Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Two cricketing books

I recently read two cricketing books:

  1. Captain Cool - The M.S. Dhoni Story, by Gulu Ezekiel
  2. The Men Within - A Cricketing Tale, by Harimohan Paruvu

Captain Cool is a very new book - published probably in the second half of this year. It might have the distinction of being the first biography of M.S. Dhoni in a full book form, but that's about the only distinction it can claim. Given that Dhoni's international career is still relatively young (he made his debut less than 4 years ago), one might say the book is somewhat premature. However, Dhoni is such a hot commodity in the cricketing world, especially in India, that we can't fault the author or the publisher for rushing out this book at this time. Remember "Sunny Days", Gavaskar's (first) autobiography, which was published in the mid-1970s when Gavaskar was only a few years into his career? That might've been accused of being premature too, but it was nevertheless a wonderful read, filled with the cricketer's personal experiences and reminiscences.

Captain Cool however is a disappointing piece of work, especially coming from a well-recognized name like Gulu Ezekiel. At 120-odd pages, it's also quite short, and left me wanting to know more about the man. It would appear that Dhoni himself has had little contribution to the book - most of what Gulu writes comes from press reports, magazines and online sources like CricInfo. As a result, the book reads like a match report focusing mostly on Dhoni's performances. Chapter after chapter covers individual matches, blandly giving the scores, and Dhoni's contributions in terms of runs scored, balls faced, boundaries hit... Sometimes Gulu adds a bit about the match situation, and how Dhoni contributed to turning things around for India, but it's all a bit repetitive. If that was all I wanted, I'd go look up the scorecards and match reports on CricInfo. It's only the first couple of chapters (barely 15 pages
or so) on Dhoni's early years that have any content that's not common knowledge. Dhoni himself is quite articulate, and I suspect we'll see an autobiography from him a few years hence... I'll be waiting for that.

The Men Within is very different. First of all it's fiction, a tale woven around a cricketing theme (and team). It's an interesting read, even if you know exactly how the story will end. It's the cricketing equivalent of the recent Hindi movies "Chak de India" (hockey) and "Goal" (football), or you might say, the modern-day equivalent of the cricketing movie "Lagaan". The author combines that storyline of an unlikely team shooting for an unlikely goal, with the "public school" setting of P.G. Wodehouse's early cricket stories (starring Mike, Psmith and others). And it makes ample use of cricket as a metaphor for life itself, imparting life's lessons to the school kids in the thinly-veiled guise of cricket coaching. The result is nevertheless quite enjoyable and even inspiring, especially if you're a school- or college-going kid. For those of my vintage as well, it will trigger pleasant memories. The book is well written, with some eye-catching turns of phrase popping up amidst the usual cricketing language, peppered with Hyderabadi lingo. It could've done with a bit less melodrama, especially that surrounding the coach himself, and the slightly exaggerated villany of one of the teachers. But it's a taut, enjoyable read and I'd recommend it unreservedly.

Monday, October 27, 2008

What's a 'talented' cricketer?

A while back, I posted this article about batting class, and asked whether it matters any more in this age of slam-bang cricket.  A similar but somehow different issue is that of cricketing talent.  What constitutes a talent for cricket, and how do coaches and selectors / spotters go about identifying talented cricketers?

Make no mistake, talent is (or should be) the primary criterion for selection into an international side.  Once you're established in the team, then your performance as measured by statistics can certainly be used for or against you.  But if performance was the primary criterion, you wouldn't need good cricketers as selectors - a statistician, heck even a computer program would serve the purpose.  So what exactly is it that the selectors look for?

Now the answer will of course differ for the three disciplines of batting, bowling and fielding.  So I'll try and address them one at a time.  Let's take the easy one first - fielding.  A talented fielder is surely one who is athletic, quick on his feet, etc.  A catcher should have quick reactions, steady hands, and the movement of the hands to take catches should be smooth, not jerky.  Think of a Jacques Kallis in the slips, steady as a rock.  His hands always seem to end up in the right place for a slip catch.  A fielder in the "ring" should be able to quickly change direction, dive, hit the stumps from 25-30 yards out, etc.  No better example than Jonty Rhodes of course, or Ricky Ponting.   Some of these attributes can be learned with lots of practice (like hitting the stumps), but others are natural, and thus constitute fielding talent.

On to bowling.  Let's take fast bowling first.  A naturally talented fast bowler would probably have to have good build (and height), and the ability to channel his muscular strength into generating pace through the air.  He should have an action that lends itself to extracting bounce from the wicket as well.  Now actions can be modified over time with coaching, but if it comes naturally to the bowler, chances are that he'll be more successful than one who is coached.  Think of Michael Holding, or Alan Donald, or Dennis Lillee before his injury.  Natural born fast bowlers, not just in physique and action, but also in the mind.  Of today's crop, only Brett Lee and Dale Steyn seem to fit the bill.

What about swing bowling?  Why do some bowlers seem to get more swing than others, in the same conditions?  Here, it seems to be more about your action than any physical attributes.  The coaches can show you how to hold the ball, angle the seam, etc.  But eventually it comes down to the action that feels most natural to you.  Some bowlers automatically seem to find the right arm action, cocking of the wrist, grip on the ball, etc.  That's a naturally talented bowler.  Think of Irfan Pathan, before it all went awry.  Rhythm, and a clear head, also seem to play a significant role in swing bowling.  These are natural attributes as well, and can't really be coached.

As for spinners, many different techniques have been developed over the years for the different kinds of spin.  It appears to me that most of these are coachable, learnable, and thus don't constitute natural talent.  To some extent, rhythm in the run-up and bowling action plays a role.  But the imparting of spin doesn't appear to be a natural talent.  It is usually learnt and practised over years of junior cricket.  The great spinners (no better example than Shane Warne) manage to land the ball in the right areas, or flight it teasingly, or disguise the wrong 'un just a bit better than the ordinary ones.  There's of course the ability to out-think the batsman - to understand his mindset, predict his intent, and bowl accordingly.  But that's more of a native intelligence than bowling talent.

And now for batting.  As discussed in that earlier post, batting class is hard to define and yet easy to spot.  But there must be more to batting talent than class, because there are plenty of batsmen who were talented and successful, but you wouldn't call them classy.  There are plenty of examples of those, like Alan Border, Javed Miandad, or Ricky Ponting.  It seems to come down to instinctively making the right body movements when batting.  Of course you need the ability to pick up the bowler's length and line at (or very soon after) the point of release.  You need to pick the spinners out of their hand, or while the ball is in flight.  But I get the feeling that these things can be coached.

What cannot be coached is the response, once you've picked the bowler and made a prediction as to how the ball will behave on its way to you.  The movements of the feet - forward or back by the right amount, getting to the pitch of the ball or making room for a horizontal-bat shot, etc. - determine the batsman's success at tackling the delivery, along with things like the transfer of weight onto the correct foot (front or back) at the right time.  That's what gives you the right shot selection and timing.  The ability to play several different shots to the same ball is probably something that can be coached and practised.  If the mind is clear, and sharp enough, the batsman can process all this information and pick a shot to play.  The body movements that follow though, must come naturally and at the right time, down to fractions of a second.  Of the modern greats, Tendulkar, Ponting and Lara are good examples of this.  They're rarely caught on the wrong foot, making the wrong movements.

Some batsmen also appear to be better at placement than others.  Think of Saurav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid, especially in ODIs, in the 1990s.  Ganguly would usually be faced with a packed off-side field, and yet manage to find the gaps regularly.  The young Dravid would often play these wonderful looking flicks and drives, straight at the fielders!  Some batsmen just hit the ball in the right fashion, with great timing and all that.  Others seem to be able to use the bat to give direction to the ball.  Another example - contrast Sehwag's off-side strokes with those of his partner Gambhir.  Sehwag clearly places the ball into the gaps - his strokes, his arm, foot and upper body movements are designed to give direction to the ball (except when he's in his mad hitting moods of course).  Gambhir is more coached and thus more likely to find the fielders.

Aside from these physical aspects, of course there's also the mindset, the attitude, the psychology of the batsman.  I'm not really considering how a batsman responds to a particular team situation - whether he plays safe when the team is under pressure, or attacks when quick runs are needed, or picks certain bowlers to go after, certain fielders to pressurize.  While those attributes are important, they don't really constitute raw batting talent.  It's more about cricketing intelligence, and even if it can't be made intrinsic, it can certainly be coached.  So if I was a selector, I wouldn't give primacy to that aspect in picking talented cricketers.

Watching age-group or league-level cricket is great fun, because you can pretend to be a selector and look for the talented ones.  Now that's the "Cricket Stalker" in me talking :)

Monday, October 20, 2008

Are Test matches getting too predictable?

We've certainly heard, read and debated a lot about how one-day internationals are predictable, and how the middle overs have settled into a pretty boring pattern.  There are occasional attempts to shake things up, like the recent rule change allowing the batting team to choose one Powerplay, or compulsory ball changes, or the earlier experiment with substitutes.  All that tinkering with the rules hasn't really helped though, and I'm certainly losing interest in ODIs.  Twenty20 is more interesting not just because it's more action-packed (of necessity), but also because it's newer, and teams have not yet figured it out.

What about Test matches?  I know, it is almost a sacrilege to ask this question...  But are Test matches getting predictable?  Certainly, the variety of cricket on display in a 5-day encounter cannot be matched by the shorter forms of the game.  And there's no questioning the fact that Tests provide the real, all-round test of a cricketer's skills.  But when it comes to the pattern of play, things appear to be getting predictable.

