Usually, this would be the subject of derision, as the increasing player focus on T20 would change their technique and repertoire to the detriment of their Test skills in addition to the physical attrition. T20 isn’t going to go away, but by selecting the World Cup squad purely on merit, with a fearless disregard for reputation, will do India a world of good.

Unless Ishant is among the leading bowlers in the IPL, he should not be selected for the World Cup. Otherwise, he would do no more than to diminish his Test performance and hinder his country in their quests for supremacy in both forms of the game. India’s win in South Africa did not come easily; they survived last-over thrillers in both matches against Pakistan and Australia were on course in their run chase until the 18th over. Last time, the veterans opted out of the team, and the younger players made important contributions in the field, such as Robin Uthappa’s direct hit against Imran Nazir when he was making a mockery of the Indian bowling. Would Ganguly and Dravid have been able to do this if they were patrolling the inner circle?

The IPL then confirmed that the veteran batsmen were far from being ideal for T20, with the growing economic power of the format, players are now loath to absent themselves from a format that they recognise as being inferior in terms of cricket. The BCCI, not known for bold selections, were spared the uncomfortable decision of having to snub the seniors in 2007, but they will have no such parachute this year.

One of the positive effects of the IPL has been the exposure that it has given to the youngsters. The professionalism of the international players and coaches is far removed from the Ranji Trophy fare, and the opportunity to work with not just one of leading cricketers of all time, but also one of the canniest in Shane Warne, has allowed the likes of Yusuf Pathan, Ravindra Jadeja and Siddharth Trivedi to transfer their new-found IPL improvements to great success in the other formats. Accordingly, their performances should be recognised with national selection. Not only will it blood new players appropriately, strengthen India’s chances of defending the World Cup and thereby the financial and grassroots state of game, it also keeps Ishant fit for what is most important: Test matches.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Haddin and Jordon

Following Brad Haddin's involvement in Neil Broom's controversial dismissal yesterday, it's time for a trip down memory lane to a similar and much more flagrant incident, which happened almost 40 years ago during Australia's 1969-70 tour of India. The tour stood out as Australia's only series win in India for 35 years, but was overshadowed by controversy and violence.

The First Test in Bombay had seen Australia take a first innings lead. The match was marred by a controversial umpiring decision on the fourth day when Srinivas Venkataraghavan was given out caught behind after missing the ball by roughly a foot, a decision that most of the Australians felt to be wrong. In the meantime, the public address system declared that Lawry and his men had cheated. It resulted in crowd rioting; The spectators lit fires and threw projectiles after Lawry refused to adjourn the match, contrary to police advice that warned them to run for their lives. During the chaos, Johnny Gleeson was hit in the head by a bottle, and when the teams left the field at the end of the Indian innings, Lawry was hit by a flying chair. Australia went on to win the match and more trouble came in the Fourth Test at Eden Gardens.

A surge in the demand for tickets caused a last day stampede, which resulted in running battles between fans and police, leaving six dead and hundred injured. This was exacerbated by protests by the Communist Party of India (CPI), a major political party in West Bengal, against Doug Walters. Walters had been conscripted during the Vietnam War, although he was never sent to Vietnam to fight against the CPI's Vietcong brethen. Nevertheless, CPI activists erected posters across the city claiming that Walters was a killer and around 10,000 communists picketed the Australian hotel and some eventually broke in and vandalised it.

On the field, there were more riots following an Indian batting collapse. Spectators on the top deck of the stands threw rocks onto those below, prompting those in the lower positions to invade the playing arena. This interrupted Australia's successful run-chase. During the stoppage, Lawry had an on-field altercation with a local photographer who had run onto the ground, pushing the pressman away with his bat. The Indian newspapers reported that Lawry had knocked the man over and then hit him. Lawry and his batting partner Keith Stackpole claimed that he had tried to shepherd the photographer from the playing area, who then stumbled and fell. In any case, the crowd responded by stoning the Australian bus as they left the ground following their victory, having taken an unassailable 2-1 series lead. Following the incident, the Indian media began to wear black armbands.

Thus to the wicket-keeping incident, which occurred in the following match against South Zone at Bangalore.

Alan Connolly was bowling medium pace off-cutters to Indian off spinner Erapalli Prasanna, with Australia's reserve wicketkeeper Ray Jordon standing up to the stumps. Prasanna heaved at one of the deliveries, and after an apparently long delay, the bails fell to the ground.

