Aussie Thrashing – England v Australia ODI Series

It is hard to believe that condemning Australia to a record 4-0 thrashing could ever be boring. England polished their growing reputation, Australia looked like England under Atherton, Hussain and Vaughan. But it was all so routine that the heat was lost. Nick Sadleir watched the series and tries to weigh-up the result.

Click this link for full article: Aussie Bashing

IPL5: Bling Reloaded?

Even if the Indian Premier League’s brand value takes another dive in 2012, the competition is still one heck of a money spinner in a country that is completely gaga for limited-overs cricket.

I looked ahead to the fifth installment of the Twenty20 tournament for the April edition of Spin magazine.

IPL5 preview

Analysis – End of the Draw

Last year the cricket world went 18 Test matches without a draw. Pundits wondered why, and whether the five-day game was being changed by cricket’s shorter formats.

In this piece, which was published in the April edition of Spin magazine, I analysed some of the reasons why results are becoming more prominent. Click the link below to read the article as it appeared in the magazine.

End of the Draw

Champions League T20: Take 3

It may feel as if the IPL ended just the other day but Twenty20 disciples will be delighted to know that the Champions League gets underway on 19 September in India. Including six qualifying games, 29 matches will be played in the space of only 16 days before a trophy is lifted on 9 October in Chennai. And although they will have to get through a qualifying round to have a shot at the title, two English teams will be a part of the action this year.

This is a tournament that in theory should be a riotous success but in reality has been plagued by numerous setbacks.

As it is a struggle to distinguish from the haze of relatively meaningless Twenty20 cricket that has gone before us, we thought we’d take the opportunity to fill you in a little to prepare you for the barrage of action that will give one franchise bragging rights (and a lot of money) to the “best club in the world”.

Three of the six sides to play in the qualifying pools in Hyderabad will advance to join the seven sides (three from India, two from South Africa and two from Australia) that have already qualified for the group stages of the tournament. Both of the participating English sides will need to qualify in Hyderabad if they are to make it into the tournament proper, which is to be played in Kolkata, Bangalore and Chennai.

This will be the third edition of the CLT20. The inaugural tournament was held in India in 2009 and was won by New South Wales from Australia. The reigning title holders are the Chennai Super Kings, who are also the current IPL champions after they won that tournament for the second time, in May this year. CSK will undoubtedly start as favourites, especially considering that the final will be played on their home ground.

Last year’s competition was hosted by South Africa and although it is back to India this year, the BCCI is open to the idea of the CLT20 being played in other countries. It is no secret that the ECB are keen to host it and that would make commercial sense as England is probably the only country that could fill up stadiums for every match and is in the right time zone for the Indian market. But the fact that it is earmarked for October next year and late September the year afterwards, means that is too late for the English summer.

Almost every seat was occupied during the incredible Test series between England and India which showed that Test cricket on English shores continues to enjoy rude health. Thousands said that the advent of Twenty20 would quickly bring an end to the longer game but they could not have been more wrong.

A friend at the BCCI told me six weeks ago that they were expecting the 2011 CLT20 to be every bit as popular as the IPL but it is impossible to believe him. Indian fans have by and large failed to buy into the concept: While crowd attendances and television viewings have been alright for games involving IPL sides, they have been as bad as appalling for fixtures that haven’t. The qualifying stage of this year’s event takes place in Hyderabad, where a half-filled stadium has been a good turnout for Deccan Chargers’ home games in the IPL. An empty stadium for six matches over three days will not be a clever way to kick off the tournament.

The 2011 tournament will feature three or four Indian sides depending on whether the Kolkata Knight Riders make it through the qualifying pools. The bias towards the Indian sides makes financial sense for organisers but takes away from the concept of the competition. This bias doesn’t stop at the proportion of teams participating but extends to the small print: For example, IPL sides are allowed to field four foreign players in any starting XI (and as many as they fancy in their squad) whereas all other sides need to stick to the same rules that exist in their domestic T20 competitions.

Players who represent more than one participating side can be bought by their cash-rich IPL franchises. For example,the NSW Blues will probably lose their star pace duo Brett Lee and Doug Bollinger to Kolkata and Chennai respectively. Davey Jacobs is the captain of the Warriors team but he told Spin that he has been asked by the Mumbai Indians if he can keep wicket for that star-studded outfit instead.

CLT20 has led a precarious existence. The event’s first scheduled season in 2008 was cancelled in the aftermath of the Mumbai terrorist attacks of November 2008 and each of the last three seasons has been plagued by rotten television and spectator figures. Television Ratings Point (TRP) numbers in India have shown that the Champions league has consistently been watched by around one quarter of the size of audience for IPL matches. A terrorist attack in Mumbai in July this year saw at least 20 people killed by three bomb blasts and that may be enough to make some players wary of participation.

The tournament is virtually upon us and, at the time of writing, it is without a major sponsor after cellular network provider Airtel pulled out of its 40 million dollar, five-year sponsorship deal on the back of the tournament’s mediocre public interest. A new sponsor will no doubt be found but the pull-out shows a lack of faith in the tournament’s popularity.

