That’s Not Cricket

There are not too many instances when entities get to live their name, justify their existence so to speak.  When I named this blog little did I know that I would get a chance to reflect on its relevance to current events.

 

That’s not cricket was a phrase that symbolized sportsmanship and fairplay was about. Although the phrase is commonplace the parameters of what is “cricket” seems open to interpretation.

 

What everyone seems to agree now is that a premeditated ploy to work on the ball to get more swing is definitely not cricket.  The outpouring of emotion from the Aussie public is heartening since it reinforces the romantic notion that the hearts of all cricket fans deep down beat to the same tune.

 

Cheat is not a word used lightly. Sportsmen and sports fan tend to use it in the spur of the moment but they rationalize it pretty soon.  As Mike Atherton put is so precisely in his article in the Times, the premeditated nature of this action seems to have touched a raw nerve among the general public. I had hinted at the lack of genuine contrition in the press conference and according to Atherton, Smith did not realize the gravity of his action betraying hubris at some level.

 

Predictably Steve Smith is not in the leadership group at Rajasthan Royals. It probably was the best way forward for him to step down voluntarily before he was forced to.  Will David Warner follow suit? In my opinion he should and if he does not it would behoove the Sunrisers management to consider strongly encouraging him to.

 

Next step would be Darren Lehmann stepping down taking moral responsibility. The healing process must start.  Perhaps it’s worthwhile to reflect on the different ways cricket administrations dealt with match fixing repercussions. Life bans were handed out but in case of people like Mohammed Amir the door was left open for rehabilitation.

 

Along those lines I would think a smaller suspension for Cameron Bancroft is merited. For Steve Smith, David Warner and anyone else in the leadership group a suspension of a year or two probably seems fair. Any precedent that is set has to have an element of deterrence but there is a place in it for cricket’s  culture of rehabilitation and graceful comebacks.

 

Positives that emerge from this episode must include a deeper introspection on what constitutes acceptable cricket ball maintenance.  Surreptitious use of foreign objects involved in the maintenance/shine/scruffing of the ball is obviously a no-no. Consistency in regulating the other methods used is the crying need of the hour.  Will we see decisive action in that direction or will it be part of the glorious uncertainties of the game?

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Aftermath of a Coverup

Its all happening !!

Tony Greig’s famous words never rang truer. The repercussions of the sand paper incident and the subsequent coverup seem to be coming thick and fast.

Yesterday I predicted that we shouldn’t expect a lot from the ICC match referee by way of punishment for the ball tampering episode. Predictably there were sanctions that seemed more like a rap in the knuckles than anything else. The maximum ban for tampering seems to be a one test ban and that is what Steve Smith got. Cameron Bancroft, the man behind the coverup, was given three demerit points. So in the view of ICC ball tampering, shoulder scraping an opposition team member and almost coming to blows with the other team are all equal.

One does feel for Bancroft though – it appears that he may have paid the price for being a newer member of the side under pressure to perform and retain his place. If this was a tactic decided by the so-called “leadership group” it seems strange that they needed an executioner outside of the group. Also strange was the attempt to distance the coaching team from this decision.  At least from a perspective of an outsider looking in there does not seem to be enough space in the dressing room for a leadership group to decide tactics out of earshot of the coach.

This Australian team has not made it any easier for themselves. The numerous references to the “line” and “head butting the line without crossing it” are coming back to haunt them. Also coming back are all the real and perceived transgressions that this team has allegedly got away with.

Australian style of play has been brash and aggressive and they have earned respect for the results they have achieved. These seem to have come at a price in that they have diluted the perception of what is kosher on an off the field.  When you have a coach exhorting the crowds to target a specific opposition player, it points to a disturbing culture within the team.

Cricket Australia seems to be gearing up for decisive action. Even after climbing down from the moral high ground the Aussie team has offered us, it seems that an action that can be seen as deterrent would be the way to go. What it means in concrete terms can be argued but CA needs some proactive actions.

This is also a chance for Rajasthan Royals also to reconsider their choice of captain. As the IPL is following so closely to this incident it will be easier for everyone including Steve Smith himself if the Royals management chose a different captain (Rahane?).  Its a great opportunity for Royals to make a statement here. Will they take it?

Brainfades and Lines in Sand(paper)

Schedenfreude, how long has it been since we met.

