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: http://www.mailerreport.com/#!afghanistans-cricket-fairy-tale-/ckoi

The ugly truth behind disappearance of world-class Test spinners

The 1st Test of the 1993 Ashes series, played at Old Trafford in England, introduced the world to a spectacle never been witnessed before, and it has not been surpassed hence. After the Australians posted a competitive 289 on a spinning track, and England opened with a solid 80/1, approximately two hours into their innings, Aussie captain Allan Border tossed the ball to a relative newcomer playing his first Test on English soil. Facing up to him was Mike Gatting, a man in the twilight of his career but definitely good enough for a rookie – or so he thought. An innocuous run-up was followed by a perfect side-on action with a snappy release sending a loopy delivery towards the heavy-set batsman.

An observer would have seen the initial release push the ball towards the leg-side of the batsman, with drift taking it even further down, and attributed the seemingly wasted delivery to nervousness, inexperience, or a combination of both. What followed is not likely to have been predicted by anyone: the ball pitched nearly a foot outside the leg-stump and turned square to beat the batsman’s half-extended front foot and a relatively straight bat to crash into the outside half of the off-stump. As wicket-keeper Ian Healey exulted, umpire Dickie Bird looked shaken, and Gatting stood in disbelief, the world bore witness to leg-spinning legend Shane Warne dishing outthe ‘ball-of-the-century’ on one of the biggest platforms of world cricket.

End of a golden era?
Over that decade and a better part of the next, he was to torment batsmen around the world, along with worthy rivals Muttiah Muralitharan (Sri Lanka) and Anil Kumble (India), forming an indisputable triumvirate occupying the top 3 spots in the list of all-time highest wicket-takers in Test cricket. After their retirement, the world has been bereft of a spinner of their caliber; yes, there have been occasions where contemporary spinners have provided a whiff of that magic, but sustaining it over a consistent period of time has been a challenge. In the current era, where audiences have been titillated by the pleasures of T20 cricket and awed by aggressive fast bowlers like Dale Steyn and Mitchell Johnson, the art of quality spin bowling appears to have quietly stepped into the shadows. With one of the potential successors to the genius spin generation that seems to be beyond us, Saeed Ajmal, getting banned for an illegal action, one begs to ask the question: where have all the world-class Test spinners gone?

Scanning the current landscape

Without shooting arrows in the dark, it is important to scan the current global landscape for quality spinners. If I am found to be overtly critical, do bear in mind that the benchmark against which they will be measured is not average or above-average, but world-class.For better clarity, I will segment the Test playing nations into two categories –  outside and within the subcontinent –  and proceed to assess how their current spinners match up.

Outside the subcontinent: Had Graeme Swann been active in Test cricket today, I would have rated him the best in this segment and comparable to the tier 2 of world-class spinners (one which includes Harbhajan Singh, Daniel Vettori, Saqlain Mushtaq, etc.). Post his retirement, I find this segment pretty barren in terms of quality spinners. Australia’s current spin twins Steven Smith and Nathan Lyon are not likely to give batsmen nightmares, and leg-spinner James Muirhead, touted as promising by the Courier Mail, is fairly untested, even in the lower echelons of the game.

England do not have any world class spinner in their current ranks, or on the horizon, as admitted by The Telegraph. Imran Tahir (South Africa) and Ish Sodhi (New Zealand) have occasionally displayed glimpses of magic, but, with 40+ averages, both fail miserably on the consistency scale. This brings us to the final name in consideration – the mystery spinner from Trinidad, Sunil Narine; while the man has tied up batsmen in knots when it comes to the shortest format of the game, he has not exactly set the Test scene ablaze with his tweakers. Only 6 Tests old, his bowling average of 40.5 should reduce with experience, but, for now, his inability to bamboozle batsmen not looking to attack prohibits his entrance into the elite group of world class Test spinners.

Within the subcontinent: If I had embarked on this journey a couple of weeks back, Ajmal would have been a certainty in my list. However, post the ban and a very valid query by Indian spin legend Bishen Singh Bedi – “All those batsmen who lost their wickets to him, all those teams which lost a game because of an Ajmal spell, should they now come forward and say we have been wronged”, my options get limited. I do not see another Test spinner of Ajmal’s quality in Pakistan’s ranks, as of now. Coming to India, with a supreme effort at impartiality, I will have to admit that we do not currently boast a world-class Test spinner. I would still rate Harbhajan Singh, who is the only spinner among the top 10 Test wicket-takers besides the Big 3, as the best Test spinner in the country, with Ravichandran Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha following.

