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

Dale Steyn on the WC and the future

In an exclusive with Spin’s Nick Sadleir, the world’s best bowler reflects on South Africa’s failed World Cup campaign and looks to the future.

South Africa had looked the best team at the 2011 World Cup but they failed to defend 221 in their quarter-final against New Zealand in Dhaka, despite having seemed in cruise control at 100-odd for two.

The favourites were bowled out for 172 runs – yet another calamitous end to a promising World Cup campaign.

“After we lost that quarter-final we were blown. We certainly didn’t feel like we had just lost another game of cricket,” Steyn told SPIN in India where he is leading Deccan Chargers’ bowling attack at the IPL. “In the changing room I didn’t know whether to cry (some guys were crying their eyes out), break something, scream or shout. I was broken. Since the T20 WC a year before all of our focus had gone into building for this tournament and we knew we were good enough to win it.”

What has transpired is that New Zealand, a team with a justified reputation for fighting above its weight planned to jump at any opportunity to get into the potentially vulnerable minds of South Africa’s less experienced middle order and that was exactly what they did when Faf du Plessis ran out AB de Villiers to reduce the Proteas to 121 for five.

Twelfth man Kyle Mills (who came on with drinks just after the run-out), captain Dan Vettori and sidekicks Scott Styris and Tim Southee could clearly be seen on the broadcast pictures letting du Plessis know that he had just run out his side’s best player. And they didn’t go easy on him. Du Plessis, in the heat of the moment, retaliated with aggravation by pushing Mills away from him.

“That night we were out-competed. We weren’t out-skilled or outplayed, they just came out there looking like they wanted it more than us. We relied on our ability to beat them but their competitiveness took it to us,” reflected Steyn.

“That fight that they had with AB and Faf showed that they had planned to take it to us and speaking to some of them now, they have admitted as much. All the other games we played we relied on our skill to get us through and it did but here was a game where we weren’t up for the fight.”

That fight was the moment that brought about yet another famous South African choke. Vettori and Mills were fined a percentage of their match fees (as was du Plessis) but the professional foul probably won their side the crunch match.

Does it matter so much that the Proteas have failed to fire on the World Cup stage?

Should it plague the side so much that they have failed to win key knockout games?

Is it not enough of an accomplishment that have always been fierce competitors in all forms of cricket?

“After the World Cup I feel like there is maybe too much emphasis on World Cups. It sounds so bad that I say this but why should some games mean so much more than others?” questioned Steyn.

“We have such hectic schedules and surely all games should matter as much as each other but World Cups are what people remember.  The first cricket I remember caring about was 1992 with Jonty’s famous dive etc. I thought this is the pinnacle and I couldn’t wait for another four years so that I could watch some cricket that mattered again.”

“But now you have the T20 World Cup, the ICC Champs Trophy, the IPL, the Champions League and the ICC Test Championship to come. Never mind our important international series. So nowadays it seems more like if you screw up in one big tournament it doesn’t matter so much as there is another one every six months,” mused Steyn in his usual honest and friendly way.

When I asked Steyn why the team let the choker tag get to them so much instead of laughing it off he said, “I think that even if we had won this World Cup, people would still call us chokers when we next fail. Straight away they will throw it up again. It shouldn’t irritate us so much but it does get to me sometimes. There are only so many times you can be called an idiot before it really ticks you off – like a nickname at school that is funny in the beginning and then really upsets you.”

“It depends on the mood that you’re in but you usually aren’t in the mood to be teased when you have lost a game you should have won. I normally don’t let it get to me but sometimes it does. At the Johannesburg airport leaving for IPL recently an 18-year old kid chirped it to me and I went right up and put my face in his face and said to him ‘do you want to say that again’ – he was literally trembling after that.”

And such is the way South Africa have handled this choker bogeyman. A calm and composed guy, Steyn is an aggressive fast bowler and you wouldn’t expect him to take flak from a lippy teenager but it may be the Proteas’ own doing that the word hangs over their heads like Damocles’ sword.