I noticed something was afoot when I switched the TV on this morning. It looked like the camera was zooming in on some object in the hand of an Aussie fielder. My first reaction was chewing gum. Almost naturally the mind went to the mintage episode in the last series between these two sides (South Africa and Australia) where the Protea captain Faf Du Plessis was charged with using mint coated saliva to alter the condition of the ball. Chewing gum gate I thought.

But as the visuals closed in it looked like the object (gum or whatever) was headed to a different place instead of the pocket. In what seemed furtive and sinister from a distance the fielder Cameron Bancroft seemed to place it inside his flanneled pants.

As it turned out the item in question was a piece of tape that had been smeared with dirt or “granules” from the surface. In other words the ball had been tampered with.

In the press conference that followed there were the predictable noises. In some sense there was no other option for the skipper Steve Smith. With the visuals beamed live on the big screens and tweeted world over there was no place to hide. Contrition was predictably on display during the press conference but given the history of this Aussie team it did not seem genuine.

It also seemed bizarre that Smith would let Bancroft take the heat – it was supposedly the “leadership group” that decided it but chose to have the most junior member of the side execute it. The act itself seemed incredibly naive, risky and stupid. It would be natural to question the leadership skills of the group. To think of the marginal benefit out of a monumentally risky act seems stupid to say the least.

Given the context of the events of the series it will be hard for Australia to ever claim the moral high ground. Anything they say or do about the shenanigans of the opposition or of “not crossing the line” will be met with incredulity at best and derision at worst.

It remains to be seen what the match referee will say. Common sense suggests that anything other than the maximum demerit points will seem like a travesty of the whole points system but then again common sense isn’t common when it comes to such rulings. Inconsistencies have been rife when dealing with misbehavior on the cricket pitch. I am hoping the referee applies logic and reasoning to this but I am not holding my breath.

Steve Smith had used the term “brain fade” for an earlier misadventure. This time the words were “poor choice” “integrity” and “regret”. Hopefully the lack of any action suggesting punishment in the former case will not be true here.

It will be interesting to see how Cricket Australia reacts to this. If they want to claim the moral high ground it may be worthwhile to consider sacking the coach Lehmann (he is closer to the end of the term in any case), replace Smith as captain and ensure Smith and Bancroft stand down for the next test.

My 8 year old has been watching and following this game pretty intently this past year. Hopefully I can use this an an example of what happens when you don’t follow the rules. Any inaction here on the part of authorities will dilute this message for all young cricket watchers.

Overseas Blues

Grudging respect.

Dean Elgar earned it at the end of the Jo’burg test match against India. His innings on the last day of the match was typical of the man – dour, scrappy and tough. This was on a treacherous surface that was supposed to be “made to order” but the chef seemed to have lost control of the ingredients. The final spread came out horribly wrong for the hosts. Batsmen from both sides took blows so many blows on their bodies that it reminded one of of Brian Close’s encounter with West Indies (as also Phil Edmonds)

Mr Elgar seemed convinced after the test that it should have been called off. At least he got points for consistency. He had expressed his displeasure over the pitches in Mohali and Nagpur during the 2015-2016 series in India. If nothing else he was consistent in calling out sub standard tracks.

All this came at the back of a match that had no bearing on a series India already lost. India’s victory in this test feels euphoric but it is in some sense a tree in a forest that we already missed. You would think an average Indian fan is used to it by now but I think he still allows a bit of delusion to creep in before the start of any series.

I have never rated Mr Gavaskar highly as a commentator. Mainly because of his absolute refusal to evolve his style. But I had to agree with his comment at the end of the fourth day when it seemed like play would be called off after Dean Elgar got hit on the head. His view was if the roles were reversed and India was asking for the game to be called off after an Indian batsman got hit they would be labeled “sissies”. I was immediately reminded of a grumpy rant by Aussie commentator Jim Maxwell at the end of the first test. There was nothing new in the substance but the tone felt condescending.

It was a case of so near yet so far for India in its quest for overseas success. The final test victory may cloud the vision a bit but without question this was a series India had a great chance of winning. The quest continues…

The IPL Timeshare

The first week of IPL 10 was like visiting your timeshare for an yearly vacation.  There is an element of the familiar and an aversion to try anything new. So the Maximums, Strategic Timeouts, cheerleaders and the loud commentary are back.

