Saturday, September 19, 2009


Recently, Sachin Tendulkar suggested that 50-over ODIs needed a refresh, and proposed a two-innings contest with 25 overs per innings. Of course the idea is not new, but it has caught some attention because it came from Tendulkar, and because the T20 game has thrown doubt on the future of 50-over ODIs.

One thing is clear, the day-long, 50-overs ODI game is dying, and that's a good thing. It's been losing spectator interest for a while now, and has been kept alive only by gimmicks such as super-subs, powerplays and pulled-in boundaries. Even with these gimmicks, it's only the multi-nation tournaments (not even tri-series) that attract some interest. And of course spectator interest (and TV viewership) is necessary to commercially sustain the game. While cricket boards may still feel some obligation to support a loss-making Test version of the game, there would be no such obligation towards 50-over ODIs if they stop being commercially viable.

There is of course a potential successor to ODIs in the form of T20 cricket. At least for now, it has captured the audience and thus TV revenues are a given. However, T20s suffer from one big drawback -- less airtime. The typical T20 game only lasts half a day, and thus there is lesser airtime for TV to fill with commercials, compared to the day-long ODI. So T20 is only really viable, long-term, in the form of multi-team leagues or tournaments. With a league like the IPL or a T20 World Cup, you can schedule two games a day, not overlapping of course, and thus get more commercial time. But two-team country vs. country matches are not going to be viable for long. Of course the stadium will be full, but that's not where the revenues come from.

In this backdrop comes Tendulkar's suggestion of a two-innings, 25-over game. There are of course a few tweaks possible. Should a team start each innings afresh, or would the batsman dismissed in one innings be unavailable in the next? In my opinion, the team needs to have all its batsmen available in both innings. The attractiveness of T20s arises from the fact that each team has 10 wickets to 'spend' in 20 overs, and thus batsmen can take much higher levels of risk, compared to the 10-wickets-50-overs ODI game. Splitting the innings into two, without restoring the wickets, will only have the benefit of equalising the batting conditions for the two teams, to some extent. It cannot increase the pace of the game significantly. So it's best to emulate the T20 game and enable higher risk-taking. Secondly, it may not quite be feasible to cram in a 25-25-25-25 game in a day, given the added breaks between innings. So, a 20-20-20-20 game seems more reasonable, with a lunch break betwen the two T20s, and 10-minute breaks for the changeovers.

While we're at it, there could be more tinkering with field restrictions, etc. What if field restrictions are eliminated? Given the ability to spend 10 wickets, batsmen would likely still take nearly as much risk as the T20 game, but bowlers would be more likely to take wickets, and scores would be a bit less obscene. Some encouragement to the bowlers is necessary, otherwise attacking bowling will be an extinct art.

So, what does this mean to the traditional cricket lover, the Test match fan? This may sound like blasphemy, but this comes closest to a "mini-Test"... a "one-day Test", even! Certainly it won't have the range of cricketing skills that are on display in a good Test match. But the dynamics of a two-innings game would make things interesting -- a second chance, to make up for a first-innings failure; follow-ons perhaps... And this would open up a range of other possibilities -- such as a consolidated bowling limit across two innings. A bowler would be permitted to bowl 10 overs (or 8, or whatever) in the day, but not necessarily limited to 5 in each innings. So if a bowler was in the middle of a good spell, the captain might use him up in the first innings! Or on a Sri Lankan or Indian ground, the captain might hold back his main spinner for the second innings. If powerplays are retained, the captains would have the option to split them across innings as well. Let's say each team needs to have 8 overs of fielding restrictions, but the bowling captain has the ability to split these across innings arbitrarily. The range of tactical possibilities would certainly be broader than in the T20 format. And you wouldn't need multi-nation tournaments to enable the commercial viability of the game -- bilateral series would be quite feasible.

I think this is an idea whose time has come. ODIs have certainly gotten more predictable, or too dependent on the toss, with conditions favouring one side right from the outset. I would certainly prefer a future with Tests and "mini-Tests", and possibly no T20s at all!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Book review: Sachin is God!