It is a no-no to mention it at press conferences – it sends the players into a tizzy and I can’t help but think that such an issue wouldn’t affect a side like England, where an extensive cricket media is not afraid to challenge players on any issue and players seem better practised at facing the music. In South Africa we tip-toe around the issue in much the same way we skirt around the sensitive issue of race.

Whoever is South Africa’s next ODI captain needs to be able to talk about this ridiculous C-word and not look like he is going to punch every irritating journalist who mentions it.

For fear of acting like the moronic schoolyard name-calling bully (and pissing off the people we rely on for interviews) I have usually avoided using the word. But when I wrote a match report for a leading SA newspaper on a drawn Test in the UAE where South Africa, having been in complete control of the Test, again failed to bowl Pakistan out in five sessions to administer the coup de grace.  The report was given the headline “Proteas Choke Again” and the sub-editor even slipped the C-word into my first paragraph. One can’t really blame him because using words like those sells newspapers and goodness knows how hard it is to sell newspapers these days – it is just the way the media works.

The next day I was told that certain members of the team’s management were looking for me to ask whey I used the “choke” word (even though I didn’t use it, strictly) and it dawned on me then that this national side may be setting themselves up to fail by being so obviously troubled by such nonsense.

Dealing with the media is never easy but the fact that someone like Steyn really believes that people would still call the side chokers at the next tournament  if they had won this one (for they surely wouldn’t) shows that this nickname has affected the Proteas more than it should have.

South African cricket is due a shake-up and has an unusually long six-month break from international competition to reorganise before a bumper home season against Australia (starting on 13 October) and Sri Lanka and then a tour to New Zealand in February next year. In a month or two CSA will likely announce ex-coach Corrie van Zyl’s replacement and a new ODI skipper.

Unless he decides he doesn’t want it, the coaching job will go to Gary Kirsten, whose commitments with World Champions India ended after the recent World Cup. The current assistant and bowling coach, Vincent Barnes, is on record as having said that if he is not offered the post then he will likely consider other options on his table. In his seven years in the Proteas set-up, Barnes, 51, has served as deputy to Eric Simons, Ray Jennings, Mickey Arthur and Corrie van Zyl. Other names on CSA’s short-list are said to be Richard Pybus, an ex-Pakistan coach, and Dave Nosworthy, who has successfully coached the Lions and Titans in SA and incidentally was the man who discovered Dale Steyn when the youngster kept knocking over Nathan Astle’s stumps as a net bowler during the 2003 World Cup.

On the question of who will replace Graeme Smith as ODI skipper, CSA and its players are keeping their cards close to their chest. It makes sense that a new coach would be appointed first and that he would have a say in the matter but Steyn was generous enough to give us some of his views on the subject: “It’s not area 51 – we are actually allowed to talk about it,” he joked.

“I guess it will be one of Johan (Botha), AB (de Villiers) or Hashim (Amla). All three are very capable. Johan has done it well winning in Australia and every other time he has been asked to stand in.  But I suppose there may be a bit of pressure on his place as Robin Petersen and Imran Tahir have been on form. The good thing that comes out of it is that we have options in the spin department and all three did well in the World Cup.”

“In Johan’s favour is that he has been making lots of runs in the IPL, batting at three and keeping the fastest bowler in the world (Shaun Tait) out of the team. So he is standing up and showing that he can be in any side – be it as a batsman, a bowler or a captain. He is a serious contender for the job.”

Whether or not Steyn hinted to us that Botha is the obvious choice was a bit cryptic but my interpretation is that he did just that.  Another matter plaguing CSA revolves around the alleged mismanagement of funds by its board. The recent court-ordered reinstatement of its ousted president Mtutuzeli Nyoka has paved the way for an external audit and it is fair to say that no-one knows what will happen next. Steyn’s approach is simple: stay out of it.

“I don’t try and focus any energy on things that I have no control over – my job is just to play cricket. The saga over CSA finances gives a bad reflection on the side but it’s nothing to do with us. I must say it is quite funny to see that instead of the side being in the headlines for losing games, it is the board making headlines for how they handle the money. It isn’t a good thing but it doesn’t phase me.”

