Death to all bowlers

Do you enjoy a real contest between bat and ball on a sporting wicket? Really?

RCB's Mayank Agarwal tries out an expansive shot

the sports home page of the print edition of the Times of India of April 14, there was a sponsored (by Orient Fans; possible tagline: Spreading hot air for decades) column by Sunil Gavaskar.

It was horribly butchered by some desk jockey, with sentences arbitrarily chopped and trains of thought unilaterally derailed, but some content survived the butchery. And in those mangled grafs I found this (emphasis mine):

Pune’s impressive run was halted by the grassy pitch at Mohali. Having seen mayhem with the bat in just the previous match, cricket lovers would have realized as soon as they saw the Mohali pitch that the ball was going to do the talking, and that meant a low-scoring game. It served the purpose and Punjab got onto the points table, but it will be interesting to see if they keep a similar pitch against teams that have a better pace attack than Pune.

The Twenty20 format is popular because the spectators get to see plenty of big hitting, bowler bashing, and run chasing. But on pitches like the one that was in Mohali, batsmen will be struggling and that does not give value to the spectators, with teams barely getting past 100.

It doesn’t make it exciting. Still, it was what Team Punjab wanted, and now they have opened their account

Pause on that thought: that one of the foremost batsmen of his time doesn’t believe a contest between bat and ball can be exciting.

DOMESTIC cricket is — at least in theory — the incubator, the breeding ground for talent to feed the national team. Therefore, the best batsmen and bowlers in domestic competition are almost by default the national team’s bench.

Only, it doesn’t work that way for us. Lions on the domestic circuit, pitchforked into international competition, are found out shortly after taking guard or marking their run up for the first time; our cricketing history is littered with the names of ‘promising’ youngsters who failed to make the grade when elevated to the next level.

The reasons are obvious: a meandering domestic season with way too many tournaments (two four day tournaments, two one day tournaments, two T20 tournaments, and I am probably missing a tournament or two in my count): way too many teams (Read Harsha Bhogle on the subject); dead wickets created by home associations with an eye on the bonus points for the first innings lead rather than the outright win; BCCI apathy because it cannot find a way to monetize domestic cricket and therefore doesn’t give a hoot in hell what shape it is in…

The list is endless, and too familiar to cricket fans to need extended iteration.

Just occasionally, the BCCI pays token obeisance to the need to clean up the domestic act. The latest instance was last month, when a reform committee headed by Sourav Ganguly and manned by the likes of Roger Binny, Chetan Chauhan etc invited former India opener and columnist Aakash Chopra to present a proposal for revamping the structure of domestic cricket.

The details of Aakash’s proposal is here, extensively laid out.

The outcome? Nothing happened — the suggested reforms, the committee deemed, are too ‘radical’; tinker with the existing structure and ‘no one will come to watch’.

Dangerous words, those: ‘No one will come’. Words that are brought out like a talisman whenever someone wants to preserve the status quo, to resist change; words that conveniently ignore one salient point: no one is coming to watch anyway (In fact, the only Ranji final in recent times to evoke passionate interest was the January 2010 showdown between Karnataka and Mumbai on the superbly competitive Gangotri Glades wicket in Mysore).

All of this is common knowledge — hell, it is so common even the BCCI knows it. But nothing ever gets done, because it is in no one’s interests — the BCCI’s, the state associations’ — to change the status quo. So they have committees and review proposals and tinker cosmetically; there is a lot of token activity but no direction. Aakash summed it up best, in his piece linked to above:

“Domestic cricket is the engine which runs Indian cricket. When the engine demands overhauling, how will merely an upholstery change matter?”

IF domestic cricket is incapable of fulfilling its intended role of incubator, what is the alternative? The answer could — should — be: The IPL.

Never mind why it was established, and who is making how much money out of it. The fact remains that the IPL is a heaven-sent opportunity for young Indian players to spend two months of quality time sharing dressing rooms with top flight national and international talents both past and present and to learn from them; an opportunity to work with coaches and support staff who have held office at the highest level and/or have themselves played the game in recent years; it is an opportunity for these young players to test themselves in competition against quality opposition, bowling to and facing up to some of the best batsmen and bowlers on the international circuit.

Take strike to a Dale Steyn, for instance, or a Morne Morkel, and you get an opportunity to see just how good you are, to learn your own strengths and weaknesses, to work on your game, to prepare yourself, mind and body, for the pressures of international cricket.

No one is suggesting that a T20 thrash-about on even the most competitive wicket prepares you for the challenges of a five day game — however, the IPL could at the very least expose the youngster to the kind of pressures, magnified times 10, that they will face on the international circuit. And there is the added advantage that once they take their turn in the middle, they can get back to the dressing room, and seek quality inputs from high quality players who have been there, done it all.

So did you see Dishanth Yagnik square up to Dale Steyn Tuesday April 17, in the Royals versus Chargers Dishant Yagnik after his 'match-winning' boundaries against DCgame? Two balls faced. The first, creamed off the front foot through the covers; the second blasted, again off the front foot, with such power that it drilled through the fielder at extra cover and still had the legs to make the fence to seal the win.