Other bad press regarding the CLT20 is that Cricket Australia, which part-owns the event with the Indian and South African governing bodies, has threatened to boycott the tournament if player payments are not made timeously.

”We’ve had two disappointing years in terms of the timing of the payments and have taken steps to ensure players are paid in an acceptable time period … if that doesn’t happen we’ve told them we’ll be considering our options,” said ACA chief Paul Marsh.

The Champions League is a wonderful concept and has the potential to capture the imagination of the cricket world. Look what it did for Trinidad and Tobago’s Kieron Pollard, who rose from unknown to omnipresent in the Twenty20 format. But it probably needs to be less Indo-centric in order to really succeed. I would love to see it staged in England.

This article was written for the September edition of Spin magazine.

DRS: One step forward, one step back

The ever-confusing Decision Review System (DRS) was modified recently at the Hog Kong ICC Annual Conference at the request of the Indian cricket board, which increasingly calls the shots in the administration of world cricket. The modified version is to make use of Hot-Spot technology but do away with the Hawk Eye ball-tracker, which will mean that LBW decisions would not be a part of the DRS. The modified system will make its debut in this month’s England versus India series and is a ‘one step forward, one step back’ move from the ICC.

As any cricketer knows all too well, losing your wicket pains so much that it is hard to imagine a worse feeling that doesn’t involve the death of a close relative. And while being dismissed through one’s own fault or a bit of bad luck is one thing, being given out unfairly can be cause enough to incite murder on the pitch. Similarly, bowlers don’t much fancy hearing a nick and then turning around to see the umpire shaking his head. But more than how incorrect decisions make individual players feel is the fact that one shocking decision can be enough to change the result of an entire Test series.

Of course a certain degree of human error is part of cricket and it always has been so, but the more we can do to eliminate it the better, and the DRS that has been used in various guises at many Test series over the past few years and in the 2011 World Cup did make significant strides towards making the game a fairer one.

But there has been one major obstacle to full DRS implementation and development and that, surprise surprise, is the BCCI, whose officials and players are so adamantly against the use of technology to make the game fairer that there is something very suspicious about their motives for not doing so. It is no secret that the BCCI’s influence on the game is so far- reaching and it is becoming hard not to query whether they have an ulterior motive in being the only nation to stand so strongly against the use of technology. It seems fishy that India would be so strongly against the system under which they won the World Cup.

The mandate of any review system is to eliminate the howlers – those decisions that are plainly, terribly, awfully wrong. Doing so surely makes everyone happier. The Federation of International Cricketers’ Associations (FICA) recently surveyed a host of international players and 82% of them said that they believed the DRS made for better decision making at the 2011 World Cup. A unanimous 97% of those surveyed would support DRS being made compulsory in all Test matches. Fairer equals better and, although it wasn’t perfect, DRS at the World Cup was a step in the right direction.

DRS has its fair shares of supporters and critics. Muttiah Muralitharan, Rudi Koertzen and Ricky Ponting are understood to be supporters of it, while Indian captain MS Dhoni has called it an “adulteration of human decision making and technology”. Sachin Tendulkar maintains the Indian party line and is on record as saying, “I am not convinced with the referral system. I have not felt convinced by or comfortable with many decisions.”

Tendulkar’s point that Hawk-Eye isn’t 100% accurate obviously can’t be ignored. Cameras aren’t always accurately positioned and a cricket ball is not a spherical object so its precise projected path cannot be predicted with absolute certainty. We are sometimes talking about millimetres here and swing, spin, ball rotations and other kinds of bowling witchcraft are not very predictable animals.

Of course we have all seen occasions where Hawk-Eye projections just don’t look correct but, having said that, they can tell you if a given ball was scheduled to miss the woodwork by miles. The technology is also very useful for telling us what the ball did before it struck the pad and, as journalist Dileep Premachandran points out, even LBW dismissals where the ball has blatantly pitched outside leg stump and are mistakenly given out will not be liable for appeal under the modified UDRS. This is surely a step backwards. We are quick to say that some umpires need new spectacles but hardly anyone questions their integrity – in my view, DRS acted as a deterrent for them to get involved in match-fixing.

On the positive side, Snicko and Hot-Spot will be able to do a lot of things that the old DRS couldn’t. WG Grace would be amazed if he knew that heat sensors and highly sensitive microphones were able to determine who is out and who is not. In the first Test in Jamaica recently, Ian Bishop acknowledged that Suresh Raina, M.S. Dhoni and Virat Kohli were wrongly given out and Hot-Spot could have corrected all of those bad decisions. There were several World Cup referrals where an edge should have been proven or otherwise but could not be done so with the naked eye alone..

The downside to Hot-Spot is that the requisite infra-red cameras cost in excess of $5000 per day to employ and there is not yet an agreement as to who should stump up the loot. Broadcasters have used the tool before but they do so to enhance viewers’ enjoyment – they are not neutral umpires and, as ball-tracker diagrams can be manipulated, a further risk is thus inherent in the system.

ICC boss Haroon Lorgat has suggested that, “there is the possibility that we could raise a sponsor to cover the cost of the DRS, where we may well cover all costs of the technology.” This seems a sensible idea.