Jordon claimed that Connolly had bowled Prasanna. Prasanna disagreed and stood his ground, and the umpires and other players were not offering an opinion one way or the other. However, Prasanna eventually walked after Jordon repeatedly insisted that he was out.

According to Ashley Mallett, the ball appeared to go down the leg side and then the leg stump pushed forward! Ian Chappell reported in one of his books, Long Hops and Larrikins, that Doug Walters had informed him that the ball had missed the stumps by a notable margin, bounced off Jordon's pads and back onto the stumps, with Prasanna's leg firmly rooted behind the line.

The Australians then had an altercation in the dressing room after some members, foremost among them Chappell, accused Jordon of cheating. Chappell (SA) reported that Jordon (VIC) accused him of being accustomed to cheating because it was a natural trait of South Australians to do so, further inflaming tensions among the tourists. (South Australia and Victoria are the two main states in Australia where Australian rules football dominates. Queensland and New South Wales prefer to play rugby. This has led to a rather bitter feeling of rivalry between a large proportion of sports oriented people from both pairs of states, especially magnified by the state of origin games, particularly among South Australians who feel that the more populous Victoria has undue influence and carriest itself in an arrogant manner.)

Nevertheless, such interstate tensions are always close to the surface, even if in a light-hearted manner. Mallett (SA) spoke at a recent cricket conference held in Adelaide during this season's Test match. The issue of India came up as the Mumbai bombings had occurred overnight. This was especially ironic as the convenor of the conference had made a speech the day before about Caucasian cricket nations being paranoid about safety in Asia. In any case, the tumultuous events of the 1969-70 tour came up in comparison to the terrorist bombings and Mallett was talking about notorious and successful appeal for caught behind against Venkat in the First Test in Bombay, alleging that the only Australians who appealed were "all Victorian"!

Eventually, nothing further came of the incident, after Bill Lawry stepped in and stopped the fighting. Jordon can count himself lucky that there was no meaningful television coverage of the event, let alone slow motion replays. If a replay of the incident had occurred on the giant screen at the Chinnaswamy Stadium, a large scale pitch invasion and attack on the players would have been almost inevitable, given the controversy and tumult that surrounded Australia's campaign. Aside from that, Jordon would probably have faced a ban for (flagrantly) dishonest conduct, if his career had not already been terminated by broken limbs from mob justice.

However, a week later, Mallett reported to Chappell that Jordon had been sleeptalking and apologising about his illegitimate intervention in Prasanna's dismissal.

The latest incident is another reason for the increasing use of technology. In recent ICC trials of the challenge and referral system, there was a notable decline in the amount of nonsensical and pot luck appeals, which would indicate that not all appeals are spontaneous, nor are their magnitude. At the very least, it would prevent dubious decisions such as in Sydney last year or yesterday, that have the ability to inflame tensions across society. Whether Haddin engaged in foul play or not may be hard to ascertain, but at least naked dishonesty in the manner of Jordon is no longer possible. Hopefully in future, such incidents become rarer yet.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Do journalists from the Times use Wikipedia?

I must say that I wonder whether the author of the Times blog Patrick Kidd looked at the Wikipedia that I wrote on Keith Miller and used it as a research tool.

Probably the most tell-tale sign is the picture of the Miller bowling, which seems almost identical to the one in the Wikipedia article. Normally that wouldn't surprise at all, because photos are taken with permission from the original author, but in that case, I uploaded it manually, and as I do not have a scanner, I took a photo of the original photo from the book (the photo's copyright has expired), which meant that the photo was geometrically skewed compared to the original article. Before I cropped the photo of the photo, it was not rectangular. The chances of the author making his own copy of the photo in the same crooked way is not very likely....

Given that I used the book "Miller's Luck" by Roland Perry (with credits), which at the time I didn't realise was so strewn with errors, the author might regret copying from it. Although I have weeded out the data errors, some of the anecdotes may have simply been made up, as Ramachandra Guha claimed in The Monthly in October 2005: "conversations are invented, thoughts imputed, motives intuited – without any directions as to their source or provenance".

I can't say I am worried if my writing is meandering around the place. I guess I should be flattered that my work is being circulated more, just like when the Times of India copied it verbatim from a variety of pages, including a lot of errors from something I had forgotten to clean up. It was funny that I made a silly prediction that Irfan Pathan would be a likely captain of India in the future and the Times of India copied it.

