Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Symphony of Maestroes ending in brilliant scores

Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid - International cricket's greatest 'jugalbandi'
This post also appears in the Cricketcountry website

The Indian score read 97 for one.

James Pattinson ran in and made the ball seam in just a shade. Virender Sehwag shaped to drive through the covers, with negligible displacement of feet that characterises his batting. The ball deflected off the inside edge and crashed into the stumps. The Indian opener walked back for 67. It was the end of an innings that had promised many more. With the big breakthrough, the Australians celebrated.

Well, did they really?

I often wonder whether celebrations on such occasions are marked with the same jubilation and merriment that generally accompany the retreating footsteps of a top order batsman. For even as the bowler was having his back patted and hand shaken, walking in to join Rahul Dravid was Sachin Tendulkar.

It was almost like drilling a tunnel to escape from the Tower of London, only to resurface inside Alcatraz!

Having earned the wicket of a man who had just gone past 8,000 runs in Test cricket, the young Australian bowling attack was now faced with the twin towers of batsmanship with 28,000 runs and 87 centuries between them, spreading out the most intimidating collection of numbers ever for a fielding side to wade through.

True, Dravid was looking edgy, in distinct discomfort against Ben Hilfenhaus and James Pattinson. But, looking at the figures strewn along the glorious career paths, the probability of these two great batsmen being out of touch in tandem was perhaps as unlikely as finding snow in Sahara. Indeed, the first ball after tea, dispatched with calculated disdain over the fine third man boundary by Tendulkar, showed signs of things to come.

Once in a while one of the giants of modern batting may stutter along those few unavoidable patches of time, when his demeanour at the wicket hints at a mortality, sharply contrasting to his accomplishments. However, he has to do little more than raise his eyes to the other end of the 22 yards for the best possible inspiration. If one of the two eternal flames flickers for an instant while the opposition tries to storm the citadel, there can be no greater spark of genius to rekindle it in the entire cricketing world than the man at the other end.

Thus, not only are they the two batting colossuses who stride the record books taller than any other Test cricketer in history, when they get together at the wicket it results in symphonies of batting that often lead to delightful scores. Dravid generally contributes the solid basso continuo for structural harmony, where Tendulkar joins him after sporadic forays into virtuoso solo demonstrations of genius.

The two middle-order men have added more runs in the history of Test cricket than any other pair to have walked together on the pitch, leading the way in terms of hundred and fifty run collaborations as well. The 140 associations between the masters have combined into a cumulative total of 6,864 runs at 51.22, with 20 century and 29 fifty-run stands.

The famed West Indian duo at the top of the order, Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes, are at the second spot in all the categories while consuming eight more innings, with 6,482 runs at 47.31, 16 centuries and 26 fifties together. Matthew Hayden and Ricky Ponting have also put together16 hundred run partnerships, but lag a long way behind in aggregate.

The only other world leading pair who performed in a comparable double team were perhaps Freddie Trueman and Brian Statham. The two fast men who interchanged their positions quite often at the top of the wicket-takers list, opened the bowling for the English team in the 1950s. Not too many batsmen of the era were eager to take guard against deliveries that swung and seamed at disconcerting pace from both ends.

Likewise, not too many bowlers of the present generation consider themselves lucky to run up with the ball when batting greats Dravid and Tendulkar pitch their virtual tents on the crease, preparing to spend the next few hours at the wicket.

The first major partnership between these two took place way back in 1996-97, when they put on 170 against a four-pronged West Indian pace attack on the tricky Bridgetown wicket. And they continue their work even today, the “creaking terminators”, one and a half decades down the line, two giant pillars holding together the framework of the innings.

The 117 runs that they stitched together in the first innings at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, on Day Two of the first Test, can have a huge bearing on the outcome of the match and the series. A partnership of immense value shared by the two eldest statesmen of the noble game, against a team of bowlers who were variously in cribs, laps, prams or even un-conceived and unborn when the two masters had taken their first steps in the international arena.

Surreal confluence of Greats at MCG

Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid & Ricky Ponting - the surreal confluence of Test cricket's greatest run-getters

Thi post also appears in the Cricketcountry website

It is one of the most common pastimes of the cricket romantic to roll his mind’s eye over the combined space of witnessed matches, digested accounts and devoured scorecards, and end up pitting fictitious teams against each other in the cricket grounds of imagination.

We like to wonder how the greatest of names would fare if they faced each other. How would it turn out if Don Bradman batted one drop for Australia and in the same match Garfield Sobers walked out at No 5 for the West Indies? What if Dennis Lillee and Ray Lindwall opened the Australian attack while Anil Kumble and Erapalli Prasanna bowled in tandem for India? If only there was a way to simulate such showdowns across the barriers of time.

However, if a real life match brings together three of the greatest accumulators of Test runs of all time, it is the veritable junction of cricket lovers’ nirvana, where romantic imagination chugs along and meets the actual delights of reality. Even more so if the said match takes place in the historic setting of the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

Such has been the current encounter at the MCG, where the three highest-ever run-getters in the history of the game have not only turned out to bat for their sides, but firing the fancy of the nostalgic, they have also played exceptionally pivotal roles in the match. The vagaries of cricketing fortunes still obey the dictates of the masters of the game.

It has been extremely rare for three men at the top of the batting world to take part in the same match. It was more than 100 years ago when the top four run getters in Tests, Clem Hill, Syd Gregory, Archie MacLaren and Joe Darling, appeared together at The Oval for the famous 1902 Test Match. It was in an era when the record aggregate hovered around 1500, the crown more prone to move from head to head. However, till this day, the 1902 Test series is remembered as the high point of the first golden age of cricket.