The turbanator’s performance in the few Ranji Trophy matches he played in the 2013-14 season indicate, as he keeps saying, that a couple of years of cricket may yet be left in him. For all his chutzpah, I cannot see Ravindra Jadeja breaking into or near-about the class we are seeking. The final nation under consideration, Sri Lanka, gives me the only current Test spinner I would rate as world-class: Rangana Herath. The stocky left arm orthodox spinner, who has developed multiple mystery deliveries of his own, has an almost identical Test bowling record as Swann but scores over him in the ability to run through a side. The man former skipper Mahela Jayawardene picked as the best spinner in the country, after Muralitharan, is arguably the only current exponent of the flight, guile and mystery associated with the golden preceding era.

So, where have the world class spinners disappeared?

The easiest answer to that question would be to bury my head in the sand and say that the Big 3 are once in a generation spinners, and the world was just privileged to witness all of them in the same era. So, expecting current spinners to match up to them would be like expecting another Don Bradman every couple of decades. The Big 3 were undoubtedly special, but what is worrying is the apparent lack of quality even a rung below them. So, it would be worth exploring some of the possible causes of this ‘disappearance’:The rise of T20: Decline of quality spinners coincided with, not surprisingly, the rise of the shortest format of the game, particularly the marquee ones like the Indian Premier League (IPL) and the Big Bash. The combination of unhelpful tracks, short boundaries and batsmen baying for bowlers’ blood almost every delivery resulted in an over-reliance on variation by current spinners, to survive the onslaught. Unfortunately, variation usually translated to bowling flatter, shorter and quicker, as captured aptly by former Indian cricketer Aakash Chopra in a Cricinfo article.

For bowlers not blessed with variation skills akin to a Narine, this has been the mantra for survival, and also for picking up wickets, usually when batsmen miss-hit and hole out (3 out of the top 4 wicket-takers in the history of IPL are spinners). While it is perfectly fine to adopt a defensive strategy in T20s, a cardinal error would be to carry on this mindset to the longer format, as well, which, unfortunately, most current spinners do. To emphasize my point, it is perfectly acceptable for an Ashwin to bowl quicker and flatter after being carted for a six in an IPL game, but to do the same as a response to a couple of boundaries in a Test match would be unpardonable.

Missing the ‘Test bowler’ mindset: The Big 3 did grace the IPL with their presence, and, while they were not as successful as during their glorious Test careers, their mindset was always to get wickets, much like their hunger while playing in whites. They did get carted – respect is not a sentiment often associated with the IPL, but their mindset did not change over the course of their respective stints. Besides them, the only bowlers exhibiting a similar mindset have been Pragyan Ojha, especially in IPL 2010, where he emerged as the highest wicket-taker, and Amit Mishra, who is the highest wicket-taking spinner and the second-highest overall (behind Lasith Malinga) in the history of the IPL. The short clip below and Mishra’s record are proofs that one can be successful in IPL with a Test bowler mindset, but the reverse, i.e., success in Tests with an ‘IPL bowler’ mindset, is unfortunately not true.

Negative captaincy: There are a lot of memories associated with the famous India v Australia Test match in Kolkata, 2001, mostly related to the superlative batting of VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid, and India’s fantastic bowling on the final day to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. However, not many may recall that, with Laxman well past a double hundred and India already with a substantial lead, Warne continued to bowl with men in catching positions and majority of the fielders within the 30-yard circle.

While the move may have resulted in an infamous defeat for the Aussies, one cannot but help doff the hat at the positive captaincy of Steve Waugh, who led the ‘Invincibles’ at the turn of the millennium. How many captains today would have, in that situation, not banished fielders to sweeper, extra-cover, long-on and long-off positions, etc.? Not many, I would imagine. This would encourage a spinner to bowl short and wait for a batsman to make a mistake, as opposed to the classical approach of pitching the ball up with plenty of flight and loop in a bid to deceive the batsman.

Focus on medium pacers: While most non-subcontinental teams have always cultivated medium pacers as opposed to spinners, the last decade or so witnessed, even among subcontinental teams, a disproportionately higher interest in seamers as opposed to tweakers, probably to target more overseas victories. Considering India as an example, between 2003-date, 16 medium pacers and only 6 spinners debuted at the highest level: a clear indication of the shifting focus. While this did usher in a golden decade in terms of overseas victories, it also saw the home fort being breached on several occasions: a sign of dwindling quality in spin bowling. Even at the domestic level, 8 out the top 10 wicket-takers in the 2013-14 Ranji Trophy are medium pacers, indicating that the situation is not likely to change in the near future.