It would be nice if I was credited and it generated more traffic to this blog though.......

Monday, January 26, 2009

Who will be the Australian Cricket Hall of Fame inductees this year?

With the Allan Border Medal presentation night coming up next Tuesday, that means that two more distinguished servants of Australian cricket will become the 30th and 31st members of the Australian Cricket Hall of Fame.

Unlike the winner of the Border Medal, the ACHOF laureates can be more difficult, and perhaps more interesting to predict, although the way the media vote, the best player doesn't always (2001 and 2005, but more about that later). So, I'll endeavour to raise the names of a few players and discuss their merits and chances of selection.

The selection criteria are

1) The player must be retired from the game for at least 5 years.
2) Based on more than just statistics.
3) The player must have impacted the way in which the game is played.
4) Should have either played at least 20 Tests or made at least a thousand runs or taken at least 75 wickets.
5) The player should have played in at least one country other than Australia.

The selection committee General Manager of Melbourne Cricket Club, Dr. John Lill, Richie Benaud, Bill Lawry, Cricket Australia and media representatives.

Depending on how the five-year rule is interpreted, the most obvious candidate, and most likely to be inducted would be Steve Waugh. Waugh played his last first-class match in March 2004, so he will be eligible if "years" is interpreted to be cricket seasons, rather than exactly 365 days.

If five seasons is the way the criteria is interpreted, then by the guidelines on minimum matches, run-scoring and wicket-taking, the list would be Steve Waugh, Damien Fleming, Michael Slater, Paul Reiffel, Mark Waugh, Mark Taylor, Tim May, Merv Hughes, Bruce Reid, Geoff Marsh, Craig McDermott, David Boon, Dean Jones, Greg Matthews, Wayne Phillips, Kepler Wessels, Greg Ritchie, Terry Alderman, Geoff Lawson, Bruce Laird, Andrew Hilditch, Rodney Hogg, Jim Higgs, Bruce Yardley, Graeme Wood, John Dyson, Kim Hughes, Ray Bright, Graham Yallop, Rick McCosker, Geoff Dymock, Max Walker, Jeff Thomson, Ross Edwards, Kerry O'Keeffe, Ashley Mallett, Paul Sheahan, John Gleeson, Keith Stackpole, Doug Walters, Bob Cowper, Ian Redpath, Tom Veivers, Alan Connolly, Neil Hawke, Graham McKenzie, Brian Booth, Bill Lawry, Norman O'Neill, Wally Grout, Ken Mackay, Peter Burge, Gil Langley, Jimmy Burke, Colin McDonald, Bill Johnston, Don Tallon, Ian Johnson, Sid Barnes, Bill Brown, Jack Fingleton, Alan Kippax, Johnny Taylor, Jack Ryder, Arthur Mailey, Jack Gregory, Herbie Collins, Charles Kelleway, Warren Bardsley, Vernon Ransford, Tibby Cotter, Hanson Carter, Jack Saunders, Reggie Duff, James Kelly, Syd Gregory, Harry Trott, Charles Turner, William Bruce, George Palmer and Alick Bannerman.

To cut it down to a more manageable list, I would cut it down to a list of perhaps 5-10 plausible candidates per era, keeping in mind that all of the inductees have been regular, core members of the Australian team for the best part of a decade.

Post-WSC: Steve Waugh, Mark Waugh, Mark Taylor, Craig McDermott, Dean Jones

1960s-1970s:Bill Lawry, Jeff Thomson, Doug Walters, Bob Cowper, Graham McKenzie

WWII-1960s: Sid Barnes, Don Tallon, Bill Johnston, Norman O'Neill

Earlier: Alan Kippax, Bill Brown, Jack Ryder, Arthur Mailey, Jack Gregory, Warren Bardsley and Charles Turner.

Of the recent era, Steve Waugh is the clear outstanding candidate. The most prolific and important batsman in Australia's Test dominance since the 1990s, Waugh turned a successful team into a ruthless machine that swept all before it. As a batsman, he was known for his iron will and his famous series in 1995, defying the Ambrose-led West Indian paceman in Trinidad before scoring the series-winning 200 in Sabina Park. Other classic performances included the 1999 World Cup campaign, the world record of 16 consecutive Test wins and the twin centuries on an Old Trafford greentop in 1997. The other five players on the shortlist are unlikely to be inducted unless two recent players are inducted. This is highly unlikely, unless outstanding catching (Taylor, M Waugh) or one-day ability (Jones) is taken into account.

