January 24, 1998
Ever since I began covering cricket as part of my duties at, and for, Rediff -- which was way back in February 1996, with the Wills World Cup -- it has been one unremitting grind.
There's this old saying that goes, when the gods wish to punish you they answer your prayers. True enough, in my case -- for when I started out in journalism, in 1990, my big dream was to write about cricket. Two years of doing that, and little else, leaves me with the wish that the gods had gone deaf when I articulated that wish.
What being a commentator/reporter does to you is, it drains you of your interest, your passion, for the game. Thus, where earlier I could watch a game and, irrespective of result, come away uplifted because I got to see a David Gower cover drive or a Gundappa Vishwanath late cut, these days my mental retina is full of scoreboards, run-rates, strike-rates, bowling figures -- and the unwelcome spice of controversies galore.
Somewhere along the way, I found that my enjoyment of cricket, as pure sport, had got diminished -- and that is what (besides a few personal reasons) prompted me to go off on a 12-day break, just before the Independence Cup tri-series began in Dhaka.
So what did I get, during the 12 days I was off? Six days of watching India, Bangladesh and Pakistan play each other in Dhaka. Another three days of watching New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia play the tri-series in the last named country. And in between, long, involved cricket conversations with the likes of Delhi and Districts Cricket Association sports secretary Sunil Dev (whose bigger claim to fame is that he was manager of the last Indian tour to South Africa, under Sachin Tendulkar) and economist and psephologist Surjit Bhalla, who has devised an interesting -- and, according to him, foolproof -- way of quantitatively evaluating the performance of every single batsman, bowler and indeed, team to have played cricket at the highest level, in the entire history of the game.
In other words, Surjit Bhalla can -- or so he says -- definitively answer questions that have formed the subject matter of heated debate wherever cricket fans foregather. Who is the better batsman, Bradman, or Gavaskar? Who was the best bowler ever in Test history? Who, among Kapil Dev, Richard Hadlee, Ian Botham, Imran Khan and Garfield Sobers, deserves the cachet of best all rounder of all time?
Bhalla's methods are interesting. And his conclusions, at times, startling. Like, where would you rank Gavaskar in the all-time list of batsmen? Bhalla has him down at a lowly number 38! Given that Garfield Sobers can lay claim to the title of best all rounder of all time, who would you rank number two? Keith Miller, says Bhalla. Who would be the second best batsman ever to take guard on a cricket field, after Bradman? Would you believe, Sir Jack Hobbs?
Bhalla's methods, and the results he achieves, are worth a seperate article in itself -- one I will get down to writing sometime next week. And the same is the case with Sunil Dev -- the man who, in his post-South Africa tour report to the BCCI, indicated that a few Indian players appeared to be motivated by considerations other than what is best for the team; the man who, further, in an official report argued that no team should have two generals (a reference to the presence of deposed captain Azharuddin in the side led by Tendulkar) and so on. Like with Bhalla, Dev's freewheeling talk is a story in itself, of which more another time.
For now, I'll restrict the focus to a few interesting issues that came up in course of watching, and discussing, cricket over the past fortnight.
Bad light at the end of the tunnel
For me, the final of the Bangladesh tri-series, between India and Pakistan, was remarkable not so much for the record-breaking run chase by India, but for that little contretemps towards the end, when the umpires took the players off the field for bad light.
Hey, am I the only one, or do you guys notice, too, just how many times umpires tend to invoke the light when India seems to be in a good position to win? Happened in South Africa. Happened in the West Indies. Happened recently at the Wankhede, in Bombay, against Sri Lanka. And it almost happened, yet again, in the Dhaka tri-series final.
In fact, the only difference between Wankhede and Dhaka was that in the first instance the third umpire, Bobby Simpson, choose not to intervene when the umpires on the field waved the players off. At Dhaka, however, the match referee did intervene, to his credit, and insisted that play continue.
The subject of light is worth a thought -- and not just because India was involved, for there is nothing to prevent the same sort of thing happening elsewhere in the world, to other teams. So what exactly do the rules say about stoppage for light?
One -- the umpire can call off play if, in their opinion, deteriorating light brings with it the very real danger of injury to batsmen. (Which, it needs adding, was hardly the case in Dhaka -- the ball before the stoppage had been whacked for four, so what danger are we talking about?)
Two, if in the opinion of the umpires the light is deteriorating, then they can offer it to the batsmen at the crease. Who, deputising for the captain of the batting side, can decide whether they want to accept the offer and walk off, or continue play. (No such offer was made here.)
