Archive for November, 2011

The glitch in Sachin’s matrix

Monday, November 28th, 2011

Bradman Fails Again. Hobbs Fails Again. The 2011 version: Sachin Fails Again.

The Little Master failed – again – to reach that hundredth-hundred milestone, falling just 6 short in India’s first innings at Mumbai. Upon his dismissal, more mundane matters came to the fore, such as India avoiding the follow-on. In the event, the match transformed into a last-day thriller that saw a draw with scores level. But when India’s series against Australia starts at the MCG on Boxing Day, the hype will pick up where it left off, all over again.

Of course the hype is deserved. But at the moment it is a false reality, and it is obscuring everything else.

In the iconic mind-bender The Matrix, Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, sees a black cat walk past a doorway. A second later he sees another – exactly the same animal. It is not a case of deja vu as he (erroneously) supposes; it is the machines that control the world making a subtle change to the artificial reality they impose on mankind.

The only machine at work behind Sachin’s glitch of getting out 28 times in the nineties is a fear of failure precipitated by the pressure of expectation and the importance we give to statistics in a number-obsessed sport.  But the reality is that while the hype around Sachin’s next century continues, the Indian team are Tendulkar plus 10 men. The spectacle of people leaving the grounds when Sachin gets out, or the next man in walking to the middle in complete silence – even when this man is the captain – cannot long continue. Indian cricket grounds are where spectators go to watch Sachin, not necessarily the Indian team, or even Test cricket.

I am sure Tendulkar realises this, and it’s probably not making his quest for that elusive ton any easier. In a sport where only 6 runs short of a hundred is regarded as a failure, it would be churlish to call this a slump, or the beginning of the end of an extraordinary career.

But at some point the handover to the new galacticos will have to occur, and while Indian cricket is stuck in the never-ending loop of waiting for that hundred, it’s unfairly obscuring the achievement of the side’s young talent and relegating the team’s future to that of secondary importance, a mere side-show to the all-singing, all-dancing main event.

Ravichandran Ashwin has been blamed for not securing victory for India in Mumbai in his failure to attempt a second run, but 103 and 9 wickets have ensured Harbhajan Singh isn’t going to be recalled in a hurry.

Varun Aaron, whose feet probably haven’t touched the ground since receiving his Test cap, could turn out to be India’s Glenn McGrath. Already he has shown refreshing maturity in recognising that speed isn’t everything.

Virat Kohli, under pressure to protect his place from Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane, showed toughness to go along with that undoubted talent with his second-innings 63. Kohli, unlike Neo, might not know kung-fu – and he might not be The One – but he is starting to believe.

It would be wonderful if Sachin raises his bat at the MCG. That hundredth hundred we are all waiting for will be worth celebrating when it comes, but in and of itself the figure is an artificial construct and the waiting has imposed on us an artificial reality. We are in limbo, and cannot move forward. Kohli, Aaron, Ashwin: these guys are the future.

Rahul Dravid accepts he has always laboured in Sachin’s shadow. Once Tendulkar gets past his glitch – and fans come to an acceptance that he won’t be around forever – the next generation of Indian stars will hopefully be free to begin constructing their own reality.

Test cricket: not dead yet

Sunday, November 13th, 2011

On Thursday, Africa’s Western Black Rhino was officially declared extinct.

On the same day at Newlands cricket ground, 23 wickets fell, proving that Test cricket is thankfully still alive and kicking.

A decent pitch combined with incisive bowling and scatterbrained batting led to a veritable stampede of stats as milestones were passed and reputations tumbled along with the timber.  South Africa’s first innings total of 96 was the second-lowest since their readmission to Test cricket; Australia’s 47 all out their fourth-lowest ever and lowest against South Africa. Nathan Lyon’s 14 is only the eighth time a number 11 has top-scored in an innings. Not since 1924-25 have more than 22 wickets fallen in a day’s play; Shane Watson took the second fastest 5-wicket haul, in 21 balls. Vernon Philander, on debut, left Australia with nowhere to hide: his match haul of 8-78 comprises the 5th best bowling figures by a South African in his first Test.

After all of this excitement, Hashim Amla’s elegant, wristy drives through cover and down the ground provided a much needed come-down as he and Graeme Smith calmly saw South Africa home just before lunch on the third day.

Test cricket is magnificent, awe-inspiring, and it deserves saving. But like all endangered species, it needs some help.

Poachers and loss of habitat did for the Western Black Rhino, and Test cricket similarly faces the threat of endless ODI series encroaching on an already packed international timetable and the proliferation of T20 tournaments dangling the big-dollar carrot in front of cricketers for whom the choice to represent their country would otherwise be an easy one.

The format also needs to help itself – over-priced tickets, lifeless wickets, poor viewing conditions and the spectre of empty stands are just some of the things not helping Test cricket’s cause. That a love for the highest form of the game should ever be equated with purist “elitism” in contrast with its more populist forms would comprise not just a dumbing down of the entire sport but a failure of duty in the protection of its long and rich heritage.

