Friday, December 30, 2005

Records Galore - but do we care?

It's ostensibly been a quite a year in the cricket world - Ricky Ponting's 1500 runs; Shane Warne's 96 wickets in the year, and 657 in total; Lara's 11204 Test runs; Sachin Tendulkar's 35th Test century; Mike Hussey averaging 85 in Tests and 151 in ODIs England regaining the Ashes, finally, and then being summarily dispatched by Inzamam and Shoaib; Richie Benaud retiring from English television; Saurav Ganguly being unceremoniously dumped, restored to the side, dropped and then picked again; and complete and utter chaos in Zimbabwe.

All of that, and I'm not even sure whether I'll ever look back on 2005 in a nostalgic haze.

For many years I have railed against the rose-tinted glasses syndrome - and yet now I find myself a hesitant member of that brigade. Quite simply, things *were* better! All these records broken, and yet 2005 does not appear to have truly captured my imagination. Which is perhaps sad for me, more than anything else.

The numbers 355, 325, 309, 307 meant something to me. As did 10122 and even later 11174. Not to mention 365*, 29 and the incomparable 6996. I remember being stirred when Lillee surged past Trueman and his Gibbs, incidentally on his way to setting a record of 85 wickets in a calendar year. I was moved when Gavaskar went past Bradman's 29, and then the unthinkable 10,000 Test runs. Somehow, I connected in a way that I don't seem to do any longer.

Don't mistake me - I marvel at the genius of Warne and Murali, not to mention Anil Kumble. But I can't tell you how many wickets they have. I consider myself inordinately lucky to have witnessed the genius of Tendulkar, Lara and others on the field, from the stands and from my favourite reclining armchair. I haven't got a clue how many Test runs each has scored. Wasim, Waqar and Ambrose were bowlers I always strove to emulate - but I don't know how many wickets they ended up with.

What's changed? Is it that I'm a little older and wiser, and derive pleasure from things more nuanced than mere statistics? Is it that there is simply so much cricket these days, that records keep coming and going, and the resultant glory is somewhat diluted? Is it that the mystery is gone, now that I can watch pretty much every game from every corner of the globe? Or is it that as the game has become more professional, the charm and character has left it?

Funnily enough, I think the answer is all of the above, and yet none of the above. All I know is that something is different. And perhaps that's the fundamental that we all have to perpetually accept and embrace. An old article of mine opens with the great de la Rochefoucauld observation that "The only thing constant in life, is change." Time to heed those words, methinks.

P.S. The numbers that are truly imprinted in my mind:
  • 355, 325, 309, 307 - Lillee, Willis, Gibbs, Trueman
  • 11174, 10122 - Border, Gavaskar
  • 365* - Sobers
  • 29, 6996 - Bradman

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Sticky Wickets

I've written articles about it before, and a year ago last week, I blogged briefly about the disturbing notion that a "good pitch" is one on which many runs can be scored, and a "bad pitch" is one on which bowlers are a part of the contest.

In recent weeks, we've had Clive Lloyd, a real believer in the art and craft of spin bowling, criticising the pitches in the India-Sri Lanka Test series, and just yesterday, Cricket Australia condemning the current MCG pitch as "embarrassing."

It continues to amaze me that even the most illustrious of former cricketers can sometimes forget that bowlers are part and parcel of the game we know and love.

Granted, it's always been a batsman's game - so much so that a wiser head than mine believes that "bowling is for idiots," and that machines will ultimately do the grunt work.

That said, it is a truth, albeit not universally acknowledged, that the best cricketing contests have been those in which both bat and ball have had the opportunity to shine. For it is only then that the real skills of the protagonists are put the test, and that is where us armchair fans have the good fortune to catch glimpses of talent and greatness of the sort that we can only aspire to.

Jaysuriya's 340 when Sri Lanka responded to India's 537-8 with 952-6? Or Sunil Gavaskar's 96 at Bangalore? It's pretty clear to me which was in fact the greater innings, all but numerically.

I'm thrilled to see that over at my ex-stomping ground, Dileep Premachandran has picked up on this notion. Despite his misguided penchant for quoting Bill Shankly ahead of Sir Matt Busby, Mr Premachandran is unquestionably one of the better writers at CricInfo. He has a few more readers than I do these days, so perhaps one or two will sit up and take notice.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

The rage of Sourav

Looks like I shall have to stand corrected. Sourav Ganguly will in fact not "go gentle into that good night." Instead, he will "rage, rage against the dying of the light." Chances are that he reads more Rabindranath Tagore than Dylan Thomas, but perhaps his half-season with Glamorgan provided the inspiration for this latest comeback. Individualism at it's very finest - his selection for the tour of Pakistan is surely to the detriment of the team and other promising talents.

It's remarkable how every time I think that Indian cricket has turned the corner, it finds yet another way to leave an indelible stain on it's very essence. Even more intriguing that it appears that Ganguly is not solely responsible for the situation he finds himself in. Amazingly enough, Sachin Tendulkar, who once urged the selectors to harness the talents of Paras Mhambrey and Nilesh Kulkarni, amongst other Mumbaikars, had some input into the BCCI decision to require the selectors to take Ganguly to Pakistan.