Is there a recipe for a world-class spinner?

Unfortunately, there isn’t. What can, however, be done is nurture and protect the ones who do exhibit a potential for greatness. Throwing them into the deep end of a crocodile-infested lake (read: expose them to quality batsmen in unfavourable conditions) could destroy their Test career even before it begins. Herath and Swann are prime examples of quality spinners who have been protected from the travails of highly competitive T20 tournaments.

While both have been exposed to domestic T20s, the batsmen they would have encountered there are not likely to leave long lasting scars, the ones frequently meted out in the IPL or the Big Bash. While protectionism is a possible solution, it may be easier said than done: a quality spinner is always on the watch-list of a cash-rich franchise, and financial lure is something few are able to resist. The best case scenario would be a quality spinner who can seamlessly transition between a run-restrictor in T20s to a wicket-taker in Tests, but, in the event of this scenario not materializing, boards around the world need to think out a plan to protect the precious few spin reserves we have left while providing for their financial security as well. It is gradually becoming difficult to distinguish between a spinner and a medium pacer bowling good leg and off-cutters, and that is not an evolution cricket needs.

Disclaimer: The article considers only the current generation and the previous one; spinners prior to the 1990s are not considered for the analysis

This article was first published on Sportskeeda: http://www.sportskeeda.com/cricket/ugly-truth-behind-disappearance-world-class-test-spinners

Among alleged successors to the big three, Ajinkya Rahane for VVS Laxman appears the most promising

India are still struggling to fill the void left by the retirement in relatively quick succession of Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Sachin Tendulkar; this has resulted in endless discussions across multiple media channels about the successors to this famed trio. This particular analysis will try to examine how alleged successors of these three are measuring up; the analysis compares statistics, technique and temperament of each pair, taking into account only that many number of matches played by the predecessor which the successor has currently completed.

I am not including Ganguly in the list of predecessors for two reasons; firstly, his retirement came much earlier than either of these three. Secondly, there has not yet emerged a successor, even rumored, for the no. 6 position which Ganguly made his own. Several players like Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina, Rohit Sharma, Stuart Binny, etc. have been tried at this position, but till date, none of them have cemented their slot there.  This analysis will therefore focus on Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, and Virat Kohli, the alleged successors of Dravid, Laxman and Tendulkar, respectively.

Pujara vs Dravid
The Stats: At an overall level, after 23 Test matches, Pujara is slightly ahead in terms of runs and centuries scored, while Dravid has a better average. The view drastically changes when we compare the ‘away’ statistics; after 10 ‘away’ Tests, Dravid’s average is more than twice of Pujara’s, indicating the gulf between the two players when it comes to overseas performances.
Technique: Rahul Dravid, in my opinion, had the finest technique among players I have followed (post 1990 era); his poise at the crease, and the finesse with which he defended or attacked, was a treat to

the eyes. His final couple of years of international cricket did expose some chinks in his defence, when he was bowled frequently, but other than this late-life blemish, Dravid’s technique has been impeccable. I have gathered from commentators, and various articles, that Pujara has an excellent technique. While I may not be the best judge of technique, I can vouch for the fact that Pujara’s shot execution, poise and overall finesse pale in Dravid’s comparison. He might be effective, but he does not look pretty, when compared with the Wall, in execution.

Temperament: Perhaps, the only thing better than Dravid’s technique is his temperament, and I rate him among the best of all time in this department. Even in his initial Tests, rarely was it seen that he threw away his wicket, or got flustered by on field antics of the opposition. Pujara too has done well in this department, particularly at home, where he has shown the penchant for grinding oppositions to compile big centuries, but whether he can do it consistently over a longer period of time, and on foreign soil, remains to be seen.

Verdict: Long way to go before Pujara can emulate the Wall.

Kohli vs SachinThe Stats: At an overall level after 28 Test matches, similar to the Pujara-Dravid stats, Kohli is slightly ahead in terms of runs, while Sachin has a better average. There is not much difference between ‘away’ runs scored, but Sachin has a much superior average after 15 away matches; to be fair to Kohli, his ‘away’ average prior to the England series was a very comparable 43.1.

Technique: Sachin Tendulkar has always had a rock solid technique, and in this aspect, is second only to Dravid among Indian cricketers of this generation I have seen. The lighting footwork, and the punched on-drives have been a delight to watch. I would say that Kohli’s technique, particularly during offence, is comparable to the maestro. Since this analysis is restricted to Tests, I will have to discount some of his brilliant ODI and T20 innings; even so, his 6 Test centuries bear witness to his free strokeplay and impeccable footwork, when in aggressive mode. However, his technique, when trying to defend, or save a Test, is still questionable.

