Top 5 player-coach feuds in the modern cricketing era

Grouchy coaches who bring out the best in their protégés have been part of movie folklore since time immemorial. The basic storyline is usually predictable – we have a young sportsperson who is yet to realize his or her full potential. Throw in a no-nonsense coach who chips away at the raw edges and chisels the perfect athlete, usually after tormenting them with intense training schedules and inspirational pep talks (read, verbal lashings). Everything ends well, and the moviegoer returns home happy.

Al Pacino has done it, Clint Eastwood has done it, and even Shah Rukh Khan has done it. While such coach-protégé stories provide excellent material for blockbusters, real life stories – particularly within the cricketing domain – haven’t all ended happily.

This article explores the top 5 coach-player feuds in modern cricketing history, a majority of which have ended badly for one or both involved.

(Some of the notable omissions from the list are as follows:

1. As I am only focusing on international cricket, the article does not consider the Sourav Ganguly – John Buchanan feud during IPL 2009, which deserves an entire article to itself, and redefined the concept of cricket blogging. However, both feature prominently on the list, albeit with different opponents.

2. John Wright’s Sehwag-collar-grab and Mickey Arthur’s homework incidents: While both generated significant public interest at the time, none were long-lived enough to be considered feuds.

3. Ross Taylor vs Mike Hesson: Definitely significant, but misses out due to the heavyweight feuds in the list.)

#1 Sourav Ganguly vs Greg Chappell

The most ironic thing about the Sourav Ganguly-Greg Chappell feud is the fact that the Australian may not have got the job as coach of the Indian national cricket team if not for the captain’s backing. A relatively inexperienced Chappell came on board in 2005, seeing off competition from Tom Moody, Mohinder Amarnath and Desmond Haynes, impressing largely through his presentation on developing a superior Indian cricketing structure.

Chappell’s first tournament, the Indian Oil Cup in Sri Lanka, coincided with Ganguly’s 4-match suspension due to India’s slow over rates against Pakistan earlier that year. This led to Rahul Dravid leading the team throughout the tournament, and Ganguly playing under him after his suspension term was reduced. Though India lost in the final, the tournament advertised Dravid’s captaincy skills, and would have sowed the first seeds of doubt in Chappells’s mind.

The tumultuous Zimbabwe tour
The next tour of Zimbabwe is possibly the most controversial in the history of Indian cricket. After rumours that Ganguly faked an injury in the first Test, where he crawled to a century against an extremely weak Zimbabwean attack, the southpaw, in a media conference, accused the team management of pressurizing him to resign. If that was not controversy enough, an email sent by Chappell to the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), where he stated that Ganguly was unfit to lead the team, was leaked in public, triggering widespread outrage. One can only imagine the repercussions in the Indian dressing room during the period.

With the situation resembling a World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) verbal brawl more than a cricketing scenario, it seemed likely that one of the two would have to go. However, the BCCI, after a four-hour long meeting, brokered peace between the two, and issued a statement that the feuding duo would work together for the best interests of Indian cricket.

From bad to worse
Matters were to get worse; after an injury forced Ganguly out of the first four One Day Internationals (ODIs) in a total of seven against the visiting Sri Lankan side, Dravid donned the makeshift captaincy mantle again. India cantered to a 4-0 lead, on the back of superlative cricket and innovative captaincy, which included the promotion of Mahendra Singh Dhoni to number 3 in the third ODI. Dhoni announced himself to the world with an imperious 183 not out, and India eased to the nearly 300 run target with almost 4 overs to spare.

This led to the first of several snubs meted out to the Prince of Kolkata during Chappell’s reign; though he was available for the remaining three ODIs, Ganguly was overlooked, and Dravid continued to lead. The southpaw was again omitted for India’s next home series against South Africa; sentiments ran high, particularly in Ganguly’s hometown, Kolkata, and when the teams arrived in the city for the third ODI, angry mobs greeted the team, with anti-Chappell protests in full swing. The coach did his cause no good by allegedly showing the middle finger to the crowd.

Indian cricket hit a particularly low point during that match, with crowds booing Indian players, and cheering South Africa on to a 10-wicket win.

A cat and mouse game ensued, with Ganguly being ignored on several occasions over the next year. What began as a clash of egos between two aggressive personalities had now become a national spectacle, even triggering debates in the Indian Parliament.

The last laugh
Ganguly forced his way back into the team after a disastrous batting performance by the Indians in the 2006 ICC Champions Trophy and the South Africa ODI series. His modified batting style saw him accumulating several significant scores, and helped cement his place in the side, albeit for the time being, across both formats. India’s stunning ouster in the first round of the 2007 World Cup, one in which they were considered among the favourites, resulted in Chappell’s resignation, bringing to an end one of the most tumultuous coach-captain relationships in cricketing history.

To rub salt into the wound, Ganguly emerged as the second highest run-scorer in Tests during the year, behind Jacques Kallis, and the fifth highest in ODIs.

The uneasy relationship did not end there, with Chappell ranting about the southpaw’s inadequacies and insecurities in his 2011 released autobiography, Fierce Focus. Ganguly paid back the compliment by highlighting Chappell’s inability to help Australia when he was invited to speak to the Australian team ahead of India’s tour.

One can safely conclude that this is one relationship which has withstood the trials of time!

#2 Kevin Pietersen vs Peter Moores

In spite of a striking resemblance to the aforementioned Ganguly-Chappell saga, the Kevin Pietersen-Peter Moores episode had a very different climax – both men lost their jobs, Pietersen as captain and Moores as head coach, with the latter being dumped more unceremoniously.

According to the Daily Mail, though revealed much later, Pietersen was not a fan of Moore’s training methods from the onset. The former Sussex coach’s focus on tactical and statistical tools as a mode of training was diametrically opposite to Pietersen’s beliefs.

2008 tour of India
England’s 2008 tour of India was fraught with tension of a kind not normally associated with cricket. The seven-match ODI series was cut short (with India leading 5-0) by terrorist attacks at multiple locations in Mumbai, which left hundreds dead and brought the country on the brink of a possible war with the alleged perpetuators of the attack, Pakistan.

The England team was whisked off to safety, but in a move which won Pietersen significant praise and goodwill in India, something still evident today, the English returned within a fortnight to play two Tests, drawing one and losing the other. Though the series, in India, will always be overshadowed by the tragedy surrounding it, for England, it was one without a single victory across both formats, including a humiliating 0-5 defeat in ODIs (with every possibility of a 0-7 whitewash, but for the terror attacks).

In a move apparently aimed at contingency planning, in January 2009, Pietersen requested the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) for an emergency meeting to discuss Moores’s role in the team, in a gamble which did not exactly pay off for him.

The Vaughan angle
According to most reports, Pietersen was infuriated by the omission of Michael Vaughan from the team selected to tour West Indies in January 2009; he felt that the former England captain was an absolute requirement in the side, and had thrown his weight behind his inclusion. The final squad announcement, without Vaughan’s name in it, appeared to be the spark which ignited the dynamite.

An alternate view
The Mirror added a twist in the tale, when it published an article stating that at no point had Pietersen argued over Vaughan’s inclusion in the side; the main trigger allegedly came from a clash between the duo’s wives. Mrs. Moores considered herself a bit of a mother figure to the English cricket Wives and Girlfriends (WAGs), and severely criticized Jessica Pietersen’s handling of the media, something which was not taken lightly by the Liberty X pop star.

The final showdown
The stage was set for a classic showdown – Pietersen had already set the tone by tipping off the media about the unhealthy situation prevailing in the England team, and voiced his displeasure about Moores’s coaching methodologies in his emergency meeting with the ECB. The board, however, did its homework, and appointed managing director Hugh Morris with the task of researching the facts behind the dispute, and to identify which party commanded more backing in the dressing room.

Morris’s report, which indicated that Pietersen was not backed by all players in his criticism of the coach, severely undermined the captain’s all-or-nothing gamble. After a telephonic conference on January 6th 2009, the executive board of the ECB formally sacked Moores the next day, which also saw the resignation of Pietersen from his captaincy.

While Andrew Strauss took over as captain, Andy Flower, Moores’s assistant coach, was appointed the interim coach for the Caribbean tour. Pietersen’s run-in with Flower is equally colourful, but that is another story – deservedly getting a mention in this article.