Doesn't it strike you as silly that, while on the one hand the ICC is attempting to standardise decisions, to do away with the human factor as much as possible -- vide the match referee, the slo-mo replay et al -- they have, at the same time, left in the 'light' factor a loophole large enough to drive a truck through? These days, an international encounter between any two sides has much at stake -- too much, in fact, to permit a situation where the individual idiosyncracies of umpires are permitted to bring the game to an abrupt closure by the simple expedient of whipping out a light meter, peering at it, shaking a rueful head and waving the players off.
I would think the simple solution was to have a danger point, a sort of Plimsoll Line for light, demarcated on your light meter. And to have a rule which says, if the light is above that reading, play goes on. If light dips below that point, the umpires check with the batsmen whether they want to continue. And that should, pretty much, be that.
Of run rates, and suchlike matters
Another issue that needs mention, in connection with the same game, is the question of run rates. More importantly, the calculations that come into play when rain, or light, or any other factor, brings a game to an abrupt close.
Take the latest instance, the Dhaka final. Towards the closing stages of the match, we were warned that if light caused curtailment of play, the equation decreed that India, at the end of 40 overs, would need to have made something like 289 runs to come out on top.
A situation, frankly, that strikes me as neither logical, nor just. Basically, the team chasing has to score the same number of runs the side batting first scored in the same number of overs, plus one. That is the structure of the one day game. Here, however, the side batting first scores at six plus per over and suddenly, the side batting second finds itself in a position where it has to score at seven plus -- where is the logic, or natural justice, in that?
In effect, what happens to the batting side in such a situation is that it gets penalised for a natural phenomenon way outside its control.
It also assumes that cricketers have the mathematical abilities of a top end IBM computer. I mean, if I were out there batting, chasing a score, I would in normal circumstances look at the scoreboard to find out how much we had got, how much more was needed, how many overs remained, and these details would, through simple division, give me a per-over run-rate to aim at. Which, in turn, would help me and my partner decide on our strategy from that point on.
But this? Heck, unless the batsmen were armed with computers -- a calculator wouldn't do, because the computation is not based on ordinary math, but on a special programme loaded into the computer the match referee uses -- they were stuck. I mean, I and my partner are coasting along quite nicely, the target is well in sight, the required run rate is well within our scope and bingo, along comes a few thick, black clouds. Next thing I know, the equation has changed dramatically and a comfortable win threatens to turn into crippling defeat.
Seems to me the governing body needs to think about it, to effect a change in the rules in this regard.
And any change you make has to keep, at its centre, two basics -- one, that it should be fair on both the sides and two, that it should be easy enough for the batsmen out there to understand, and calculate, while play goes on (I mean, this ain't basketball -- if while at the crease I apprehend deterioration of light, I can hardly call for a timeout, rush back into the pavilion and sit with computer, and a math expert, to figure out what I have to do next, right?)
With these in mind, one solution strikes me as logical -- why don't we have a rule that says that, at the point when play in the second innings is stopped, the batting side should have scored at the same rate plus one as the team that batted first?
To explain. Assume side A, batting first, scores 300, which is a run rate of exactly 6 an over. Assume, further, that light stops play in the second innings at the end of 40 overs. Then, by the above rule, the side batting second should have scored 240 (40x6) plus one, to win.
In other words, the team batting second is expected to do as well as the team batting first -- no more, no less.
So what's wrong with that? Too simplistic? Flawed? You tell me.
Money rules, okay!
Watching the Dhaka triangular -- more particularly the best of three final -- was, for me, a wierd experience.
Generally, when India plays cricket, I am stuck at my desk, the TV in front of me, commenting/analysing ball by ball and responding to readers' queries. At this time, barring the people who log into chat, I am cut off from all human contact.
Here, I was not commentating, nor responding to chatters' queries, but merely watching the on-field happenings -- and listening to the comments of others who were also watching. And the comments, more than the happenings on the field, were, for me, wierd. Startling. And, in the pervasive mood of cynicism that I witnessed, downright shocking.
I could give you dozens of examples, quotes, spanning those three games between India and Pakistan. But just two suffice.
Within minutes of India handily winning the first game of the best of three series, I heard more than one person confidently predict that Pakistan would win the second game as handily.
Fair enough -- Pakistan is a damn good side, and going into any game against any side, has at the least a 50 per cent chance of winning.
