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, 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 -- 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 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, 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, 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 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 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...