Of the candidates in the 1960s and 1970s, Doug Walters was the most scintillating batsman of the era. A dashing strokeplayer, whenever a young and dynamic batsman has emerged in the last 40 years, such as Michael Clarke or Mark Waugh, they have invariably been comparisons to Walters. Following a period when Australian batting had led by the relatively austere play of Bob Simpson and Bill Lawry, Walters helped to reinvigorate public interest with attacking play and fast-scoring. A crowd favourite, a stand at the SCG was named after him and he remains very much in the consciousness of the cricketing public. On the negative side, Walters was noted for his poor record in England, averaging less than 30 there. Walters was also a medium-pace bowler who was often used to break partnerships; in 74 Tests, he managed 49 at 29.08. Cowper boasts a similar record while he was playing as a batsman and off spinner, but he retired for work reasons just as he was entering his prime, and played Tests for only four years. Lawry had the longevity of the two former batsmen, but lacked ability with the ball, and was a dour batsman who was the antithesis of Walters. His defensive nature is unlikely to appeal to fellow panellist Benaud, who was known for exuberant play, but Lawry does have the advantage of being in the public consciousness.

Of the bowlers, Thomson would appear the likeliest of the candidates because of the way in which he captured the public's imagination with his extreme pace and belligerent approach to cricket, in comparison to McKenzie's swing bowling, which is likely to be overlooked given that he played immediately after the retirement of the great Alan Davidson and was hampered by the lack of a potent pace bowling partner during the 1960s.

Bill Johnston, although perhaps rather forgotten in the contemporary age, was a key member of Don Bradman's Invincibles. During the 1948 tour, Johnston was the leading wicket-taker, with 102, and was the equal leading wicket-taker with Ray Lindwall in the Tests (27); he was a frontline left arm fast bowler, but could also revert to orthodox spin, which gave extra flexibility to the Australian attack of the 1940s and 1950s. His performances in 1948 prompted Wisden to say that "no Australian made a greater personal contribution to the playing success of the 1948 side". Bradman called him "Australia’s greatest left-hand bowler", although this may have been recorded before the arrival of Alan Davidson. In five consecutive Test series from 1948 to 1952-53, Johnston was Australia's leading wicket-taker and his first 111 Test wickets came at 19.22 before a chronic knee injury caused his downfall. Although Johnston is not the most well-known of players, and may escape the attention due to recentism, he did play with Benaud, while Lawry has often mentioned him in discussing the leading left-arm bowlers of past eras during his television commentary.

Of the other post-WWII players, Don Tallon was said by those who played with him to be the most outstanding gloveman that they had seen, known for his extreme speed and classical technique up to the stumps. However, his best years were lost to the war, and his Test career was somewhat disappointing, especially in terms of his batting not living up his potential, and a deterioration in form following the Ashes tour. Norman O'Neill was an attractive and dynamic batsman often likened to Doug Walters, and early in his career, burdened with comparisons to Bradman. He averaged over 60 in the first part of his career, and was also known for his outstanding fielding, which was of unprecedented quality for his time and resulted in approaches from Major League Baseball outfits. The last name is rather a smoky. Because of the period that he lost to WWII, as well as his self-imposed exile to concentrate on business, Sid Barnes' did not have an extended career, and this should count against him. However, when he was on the field, he was an outstanding and prolific opener and was arguably Australia's best batsman other than Bradman from 1945 to 1948. Barnes did break new ground as a player; he fielded an unprecedently close range at short leg, although nobody else was willing to emulate him. He was also a hard-nosed self-promoter and frequently clashed with cricket authorities, something, which although was not copied by his contemporaries, has certainly become all too prevalent in this era.

Jack Gregory should be the most likely inductee among the pre-WWII players. Immediately after the war, he and EA McDonald formed a noted fast-bowling pair for Australia, which marked a step in the evolution of fast bowling into the hostile trade of modern times. He was also a hard-hitting left-handed batsman with an average touching 37 and held the world record for the fastest ever Test century. He was a prolific six-hitter, in this manner, he was not unlike Keith Miller, to whom he is often compared when discussing Australia's greatest allrounder (along with Warwick Armstrong and Monty Noble). His belligerent, powerful style was quite a departure from the golden age that preceded his era. Jack Ryder is another candidate, that I sense has a strong claim to a place in the Hall of Fame. Ryder was a hard-hitting batsman who played between the wars, and averaged above 50 in 20 Tests. He also bowled regularly, taking 237 first-class wickets, although only 17 were in Tests. His legendary status in Victoria, gained through his prolific exploits in local cricket that saw the Jack Ryder Medal named in his honour, as well as his long stint as a national selector may help to keep his name in the minds of the judging panel.