As India boasts such a high proportion of worldwide cricket fans and generates such a large percentage of international cricket revenues, it is perhaps only fair that the BCCI’s voice should carry more weight than some of their counterparts at the ICC. But with power comes responsibility and it is vital that the organisation considered put cricket ahead of financial and political gain. Power corrupts and world cricket needs decision-makers who want the best for the game and not the best for themselves.

The same 2011 FICA player survey found that only 6% of players believe decisions made at ICC Board level are in the wider interests of the game and 69% of players believe decisions are unfairly influenced by the BCCI. Considering some of those players are Indian and others may have felt uncertain of anonymity, that is a worryingly high percentage.

We are all wary of the over-use of technology and it is natural that the old guard resists change for that is what they always do. But we are not talking about scientific advances to the degree of cloning here, nor does anyone want to turn umpires into robots, we are merely discussing how best to improve the standard of umpiring at international level. The DRS that was employed in the World Cup was great in the way it gave us stats on which umpires (Aleem Dar and Marais Erasmus) consistently got decisions right and which ones (Asoka de Silva and Daryl Harpur) got them wrong. Harper and de Silva were so poor that they were subsequently removed from the ICC’s elite panel. There is no doubt that the use of technology is vastly improving the standard of umpiring.

There is one redeeming feature of the ICC’s latest rulings. If before any bi-lateral series the respective sides decide that the ball-tracking Hawk-Eye be used in conjunction with Hot-Spot and Snicko, then all three will be used. Hopefully this means that every series other than those involving India will be fairer and better than those that do.
This article appeared in Spin magazine in August 2011

Losing Lalit – a review of the 2011 IPL

When India won the World Cup, an obsession swept that country that made every cog in the nation’s capitalist wheel jump to lubricate itself with all things cricket. Not that they hadn’t done so before, it is just that this single-minded strategy was taken to another stratosphere. People who hadn’t previously cared for the game were now mad about it and a bumper Indian Premier League season was anticipated. Twenty20 rupees looked certain to rain down harder than the monsoon that the IPL precedes . 

But without the controversial Lalit Modi at the helm of his colossal, albeit shadowy, brainchild, the fourth edition of the IPL has failed to live up to expectations. A combination of too short a break after the World Cup, cricket fatigue (for both players and spectators), a drop in team loyalty after the re-auctioning of the entire player pool, alleged corruption and high-handedness in the overgrown bureaucracy that is the BCCI, a shortage of new initiatives in the tournament, too many one-sided games and the continued lack of an international-fixtures window resulted in lower television ratings at IPL 2011 than at any of the previous editions.

And while the ambitions of such a tournament should focus on the standard of the competition and less about how many people watch it at home on the box, this sadly isn’t the case with the IPL. It is all about the money. Windfalls of profits from the IPL have raised players’ salaries to levels that many wouldn’t have believed were possible in our lifetimes but, whilst this may have enhanced the level professionalism in the game, it has happened at considerable cost to the health of international cricket in general, and Test cricket in particular. 

The West Indies have just wrapped up a home series against Pakistan and been fielding under-strength teams after having lost Kieron Pollard, Chris Gayle and Dwayne Bravo to the IPL. Also, the lure of the tournament’s riches forced Lasith Malinga to retire prematurely from playing Test cricket for Sri Lanka. Once again Pakistani players, who are persona non grata in India despite their President being invited to watch the Mohali World Cup semi-final with the Indian Prime Minister, were not invited to participate. This has left their players embittered about earnings and possibly more likely to fall prey to the temptations of lucrative match-fixing. The IPL continues to weaken the competitiveness of the fringe Test-playing nations and the ICC appears to be insufficiently concerned about remedying the situation.

An IPL window could solve some of these problems but it would be unjust for world cricket to stand still for what is an Indian domestic tournament, and a very long one at that. There is no window for T20 leagues in other countries and, as Tony Grieg points out, “We have a situation where the ICC is dominated by India. They tell Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and one or two other countries what to do and they always get the vote. It’s very hard, but somehow we have got to change things at that level.

“We have got to look very, very closely and make sure we do not destroy the cornerstone of the game which is Test cricket,” he added in response to suggestions that that the BCCI is looking to secure a two-month window for its multi-billion-dollar cash-cow of a tournament.

“Overdose of cricket is bad for health,” read a privately-owned bill-board outside a well-known pizzeria near the Wankhede stadium on Marine Drive in Mumbai, one week into the IPL. Almost every day for three and a half months, there has been a live game in India on television. A local friend of mine told her newlywed husband that he was allowed to choose three IPL teams and watch their games only, or else she will not give him any children for two years. Indians are crazy about cricket but even they seem to have a saturation point.

Reduced television audiences at IPL 2011 will translate to lower future profits for the BCCI and the franchise owners. The two new sides, Kochi Tuskers Kerala and the Pune Warriors, were bought for 330 and 370 million dollars respectively and are very unlikely to show a profit on their investment for many years to come. These figures are starkly contrasted to the original eight franchises, which were bought for an average of 80 million dollars. The Rajasthan Royals was acquired for 67 million dollars before the inaugural IPL in 2008 and was then valued at 130 million dollars a year later (when 11.7% of the team was sold for 15.4 million dollars). 