Temperament: Kohli has been giving Sachin a good fight across other parameters, but in this department, Sachin wins hands down. His match saving maiden century at Old Trafford at the age of 17, gives an insight into his temperament even at that age. He was always positioned as the aggressive hitter, believed to be only capable of creating fireworks that dazzled momentarily before fizzling out; that day he announced to the world that he was capable of so much more. In stark contrast, during the last innings of the 2nd Test match played between India and New Zealand at Wellington in 2014, when India were cruising to victory at 222/2, chasing 407, Kohli threw away his wicket and the match, by displaying a bout of overconfidence as he took on Neil Wagner with a shot, which can at best can be described as disrespectful. While these are singular examples, an overall analysis after 15 away matches does paint a similar picture.

Verdict: Promising, but temperament in Test matches is a concern.

Rahane v Laxman
The Stats: As Rahane has only played one ‘home’ match, the analysis is made on the basis of Rahane’s 8 ‘away’ matches. By way of comparison, Rahane’s figures are far superior to that of Laxman, though the latter was definitely a late bloomer, and it remains to be seen how their stats compare post the Laxman ‘blooming’.

Technique: VVS Laxman was never cited as someone with the best technique; elegance is perhaps the adjective best suited to his gameplay. He has been accused several times of playing loosely away from his body, and I remember the long pauses of surprise he usually gave after playing back to a ball he should actually have played forward to, and getting bowled. Rahane’s technique is definitely compact, though of late, he seems to be nicking regularly to balls outside the off-stump. If the minor aberrations are ignored, Rahane scores higher in this aspect as well.

Temperament: It requires a superhuman effort from my side to forcefully forget the several immensely valuable innings Laxman played during the latter half of his career, and restrict the analysis to only the first 8 ‘away’ matches of his career. On doing so, I will have to conclude that he did not display much promise temperament-wise, in the early days. Rahane, on the other hand, has played some fantastic innings in adverse conditions, be it South Africa, New Zealand or England, where his century at Lord’s on a surrealistic green track laid the platform for an Indian victory.

Verdict: Definitely ahead of his predecessor at this point in time.

This article was first published on Sportskeeda:


The curious case of Ishant Sharma: decoding the stats

There is one thing I am quite certain of as I start on this article – Ishant Sharma, on his day, can be an excellent Test bowler; the challenge, for his captain, currently MS Dhoni, is to accurately identify that particular day. Before the knives are out for me for bracketing Ishant as ‘excellent’, and some statistician tells me that he is fighting it out with Fidel Edwards for the worst bowling average among current specialist bowlers with at least 50 Tests to their name, I would like to forward this analysis on Ishant, attempting to present a case for him by diving deeper into the very parameter which is currently his scourge – bowling average.

Flashes of brilliance
Ishant made his debut against Bangladesh in 2007 after an injury to Munaf Patel ruled the Ikhar-born bowler out. But Ishant shot into prominence during the Australia vs India 2007-08 Test series in Australia, particularly in the 3rd Test at Perth, where he practically toyed with Aussie captain Ricky Ponting, beating him regularly with quick, controlled seam bowling, before finally taking his wicket. This was the second instance of a youngster demolishing a superstar in the sporting arena in January 2008, the other being the absolute demolition of Rafael Nadal by a relatively unknown Jo Wilfred Tsonga, in straight sets at the 2008 Australian Open semi-finals.

Besides my soft corner for the game of tennis, the reason for drawing a comparison to another player is the relative similarity in their careers – Tsonga, who on his day can beat anyone, is yet to win a Grand Slam; he had one of his days, or I should say weeks, during the Rogers Cup last week, where he beat four top-10 players including Roger Federer in the final to clinch the cup. Ishant has run through oppositions several times, the most recent being the second innings at Lord’s, while looking utterly pedestrian on other occasions.

Getting back to his bowling average, Ishant, at the end of the Lord’s Test during the Investec Series against England in 2014, averaged 37.04 after 57 Test matches and 103 innings (of which he did not bowl in 3), which is not good by any stretch of imagination. As part of the analysis, I have broken down this average into smaller segments, in a bid to identify the number of innings where he performed excellently, was average, and instances where he was downright pathetic.