The other players were all excellent servants of Australian cricket, but it is hard to see any of them being remembered more than Gregory and Ryder. Charles Turner, who took 101 wickets at 16.50 in the 19th century, was often regarded by his contemporaries as the best bowler of his time, and was named "Terror". In all first-class matches he took 993 wickets at 14.25 but, sadly, he is rarely spoken of in this era. Bill Brown remains quite well known because of his longevity, but the fact that Bardsley was one of Australia's best openers and left-handers may not linger so deeply in the memory of most. Alan Kippax was dubbed the "Prince of Stylists" and old-timers compare his elegance to the likes of Trumper, Archie Jackson and Stan McCabe, but his lack of performance at Test level is likely to count against him.

So, down to the final verdict. The YellowMonkey is predicting that, given eligibility, the two inductees this year will be Steve Waugh and Jack Gregory. It is hard to argue against these two, although Charles Turner is as deserving as either. If Waugh remains ineligible, I expect Gregory to be named, although I have a feeling that Turner will be passed over in favour of Walters or Lawry. Rather sad in my opinion, but I think that the ghosts of Turner and Bill Johnston could be waiting for a long time until their contributions to Australian cricket are duly recognised.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Rewind 1999: The birth of Jayawardene

Ten years ago, on this day, one of the most ill-tempered cricket matches in recent years took place at the Adelaide Oval. Rather prophetically, an article by Mike Coward of The Australian was published on the day of the match, entitled “Muralitharan deserves an apology, not idiot’s jeers”. The umpires were Ross Emerson and Tony McQuillan, who had presided over the last match in which the off spinner had been called.

In an ODI between England and Sri Lanka during the annual Australian tri-series, Muralitharan was no-balled for throwing by Western Australian umpire Ross Emerson. It sparked a heated argument between the umpires and Sri Lankan captain Arjuna Ranatunga, followed by a walk-off as Ranatunga consulted cricket administrators before deciding to proceed with the match. In the meantime, Emerson's actions and the ensuing distress of the Sri Lankans were visibly applauded by some in the English viewing area. After appearing that he would forfeit the match, the Sri Lankan skipper took his players back onto the field, and after Muralitharan finished his over, Ranatunga switched him to bowl at Emerson’s end, resulting in another angry debate argument about where Emerson would stand. Ranatunga wanted Emerson to stand up close so that it would be more difficult for him to see Murali's arm. Emerson was picked up by the microphones saying "I'm the umpire, I'm in control", something that would prove to be ironic.

But the chaos didn’t end there and began spreading among the players. During Sri Lanka’s run chase, Roshan Mahanama appeared to obstruct Darren Gough as he went to field the ball; Gough then feigned a headbutt at the batsman. Soon after, England captain Alec Stewart barged into Upul Chandana. Stewart, who was wicket-keeping, was overheard by stump microphones telling Ranatunga the immortal words "your behaviour today has been appalling for a country captain”.

Privately, the match referee Peter van der Merwe, a former South African captain, said that if he had applied the ICC Code of Conduct to its full extent, the series would have been reduced to “eight-a-side” cricket. As it was, only Ranatunga was sanctioned, receiving a six-match suspended ban. At the time, ACB chief executive Malcolm Speed phoned Australian Prime Minister John Howard to enlist his help in preventing the possibility of the tour being abandoned..

What made Emerson’s call so controversial was that the ICC had, as a group, cleared Muralitharan to bowl, and that in effect, Emerson was unilaterally overruling the decision. While on-field umpires retained the right to no-ball bowlers, in the case of bowlers already being cleared, it was generally meant to deter the occasional deliberate and blatant throw, rather than the standard delivery generated by a controversial action.

Following the match, Emerson was stood down and never officiated in an international match again. Soon after, it was revealed that Emerson was on stress leave from his day job and ACB Chairman Denis Rogers mused of a linkage between the sick leave and Emerson’s performance, prompting the umpire to sue.