"Win the toss and bat first" is almost an adage, and for good reason.  In most conditions, on most pitches, the first couple of days are the most conducive for batting.  Ideally, you'd like to occupy the crease for five sessions and declare with an hour to go on day-2.  You know the routine, pile up the runs, put the opposition's openers under pressure for a sustained hour of fast bowling, come back fresh on the morning of day-3, etc.  If you can pull it off, that formula does seem to work.  The only recent variation is that teams aren't enforcing the follow-on these days, whereas the earlier pattern would have called for the follow-on when available.

Note that the adage above starts with the toss.  A major role is thus played by Lady Luck.  In the case of teams that are well-matched, such as the Australia and India teams currently slugging it out in Mohali, this is quite unfortunate.  Note how the first two Tests have gone.  Australia won the toss in the first Test, batted, piled up 400-odd.  India were immediately under pressure, and it was only a rearguard effort by Harbhajan and Zaheer that kept them in contention in the Test.  Australia tried to put on some quick runs in the second innings and declared, setting India a stiff target.  This exact pattern has repeated itself in the second Test at Mohali, except that the roles have been reversed -- thanks to the toss!

It's true that the five days of play allow captains plenty of scope to experiment with tactics.  But overall, strategies don't seem to vary much at all.  Is this because the pitches are too similar?  Because the bowlers are too similar?  Because teams are too familiar with each other these days?  So, while it's still a pleasure to watch Test cricket in its details, perhaps it's losing out some of its charm as a game of strategy.  Even some tactics that were used often in the old days seem to be dying out.  How long has it been since a captain used an inverted batting order?  Or a 3-6 legside field?  When was the last time a team played with four/five pacemen and no spinner, or vice versa?  Perhaps we've made the stakes too high for teams to experiment... which is a shame.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Reflections on Ganguly's career

So, Saurav Ganguly's announced that he's playing his last Test series. Despite the protestations of shock and surprise from many quarters, this was clearly on the cards. Not so much because Ganguly wasn't performing well enough in Tests, but because of the ridiculous media pressure on him. More on the modern-day media and cricket journalism on another day perhaps. But it seems to me that Ganguly was 'pushed' by the media rather than the selectors, to take this decision.

It's not as if Ganguly will count as one of the all-time greats in Tests - he probably wouldn't even make it to an all-time Indian Test XI, as a batsman alone. If at all a place is found for him, it would have to be for his captaincy. As a captain, in all forms of the game, he stands head and shoulders above other Indian captains in history. Even above the likes of Gavaskar, Wadekar and Kapil, who can point to equally significant victories. That's because Ganguly was that rare combination of a smart tactician and a fine leader of men (a Gavaskar and Kapil rolled into one, sort of). Besides, at least on a few occasions, he also led from the front with bat in hand. That he wasn't called upon to do so more often was his good luck - having the likes of Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and Sehwag in his batting lineup. But his ability to get the best out of his team was unmatched by anyone in Indian cricket history. Youngsters and peers alike responded to his leadership, and as a result, India became an achiever in both forms of the game.

How does one evaluate Ganguly the batsman? The usual descriptors have appeared in the media since his announcement. God of the off-side. One of the greatest batsmen in one-day cricket. Clobberer of spin bowling (especially left-arm spinners). And of course, lalloo against the short ball! He was indeed all of that, and more. Some amazing natural batting talent, mixed with a few weaknesses - those weaknesses made him seem more mortal, and yet made sure we got to see his guts. He never really overcame these weaknesses - he continues to be uncomfortable against the ball headed for his ribs or helmet; he continues to give the occasional catching practice off good-length balls outside the off stump. But he delivered the runs despite these weaknesses. He'd cream one through the covers, get hit on the helmet next ball, but play a spanking pull to midwicket off the next short ball.

Ganguly faced less of a challenge in one-day cricket, with its bowling and fielding restrictions, and he ended up as one of the all-time greats. His record speaks for itself. Of course for true connoisseurs, the real test is Test cricket, where a pair of fast bowlers can bowl in tandem for an hour, or a spinner on a fifth-day crumbly pitch can attack with four men around the bat. And here too, the numbers speak volumes. Ganguly was a fine batsman, no doubt. But a Test average of 41-odd, in an era where the greats (Tendulkar, Ponting, Kallis, Dravid) averaged in the 55-60 range over equally long careers, means that Ganguly cannot be bracketed with these peers. Of course averages cannot be the sole criterion for greatness. We'd certainly make exceptions for Lara and Inzamam, who retired with averages well below that 55-60 range. But 41 is a long way away...

Ganguly is a good example of a modern-day player who benefited enormously from the popularity of (and frequency of) one-day cricket. Given the volume of cricket played these days, a Test series failure can be quickly forgotten if it's followed by good one-day performances. Also, the success (of self and team) in one-dayers can easily rub off on subsequent Test performances - by improving the player's confidence level, for one, and reducing any worries about his place in the team. Another player who might have thus benefited, if only he hadn't shot himself in the foot, was Vinod Kambli. Again, an extremely talented left-handed batsman, with similar weakness against the short ball. He was however selected and dropped so many times from the one-day team that he never got that confidence back. And he was never picked again for the Test team after being dropped with a Test average of 54!

Ganguly's departure will create an open slot in the middle order, probably at #6 (with Laxman moving up to #5). Much has been written about how there are no contenders for this slot, and how Ganguly has hung around only because there are no replacements. That's poppycock, frankly. Dravid and Ganguly were totally untested when they made their debuts, replacing a seasoned batsman like Sanjay Manjrekar. In contrast, today's potential replacements have had lots of exposure to international cricket - even young kids like Rohit Sharma and Suresh Raina, not to mention the "lost generation" of Yuvraj Singh and Mohd. Kaif. In terms of talent, they don't come across as inferior to Ganguly at all. Whether they have the mental strength to emulate (or surpass) Ganguly in performance, we'll only know when we throw them into the deep end. Yuvraj and Kaif have been given several chances in Tests, although not necessarily in decent spells. They've been frustratingly inconsistent. But there certainly is plenty of bench strength with kids like Sharma, Raina and Virat Kohli around.

So, as Ganguly bids goodbye, I have some great memories - so many lovely cover drives that just blur together, the shirt-twirling performance at Lord's, the 144 at Brisbane, a 90-odd to chase down a tricky target in Sri Lanka... But the most fun memory of Ganguly, and one which illustrates his cheeky, naughty nature that so aggravated Steve Waugh and others, came during the 2003 World Cup. Ganguly had a contract with news channel NDTV for brief interviews after each match. Now NDTV is an English language channel, and the interviewer asked every single question in English, but Ganguly gave every single answer in Hindi, leaving the interviewer nonplussed! I don't know, it just made me smile :-)

Monday, September 29, 2008

"Ultra Cricket"

For those of you who don't know what Ultra Cricket is, you don't know what you're missing.
For those of you who do know Ultra Cricket, you're surely, sorely missing it!

Ultra Cricket, better known as UC to its friends, is a play-by-email cricket game -- the kind where you send in a set of game-play commands (or "orders") by email, play against others doing the same, and get the game results back by email.  But that doesn't even begin to describe the allure of UC, so let me try and expand on it in this article.

Cricket, unsurprisingly, is very amenable to such play-by-email games -- all of us cricket fans after all think we can "manage" or "coach" teams better than the Gary Kirstens and Greg Chappells of the world!  We surely think we'd do a much better job of team selection than the "bunch of jokers" that abound!  We play our teams in Fantasy Cricket leagues, such as the one on CricInfo and try to prove that.  But somehow, fantasy cricket isn't terribly satisfying - your performance depends entirely on that of the players you select.  And you have no control over how they bat, bowl or field during the game.  What gets really interesting is when you have the ability to simulate a cricket game, acting as the selector, coach and captain (of one side, mind you) all rolled into one!

However, cricket as a game is fiendishly difficult to simulate.  To faithfully simulate it requires a complex model that recreates what happens on every single delivery.  How well it is bowled, how it behaves in the air and off the pitch, how well the batsman plays it, where it goes, whether it's fielded or not, how many runs result, wickets, run-outs, changing pitch conditions... it's just mind-boggling.  That's probably why there are very few good cricket simulations out there.  The best of the lot, by far, is Ultra Cricket.

Ultra Cricket has been developed over many years by Tim Astley, an Aussie from the land of David Boon and Ricky Ponting, who somehow managed to do all the modelling and programming while also doing a Ph.D. and post-doc in chemistry, and raising three kids!  The name is derived from the "game" of Brockian Ultra Cricket, which is featured in Douglas Adams' memorable Hitchhiker's Guide series of books.

You start off by forming your own squad - not a team of 11, but a squad of 25 players!  You are allotted a fixed number of draft points, which you use to "create" 25 players.  Players have a set of skills:
  1. batting ability
  2. aggression
  3. bowling ability
  4. economy (bowling)
  5. fielding ability
For each player in your squad, and for each of the skills above, you assign a skill level ranging from bad to poor to average to good to great to superb.  Each step up in skill has a cost in terms of draft points (DPs).  Since your DPs are limited, you have to optimally use them to create a useful pool of players of all types -- batsmen, bowlers, allrounders and wicketkeepers.

That's not all.  Each player also has an age, and your squad must be balanced, with players ranging from age 0 to age 4.  In "real" terms, an age-0 is probably a 16-year-old, and only the rare Sachin Tendulkar will be good enough to play for the team at that age.  An age-4 player is probably around 30, and is at his/her peak in terms of skills.  As time progresses (i.e., as we play the UC leagues), these players actually get older, and that affects their skills in interesting ways!  Initially, players' skills improve with age, but beyond a certain point, they start diminishing, as you'd expect in real life.