A mediocre record
A consistently mediocre bowler is expected to hover in the range of 30-40 in terms of average, and I expected a majority of Ishant’s innings’ averages to be in this zone. However, as the graphic alongside indicates, this segment accounts for only 8 out of his completed 100 innings. The first slice of the pie came as the biggest surprise, with the graphic indicating that the 25-year-old has had a bowling average of 20 & lower in 29 innings, and 25 & lower in 37 innings, figures which are almost Steyn-esque in nature.

In that case, what is bloating the average? The answer is equally surprising, or a better word in this case, shocking – 13 innings with a bowling average between 60-100, and even 3 instances of innings with bowling average in excess if 100. If we combine this with innings of No Average (NA), i.e. when he went wicketless and gave away runs in excess of 50, then we have a total of 31 downright pathetic innings; in a nutshell, Ishant operates in extremes – when he is good, he is usually excellent, and when is bad, he is usually terrible.

So, what does this analysis tell us about Ishant? Not much, except for the fact that he is an enigma, who cannot be bracketed as mediocre, given the number of times he has single-handedly turned Test matches in India’s favor, when in rhythm. This brings up the more interesting questions – should he be persisted with? If so, how to deal with his stark inconsistency? The first answer, based on a healthy cocktail of empirical/statistical evidence, and the lack of quality replacements, is a resounding YES.

To answer the second, I will enter the realm of speculation, backed by observational data. Ishant Sharma is very much a rhythm bowler, and he usually performs better when he gets early wickets. I remember that in the Durban Test in late 2013, Dale Steyn went wicketless for more than 100 runs against India, but came back to take 6 wickets in a fiery spell to win the game for South Africa. I do not recall such instances in Ishant’s case; if he goes wicketless for the first 50-60 runs, and is struggling rhythm-wise, the probability of him suddenly snapping into form is low. This is where the captain has to identify if it is Ishant-the-excellent or Ishant-the-pathetic who has turned up on that particular day.

How MS Dhoni could help Ishant
From his wicketkeeping position, Dhoni is in an excellent position to understand the rhythm Ishant is in, and if he is struggling, it would be a mistake to make him keep trudging in, with the hope of a wicket somewhere, because, given his track record, that is highly unlikely. A better option would be to use him in short bursts of 3-4 overs, rather than keep him on continuously at one end. This ploy may still not get India wickets, but it would keep Ishant relatively fresh, and might contain him in the ‘mediocre’ zone without crossing over into the ‘pathetic’ zone.

The solution may be easier to preach than to practise, given that India usually bowls with one less specialist bowler, requiring more of the workload to be shared among the four specialist bowlers. However, there is no denying the fact that Ishant needs to be preserved, and persevered with, given that when on song, he brings to the table a combination of height, speed and skill which is a rarity among Indian fast bowlers.

The performances in the ‘excellent’ zone will keep coming; the challenge will be to push as many performances in the ‘pathetic’ zone as possible to the ‘mediocre’ zone. If handled correctly, Ishant, who is still below 26 after more than 7 years of international cricket experience, will be a force to reckon with, for several years to come.

This article was first published on Sportskeeda: http://www.sportskeeda.com/cricket/curious-case-ishant-sharma-decoding-stats

Why Alastair Cook desperately needs lessons from MS Dhoni in learning to control his emotions


Alastair Cook came up with a series of illogical statements while defending his position on not stepping down as England’s ODI captain, post the team’s humiliating defeat in the 4th ODI at Edgbaston. Clearly running out of ideas, Cook tried to relate England’s recovery from 0-1 to 3-1 in the just concluded Test series to the mauling they are currently receiving in the ODI series. The point he was trying to make – ‘things change very quickly in  sport.’With just one match remaining in the ODI series, there is no scope for ‘quick change’, and the best England can do is to equate India’s 1-3 result of the Test series. To make things worse, he came close to outright lamentation, grumbling that irrespective of which team he plays in, his place is always in question, and that is a hard situation to work in.

Considering this latest outburst, which comes just days after his vociferous expression of disappointment on Graeme Swann’s observation that England have no chance to win the 2015 World Cup, the English captain would do well to take a crash course from Indian captain MS Dhoni on learning to rein in his emotions.Going by his highly unemotional standards, Dhoni had a relatively weak moment in England during the Test series, when he stated that he was ‘deeply hurt’ over Ravindra Jadeja being fined 50 percent of his match fees, the initial verdict in the long-running Jadeja-Anderson saga which grabbed more eyeballs than several on-field events during the series. Even so, there seemed a definite tactical motive to this statement.