Amidst the chaos, two sublime centuries were almost forgotten. The first was by Graeme Hick, then in the midst of a golden run of three centuries in four ODIs, the other innings being an unbeaten fifty. One imperious flick over the mid-wicket region went for six and rolled all the way outside the ground, across the asphalt entrance and across King William Road. The other was the work of a 21-year old emerging batsman by the name Mahela Jayawardene, who brought up his maiden ODI ton. Given Emerson’s bitter comments about Sri Lanka having an unfair advantage through Muralitharan, it was ironic that their eventual win was made possible by a rudimentary and entirely preventable error on his part.

Having been set 303 for victory, a highly imposing target for that era, Sri Lanka had stumbled to 3/68 when Jayawardene came to the crease. The chase looked to be faltering, and Jayawardene was in a heavy slump, with 47 runs at 6.85 in his last eight ODI innings at a strike rate of less than 35. In ten career innings, he had accumulated only 122 runs at 15.25 and would have been under extreme pressure for his position in the team. Of anyone who could have steered the imposing run-chase, Jayawardene would have been the least likely, given the spiteful environment and extraordinary distractions of the day. If he was rattled by the situation, he betrayed no indication of the sort, adding 33 of the next 43 runs at a fast rate.

Emerson had a reputation as a showman, but he had yet to finish for the night. With the score at 3/111, Jayawardene was caught short of his ground with a direct hit, but Emerson, who had a penchant for trusting himself on close run outs, turn down the appeal with his naked eye. The correct decision would almost certainly have ended the match with the loss of Jayawardene, who had been scoring at faster than a run-a-ball, but the young batsman brought up 50 from just 43 balls, conjuring up Sri Lankan hopes of a spectacularly improbable victory with scintillating play behind the wicket. Jayawardene departed for 120 as his team stumbled near the end of the run-chase, and in the end, Muralitharan hit the winning run as Sri Lanka scraped home by one wicket with two balls to spare. Without Emerson’s intervention, such a convergence of events, and the dramatic win, could never have been possible. Perhaps the only thing missing from the umpiring spectacle was that Sri Lanka won with two balls remaining instead of one. Emerson had called a seven ball over during Sri Lanka’s innings, so they should have only had one ball remaining. A literal gifting of the win would have been more ironic given Emerson’s attitude.

People may today decry the cringeworthy gestures of Billy Bowden, but never was there such a deplorable display of umpiring at international level. Perhaps in recent times there has never been a more significant case of an umpire affecting a match and with it cricket history through such poor judgment. Kasprowicz’s dismissal and Edgbaston in 2005 and last year’s Sydney Test turned matches and tempers but neither were fundamentally avoidable nor borderline disruptive as Emerson’s actions.

On a longer term note, the incompetent umpiring not only won the match for Sri Lanka, but helped Jayawardene establish himself as a player of international class after producing an innings of class under extreme pressure. Had he been correctly given out, who knows if his blooming may have been stunted for year, or even longer. Luckily for cricket followers, Jayawardene has developed into one of the leading batsmen, captains and slips catchers of the last decade. Still aged only 31, he has accumulated almost 8000 runs in both forms of cricket, and taken 141 catches. One of the most attractive and graceful strokeplayers of this period, he should pass 10,000 Test runs and perhaps break the Test career run-scoring record. He should also break the Test catching record, and perhaps become the first non-wicket-keeper to reach 200 catches.

Commentators have long regarded the disputed bump ball catch of Bradman by Jack Ikin as one of the most influential umpiring decisions of all time, reasoning that had Bradman been out, he would have retired there and then in 1946-47 and that the Invincibles would never have been. But Bradman had scored a century in the lead-up to the Test and would have retired on his own terms had he chosen to do so, rather than being dropped, and his legacy as the undisputed giant among cricketers would not have changed. Jayawardene would not have had such a luxury and might well have been dropped. In gifting Jayawardene a life, Emerson could have inadvertently and launched the career of one of the leading players of our time and one of Sri Lanka’s greatest. Quite ironic that for one of the worst umpires in recent memory, one of Emerson's worst blunders unquestionably became his greatest contribution to the sport.

Monday, January 19, 2009

A disaster in Adelaide

Well, now for an off-topic post, but I guess a few other people out there might be interested in the sport of cycling.