More worrying is the timeshare mentality of some of the franchises.The teams seem to be playing true to the stereotype built around them without any attempt to evolve.

Delhi Daredevils and their fetish for bowlers in general and pacers in particular. This is a team that had failed in the past with a line up of medium pace trundlers but refuses to learn. They lost two of their most reliable overseas batsmen in De Kock and Duminy. Who do they bring in as replacement ? Ben Hilfenhaus. This in a lineup that already includes Cummins, Morris, Brathwaite, Shami, Khan, Khaleel Ahmed, Milind, Saini and Mishra, Yadav and Nadeem in spinners. Its probably TA Shekhar’s influence but you can’t help but question the reasoning behind these decisions. At the moment the “Double Ds” look real short on batting and hopefully it does not come back to haunt them. If it does it would just reinforce the timeshare feel of this edition of IPL.

Credit where its due though. Rishabh Pant looks like the real deal. The courage and single mindedness he displayed in the first game was beyond description. How he could compartmentalize after cremating his father earlier in the day is beyond me. As someone who has gone through the experience I could not help a lump in my throat forming overtime he laid bat on ball.

While on him – can’t help but question the decision making of the more senior Amit Mishra. He would have been a contender for the infamous “Match Ka Mujrim” if that still was a preferred TV channel format. Why one would think of outdoing Pant on this day is beyond comprehension.

Samson flattered to deceive again – true to stereotype. As I write, the match on Tuesday is underway and Samson is blazing away but Pant still seems more assured on the crease especially against the slower bowlers.  If Samson does come good this season it would be long overdue.

The Pune team, RPSG (I didn’t realize they had dropped the s from Supergiants to become one Supergiant – why bother? ) looks to continue the stereotype from last year. It looks in shambles on and off the field with the owners a trigger happy with their tweets. There seems to be a curse of the most expensive purchase in the auction. Seldom have the players lived up to the hype – Stokes seem to be headed in that direction. Still his bustling energy, Tahir’s unalloyed exuberance and Steve Smith’s endless run hunger seem to be the few bright spots in this team. Beyond that any team that relies on Ashok Dinda as a pace spearhead is headed for trouble and so it proved last week.

Gujarat Lions is another team to bring about a sense of deja vu – pick a bunch of quality overseas openers and then try to fit them in the playing XI. Without Bravo around and relying solely on a lineup of Indian military medium pacers this team has struggled.  Praveen Kumar and Kulkarni are honest triers but seems to me that the attack lacks a potency, an X factor if you will.  The “frog in the blender” Kaushik seems to be able to land the ball on the line most of the time – which is a biological wonder if ever there was. Based on limited evidence I cannot fathom how someone can control the ball without getting the whole body lined up at the point of delivery. There have been more unusual bowlers who have defied conventional wisdom and gone on to achieve unparalleled success so there may be a case for him. At the moment thought its hard to imagine Kaushik becoming the game changer the Lions so desperately need.

Punjab could surprise and that could be a new update in the resort town. The team does not seem to have changed a whole lot but Maxwell as captain seems to have revitalized the apprach.  Punjab have placed faith in Manan Vohra more than anyone else, sticking with him through various changes. I would think its high time for Vohra to fire – his previous IPL outings have been underwhelming.

The old feeling of IPL being an old boys’ club returned when the team mentor Sehwag got the franchise to recruit Ishaant after he remained unsold at the main auction. Sehwag’s statement after the acquisition seemed to imply that Ishaant was recruited more due to closeness with the mentor than on any real quality bowling ability.

KKR and Sunrisers Hyderabad seem to be well balanced. Typically the first match of the season sets the tone with McCullum kicking off the IPL 10 years ago with the memorable hundred. This time there was no McCullum like feat but Yuvraj still managed to revive old memories.  I have been skeptical in the past about Yuvraj’s continued utility in T20 but I suppose I have the entire duration of the timeshare to adjust my views on this.  Rashid Khan seems to be the talk of the town right now but I have to watch highlights of his bowling to experience the hype.  Hyderabad was innovative in their team choices with Mustafizur earlier and Rashid currently. It would be no surprise if this team goes on to the playoffs.

Still a lot of action to come and hopefully there are moments that stand out. Moments that rise above the repetitive shots of the big screen on the stadium and the multitude of loud tropes and cliches that the commentators dish out.  But then again as has been proved over the past 9 years, this is a package that blends the rough with the smooth, the sublime with the ordinary, ability with the hype.