That of exerting additional pressure on the ICC before the Anderson verdict; the move, if intentional, may have failed, with England walking way the happier of the two warring parties. But even while displaying emotions, Dhoni’s logic was firmly in place – he argued that such a fine would encourage players to resolve matters in an ungainly fashion as opposed to reporting it to authorities. This is where he differentiates himself from several other captains on the international stage, and highlights the gulf between him and Cook when it comes to channeling emotions in the right direction.

Cook needs to get his facts and his logic correct before embarking on crude statements, which, if they continue coming, will seriously undermine his credibility. Although he had a poor average in Test matches in 2014 (prior to the Southampton Test, when Jadeja dropped him on 15, and seemingly gifted him and England a new lease of life, the 29-year-old averaged 14.33 in 5 Test matches in 2014).

Cook’s pedigree in the longer version of the game was never suspect. His achievements in Test cricket – 25 Test centuries in less than 100 matches, 2nd youngest to reach 5000 Test runs (behind Sachin Tendulkar), youngest to reach 8000 Test runs (beating Tendulkar’s record by 21 days), etc., are no mean feats; irrespective of where he goes from here, he will always be hailed as a great Test cricketer. This is why, despite a lean patch in 2014, though some people were baying for his blood, I never thought his place in the English Test squad was seriously in doubt, at least for a couple more series. Therefore, it was that much easier to inspire confidence in the rest of his team-mates to lift their game when they got an opportunity, and stage a spectacular comeback.

The story is completely different in ODIs; his overall statistics, 3,039 runs in 85 matches at an average of 37.51 are not really impressive by any stretch of imagination, given the abundance of current players in the  40+ and even 45+ batting average bracket. If we remove the most fruitful years of his ODI career, 2011 (600 runs at an average of 46.15) and 2012 (663 runs at an average of 47.35), his batting average over the remainder of his ODI career (2006-date) is below 33, which is definitely not worthy of an international captain.

Since 2012, England have won only a single series against another Test playing nation, and lost the previous four ODI series at home. Unless he hits a purple patch like 2011-12, he is unlikely to inspire his team-mates to reverse their ODI fortunes, and therein lies the difference between his Test and ODI credentials. In Tests, team-mates believe that he is among the best, and a slump in form is an aberration; in ODIs, he will be considered mediocre or above average at best, with good performances being considered an aberration.

His illogical arguments are getting further accentuated by his recent abject whining – his disappointment at ‘friend’ Swann’s straight talk, or the difficulties of being constantly under pressure to secure his place. Dhoni has gone through some immensely difficult moments in his cricketing, particularly Test career, especially after getting blanked 0-4 by both England and Australia during the 2011-12 season, and even now, post the humiliating series defeat in England; handling the amount of criticism being hurled at him from all possible quarters is a testimony of his mental strength – and that is what Cook needs to learn from his counterpart.

I wouldn’t necessarily endorse Dhoni’s unemotional demeanor at all times – Sourav Ganguly never minced his words, and his words were often emotional, but on no occasion did he whine. Taking inspiration from Bruce Lee’s words, it’s high time Cook differentiates between ‘emotional content’ and actual emotions like anger; in this case, disappointment.

To conclude, Cook deserves every bit of flak he is currently getting, and outside the field, his communication can take either of these routes – the Dhoni care-a-hoot methodology, which entails a deadpan expression, occasional smiles, measured conversation and logical quips; or, if he has it in him, he could follow the Ganguly methodology, expressing his opinions strongly and explain why he still needs to be a part of the team.

What he definitely shouldn’t do in public is whine about the ‘injustice’ being meted out to him. Irrespective of what happens on-field, he continues to be the representative of his country at an international level, and an exhibition of his disappointments to the general public would just be perceived by his teammates as a sign of weakness.

In this context, my memory throws up the image of Virat Kohli complaining about the Wankhede crowd booing him during an IPL 2013 match against Mumbai; he is a fantastic cricketer, but this incident exposed his limitations as a captain capable of keeping his emotions under check – which is why, I am never in doubt when it comes to the Dhoni vs. Kohli captaincy debate.

Getting back to the original debate, Alastair Cook’s stocks are currently very low, and the least he can do is be honest about his evident failings, especially in the shorter format; whether he steps down or not is left to him or the Board, but such parading of personal insecurities can further demoralize the team and go a long way in making Swann’s prediction coming true.