But it is not only this original investment that is hard for the more expensively acquired teams to overcome. Franchises pay 10% of the amount for which they were purchased as an annual franchise fee to the BCCI. For Rajasthan this translates to 6.7 milllions dollars per year, while for Kochi and Pune, the figures are five-fold at 33 and 37 million dollars respectively – a barrier to profit that won’t be overcome easily, especially if the sides don’t finish at the top of the league or land bumper sponsorship deals.

In the third IPL season, most of the eight teams declared an operating profit but that is not to say that all of the team owners have seen positive returns on their initial capital investments. “We haven’t broken even yet. We’re hoping we’ll get there this year, but the last three years have been difficult for us,” said Arvinder Singh, chief operating officer of the Kings XI Punjab before IPL 2011. 

Player salaries are up 40-50% on last year and a recent survey found that pro rata, IPL player salaries are second only to the US National Basketball Association (NBA) in the world of sports leagues. According to the Annual Review of Global Sports Salaries the estimated average salary of an IPL player over a year would be $3.84 million.

Furthermore, while World Cup ticket prices were granted Entertainment Tax exemption, IPL franchises are not afforded the same luxury. The tax effectively inflates the price of match tickets. In the state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, tickets attract a 10% tax and authorities expect to collect five million dollars from it. In Kerala, home to the new Tuskers team, the rate is 36% and although a 50% rebate has now been agreed, the damage was done by way of poor crowd attendances at that team’s games.

Another problem franchise owners have is that they are yet to realise strong incomes from merchandising. Whilst some teams have done well with sponsorship deals – the Royals increased their number of sponsors from 12 to 18 this season – the short season and fact that merchandise is so commonly reproduced and sold on the black market has meant that’s sides are unable to capitalise on the sale of team jerseys in the way that a football side like Manchester United has been able to do. It is difficult to build a strong team brand when that brand is only on the shelf for six weeks a year.

Indeed the owning of IPL teams may go the way of the English Premier League, where owners like Chelsea’s Roman Abramovich are far more concerned with team results than financial returns. The Mumbai Indians team is owned by Mukesh Ambani, whose company Reliance Communications turned over 45 billion dollars last year, I doubt very much whether he will be concerned if his play-thing costs him a few million dollars here or there (last year the franchise recorded a loss of 3.4 million dollars).

None of this paints a rosy picture for franchise owners but television ratings would have to drop a lot further before they overly trouble the BCCI as India’s cricket board is set to profit something in the region of 250 million dollars from IPL 2011. The BCCI’s wealth is exponentially larger than the rest of the cricket world combined and very little can be done to stop the fact that India will continue to dominate proceedings at the ICC.

An April study by UK-based analysts Brand Finance valued the IPL brand at $3.67 billion, a drop of 11 percent on the previous year, and that was before television ratings showed a massive 25% decline in audiences at this year’s tournament. While the BCC’s IPL is in no danger of complete demise, it is struggling to rake in the bucks in the exciting way it did under the business genius of Mr Modi. 

An astonishingly ambitious hard worker, marketing guru and ideas-man par excellence, Modi was the brains and face of the IPL. Although his position as Chairman of the league was unpaid, he amassed extraordinary fortunes for the BCCI and many of his friends and family members, some of whom are shareholders in teams. 

When the Indian government ruled at the last minute that IPL 2009 could not be held in India because of a schedule clash with national elections, Modi almost single-handedly pulled off the remarkable feat of moving the entire tournament to South Africa, where stadiums were filled with crowds dancing to Bollywood stars and Indian television ratings remained strong enough to put cinema complexes out of business. His extraordinary vision combined with the highly efficient sport marketing and logistics team under Andrew Wildblood of the International Marketing Group (IMG) was a winning a combination.

But Modi was axed during IPL 2010 amidst numerous charges of corruption and the former IPL Commissioner (a wonderful self-appointed title) is exiled in London. His passport has been revoked by the Indian government and he has refused to return home to face the music of criminal charges against him on the grounds that, after receiving several death threats, he fears his life would be in danger if he did so. Not the kind of man to hide quietly, Mr Modi has used the internet to voice his streams of opinions on the tournament and those who run it. Conflicted between support for his creation and deep contempt for his foes at the BCCI, his messages on the Twitter website come thick and fast on a daily basis.

After personally brokering and then often positively re-negotiating most of the deals that hold together the IPL, Modi in all likelihood has vested financial interests in the financial success of the tournament. “Just learnt that the ratings for IPL have reached an average of 3.84 (TRP ratings scale). Which is the lowest it has ever achieved. Sorry to hear the same,” writes Modi on Twitter.

While Modi has mostly been positive in his support for the child that was taken away from him, he has not had the same approach when tweeting about the BCCI honchos that ousted him and hijacked the gravy train he drove.

“Not indirectly, but very directly. Fixing the auction, umpires and now pitch. Just give the damn trophy to CSK,” Modi wrote of the BCCI secretary who is also the owner of the Chennai Super Kings side.