The IPL will be over soon, ending over four months in the subcontinent region for the fast bowler who took only a four-day break at home after the World Cup. Steyn plans to use some of the break to take the kind of holiday that cricket schedules have never allowed him.

“I am going for the holiday of my life in June, a whole month in the United States,” he tells me.

But it is what he plans to do afterwards that might take you by surprise. “My girlfriend (actress Jeanne Kietsmann) has some work in the UK after that so I am getting together with some county sides, just to train with them,” he revealed

“It’ll be sunny and warm in England while it is cold and rainy in Cape Town and I can see my girlfriend and do some good training by bowling in the nets around London.”

Steyn learnt much of his trade while playing at Essex and Warwickshire and it may well ruffle some feathers that he plans to spend time training with counties in England, especially as the Proteas are due to tour the country next summer. But what county in their right mind would turn down an offer from him to give batting practice to their squad? It is no doubt a smart way to train in the off-season without enduring the rigours of competition and all the travel that goes with it.

Steyn will then play for the Cape Cobras in the Champions League, which will likely take place in late September in either India or South Africa before the Proteas do battle with the Baggy Green – “It’ll be nice to then be playing at home for a while – we have some rankings to climb and we haven’t won a Test series in South Africa since 2008 when we beat beat Bangladesh.  We lost to Australia when they came to us after we won that famous away series and then we drew our last two home series (against England and India). We want to make it tough for teams to come to SA so we need to actually win not draw our home series.”

South African cricket may be at a crossroads but having personnel of the calibre of Dale Steyn will ensure that they remain as good as any other side on the circuit.

This interview was conducted for Spin Magazine in May 2011 during the Indian Premier League.

Q & A with Hashim Amla

Nick Sadleir: What is your first cricket memory?
Hashim Amla: Playing with my brother (Ahmed Amla, Dolphins, 106 first-class matches at an average of 35). My earliest memory is of playing with him in our little courtyard at home. He is four years older than me and it helped having two guys to grow up together. Because his friends were older than me and I tagged along and played with them, it helped me to play with the older guys. In the long run you never know but looking back, perhaps that was the stepping stone – having to face different bowlers who were older and more experienced than me.

NS: You were married not too long ago. Is it tricky being away from home for most of the year?
HA: I was married a year ago so I’m still getting used to experiencing the fact that I’m on the road a lot of the time. But I have enjoyed it so far. It is a great privilege to travel the world playing for one’s country. And I still get to take time out and enjoy whatever country I am in and also to spend with my family.

NS: Was not playing in the IPL a good chance to work on your batting by playing first-class cricket?
HA: Absolutely. I had the chance to spend a month with Nottinghamshire. And I had a great time over there playing on some different pitches.

NS: You scored a hundred on debut for them, didn’t you?
HA: Ha ha yes, fortunately I did. While the T20 World Cup was on, I was able to take the place of their overseas pro, David Hussey. So I covered for him and I was very fortunate because it went well (Amla was a run-scoring machine all month at Notts) and gave me the chance to play some good cricket before coming on a big tour.

NS: Last year you had a good stint at Essex – also making a hundred, a big 180-odd, on debut for them?
HA: Well it is always nice to start well. It helps you to settle down, takes the pressure off the rest of your time at the club.

NS: And I seem to remember a century on Pro40 debut for Essex as well. They were calling you W.G. (as in W.G. Grace) in Chelmsford.
HA: (Modest laughter)… When it rains it pours sometimes you know. It’s all part of the experience, I’ve enjoyed my time in England. I guess I have just been fortunate to have two good county stints. It has really helped my game.

NS: What was your most special innings ever?
HA: That’s a tough one. Although it was a losing battle, we couldn’t quite hold on for a draw. But in the second innings this year at Eden Gardens, Kolkata, we almost hung on for a draw. (Amla made 114 in the first innings and stood alone in the second innings with 123 not out. South Africa capitulated with only a couple of overs remaining on the last day).I got a hundred odd and if we had held on it would have been so special if we had survived. Scoring 250 in Nagpur was special, as is any other century or accolade, but because of the intensity of the fight, I hold that second innings at Eden Gardens as one of the most memorable ones.