#3 Kevin Pietersen vs Andy Flower

Exactly five years after the Pietersen-Moores double-execution, on January 7th 2014, the Daily Mail reported that England coach Andy Flower had issued an ultimatum to the ECB: to choose between him and Pietersen. One of them had to go.

It was a gamble similar to the one Pietersen played five years back, the only difference being that this time the former Zimbabwean wicket-keeper batsman succeeded, with his move effectively ending the international cricketing career of the flamboyant right-hander.

The rant which set the ball rolling
The saga began on December 30th 2013, though I am sure misgivings between the two predate the day, when Alastair Cook and Matt Prior, captain and vice-captain respectively, called for an emergency team meeting without the knowledge of coaching staff, after being walloped by Australia in the 4th Test of the 2013/14 Ashes.

The premise of the meeting was that the players were being over-reliant on Flower, and needed to be more responsible. Pietersen, possibly muddled by his own feelings about Flower, interpreted it as an accusation against the coach’s domineering nature, and started ranting about him. The players listened in shocked silence for a while before Pietersen was stopped and the premise was re-explained to him. The news of the rant got back to Flower, who was not impressed at all.

A slightly different version of the story is that, during the meeting, all players agreed that Flower’s behaviour was too schoolmaster-ish, but it was Pietersen, as the knight in shining armour, who took it upon himself to break the news to the headmaster, er…coach. While what exactly transpired in the meeting is not known (due to legal reasons), Pietersen clearly did not sugarcoat his opinion.

Irrespective of which version is true, the bottomline is that Pietersen ranted about the coach, and it got back to him, either directly or indirectly, and he wasn’t very happy about it.

Twitter war
The battle soon spilled over on to Twitter, with Pietersen finding support from Piers Morgan, notorious in his own right, and wife Jessica, who was allegedly in the eye of a ‘coach-storm’ even earlier. As reported by the Telegraph:

“It also turned nasty as Prior was drawn into a row on Twitter with Piers Morgan, Pietersen’s loudest public ally, over the events in Melbourne. Morgan said that Prior addressed the team meeting in Melbourne and “slaughtered” Flower. He also said that Prior “stabbed” Pietersen in the back when he spoke to Flower about the meeting.

Even Pietersen’s wife took to social media to attack her husband’s critics. She described Dominic Cork, the former England player turned broadcaster, as a liar for suggesting her husband and Cook nearly came to blows in Sydney. Cork had told Sky Sports that there was an altercation between the pair at the SCG. Jessica Taylor, a member of the pop group Liberty X, tweeted: “Dominic Cork – there was no ‘squaring up’ to Alastair Cook or ‘off-field antics’ in Australia – you are lying, plain & simple.”

Flower’s response and Pietersen’s unceremonious exit
This is where we head back to the opening of this story. Flower, who had positioned himself as a strict disciplinarian, laid out the ultimatum to the ECB – one that he later denied, but which in all probability is true. While he himself stepped down as team director after a successful five-year stint (yes, one that began after Moores’s exit), he wagered a continued relationship with the ECB in lieu of Pietersen’s career.

The board, probably fed up with Pietersen’s constant brushes with controversies (this article limits itself to coaches, but the big right-hander would probably find a mention across several other parameters), issued a statement in February 2014 declaring the forced retirement of the cricketer, in one of the most unceremonious sackings in modern cricket history.

#4. Chris Gayle vs Ottis Gibson

While not as heated as the previous cases, the Chris Gayle-Ottis Gibson story was an important sub-play within the Jamaican’s overall feud with the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB). While Gibson, the coach of the West Indies national cricket team from 2010 to August 2014, was the more diplomatic of the two, the big left-hander frequently complained about the former quick’s double standards in his context.

First signs of the grudge
The known beginnings of Gayle’s tiff with Gibson slightly predate his more well-known dispute with the WICB. After losing to Pakistan in a one-sided quarterfinal during the 2011 World Cup, Gibson had severely criticized the senior members of the team, Gayle included. The Jamaican hit back strongly, posting on his Twitter account, “It is easy to blame the senior players but difficult to accept the truth!!! Curse me blame me!!!!”

What appeared to be a minor tiff, soon escalated into a full blown battle, with Gayle being omitted from the team for the initial part of the home series against Pakistan. The Jamaican retorted by signing up for the Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) for the entire Indian Premier League (IPL) 4 season, after declaring himself unavailable for national duties. A fired up Gayle had a majestic IPL season, after which the WICB tried to end the dispute. But the initial meetings bore no fruit, with Gayle tracing the discontent back to 2009, when current (2011) WICB chief Ernest Hilaire had expressed concerns on his ability to lead the country.

Tirade against Gibson
While Gibson tried to maintain a diplomatic stance during the period, Gayle came out in harsh criticism of his coach. As reported by Cricinfo, Gayle said: “He [Gibson] is a man who sought my advice when things were not going well. I could never imagine he would deliberately try to destroy my character, reputation and livelihood or question my commitment to West Indies cricket. I would not have believed, until I saw it in black and white, that he would devalue my leadership and try to destroy me without giving me a chance to respond.”

Very strong words, indeed. Gibson, however, appeared unaffected, and responded by saying that he was dealing with larger issues within the team, and could not afford to get distracted.

Peace brokerage
After a long drawn process, which also included intervention from the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) heads of government, Gayle’s self-imposed 15 month exile ended in June 2012, when he was picked in the West Indies squad for ODIs in England. Gibson’s calmness ensured that the public was not granted the entertainment some of the other cases mentioned here provided, but after an uneasy calm of more than two years, Gayle is likely to breathe easier after the coach’s exit last month.

#5. Shane Warne vs John Buchanan

It may come as great news for fans of Sourav Ganguly that John Buchanan, his chief tormentor during the elegant left-hander’s unhappy IPL voyage, has been at the receiving end of a series of insults from Australian spin legend Shane Warne for several years now. Warne shared an unhappy, if not disrespectful, relationship with Buchanan during the latter’s eight-year stint as Australian coach (1999-2007), which ended shortly after the iconic leg-spinner finished his Test career in early 2007.

Jibe at Warne’s fitness
Buchanan had no clue that he was playing with fire when, during Australia’s unsuccessful Test series campaign in India in 2001, he took several pot-shots at Warne’s fitness. After Australia lost the 2nd Test match in Kolkata, Buchanan observed that Warne was “not one of the fittest characters running around in world cricket”. He even expressed doubts over the leg-spinner’s inclusion in the 3rd Test, stating that he was looking for “11 blokes who can give five days of hard cricket and not be affected by any sort of physical limitations”.

Back then, Warne played down the incident, stating that Buchanan had apologized for his comments. “I said he would probably need to get to know me a little bit better,” the leg-spinner clarified. Buchanan has come to know Warne ‘very well’ in the coming years, and continues to learn new things about him even today.

Warne’s comments on Buchanan
With most of Warne’s warfare against his coach being verbal as opposed to action-oriented, the best way to capture his sentiments would be to share some of his quotes:

“These boot camps are a big waste of time. We were forced to push a car uphill, and after a bit I just turned to the coach and said: ‘I’m as weak as p—, I hate your guts and I want to go home. You’re a d—head.'”

“Im a big believer that the coach is something you travel in to get to and from the game!”

“He has been our coach during a successful era but that begs a question – does the coach make the team or does the team make the coach?” (In 2006, after being hauled off to one of Buchanan’s boot-camps)

“I disagree with John Buchanan all the time. I don’t think he has made one good point in a long time, actually. Everything that I have read that he says, he is living in pixieland. It just shows what us players had to put up with. We had to listen to his verbal diarrhoea all the time. He is just a goose and has no idea and lacks common sense, and you can put all that in there.” (In 2007, post retirement)

“I think that’s a great move because that means we’ve got more of a chance. Hopefully Buck (Buchanan) will be doing his stuff and he’ll be working and doing all his things and hopefully over-complicating things. I reckon it gives our chances a big boost and makes our blokes more hungry.” (In 2009, after hearing that Buchanan had accepted a role to coach England’s budding cricketers)

“John Buchanan had no idea about coaching. The Australian team I was part of hardly needed a good coach. Even my 13-year-old son could decide when to bowl (Glenn) McGrath, (Brett) Lee or (Jason) Gillespie.” (In 2013, during an interview)

Buchanan: the puppet or the puppet-master
In an interview with Fox Sports in 2013, Michael Hussey revealed that Buchanan was deliberately harsh with Warne so that he could fire him up and extract the best out of him. Mr. Cricket’s stance was that Buchanan was not really affected by Warne’s open hatred of him, and in the larger interest of Australian cricket, was actually puppet-mastering one of the biggest talents in the game.