Do not forget that match-fixing is one of the allegations that was made against Modi’s tenure. But while Modi was the boss of the IPL there was someone who could be held responsible for alleged mismanagement of the league. Now it is an almost faceless organisation hiding behind the auspices of the BCCI, a large and powerful organisation. It would be both churlish and naïve to believe that the funny business in those ranks ended with the departure of Lalit Modi.

Like a circus without a ring-master, the IPL 2011 has seemed a monotonously choreographed show that we have seen so many times before. Whilst crowd attendances have been good and the tournament has gone smoothly, it has lacked the intrigue and entertainment value it boasted under the magical Mr Modi. One would have expected that tickets for the final would be sold out in a matter of minutes but it has been five days since they went on sale and they are still not quite sold out. 

In previous tournaments there were often upwards of 80 journalists in the press box, whereas this year I have been to games where there have been fewer than ten. Senior Indian cricket writers have been virtually nowhere to be found and I have not bumped into even one foreign cricket writer.

Cheerleaders have been told to wear more clothes, there have been fewer fireworks (not just off the pitch) and a degree of sameness pervades the jamboree. Bollywood megastars Preity Zinta, Shilpa Shetty and Shah Rukh Khan hugging players in the dug-out was a massive novelty three years ago but this year’s crackdown on IPL parties has diminished press interest in the glitz and glamour that weds cricket to India’s high society. In any case it is no longer so exciting for the average Indian television viewer. Liz Hurley’s cheering on her lover, Shane Warne, at his last IPL may have been about the only exception.

On the field, under half of the 70 group matches matches were closely fought and very few high scores were successfully chased down, which is not what crowds in India relish. Midway through the league Virender Sehwag blitzed 119 off 56 balls to give Delhi, who had been teetering at 25/3 in the sixth over, an terrific four-wicket win over the Deccan Chargers who had put up a substantial 175-run target. It was the kind of game that made the inaugural IPL a blockbuster but games this scintillating were few and far between. The following twelve consecutive matches were so one-sided that there was little reason to keep watching after the first strategic (read: advertising) time-out break.

In fact the IPL lacked the kind of game one never forgets until the last group game of the season. Kolkata Knight Riders needed to beat the Mumbai Indians in front of a capacity Eden Gardens in order to secure a top-two finish, and thereby only need to win one play-off game for a place in the final. Mumbai had five wickets in hand and needed 21 runs off the final over to avoid a fifth straight loss when Lakshmi Balaji sent down a nightmare six balls to James Franklin and Ambati Rayadu that conceded 23 runs, including a six off the last ball to win a crackerjack of a match. The feat prompted the notorious blogger @Altcricket to tweet, “It’s taken 70 matches, but finally, a good game in the IPL.”

With the cap of only four international players allowed in any starting XI remaining unchanged, the talent pool of Indian players was spread even more thinly across ten teams – instead of the previous eight – with the result that many very fine international players have been unable to get a game while several below-par Indians get caps. The IPL should not be allowed to get away with asking for an international window and being a domestic tournament. 

As Warne said the day after his retirement from professional cricket, “India needs to use its power responsibly and not trample over the smaller nations in search of extra revenues.”

The rules relating to the re-auctioning of players before the fourth season saw very few players being retained by each franchise, thus undoing of much of the fan loyalty that had been built up over the previous three seasons. A strict limit of four players per side were allowed to be retained but doing so proved expensive at the auction as anyone worthy of keeping was bid for by their old club and other clubs. Consequently a mere 12 players were retained by the eight franchises, and the squads at every one of them bore almost no resemblance to their previous sides, an obvious problem given that the popularity of sports leagues is underpinned by the loyalty of teams’ fans. Yuvraj Singh is from Punjab but he is the “icon” player and captain of Pune – it is enough to turn the most mentally sane cricket fan schizophrenic.

But by no means is it all doom and gloom for the IPL. Even if team ownership starts to trade on a lower price earnings ratio there are still many pros to the tournament. 

Crowd attendances have been good, with many games sold out at high ticket prices. The IPL has brought about the extension and diversification of cricket fans in India. On my first visit to these shores I remember thinking that there was hardly a woman or child in any stadium and that ticket prices were low. But going to a game has become a far more mainstream activity and India’s bulging middle class has lapped up the entertainment. Stadiums are more comfortable – squatting stands behind razor-wire seem to have been abolished, refreshments are more freely available, lavatories cleaner and security tighter. Tickets are freely available online and are couriered to your door, thus eliminating the need to either queue all day in the sun or know a club member. Match tickets are not inexpensive and a cross-section of any IPL 2011 crowd reveals a well-to-do demographic of students, families with young children, and even groups of women on a girls’ night out. 

Highlights included some ridiculously fast-scoring innings from the likes of Chris Gayle (107 off 49 balls amongst others) and Adam Gilchrist (106* off 55 balls) and the discovery of a certain Paul Valthaty (120* off 63 early in the season). Malinga picked up where he left off after the World Cup and, at the end of the group stages, led the Purple Cap contest by clear water with 27 scalps (over 20 of those were clean bowled!). Youngster Rahul Sharma made a name for himself as a promising leg-break bowler and probable future star for India. 

It is probably no coincidence that India won the first World Cup since the invention of the IPL for the country’s stars are now well accustomed to high pressure situations. 