This article was first published on Sportskeeda: http://www.sportskeeda.com/cricket/why-alastair-cook-lessons-ms-dhoni-learning-control-emotions

Why the 2014 US Open is Federer’s best chance to win a Grand Slam

 by  Marianne Bevis 

Roger Federer has been in sublime touch in the run-up the 2014 US Open final. He wrapped up the Cincinnati Masters, the final ATP event prior to the US Open, without breaking much of a sweat. Prior to that, he breezed into the finals of the Rogers Cup, where he ran into the enigma called Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, who had already eliminated three top-10 players in Novak Djokovic (destroyed him 6-2, 6-2), Andy Murray and alleged ‘Baby Federer’, Grigor Dimitrov. The final was a close affair, but the Frenchman outgunned Federer 7-5, 7-6(3); this minor blemish notwithstanding, there is no arguing the fact that Federer is currently in great form.

One of the biggest factors tipping the scales in Federer’s favour is the withdrawal of Rafael Nadal from the 2014 US Open due to a wrist injury. The man is undoubtedly Federer’s nemesis, having an overall head-to-head advantage of 23-10; the statistic becomes even more powerful when we consider that Nadal has won six out the last six meetings with Federer in Grand Slams.

In fact, the last time Federer beat Nadal in a Grand Slam was in the finals of Wimbledon 2007; such has been the vice-like grip Nadal has had over Federer in recent years, especially in big matches. Though Federer may deny it, in cricketing terms, he is Nadal’s bunny; he just doesn’t seem to find a way past the scrambling, muscular Spaniard. His absence may take the sheen off a victory, if it does happen, but after a two-year wait for a Slam victory, I do not think Federer’s fans, yours truly included, will complain.

The absence of Nadal also ensures that Federer is seeded second at the US Open, as opposed to third if Nadal was playing. Keeping numerological aspects firmly aside, this lays out a much easier path to the final for Federer, where the major players he is likely to encounter are David Ferrer and Grigor Dimitrov, none of whom are likely to ouster Federer in his current form. His likely opponent in the final, Djokovic’s path is strewn with potential giant killers, including Andy Murray, Milos Raonic, Stan Wawrinka, Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, John Isner, etc.

If Federer does make it to the final, his opponent is likely to have been on court much longer, having battled through the tougher opponents in that half. Fitness will be a major hurdle in Federer’s path, as was seen during the epic Wimbledon 2014 final, where Djokovic outlasted him in 5 sets. The draw has definitely been kind to Federer, and if things go as expected, we can expect to see a fresher Federer in the final against more worked out Djokovic or his conqueror.

Destiny has presented Federer with a triple opportunity – excellent form, Nadal’s absence and a perfect draw, as he heads into US Open 2014. At 33, Federer, if not on his last legs, is gradually getting there. A loss here, in the most favourable of conditions, on one of his most favourite courts, could be a massive blow from which he may never recover. For his sake, and for the sake of the rare brand of magical tennis he plays, fans around the world would be rooting for him; the next two weeks will tell us whether the maestro will rise up yet again in the twilight of his career, or if this could signal the beginning of the end.

This article was first published on Sportskeeda:

An analysis of India’s overseas Test performances over the past two and a half decades

While MS Dhoni and his men were being crucified for an abject surrender during the 2014 Test series in England, I reviewed a few cricketing archives which stated that India had won only a single ‘away’ Test match during the entire 1990s decade. On closer scrutiny, I found that the ‘away’ match was the one played against Sri Lanka in Colombo, 1993.

The question which immediately cropped up was if we were being unnecessarily harsh on the current Test team, given that we went through an entire decade without a single overseas Test victory. This question was immediately transcended by another: did the golden decade of Indian Test cricket during the 2000s, ushered in under the captaincy of Sourav Ganguly and followed up impressively by Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble, raise expectations to a level where even a reasonable record was considered abysmal?

In order to rationally get to the bottom of this, it was important to plot a comparative analysis of India’s Test performances across the decades. The following parameters were considered over 1990s, 2000s and 2010s (till date): Overseas (outside the subcontinent) Tests played, won, lost, drawn, innings defeat, and draw %age. The final couple of parameters were included to highlight India’s ability, over the decades, to limit damage in adverse conditions. The results are captured below:

There is no surprise that the 2000s are a shining beacon when it comes to India’s performance in Tests overseas; 11 Test victories, which included wins over Australia, England and South Africa, in their own backyard, were undoubtedly spectacular, coming after a decade-long drought. Although India began the decade with overseas victories against Zimbabwe (a far cry from their current team, including players like Alastair Campbell, Andy Flower, Grant Flower, Heath Streak and Henry Olonga) in Bulawayo in 2001, and West Indies in Port of Spain, 2002, I would pick the Test at Leeds win in 2002 against England, as a turning point in India’s overseas Test fortunes.