We can definitely argue that the last decade and a half has been another similar golden era of batsmanship. These three venerable masters have been the towering pillars, who, along with Jacques Kallis and Brian Lara, have defined the shape of the modern willow.

Never in the history of the game have we encountered three batsmen with anything approaching 41,000 runs, 126 centuries and 176 half centuries between them on the same cricket field.

When we take their One-Day International records into account, we end up with 83,000 runs, 216 hundreds and 445 fifties in international cricket! The sheer weight of the numbers bears testimony to the giant impressions the three have left in the history of the game.

While the three have each scaled unknown peaks and have written their names in indelible letters in the annals of cricket, the paths traced by them have been different.

Ricky Ponting - class apart in the treasure trove of Australian talent

For Ponting, there had never been any doubt about the phenomenal ability that made him a class apart even in the treasure trove of talent that combined to form the Australian batting line up. His stroke making prowess, the capacity to plunder runs with arrogance, was never in question ever since he made his debut in 1995. The poser that popped up from time to time was whether he would be able to realise his evident potential, sidestepping his self-destructive tendencies.

For the first few years, he hovered on the fringes of greatness that always seemed that one series away – sometimes a little more distant when he struggled against the turning ball on the dusty pitches of the subcontinent or got embroiled in off-field fiascos.

However, from 2002 he found that he could answer every question thrown at him, cricketing or otherwise. During a prolonged purple patch, there were predictions aplenty, tinged with the robust Australian flavour, about his future claim on all possible batting records. This became more and more imminent when his prodigious peak largely coincided with the period during which Sachin Tendulkar struggled with his tennis elbow. The gap between the two legends was reduced to the proportions of wafer thin. The average tended to explode beyond the 60 barrier and the vital signs of serious greatness looked ominous.

However, at this juncture, the Australian side was shaken at the foundations by a series of retirements. As the replacements struggled to match the talent and consistency of Mathew Hayden, Justin Langer, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, the all-conquering boat rocked and Ponting at the helm suffered the aftershocks. Stripped of the cushion of great batsmen around him, he tried his best to wage a lone war with his bold bat, but his form deserted him. From late 2008, the hundreds reduced to a trickle and dried up altogether, the average plummeted back from the heights to settle in the early 50s. The balls that had sped off the middle of the bat suddenly found the edge or sneaked through the defence. The valiant pull shot, the hall mark of his game, refused to produce returns of yesteryears. The great man was feeling the effects of age, and while a Tendulkar wised up to the winds of change and adapted his game into a stupendous return, the Australian took way too long to recognise the fractional fraying of the hand eye coordination.

He has since then parted with his worrisome load of captaincy. The mind has been at work, the game has been moulded. The results have been slow but increasingly steady. Some of the lost sparks of brilliance have shone through now and then to promise a few last glitters that may yet decorate the sublime swansong to a worthy career.

2011 elevated Rahul Dravid into surreal brilliance

While Rahul Dravid always merited wide acceptance as a batsman of character and ability since his debut in 1996, not many would have predicted his ending up as the all-time No 2.

His game never boasted the flamboyance or swagger of the other two, partly as a severe price for occupying the No 3 slot, for a long while without a decent opening pair. He was forever the steady compiler of runs, a paragon of consistency which saw him score thousand after thousand runs in Test matches with the same prolific regularity, at almost equal intervals of metronomic precision.

While holding the innings together from the pivotal No 3, he also came to be accepted as the major architect of Test match wins around the globe. His scrupulously correct game was never dominating, but the returns were phenomenal.

It was somehow expected that the good times would go nigh on forever, especially while he was at the peak of his powers during 2000 to 2006. His unhurried, steadfast game was scarcely touched by the erosion of time. The poker face hid every ripple of emotion that hinted at a change in circumstances or confidence.

However, after he unexpectedly gave up captaincy following a successful English tour in the summer of 2006, things started to fall apart. He was curiously omitted from the one-day side. Runs in Test matches suddenly became increasingly scarce, and the pace of scoring, never quite brisk, turned laborious.

The lack of form continued long enough to raise a clamour for his exit. He did respond with a couple of hundreds, but they were painstaking enough to be unsightly.

However, the relentless repair work of the structure of “The Wall” finally paid off. A decent Caribbean affair followed by a phenomenal tour of England elevated him to a surreal plane of brilliance, beyond the reach of critical voices and also ahead of Ricky Ponting. The runs are once again coming thick and fast and he looks good for at least a few more test series. In his own words, he has returned ‘older, wiser and – I hope – improved’. 

Sachin Tendulkar – the Marathon Man

In my opinion what distinguishes these two performers from Sachin Tendulkar is the latter’s longevity at the peak. True, Dravid and Ponting have survived long and at the pinnacle of the game, but their stints at the zenith of the batting world have been limited to around half a dozen years. Tendulkar, on the other hand, has had a career longer than both by more than half a decade, and but for a three-year period plagued by the wear and tear of the body, he has never left his comfortable perch at the top of the world.

Starting out as a child prodigy who stamped his class early and unquestionably on the map of the cricketing world, he galloped across the first decade with audacious and dominant stroke-play seldom seen before. For long the lone hand who fought losing battles while team mates fell all around him, a clutch of talented batsmen coming of age by the turn of the century converted him into an accumulator of runs far ahead of the rest of his generation.

However, in 2004, the load of a team and the hope of millions carried on the shoulders for decade and a half finally took their toll on his body. For the next three years, he struggled to come to terms with the limitations of his elbow, lower back and other over-used parts of anatomy. This was the period when the rest of the world bore down on him, closing the gap and usurping the batting throne.