What is also plain is that Australian cricket, after the phoenix-like attempt to rise from the Ashes that was the Argus review, must adapt or die. Captain Michael Clarke called the shot selection of his batsmen “disgraceful” and “horrendous”; his own fine innings of 151 he called “useless, a waste of time” in the context of his team’s defeat (a refreshingly honest admission, compared to Alastair Cook’s fatuous assertion that England are “getting close to where we need to be” after India’s 5-0 ODI whitewash).

Ricky Ponting’s career decline looks to be terminal; Brad Haddin is a lame-duck choice for keeper with the likes of Tim Paine and Matthew Wade waiting in the wings; and surely it must be time to knock the Mitchell Johnson experiment on the head: he is the strike bowler Australia want but who rarely turns up. A cull for the good of the herd is very much in order. Not that this should mean a slavish over-insistence on youth – Mike Hussey still has runs in him, and regardless of what you may think about Simon Katich’s handling of his dropping by Cricket Australia, Phillip Hughes’ continued ineptitude at the top of the order must surely increase your sympathy for him.

Those extraordinary events at Newlands were a perfect storm of individual weaknesses and standout performances distilled into one day. That the next match in this Test series should provide the amount of excitement we saw at Cape Town is unlikely. The fact that it is the last in a mere two-match series is criminal. Test cricket deserves better and the message to the boards and administrators is simple: don’t let this beautiful animal die.

Cricket’s wakeup call? Don’t bet on it

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

It took a now-defunct tabloid newspaper and the British legal system to achieve what the ICC could not when Salman Butt and Mohammad Asif were found guilty of spot fixing yesterday. It was also reported that Mohammad Amir had pled guilty prior to the trail –  a fact suspected but not confirmed due to media restrictions in place throughout the proceedings.

Nearly every piece of coverage I have seen, heard or read on developments at Southwark Crown Court has included phrases along the lines of “a good day for cricket”, “a new start”, “just the kick up the backside the sport needed”. Excuse my cynicism, but the effect this will have on curbing corruption and cheating within the game around the world and especially on the subcontinent will be somewhere between jack and squat.

Sure, players might think twice about cheating on British soil due to the fact that if caught you could land yourself a stretch in chokey, but until the ICC’s anti-corruption unit invests considerably more than token amounts of time and expertise in tackling the root of the problem, it’ll simply be a case of having to take along a bigger suitcase of cash.

History bears me out on this. 1998’s Qayyum inquiry achieved nothing other than defining what exactly constitutes match-fixing: “deciding the outcome of a match before it is played and then playing oneself or having others play below one’s/their ability to influence the outcome to be in accordance with the pre-decided outcome”, something you could hardly struggle to work out yourself, unless you were devoid of any moral sense whatsoever.

A 2001 inquiry proved similarly ineffective – a report into match-fixing presented by Lord Condon “doesn’t seem to have told us anything that we don’t already know,” observed David Lloyd. “It’s just a factual report about things that have dripped out over the years… Cricket boards are saying ‘Yes, we will look at it’ but the issue just rumbles on”.

And the most notorious case of all, that which resulted in a lifetime ban for South African captain Hansie Cronje, has had so little impact on the way corruption is viewed within the sport that the biography I own of him amounts to little more than hagiography.

Image is a large part of why cricket’s administrators have buried their heads in the sand over this issue. Caught between the two stools of going after cheats with all the resources and expertise they can muster, while at the same time being unwilling to draw greater attention to the problem and risk blighting the image of the “gentleman’s game” and losing advertising and TV revenue, the ICC and national cricket boards seem to have opted instead for a middle path that acknowledges the existence of match and spot-fixing but has proved singularly ineffective in dealing with it.

Player amnesties and the banning of mobile phones in dressing rooms are all very well, but until cricket boards are able to take legal action against corrupt players for breach of contract  – rather than simply handing them a ban which, in time, may or may not be rescinded, according to who’s in charge and who does what for whom – then yesterday’s verdicts will constitute little more than chipping away at the face of an extremely large iceberg that could end up sinking the sport’s credibility entirely.

Like Michael Holding in his interview yesterday, I too was taken in by Salman Butt’s polished and duplicitous front which he put up for the cameras when he became Pakistan captain. Eloquent and dignified – since portrayed as “aloof and arrogant” by Graeme Swann in his recent autobiography – he genuinely seemed to have the best interests of his team and Pakistan cricket at heart. As it turns out he did, but only in an illegal, monetary sense, and even then only to benefit the few, mainly himself.

It is easier to feel some sympathy for Amir, the nineteen-year-old who seemed to have the brightest of careers ahead of him, but who was the only one out of the three who had direct contact with subcontinental bookmakers via mobile phone. His guilty plea was based on wrong-doing in the Lord’s Test, but evidence suggests he was involved in attempts to influence the Test at the Oval as well, something he has not as yet admitted to.

In the light of new information still emerging, it seems now the ICC has no choice but to widen the scope of their investigations into other players named by fixer Mazhar Majeed in his conversations with an undercover journalist. One could cynically say the ICC are only taking this action now because the bad publicity that surrounds the sport in the light of yesterday’s verdicts has left them with no other choice.

Whether anything of substance will be done to rid the sport of this vile cancer, or whether it will simply be a case of more meaningless reports, platitude-laden press releases and empty reassurances remains to be seen.

I for one am not holding my breath.