Just finished reading an interesting, different sort of cricket book, with the somewhat unwieldy title of "If Cricket is a Religion, Sachin is God".

At one level, it's just a biography of Sachin Tendulkar written by a couple of fans, and one might be tempted to dismiss it as a hagiography -- but it's not. It may read somewhat like a statistical analysis of his career, and those of his contemporaries. But it's much more than that -- the authors do a good job of bringing out the context to his achievements, both at the micro level ("he walked in at 14/2 with a first-innings deficit of 250 staring India in the face") as well as at the macro level ("he was probably battling not just his opponents but also some of his teammates" -- a reference to the match-fixing era). It reminded me a little of the Gavaskar vs. Richards, or even the same Tendulkar vs. Lara arguments we used to have on Usenet newsgroup But then the book also offers the occasional deep analysis of cricketing and social context, and an interesting comparison of Sachin's achievements with those of Vishwanathan Anand, the chess champ.

The two co-authors of the book, Vijay Santhanam and Shyam Balasubramanian, are both IIT + IIM-A graduates who describe themselves as big Sachin fans, but also "analysts". Both are of course followers of that religion, but they try hard to provide objective analysis. Starting with their analysis of Indian cricket fans and fanatics, and an attempt to explain why cricket has taken on a religious form in India, the book moves on to Sachin's career.

The 20 year career is neatly divided into phases -- the "wunderkind phase", the rise, the fall, and then the resurrection. Apart from bald statistics, the authors provide lots of quotes from cricketers, commentators and journalists. They analyse the criticism of Sachin by the likes of Ian Chappell, Sanjay Manjrekar and various Cricinfo columnists. They counter it with data, as well as opposing opinion -- for example, Ian Chappell's comments on Sachin's 241* at Sydney are contrasted with Shane Warne's, on the same innings.

The authors have made extensive use of Cricinfo's Statsguru to generate their data. One interesting phenomenon they seem to have uncovered is what they call "the thirty-three effect". Basically, around the age of 33 (give or take a year), many batsmen appear to undergo a drastic slump. This is usually preceded by a monster year or two, and equally interestingly, is followed by a reversion to mean. This effect is startlingly demonstrated using numbers for top batsmen like Gavaskar, Richards, Boycott, Sobers, Hayden, Dravid, Miandad, etc. Needless to mention, Sachin also suffered a slump around the age of 33, which also coincided with his injury problems.

Somewhat less surprising is the demonstration of just how critical Sachin is to India's chances of winning, of how rarely India win when he's out of the team. Again the authors use statistics to compare just how much Sachin has to lift his game for India to win -- how much higher his average is when India wins, vs. his career average. In contrast, the numbers for the likes of Ponting, Hayden etc. don't change a lot -- because they are ably supported by several teammates in the lineup. There is plenty more analysis, such as the performances of Sachin and his contemporary batting greats against Australia, or the Aussies against India, etc. In each case, using data as well as context, the authors demonstrate how Sachin is simply a class apart. The only comparable batsman in the last two decades is Lara, but he falls short of Sachin on consistency and adaptability. My only quibble is that the authors have perhaps focused a bit more on ODI statistics than Tests.

For a Sachin fan, it's fun to relive some of his great innings through this book -- amazing memories like the second-innings ton vs Australia at Chennai when he tamed Warne, and painful memories like the 136* at the same ground vs Pakistan, when India fell just short in the run-chase. Interestingly, there is no discussion of Sachin the captain, and hardly any mention of his bowling. The book is almost purely about his batting, and there too, it doesn't linger on his style, his technique or his range of strokes. It's all about data, team and social context.

The book ends with a touching story about one of the authors -- Vijay Santhanam -- who suffered a stroke, but willed himself into recovering in time to make it to an India match at the stadium in Mohali. There are also interesting personal anecdotes from the authors -- childhood hero worship, college hostel arguments, or changing hotels because they didn't have the cable channel telecasting the match!

All in all, a good read for Sachin fans (that's everybody, right?). The book is published by Harper Collins, and has a cover price of Rs.195.