And then, even as the most diehard of his fans had accepted the fading away of a lustrous career, he engineered a second coming as a much modified run machine, without any visible weakness in the works. Starting with the Australian tour of 2007-08, he emerged once again as the man at the top of the batting world, the distance between him and the challengers slowly returning to the wide chasm of the earlier days. If he was at the height of mastery in the early nineties, twenty years later he is still there – unmatched and untouched, especially when one combines the two major formats of the game.

And thus the three men at various stages of rediscovered greatness, with three of the greatest collection of Test runs under their belts, find their paths crossed in one last battle Down Under.

Even if the heart is unwilling to accept it, this will definitely be the last such battle. The train of reality will eventually leave the magical junction, and the three great men will get off at their chosen temporal destinations.

The romantics of cricket will be left to chug along the tracks of imagination or remain reminiscing in the realms of memory.

For the time being, however, it is important to soak our senses while the three brightest stars of the cricketing firmament sparkle together for the final few moments, to light up the arenas in a glow of greatness that will perhaps never be seen again.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Sparkling humour, Insightful Wisdom, Moving Emotion and Cold Facts - Dravid's Don Bradman Oration

This post by the author also appears in the Cricketcountry web site

By his prodigious standards it was a very short stint in the middle. The famed poker face often had ripples of animation run across it, accompanied by a twinkle in the eyes. There were also a couple of frivolous pokes, so uncharacteristic of his style – especially when Shane Warne entered the scene. However, when Rahul Dravid completed his latest innings, full of class and sparkle, the applause matched any he has heard for all the gems he has played across his fifteen year career. When the standing ovation quietened down, left swirling in the aftermath were the echoing thoughts stirred in the minds of cricket enthusiasts as well as the administrators of the game.

When Ranjitsinhji, the premier cricketing conjurer from the East, had vied for a place in the English side for the 1896 Ashes series, his claims had initially been blocked by the MCC President Lord Harris. Referring to overseas players as “birds of passage”, the diplomat had acted out his deep-rooted conviction that “while an Englishman had his duty and responsibility towards the Indian, the association should not be too close”. Ranji’s willow wizardry and the mystic magic that he brought to stroke-play finally won through, but it took more than esoteric oriental skills of batsmanship to drive through the bastions of White Castle.

One hundred and fifteen years later, it is intriguing to witness two men from the subcontinent stand at hallowed podiums and address the cricketing community in the prestigious MCC Spirit of Cowdrey Lecture and the Sir Donald Bradman Oration.

The world and the game have both come a long way.

However, on second thought, is it really that surprising?

Across the entire expanse of the cricket playing world, can one find two gentlemen more suited to deliver the speeches? Does there exist a brace of cricketers more presentable, whose erudition, articulation and command of the English language are as immaculate as the exquisite drives they essay between the extra-cover and mid-off while compiling uncountable runs in international cricket?

In a fascinating speech, the Indian stalwart displayed a wide array of versatile strokes covering distant corners of an enormous ground. He spoke about War, The Don, Indo-Australian cricket encounters, and ventured interesting opinions about the future of the game that will provide lots of food for thought to the International Cricket Council (ICC) and other governing bodies. At the same time, a significant portion of his talk dealt with cricket in India and what the game means to an Indian cricketer and follower.

One of the major messages that he passed on to the world was that despite the caricatures of the Indian cricketer as a “pampered superstar  ... overpaid, underworked, treated like a cross between royalty and rock stars”, the reality remains diametrically different. The path of becoming a national cricketer is a treacherous razor’s edge with no reassuring safety net. And in spite of the financial security the cricketer attains on reaching the pinnacle of the sport, he does not normally live in mansions with swimming pools as the world would rather believe.

Given that the venue was the National War Memorial in the outskirts of Canberra, Dravid cleverly weaved the location into his speech. He began much like Kumar Sangakkara had done in his address, contrasting cricket with War – underlining how much more is the contribution of the soldier who fights for the country, “no matter how often and how meaninglessly the words 'war', 'battle', 'fight' are used to describe cricket matches”. However, while Sanga had made this the pivotal fulcrum of his entire talk, highlighting the turbulent conditions in Sri Lanka with emotionally charged rhetoric, Dravid quickly laddered on the War theme to point out that Indian ties with Australia went much further back than the inaugural tour in 1947-48. Way before the countries met on the cricket field, they had fought shoulder to shoulder against common enemies on battlefields such as Gallipoli, El Alamein, North Africa, in the Syria-Lebanon campaign, in Burma and in the battle for Singapore.

About the man who had lent his name to the lecture, Sir Don Bradman, Dravid’s words were not too many, but they perhaps combined to form the most sparkling chapter of the entire talk. In typical, humble, self-effacing humour, he contrasted Bradman’s batting style with his own, belittling his own recent Lord’s hundred which traversed almost a full day in comparison with The Don’s century before lunch in 1930. At the same time, he pointed out that as a No 3 batsman himself – ‘a tough, tough job’  – he was up against a standard which was ‘the benchmark for batsmanship itself’.

There was the delightful anecdote with which he perhaps won the heart of the Australian audience, when he pointed out how Bradman’s 254 against England in 1930 had coincided with the arrest of Jawaharlal Nehru. He went on to relate how the synchronous events, and the connecting thread of fighting a common enemy, had been captured by KN Prabhu, the cricket writer and nationalist, who, according to many, was the closest an Indian scribe had ever got to the standard of Neville Cardus. Could any cricketer but Rahul Dravid have combined nationalism, cricket and reportage into one simple anecdote? I doubt it.