Buchanan himself doesn’t seem as confident; in his book, The Future of Cricket, released in 2009, the former Australian coach expressed disappointment at Warne’s continuing criticism of him.

With no signs of a hatchet burial in sight, and the former leg-spinner very much active on commentating and social media circuits, we can continue to expect more insightful observations on Buchanan in future.

This article was first published in Sportskeeda:

Top 5 World Cup specialists: Part 1 – Bowlers

‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man.’

While this adage is applicable to almost any situation in life (and across genders), in the cricketing context, the greatest ‘hour’ comes once in every four years when the top teams in the world converge to battle it out to determine the greatest among them all – at least till the next time the epoch event occurs. True to the saying, several men have indeed stepped up to the occasion: some were excellent exponents of the game who stretched the limits of the high levels they themselves set on lesser platforms, while others shone in a different light altogether when performing on the biggest stage of cricket.

The following is the Part 1 of a dual series dedicated to identifying these World Cup (WC) specialists, with the current instalment focusing on bowlers who have upped the ante when their country needed it the most.

The selection is made on the basis of a quantitative methodology, the key criteria of which are as follows:

Minimum qualification: 35 wickets in WCs

Score: This has been calculated by multiplying the three essential parameters a bowler is assessed upon – Average, Economy Rate (ER) and Strike Rate (SR). For example, a bowler with an average of 20, an ER of 4, and an SR of 40 will have a score of 20 x 4 x 40 = 3200. As with most statistics associated with bowling, lower the score, better is the performance.

Greater the difference between their career scores and the WC scores, the higher will the bowler feature on this list.

Do note that the focus is not on absolute WC performances, but relative to the bowler’s overall career, which is why the highest wicket-taker in the World Cups barely makes it to this list, and numbers two (Muttiah Muralitharan just misses out) and three (Wasim Akram’s WC performance actually dips slightly below his overall) do not feature at all.

Read on, and take a call for yourself if statistics do paint the true picture or not.

#5 Glenn McGrath
The highest wicket-taker in the history of the 50-over World Cup, Glenn McGrath just about makes it to this list, simply because he was almost as good throughout the rest of his One Day International (ODI) career. Covering four WCs from 1996 – 2007 in his long stride, the lanky pacer racked up 71 wickets at an astounding average and an ER of 18.19 and 3.96 respectively. After a forgetful 1996 WC, McGrath stamped his authority over the 1999 edition in England, picking 18 wickets to finish a touch behind compatriot Shane Warne and Kiwi Geoff Allott (both with 20 wickets). While he strung together several consistent performances, the 5-14 against West Indies at Manchester, which included castling Brian Lara with a peach of a delivery, was the most memorable.

The Pigeon went from strength to strength in his next two WCs, picking up 21 and 26 wickets in the 2003 and 2007 instalments respectively, winning the Player-of-the-Tournament award in the latter, which was also his final international appearance for Australia.

McGrath’s 7-15 against minnows Namibia in the 2003 edition remains the best bowling figures in a WC till date, which he followed up with a number of clinical spells, including a 3-wicket haul against India in the final to ease the Aussies towards their second WC on the trot.

Four years later, showing no signs of any dip in form, usually associated with players on the fringe of retirement, McGrath returned one final time to spur the Aussies onto a hat-trick of WC triumphs. The Daily Telegraph hailed his longevity with the quote:

‘He was branded too old and too hittable. But if someone told Glenn McGrath this was a World Cup too far, he didn’t hear them.’

An amazing feature of McGrath’s performance in the 2007 Cup, held in the West Indies, was his unwavering consistency in terms of picking wickets: he did not go wicket-less in any game and picked up three-wicket hauls in 6 out of the 11 matches played.

The Aussies missed him in 2011, and, in their quest for the 2015 WC, will be desperately hoping for someone to step into those large shoes and replicate, to some extent, the iron-hold he had on the marquee tournament in cricket.

Overall Score: 2904.9
WC Score: 1980.9
Differential: 924.0

#4 Brett Lee
Credited with bowling the third fastest delivery in international cricket history, Brett Lee, though quite successful, fell slightly short in terms of the huge potential he exuded after bursting onto the scene during the 1999-00 Test series against India. Lee made it to number nine among highest wicket-takers in WCs despite playing at least one tournament lesser than everyone else ahead of him on that list (he missed the 2007 WC on account of injury).

Lee had an excellent 2003 World Cup, finishing as the second-highest wicket-taker (behind Chaminda Vaas) with 22 wickets at an average of 17.9 and an acceptable ER of 4.73. The tearaway quick’s five-wicket burst in the Super Sixes round subjected New Zealand to the ignominy of being bowled out for 112 and all but cemented Australia’s place in the semi-finals. Lee was particularly effective against sub-continental teams, picking three wickets each against India, during the qualifying round, and Sri Lanka, in the crucial semi-final. The right-hander’s tight spell of 2-31 in the all-important final against India, in partnership with McGrath, snuffed out any hopes which the batting team may have harboured while chasing the imposing target before them, to help Australia win their third WC crown.

Though included in Australia’s WC 2011 squad, questions were being raised on his ability and match fitness, but Binga silenced critics by ending up as Australia’s highest wicket-taker in the tournament and often waged a lone battle against opponent batsmen, with most of his fellow bowlers having a miserable WC. Facing Pakistan in a must-win encounter (to avoid meeting India in the quarters) in their final qualifying match, the Australians were bowled out for 176. Lee bowled his heart out during the second innings, but his 4-28 was the only spell of note as Pakistan squeezed home to a four wicket victory.

Australia’s bowling was even more toothless against India, and, though Lee took skipper MS Dhoni’s wicket at a crucial juncture, the hosts, on the back of composed innings from Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina, cruised to the victory target of 261 with 5 wickets to spare. Battered and bruised (from a cut while attempting to save a boundary), the Telegraph heaped praise on Lee’s valiant effort and stated that the quick tried everything to prevent Australia losing, which even skipper Ricky Ponting acknowledged:

“If we all had that sort of attitude and that will in his eyes to get the job done, then things may have been slightly different”

Overall Score: 3269.1
WC Score: 1929.9
Differential: 1339.2

#3 Chaminda Vaas
The mainstay of Sri Lanka’s pace bowling attack through the mid-90s and early 2000s, Chaminda Vaas played in four WCs from 1996 to 2007 and is number 4 in the list of highest wicket-takers in ODI WCs with 49 wickets. While he wasn’t too successful in the first two, the left armer topped bowling charts in the 2003 WC in South Africa, picking up 23 wickets at an average of 14.4 and an economy rate of 3.76.

He used his experience to good effect against weaker sides, decimating Bangladesh with a six-wicket haul, which included a hat-trick in the first over, and leaving minnows like Canada and Kenya clueless as he regularly made the ball talk, in helpful conditions. In a close game against the West Indies, his 4-22 and 25-ball 28 proved decisive, winning him the Player-of-the-Match award.

When Sri Lanka ran into the rampaging Australian side in the semi-finals, Vaas accounted for Matthew Hayden and Ricky Ponting, India’s wreckers-to-be in the final, cheaply, and his three wickets were instrumental in restricting the Aussies to 212; however, a poor batting display saw the Lankans fall well short of the target and knocked out of the tournament. In the process, as reported by the BBC, Vaas broke the record for the highest number of wickets in a single WC, which he would hold till the next edition when McGrath took over the mantle.

In the twilight of his career, Vaas came up with yet another admirable showing in the 2007 WC, picking up 13 wickets at an average of 22 and an economy rate of 3.68. His consistency was a crucial factor spurring the Lankans to the tournament final where they again ran into Australia, their nemesis from four years back, and abjectly surrendered, incidentally the only match wherein Vaas went wicket-less and was expensive (ER of 6.75) by his own high standards.

Overall Score: 4533.0
WC Score: 2695.8
Differential: 1838.2

#2 Jacob Oram
Probably the biggest surprise on this list, New Zealand all-rounder Jacob Oram lifted his performance several notches during all the three WCs he participated in from 2003-11. Unsung like several of his national teammates, the Kiwi has a very respectable overall bowling record: 173 wickets at an average of 29 and an economy rate of 4.4. Also taking into account his power-hitting abilities, the big all-rounder has been an indispensable asset for the Black Caps over the past decade.