"No, yaar, this has nothing to do with how good the form is," comes the pat response. "See, if India wins game two as well, then there won't be much interest for the final game on Sunday, right? And this whole tournament, what is it for? To help the Bangladesh cricket association make money by making India and Pakistan play each other three times in the final -- the climax conveniently on a Sunday. Obviously the organisers will want a full house then -- and the best way to ensure that is to make the score even at the end of two games!"
Quoted above is the consensus opinion, mind you -- not one individual's view.
Sure enough, India lost handily in game two, setting up a cliff-hanging final. In which Pakistan batted first and, much to my surprise, normally reliable fielders began dropping catches -- none more startling than the one Jadeja dropped off Saeed Anwar when the latter was threatening to take the game completely away from the Indians.
You think the fielder lost it in the crowd, I ask. A natural enough question because, at the Dhaka stadium, the tiers are lower and were, on the day, densely packed -- and when conditions are like that, the best of fielders can get unsighted when a high ball comes their way.
"Paagal ho, ya buddhu?" (Are you mad, or a fool?) was what I got for that bit of analysis. "Of course catches will be dropped, yaar, after all, some of these fellows are in league with the bookies, and they will do their best to make sure India loses. Easy really -- drop some crucial catches and when it comes to your turn at bat, bat slowly or get out to rash shots -- you can always explain that you had to hit out to keep up with the run rate. You wait and see!"
So I wait. And see India pull off a superb, record-breaking win. And turn triumphantly to the guy who came up with the above analysis, expecting him to be rather shamefaced and apologetic.
Was he, ever! "Arre, of course India won -- but why? Because the boys nobody can bribe, like Tendulkar and Ganguly and Robin, and the boys nobody bothered to bribe, like Srinath, Mongia and Kanitkar, pulled it off!"
I come away with the realisation that for the average Indian fan, the charm of cricket these days lies not in a well hit stroke, a well bowled over or a superb piece of fielding, but instead in trying to second guess the playing side, to try and figure out how a result is being manipulated; which false stroke, which dropped catch or which loose over is attributable to what, in time, will probably become known as the Manoj Prabhakar syndrome.
Strangely, the reverse side of the coin finds few takers. Thus, if consensus is that Azhar is one of the prime manipulators, then why did he protest when the umpires decided to call off play for light? I mean, at that point, if indeed Azhar was in league with the bookies, and wanted to ensure a Pakistan win, all he had to do was walk off, and the game was Pakistan's. He had the perfect excuse -- it was the umpires' doing, not his.
So why didn't he do that? You tell me.
There is, for the above story, an interesting aside. Bookmakers based in Bombay -- the sharks among them, that is, not the little minnows running one-man nickel-and-dime operations -- refused to accept bets on the best of three finals. The reasoning? "Both sides have crooks, who knows which of them has taken bribes to do what?"
Strange. And therein lies an interesting conundrum. If bookies themselves don't know who has been bribed for what, then just who did the alleged bribing in the first place?
The wheel turns full circle
While on betting and such, you guys been keeping an eye on developments in Pakistan cricket these days?
More particularly, on the axing of Wasim Akram? Not, mind you, for any injury. In fact, the PCB does not even permit Akram the cover of "injury" as a face saving device -- rather, it openly announces that involvement in betting and match fixing is the reason for his being dropped from the squad to South Africa.
PCB CEO Majid Khan -- the man who, pretty much single-handedly, has been spearheading that country's battle against alleged corruption in cricket -- made it further clear that it was not mere speculation, but concrete proof, that prompted the action. Whatever evidence the PCB has must be devastating, I would think -- after all, we aren't talking of some third rate trundler here, but rather of a bowler with an unprecedented record of 300-plus wickets in both forms of the game. And you don't drop someone of that stature on the basis of mere bazaar rumour, do you?
In the ongoing purge of Pakistan cricket, Salim Malik was the first to go. Now it is Akram's turn. Sources indicate that when the PCB spokesman in his briefing indicated before the Dhaka tri-series that 'another senior player was considered for the axe', the reference was to Malik's brother in law Ijaz Ahmed. The last named apparently escaped the axe, and booked a ticket to South Africa, on the strength of a timely century in the third final of the Dhaka series against India, after a mediocre performance till then.
What is equally interesting is that Rashid Latif, no less, is now leading Pakistan, ahead of much more senior contenders. In a different age, under another dispensation, it was Latif (along with Basit Ali) who first opened the can of worms by resigning from the Pakistan cricket team, alleging that then captain Salim Malik was corrupt and in league with bookies. At that time, Latif was allowed to fade away, and even disciplined.