NS: My favourite innings of yours was when you saved South Africa from an almost certain loss by blocking out a draw at Lord’s for two days.
HA: Certainly that was a special one. You always just want to do what is required for the team. I guess my 250 in Nagpur was important because it set up victory for the team. As you’ve shown, it is hard to isolate a favourite innings.

NS: You were an integral part of the first South African team to ever win a Test series in Australia. What was that like?
HA: It was a lovely experience. It was my first time with the national team in Aus and there have been a few teams who have gone there before and not won. So I got the feeling that players in our team who had been there and done badly really appreciated a lot more than we did. But it was a special experience. Australia is a lovely place to tour and the cricket was very intense so that was great.

NS: Does it feel like the South African team has lost their way a bit since then? Maybe struggled to live up to that performance?
HA: Well that is a tough one. We came back and Australia beat us at home. We have been pretty consistent in Tests though over the past few years. In ODIs we are still trying to build our team. But in the Test arena I think we have been one of the best teams in the world. We basically are just trying to keep on improving.

NS: You have managed to score hundreds at will in Test cricket, but you haven’t yet cemented your place in the ODI team, despite a good average and strike rate.
HA: I wouldn’t say hundreds at will – I wish it was that easy! But yes in ODI cricket I have been in and out of the team, often when Graeme has been injured. I feel I have made an impact in ODi cricket but I would like to score more hundreds.

NS: Can you see a situation where teams start fielding entirely different squads, even coaches, for the various formats of the game?
HA: I think the issue of different teams is evident around the world. It has started already, especially when it comes to T20 specialists. Different coaches – I don’t see it yet in the near future, Players are developing their own skills and trying to adapt quickly between the formats though.

NS: Jacques Kallis has said that it has been disruptive working with Duncan Fletcher and now he’s gone (Fletcher hasn’t worked with the SA team since Mickey Arthur resigned early this year). Did you learn much from him?
HA: Yes, I definitely learnt a few technical things from him. My game I pick up here and there but I didn’t get to spend enough time with him for us to develop a long bond, which Jacques did. But we know how technically sound Kallis is anyway.

NS: Has it felt like the Proteas have been in a transitional phase since Mickey resigned? Does South Africa have the right personnel to get to the top of the rankings and stay there?
HA: We definitely have the right personnel to do that. I played under Mickey for most of my five-year comeback career. Mickey was around for quite a while and adapting and changing isn’t easy but it is part and parcel of the game so I think everyone has handled it well and moved on.

NS: Hash, how do you stay so focused when you are out in the middle for hours and hours at a time? What’s going through your mind out there?
HA: Batting is just about taking it one ball a time and that’s all I’m trying to do. Fortunately you have a partner out there for company. Sometimes it gets humorous out there. But the thing is to just keep guiding each other, especially on a hot day. The thing is to keep reminding each other about the simpler things but the real motivation is that you are playing for your country and you want to do as best you can.

This interview appeared in the July 2010 edition of Spin Magazine.

Lalit Modi: How we made the IPL happen

Lalit Modi, chairman of the IPL, and Andrew Wildblood, Senior Vice President of IMG, the sports management company that helped make the IPL happen, sat down in Johannesburg with SPIN’s Nick Sadleir.

Lalit, you seem to have been at almost every IPL game this year…

Lalit Modi If there are two games on the same day in different cities, I leave the one game 20 minutes before it ends and I get to the other one twenty minutes after it starts.

Andrew Wildblood Lalit doesn’t have to suffer the indignity of commercial travel.

There must have been plenty of unknowns, shifting venue at such short notice…

LM Everyone told me it would be impossible. They said I was wasting time and money. I said, ‘Well, we are going to do this’.

AW Lalit called me at five in the morning one day and asked what the hell I was doing sleeping when there was work to be done. He said that the IPL couldn’t happen in India. I told him if we could do it in India, then we could do it anywhere!