In the twilight of Sunday evening, the Cancer Council Classic, a one-day warm-up race to the 2009 Tour Down Under (TDU) was held in Adelaide. For those who don't follow cycling too closely, the TDU, held in South Australia each January, is the only event on the elite cycling Pro Tour that is held outside Europe. The exact location was in the East End, which may be familiar to those who followed the Formula One Grand Prix when it was held in Adelaide.

This year, there has been unprecedented media and popular interest in the event, mainly because it is the first event in the comeback of seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong. According to Australian media, 130,000 people, including this YellowMonkey, were at the city circuit watching the race, which is quite large for a city of 1.1 million people. It's even more impressive given the fact that with temperatures well above 30 degrees celsius, people would have been inclined to either stay at home or head for the beach.

At the launch on Sunday afternoon, South Australian Premier Mike Rann chortled when he claimed that the media contingent following at this year's race is the biggest at any cycling event in the world, bar the Tour de France. That sounds rather a tall claim, that the TDU would attract more media than the Giro d'Italia, the Vuelta, or any range of Spring Classics, but Phil Liggett, the voice cycling, did agree with Rann, although perhaps out of diplomacy.

Whatever the truth about the magnitude of the media contingent, one thing that wasn't so top-rate was the "Tour Down Under Official Program", which was produced by The Advertiser, the local (tabloid) newspaper and was freely distributed to spectators at the race venue. For an official guide, it's quite shocking. I've produced a scan from page 20 of the guide, which highlights ten leading riders that the public should look out for. The caption is for the Belgian sprinter Gert Steegmans, but the picture is of none other than Carlos Sastre, the 2008 winner of the Tour de France, wearing the winner's yellow jersey. Given that he was the man who stopped Australia's Cadel Evans from taking the maillot jaune to Paris, the error seems particularly ignorant. With an unprecendented overseas media contingent in Adelaide, it will also guarantee that an unprecedented number of cycling experts, of which there are few in Australia, will see this embarrassing mistake.

Another ridiculous sight on Sunday was that of local morning radio host Chris Dzelde (pictured above, as dressed on the day) singing the national anthem, contrary to a promotion claiming that a competition winner would do so. Standing in a T-shirt and shorts, Dzelde, who is clearly not a singer by any means, let out a horrendously out-of-tune rendition of Advance Australia Fair that would not have been allowed at a high school assembly or award night. Not only that, he sung without any instrumental accompaniment, which would have helped immensely even if it was just a pre-recorded brass band. It was an abominable display unworthy of any self-respecting amateur musical organisation, let alone a globally televised top-tier sporting event and vastly inferior to the standard at most international sporting events. The European scribes, accustomed to the opera houses of Milan and Paris and philharmonic orchestras of Berlin and Vienna, will undoubtedly remember to cacophony for a long while to come.

The last time anything so humiliating happened at a major South Australian sporting event was at the Australian Swimming Championships almost two decades ago, held at the Adelaide Aquatic Centre (AAC). Glen Housman, then the premier 1500 m freestyler in the land, set a world record in winning the event that people down under like to dub Australia's Race (Australia has won the race eight times at the Olympics). The only problem was that when Housman touched the wall, the electronic timing system crashed. Despite the fact that Housman was clearly ahead of the previous world record, his new mark never took its deserved place in the record books, as an accurate reading of the time was not possible.

Since then, the Australian Championships have never been held in Adelaide and the AAC is no longer deemed adequate for top-class racing events. Soon after, Adelaide lost the bidding for the 1998 Commonwealth Games, beaten by Kuala Lumpur, to the widespread derision of the other Australian states.

In recent times, urban regeneration policy has been prominent in government debate. One facet of this has been the need to modernise the public transport network and the local infrastructure. This has invariably generated proposals to streamline South Australia's sports facilities into a hub, and with it, a bid for major events such as Commonwealth Games.

However, as with this week's events, and the politicians' pride at the arrival of Armstrongmania, the government response smacked of hubris. One senior politician dismissed the Commonwealth Games as a "second-rate" event, as though Adelaide was capable to hosting something like the Olympics in a dignified manner. Going on the deplorable circus that occurred on Sunday evening, we're lucky to even get a fifth-rate event.

The YellowMonkey took a stack of photos, and the reader can peruse them here. Voting on the pictures is encouraged by all and sundry, regular Wikipedia users or not.