The highest podium of ODI cricket seems to make his apparently innocuous bowling even more potent; Oram is on number 8 in the list of highest wicket-takers in ODI WCs, fitting in with remarkable ease among some of the biggest names in world cricket. In line with his overall on-field persona, the all-rounder never looked spectacular, but did his job with even more clinical efficiency when the stage was the biggest. While his numbers, across all three WCs he participated in, indicated a significant leap from the usual, it was in the 2011 WC that he was at his best, picking up 12 wickets at an average of 18.4 and an SR of 24.9. Particularly memorable was his Player-of-the-Match earning bowling performance against the Proteas in the third quarter final at Mirpur, where, defending a mediocre total of 221, his 4-39 broke the back of the South African batting line-up and propelled the Kiwis into their sixth WC semi-final.

As reported by the Telegraph, the tall all-rounder had quit Test cricket in 2009 with the aim of being in contention for the 2011 WC.

“For the sake of longevity I have had to make a decision that will decrease my workload so I can concentrate all my efforts on the shorter forms of the game. The ICC World Cup in 2011 is a major focus for me and I am highly motivated to be fit and firing for that.”

Given the results, the move definitely paid off.

Overall Score: 5097.8
WC Score: 2720.9
Differential: 2376.9

#1 Zaheer Khan
Though his overall figures in ODI cricket are superior to those while playing in whites, Zaheer Khan is often hailed as the best Test medium pacer to have graced the country in the new millennium. This is probably because he is well known to have been influential in several overseas Test victories, whereas his ODI career, marred with injuries, has had a relatively fewer spread out match-winning performances, with approximately 1/6th of his career wickets coming in two tournaments – the 2003 and 2011 WCs, held in South Africa and the Indian sub-continent, respectively.

Number 5 in the list of highest wicket-takers in ODI WCs (tied with compatriot Javagal Srinath) with 44 wickets, the left-armer announced his arrival on the biggest stage of cricket in the 2003 edition, when – coming off the back of a confidence boosting bowling performance in New Zealand a couple of months back –  he spearheaded the Indian campaign, well aided by Srinath and Ashish Nehra, together forging the best ever display of pace bowling by an Indian team witnessed by me in a single tournament (barring the final), which culminated in one of the most amazing runs by India in a marquee tournament in alien conditions. His spellbinding run in the tournament included the annihilation of the familiar Kiwi batsmen, and his four wickets sent them plummeting to 146 all out, resulting in an easy victory for India.

After playing only three matches in the 2007 WC owing to India’s early exit, Khan came roaring back in the 2011 edition, emerging as the highest wicket-taker (tied with Shahid Afridi) in the tournament with 21 scalps.  Akin to McGrath in the 2007 edition, the left-armer neither went wicket-less in any match nor picked up more than three wickets on any occasion, reflecting the extreme levels of consistency maintained over the course of the tournament, thereby becoming an essential cog –  along with Yuvraj Singh – in India lifting the coveted trophy for the second time in their history.  Cricinfo rated him as the game-breaker of the tournament:

“In the tottering-teetering four weeks of India’s World Cup, if Yuvraj Singh has been  fire fighter with the bat and the ball, Zaheer has been its game-breaker. The leader of a bowling union that has been pilloried for lacking express pace and incisive spin, Zaheer has kept it all together.”

While it is a pity that the rest of his ODI career has not been able to match up to the standards set during the World Cups, this makes a strong case for the left-armer’s inclusion, if fit, in India’s squad for the 2015 tournament.

Overall Score: 5194.2
WC Score: 2449.4
Differential: 2744.8

This article was first published on Sportskeeda:

Top 5 World Cup specialists: Part 2 – Batsmen

The following  is the Part 2 of a dual series dedicated to identifying World Cup (WC) specialists, with the current instalment focusing on batsmen who have upped the ante when their country needed it the most. You can view Part 1 here.

The selection is made on the basis of a quantitative methodology, the key criteria of which are as follows:

Minimum qualification: 1000 runs in WCs

Score: This has been calculated by multiplying the two essential parameters a batsman is assessed upon – Average, and Strike Rate (SR). For example, a batsman with an average of 50 and an SR of 100 will have a score of 50 x 100 = 5000. As with most statistics associated with batting, higher the score, better is the performance.

Greater the difference between their career scores and the WC scores, the higher will the batsman feature on this list.

To give an indication of the batsmen knocking on the doors of this list, had the qualification criteria been reduced to 900, two Aussie greats, Steve Waugh and Matthew Hayden, would have broken their way in, and the list would have been topped by an unheralded New Zealander, Scott Styris; with Jacob Oram featuring prominently in the bowling compilation, this perhaps explains why the Kiwis have been so consistent in WCs.

#5 Viv Richards
Arguably the most feared batsman of his time, Sir Vivian Richards, after a forgettable 1975 WC, one in which he made his ODI debut as well, dominated the next three between 1979-87, finishing with an aggregate of 1013 runs at a batting average of 63.31 (surprisingly, the only other batsman with an average above 60 among top-25 run-scorers in the 50-over WC is Rahul Dravid) and an SR of 85.05, and would have been placed much higher on this list but for his equally good performances outside of the WC.
The Antiguan’s first dominating innings in a WC could not have come at a better time – during the final of the 1979 edition, against hosts England. After West Indies were put into bat in bowler-friendly conditions and pressed on to the back-foot after the relatively cheap dismissals of the celebrated opening duo of Desmond Haynes and Gordon Greenidge, Richards strode out to the middle with his trademark swagger and pulverized the English attack into submission with an unbeaten 138, to help post a strong total of 286 in 60 overs, one which the famed Caribbean pace battery defended with ease to lift the biggest title in limited overs cricket for the second successive time.

The ‘King’ was at his most devastating in the 1983 WC, especially towards the business end of the tournament: scores in his three innings leading into the final read: 119(vs. India), 95*(vs. Australia) and 80*(vs. Pakistan, in the semi-finals). Halfway into the final, against India, at Lord’s, the score was eerily similar to what their sub-continental neighbours had put up: India were 183 all out as compared to Pakistan’s 184/8. West Indies’ chase also began in a similar manner, with both openers back in the hut with not many runs on the board.

On the previous occasion, Richards’ 80* saw the Caribbean team romp home to an 8-wicket victory, and he looked set to repeat the show, having bludgeoned 33 off just 27 balls, with seven boundaries. When he mistimed a short-arm pull off Madan Lal – such was the power of the man that even the miscue went miles into the air, the ball appeared destined to crash into the mid-wicket boundary after a couple of bounces, but Indian skipper Kapil Dev, in a supreme display of elegant athleticism, sprinted several yards from his position at mid-on and held on to the over-the-shoulder catch to bring about the moment acknowledged by many, including Cricinfo, as the turning point of the match.

The remaining West Indian batsmen, except Jeff Dujon and Malcom Marshall, who put up a brief resistance, collapsed in the face of incisive medium-pace bowling, to allow India to lay their hands on the coveted trophy for the first time.

Richards was equally disdainful during the 1987 WC –  his final appearance on the biggest stage, aggregating 391 runs, which included his highest score of 181, in a WC, against a hapless Sri Lankan bowling attack. He followed it up with a half-century against England and two more against Pakistan, facing a pace attack that comprised Imran Khan at the peak of his skills and a tearaway quick Wasim Akram.

While the Caribbean batting line-up continued to be star-studded, their famed pace battery was visibly depleted, with only Courtney Walsh and Patrick Patterson making an impact. It was a disappointing outing for third seamer Winston Benjamin, and, with Curtley Ambrose’s international debut still a few months away, the Caribbean attack failed to invoke the fear they were famed for, and their earlier-than-expected exit probably marked the beginning of the end of the dominance of West Indian cricket on the international stage.

Overall Score: 4239.4
WC Score: 5384.5
Differential: 1145.1

#4 Sachin Tendulkar
Akin to Glenn McGrath in the bowling list and Richards in this, arguably the greatest ODI batsman of our generation and the highest run-scorer in the 50-over WC history, Sachin Tendulkar finds himself in the bottom half of this list, in spite of outstanding WC performances, because he has been almost as good throughout his illustrious career in lesser ODI engagements, as well.