One can only wonder what the captain, coach and remainder of the team make of this. A player is dropped, Indian cricket marches further down the road to professionalism, but before you can say Saurav Chandidas Ganguly, said player has politicked his way right back into the team.

And what of Mohammad Kaif? Dropped, ostensibly because "he hasn't had much of a chance to play." One can only wonder if his lack of opportunity is related to Ganguly's presence in the squad. Which in turn begs the question - what role is Ganguly going to play in Pakistan? Is he now going to play ahead of Yuvraj, in favour of whom he was jettisoned just a fortnight ago? And if not, then how is it that it is appropriate to take him as drinks waiter now, when it was "not worth it" last week? Given his reputed performance as twelfth man in Australia in 1991-92, one can be pretty sure that little rational thought has gone into this decision.

I don't want to wish ill on Indian cricket, but I hope this move backfires spectacularly. I will be abused for expressing that desire, but how else will we ever learn?

There was a silver lining in the squad announcement - the restoration of Parthiv Patel. The much-maligned youngster is one for the long term future, without a doubt. His doughty spirit and temperament are second to none, and for all the criticism, his glovework is no worse than that of his rivals for a position. Full credit to him too - he got back into the squad without the intervention of parliament, and without grown men in his home state embarrassing themselves on his behalf.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Racism at the WACA

There's a scene in Lethal Weapon 2, in which Danny Glover's character enquires at the South African consulate about the possibility of travelling to the country. "You don't want to go to South Africa.... you're black!" comes the response, in a thick Afrikaaner accent. While I count Perth as one of the nicer places I have spent time in, with it's unique suburban city feel, much more of what we saw at the WACA this past weekend, and people may be forced to rethink.

Perth is said to be home to possibly the largest South African diasporic population in a single city. In South Africa, the process of emigration is colloquially referred to as "Packing for Perth"

This large population is both interested in cricket and well aware of the meaning of the term "Kaffir." My own experience in Perth suggests that most of the locals, particularly the segment of the population that shows up to watch a Test match, are equally aware.

The administrators at the WACA have gone on record as saying that they were unaware that the vitriol heaped on the South African players was racially offensive, but the simple facts above tend to give lie to their claim. Calling Makhaya Ntini a "Kaffir," and Shaun Pollock his "Kaffir Brother," is simply unconscionable.

The real fear here is that this was a lot more than a bunch of drunken yobs mouthing off. You don't usually hear targeted calls of "Kaffir Brother" from that crowd. The possibility exists that the slurs emanated from elements in the crowd who had left their own homeland as the Apartheid regime came to an end. At the time, the majority cited crime and personal safety fears as their reason for leaving. One simply hopes that what we saw at the WACA was not an awakening of long dormant sentiment. If it was, then humanity has even further to go than we might have thought.

At the end of the day, the denizens of Perth have no excuse. Not for the behaviour that was on display, and even more gallingly, for the failure to nip it in the bud. In this most sensitive of socio-political situations, it simply wasn't good enough. I'm certainly heartened by Ricky Ponting's strong condemnation of what happened.

Many years ago, an individual I met asked me if I knew why Melbourne was the greatest city in the world. I must confess to considering it to be my favourite city in Australia (of those that I have visited), but I was not remotely prepared for the explanation. "Because there are no black people there," this person said. That was 15 years ago, and I hope against hope that such attitudes are not permitted to prevail, least of all in and around the gentleman's game.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

No bounce for Agarkar?

What does it say about Ajit Agarkar that he was overlooked for the new ball in favour of an off-spinner, because the pitch had some extra bounce?! How can any self-respecting fast bowler, or even medium pacer, stand for that?

Think through this one - it was, at least according to Greg Chappell, not a move made because India specifically wanted the Sri Lankan openers to face a turning ball. It was because it was felt that Harbhajan could better exploit the bounce than Agarkar. I'm deliberately making mountains out of molehills, of course, but however you slice and dice it, that's a genuine insult.

Inzamam-ul-Haq must be turning cartwheels (picture that, if you can) in the thought that when his groundsmen prepare bouncy green-tops, his batsmen will have to deal with Harbhajan and Kumble while India try to counter Shoaib, Rana Naved ul Hasan and Mohammad Sami.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Gin Gan Gooly!

In 1996, I sat above the sightscreens at Lord's and watched Saurav Ganguly stroke a silken century on debut. He looked a class act with the bat, though even then was obviously never going to be a Dravid. Over the years, he has done a lot of great things for India, with the bat, and with his unique style of leadership. As a captain he was India's equivalent of AB, much as Rahul Dravid is now playing Mark Taylor.