The maestro went on to mention how Bradman was the most beloved cricketer never to have played in India. He conjectured about whether Indians had sported black arm-bands when Wally Hammond had broken the Australian great’s world record score of 334. He recalled the exhilaration that the entire country had felt when the greatest batsman of all time had identified Sachin Tendulkar as someone who batted like him, thus figuratively passing on his magnificent torch to the Indian master. He ended his bit on Bradman with one of the great man’s quotes which – judging by the way our own Wall conducts himself – must be very close to his heart “… the finest of athletes had, along with skill, a few more essential qualities: to conduct their life with dignity, with integrity, with courage and modesty.”

PG Wodehouse, the master writer of humorous fiction, once mentioned that the best way to progress through a story was to phase out from a situation to the next one with the transitions as seamless as possible.

The master batsman displayed that he is as skilled in moving from one topic to another as he is in dealing with a change in bowling. Linking the time of Sir Don’s death with the beginning of the 2001 series between India and Australia, he switched to the recent history of the tussles between the two cricketing nations.

While remembering some closely-fought and excellent cricket series, he also expressed faith that the two sides had moved on from the 2007 Sydney Test match. In the style of an excellent diplomat – in the non-negative sense of the word – he spoke of how IPL had ensured that the Indian and Australian players shared the same dressing room. Tongue firmly in cheek, he observed that Shane Warne had also, at long last, grown to enjoy India, and no longer needed a steady diet of imported baked beans to survive in the subcontinent.

Next came the most telling part of his speech, during which, with a few emotionally-loaded strokes, he outlined what cricket as a sport meant to the country of India. With enthralling anecdotes of his under-19 days, he tried to demonstrate how the game can be a unique bonding factor in a nation of umpteen languages and cultures. I say ‘he tried to demonstrate’ because without being a part of the unique nation it is well-nigh impossible for another culture to understand the complexity of India. However, no one could have done a better job than Dravid did with the story of two youngsters batting at the wicket, one speaking in Hindi and the other in Malayalam, stitching together a hundred-run partnership without understanding a word of each other. To get to know India, to fathom the enormous diversities existing side by side in a single nation, one can hardly do better than to look at it through the lens of cricket. The game is a national identity and not a sum total of the multi-million dollar television deals that seem to make headlines today.

To show how a game has made it possible for the distant parts of the nation to come together, he spoke about Rajasthan – “a state best known for its palaces, fortresses and tourism” - going on and winning the Ranji Trophy, of the newly-formed state of Jharkhand winning the national one-day championship. He spoke about the advent of small town players – about Munaf Patel, about Zaheer Khan, about Umesh Yadav – how Virender Sehwag used to travel 84 km a day for proper coaching, how the roads leading to Munaf’s village had to be built anew once television crews and journalists started flocking there. How television coverage has actually made a lot of this possible by carrying the game to the remotest corners.

And while comfortable lives and security do await the ones who reach the top, the upward journey is a risk taken without contingency or mitigation strategies.

During this most passionate part of his speech, he also lyrically covered what the game means to an Indian fan, how a cricketer is known and popular everywhere, unlike all the other icons of a diverse nation, different even for the movie stars who can have restricted, regional appeal. In moving words, he recounted how a pulled-back curtain of a team bus always lights up the face of the fan who stands outside. The Indian team is recognised everywhere as the symbol of a united country, a symbol of hope, opportunities.

The audience was thus presented with a peek into the heart and soul of Indian cricket with the pulsating arteries thrown into the open. A glance at the glamorous world without hasty covers thrown on the grit and grime which litter the way leading up to grandeur.

Having displayed the flourish of oratory, his next phase was practical, full of good, common sense and a straight bat which, nevertheless, was not against improvisation. He expressed concern about the dwindling number of people in the stands, contrasting them with the days of yore with crowds spilling out of packed stadiums. All these observations were augmented with sound, and sometimes innovative, suggestions about what needs to be done. He talked about openness, transparency, regulations – prices that a cricketer may need to pay for preserving the game which has given so much to him.

He spoke of doing away with inconsequential one-day matches, thereby responding to the clamour that has probably been going on since 1985, but to take any new step firmly along a middle path.

For a cricketer cast in the classical mould, he was surprisingly enthusiastic about experimenting with day-night Test cricket and pink balls.

He also suggested the use of T20 as a domestic competition through structured official leagues.

The ideas were a mixture of equal amounts of simplicity and sophistication, underlining the deep seated practical wisdom which has made Rahul Dravid one of the leading thinkers about the game today.

During the final few minutes he spoke of what makes cricket sublime to him. A few instants when everything vanishes from consciousness and all that remains is the game in the middle, moments of endless joy that needs to be treasured for a lifetime. It may have been abstract – but we must bear in mind that this was the deepest realisation of someone who makes batting at the wicket or standing in the slips look almost like a spiritual endeavour. What he shared was the wisdom of enlightenment – of satori – that comes after decades of performing meditation in action. Even if we cannot comprehend the message in full, we can bask in the reflected light of its eloquence.

In 1947, when India played Australia for the first time, skipper Lala Amarnath confessed that the team had travelled to Australia to learn. When they faced the might of the home side in the first Test at Brisbane, Don Bradman scored 185. India, in their two innings, managed 58 and 93. Thus, the entire Indian team was effectively defeated by an innings and 34 runs by the great man’s score alone.

Now, 64 years later, during the Sir Don Bradman Oration, one No 3 batsman from India stood alone in a dapper navy blue suit, and won over an entire Australian nation – and the rest of the cricketing world – doing so with sparkling humour, insightful wisdom, moving emotion and cold hard facts.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The curious traits of the Indian 'Fan' - armchair metaphysicians and amateur patriots

(This post by the author also appears on

As Virender Sehwag bulldozed his way to the world record score, the entire country – and the large pockets of Indians worldwide – went delirious with excitement. There was a kind of innocence with which the balls were brutally blasted to all corners of the ground, slaughtering strokeplay purified by the fire that seemed to scorch the Holkar Cricket Ground.