Drafting a squad is just the first challenge of UC.  What happens next is that your team gets placed into a league with say 7 other teams.  A "season" of Ultra Cricket follows - 14 or 15 weeks of high-octane cricket action!  Each "week" in UC, your team plays a 5-day Test and two ODIs.  Now you don the hat of selector, and get to pick the 11-member teams that play in each of these three games.  What's more, wearing the hat of "captain", you now specify the batting order, who will keep wickets, etc.   You get to decide who will bowl when, how long their spells will be, how aggressive or defensive the field setting will be in different situations, etc.  All this is done up front, by creating a set of "orders" - a simple text file in a pre-defined format.  This set of orders is sent by email to the ultra cricket daemon, each week.  Your opponents each week (for the Test and ODIs) will do the same for their teams.

When Tim runs the games each week, UC simulates each game, faithfully following the orders emailed in by the participants.  This is where the magic occurs - Tim's simulator code decides what happens on each and every delivery, using a complex set of formluae.  The outcome depends on the batsman and bowler's skill levels (batting, bowling, economy, etc.), the help the bowler is getting from the pitch (which in turn depends on whether he's a seam bowler, a swing bowler or a spinner), the form the batsman is in, etc.!  The runs scored, if any, also depend on the field setting at that time (controlled by your orders), as well as the fielding skills of those fielders.  After all this simulation, the outcome may be as simple as a "dot ball", or it could be as dramatic as a wicket.  Whatever it is, UC faithfully records it all.

When the games are all done, UC emails out to each of us a full, ball-by-ball account of each of those three games.  That's when the fun (and nail-biting tension) begins for all of us UC players!  It's amazing to go through the games, following the ups and downs of your team's fortunes.  The simulation is very realistic - which means that you hardly ever get ridiculous scores like 500 in a 50-over match, or 25 all out in a Test innings.  The numbers on your scorecards and statistics look very believable.  What's more, the statistics are nicely correlated to the skill levels of your players, and yet random enough to keep things unpredictable!  Sometimes, your "great" and "superb" players go through bad patches, even entire bad seasons with abominable averages.  But in the long term, the numbers seem to work out just fine.

To make things even more interesting, UC lets you play the role of a coach as well!  Each team has a fixed number of training points (TPs) per week.  You can decide which players will be given how much training, in each of the five main skills - but subject to a constraint of 8 TPs per player.  Coaching helps improve the players' skills - the more the TPs you allocate to a specific skill, the more the improvement in that ability.  Given the cap of 8 TPs per player, as well as the total TPs your team has earned, you have another balancing act here - how to improve your squad (of 25 players, remember), ensuring bench strength, getting youngsters ready for prime-time, etc.  These training orders are also sent in along with each week's orders, and you get back a "formguide" showing the current skills levels of each player in your squad.  Thus, managing your squad and keeping it competitive over multiple UC seasons is a challenge in itself.

Believe me, this game is addictive.  You get so attached to your team, your players, their progress over time, their performances, statistics, results...  I've been playing UC probably since at least 12 years ago, and the magic still hasn't worn off.

Now having raved so much about UC, here comes the bad news.  UC is currently shut down (only suspended, we hope), because Tim is no longer able to run it in his free time.  That's why I started this article by saying how sorely we fans are missing UC.  It's been a labour of love for him, and it's always been free, so he's hardly been compensated for his efforts other than the occasional donations.  But Tim assures us it'll be back some time, perhaps with a new, spiffier interface.  In the meanwhile, I'm glad I have years and years of weekly results to pore over!

Thanks Tim, for all the memories, the fun, the challenge, the tension of close-fought matches and the close-run leagues... for creating a virtual world in which cricket fanatics can play all those roles we'd never get to play otherwise!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Chuck de India

Bishen Singh Bedi goes ballistic every few months. Whenever Murali goes past yet another record, or Harbhajan is in the news (for his bowling that is), Bedi has something to say, with words like "javelin-throwing" or "shot-put" sprinkled about liberally. Bedi believes that these bowlers, and several others in international cricket, are "chuckers" and should not be allowed to bowl.

This is of course a very controversial topic. The ICC has gone about addressing this issue in a very gingerly fashion, testing bowlers for "degrees of flexion", setting an upper limit of 15 degrees, recommending remedial clinics, etc. In earlier times, it was entirely up to the officiating umpires to rule on the legality of a delivery, and call "no ball" if they suspected it was a chuck. Even at the highest (Test) level, this has been done, resulting in abrupt endings to some promising careers. In the modern professional age though, this is seen as harsh (and just asking for legal challenges), and so bowlers are given the opportunity to correct their action and resume their careers after a re-test.

My interest here is to analyse what forms of chucking should be penalized and what shouldn't. It should be obvious that we're trying to prevent the bowler from getting an unfair advantage. The Laws make it clear that it's not a bent arm per se that gives you the unfair advantage. It's the straightening of the elbow during delivery. This straightening can lead to a pace bowler being able to bowl more quickly, and a spinner being able to extract more turn off the pitch, than would otherwise be possible.

Now the ICC discovered using video footage and biomechanical tests that some straightening of the arm always occurs, even in a normal legal bowling action. They came up with this 15-degree limit based on the assumption (ok, maybe fact) that beyond this figure, a "chuck" would be visually obvious to the umpires.

However, the point being missed is whether this 15-degree straightening gives an unfair advantage. In some cases, the straightening occurs well before the release of the ball. Brett Lee, who was accused of chucking early in his career, is an example of this. However, if you consider the arc made by his bowling arm, from the point where it is vertical to the point of release, the arm seems to be quite straight. In other words, the straightening is complete before the arm becomes vertical, and thus, even if that straightening is more than 15 degrees, it shouldn't provide him any unfair advantage.

For a different example, consider Muralitharan. In his case, replays and biomechanical tests have shown that his arm in fact doesn't straighten significantly. And in his case, spin is imparted primarily by that whiplash action of the wrist. The wrist certainly "straightens" far more than 15 degrees, but that is expressly allowed by the Laws.

I personally find Harbhajan's case rather touch-and-go. Even after his remodelling efforts, I get the feeling that his action involves a straightening of the arm at the business-end of the bowling action, which enables him to get extra revs on the ball. Even if that straightening is less than the 15 degrees permitted by the Law, in my mind it constitutes an unfair advantage. Shoaib Akhtar is another perennial "offender" in this category. Again, tests seem to have shown that he's within the prescribed limits. However, it again seems unfair that he gets to ratchet up his pace a few notches, just because of that arbitrary 15-degree limit.

Ideally, players with such dubious actions should never make it to the international / professional levels. Umpires and selectors at lower levels should step in and privately make it clear to the bowler that they need to change their action if they want to step up to higher grades of cricket. And this does happen in some cases...

I remember following Indian domestic cricket for many years in the 1990s, wondering why Baroda's Tushar Arothe never seemed to get a chance for India. In fact he never even seemed to make it to India-A, or Rest-of-India, or any of those stepping-stone teams. This despite being a very consistent all-round performer for Baroda. He was a competent left-handed batsman in the middle order, and an off-spinner. Then one day I got to watch him in action for the first time... I think it was a Ranji or Duleep trophy game at the Wankhede Stadium. Arothe was bowling his offies. And in a minute it was obvious - he was chucking.

In a way, it was quite nice of the selectors and officials at that level - they let Arothe have his career as a Ranji professional, without ever exposing him to the international level where his action would immediately have been questioned. They seemed to have learnt from the case of Rajesh Chauhan, the Madhya Pradesh off-spinner, who had a similar problem. He was pushed into the Indian team, and played with some success. But there was always the suspicion of chucking, and opponents filed their complaints regularly until he was unceremoniously dropped. All this was of course before the ICC stepped in with their new procedures and rules.

My own childhood idol, Karsan Ghavri, was suspected of chucking when he bowled his bouncer. I refused to belive that, of course :-) Another Indian pace bowler in that category was Chetan Sharma. And so was Manoj Prabhakar, although in his case I always got the impression that he used his wrists well, rather than straightening his arm.

All in all, I get the feeling that the game would be better served with a modified Law to deal with chucking. Most people would agree that there are bowlers in international cricket today who get an unfair advantage despite being under the ICC's prescribed limits. That could possibly be fixed by looking at the bowling arm after it reaches its highest point in the delivery action. Beyond the vertical, there should be no further straightening or bending allowed, period. That's really the business end of the bowling action, and it ought to be regulated more strictly. Currently, the flexion is checked once the arm goes above shoulder-level.

Handling of violators is still a tricky issue, because of all the emotions and weird notions of national pride associated with such cases! So the ICC's process of reporting the bowler, testing him, etc. may continue. But maybe, just maybe we'll get to hear less often from Bishen Bedi! :-)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Nothing underhand about it...

One fine day back in 1981, underhand (or underarm) bowling acquired a particularly bad name.  In a one-dayer between Australia and New Zealand, the Kiwis needed six to win off the last ball of the match.  Australia's captain Greg Chappell asked the bowler - his brother Trevor - to bowl underhand, keeping the ball very close to the pitch.  This made it practically impossible for the batsman to hit a six, and Australia duly won the game.

Technically, underhand bowling was allowed by the Laws of Cricket at that time.  But it was considered unsportsmanlike well before the incident happened.  After all, cricket had evolved from underarm to round-arm to over-arm bowling in the 19th century itself - more than 100 years before the Chappell incident.  Soon, the Laws were modified to explicitly disallow it.

