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.