He told me to meet him in Johannesburg the next day. So he came in his plane and I came down on a BA (flight).

LM We landed here, met the agencies, got Etienne de Villiers [until recently the head of the ATP tour] and Francios Pienaar [Saffer rugby legend, still very influential in SA sport and business] on the case. Etienne and Francois have been with me every single day for over two months – they moved out of their houses and into my hotel and have come with me everywhere.

You spent a lot of money advertising in SA…

AW Yes, Lalit uttered the immortal words – “I don’t want share of voice, I want all of voice.”

To pretty much sell out 59 games during the South African rugby season is good going….

LM The advertising agency gave us a budget of $3.5m. They said that was what they thought was appropriate and that it was probably the biggest advertising expenditure by any brand at any one particular time. Of course they expected us to cut it because all clients cut the budget. So I told them to multiply it by five. They told me I was wasting money on trying to fill the stadiums. I told them they should worry about the campaign and I will worry about filling the stadiums.

Andrew, when were you first involved in the business side of cricket? 

AW In 1989, when satellite broadcasters were first finding their feet.  I come from a generation whose only live football match in a year was the FA Cup final. In those days, sports revenues were driven by gate. The concern was that if you put everything on TV then you would diminish the value of the ticket revenues. We at IMG started to realise that the value could actually be in the television and not in the gate.

In 1990 England were touring the West Indies and the West Indies cricket board came to see us and said, “We are the most successful cricket team in the world, yet we are bust. What can we do?” When we told them that they could put this series on television they said they had approached the BBC who had said it was impossible – because the logistics of getting a production crew between the islands was too expensive. We said we could do it, sold the rights to Sky, and every ball was broadcast live.

So the IPL is not the first time you have turned cricket on its head…

AW I then went to India where a similar situation existed because their television infrastructure was not suitable to creating a level of coverage that was consumable internationally. They didn’t have the equipment or the people to do it at that time. So we took a huge quantum leap. But even in 1990 our broadcast in the West Indies was only filmed by seven cameras. Here we have at least 36 cameras in each game.

Throughout the 1990s we covered almost all the international cricket in the West Indies, India and Pakistan. We organised the Sahara Cup in Canada and the World Cup in Pakistan…

Has IPL been hurt by the global recession?

LM I would have said it is pretty recession proof.

AW I think a combination of uncertainty in world economics, Indian elections and the move to South Africa meant that we did not sign two other official partners. We had had some good conversations going on that started to die when the uncertainty came in as to whether this year’s event would happen or not.

What this guy (Modi) does unbelievably well, is to not let anything get in his way. One thing I have had to learn about Lalit is that differences in opinion are nothing personal – they are just for that moment. We get things done, move on and are then friends again. Without that energy, drive and commitment, and without the backup of IMG, then this wouldn’t happen.

LM I have the vision and I know what I want. And when it comes to implementing that, these guys (IMG) are the very best.

So, IMG runs the show?

LM Yes, they run the show.

How has the IPL transformed Indian cricket?


AW We realised that in order for the tournament to be respectable then we had to do something that benefited Indian cricket. So we implemented a minimum number of under-23 players, and a maximum number of foreign players, in each side. There must be at least seven Indian players in each team. That makes at least 56 Indians who otherwise would not be exposed to international cricket.

So it is unlikely that we will see the cap on international players increased from four, as called for by Kolkata’s John Buchanan?

LM No no, it’s not going up, it’s not going up!

AW People bully him about it all the time.

LM It’s not going up, it’s not going up! Not while I’m the commissioner. They can remove me and take it up, if they like.

It seems a lot of money is wasted on international stars that can’t get a game.

LM It is not wasted. Their experience counts for a lot. Look at Glenn McGrath sitting on the bench and giving pointers to Dirk Nannes…

AW The irony of it is that McGrath is coaching the guy who is keeping him out of the team! [Laughs]

What do you say to people who accuse you and T20 of killing off the old game?