It may be unsportsmanlike to bowl underhanded in Tests or first-class cricket in general.  But it does make for some interesting street cricket!  And it seems quite natural in fact.  Kids learn to throw things (not just balls) either underhanded, or over-arm with a bent elbow - not a legal bowling action either!  Nobody naturally throws things in the proper cricket bowling action.

In Mumbai, much of street cricket involves underhand bowling.  This may be partly because of space constraints - there usually isn't enough space for a run-up and follow-through, and pitches are well short of 22 yards too.  So we used to play underarm cricket with those red rubber balls.  Taped tennis balls were an alternative, but those were much more expensive, and spun less than the rubber ball.  You could really give the rubber ball a rip and make it spin right across the batsman in either direction!  Or you could make it dip nicely with topspin.  There was also the underhand equivalent of the googly.  And when there was enough space for a longish pitch, we'd permit "fast" underhand bowling.  This usually involved a 3-4 step run-up followed by a rapid circular action of the bowling arm, culminating in underhand release.  Although the stock delivery would be fast, full in length, and cutting into the right-handed batsman, the expert underarm bowlers were able to even bowl 'bouncers', with great shock value!

The batsman generally had very limited reaction time against such fast bowling, and a high backlift was out of the question.  Most of the strokeplay had to be in the vee, because the bowling was generally full anyway, and there was no time for the horizontal-bat shots.  The bulk of the dismissals were bowled.  LBWs were hotly contested, because there were no umpires of course.  It was up to the non-striker and bowler to settle the issue, with the help of the keeper.

Of course, we lefties had the advantage of naturally bowling away-going deliveries (leg-cutters) to the right-handed batsman.  But even if we managed to get a snick, it was usually impossible to catch; it wouldn't carry to the keeper or slips.  So we had to hope for the perfect jaffa, bowling over the wicket, pitching on the leg stump and hitting off.  Of course all this changed if the "one-bounce rule" was in effect, that is, a catch taken on the bounce is considered legal.  We called it "one-tup out" or "ek-tappi out", and it forced the batsman to try and place the ball between the fielders.

The strokeplay in general was fast and furious in such games - no scope for delicate glances and flicks.  The rubber ball does fly nicely off the bat, which helps.  But there's also a lot of furious running between the wickets.  We usually played one-innings matches, without over limits; they weren't necessary because teams were small (5-6 players to each side) and wickets fell regularly.  Great fun, and nothing underhand about it!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


I just made up that word... so I get to decide what it means! It means the love of stadia (or stadiums, if you prefer). More precisely, I'm actually referring to the love of watching cricket - or other games - in stadia, as against on TV. Somehow it just feels like a different game altogether when you're watching it in real life, and not just live.

I've heard these arguments in favour of TV coverage numerous times - the dozen viewing angles, the action replays, the statistics (or often, trivia), the "expert" commentary, the snickometers and Hawkeyes, and so on. And yet, watching it in the stadium gives me a much better feel for the game. The 360 degree view, the thwack-sound of willow on leather, the smell of fresh-cut grass, the excitement of a ball being lofted into your stand... TV coverage just can't convey these.

And so, I'm a stadia-phile. Truth be told, I haven't had the chance to see too many cricket stadia. I grew up watching cricket at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai of course. I've seen all kinds of matches there - Tests, ODIs, Ranji and Duleep games, and even a festival match between Kapil's Devils and Azhar's Army! In the early days, I used to sit in the West Stand - courtesy of free passes from one of the clubs to whom they are allotted. This gives you a view from square-leg or cover, which isn't ideal. But it does have the advantage that the stand is in the shadows during the hot Mumbai afternoon, unlike the East Stand where you get roasted! Later on, I watched a lot of games from the Garware Pavilion. Always tried to find a seat close to the player's enclosure above the dressing room. On more than one occasion, I was able to toss an autograph book over the fence to the players (Karsan Ghavri - my idol, Raju Kulkarni, etc.), to get their autographs!

Also had the chance to watch some games at the Brabourne Stadium next door, but only rarely - by the time I started watching cricket, the Wankhede had already been built. Nevertheless it was fun to see the Brabourne pavilion (much better looking than the Wankhede of course), the clock that was once smashed by an Ajit Wadekar sixer, etc.

Back in 1983, while still in school, I had the chance to watch an ODI at the Lal Bahadur Shastri Stadium in Hyderabad. We had travelled by train from Mumbai, to spend the Ganapati holidays with an uncle. The train reached Hyderabad in the morning. My uncle greeted us at the station, put us into his Ambassador car, and took us straight to the stadium! Unknown to us, he had arranged for tickets to this match between India and Pakistan - what a treat! By the time we reached the stadium, the match was about to start. As we were negotiating the lines to get in, up went an almighty roar from the crowd inside -- Kapil had got the wicket of Mudassar Nazar off the very second ball of the match! India went on to win that game comfortably, leaving me with great memories, and a small tinge of regret at having missed the first wicket.

Ten years later, I spent a week or so in London. It was my first visit to the U.K. There is, of course, so much to see in London. But I spent my first day in London visiting three "places of pilgrimage" - Lord's, the Oval, and Wimbledon! I had bought an all-day pass for the London underground (4 pounds, at that time), and used that to zip over from one place to another. It was great fun to visit these stadia. This was in the first week of October (1993), so the cricket season had just ended, and there was no cricket-stalking to be done! But that was a blessing in disguise, because in the off-season, you get to stomp around the entire ground, including the pavilions, the changing rooms, etc.

At Lord's, there is a guided tour available. An old (very old) MCC member took a small bunch of us around the ground, pointing out the various famous landmarks like the W.G.Grace gate, the Father Time weathervane, the then-headquarters of the ICC, etc., all the while chattering away about various incidents in cricketing history associated with Lord's. We also saw the museum with the original Ashes urn among (many) other memorabilia. But the highlight of the guided tour was walking through the Long Room in the pavilion, and the home & visiting teams' dressing rooms! It was amazing to be standing in the balcony where Kapil Dev and co. lifted the 1983 World Cup. The honours boards in the dressing rooms where every Test century and 5-fer is recorded... And the Long Room, with all the portraits of famous crickets of years past, and a selection of Bradman's bats. The old guide pointed out portraits of Larwood, Voce and Jardine and asked us "So what connects these gentlemen?" I immediately piped up, "Bodyline!", and the old member was suitably impressed - "The young man knows his cricket!". I almost replied with a "Pshaw" to that one, it was too easy :-)

After Lord's, the Kennington Oval - the home ground of Surrey CCC, and host to many memorable Test matches - is inevitably a bit of a letdown. For one thing, when I visited it, it had been renamed the "Foster's Oval", after the sponsor, a beer brand. You just don't do that to venerable cricket stadia! But there it was... Secondly, there was no guided tour there, and no entry to the pavilion itself. But I was free to walk around, and I did, breathing in the history of the place, replaying in my mind the grainy highlights of Chandra bowling out the English in 1971! There was also a cricket museum there, which was quite nice, and I was able to pick up some souvenirs.

Since this is a cricket blog, I won't go into my Wimbledon visit the same day - suffice it to say that as a tennis fan too, that was yet another wonderful experience, albeit without the strawberries and cream.

I lived in Delhi for almost 6 years, but somehow never managed to watch a game at the Feroze Shah Kotla. The Kotla has such a poor reputation for spectator comfort/convenience that I never really felt like going. Now that it's being rebuilt, one can hope that those issues will go away. I'm now based in Pune, which sadly doesn't host Tests. So I'm waiting for the next opportunity to watch a one-dayer at the Nehru Stadium here. What I've seen of it from the outside isn't particularly promising, but if the cricket is good, it may be worth it!

Friday, August 22, 2008

"Ground" Realities

Many of us grew up playing cricket on whatever open spaces we could find, no matter how strangely shaped. In previous posts (here, and here) I had referred to cricket being played on concrete walkways, apartment-building terraces, and even baseball diamonds. There is enormous variation in the shapes and playing surfaces, and it prepares the young cricketer for anything!

Fans of Sunil Gavaskar must surely know that his early cricket was played on a narrow, rectangular strip of ground next to his apartment building (in Chikhalwadi, Mumbai). That forced the kids to play as straight as possible, and perhaps that's why Gavaskar was the master of playing in the 'V'. Also, the ground-floor apartments had glass windows, and any hits in the air could smash the window panes - which taught the young Gavaskar to keep his strokes along the ground!

In contrast, a lot of West Indian cricketers play their early cricket on the beaches of the Caribbean. Strokes hit along the ground don't travel too far in the sand, and the only way to score runs quickly is to hit them in the air, avoiding the fielders as much as possible. That may explain why Viv Richards was a master of the lofted shots. Alternatively, you had to be a Clive Lloyd type of batsman, who would bludgeon the ball with such force that it would reach the boundary even on a sandy beach!

In the old days of uncovered pitches, England had its share of great spinners as well as batsmen who could tackle spin bowling. The English cricket season is during the summer months, when it seems to rain much of the time! As a result, the county grounds would be grassy and soggy, and the pitches would be "sticky dogs". There are many examples of two spinners opening the bowling in Tests in England, because of these conditions. English and Australian spinners enjoyed great success in Ashes Tests in those days.