But as a tournament the IPL is too long and too congested. It takes place at the hottest time of year in India, when cricket is not normally played. One doesn’t hear players complain about the schedule because of the exorbitant salaries they are paid to go through the motions: Who pays the piper calls the tune and even the unhappy player who never gets any game time puts on a big smile when he is interviewed pitch-side and fibs about how he is “having the time my life” spending six hours a day on buses and planes and standing around for soft-drink commercials five thousand miles away from his family.

But the IPL has been and will continue to be a fantastic tournament. It may not prove as entertaining or profitable a league without Lalit Modi but it serves a purpose in providing entertainment to the masses and enough money to retire to the players that make the cut. The major worry with the tournament is something none of us can do anything about and that is that it fattens up the already obese BCCI and ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ is the approach the rest of the world is likely to take.

This article appeared in the June edition of Spin magazine

South Africa’s recipe for success

No visiting team since the West Indies under Clive Lloyd in 1992-93 had won a Test series in Australia. However the baggy greens were a side under pressure this season: not long after a 2-0 drubbing in India an unsettled Australia, who have now not named an unchanged side for any of their last 14 matches, went to battle with a team on an upward path.

Matthew Hayden and Michael Hussey went into the South Africa series bang out of form, frontline bowler Stuart Clark was out injured and it was clear when Australia were 43/3 at drinks on the morning of the first Test at Perth that the tourists had a chance to win in a country where all nine previous attempts over a period of a hundred years had proved unsuccessful.

South African coach Mickey Arthur has revealed the blueprint behind his team’s success, a strategy that mirrors the one used by England to win the Ashes in 2005, under the coaching of Duncan Fletcher. A committed backroom team that includes Fletcher and mental conditioning coach, former English off-spinner Jeremy Snape are all to be given credit for the Proteas’ recent series win.

Arthur has also told how he made each player sign a pledge to excel and has described the broad vision of the brand of cricket his team needed to play in order to be the best side in the world. This vision was translated into a concrete strategy and executed to the letter with team captain, Graeme Smith, and Cricket South Africa CEO, Gerald Majola.

Each of the South African batsmen signed a pledge saying that the top six batsmen are responsible for scoring 300 runs in each innings. The bowlers signed one promising to take 20 wickets in each match.

Arthur reluctantly acknowledged the similarities to Fletcher’s side of 2005: “We identified the components we believed we needed to win, then we identified the players and we backed them. There’s a similarity to the England team of a couple of years ago, sure, but we didn’t build our plan based on that. Dale Steyn and Steve Harmison, Andrew Flintoff and Jacques Kallis, Ashley Giles and Paul Harris, there are some very similar cricketers, but there’s a lot else that goes on behind the scenes which makes a difference.

“My partnership with Graeme has been key, in that we both really believe in each other. It is like a marriage. When a dressing room sees a captain-coach relationship like this, with a united goal and no egos, it is very powerful.

“Gerald has been amazing even at the worst times. The last time we were in Oz we were drubbed 3-0 in the Tests and were being smashed in the one-day matches. Gerald flew over and assured us of his full backing. It is a triangle – Gerald, Graeme and me.”

In a country where the meddling of politicians in the racial composition of the national team has been a continuing area of conflict, the fact that every player in the South African Test team deserves his place on merit is a tribute to Cricket South Africa’s transformation program. Coloured batsman Ashwell Prince was unfit to play any part in the series and was replaced by JP Duminy, whose match-winning 50 not out at Perth and fairytale 166 in Melbourne were both testaments to this successful transformation.

An equally significant transformation can be observed in the South African captain, Smith, who has completed a virtual metamorphosis in his evolution from the overconfident, unpopular and brash young captain of five and a half years ago to the wise and highly respected leader he is today.

Smith leads by example and has a reputation as the bravest man in cricket, after repeatedly batting in agonising pain. His 154 not out at Edgbaston was completed with excruciating tennis elbow and was probably the finest century made in 2008. Not only the top run-scorer of 2008, Smith is also currently the longest serving captain in the Test arena. He is only 27 years old.

“I was 22 when I took over and it felt like everybody was critical of my appointment,” said Smith on New Year’s Day. “I thought – rightly or wrongly – that many people at home were setting me up to fail. So I wanted to prove them wrong, I thought I had to lead from the front and stamp my authority on proceedings.

“It wasn’t necessarily the right way to go about things and it wasn’t really ‘me’, but that’s the way it was. I’m pleased to say I’m a lot more comfortable in my own skin now and a lot more relaxed about just being me and concentrating on my cricket and doing as much leading by example as I can.”

There is no doubt that team psychologist, Jeremy Snape, has been instrumental in Smith’s transition from hot- to cool-headed captain. Snape first worked with Smith during the Rajasthan Royals’ triumphant IPL campaign, and although Smith is unlikely to admit it, the time spent under Royals’ skipper, Shane Warne, has proved invaluable to the development of his leadership skills.

South Africa has won all but one of its previous ten Test series, including its first win on English soil since 1965. The exception was a drawn series in India last year, which the visitors led 1-0 into the minefield of a battleground that was the dusty cracked pitch at Green Park, Kanpur.