If you didn’t know ‘Rinku’ Yagnik from Adam, you’d imagine basis the evidence of your sight that the lad needs induction into the national team like, yesterday. On a wicket lobotomized of all life, Yagnik’s cameo was the coda to a game that produced 383 runs for the loss of just 7 wickets in two balls shy of 40 overs — the kind of pitch Sunny Gavaskar would likely call ‘perfect’.

But can you, by any stretch of the imagination, see Yagnik — who has been around in first class cricket since 2004, and has a grand total of 676 runs from 20 first class matches — surviving the sort of examination Steyn subjected Sachin Tendulkar to on January 4, 2011 at Newlands?

It is not, Aakash Chopra pointed out during a chat earlier this week, as if the choices before us are Mohali-type seaming wickets and Eden Gardens-type raging turners on the one hand, and the flat track of the Sawai Man Singh Stadium on the other.

“Did you see the Wankhede track for the Delhi versus Mumbai game (April 16)?,” he asked. “That is my definition of a sporting wicket — it had even bounce, it had such good carry that even in the 20th over the keeper was collecting with his fingers pointing up; it gave good bowlers like Morne Morkel, Umesh Yadav and even Ajit Agarkar something to work with; some players were found out, but it also gave batsmen who had the skills plenty of room to express themselves.”

Playing on wickets like that, Aakash pointed out, allow young Indian players the opportunity to test themselves against the best, and through such testing prepare themselves for the move into the big time.

From that point of view, the IPL is a great opportunity to play, at least in part, the nurturing role domestic cricket has abdicated — but if there is one truism about our cricket administration, it is that we never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

THAT brings me full circle, to the Sunil Gavaskar column that set this train of thought in motion.

The ‘Fourth Estate’ (a phrase coined by Edmund Burke or Thomas Macaulay, pay your money and take your pick) is in theory supposed to be above and beyond the other three ‘estates’ (today, those would be the legislature, the judiciary, and society), and is tasked with monitoring the other three estates, keeping them honest, and blowing the whistle when they kick over the traces.

The de facto face and voice of the cricketing ‘fourth estate’ in India is Sunny Gavaskar — a  player of impeccable credentials who has, since his playing days, donned almost every administrative hat there is and is therefore uniquely positioned to see every issue from both the players’ and the administration’s point of view, to find the balance between conflicting needs and interests.

That is the Sunny Gavaskar who wrote those outraged lines against the Mohali pitch, which in his opinion denied batsmen the joy of an unfettered hit-about; the Sunny Gavaskar who says that in a perfect IPL world, batsmen who couldn't face up to Boycott's grandmother will make merry while the best bowlers in the world are reduced to bowling machines with their dials set to "beginning" mode.

It is also the same Sunil Gavaskar who, three short months ago when the national team was heading to its seventh straight defeat in Tests, said this to Peter Lalor of The Australian:

  "I think a lot of soul-searching needs to be done. We need to look at out first-class cricket structure, pitches that we play, scheduling of matches. It has to be a really long, hard look at everything."

Followers of Indian cricket are depressingly familiar with this cycle: team takes off for foreign tour to the accompaniment of much hype; team gets its hindquarters handed to it; the commentariat sets up a collective screech about the need to do something about our pitches; our playing conditions, our domestic competition, our selectors; we come back to a schedule filled with home matches; batsmen fill their boots; the next tour comes along and it is rinse, repeat.

Here’s a depressing thought: If the current players have no voice and the past players have no remit; if the board will do nothing and if the acknowledged voice(s) of Indian cricket shill for money; what then is left for us to invest our hopes in?

Also Read:

Is Pakistan really ready?, by Akshay Iyer

While Bangladesh's forthcoming tour is apt reward for the patience of the country's cricket fans, the Pakistan government as well as the PCB officials will have to put in place stringent and tough security steps to ensure the short tour is held without any glitches on or off the field. Security will be of paramount importance and it is vital for Pakistan as a sporting destination that nothing untoward happens over the course of those two days. It may be a short tour in duration, but the outcome will have massive repercussions for Pakistan in the long run.

The importance of man-management, by Bikash Singh

When you consider all the issues the Pune Warriors had to go through in the run up to the IPL — the late entry, the fact that influential teams such as Mumbai and Chennai had been able to corral all the players they wanted, the unfortunate loss of Yuvraj Singh, the threatened Sahara pull out of sponsorship of the national team and with it, uncertainty over the fate of the Warriors — it is remarkable what Ganguly has achieved. Within a short period of time, he has managed to instill confidence and combativeness into his unit, and that is fundamental to success.

A time to build, by Kunal Diwan

Kieron Pollard and Chris Gayle can wreak havoc upon the opposition in 20 balls. Sunil Narine is fast turning out to be the next ‘with it’ spinner. Darren Bravo’s class is obvious and his half-brother Dwayne is a genuine, albeit unfulfilling, all-rounder. The fact remains — the West Indies, freed of internal conflict, have enough fire-power to build a more than capable team, at least in ODIs and T20s.