My own little experience with "ground realities" made me a predominantly on-side batsman. The ground in our colony had a reasonably good playing surface, but the pitch was skewed to one side of the ground, with a boundary wall close by. As a result, the off side was very small - barely 20 to 30 ft - so that there were no "boundaries" on the off side. If you hit the ball to that boundary wall, you just kept running and it was almost impossible to get more than 2 runs.

The on side was quite large, and dotted with several fruit (chickoo) trees that were about 15-20 ft tall. Given the constricted off-side, many of us ended up as "specialist" on-side batsmen! We'd play with open stances - not side-on, but with shoulder pointing to mid-wicket, almost. At the slightest hint of a short ball (plenty of those, at our level), we'd try and hook or pull the ball onto the spacious on side. Of course we also had to ensure that we cleared those fruit trees, else the ball would simply fall to ground somewhere near square leg or short mid-wicket, where a fielder was invariably stationed. So we never learned how to "roll the wrists" and keep the hook/pull shot down, but we certainly honed our ability to play the bouncer and capitalize on it!

The downside was that our off-side game was badly underdeveloped. I was never able to play the square cut or square drive reliably, for example. Never got the timing right. Although the bowlers tried to restrict the batsmen by bowling on the off side, we'd just step across and hoik the ball to the on side. The long-off boundary was just about the only scoring option on the off side, so we did get plenty of practice at the lofted shots, especially against the (few) spinners. But inevitably, due to our open-chested stances, we'd end up pulling the lofted shot to long-on or deep mid-on.

Makes me wonder whether Sourav Ganguly played his early cricket on a similar ground, except with a non-existent on-side!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The TV Referral System

The India-Sri Lanka series has just ended, and apart from the cricket proper, a major source of interest was the trial of the TV referral system. So what's the verdict at the end of the series? Is it good, bad, or ugly? A few thoughts and observations...

First of all, the most common criticism of the referrals have been that they take too much time. And they do, but I think this criticism is misplaced. Time wasn't a major factor in this Test series at all -- none of the Tests went into the fifth day. And that's probably true of most Tests these days. So I'd wager that in most cases, referrals won't result in a draw for lack of time to complete four innings.

Are referrals boring? Certainly not for TV audiences, who get to watch the slo-mo replays and Hawkeyes and snickometers and guess which way the TV umpire will go. And since most grounds these days have giant TV screens, the spectators in the stadium won't mind those couple of minutes of tension either.

Are referrals useful overall? Ah, now that's a tough one. Tony Greig, doing the commentary on TV, harped on the point that the right decision was being made in the end. Going by the letter of the Laws of Cricket, that's probably true. Assuming that the technology is reasonably accurate, the TV umpire should be able to make the right decision - which incidentally includes applying the benefit of the doubt, if any, in favour of the batsman. Even the letter of the Law requires that. But is that really happening overall?

Now both sides have an "equal opportunity" to challenge an umpire's decision. But notice the pattern of the successful reviews - almost all of them have overturned an umpire's "not out" decision, thus favouring the fielding side overall. There were very few cases of a batsman being wrongly given out, successfully challenging the decision. Most of the batsman-initiated challenges failed to change the decision, even in the case of LBWs. That in itself tells us something - that umpires tend to get the "outs" correct most of the time!

So what the reviews are achieving is to reverse the umpire's "not outs", most of which were LBW decisions. Those were "not outs" in the first place because the umpire gave the benefit of doubt to the batsman, as he should. It's particularly tricky for LBWs, because the Law is pretty complex. The umpire has to be convinced that the ball would have gone on to hit the stumps, hasn't pitched even marginally outside leg, etc. And if the impact was outside the off stump line, the umpire has to judge the batsman's intent - whether he meant to play a shot or not. Given this Law, and the history of its application over the decades, we have come to expect relatively few LBW appeals to be successful. And that's partly because of the nature of the game-play itself. After all, the batsman has to stand somewhere, and can't be expected to keep the ball off his legs every time. The Law probably came into being to stop any blatant attempts to guard the stumps using the pads rather than the bat. It shouldn't be used as an excuse to get a wicket, just because the ball happens to hit the batsman's pad. Some of the LBWs given after review in this series were so marginal (e.g. pad-bat in that sequence, or height-wise just clipping the bail) that it's hard to claim that the right decision was made in the end.

Some would argue that it's about time the bowlers got some help against the meatier bats, the bouncer restrictions, etc. But by practically eliminating the benefit of doubt using technology, the referral system is altering the game at a fundamental level. In the traditional game, if a batsman is wrongly given out, that's it, his innings is over, no second chance. If the batsman is wrongly given not-out, tough luck for the fielding side, but they have plenty of second chances. If the referral system is adopted, this fundamental nature of the game changes (a little, at least). It will have an impact on batting techniques in the years to come. And in the process, it's not solving a real problem. Did we have an outcry among the bowlers because their appeals were being wrongly turned down? Not that I know of. Did we have an outcry among batsmen because they were being wrongly given out. Yes, for time immemorial. Even if you consider the latter a problem, the TV referrals aren't needed to solve that. Just having TV replays provides enough evidence that the batsmen have no cause for complaint.

Referrals also have an insidious side effect - loss of respect for the authority of the umpire. It's essentially giving the player the right to challenge the umpire's decision, and that can't be good for the larger game. Outside of international cricket, there will be no TV coverage and no referrals. But the kids learn from what they see on TV, and make no mistake, they will learn that it's okay to challenge the umpire.

The use of a TV umpire in itself is okay for line decisions, bump balls and the like - but the decision whether to call upon the third umpire should rest with the on-field umpires. TV referrals have been tried and junked in other sports like American football. I'd suggest doing the same in cricket.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Mendis the Menace

It's been fascinating to watch the Indian batsmen battle Ajantha Mendis (and Murali, lest we forget) over the first two Tests in Sri Lanka. Mendis has had amazing success against a batting lineup that is often said to be the best against spin bowling. Does this mean Mendis is on a different plane altogether, or is it due to his being new and freaky? I'll explore this question in this post.

If you look at the Indian batting, two of its pillars - Dravid and Laxman - have built their reputations on conquering fast bowling rather than spin. Add in Yuvraj Singh, although he's hardly a regular in the Test team. In the past, spinners like Saqlain Mushtaq and Murali have had the measure of these batsmen. Dravid and Laxman have struggled badly in this series especially against Mendis, never sure whether to stretch forward or play off the backfoot. Whatever plan they had for tackling the M&Ms, it hasn't worked.

Sachin, Sehwag and Ganguly are of course very, very good against spin and Gambhir is proving that he belongs in that company. Ganguly hasn't quite shown it in this series, but Sehwag and Gambhir have scored freely against M&M, and Sachin has looked comfortable. So, overall, it must still be said that the Indian top-6 are the best lineup against spin bowling in the world. Which brings us back to Mendis the menace.

What's special about Mendis? It's that never-before-seen bowling action, the carrom-flick delivery, but it's also the variety. In the past I've often wondered, why doesn't an off spinner try bowling the occasional leg spin (with the conventional wrist action), or vice versa? Sachin Tendulkar does it, once in a while. Easy enough to pick, sure, but wouldn't it add to the uncertainty in the batsman's planning? Everything you're taught about technique, hitting with the spin etc. has to be rethought if the bowler can't be slotted as an LBG, SLA or whatever.

That's what Mendis has achieved. Apart from his carrom-flick ball which moves either way, he bowls a conventional off spinner and a finger-action googly (a la Kumble). These don't just spin in different directions (or go straight on occasionally), there are also small variations in pace. Even if you can pick him out of the hand, you're still forced to do it every single delivery! Imagine the levels of concentration and application that demands of the batsman. In contrast, with most left-arm orthodox bowlers you know which way it's going to turn, and you only have to watch out for the arm ball from round the wicket. With LBG bowlers, the googly is only used as a surprise weapon once in a couple of overs, so again the batsman can set himself to play leg-spin, with variations only in line and length. And similarly with off-spinners, it's only a rare few who can bowl the occasional doosra; most of the time, you know it's going to turn off-to-leg.

Mendis' carrom ball is his real novelty, and doubly so because he can get it to move both ways. Listening to the commentators, it doesn't seem that they have figured it out either. The one thing I've noticed in the slow-mo replays is that the seam position seems to matter. When the seam is reasonably upright, it seems to move like an off-break; when it's almost cross-seam, it spins from leg-to-off. But I haven't seen enough replays to mark a definite correlation with the seam position. I'm sure the video analysts of most Test teams are hard at work already. So it's possible that it's only a matter of time (and enough video evidence) before the batsmen get some help in tackling that ball.

Old-timers talk about how, when India's Prasanna and Venkat would bowl their off-spinners, the ball would make a whizzing sound on its way to the batsman. That's because they didn't merely roll their fingers over the ball. They gripped the ball on the seam, like a seam bowler might, with forefinger and middle-finger on top and the thumb underneath. And at the point of delivery, they'd impart lots of rpms on the ball with a mighty snap of the fingers. Apart from imparting spin, this had the effect of generating a nice loop or drift (depending on the arm action). Most of today's spinners don't do that, and are consequently less effective. Mendis and Murali don't either, but their actions are totally unconventional anyway.