In each of the first two Tests in this series, South Africa won from positions where no script could be written to do so. Again in the third, the visitors very nearly drew a match that looked all but lost, displaying a new strength of character and depth of resolve in this young team’s game. Before this series it looked as if India were due to replace Australia as the best team in the world, but the race is now wide open.
This article appeared in the Times of India in January 2009, after South Africa’s Test series win in Australia.

The batsman’s ego – a double-edged sword

Batting is largely a selfish pursuit. While making runs is what wins matches for the team, I can’t help but notice that so many of the world’s best batsmen are highly egotistical fellows. An arrogant and resolute self belief is many a sportsman’s most valuable trait but it is also so often his downfall.

Kevin Pietersen is probably the best batsman in the world and he knows as much. His stubborn confidence in his abilities is indicative of the fact that he genuinely believes that there isn’t anything he cannot do with the bat – a conviction that usually stands him in very good stead.

There is only a sheet of glass between my seat in the Rugby Stand end at Headingley and the players pavilion on my left, and I spent a long while this morning watching Kevin Pietersen warming up his body and mind while waiting to bat when the defiant nightwatchman James Anderson was finally dismissed. He caught my attention because of the enthusiasm of this preparation; the focus in his eyes and the vigour with which he stretched his body and knocked his bat on the concrete floor.

Despite standing in the field for six of the previous nine days, KP looked like a man possessed and as I observed his behaviour I suddenly realised that he believed he was going to win a pretty un-winnable match for England. At the time England were two down and still 220 runs short of wiping out the South African first-innings lead of 319 runs.

But stranger things have happened at Headingley. Most readers would either remember or would have heard of the 1981 Ashes Test when England had followed on and were 135 for 7. Ian Botham then unleashed that extraordinary 149 not out and Bob Willis bowled the Australians out to win by 18 runs, thereby beating the odds at the local bookies of 500/1.

It was clear to me that Kevin Pietersen imagined, even believed, that today he would do something similarly heroic. He beat his chest and then walked to the middle, and at a time when a demoralised England needed to bat out two full days for a draw, KP struck 13 magnificent runs in only four deliveries and then edged the next ball from Jacques Kallis to Mark Boucher.

KP was not the only one to get out to a ball he could have left. In fact six of the ten England dismissals in the second innings would have been avoided if the English batsmen had just watched the ball go past the off stump. The same goes for at least as many of England’s first-innings dismissals.

Michael Vaughan seemed to accept the inevitable loss during the afternoon session and popped by the press box to demand a humorous word with a certain tabloid cricket correspondent who was responsible for today’s newspaper headline, “Vaughan the Prawn!”.

We had just recovered from this hilarious episode when Pietersen came in to ask if he could borrow some binoculars. A journalist from an English daily passed him a pair and KP, noticing they were very small, asked in a strong South African accent, “Do these f***ing things work?”

The journalist’s reply came sharply: “They were good enough to see your dismissal, KP!” I don’t think Pietersen will be giving that paper any interviews in the near future.

This article appeared on Cricket365 in July 2008, during South Africa’s tour of England.

Ganguly calls it a day

Sourav Ganguly’s decision to retire from international cricket came about in the most quiet and unexpected manner. During a press conference two days before the first Test here at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore, Ganguly shocked all by saying, “I want to mention one thing. I will retire at the end of this series.”

A controversial character the Prince of Calcutta may be, but knowing the fighting individual he is, I can’t help but wonder exactly which of the various pressures pushed him to throw in the towel.

Last week Geoffrey Boycott suggested that India’s fab four of Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman, Rahul Dravid and Ganguly were over the hill. “The great Indian batsmen are long in the tooth and approaching the end of their careers. Some of them are desperate to prolong their international life spans, not just because they love the game but probably because of the endorsement deals available,” Boycott wrote in his column for The Telegraph. “But none of them are the force they once were,” he added.

Despite special performances in the second and third Tests of the drawn series versus South Africa earlier this year, it is well known that the Indian selection committee has long been losing patience in ‘Dada’, as he is affectionately known by millions of fans. But judging by the way the story hit television headlines when it broke on Tuesday night, the timing of Ganguly’s decision was not anticipated by the media.

Ganguly may well have been pressured into retiring by the BCCI, perhaps by being told that his place in the side was not safe for the series. Unless he fails dismally in the first few games, he is at least guaranteed a spot in the line-up for all four Tests after announcing his retirement up front.

Ganguly has been good to Indian cricket, indeed he was their most successful Test captain. But not everyone in India will be sorry to see him go. His arrogant antics, which range from refusing to carry the drinks as 12th man against Australia in 1991/92 to keeping various captains waiting at the toss, have earned him a fair share of adversaries.

This exit strategy allows him an opportunity to go out on a high. What a pity the fourth and final Test isn’t at Eden Gardens.