LM If you do a survey around the stadium at an IPL match, you will find many people who have never watched a match before. They are getting a taste for the game, and many of them will graduate to Test cricket. They will then watch their stars performing in every version of the game. We are only increasing the base. The base is small and is quickly becoming bigger. Twenty20 is going tohave compounding effect on all parts of cricket.

Lalit, did you know that there was such a large and cricket-crazy Indian population in South Africa before this tournament?

LM No… But we do now!

Is it true that a senior television person in India told you that he had little interest in screening Test matches?

AW Yes, Kunal Dasgupta (then CEO Multi Screen Media, Sony) told me that and it was then that I realised that something had to be done about Test match cricket, to shake it up. But no one has ever done anything about it except the Australians, who took it from a 2,5 runs per over to a 4 runs per over game. That made it a lot more exciting and greatly increased the chance of getting a result.

Would you support night Test matches?

AW Funnily enough no – I think that would fundamentally change the brand. What I would support is: four day Tests with 100 eight ball overs a day, massively punitive fines if you don’t deliver your overs. There is a lot of stuff you can do without messing with the fundamentals of the game.

If you have eight-ball overs the amount of time you save is huge. An over is only six balls long because that is half a dozen. Don Bradman was a huge advocate of eight ball overs and who are we to argue with him?

Ali Bacher told me the other day that twenty five years ago he received a five page document from Bradman on why he supported eight ball overs and Bacher hugely regrets throwing it away.

This interview appeared in the June 2009 edition of Spin magazine.

Could 50-over cricket become a thing of the past?

This season was due to play host to the last Pro40 domestic tournament in England, but thanks to its raised popularity and a drop off in excitement about the 50-over format, a 40-over tournament will replace the 50-over Friends Provident Trophy from next year. Scotland, Ireland and the Netherlands will join the 18 counties to make up three conferences of seven teams each, with most matches being played on Sundays.

But what of One Day Internationals? Can England expect to perform in the most prolific international format if they do not play it at domestic level? Is it not a priority to prepare for the 2011 World Cup in the sub-continent?

Many agree that the revolution of Twenty20 cricket is a threat to the 50-over game. Spectators and television viewers are finding the eight-hour matches on the long side and the ICC’s powerplay innovations have done little to ignite any spark in the middle periods from overs 20 to 34. Crowds are no longer excited by defensive field settings and batsmen who push for four singles an over.

To contain the risk of Twenty20 threatening the game’s other formats, the ICC imposed a limit of two home Twenty20 Internationals per country per year. England’s two home fixtures were both farcically washed out in Manchester this summer, so the only international limited overs action enjoyed by the English public this season was a major drubbing from the Australians in a tedious seven match ODI series.

Ironically, the stuffy old chaps at the ECB see themselves as innovators of the game. Twenty20 cricket was invented in England and now the ECB is calling for an end to the 50-over format. While broadcast rights for ODI’s have been signed up until 2015, the ECB looks certain to ask ICC to conduct a formal review of the 50-over format after the 2011 World Cup. A 40-over format seems likely to be ECB’s preference going forward.

A year ago, David Lloyd called for a revamping of the ODI game. After commentating on many domestic Pro40 matches, Bumble said: “What we’ve found is that there are no dull periods in Pro 40 cricket. We’ve seen some fantastic games in that competition that have kept crowds on the edge of their seats from start to finish. I’d like to start a campaign to have 40-over internationals along with Test matches and Twenty20.”

But it is no certainty that the other ICC members will endorse the ECB’s mandate. The powerful BCCI are yet to make their intentions known and sponsors and television channels will obviously prove equally important role-players in any restructuring of the game.

Even with the right partners on the ECB’s side, the process could well take some time, for nothing happens quickly at the bureaucratic ICC. For at least a few years, England, who are a dismal seventh in the ICC world ODI rankings, will rely on 40-over cricket to prepare themselves for 50-over ODI’s and World Cups.