Anyway, that was a digression... So, even if the video evidence yields some results, Mendis will remain difficult to tackle simply because of his variety, his four different deliveries, all bowled regularly (and not just as an occasional surprise weapon). His real achievement is not in developing four different deliveries - Shane Warne will claim that he had many more - but in having such control over all of them as to bowl them at will. The LBG bowler often struggles to pitch the googly on the right line and length, and often gets it woefully short or down the leg side. Not so with Mendis. His control over line (almost invariably within the "mat") and length (rare short balls) is wonderful. He still hasn't been really tested of course - bowling on a totally flat pitch, going through a long series of wicketless overs, or being attacked by batsman willing to use their feet. If he can retain that control and variety in adverse conditions, he will continue to be successful in Test cricket. Of course, these days a lot happens in cricket between Test series. How he fares in the limited overs versions of the game will have a bearing as well. But that's a topic for another day...

Monday, July 28, 2008

Sri Lanka's propensity for records...

Just what is it about Sri Lanka and records? Granted that they have had reasonable success in Tests and one-dayers in recent years, but you wouldn't call them a world-beating side. They would appear to rely too heavily on Murali in the bowling department (and to some extent, Vaas), and Mahela-Sangakkara in batting. So their successes have been sporadic. And yet, they have this penchant for eye-popping performances, and setting records of all kinds!

Here are a few examples:
  • The highest Test innings of all time, their 952/6d against India in 1997, as well as the highest ODI innings of all time - 443/9 vs Netherlands.
  • Murali of course - highest Test wicket-taker of all time, 746 and counting. Murali will soon cross Akram to become the highest wicket-taker in ODIs as well.
  • Murali again - most 5WIs and 10WMs in Test history, and assorted other records stemming from his prolific wicket-taking (like most LBWs or whatever, too many to list).
  • Massive individual scores like Mahela Jayawardene's 374 and Jayasuriya's 340.
  • The two biggest partnerships of all time in Tests: Mahela and Sanga's 624 vs South Africa, and Jaya-Mahanama's 576 vs India.
  • The all-time best ODI bowling performance: ChamindaVaas' 8-19 vs. Zimbabwe.
  • Vaas' match above is also the shortest completed ODI ever - Sri Lanka "chased" down the target of 39 in about 4 overs, making it 20 overs in all in the game! The next two in the list of shortest games also feature Sri Lanka, beating Canada and Zimbabwe (again).
  • Sri Lanka have this propensity to absolutely destroy weak opponents. The lowest three innings totals in ODIs were all inflicted by Sri Lanka - in fact it's the same three matches referred to in the above bullet.
  • Chaminda Vaas' hat-trick off the first three balls of the match vs. Bangladesh in the 2003 World Cup.
  • Jayasuriya has an array of stunning innings in ODIs, the fastest 50 (17 balls), the most sixes in an innings (11) as well as career, and some of the fastest 100s as well.
For a country that is still young in cricketing terms, that's a terrific collection of achievements. Some of these are sheer bursts of brilliance, others come from longevity and maintaining performance over long periods. How do we explain that? It's not as if the average Sri Lankan is athletically or physically gifted (as you might claim for a West Indian). Nor do they have a particularly strong sporting culture and training systems (a la Australia), that I know of.

Does it have something to do with being regarded as "minnows" for a long time? Maybe that hurts your pride so much that when you get the chance, you absolutely make it count, rub it in - witness the 952/6d innings, when they went on batting and didn't bother to declare early enough to force a result. Or it is just coincidence that they've produced a small number of brilliant individual performers like Murali and Jaya who keep setting records? Does it have something to do with being an island nation, and the resultant implications on culture? Can we compare them with the West Indies, which has similarly had brilliant individuals, but also formidable world-beating teams?

I must admit I am not satisfied with any of these "explanations". Why hasn't New Zealand produced similar feats for example, despite being somewhat similar to Sri Lanka in many of the above respects? Or have they, except that they chose rugby instead?

I wonder if someone could do a thesis on this topic and enlighten us all :)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The good ol' days - live scorecards using 'dougie' and 'finger'

More reminiscences of the early days of cricket on the Internet...

Just as CricInfo was getting started, there was another revolution on the 'net, around the 1992-93 timeframe. Jacques De Villiers, a student in South Africa (and no relation to Fanie or AB, as far as I know!), wrote a neat little program called dougie. This was a cricket scoring program coupled with an Internet-wide score distribution system - well before the emergence of the web and browers. For those of us yearning for live score updates, it was positively a boon! Here's more on how it worked.

The dougie program worked in two modes - let's call them master and listener. A volunteer scorer watched the game, usually on TV, and operated dougie in master mode. The program had a command-line interface using which the scorer entered the 'events' on each ball, using short-hand commands. For example, if it was a dot ball, the scorer merely entered a '.' whereas if it was hit for a four, the scorer typed in '4'. There were similar commands for recording extras, the fall of wickets, a change of bowling, etc.

Of course, most users of dougie never needed to learn these commands - only the scorers did. Most of us were listeners. Now we used dougie in conjunction with the finger utility available on most Unix systems. The person who was doing the scoring would typically post to the Usenet newsgroup rec.sport.cricket, giving us their address (username@hostname.com, or whatever). The master dougie would internally keep track of the complete scorecard, including the bowling analyses, etc. and store a plain-text, nicely-formatted version of the scorecard in the user's .plan file. If I was only interested in an occasional update, I would run the command "finger username@hostname.com", which fetches that user's .plan file and displays it on my screen. So I'd get to see the latest scorecard.

However, most of us were greedier - we wanted the live scorecard, continually refreshing itself! For that, we had to have the dougie program downloaded and installed on our machines. It was available for free via anonymous FTP in the form of source code, and we had to compile it on our machines. Now we'd run dougie in its default listener mode, and give it the Internet address (hostname and port number) of the master dougie. The listener would set up a connection (TCP) with the master, and hey presto, we'd have the latest, live, self-updating scorecard displayed on our screens! Every time the scorer entered a command into the master dougie, the command (just that '.' or '4' or whatever) would be relayed to all the listeners, who would then update their scorecards accordingly. So by transmitting a tiny amount of data, dougie could regenerate and display the live scorecard for many users.

Now dougie had even more tricks up its sleeve. Although those were early days of the Internet, there were still hundreds, if not thousands of users interested in following the scores live. If all of them had tried to connect to the master dougie, we'd have a resource problem - not enough network bandwidth at the master machine, not enough ports to connect to, etc. So Jacques et al. came up with a neat solution to that. The master would only support 4 listeners. When a fifth listener dougie came along, it would be told "sorry, the master's too busy, why don't you try one of my four children who are already connected?". Then that fifth listener would connect with the first child, and start getting live updates from it. Similarly, a sixth listener would connect to the next child. Whenever the master sent out an update to its four listener children, each of them would propagate the update to their respective dougie listeners (children), and so on recursively. Thus a hierarchical distribution tree was formed over time, keeping the load on any one machine/network in check.

Once in a while, the master would terminate all its connections (children). The effect of course was that the entire tree of listener dougies would stop getting updates. All of them would then race to the master, trying to reconnect. The first four - presumably the ones 'closest' to the master on the network, and not necessarily the same as the original four children - would become immediate children of the master, while the others would then reconnect via those children, forming the tree again. This way, a more efficient tree would be regenerated periodically, helping optimize the network usage further. I can tell you, it worked very well! I used to get seemingly instantaneous updates to the scorecard on my screen!

Later, the same dougie was adapted for use by CricInfo. In addition to generating those .plan files, it would generate an HTML page that would be available on CricInfo via the web. Also, the scorer using the master dougie could also type in "commentary" in addition to recording the 'event' that occurred on a specific ball. That commentary of course would also appear in the CricInfo scorecard on the web. Vishal Misra and Travis Basevi, two of my volunteer 'colleagues' at CricInfo, made lots of enhancements to dougie for this purpose.

Some derivative of dougie is still used I believe, to generate the scorecard and commentary you see today on CricInfo. So, a tip of the hat, and a heartfelt thank-you to Jacques for creating dougie!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Cricketing autobiographies and biographies

I'm one of those cricket nuts who can't get enough of the game... Even with all the cricket on TV, opportunities to watch cricket at the grounds, and playing cricket at home with my 4-year-old, I need more, more, more!

A great way to get that fix is to pick up a cricket book. There's a long history of great writing on cricket, by the likes of Neville Cardus, Jack Fingleton, John Arlott, Mihir Bose and so on. There are books on the history of the game, like the one by Mihir Bose on India's cricket history. There are books on specific series such as Fingleton's famous book on the Bodyline series, or Scyld Berry's "Cricketwallah" on England's 1981 tour to India. There are instruction manuals written by famous cricketers (like Don Bradman on the Art of Cricket, or Mike Brearly on the Art of Captaincy). There are books on cricketing cities, like Sandeep Bamzai's book on Bombay cricket called "Guts to Glory".

I generally devour anything I can find on cricket, but my favourite genre remains the (auto)biography. There's nothing like reading about famous matches in the words of those greats who helped make them memorable. And there's nothing like reading about the little on-tour / dressing-room incidents and accidents that reveal so much about the characters of our cricketing heroes.

Like many others of my generation in India, my initiation to cricketing autobiographies was via Sunil Gavaskar's "Sunny Days". It was written surprisingly early in his career, around 1975-76 if I remember correctly -- only 5 years since his debut. But it had me hooked. Apart from all the on- and off-field incidents that we never saw (no TV coverage), it was great to read about his early years, his participation in University cricket and other local tournaments, etc. Of course I went on to read all his subsequent books - Idols, Runs 'n Ruins and One-day Wonders. He stopped publishing in the book form after One-day Wonders, unfortunately, although he regularly writes columns in newspapers, and is of course often seen and heard on TV as a commentator. Somehow it's not the same as reading an autobiography.