What followed in the aftermath of such a fantastic milestone paints a rather mottled picture of the nature of cricket following in India. There were truckloads of accolades and applause that framed the monumental achievement with deserving and sparkling embellishments. However, there was also in equal proportion that age old propensity of the Indian cricket fan to dip a landmark in the murky green colours of comparison in order to tarnish some of the glittering gemstones in the treasury of the sport.

Instead of savouring the moment and allowing the goose-pimples to deliciously die down along with the reverberating echoes of the tremendous strokes of the Najafgarh maestro, out came the self-appointed cult of cricket activists who claim to live to keep the game supposedly clear of the vicious tentacles of individualism and cabalistic blasphemies.

Quite quixotically, Sachin Tendulkar, miles away from the action, peacefully flying through the skies on his way to Australia, started popping up in posts, articles and comments. For many it was a triumph of the sport against the passion for individual glory as represented by the adulation for Tendulkar and his achievements. For some ridiculous armchair metaphysicians, it was proof that man could triumph over ‘God’. The glee of these peculiar perverts, thrown up in ever increasing numbers by the game in this curious country, had to be seen and read to be believed. A floated joke about Tendulkar being the new holder of the world record for the slowest double century soon began to be taken seriously and started doing rounds as the fabricated sense of righteous indignation against the man who had broken the 200-run barrier. Well, if a 147-ball 200 can be criticised for slowness, I will live with it.

While the end result was simply that Sehwag scored a brilliant world record-setting 219, and India won the match and series comprehensively, this ridiculous reaction produced comical self-referencing paradoxes engineered by the guardians of the game, the national and the theological keepers of Indian cricket.

It is striking evidence that these very followers of the game cannot rise beyond the limits of individual fanaticism. Their enjoyment of the brilliance of Sehwag came a poor second to their endless endeavour to tar and feather the achievements of the greatest Indian batsman of all time. The country and the cause of India are simply excuses for these sickly souls to rise up in diabolical debasement of a hero.

And by calling upon the spirit of an absent soul, someone traversing the heavens in the direction of Down Under, these very scattered groups riddled with the hate gene did ensure that the little master was bestowed with powers of omnipresence.
It was these very critics through their own vested interests, in order to throw malicious mud on his path-breaking performances, who presented the abilities of god to the man. Tendulkar absent seemed to exercise a more powerful influence than Tendulkar present, a defining benchmark for a God.

Would it not have been simpler to revel in the glory of two Indians owning the record for the top two scores in One-Day International cricket? Much as Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid own the top two aggregates in Test match cricket as well?

Can we imagine Australian fans reacting in this way if Michael Clarke broke some record of Ricky Ponting? Or the English if Jimmy Anderson went past some landmark set by Ian Botham?

Ah well … there continue to be some things which happen only in India.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Beyond Boundaries of Cricket and Science

(This post by the author also appears on

By the time Virender Sehwag’s bazooka of a bat had blasted and blitzkrieged its way to the world record score of 219, the reaction of many a keen follower was not ‘wow’ but ‘at last’.

The Nuke of Najafgarh had for long been considered the chosen one for such a feat. He had himself mentioned a One-Day International (OD) double hundred as a primary target as long back as 2004. It is just one more idiosyncrasy of his logic contradicting career that while his explosive batsmanship had piled up enormous hundreds, double hundreds and triple hundreds in Test cricket, the inevitable ODI double hundred had remained elusive. It was quite expected that he would get it in due course of time. For someone with more than 8000 runs in ODIs at a strike rate of 104, it just boils down to staying long enough at the wicket on one good day.

And although he now stands with the unique distinction of holding the record for the highest score in both the major forms of the game for his country, it does not strike one as surprising. I will not be surprised even if he scores a 450 or a 500 in Tests and 250 in ODIs. Limits – of belief or science – just does not exist for this man. It is that very characteristic which defines him – one not chained by the cluttering conventions of regular thought.

Traditionally Test cricket used to have a standard rate of scoring. Sehwag walked in and blasted it past the boundaries of imagination. When he gets going – which is often, he scores at the speed of thought, sometimes even faster. Physicists subscribing to the limiting boundaries of the speed of light can blink once in disbelief and end up missing an entire Sehwag masterpiece.

For this man, no rule – cricketing or scientific – holds good. He is not constrained by the accepted barriers that have faced great batsmen from time immemorial. As if in accordance to the teachings of the ancient Zen masters, he goes about his business after emptying his cup of knowledge, with an unfettered and uncluttered mind. He gets to know about the limits of his trade only after crossing them fourfold!

The one hundred and thirty four year history of Test cricket and the laws of science would combine to decree a strike rate of 82 as impossible for an opening batsman, if he averages 50+ as well across 92 Tests. Yet, Sehwag manages all that even as his career runs is just shy of 8000. The aggregate and strike rate combination in ODIs would also hint at the miraculous. To Sehwag it is just what he does.

The MCC Coaching Manual will hardly deem fine third man an area for scoring runs, let alone finding the fence with regularity. Yet, Sehwag does so, and often crosses the boundary on the full as a part of his regular day job. If the ball can be hit there, he will hit it. At the same time, one won’t find him scooping the ball Brendon McCullum style into the V behind the wicket, ending up rolling about in the crease. If Sehwag attempts something, the approach is always simple – like the most elegant of proofs of a theorem not known before.

Conventional cricketing wisdom says that if a team scores nearly four hundred in the first innings of a Test match, the side batting second has to be conservative and defensive early on. However, Sehwag showed that by the end of the second day, he could be 283 not out in two sessions and the first team could be looking down the barrel. Many phenomenal international cricketers would not have had a go at this and similar impossibilities because of common cricketing sense. Sehwag is blissfully free from the tentacles of such stifling sagacity.