Subsequently, he not only reiterated his allegation, but went further to state that Akram too was part of the same sub rosa network. An allegation bolstered, among others, by Aamir Sohail. The result? Latif remained out in the cold, Sohail was dropped, disciplined, fined.
And now both are back. Sohail as a regular member, Latif as captain no less.
Is there a lesson in there for Indian cricket, somewhere?
No, don't translate the above into a sign of optimism, on my part, that we are on the verge of witnessing a similar clean up in Indian cricket. No way, Jose! For why? Because while Pakistan's board is headed by a strong individual like Majid, Indian cricket is headed (or, given that the shadow of Dalmiya looms too large to be ignored, maybe "fronted" is a better word) by a Dungarpur.
One man, Majid, lives in the here and the now. And the other? Well, the next to last time Dungarpur opened his mouth was after winning the BCCI elections in November 1996 -- to promise a full time coach, a physical fitness trainer, a cricket academy and other wonders, none of which are yet to materialise. And the only time he has opened his mouth, in an official capacity, since then was the other day, at the Pantaloon cricket awards ceremony. Not, mind you, to wonder what a Rahul Dravid was doing in Bombay when, by any indication, he should have been in Dhaka. But to speak, nostaligically and well, of the prowess of a Mushtaq Ali, a Vijay Hazare, a C K Nayudu.
L:ike I said, Majid is today. Dungarpur, yesterday. And from a guy in a time warp, nothing much can be expected -- barring, of course, pretty speeches.
Kya chucker hai! -- the sequel
Before signing off this rather extended diary item, one last thought.
Did you notice that Kumara Dharmasena played for Sri Lanka against Zimbabwe in the ODI the other day? He bowled, he kept the runs down, he got wickets -- and he was never called!
Funny. The ICC technical committee suspects his action. Suggests to the Lankan board that he not be picked till he goes back to school to learn how to bowl with a legitimate action. And further holds out a veiled threat that if Dharmasena is in fact picked to play before the ICC committee gives him a clean bill of health, he stands in danger of being called for chucking.
Dharmasena is picked. He bowls. And is not called.
What does that indicate to you? That the technical committee's suspicion is baseless, unfounded?
When we first discussed the suspicions raised against Chauhan and Dharmasena, and wondered how such suspicions could arise when no umpire had actually called either of them, several readers wrote back arguing that perhaps the umpires on the field were scared to make a call that could ruin a player's career.
That argument does not apply any longer, does it? I mean, the umpires are now armed with what in effect is a directive from the body governing the game worldwide, to keep an eye on the action of these bowlers and call either or both of them for chucking if any delivery is deemed illegitimate. Nothing to be scared of now, is there?
And yet, Dharmasena bowls with impunity.
So spare a moment to think of the fate of India's own Rajesh Chauhan. Same ICC committee, same suspicion, same directive -- but while Dharmasena's career is unaffected, Chauhan is out in the cold. The BCCI, last heard of, is liaising with the ICC. Which body will nominate an expert to teach Chauhan to bowl. If Chauhan is a good boy and learns his lessons well, the ICC will re-evaluate. And, if it deems fit, permit Chauhan to play at the highest level again.
Meanwhile, an international player remains in limbo, his present a tormet, his future uncertain.
Why did the BCCI not do what the Lankan board did? No less than the esteemed Jaywant Lele has the answer. "Sri Lanka can pick Dharmasena because it has nothing to lose. India, on the other hand, cannot afford to flout the ICC directive, because the ICC president is none other than our very own Jagmohan Dalmiya!"
Errrrrrrrr... Mr Lele? This is the second time the ICC's "suspicions" have received more weight than the fact that Chauhan has never been called by any umpire. The first time, he lost a year and a half out of his career. At that time, "our very own Dalmiya" (doesn't the fawning sycophancy of that description make you want to upchuck? Comes, I guess, of appointing pygmies to high positions -- unsure of your own stature, all you can do is bask in the reflected glory of another) was the BCCI secretary (the post Lele himself holds today), not the ICC president!
So effectively, earlier we couldn't defend our own player because Dalmiya wanted to be president; now we can't defend Chauhan because Dalmiya is the president.
Strange. I would have expected, with an Indian at the helm of cricket affairs, that Indian cricket would receive a boost. Exactly the reverse seems to be happening.
Why? Because the individual, here, has become greater than the game. The administrator, greater than the players. Personal interest, greater than the massed goodwill of the fans.
Ever see a better instance of the tail wagging the dog?