While the young Tendulkar made his mark in his very first WC, in 1992, held in Australia-New Zealand, finishing inside the top-15 run-makers of the tournament, with scores that included a quick-fire 54* against arch rivals Pakistan and a couple of 80s against Zimbabwe and the Kiwis, it was in the 1996 edition, held in the sub-continent, that the maestro really stamped his class over the marquee event.

He topped batting charts, scoring 523 runs with the help of two centuries, and looked completely at ease on a treacherous Eden Gardens pitch during the infamous semi-final against Sri Lanka, till his freakish dismissal set the tone for the ugly collapse and the uglier crowd reaction that followed.

Tendulkar may not have been at his run-scoring best at the 1999 WC when he was possibly at the peak of his batting abilities, which, in my opinion, were at its zenith during the Sharjah Storm a year earlier; however, his sheer passion for his country and towards the game was highlighted when he returned a day after his father’s funeral to smash a century against minnows Kenya, which the Guardian hailed as ‘idolatry.’

The master blaster rewrote WC history in 2003, when he crunched 673 runs, which is, till date, the highest amassed in a single WC. Such was his dominance that he was more than 200 runs clear of the batsman next on the highest run-scorers list in that edition. Tendulkar’s signature was scrawled over the breadth of the tournament – he scored only a single century, but had crossed 80 on four more occasions, which included the physically testing 98, against Pakistan (yes, the one in which he uppercut Shoaib Akhtar for a six) where he battled cramps and probably the best ever pace attack of our sub-continental neighbours, for the match-winning knock. He faltered at the last hurdle, in the tournament final at Johannesburg, losing the battle against another WC behemoth, Mcgrath, to sign off India’s brilliant run thus far on a disappointing note.

After India’s short and unhappy campaign in the 2007 WC, the diminutive batsman returned for the 2011 instalment in the Indian sub-continent, in the twilight of a fantastic career, amid customary allegations against his dwindling form and questionable fitness. The man who always let his bat do the talking, went, perhaps unknowingly, one step further this time –  not only did he emerge the second highest run-scorer in the tournament but also inspired the young generation of Indian cricketers, led by Player-of-the-Tournament Yuvraj Singh, himself battling cancer, to desperately seek the most coveted trophy for the man who had conquered almost every other silverware there was to be won.


It was something they did achieve, and history was written the second time in the country.

Overall Score: 3865.7
WC Score: 5067.4
Differential: 1201.7
#3 Sourav Ganguly
The man who, in my opinion, deserves the maximum credit for turning around the fortunes of an Indian team tottering from the match-fixing saga of the late 90s and ushering in a golden era in Indian cricket, Sourav Ganguly, while performing admirably over the course of his ODI career, took his game to a different level altogether in the 1999 and 2003 editions of the WC.

The elegant southpaw scored 1006 runs in a mere 21 innings; to put things in perspective, this is at par with Richards (1013 runs in 21 innings) and significantly superior to some of his more worshipped peers, Adam Gilchrist (1085 in 31), Steve Waugh (978 in 30) and Kumar Sangakkara (991 in 28).  The Prince of Kolkata made an impact on his World Cup debut itself, against South Africa at Hove, where he made 97 runs before getting run out, in a losing cause.
A couple of matches later, when India met Sri Lanka at Taunton, it was the first WC meeting between the two sub-continental giants after the 1996 semi-final fiasco, and emotions were bound to be high, especially on the Indian side. After Sadagoppan Ramesh fell early, Ganguly was joined by Dravid, and what followed was the translation of pent-up emotions into run-scoring of the highest order, with elegant as well as agricultural hits to all parts of and over the boundaries. The blitz yielded a 318-run partnership for the 2nd wicket, hailed by the Guardian as ‘the thrilling feat, in tandem,’ with Ganguly playing one of the best-ever WC knocks (183), and Dravid not too far behind, scoring 145. India racked up a humongous 373 and crushed the Islanders by 157 runs in what must have quelled, to some extent, the painful memories simmering over the past four years.

The southpaw was the second highest run-scorer in the 2003 WC, behind Tendulkar, and while it could be argued that his tally was boosted by three centuries against the weaker nations, there is no denying the fact that Ganguly raised his game, both as batsman and skipper, to steer India to a step short of what would have been the nation’s greatest moment since the summer of 1983, when Kapil Dev held aloft cricket’s greatest trophy at the Mecca of the game.

Even during India’s nightmarish campaign in the 2007 WC, Ganguly, himself fraught with issues arising out of his tumultuous relationship with then coach Greg Chappell, gave India a fighting chance against Bangladesh in their opening encounter and continued his penchant of feasting on minnows with an 89 against Bermuda. However, he could not prevent India’s ignominious exit in the opening round, ending his short but glorious WC career on a low.

Overall Score: 3023.2
WC Score: 4330.7
Differential: 1307.5

#2 Mark Waugh
One of the most stylish cricketers to have graced the game, Mark Waugh had an excellent record in WCs, especially the 1996 and 1999 editions. After a mediocre 1992 WC in home conditions, Waugh was at ease on sub-continental pitches in the next instalment, scoring 484 runs at an average of 80+, including three centuries, to finish behind Tendulkar as the second highest run-scorer in the edition.

While all of them were important, the most crucial was against New Zealand in the quarter-finals at Chennai, where, facing a stiff target of 287, the right-hander’s calm 110, which Cricinfo acknowledged as one of the top performances of the tournament, took Australia beyond the 200-run mark, after which he passed the baton to brother Steve, who, along with Stuart Law, guided the team home with a little more than two overs to spare.

Though the 1999 edition belonged almost exclusively to his brother, who not only made 398 runs at an average of close to 80 but also was involved in a couple of gritty battles with South Africa, the only team, which, on paper, appeared to have enough firepower to surpass the Aussies, Mark’s contribution was no less significant – his 375 runs as an opener ensured that the team rarely got off a poor start and gave his opening partner Gilchrist the extra leeway to attack opposition bowlers with unbridled gusto.

The right-hander’s most important knocks came in the Super Sixes: his 83 against India shepherded the rest of the team, none of whom reached 40, to a strong total of 282, which was enough for a 77-run victory. In the very next game, facing up to possibly the strongest ever Zimbabwean bowling attack, comprising Heath Streak, Henry Olonga, Neil Johnson and Paul Strang,  Mark cracked his only century of the tournament to take Australia over the 300-mark, which the African nation could not overhaul.

In his last WC game, against Pakistan in the final at Lord’s, Mark had the best ‘seat’ in the house to watch the Gilchrist show as the left-hander’s swashbuckling half-century tore into the low victory target of 133. He himself scored 37* to usher in a decade of Australian domination with respect to WC triumphs, where they would go onto win three tournaments on the trot.

Overall Score: 3026.0
WC Score: 4424.3
Differential: 1398.3

#1 Herschelle Gibbs

Known more for flirting with controversy than realizing the immense potential he was touted to possess, Herschelle Gibbs perhaps played to the best of his ability only when the calling was of the highest order. Ironically, though, his brilliant batting during the WCs was often marred with heartbreaks in which he was usually a central figure.

The Capetonian turned in a solid batting performance during the 1999 WC, but his finest hour with the bat, against Australia in their Super Sixes encounter at Headingly, where his 101 was the backbone of a challenging score of 271, soon transformed into his darkest when his premature celebration on ‘catching’ Steve Waugh, off Lance Klusener, led to the ball dropping the ground and the catch being disallowed.
Waugh, then on 56, went on to play probably the best innings of his ODI career, his 120* helping the Aussies over the line with two balls to spare and cementing a place in the semi-finals, once again against the Proteas. The Australian skipper is known to have famously remarked to Gibbs: “I hope you realise that you’ve just lost the game for your team”. Had he replaced ‘game’ in the sledge with ‘World Cup’, Waugh would have been right on target, because the tense semi-final – which ended in a tie on account of the dramatic mix-up between Klusener and Allan Donald in the final over – resulted in the Aussies qualifying for the final on account of their victory over the Africans in the Super Sixes: an outcome that is bound to have haunted Gibbs for several years to come, though he himself denies it, as reported by The Australian.

Gibbs was at his absolute best during the 2003 WC at home, scoring 384 runs at an unbelievable average of 96.00, finishing 5th among top run-scorers in the tournament, while playing at least 4 games fewer than those above him on that elite list. Two of the right-hander’s best innings of the tournament, however, came with the customary heart-break now commonly associated with him in the context of a WC – Gibbs’ spectacular 143 against New Zealand, in the opening round, which propelled his team to 306, was nullified by Stephen Fleming’s 134, which inflicted a defeat on the Proteas in the rain curtailed and Duckworth-Lewis (D/L) implemented match.