There are greats like Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman who have built their monumental achievements by letting colossal talent and dedication work on cricket’s acknowledged foundations. A Tendulkar and a Laxman can play strokes beyond the orbit of the ordinary by extending the peripheries of the cricket manuals with their far reaching brilliance. A Dravid can purify and refine the same manuals in the burning fire of the active-meditation he performs at the wicket. Sehwag however glances at the manual from time to time for reference, and prefers to have his own approach, almost spiritual in its innocent detachment from convention, mixed with the empirical clarity of his own alternative science.

The results cannot be disputed. He averages more than Sunny Gavaskar did as an opener, while scoring at twice his rate in Test cricket. By all laws of logic, that should have been a monumental impossibility. Not to Sehwag. He just goes there and does it.

Two triple centuries and once tantalisingly close to a third, huge hundreds and double hundreds, and now this 219 in a One-Day International, these form ample evidence that whatever alternative manual of cricket he has written for himself can work just as well or even better than the more traditional ones.

His approach to playing fast bowling at the beginning of an innings is an indication. Critics point out that he does not move his feet – the first lesson taught by orthodox coaches. Geoff Boycott reckoned that the degree to which a batsman’s feet move early in the innings demonstrated his form. His world was grabbed by the collar and turned upside down by the advent of Virender Sehwag on the scene. While analysing one of Sehwag’s strokes, the Yorkshireman confessed that he transcends traditional technique. Sehwag had just driven a fast bowler back down the ground, his feet as usual rooted to his crease. The slow motion autopsy carried out by the panel of experts revealed that if the left foot had come down the track as per the text books, the ball would have thudded into the pad without sufficient time for the bat to come around the front foot. By not moving his feet, Sehwag had actually managed to avoid being leg before wicket and had also managed to pick up a few runs down the ground.

But, at the same time, he does not discard the rulebook totally. When spinners are in operation, his footwork is as fast and nimble as the best in business.

Herein, perhaps, Sehwag unveils the new face of Indian batting. While Tendulkar and Dravid beat the world by playing the game by the rules, Sehwag has transitioned to the next level where he makes his own rules. And by extension, he traces his own limits – and has a habit of going beyond them.

Questions have already been asked about the invincibility of this new record. Chris Gayle, Shane Watson … who is most likely to break it?

My hunch is that the one to better it will be Sehwag himself. For 62 years, Indians had been living on the other side of a Test match 300. In the last seven years, Virender Sehwag has gone beyond it twice, first in Multan and then breaking his own record in Chennai, and came seven close to achieving the feat a third time. There is no reason why he should not do the same in ODIs. He has the same penchant for crossing and leaping over boundaries as his famed upper cuts. It is this lack of inhibition that produces the audacious edge to his batting that keeps us expecting the unexpected every time he takes guard.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Did The Don finish with an average of 100 plus? - A relook at batting averages

(This post by the author is also available on

Consider a Test series with Batsman A coming in at No 3 and rattling up scores of 166, 23, 1, 40, 3, 53 not out and 20 – a total of 306.

Now think of the No 11 batsman B of the same team in the same series, who scores 8 not out, 23 not out, 11, 7 not out, 2 not out - a total of 51.

If the series has not been a particularly tall-scoring run-feast, batsman A and tailender B end up sharing the top spot in the batting charts with an average of 51.00 apiece.

However, can their performances be considered equivalent?

This discrepancy has made many a mathematically-minded follower of the game frown, and one of the more severe of the knitted brows belong to the otherwise amiable visage of Dr. Shubhabrata Das, a statistician trained from the Indian Statistical Institute and currently a professor in IIM, Bangalore.

After his first presentation on the topic at a departmental seminar of the University of Nebraska in 1993, his research on cricket averages was often sidetracked because of other pressing academic topics, but whenever he pursued it, questions were raised about the averages of cricketers with curious caveats.
  • If averages were adjusted to eliminate the fallacy generated by the treatment of not outs, what would the historical ranking of batsmen look like? Would Sobers and Sutcliffe exchange places in the honour roll?
  • Would Sir Don Bradman end up with an average of 100-plus in the modified set up?

At Durban, during the 57th session of the International Statistics Institute in 2009, Dr. Das presented his thoughts on the topic to a lot of acclaim, and found a number of similar- minded followers of the game in the academic circles of England and South Africa. This egged him on and at present, he is in the process of finishing the final bits of data analysis before launching the work in reputed academic journals. In a couple of weeks, the detailed analysis, results and ranking will be available as a working paper of IIM Bangalore.

Let me clarify at the outset – this is not an article which scoffs at the uselessness of the currently accepted numbers in the game of cricket. Quite the contrary, it argues that figures are essential indicators of quality left in the wake of on-field exploits. There is however, a long-standing gap in the analysis. And this hole needs to be plugged as, unlike any other sport, every moment on the cricket field somehow manages to go down in the record books as numerical footprints of careers.

Even a ball passing harmlessly outside the off stump into the gloves of the ‘keeper impacts the history that is etched out by numbers. It takes the batsman one ball closer to Rahul Dravid's record of the maximum number faced, adjusts his strike-rate with a minute quiver towards the right of the decimal point and carries out slightest alterations to the economy and strike rates of the bowler. If there is no action in the middle, the captain and bowler converse, the field moves around, a fielder is dispatched to the deep – even these boil down to more minutes spent in the middle, chipping away at Hanif Mohammed's record 970-minute marathon at Bridgetown in 1958.

