Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Approach to the Game : Negative vis-à-vis Defensive

I heard about the ‘play to draw’ tactic when my Dad used to criticize Sunil Gavaskar’s captaincy. He was a Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi fan. The Tiger was known to be the most positive Indian captain ever, who used to play to win and who managed to instill self confidence in the team. Sunil Gavaskar, coming from the city of millions – where people have to fight for a foothold to travel to work – adopted a minimize-my-losses approach, both in his batting and in his captaincy. He had valid reasons – he did not possess that good a bowling attack. That was the reason why he played to a draw, which explains the string of 0-0 series with Pakistan. No Indian captain could survive a series loss in those days- losing to Pakistan was equivalent to treason. It was only when he found Kapil that he thought of being positive. I am not saying he was negative in approach, but he was definitely not positive. The objective was to avoid any chance of defeat, at all costs. This was also the reason why he was the butt of crowd criticism at Eden Gardens, after which he famously branded the Kolkata crowd to be illiterate about cricket and vowed not to play at the Eden Gardens again (he did play later, though).

The next time I heard about this policy was when Arjuna Ranatunga was the Captain of Sri Lanka. He claimed he did not have the bowlers to take twenty wickets in a Test match and there was no reason why a 3-1 sporting loss is better than a 0-0 draw. I found this to be perfectly logical. If the team loses, nobody is going to give the Captain any credit for being positive – in fact, there will be talk of foolhardiness. The only Captain who has been remembered for his positive approach (besides Pataudi in India) is Sir Frank Worrell, who led West Indies to the most liked series loss ever. West Indies lost the series 2-1 to Australia but earned the respect of the most knowledgeable crowds in Australia and it shaped the way they went on to play their brand of Calypso cricket for years to come. Sir Gary also tried to do the same- he was soundly criticized for a few defeats at the hands of the old enemy England.
Some other instances of the defensive policy were the tactics employed by Nasser Hussain in India, the Bodyline series and point examples like the New Zealand's 2001 tour of Australia, England’s win against Pakistan in Pakistan and the West Indies - Zimbabwe Test at Harare.

Are all these tactics the same?

The use of the leg stump line by Nasser Hussain was a means of attack. If someone is trying to pry on the batsman’s mind by bowling on his leg stump hoping that he gets frustrated and gets out, then it cannot be construed as negative tactics. Reason being the batsman also has the chance to frustrate the bowler by being patient and forcing him to make mistakes and change his line. It is not that the batsman alone gets bored of not scoring; even the bowler gets bored of not being played at and being unable to take wickets. The arguments for the Bodyline attack would also be similar – the famous West Indian adage – you have a piece of wood in your hands, use it - comes to mind.
What happened at Karachi was that Moin Khan used to walk up to his fast bowlers after every ball, to the top of the bowlers’ mark, make a few minor adjustments to the field and then saunter back to his mark. Knowing fully well that there were no lights to play under, this was a clear tactic aimed at wasting time and they were not giving themselves time to bowl out the England team. It’s a different matter that Thorpe continued to play in virtually zero visibility to hand Pakistan its first defeat at Karachi.

The West Indies Zimbabwe Test was worse because the last man Frank Edwards feigned an injury to get the physiotherapist in It looked more like the usual antics you see in Football. They were so bad at it that the Physio actually applied the magic spray on top of Edwards’ trousers.

The tactics employed by Steve Waugh and Mcgrath against New Zealand in 2002 were to bowl so wide of off-stump that Cairns and Parore would not be able to reach the ball. The second Test was also precariously placed with Australia having a slim chance of victory but Adam Gilchrist played one of his defensive knocks to down the shutters and manage a draw.

Were the approaches in the two Tests similar?

One was to bowl it so wide that the batsman cannot reach it and the other one was to leave all the balls outside off stump and not get out. In the first approach, Australians were robbing both the teams of a chance to win – a result was out of question. In the second approach, they were protecting their wickets – the Kiwis had the chance to bowl better and get ‘em.

A negative approach is one which negates the possibility of a result. Batting slowly, eschewing risks, avoiding slogs does not mean they don’t want to win – they are just making sure they don’t lose.
Of course the context in which these tactics are employed will have to be seen before a judgement is made. A leg stump line to a Tendulkar might be an attacking one – what with everyone aware of his impatience when it comes to scoring opportunities. If his fans (I'm not a fan. I'm a devotee) call him the greatest batsman of all time, he should know how to deal withsuch attacks. He has done it before against Saqlain, Murali and Warne. Giles is definitely not in the same class. So, if he chooses to defend in a particular match for whatever reason, he himself is responsible for the slow run- rate, not the Englishmen. The Bodyline series was considered to be a prime example of ‘negative’ tactics, but Bradman still had an average of 57 odd runs in that series. That is very good by any mortal standards.
When the same tactics are being employed in such a manner that one of the teams runs out of time for themselves to force a win, then that’s negative tactics.

Coming to the South African approach, which triggered this article, I would say the approach was defensive rather than negative. Batting the opposition out of the game is a tactic used by all. Scoring 500+ is imperative against this Indian batting line-up. What has caused the furore is the time taken to make these five hundred runs. If the South Africans decided to close shop for the day right in the first half hour on both the days, what were the Indian bowlers doing? Aren’t Kumble, Harbhajan, Kartik supposed to be better when the batsman is trying to defend them so that they can have all the close-in fielders buzzing around? Weren’t two and half days enough for the Indian batting line up to score fast and put pressure on the South Africans. Didn’t Ganguly and more so, Dravid close shop in spite of having a free flowing Laxman still waiting inside the pavilion, that after a breathtaking innings by Sehwag?
Now the Indians would be under pressure for not having closed the South African innings. They will try to push things in the second Test and might just lose a heap of wickets trying to force a result by playing at an ODI rate. If the South Africans were led by Stephen Fleming, this might well have been the plan. With Smith, I am not so sure.