ECB chairman Giles Clarke likes the business sense of 40-over cricket and feels the decision is justified from a cricketing viewpoint as well: “The leading one-day team in world cricket – South Africa – does not mirror 50 overs at domestic level and, provided Powerplays and fielding restrictions were the same as the international format, the skills required were very similar.”

Cricket South Africa seems likely to review its 45-over domestic competition after the 2009/10 season with some stakeholders advocating innovation in a tournament which is no longer followed as closely as the domestic Twenty20 competition.

But Geoff Miller, England national selector, does not share Clarke’s finance oriented sentiments. “If all we are playing is 40-over cricket then I have a problem with that,” he told The Timesnewspaper.

“My job as national selector is to win cricket matches and if we do that, it makes money along the line, as will happen with the Ashes,” he added.

England veteran Paul Collingwood sided with Miller, “We have always said we want county cricket to mirror international cricket. It’s as simple as that.

“No matter what we are playing it is important they get all the experience before they enter the international stage – about how to play in certain situations.

“If you’re not playing the 50-over format of the game it is going to be a little bit of a hindrance coming in.”

When Spinspoke to Johan Botha, the South African spinner who recently captained his country to home and away ODI series victories over Australia, his views echoed Collingwood’s.

“A few have said 40 could be the next 50 and I see why they advocate it – crowds can come later and leave earlier and it is likely to be more popular on TV. But I don’t think they should not do it just yet. 50-over cricket is a great form of the game and domestic matches should mirror international ones.”

Batsmen seem keener than bowlers on shortening matches. This becomes especially apparent when you tell them that the new format is likely to consist of a ten-over powerplay, a five-over bowling powerplay, and a five-over batting powerplay. This would mean that half of the 40 overs would be bowled to a restricted field. Messrs Gibbs, Sehwag, Gayle and McCullum, lick your lips.

As the South African big hitting all-rounder Albie Morkel told us, “There will be much less room for bowlers to perform well but I think I will enjoy the additional powerplays!

“50-over cricket is starting to feel a bit long but that is because everyone is comparing everything to Twenty20. The skills are the much the same in the longer game and I do feel that domestic and international formats should be the same.

“Shorter matches will definitely lead to closer games too – we often see in Twenty20 matches that the best side does not always win. But if you are going to change the game, then why not make a big change? 40-overs is just a rain-affected ODI, why not make a real change to the game and go for two innings of 20 overs each?”

Sachin Tendulkar recently suggested that 50-over games should be scrapped and replaced by two-innings matches of 25 overs each, citing that “75% of One Day Internationals are decided at the toss.”

South African coach Mickey Arthur told Spin: “I think first and foremost it is imperative that we sustain all three formats of the game – Twenty20, ODI and Test match cricket.

“I ultimately do see ODI’s being reduced to 40-over affairs, but I don’t have a problem with that. More wickets in hand and more powerplays will lead to exciting cricket and will hone the bowlers skills, which is definitely a good thing.”

It may be obvious that shorter games make more financial sense – indeed the vote was decided by 15 counties to three in favour of 40-over matches next season. But have the ECB management made a decision that will come back to haunt them at international level? I am not so sure.

England’s showing against Australia in the recent ODI series frankly couldn’t have been worse. The domestic setup may not mirror the international one for the next while, but international cricketers play so little domestic cricket these days that it may not overly matter.

South Africa made it to number one in the 50-over rankings while playing 45-over cricket domestically. But the real reason behind that country’s ODI success is that its domestic league consists of six strong franchises, not 18 weak ones.

Furthermore, Cricket South Africa divides its domestic season into concentrated spells of each of the four-day competition, a Twenty20 tournament and a 45-over tournament without any undue overlap in fixtures. This means that players can focus on one format of the game at a time.

In England, any number of the 18 County sides could play a Championship four-day match, a Twenty20 and a 40-over game all in the space of a week. Not only does the team composition change several times a week, but batsmen haven’t even got time to work out whether the ball is red or white before they have to decide whether to leave outside off or reverse paddle it over the ‘keeper’s head!

The ECB needs its head checked.

This article appeared in the November 2009 edition of Spin magazine.