The method devised by two English statisticians, Frank Duckworth and Tony Lewis, still followed today, has never been too kind on the South Africans, dating back to their WC debut in 1992, when the highly talented and enthusiastic bunch of cricketers saw their target against England, in the semi-finals, being revised, as if by magic, from a very gettable 22 off 13 balls, to a stiffer 22 off 7 balls, till finally settling down on the impossible 22 off 1 ball, all within a few moments of brisk calculations based on D/L.

The dual force of D/L and ‘tied game’ was to hit the Proteas hard a few games later, in a must-win encounter against the Sri Lankans in Durban. Set a target of 268, Gibbs beautifully negotiated a rampaging Chaminda Vaas en route to a well-constructed 73; however, after his dismissal, the Proteas displayed yet another instance of brain-freeze, when Mark Boucher blocked the last legal delivery of the match, with the batting team on 229 – the specified D/L score at the end of the 45th over.

What Boucher, and apparently everyone in the South African team management, were not aware of was that the required  D/L score shared by umpires is always the ‘par’ figure, i.e., the runs required to tie the match, not win it. The match ended as a tie, and the host nation was subject to the ignominy of an early exit.

While Gibbs did return for a solid, if not spectacular showing, in the 2007 WC, one in which the Proteas were ousted in the semi-finals by the unstoppable Australians, the right-hander’s associations with his team’s bizarre exits in the past is likely to override his tremendous contribution when playing at the highest level of the game.

Overall Score: 3008.2
WC Score: 4906.4
Differential: 1898.2

This article was first published on Sportskeeda:

When cricketing and financial worlds collided

Last week I was getting all set to write an article on the (then) ongoing series between India and the West Indies, the initial couple of matches of which had shaped up much better than anyone had thought. With India expected to steamroll the team languishing at the 8th spot in the ICC One Day International (ODI) rankings, most people were almost disinterested in the run up to the series, with the only debates revolving around the margin of India’s victory and performances of some of the younger players the team looked set to blood during an ‘easy’ series. After the Caribbean team performed as expected in the warm-up games against India A, the first unpredictable, and therefore exciting, incident occurred just before the first ODI kicked off in Kochi, when captain Dwayne Bravo conveyed his displeasure over an agreement between the West Indies Players Association (WIPA) and the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) regarding players’ pay and conditions, even threatening to pull out of the opening game in protest.
The dispute seemed to have rejuvenated the visitors, because when the first ODI finally went ahead as scheduled, their batting as well as bowling clicked as a unified whole, and the West Indians galloped to an easy victory. India seemed well on the way to paying the price for misplaced complacency when they were on the back-foot for a majority of the second ODI as well, before a spectacular collapse by the Windies saved the hosts the blushes. With the series delicately poised at 1-1, I sought the opinion of West Indian cricket writer Garfield Robinson on how the dispute with the WICB seemed to have positively affected the players’ game, and this is what he had to say:

‎ Maybe WIPA problems galvanized players but I doubt it. I don’t think anything miraculous. as you put it, happened either. They always had the ability to do well, especially in the shorter formats. They are always susceptible of collapsing too as the showed in the second game after being in a good position. Hopefully they are beginning to string together more good performances than bad ones.

While the the 3rd ODI in Visakhapatnam was called off due to Cyclone Hudhud, not many would have predicted the storm that followed. The drama unfolded a few hours before the 4th ODI on October 17th, in picturesque Dharamsala, ironically the abode of 1989 Nobel Peace Prize winner, the 14th Dalai Lama. West Indies yet again threatened a pullout, and consented to play only after much cajoling by BCCI joint secretary and Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association (HPCA) president Anurag Thakur. The toss itself was quite a spectacle, with the entire West Indian team accompanying Bravo out to the middle, where he explained that they did not want cricket or the fans to suffer, but ‘it’s time to take a decision’. During the course of the match, the cryptic ‘decision’ came to light, and after some confusion, it became clear that the West Indies cricket team were to depart for home after that match, and the 5th ODI in Kolkata was effectively canceled.

More than the disappointment of an ODI in my hometown getting struck off, the sight of the West Indians practically sleepwalk through the game was deplorable – catches were dropped, explosive batsmen like Kieron Pollard invoked images of Geoff Boycott at his most stubborn with a Strike Rate below 20, and an overall air of disinterest hung heavy. Marlon Samuels managed to convert the macro-level disinterest into lazy elegance for his second century of the series, and Andre Russell hit some lusty blows towards the end, but the match seemed over as a contest right from the dramatic toss, and the 59-run victory for India was a mere formality.

As news emerged that the deal struck between the WIPA and the WICB, without consulting the players, would result in match fees being reduced by up to 75%, with image rights and ICC fees reduced almost 100%, I could agree that the protest had a valid reason behind it. However, the question to be asked is, was it justifiable to pull out unceremoniously from an ongoing series, with plenty of locked-in commercial and sporting interests, or would it have been more reasonable to carry out the threat by boycotting the next series (in South Africa, starting December), which would minimize losses inflicted on both organizers and public, and be targeted mostly at the alleged perpetrator of the crisis, the WICB. In hindsight, with the BCCI having absolved the cricketers of their ‘crime’, and establishing the WICB as the sole antagonist in the entire episode, this seems to have been an excellent move from the players. A pullout in South Africa, through more acceptable on humanitarian grounds, would not have created the kind of buzz generated after tinkering with the richest cricket board and over a billion potential spectators.

Even as I write this, the WICB is attempting to salvage relations by seeking a meeting with the BCCI, in the wake of suspension of ties and possible legal action against the former to account for losses allegedly amounting to $65 million due to the premature tour termination, but unless a dramatic twist occurs and the blame is shifted back onto the players, Bravo appears to have succeeded in what was a high-risk-high-return gamble. The incident, not an isolated example, but definitely one which trended heavily, given the large, social-media friendly population in the country, is a stark reminder that, at the end of the day, cricket is also a job, and recent turn of events have highlighted that, in an adverse situation, irrespective of whether one goes about their duties with a willow and red cherry, or ply their trade in an establishment with clearly demarcated boundaries between owners and working class, the nature of protest is not all that different.  

Roger Federer reminds the world of his class at Shanghai

When Roger Federer began the year 2014, many skeptics had already written him off, and the media was abuzz with talks of his retirement, a topic which seems to evoke an unrivaled interest across the globe, transcending sporting boundaries with ease. The former world number one always responded with confidence that he felt his best tennis was just around the corner. While many would have dismissed these words as self-motivating drivel, the maestro proved himself right with an absolutely stunning demolition of current world number one Novak Djokovic in the 2014 Shanghai Open semi-finals last week. He went on to beat Giles Simon in the final to claim his first Shanghai Open and 81st career title overall, but it was against the Serbian that the maestro visibly turned back the clock several years and conjured up the aggression and brilliance we have been bereft of in recent times.
The semi-final, which was the 36th meeting between the two, took their rivalry one better than that of their famous coaches, Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg, who had met 35 times a couple or so decades back. Djokovic came into the match supremely confident – he was on a 28 match winning streak in China, and the last time he lost in Shanghai, incidentally to Federer, was way back in 2010. The Swiss, on the other hand, had had a nervy competition to say the least, showing flashes of brilliance interlaced with several torturous moments, including the epic battle against less known Argentinean Leonardo Mayer in the second round, where he had to save five match-points.

As the much hyped semi-final kicked off, Federer’s intent appeared clear from the onset – unbridled aggression combined with a high-risk high-return game plan. The logic was perhaps based on the idea that, in the event of a baseline slugfest, the longer the match went on, the greater would be the probability of the younger and fitter Serb dominating. What followed was an old-school display of serve and volley by the Swiss maestro, often reaching and exceeding the high standards set by his coach during his hey-day. The net-play, in my opinion, was a tad overdone, with few of the approach shots looking glaringly amateurish, but Federer’s tennis was, throughout the match, in a single word – brave.