Since then, I've been picking up autobiographies wherever and whenever I could. David Gower's autobiography was one of the best reads, very well written. Geoff Boycott's autobiography is, like his commentary on TV, blunt and entertaining. I also enjoyed the dreaded West Indian fast bowlers Michael Holding ("Whispering Death") and Malcolm Marshall ("Marshall Arts") revealing their art and psyche. The very contrasting Erapalli Prasanna ("One More Over") and Sandeep Patil ("Sandy Storm") are wonderful to read, not necessarily because of the quality of the writing, but because they were such giant-sized childhood heroes to me. Another childhood hero Kapil Dev was however a bit disappointing when it came to his writing (or ghost-writing).

On a somewhat different note, I remember reading "The Burning Finger", the memoirs of an Indian Test umpire (M.V. Gothoskar, if I remember correctly). Again, great to read about the game from an umpire's perspective. Similarly, a popular radio and TV commentator of the 1970s and 1980s, Fredun DeVitre has written a very entertaining book called "Willow Tales", a collection of anecdotes contributed by several cricketers.

I'm sure I'm forgetting several other biographies and autobiographies that I've read over the years. Which ones are your favourites? Do leave a comment to recommend a good cricketing book.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

When Kapil's Devils played Azhar's Army

The 25th anniversary of India's World Cup win in 1983 has recently brought that team, usually referred to as "Kapil's Devils", back to the limelight. Of course some of them have remained in the public consciousness all through, for various cricketing and non-cricketing reasons - Kapil himself, Gavaskar, Shastri, Vengsarkar, Kirti Azad, etc. But it was good to see others like Mohinder Amarnath, Sandeep Patil, Kiri and Balwinder Sandhu being feted and showered with gifts. The BCCI-organized function was a nostalgia-inducing event for those of us who had followed the 1983 Prudential Cup closely. Kapil spoke wonderfully at the function, with anecdotes and insights into each team member as he called them up on stage.

This event reminded me of a game I had watched at the Wankhede Stadium in April 1999 - just before the 1999 World Cup in England. It was a friendly match organized for charity, and for wishing the Indian team luck. The game was between "Azhar's Army" - the Indian team selected for the world cup, and "Kapil's Devils". It was very well attended indeed - something like 30,000 fans thronged the Wankhede, mostly to see the 1983 team back together. It was a day/night game, the first D/N game I'd had the opportunity to watch from the stadium.

The event started off in spectacular fashion, with a helicopter landing inside the stadium! Kapil and Azhar emerged from it, waited for the helicopter to take off, and then did the toss in the centre. Azhar's Army batted first, and Kapil & Sandhu opened the bowling. Kapil still had a bit of pace, and bowled a few short ones. But overall, it was clearly a festival atmosphere and the bowling was friendly. Azhar's team racked up 292/4 in their allotted 35 overs, at more than 8rpo. The star was of course Sachin Tendulkar who made a quick century and ended up 115* off just 98 balls. He was at the peak of his powers then, and the Mumbai crowd was absolutely in love with him.

The 1983 team batted quite well in their reply. Several of them had retired not too long back from first-class cricket - Kapil, Sandeep Patil, Vengsarkar, etc. But Gavaskar did not bat, which was a disappointment for the Mumbai crowd. Of course he was nearly 50 years old then, and hadn't played first-class cricket for a dozen years. The team ended up scoring 202 in their 35 overs, but no one in the stadium really cared about the result. It was good fun to see the oldies again after a long time... Kapil making a few rear off a short length, Mohinder trundling in as usual, Patil tonking the bowling, Vengsarkar unfurling some cover drives, and Srikkanth doing his antics in the field!

Apart from reviving the 1983 nostalgia, the event served its charitable purpose well - Rs.20 lakh each were given to the families of Raman Lamba (who had died recently of a head injury sustained while fielding in a club game in Bangaldesh), and Ramnath Parker (who had been in coma for a long time then).

After the game, I wrote up a "match report" for CricInfo... and a Google search reveals that it's still there :)

Monday, June 23, 2008

He Who Shall Not Be Named

Today's kids will have no trouble associating the title of this post with, err... Lord Voldemort, from the Harry Potter series. But it may surprise some of you to know that the phrase was used in cricketing discussions on the Usenet newsgroup rec.sport.cricket, even before Harry was a twinkle in J.K.Rowling's eye :)

So, who was this cricketing equivalent of Lord Voldemort?? Believe it or not, Ravi Shastri! Shastri has always evoked some extreme reactions from cricket fans. In his playing days, there were those to loved how he made the most out of his (perhaps limited) abilities, his professionalism, his fighting qualities. Then there were those who hated him for his strokelessness, his lack of bite with the ball in later years, his flashiness off the field, his reputation as a ladies man. He was seen as undeserving of his place in the Indian team, with allegations of regional bias in his selection - after all, he was airlifted into the team at Gavaskar's instance, when Dilip Doshi was injured in New Zealand. In those days (the early 1990s), he was the subject of frequent flame-wars amongst his fans and his critics on rec.sport.cricket -- to the extent that some folks started referring to him as "He Who Shall Not Be Named", just to avoid triggering off another flame-war! I remember my first-ever post to rec.sport.cricket in late 1991 was in defense of Ravi Shastri. In recent years too, as a TV commentator, he has had his share of fans and critics.

As I mentioned in an earlier post here, I've always been a fan of Ravi Shastri (the cricketer, not so much the commentator). I started out by imitating his bowling action, and loved his ability to pull off sliding stops in the outfield - he learned the technique during his stints in county cricket (with Glamorgan, IIRC), and was the first one in the Indian team to use the slide. More importantly, I truly respected him for developing his batting skills to the extent that he went from #10 in the order to #1! In the post-Gavaskar era, India truly struggled to find a consistent world-class opener (let alone two). In that scenario, along came Ravi Shastri volunteering to open and take on the best fast-bowling attacks. In the late-80s and early-90s, the West Indies still had great fast bowling (Marshall, Ambrose, Walsh, Bishop) to go with some fearful, wayward fast bowling (Patterson, Benjamin). Pakistan had a fading Imran, allied with W&W (Wasim and Waqar in their youthful pomp).

Shastri opened against all these guys, took his share of blows on the body when necessary, and most importantly, made runs. As an opener, he scored 1000+ runs for India in Tests, at an average of 44+. This includes big scores in England and Australia, and not just on flat home pitches. Even in these free-scoring days, India has hardly anyone who can boast of such a record as opener - only Sehwag, probably.

Shastri was a solid opener, doing the prescribed job of keeping the new ball out, keeping the middle-order batsmen waiting in the pavilion, and tiring out the strike bowlers. His strokeplay was limited, but nevertheless attractive to watch (unlike Kris Srikkanth's, for example). He had a fine straight drive and flick, and then of course there was his own chapati shot, the glance to long leg that got him so many runs (mostly singles). Against the spinners, he frequently used his feet to get to the pitch of the ball -- even taking two steps down the pitch on occasion, only to deadbat the ball! Of course he also played the lofted drives with assurance.

It was said that Shastri's batting only had two gears, first and overdrive! I saw a fine example of that once at the Wankhede stadium against Australia. Shastri and Vengsarkar were involved in a huge partnership (close to 300, if I remember correctly). Shastri was batting very slowly for much of his innings, and seemed to get stuck in the "nervous 40s", if there's such a thing, for a long time! Even his home crowd at the Wankhede had started slow-clapping and booing him. This included silly chants from the crowd (including myself!) like "Ravi, go home, your mummy's calling you!" (in Marathi, of course).

Then, after he reached 50, he suddenly switched gears and belted three sixes and a few boundaries! Then, back to the crawl, and more slow-clapping as he was stuck in the 90s! What made it worse was that Vengsarkar was batting supremely well at the other end. After Shastri finally got to his 100, he again switched gears and belted three more sixes! That included an absolutely awesome shot off the tall fast bowler Bruce Reid. He took one step down the pitch and lofted Reid over his head. The ball didn't just cross the boundary, it hit the huge "Tata Enterprises" sign on the roof of the Wankhede (above the North Stand). Those six sixes in the innings were an Indian record for a Test innings at that time. It's been broken since then - Sidhu first against Sri Lanka or England, I think, and surely Sehwag during his triples.

Of course Shastri is still one of only two batsmen ever to hit six sixes in an over in first-class cricket. He emulated Sobers' feat while playing for Mumbai against Baroda in the Ranji Trophy, the hapless bowler being Tilak Raj. He clearly had this six-hitting ability, which would've been very handy in today's T20 scenario. Coupled with his restrictive left-arm spin bowling and his more-than-useful fielding, he would've been a T20 star, I think.

Shastri was a smart cricketer, a thinking cricketer, who made the most of his talents - similar in some ways to Steve Waugh. He would've made a fine captain as well (and indeed did, for Mumbai) but he never really got the chance. He only captained one Test for India, against the West Indies, and won it handily, thanks partly to debutant Narendra Hirwani's bowling feat of 8 wickets in each innings. Late in his career, he was dogged by injury - knee trouble, which a couple of operations couldn't fix - and he retired from international cricket at the relatively young age of 30.

In no time though, he was back in the limelight as a TV commentator, and has been a fixture on our TV screens ever since.... which I'm sure, causes no end of irritation to a whole bunch of people I know :-)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

CricInfo - the early history

Most cricket fans who are "online" don't need any introduction to CricInfo - the mother and father of all cricket websites, "The Home of Cricket on the Internet", as it has called itself for a decade and half now. It's a treasure trove of cricketana - live scores & commentary, reporting on cricket matches, articles, profiles, statistics, you name it. In fact the richness of its collection has made it somewhat hard to discover the hidden gems... most users probably use only a few regular features from its front page, never knowing what they're missing.