So, are cricketers obliged to entertain spectators? Yes and No.
Cricketers would be nothing without the spectators. But the same spectators would judge a cricketer on the statistics. With so much cricket being played these days, the cricketers know that one stinker will not be remembered in the next match. If they are being judged by the number of wins vs. no. of losses, they have every right to avoid the loss at any cost.
There have been many instances where batsmen have been praised for their steadfast vigil through days to save the team from defeat. It is more a function of the team/player’s persona.

It is said Sir Vivian would have scored more than twelve thousand runs if he wished to have his name up there. But then, nobody would have remembered Sir Viv as Sir Viv.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Notes from out there

The Hadlee-Chappell Trophy

* First, how wonderful that trophies are being instituted to commemorate great cricketers in the past, and even families like in this case. All combinations of Test series now being looked at for possible name combinations with Eng-SA having adopted Basil D'Oliviera. As long as some of them don't also become the Manikchand Cup.

* Equally sad is the fact that schedules are so tight that Aus & NZ can only play the minimum two tests, as do Ind v SA. We definitely deserved one more in the former.

* I'm afraid, as I was before, that despite what his teammates say, it is becoming some sort of a religious war for Gilchrist. If it was just gamesmanship, he wouldn't have lingered about to rebut with so much zeal after the Test was over.

* Two questions for Steven Lynch: (a) Is Glenn McGrath the record holder for the most innings before a test fifty? (b) Who apart from Michael Clarke has scored a test ton on debut both home & away (that too debut innings)?

* What made the McGrath 50 more memorable to watch were the astonished reactions of his teammates. The eyes of Gilchrist, Ponting and the rest fairly flew out when "Pigeon" hit that six.

* Folks, next time Matthew Hayden says the Australians never play for personal landmarks, just point him to McGrath saying he wanted to be there for Gillespie's fifty, will you? Especially since Ponting didn't declare until both made it. Of course, you could argue they won it on the 4th day (eat your heart out Stephen Fleming), they could afford it. But then so could have Rahul Dravid in l'affaire 194*, but he didn't bother.

* Yet another Gilchrist century at #7. Yawn... How predictable.

* The Aussies may be evil | whiners | bullies | devils incarnate | brats | poor losers - whatever you choose. But they undeniably play with a passion that few other sporting teams can rival.

The Ind-SA Trophy

* Continuing with the theme above, who would you pick to name this trophy after? Azhar-Cronje, sadly, cannot be accepted.

* I lost quite a bit of interest when I saw that India had picked three spinners, leaving out Pathan. It immediately indicated two things: one, it was going to be a docile | friendly pitch. Mostly docile after the shenanigans of Wankhede. Two, the other strike bowler was being left out. Zaheer isn't yet back to strike-bowler-in-NZ form. This meant that India ceded the initiative on the 1st morning by letting off the hook someone who has never opened before in a Test & the young captain of the oppn. with no experience in those conditions. Hall was shuffling quite a bit, so Pathan's incoming ball which has troubled many a talented RH Batsman in the past may have been useful.

* The most consistent (and lucky) batsman of late i.e. Kaif has to sit out. Soon the question will be asked: is Ganguly affecting the balance of the side?

* I would want to be critical of the SA approach in being safety-first just from a spectator's pov, not as an Indian fan. But India have to learn how to grapple with the defensive & slowing-down tactics of any opposn - they cannot demand fast-paced rhythms in matches all the time.

* If they score fast enough, I hope the Indians declare even if 100 runs behind. Show some initiative and make something happen.


* Everyone is jumping on the poor Bangladesh cricket team. Why they expect them to do better so soon is beyond me. The history of the game shows that gains are extremely rare to come by in the early part of a team's Test career. Look at the most of the Test nations. Give them a decade atleast. Dav Whatmore doesn't pull out rabbits out of hats for a living.

* Amit Varma in his blog reacts to the comments of Ian Chappell (no less!) criticising his take on the chucking issue calling for more scientific aid. Amit rightly points out in Misunderstanding #1 what headline writers have helped confuse, viz. that the recent study hardly claims that all past bowlers willingly chucked, just that the current definition is clearly invalid. You can read the erudite tark-vitarks on the links in Amit's post.

The larger question for me is: how do we find a middle ground where players & umpires don't feel threatened by the advent of technology while the administrators can come up with rigid definitions that can handle all cases thrown at it? Chappell wants a simpler & subjective solution while people like Amit advocate a more complex (complex as to the implementation & perception) & objective solution. This is not restricted to the "chucking" question, but also to other pricklish issues ranging from recalculation of scores in truncated matches to LBW automation.

I don't agree with Chappell saying "for god sake's it's a GAME" - yes it's a game, but a professional one with a turnover in millions and one that affects lives of its players. OTOH, I find that in games, it is preferable to keep things simple. This means that you will have the odd blowup with someone like Murali breaking the definition - players, umpires, boards will have to agree to the existence of grey areas. That is a subjective definition acceptable to all which says something like if 5 of these eminent people think that delivery or that action is bad, it's bad - even if it just looks bad but doesn't satisfy the theoretical definition. Hard luck over hard facts.

The point here is tell everyone involved that either you accept a loose, mostly-works interpretation that we will occasionally slip up with, or otherwise, we default to a airtight, resolved-by-technology approach that you won't understand but have to abide by. There's a lot of finger-pointing these days in cricket - time all the main parties were constructive about issues. Do the players associations have any opinions on such matters?

(The above was not pretending to be a solution, so don't blame me for the naivete :-) )