In the 5th game of the match, Federer had the Serb down at 15-40, and broke through after squandering one of the break-points. Though 3-2 up and looking to hold for a two game lead, the Swiss came under heavy fire from the workmanlike Djokovic, who pushed the game to deuce, and sent down a lovely passing shot to set up his first and only break-point of the match. Federer managed to save it, and held on for a 4-2 lead. After the Serb won a difficult service game, the crowd were treated to a rare sight – that of Federer sending down four consecutive aces in a 47 second service game to go up 5-3. He was not as confident while serving for the set, falling behind 15-30 before closing it out with yet another thundering ace.

Continuing his rich vein of form, Federer broke Djokovic in the very first game of the second set, with a dazzling display of tennis which left the world number one floundering like a novice. The early break seemed to bring out the Serb’s ‘A’ game to the table, and the next few games contained some of the most scintillating tennis witnessed in recent times. As much as it was a battle between two great players giving it their all, also on display was the clash of two different tennis styles – Federer’s old-school court craft against Djokovic’s modern power hitting. Down 1-3, the number one seed dug deep to save four break-points against the Swiss, who was playing at his peak of his capabilities, wielding the racquet like a wand. The television commentator hinted that the biggest comebacks in tennis history have happened from a similar situation, when a double-break in a decisive set had been avoided with difficulty. For a while, his words seemed ominous, with Federer going down 0-30 in his very next service game, before sustained aggression saw him close out the game.

The final few games were nerve-wracking, with service games of both players being subject to tremendous pressure. The longest game of the match, close to 20 minutes, came on Federer’s serve, with him leading 4-3. The game witnessed five deuces, with Djokovic getting more frustrated with each missed opportunity, and the Swiss, calm as ever on the outside, getting more daring with each passing shot, and amazingly pulling it off more often than not. Down 3-5, and serving to stay in the match, Djokovic went down 30-40, giving Federer his first match-point. An immaculate serve and volley brought up deuce, but the Swiss once again forced an advantage, bringing up his second match-point. Displaying nerves of steel, Djokovic came up with an excellent serve under pressure, and then held the game to make it 4-5. Federer began the all-important game poorly, falling behind 15-30, but continued going for the winners without any traces of nervousness. An ace set up his third match-point, and a couple of brilliant volleys closed out the match 6-4, 6-4 in 1 hour and 35 minutes.

The score-line and game-duration may look ordinary in the context of the modern game, but this was one of the best tennis matches in my recent memory, particularly the 2nd set, where two of the greatest exponents of the game were playing at their very best. Djokovic acknowledged perfection on display at the other end during his brief court interview:

“I think I did not play too bad. It’s just that he played everything he wanted to play. He played the perfect match. I think he’s going to tell you how he felt, but that’s how I felt he played. He played an amazing match.”

This match, and the subsequent victory over Simon of course,  which elevated him to number two in rankings and within striking distance of the top spot, fuels belief that Swiss maestro may yet have a couple of years of top-notch tennis left in his tank, and the elusive 18th Grand Slam may be around the corner. However, irrespective of whether that happens or it, this performance was a startling reminder to the world that, when at his prime, he can easily dominate and defeat the best in the world. 

When to realize that you have lost…. and MOVE ON

by  levaine 

What a loser!! This is an oft repeated phrase applicable to almost every person who has walked this planet, some time or the other, in his or her life. While there will be a few rare exceptions – people born with a silver spoon in their mouth, or ones on whom the Gods have been unfairly benevolent in terms of talent and intelligence, a vast majority of us do fail, at some point or the other. The similarity between successful and unsuccessful people is that, in all probability, both categories began with a failure. The dissimilarity would be that while the former continued in the same vein, the latter, (pardon the cliché) used failure as a stepping stone to success.

While it would be too way too early to gauge my entrance into the elite group of successful people, it is fairly easy to admit that I failed at my first professional step. As a fresh MBA grad, I was picked up by one of the premier banks in the country, and after a month of training, I officially became a banker, complete with a ‘manager’ tag and a set of visiting cards proclaiming the same. Over the next couple of years, I realized that I was no good at the job, if not in the absolute sense, then definitely in the relative sense – everyone around me seemed to be performing exceedingly well. To make it worse, I stopped enjoying myself (not that I was humming a song on my way to work every day prior to that, but a phase came when I was literally dragging myself to go).

Sometime in late 2007, the realization dawned that I needed to make a choice – continue to be a mediocre banker, or move on into something I really wanted to do. The stage may seem set for a ‘following your dreams’ kind of pot-boiler movie, where the protagonist pursues one of his supreme and hidden talents, and proclaims himself to the world like a phoenix rising from the ashes. But this being real life, that too where the protagonist is from a very middle class background, the aspirations cannot be too spectacular. After deep consideration, I quit my job, and found my way into a research firm – the transition was not smooth by any stretch of imagination, and included several months living in fear of if I had, indeed, made the right decision. Looking back, I can safely say that was definitely the best decision of my professional life.

This snippet from my life, along with evidence captured on the basis of my interaction with both books and people, brings me to an interesting theory – despite the popularity of the term, a person by himself can never be a loser; he could, however, be at a loss in certain situations. The ones who are unfortunate enough to have experienced several such situations, or those who hang onto a losing situation without any signs of moving on, form the rare breed who come close to being an embodiment of the loosely used term.

Like most problem-related theories, this comes with a solution, which is by no means rocket science – caught in a losing situation, there are only two options: transform it into a winning opportunity, or move on. While the first option could be the privilege of only a very few, I wanted to highlight the precautions one ideally needs to take before choosing the more obvious option 2. The precautions, in fact, boil down to three simple questions one needs to ask before moving on:

1. Have I spent long enough to conclude that this is a losing situation?

A knee-jerk reaction to an unpleasant situation could be even more unwise. It is important to know if enough time has been devoted to the situation before analyzing the parameters denoting success or failure.

 2. Am I losing?

The most important question, for obvious reasons. Once it is established that one has spent enough time in the situation, an objective analysis is required (yes, writing down the pros and cons does help!!) for an honest answer.

3.Is there an alternative?

Moving on from a losing situation without an alternative in place is sometimes like jumping from the frying pan into the fire – having a contingency plan in place is essential to move on.

If the answers to 1, 2 and 3 are a resounding yes, then my suggestion would be to move on. There is a 4th step, possibly the most important of all, and that is – never look back and regret, it will only be a lose-lose situation. While my example has been from the professional field, I strongly believe that it can apply to any domain in life. Holding on to something, or someone, for that matter, in a definitely losing cause, would only generate a sense of depression, and of course, loser-phobia. A poor experience can never be the end of the world – the challenge is to admit that one has lost, and move on. 

Afghanistan’s Cricket Fairy-tale

One year ago, a distinguished looking young man elevated his country to the most coveted podium in One Day International (ODI) cricket with a flurry of boundaries. Afghanistan, known more for being battle ravaged, defeated stalwart associate member Kenya in the final match of the ICC World Cricket League Championship to earn qualification for the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. The young man, Mohammad Nabi, born in a Pakistani refugee camp, and growing up playing tennis-ball cricket in the narrow lanes of Peshawar, is the team’s inspirational captain and epitomizes the rise of Afghan cricket from the horrors of war and militant occupation, in one of the most endearing stories cricket has witnessed.

The man who built the foundation

This modern fairy-tale would not have been possible without the efforts of former national coach Taj Malik, who almost single-handedly introduced the country to the concept of structured cricket. He assembled a bunch of talented cricketers, some of whom continue to be part of the national side. Driven to the Pakistani refugee camp of Kacha Gari on account of the Soviet invasion, Malik took to the game in the late 1980s, highly influenced by Pakistan’s first Test series victory in England in 1987, televised live in the camp. Over the next few years, he not only managed to generate interest for the game among fellow Afghan refugees, but also set up a team – the Afghan Cricket Club. The team, which included future stars Nawroz Mangal and Karim Sadiq, gradually developed into a formidable side capable of competing against established Pakistani cricket clubs in Peshawar.

Malik relocated to his native country, and assumed the role of national coach and general secretary of the Afghanistan Cricket Federation, established by Allah Dad Noori in 1995 with the Taliban’s permission. The country was recognized by the ICC as an Affiliate Member in 2001, and almost immediately embarked on its first tour to Pakistan, amid glaring media attention in the wake of the US-led war to overthrow the Taliban. The team made their mark, drawing two matches against far superior opponents.