There are sceptics who turn their backs to cricketing numbers. Some consider statistics to be a poor reflection of the glorious game played out in the middle. Some find the superlative digital traces left by a masterly career difficult to acknowledge while indulging in fault-finding outbursts. And finally there are the ones whose worshipped idols are themselves numerically handicapped, not possessing figures fantastic enough to scale up to the heroic adulation.

While the record books admittedly have no way of capturing the elegance of an innings, there is also no documented occasion of a match being awarded to the lower scoring side based on the beauty of a late cut. At the end of the day, runs scored, wickets taken and catches held on the field go on to win a match, and by corollary, the more prolifically a batsman scores and the more frequently a bowler takes wickets, the more valuable they are to the team. Of two batsmen, if one scores consistently more than the other, the average computed for him will also end up being the higher of the two. One can take cover behind Mark Twain's largely incidental and light-hearted remark about lies, damned lies and statistics, but it is impossible to deny that averages and aggregates form excellent indicators of the quality of cricketers.

It is not surprising therefore, that batting average has for long been the standard by which a batsman is measured to gauge how he stands up against the willow wielders down the ages. And ever since the second quarter of the 20th century, the indicator has demonstrated remarkable consistency which vindicates the faith of the cricket follower.

Leaving aside the astronomical 99.94 of The Don, the remaining super greats, greats, the very good and the good can be more or less identified by the range in which their batting averages respectively lie. This yardstick has transcended generations. An average between 55 and 60 signifies the pinnacle and 45-50 the very good, irrespective of era. Wally Hammond can be bucketed in the same group as Sachin Tendulkar and Denis Compton with Javed Miandad, much as expected, across the ripples of time.

However, happy though the general followers as well as the mathematically inclined have been by the computation of the average, some of the latter have looked askance at the way not outs are considered. As shown in the example at the beginning of the article, sometimes the results of the analysis are too glaringly counter intuitive.

The primary problem arises due to the treatment of not outs as incomplete innings, and simple addition of the accumulated runs to the total aggregate. What this implies is that irrespective of whether the score of the unbeaten innings is 2* or 227*, they are dealt with it in the same way. However, is a batsman, say Brian Lara, batting on two expected to score the same number of additional runs as when batting on 227? Should the two not be treated differently?

Let us look at the problem with the help of an analogy. Suppose in a population of five people, three pass away at their respective ages of 80, 78 and 84. The two others are still alive at 76 and 82. Is the expected longevity of the population around 80 or 133?

The second answer is ridiculously wrong, but if we compute the average longevity by applying the not out rule, we get 133.33.

The two surviving venerable gentlemen would have to be extremely lucky to dodge the doosras and googlies bowled by the agents of mortality for another 50 years. Besides, medical practitioners or insurance consultants predicting 133 would probably lose their jobs and not get them back even if they themselves lived to be 133.

Survival Analysis

Here is where statistical training provides a solution. Dr. Shubhabrata Das turned to a branch of the subject known as Survival Analysis, and used the technique of Kaplan Meier estimator.

The K-M estimator, widely used in medical research and economics, tackles the above problem by arriving at the best prediction of survival in the population based on ages of both the surviving and the expired.

The answer provided by K-M for the longevity problem is an expected survival age of 81.25, which does seem to be a lot more believable than 133.

Using the same K-M estimation in the cricketing scenario, now analogously considering the out scores to be ages at death of a population and the not-out scores to be ages of the surviving members, we can revisit the example of Batsman A and tailender B provided at the very beginning of this article.

According to the K-M estimates, Batsman A averages 59.86 and batsman B 17.50. This indeed seems a lot better than slotting both the players together with an average of 51.

Dr. Das has computed the K-M estimates for all the batsmen with averages over 50 in Test cricket. The results are documented below (minimum qualification 20 tests and 50 plus average

Updated to November 26, 2011).


Traditional Avg

K-M Modified Avg

ranking Avg

Rank according to KM fitted Avg

DG Bradman (Aus)




RG Pollock (SA)60.9762.1422
GA Headley (WI)60.8360.8935
H Sutcliffe (Eng)60.7359.5046
E Paynter (Eng)59.2358.5658
KF Barrington (Eng)58.6757.75610
ED Weekes (WI)58.6158.5677
WR Hammond (Eng)58.4561.0783
IJL Trott (Eng)57.7958.2399
GS Sobers (WI)57.7861.03104
JB Hobbs (Eng)56.9456.531114
KC Sangakkara (SL)56.9357.431211
JH Kallis (ICC/SA)56.8955.611316
CL Walcott (WI)56.6856.671413
L Hutton (Eng)56.6757.391512
SR Tendulkar (India)56.0255.911615
GS Chappell (Aus)53.8654.011718
AD Nourse (SA)53.8154.041817
R Dravid (ICC/India)53.2253.681920
BC Lara (ICC/WI)52.8853.042023
TT Samaraweera (SL)52.6153.222122
Javed Miandad (Pak)52.5753.872219
RT Ponting (Aus)52.5352.862324
Mohammad Yousuf (Pak)52.2951.162426
V Sehwag (ICC/India)52.1552.652525
MEK Hussey (Aus)51.7351.162631
J Ryder (Aus)51.6252.092728
A Flower (Zim)51.5453.282821
DPMD Jayawardene (SL)51.351.902929
Younis Khan (Pak)51.252.193027
SM Gavaskar (India)51.1251.053132
SR Waugh (Aus)51.0651.203230
ML Hayden (Aus)50.7350.683333
AR Border (Aus)50.5650.153437
KP Pietersen (Eng)50.4850.513535
IVA Richards (WI)50.2350.603634
DCS Compton (Eng)50.0650.483736

From the table, we see that averages of certain batsmen like Wally Hammond and Sir Garfield Sobers undergo sharp increase, and in the case of Jacques Kallis there is a moderate drop. There is a significant reshuffling in average based ranking for people like Len Hutton, Alan Border and a few others.