This article appeared on Cricket365 in October 2008 ahead of the Test series between India and Australia

India collapse in Ahmedabad

Sometimes referred to as the armpit of India, Ahmedabad is the capital of the dry state of Gujarat. It is dry because most of the state is desert and because alcohol is prohibited. The ground is often described as the worst venue to tour on the international circuit. But I can report that this reputation is undeserved and that Ahmedabad is a spread out and pleasant city where traffic jams have nothing on the groaning metropolises of Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Delhi. The local cuisine is probably the tastiest in India, tourists are not hassled and the abundance of trees along the Sabarmati River helps one forget about the environmental disaster that is India in the 21st Century.

Or perhaps I am in such jolly spirits because of South Africa’s brilliant performance with the ball today, bowling out India for a paltry 76 runs and following it up with a solid 224 for 4 with the bat. And I smuggled in a good bottle of brandy. And I can have a delicious three course meal for under a dollar and then watch an ICL semi-final and the first day of the second West Indies versus Sri Lanka Test tonight.

India won the toss and elected to bat on a greenish pitch. The decision was a formality despite the unexpected grass cover. The only time a team has ever chosen to bowl first at this stadium was in the first Test at the ground in 1983/4, and that was only because the Indians had no desire to face the formidable attack of Marshall, Holding and co.

The first rule when batting first in Test matches in general and greentops in particular, is to survive until lunch with only one or two wickets down. India knew that there was some life in this pitch – that is why the team spent as long as an hour looking at the strip yesterday and the intelligent engineer that is Captain Kumble played RP Singh ahead of the third spinner, Mr Piyush Chawla. However, Gujarat is virtually a desert state and with ground temperatures measuring up to 48 degrees, this track will dry out and take significant turn. In plain and simple terms one does not want in such conditions and it was a fair toss to win.

The advent of limited overs cricket brought more attacking stroke play to Test match cricket. As a result, draws are far rarer than they once were and this trend is being quickly exacerbated by the current Twenty20 phenomenon. One can only score run-a-ball triple centuries on very flat pitches and today India showed their fans a perfect example of how not to post a first-innings total.

The fashion in which Dale Steyn, Makhaya Ntini and Morne Morkel ripped through the best batting line-up in the world (sans Sachin) was remarkable. Equally remarkable was the fact that the experienced, high averaging Indian top six threw away their wickets with gay abandon. Balls that deserved utmost respect from the best pace attack in the world were flashed at without thought or foot movement. The bowling services of Paul Harris and Jacques Kallis were not required as India were all out in exactly 20 overs.

Irfan Pathan top-scored with 21 not out and extras came second with 19 runs, 11 of which were leg-byes. Dhoni made 14 runs, out swiping greedily at an accurate length ball from Morkel when his team was in dire straits at 55/5. Impatience and frustration are no solution to tricky times in Test cricket. No other batsman made double figures. It is of course true that on another day inside edges may have found boundaries rather than stumps but South Africa created opportunities while India self destructed.

The lack of shot-selection discipline will be of grave concern to Gary Kirsten whose success at his job of coaching India will be measured by the performance of his team. Take away one innings from Mr Sehwag and that performance has been well under par. The journalist next to me remarked that the Indian batting line-up are just “flat track bullies” and while he was probably just angry with the dismally low total, there is certainly some truth in that. I remarked to the same fellow that perhaps part of the reason for the collapse was that it is very cloudy but he replied that there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and that the dense hazy white matter above the ground was smog from nearby factories. Perhaps it aids swing.

If India wished that Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma had been available for the first Test, they missed them achingly today. For my money, Praveen Kumar’s outstanding Commonwealth Bank Series performances were enough to include him in the squad once the selectors knew that they were without their two premier seamers. How RP Singh’s selection could be justified after his Chennai effort is beyond me.

South Africa passed India’s first-innings total before losing the wicket of Graeme Smith, trapped LBW be the fiery Sreesanth. Neil McKenzie, Hashim Amla and Ashwell Prince soon followed him to the pavilion, each of them foxed by the devious Harbhajan Singh. But a magnificent partnership of 106 runs by Kallis (60 not out) and AB de Villiers (59 not out) ensured the visitors were all smiles overnight. They lead by 147 runs and have this Test match by the scruff of the neck.

There was a lot of talk pre-match about what sort of pitch should be prepared here at the Sardar Patel Stadium in Motera, Ahmedabad. Rumours circulated around the Vice President Hotel on Ghandi Ashram Rd, where I am staying with twenty or so Indian journalists, that Anil Kumble and the chief curator of Motera stadium have never seen eye to eye and that a lively pitch was prepared contrary to the specific requests of the Indian team. It was certainly apparent in the run-up to this match that the South African camp was more confident than the host team. It is interesting background information that the last three times India bowled a side out cheaply were on seaming tracks at Johannesburg, Nottingham and Perth.

If South Africa is to win this match they will take an unassailable 1-0 lead into the final Test match at Kanpur, a ground notorious for dead draws. A road of a pitch that fits that stereotype was probably ordered by the Indian team a few weeks ago. However, that particular flavour is no good when you need to win a match just to draw the series. And South Africa has shown they play spin better than any team outside the sub-continent. A crumbling day fpur raging turner would be just the ticket but that might be enough for Green Park to lose its already controversial ICC Test venue status. The groundsman there finds himself in a pickle.

This article appeared on Cricket365 in April 2008, during the second Test between India and South Africa in Ahmedabad.