The match was an exemplary demonstration of India’s batting firepower, with 3 of India’s Big 4 making huge scores (Rahul Dravid 148, Sachin Tendulkar 193, and Sourav Ganguly 128) in a mammoth first innings total of 628. A solid bowling performance from both seamers and spinners ensured that India did not have to bat again. The final result – victory by an innings and 46 runs, would have instilled confidence that India had the ability to beat any team in their own home conditions.

As the decade progressed, India only got better. They should have had their first overseas series victory against Australia during the 2003-04 series, but a poor performance on the 5th day of the final Test at Sydney ensured that Australia managed to escape with a 1-1 draw in Steve Waugh’s final Test series. Ganguly passed on the baton to Dravid, who ensured that the overseas wins kept coming; the first overseas win against South Africa was registered in 2006, and in 2007, India secured its first overseas series win against England in 21 years.

Under the leadership of Kumble, India ran Australia close during the controversial and emotionally draining 2007-08 series, and Dhoni rounded off the decade with an overseas series victory over New Zealand in 2008-09.

Now that the golden decade is glorified, it is important to focus on the problematic decades, the 90s and the current phase. A key differentiator between the 90s and the 2000s was the quality of India’s fast bowling talent. Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad, India’s mainstays in the medium pace department, were good bowlers, but not consistent match-winners, even in helpful conditions. Absence of a reliable third seaming option was another reason why India struggled to capture 20 wickets of the opposition overseas.

The 2000s saw impactful performances from several medium-pacers, some of whom were around even earlier, but got their act together only during that decade. While Zaheer Khan was a mainstay for much of the decade, other medium-pacers like Irfan Pathan, Shanthakumaran Sreesanth, Ashish Nehra, Ishant Sharma, Rudra Pratap Singh, Ajit Agarkar, etc. were instrumental in several of the victories outlined earlier. So, while there is fair evidence to conclude that India was short on quality seam bowling options during the 90s, a draw percentage of 54.5% and no innings defeats speak highly of India’s batting quality during that period.

While the Big 4 only got together post the mid 90s, even earlier, batsmen like Mohammad Azharuddin, Sanjay Manjrekar, Vinod Kambli (briefly) and Tendulkar himself, ensured that strength in the batting department was not found wanting. It is indeed credible that India did not suffer the ignominy of an innings defeat even once during 33 overseas Tests during the decade.

With that in mind, when we examine the current curtailed decade/half-decade, a few disappointing facts are immediately thrown up – 14 losses in 23 overseas matches as opposed to 15 in 33 during the 90s, a draw percentage of only 26.1% and a shocking stat: 7 of the 14 losses were innings defeats. While two out of three victories during this period are memorable (against South Africa, Durban in 2010-11 and the recent victory against England at Lord’s), it does not erase the humiliation of the crushing defeats, which included 0-4 blanks against England and Australia during the 2011-12 season.

While India has continued to cultivate reasonable talent in the seam bowling department, it is the decline in quality of our Test batting which is the root cause of such huge defeats. The beginning of the decade saw the gradual exit of the Big 4 (Ganguly had retired even earlier) and the new crop – Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma, etc. do not meet the high standards laid down by their predecessors, as yet (10 years down the line, if this statement is proven wrong, I will be happy).

Before jumping the gun, and accusing the IPL of destroying young Indian Test batsmen, I will reflect on the South Africa and New Zealand series during the 2013-14 season – though we lost both the series, there were phases when India’s new batsmen indicated that they possessed the talent to handle aggressive seam bowling in overseas conditions. There are very few positives to take from the England Test series in 2014, but for the hope that this was just a major aberration in the course of India’s rebuilding process after the dismantling of their batting backbone.

To answer the question this article began with – the current Indian Test team does deserve every bit of flak currently bestowed on them, and it is not due to a hangover of the glorious 2000s. Though we did not win a single overseas Test during the 90s, the grit and determination on display manifested itself in the high draw % and no innings defeat; it is that grit which has been missing during the 2010s – 7 innings defeats out of a total of 14 losses highlight the tendency to surrender as soon as the going gets tough.

The current batting talent, though perhaps not at par with the Big 4, is still good, and with an improved temperament, and an infusion of grit, can still resurrect the team. With the Australian series looming large, the Indian team needs to forget the recent horror-show, and draw inspiration from the previous decade, where no overseas challenge seemed unsurmountable.

This article was first published on Sportskeeda:


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