Order Restored

I figured I would wait a couple days before posting my thoughts on a fairly momentous occasion – mainly to allow time for a balanced perspective to form. To me it was a moment that brought home the point that sometimes the journey is more important the destination.

I could only be referring to the recent series. One that had brought me grief, a feeling of normalcy, provided me escape as usual and finally gave me a sense of order being restored.

There have been comparisons to another great series – the 2005 Ashes. While comparisons are odious at times this one has its merits. The drama, the gamesmanship and the level of interest it generated as well as the emotions it aroused are arguably at comparable levels. Beyond that I would think people would be better served enjoying the lasting memories both series have provided and leave it at that.

The setting for the fourth test match could not have  been more picturesque. The state of Himachal Pradesh is inextricably linked to my growth as an individual. By extension Dharamshala felt like a familiar place you visited when you were young but whose memories now have begun to fade.

My feeling at the start of the match was that it would take a horde of elephants to stop Kohli playing  this match – whatever the injury.  He showed that he was more pragmatic – preferring to sit out when his shoulder had not healed completely. At lunch on the first day I went to bed thinking Kohli would be regretting his decision. The mandatory wake up call did happen and this time it didn’t seem so bad. Australia close to being all out – made for a peaceful last hour of sleep.

Pujara and Rahul started down the familiar path it and I went to bed looking forward to better news early in the morning. 6 wickets down with more than 50 runs behind wasn’t my idea of a pleasant dream but it probably completely a nightmare.

The next day brought forth the full gamut of positive emotions that you would associate with passionate and partisan fans. I gave myself a few minutes before retiring to bed. Jadeja made sure those few minutes turned into an hour. It was cricket at its most intense. Quality pace bowling against batsmen who displayed pluck and panache in equal measure. The sword flourish at the half century mark made you wonder if there would be a similar celebration for a ton. That turned out to be a story for another day.

It was the best wake up call ever.  Resisting the temptation to kiss the phone screen – I refreshed just to make sure it wasn’t a mistake. This time I could feel every word on the scorecard morph itself into a celebratory fireworks display. Be still my beating heart – there is still a small matter of 80 runs still needed.

Rahane and Rahul made sure the end was swift. Rahane’s sixes off Cummins were like the icing on the cake – a reminder that IPL was round the corner. With a controlled roar and a rare triumphant smile I retired to bed for the first full night of sleep in a while.

The war of words between the rival teams and media seemed to continue for a couple days. Visuals of Smith reacting to a catch that was overturned on replay wasn’t one of his proudest moment. The cynic in me couldn’t help but remember the catch that Michael Clarke claimed against Ganguly in Sydney in 2008.

At the end of a major series or tournaments there is a sense of emptiness and if a series was as compelling as this one that sense persists for a long time. Next stop IPL.

Escape to Reality

Cricket has always been an escape for me. The poison I picked.  A crutch I lean on in crazy times, a safety net in many ways.

I am not sure how a pastime became a passion and a passion became an escape. These days when daily life becomes dreary I look forward to the comfort offered by the sight of the grassy outfield, men in helmets with contraptions on their body, the eager people around them including one with a ball in hand and the two neutral gentlemen

And it’s not been roses all the way with cricket. When you have something like alcohol as your form of escape you know what the process of gratification will be like. A few pints here and there and pretty soon you are tipsy – the aftermath could be different depending on the day but you could argue that by then you are back into reality. With cricket unless you train yourself just to focus on the moments, the many contests between the bat and ball, you run into the danger of letting this escaped world become your reality.

Part of the trick of maintaining cricket at a level of museum art versus something you run into everyday in your living room is to maintain balance. The ability to treat the imposters of triumph and disaster same. And as I have shown in my earlier posts I haven’t mastered those – either in my real life or in my escaped works of cricket fandom.

Partisanship comes naturally to sport fans. If there’s not a horse you pick in a two horse race you can get bored fairly quickly.  There are not too many neutral observers – it could be argued that while its possible to remain neutral in terms of the bigger picture, you tend to favor one over the other when it comes to the individual moments that constitute the bigger picture.