Unfortunately, a couple of years ago, he went past his sell-by date. He could have gone out in a blaze of glory, as was perhaps befitting, but to do so would not have been in keeping with the nature of the man. A stubborn fighter to the core, he banked on his fabled resilience and sheer determination to carry him through. Sadly, his body and technique have proven to no longer be up to the task. Not in the way they were in his prime.

The end result - he now exits quietly stage left, his departure as ignominious as his arrival was specatular. He can only hope that he is remembered for the backbone he brought to the Indian team, rather than for the yawning chasm between his legs through which one final boundary crept against Sri Lanka last night.

Some will say that I have written the epitaph a little too early. For Ganguly's own sake, I hope not.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Gridiron Hooliganism

Smashing little article in the Guardian today talking about the myth of soccer hooliganism that American journalists mindlessly portray whilst conveniently ignoring what goes on in their own backyard. Hats off to the writer for having the guts to come forward and say what a lot of us feel.

Look out, Chelsea!

So we are out of the champions league.

It's not the end of the world. Manchester United have encountered disaster before, and this is decidedly not in that league.

Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs both appeared to my untrained eye to be off the pace yesterday; Ruud and Rooney struggled to get involved, and while Ronaldo produced a couple of great runs and dribbles, he was clearly overwhelmed by the occasion. One positive that I certainly took away was the hurt that Rooney and Ronaldo felt. They wanted this, and while they couldn't make it happen on the night, that's the desire that will fuel the future of Manchester United.

At the end of the day though, when your two wingers, your front two, and your captain aren't having their best days, it's not going to be easy. That aside, the one thing that really frustrates me as a fan, is the quality of our passing. I lost count of the number of balls that were played into empty spaces, or directly to opposition feet - and that's not the first time this has happened of late.

Our performances in Europe were not up to scratch, plain and simple. I'm shattered by the situation, of course, but you have to keep it in perspective. A lot of fans, particularly those who are recent inductees to the faith, live in a fantasy world in which success is apparently an entitlement. It's not. We've had a tremendous run, and now we're rebuilding. It happens - to the best of teams.

I'm not suggesting we should be happy, merely that we should not lose the plot. I've seen people calling for everyone from Ruud to Gary Neville to be sacked after last night - for some reason only van der Sar is exempt from criticism it appears. The truth is, as always, somewhere in between.

The performance was poor, without a doubt - but give some credit to Benfica there as well, painful as it may be to do so. There is in fact a silver lining in this cloud - we'll soon see who the real fans and supporters are, as the bandwagon jumpers start decking themselves out in the blue of Chelsea.

Who knows - perhaps this is the platform we need to have a real go at Chelsea in the league?

Monday, December 05, 2005

Parent or friend?

There was an article in Time Magazine recently, in which it was noted how teachers coming from abroad struggle within our education system, because the children don't show them any respect. The amusing part however, was that the solution to this is apparently for the teachers to undergo training in how to handle 'American kids'. Amazing!

When I was growing up, not so long ago, there were a few home truths that, as kids, we all understood. Because our parents brought us up to understand them. School was an institution that you treated with a certain respect, simply by virtue of what it represented. Your teachers were also individuals to be respected, and you behaved towards them in a certain manner, not least of which included speaking politely, and addressing them as Mr and Ms/Mrs so and so.

As far as I can tell, the problem we have here today is not one of schools, the education system, or the children themselves. It's the parents, and the complete lack of good old parenting. Our individualistic culture means that today's parents are all about themselves. Their kids are an accessory, not a responsibility, and so they care for them only as and when it suits themselves. In this materialistic and narcissistic environment, is it any wonder that our kids go astray?

Parents - you're not there for friendship. When you bring a child into this world, you take on the responsibility of preparing that child to function properly in it. 18 years later, you can start thinking about yourself again. If you're not prepared for that, get a pet.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Young at 30? Or old at 18?

I've been waging a war on home turf recently, around the thorny question of when a youngster is genuinely young, and when he is too old to be considered as such - in the sporting arena, I hasten to add.

I truly hate to quote Arsene Wenger, but he recently said
"At 18 years it is too late to improve players. We decided to go down to 16. Then 14. Now in France they go to 12. Technically, at 13 the basics are done."
I don't think that's far off the truth, but on the other hand, you have Michael Hussey making a Test debut at the age of 30, in an Australian team that has thrived on the contribution of the 30-somethings during it's period of dominance.

That's all very well at the Test level though - where do you go when you're trying to blood a young cricketer into the world of club cricket? I'm operating in a world filled with has-been and never-was adult cricketers who are clinging on to some last vestiges of unrealisable dreams. And so you hear the challenge of promoting youth addressed with comments like "let's make sure that every team has at least one U-23 player in it." Just to clarify, we're talking about regional lower division club cricket in the USA.

I'm firmly of the opinion that we need to be looking at the 13-15 year olds with the talent and hunger, and finding ways to blood them such that by the time they are 17 or 18, they are up at the top of the local game. Indeed, at that age, I would hope that they are knocking on the national senior team door. That is the way forward if we really want to develop any semblance of this game in this country.