The next six years were a struggle for Afghanistan, which continued to be helmed by Malik, but they progressed to Division Five of the World Cricket League (WCL), which included Japan and Jersey. The Afghans tasted major success in 2008 when they defeated Jersey to win the Division Five tournament. There was plenty of drama surrounding the tournament, with Malik, whose love for the game and confidence in his team bordered on the eccentric, declaring he would throw himself into the Atlantic Ocean if Afghanistan failed to progress to the next division. The vow became redundant after number nine batsman, Hasti Gul, rescued the team from 42-7 (chasing 81), for a memorable victory by two wickets.

Afghanistan’s biggest win coincided with the controversial demise of their coach. A hardliner, Malik often faced flak for being too emotive. Former Pakistan Test cricketer Kabir Khan assumed the national cricket coaching duties. Malik outlined the ill-treatment meted out to him in a discussion with ESPNCricinfo’s Tim Wigmore:

“Up to Jersey, there was no government involvement in cricket, and there was no support from any department. When cricket became more popular all people got interested, all the nation got interested, and the government removed me from my post. They told me, ‘Now we are going to the big stage and you are a low-level coach.’ But I’d done the most difficult job to help the team play with a hard ball, and I gathered the team and motivated them.”

He returned for a brief stint as an assistant coach under Khan, but vacated that position in 2012, and is currently part of Tableegh, a religious movement.

His successor’s journey was no less rocky, with Khan resigning in 2010, citing overt interference from the cricket board, and though he returned in 2012, after promises of lesser intrusion by administrators on the sport, the dichotomy between the two cogs in the country’s cricket mechanism was clearly evident.

The spectacular rise

With limited resources in their home country, and operating predominantly out of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan continued with their momentum garnered from their Division Five victory. They defeated Cayman Islands to win the WCL Division Three tournament, but failed to qualify for the 2011 World Cup. But by finishing sixth, they were awarded ODI status – just five years after they started playing organised cricket.

Afghanistan’s rise continued when they beat Ireland, arguably the strongest team beyond the Test world, to qualify for the 2010 ICC World Twenty20 tournament in the West Indies. Drawn against powerhouses India and South Africa, they were inevitably knocked out in the first round but potential was evident within their talented ranks.

After two years of consistency, Afghanistan faced their biggest challenge thus far – playing a full-strength Australia in a one-off ODI at the Sharjah Cricket Association Stadium in mid-2012. Audiences expecting the cricket giants to steamroll the minnows were surprised. After winning the toss, Australia struggled against sustained aggression from the Afghan bowlers, but a late onslaught from Michael Hussey and George Bailey saved the four-time world champions, who ended on 272-8. The Afghans fought admirably against Australia’s hostile bowling attack, which included Mitchell Johnson, Mitchell Starc and James Pattinson. But their inexperience was visible and they lost wickets regularly. But they managed to pass 200 due to stellar efforts from Asghar Stanikzai and Nabi. They lost by 66 runs but were admired in defeat.

In the 2012 T20 World Cup in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan were competitive against India. After winning the toss, Afghanistan unleashed their pace ammunition on the experienced Indian opening duo of Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir. Surprisingly, it was Shapoor Zadran, the lanky left-arm pacer reminiscent of a heftier Wasim Akram, who got the better of both openers, leaving India reeling at 22-2. India were sedate until a late blitz from Virat Kohli and captain MS Dhoni lifted the total to a respectable 159. With bat, Afghanistan were hardly bothered by the Indian pace attack comprising Zaheer Khan, Irfan Pathan and Lakshmipathy Balaji. After 10 overs, Afghanistan were 69-2, requiring a very gettable 91 runs off the remaining 60 deliveries, with 8 wickets in hand. The introduction of spinners Ravichandran Ashwin and Yuvraj Singh exposed Afghanistan’s weakness against slow bowling. Wickets tumbled but Afghanistan’s batting was fearless, with Nabi hitting a 17-ball 31, which included two fours and two sixes. They needed 44 runs in 24 deliveries, a statistic expectedly achieved eight times out of ten by chasing teams, but Nabi’s dismissal was crucial and India won by 23 runs.

After being granted Associate membership by the ICC in June 2013, Afghanistan won historic qualification for the 2015 World Cup. During the recent Asia Cup in Bangladesh they reduced Pakistan to 117-6 before Umar Akmal produced a special knock of 102 off 89 balls to propel Pakistan to 248. The Afghans chased steadily, and were untroubled against the famed Pakistan quicks, but spin, yet again, proved to be their undoing. Saeed Ajmal, Mohammad Hafeez and Shahid Afridi claimed six wickets and stifled the run rate. Pakistan won by 72 runs.

In their next match against Bangladesh, the Afghans scored 254 runs driven by Stanikzai’s composed 90 and leg-spinner Samiullah Shenwari’s quick-fire 69-ball 81. Afghanistan’s opening bowlers Shapoor and Hamid Hassan started well and wickets fell regularly. Bangladesh were reduced to 165-8, and Afghanistan were on the brink of history – never before had they beaten a Test playing nation. A 22-ball 41 by medium pacer Ziaur Rahman pushed the score beyond 200 without the loss of any further wickets. Tension was soaring in the Afghan camp – a loss, after getting this close, would have been devastating. But Nabi, in his off-spinning avatar, kept his cool and took the remaining two wickets, as Afghanistan won by 32 runs, triggering jubilant celebrations among teammates, compatriots and cricket aficionados.

The way forward

While most teams participating in the 2015 World Cup have to concentrate only on the game, Afghanistan’s cricketers also need to emerge from the quagmire of terror which has almost become synonymous with the country’s history. Last year, Nabi’s father was kidnapped for a ransom of $2 million, while the Afghan captain was playing in Ireland. Though that crisis was handled proficiently by the government, and Nabi’s father was released, the degree to which terror is imbibed in the Afghan psyche is captured in the captain’s calm words after qualifying for the World Cup.

“It was a lot of fun as we went back to Kabul. The path from the airport to the stadium was filled with people,” Nabi told ESPNCricinfo. “The stadium was packed, people stood in the road with flags in hand. We were all under security. We were a little fearful of a bomb blast but nothing happened, because the government had arranged for very good security. And then the Afghanistan Cricket Board threw a big party.”

I am not sure how many people would use the words “bomb blast” and “party” in adjacent sentences, but the current Afghan generation, born in an era of war and terror, has reconciled to life’s uncertainties better than most.

The team received a major jolt recently, with the resignation of Khan, who citied family reasons. The job has gone to Englishman and former New Zealand coach Andy Moles, whose knowledge of playing conditions Down Under may turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Call me an optimist, but looking ahead at Afghanistan’s prospects in the upcoming World Cup, I do believe they have a fighting chance of getting past the first round. The Afghans are bracketed with Australia, England, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, Bangladesh and fellow-qualifier Scotland in Pool A. The top four teams from the two pools qualify for the quarter final stage. Afghanistan should get past Scotland, and realistically can be confident against Bangladesh. Barring a miracle, it is hard to envision them beating Australia or Sri Lanka, but the relatively weak spin-attacks of England and New Zealand present an opportunity. Their best chance might be against England in Sydney on a pitch closest to the pitches in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan will not be fodder for the elite because they have an extremely potent pace attack and possess spin variety. Batting, particularly against quality spin bowling, is their weakest suit, a concern accentuated by the occasional tendency to be reckless. Collapses often eventuate. Improved fielding is a necessity too.

Malik, who is now disassociated with the game, told ESPNcricinfo that Afghanistan needs to play their natural game.

“Afghanistan has a distinct playing style. A lot of the national coaches working with the team tried to change their playing style. Like in Pakistan and India, there is a lot of spin bowling and defensive batting to rotate the strike, getting ones and twos. This was not our style. Our style was just like the style which West Indies have. We have big hitters and score a lot of runs hitting sixes and fours. In this style we won so many games from 2002 to 2009 everywhere in the world.”

On February 18, when Afghanistan walks onto the Manuka Oval in Canberra to play in the grandest ODI stage, Malik, the man called by many as the father of Afghan cricket, will be far away, on another continent, possibly listening on an unclear radio network. His efforts cannot be slighted, despite his dumping.

Afghanistan’s rise is a reminder that miracles do happen. Irrespective of how they fare in the World Cup, their growth reinforces confidence in the ideology that one man’s faith can indeed move mountains. Generations in Afghanistan should be inspired.

This article was first published in Mailer Report:!afghanistans-cricket-fairy-tale-/ckoi