These thoughts came to mind in three different instances in the past week – all at different times. There was the test series in New Zealand with South Africa visiting, a test series was on in Sri Lanka with the perennial underdogs Bangladesh playing against the home team, and of course there was the India Australia series in India.

In terms of sheer viewing pleasure and the convenience of viewing the New Zealand South Africa test was hard to beat. There seems to be a relaxed air about everything in the Kiwi land. The cricket was fun for most part – I found myself rooting for the Kiwis from the start – something about being the underdog up against a formidable opponent. It was also the way the Kiwis approached the game. Their game was an example of well meaning professionalism struggling to come out of its amateur avatar.

There seems to be a dearth of world class quality players in New Zealand – and this is not a new issue. Through the years they have some world beating players but they are like crown jewels in an otherwise ordinary necklace. It still looked pretty but seldom commanded the ooh’s and aah’s that greet other ornaments.

Without Rosco and Boult, not much was expected. Add Kane Williamson’s twin failures to that and you don’t find much else to talk about. Except there were flashes of promise. Jeet Raval was like the boy on the burning deck for most of second innings – but he seemed to run out of gas after reaching 50. Hopefully the elusive 100 will come and along with it the confidence and the bloody minded “stick-to-it”iveness. The Kiwis were in with a chance after having South Africa six down for less than a 100 but two of my favorites in the Protea side raised their hand up. Bavuma and DeKock are different players but they were attractive together. I would have enjoyed it even more if my neutrality was a touch more nuanced. I was struggling between my desire to have the underdog have its time in the sun and the ability to enjoy two stars of the future.

The end came pretty swiftly for the New Zealanders but whatever I had seen whetted my appetite for the next round of battle between the two sides.

The second instance involved a series I had referenced earlier and it was like the Wooden Spoon Derby judging by the recent performance of the sides involved. Bangladesh a team of honest triers who never seem to advance to the next level against a home team that just a drubbing in South Africa. The first two tests played according to script – Bangladesh being nearly there but not quite.

As an aside one of the pleasures of Sri Lanka series is that its covered by one for the finest and most under rated cricket writers around – Andrew Fidel Fernando on Cricinfo. He just does not leave anything else for people to say. More on him in a later post.

Once Sri Lanka had a middling first innings score I am sure the Bangladesh fans must have sat up – what was it forming at the back of their minds? Surely it can’t be the beginning of another dream? Surely the team can’t sustain it? Can it? Can it ever?

Sustain it they did. Barely – creeping, crawling and climbing with bruised and battered fingers on to the the edifice occupied by top quality test teams. Their seniors led the way. Shakib so shaky to start with showed why he is rated so highly.  The time difference and the fact that this test coincided with the third one referenced above made it hard to follow live. But there was always the highlights package to fall back on.

Left with a score of less than 200 to make to achieve a rare away test win, Bangladesh faced a moment of truth. I could not ignore this moment regardless of the partisan interest elsewhere and sat up late to watch the start. As it always happens with great sporting stories, the start was wobbly. Two wickets in two balls and Herath made the home crowd start to believe. Was it going to be so near yet so far again for Bangladesh?

A 3 am wake up call for a test that did not involve India, a test that involved Bangladesh of all teams would have been hard to imagine ever. But this was no ordinary test match for the Bangla tigers. They trusted their natural attacking instincts and made it. As the ubiquitous commentator would say – Test cricket was the winner. But it was so much more than that – it was a sporting story that can be relived time and again without losing anything in terms of heartache and thrills.

Needless to say – my neutrality evaporated after the Sri Lankan first innings and I was egging the Bangladesh team along silently. Would it have been same if the home side was India – probably not but that would be a story for a different day.

The third instance was where I couldn’t even pretend to be neutral. In the third India Australia test partisanship was at its most ferocious in my mind. I couldn’t bear to watch Steve Smith bat in the first innings. By all accounts and the shots in the highlights package it was a beautiful innings. Wish he had saved it for another day. But the second and third day were like a taste of heaven. Pujara, my fellow Saurashtrian, how my heart puffed with pride. It was slow going, unbearable to watch at times but he was still there at 3 am in the morning. At around 5 he was gone and so were two of Aussie batsmen trying to play out the rest of the match. They were able to do exactly that the next day – another one that was tough to watch as a non neutral spectator but one that enabled the Aussies to effect a great escape in a very good test match.

For me its back to reality now – till the next heavenly escape.