What makes CricInfo even more interesting, and perhaps a case study for business schools, is its origins. David Liverman has written up a very nice - and mostly accurate - history of CricInfo, which is definitely worth a read. In this post, and subsequent ones, I'll try and relive my little role in the setting up of CricInfo.

As I've mentioned in a previous post, I was a graduate student in Minneapolis during the 1990s. Our only sources of cricket news in those days were (week-old) Indian newspapers, and the Usenet newsgroup rec.sport.cricket, where some folks from England and Australia would post updates for the benefit of those like myself, stranded in cricket-blackout places like the US of A. We also used to hang out on IRC (Internet Relay Chat, one of the earliest instant-messaging systems), on a channel or "chat-room" called #cricket - hoping that someone from the cricket-enabled world would log on and give us score updates. On a lucky day, one of these kind souls would actually type in ball-by-ball commentary for us while watching a game on TV. Soon the word spread and IRC #cricket attracted hundreds of people, all clamouring for scores and updates the moment they joined the channel! We ended up having to make it a moderated channel with only the "commentators" allowed to write to it, and had another channel called #crickettalk for the masses to use for discussion, score requests, etc.

One of those IRC hangers-on was Simon King - whose IRC nickname flitted between ColdPom, CoolPom and occasionally even WarmPom depending on the Minnesota weather! For like myself, he too was at the University of Minnesota, as a post-doctoral fellow in the Chemical Engineering department. Simon was somewhat irritated at the constant clamouring for scores and scorecards on IRC - well, so were many of us regulars, but he actually did something about it. Simon himself had no computer science / programming background, but with the help of friends on IRC like Mandar Mirashi, he created the first incarnation of CricInfo - a "bot" on IRC. This was a program that would join the #cricket channel with the nickname CricInfo. You could send it a private message over IRC, asking for the latest scorecard etc. using a very limited language of keywords. In response, the CricInfo bot would send you the scorecard as a private message - thus avoiding cluttering up the #cricket channel itself with all these requests and responses.

Now where would CricInfo get its scorecard from? CricInfo the bot was simply a program running on Simon's workstation at the University of Minnesota. Simon had to keep a scorecard (a simple text file) updated on that machine, by watching the ball-by-ball commentary on IRC. Since it was impossible for one person to do that through the duration of a cricket game, some of us volunteered to help. One of us would log into the CricInfo account and keep the scorecard updated - not quite ball-to-ball perhaps, but pretty frequently. Thus we ended up forming a community of volunteers, all recruited from amongst the IRC #cricket regulars, who helped by creating the content for CricInfo to "serve". Soon, this went beyond the latest scorecard. We started populating CricInfo with older scorecards, match reports and even the Laws of the game, all painstakingly typed out from print references like the Wisden Almanack, Sportstar magazine, etc.

So, in its early days, CricInfo was only available on IRC using a very limited command language. It had a relatively small user base - only those who were aware of IRC and CricInfo, and were sufficiently comfortable with using that command language to request files from the IRC bot. CricInfo the bot would keep statistics on its usage, and I remember we rejoiced when the usage touched 1000 requests in a week. This must've been in early 1993. Still, even this level of usage couldn't be sustained on that workstation in Minnesota - it was apparently using too much network bandwidth, and Simon was requested by his system administrator to shut CricInfo down! Luckily, one of those IRC regulars, Prof. K.S. Rao offered us the use of a PC (an 80386-based machine!) in his office at the North Dakota State University. So CricInfo moved to tulip.ee.ndsu.nodak.edu, and we breathed a sigh of relief.

Meanwhile, I had become aware of a distributed information system called gopher - created incidentally at the University of Minnesota by some of its IT administrators. This was a precursor of "the web", much like the http-based web servers that were to follow soon. Around that time, many US academic institutions had installed gopher servers, making information available online through simple text menus. A gopher client (a browser, in today's terms) could connect to any of those servers, navigate the menus, and access files containing mostly text-based information. This seemed like the ideal interface for CricInfo, and I downloaded the gopher software onto Prof. Rao's machine and installed it atop the same directory structure that the IRC bot used. At one stroke, all those scorecards and articles that we'd been accumulating became available via gopher clients.

I "advertised" the new gopher interface by posting an article to the rec.sport.cricket newsgroup. Within days, the usage of CricInfo had exploded - apparently, many more people had gopher clients available than IRC clients. Also gopher was more friendly with bandwidth usage than IRC, and its response times were much quicker. So it quickly became very popular.

By now we had a motley collection of volunteers helping run CricInfo, doing all sorts of tasks - maintaining live scorecards, typing in older scorecards, keeping the 386 machine running (not an easy task with the load imposed on it), answering user queries at a "help desk" email address, etc. We called ourselves "The Management", rather grandly! Most of us were in academic institutions in the US, UK and Australia, either as students, post-docs or faculty. We "met" and talked to each other only on IRC and email - very rarely in person or even on the phone. As an example, Simon King and I have met just once (over lunch at a campus restaurant), despite being on the same university campus, and in adjacent buildings in fact! CricInfo was thus an almost purely online, collaborative venture.

One of these volunteers, Sridhar Venkataraman (at Arizona State Univ), had been playing around with this thing called an http server, and was raving about it. He and I chatted about it on IRC, and I tried it out as well. It seemed to be very similar to gopher at the time, except for the cool new thing called "hyperlinks" and the ability to embed images in text documents! We discussed it with the CricInfo Management. Given the kind of content we had - plain text scorecards, articles etc. - we decided that we didn't want to mess around with this http thingy! Gopher was doing just fine, thank you, and we had no use for these hyperlinks and images! Zero marks for foresight, I guess :-) Of course at that time, most of our users already had gopher clients installed on their workstations, and hardly anyone had http clients available. That was to change soon, and quickly. People had started playing around with lynx (a text-based http client) and then came mosaic, the graphical browser by Marc Andreesen that really launched the web revolution. Soon enough, Sridhar helped set up the CricInfo http server, and the rest, as they say, is history :-)

Monday, June 2, 2008

Cricket in the Desert

Ok, so the title is a bit misleading... It usually refers to cricket played at Sharjah, which was a very popular venue through the 1990s, but has now fallen off the cricket map for various "interesting" reasons! I'm referring however to another variety of desert - a cold desert, where I was thirsting for cricket but unable to find any.

I was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota (in Minneapolis) for much of the 1990s. I went there in the Fall of 1991. In those early days, the US of A was truly a cricket-less desert. There were just a few local leagues in some cities, if you wanted to play. But more importantly, there was a total absence of news from the cricketing world! Remember that in those days, there was no "web", let alone any websites carrying cricket news. There was no satellite TV carrying pay-per-view cricket matches either - that came much later.

The University of Minnesota had a South Asian section in one of its libraries. This was my only source of news, initially. It used to get four Indian newspapers - the Times of India (Mumbai ed.), the Hindu (Chennai ed.), the Statesman (Kolkata ed.) and the Indian Express (Delhi ed.). Each of these papers would be at least a week to 10 days old, by the time they arrived! My Saturday mornings would be spent in this library, catching up on a week's worth of week-old news, including especially the local cricket coverage (Ranji, Duleep, Mumbai schools cricket).

One day late in 1991, I emailed a friend about a match in Sharjah about which I'd just read in these newspapers. He told me my news was stale, and pointed me to his daily "online" fix of cricket - the Usenet newsgroup rec.sport.cricket. What a discovery! I was hooked instantly. People from all over the world (especially Australia and UK), posting updates on the cricket, discussions, arguments, flame-wars, I loved it all. I became a regular reader and contributor of that newsgroup, and others.

This was in the Fall/Winter season, and Minneapolis is of course a very cold and snowy place. No chance of playing cricket at all, until well into the Spring. When the weather improved and the snow had melted away, some of us grad students - mostly Indians and Pakistanis - started getting together on weekends to play some tennis-ball cricket (with a taped tennis ball, of course). There was a large, grassy mall area on campus, with concrete walkways going across. One of these walkways served nicely as a pitch, other walkways marked the boundaries. The stumps were just piles of books and jackets! But it was a thrill to be able to play the game again, after the long, dark months of winter. The late-Spring and Summer months were great - beautiful cricketing weather. Whenever we played, a small crowd would gather to watch this strange spectacle. Most of them had no clue about cricket, and the fielders near the boundary would chatter away, explaining the game and its rules, without much success!

We later found a baseball diamond near the campus and adapted it into a cricket ground, somehow, so that we could play freely without worrying about the ball hitting anyone on those walkways! It was a good 25-30 minute walk from my apartment, but it was well worth it.

Much later, in April 1994, some of us students got together and organized a live telecast of one of those Sharjah tournaments. We managed to find an Indian community hall in Minneapolis that had a satellite dish. The tournament was being telecast on PPV, and we all chipped in a couple of bucks each, to watch the India-Pak game. Given the timezone difference, it was an all-nighter for us, with the match starting at 12am or thereabouts. But what an experience! A whole bunch of Indian and Pakistani students, competing to out-yell each other. Although India lost that game, we got to watch a wonderful innings from Sachin Tendulkar, in the course of which he played one absolutely stunning hook shot off Akram, for six. Akram himself stopped in his follow-through and applauded generously. For many of us, it was a rare opportunity of watching Sachin in action, having moved to the US in the early days of his career.

So there you go, cricket in a different kind of desert...