Overall, however, it seems that during long careers, the discrepancies due to not out scores get evened out and the difference between the traditional and K-M average is not too spectacular.  At the same time, we have already seen the potency of average correction in a short series. A real life example is given below.

India vs Pak in India 2005

Anil Kumble

Virender Sehwag

Runs scored

1*, 21*, 14*, 22, 37*

173, 36, 81, 15, 201, 38
Traditional Average97.0090.66
Kaplan Meier Estimated Average30.0090.66

It does also seem that the major difference and adjustment take place only for lower order batsmen who end up with a lot of low not out scores.

However, when we take a look at the One-Day Internationals (ODIs), the differences are quite drastic for some big batting names as well.

Top ODI batsmenTraditional Avg    KM            Average

HM Amla


MG Bevan53.5846.13
IJL Trott51.3749.19
MEK Hussey51.1844.93
MS Dhoni51.1651.02
Z Abbas47.6345.83
IVA Richards47.0046.95
V Kohli46.7843.39
MJ Clarke45.5043.16
J Kallis45.4943.40
SR Tendulkar45.1644.64
RT Ponting42.6441.68
SC Ganguly41.0240.59
BC Lara40.4939.99

As we observe, the vaunted averages of Mike Hussey and Michael Bevan do indeed take major hits when we apply the K-M adjustment. Considering that these two men have been finishers with plenty of not out innings, the results provide some food for thought.

Kaplan Meier for adjusted batting averages has been used before, notably in a paper by Kimber and Hansford in the Journal of Royal Statistical Society, 1993. Dr. Das brings in further innovation by the interesting approach of modelling the scores using something called the Generalised Geometric Distribution.

The professor argues that batsmen have a variable risk of getting dismissed based on their current score in the innings. In other words, before opening his account a batsman may be very vulnerable, growing more steady between 10-89, then vulnerable again in the 90s and so on. If we look at scorebooks, VVS Laxman is more prone to get out in the 20s, and David Gower was very susceptible in the 70s.

Based on the available data, one can try to fit the risk of dismissal for each batsman at different phases of the innings. Depending on assumptions, one can fit as rigorous a model as required, and try estimating the career average with the resulting Geometric distribution. The below table gives us some options for models along with a study of Don Bradman’s average as computed by each. As we go down the rows, the table gets more and more refined.

Model NumberAssumption on risk of getting out at different phases of an innings           Bradman’s average based on fitted Geometric model


At all times, irrespective of the score, the chances of getting out are the same
(traditional average)

2At zero there is a particular degree of vulnerability.
At 1-9 there is a different degree of vulnerability. 10 onwards the vulnerability is something else.
3A batsman has different vulnerability at 0, 1-9, 10-99, just after 100 (100-105) and more than 105                  99.95
4The vulnerability is different for each different score  (Generalised method – equivalent to Kaplan Meier)                  98.98

Indeed, for some of these models, the average of The Don does pass the three figure mark.

As a final note of interest, even though historically Bradman required just four in the last innings to end with a career average of 100, if the averages had been computed using K-M, he would have required 89. With this striking revelation, the great man now seated in the far pavilions can perhaps forgive himself for getting out when the landmark had seemed just a stroke away.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Awwal Number Entertainer - a cricketing obituary

(This post also appears on

Even as the country mourns the death of the evergreen entertainer Dev Anand, cricket fans probably recall his cricket movie Awwal Number with indulgent affection.

The legendary actor of Kala Paani, CID, Guide, Hare Rama Hare Krishna and many other celluloid landmarks also left his mark in the quaint area where two national passions – Bollywood and Cricket – intersect on silver screen.

Much before Lagaan, Iqbal and the less successful Chamatkaar, it was this eternal charismatic showman who made the first well known cricket movie.  
The Sandeep Patil, Syed Kirmani starrer Kabhi Ajnabi The did not set the box office on fire, and although the likes of Salim Durrani and Mohsin Khan for a while hovered around the edges of cinematic stardom, cricket and Bollywood till then had been largely limited to the off screen romances between the cricketers and the actresses.

Dev Anand merged the two with his Awwal Number which starred Aamir Khan, Aditya Panscholi and Ektaa, with the actor-director himself playing the role of an ex-cricketer turned selector.

While we can cast an indulgent eye towards the merits of the actual movie, what is very evident is that Dev saab went about making it with the same flamboyance that forever defined his attitude towards life.

In the film Aamir Khan made his debut for India in a One Day International against Australia, replacing the out of form superstar batsman Aditya Panscholi. He hooked with elegance, but played with an awful cross bat on the off side – and although he replicated the danda-goli manoeuvres as he took guard in Lagaan, his batting technique did show signs of significant improvement in the latter film.

While Alfred Hitchcock, in spite of his cricket-ignorant American background, used the ‘abandoned due to flood’ Manchester Test Match of 1938 with spot on historical accuracy in The Lady Vanishes, Ashutosh Gowariker stumbled on the back foot no ball rule during the otherwise historically accurate Lagaan. However, Dev Anand overcame these sorts of factual challenges with characteristic panache, nonchalantly ignoring them and steadfastly sticking to entertainment.

So what if the Australians for some reason chose to have 3 slips in place even as India required 6 runs to win the ODI off the final ball? So what if an on drive was depicted as a horrendous cow shot played while a bent rear knee touched the ground? So what if the bowling actions in the film continue to give innumerable coaches lifelong nightmares? There was enough massala to balance the equation.

A last ball six – a la Javed Miandad, a disgruntled axed batsman who tries to set off a bomb planted under the cricket pitch, a poor struggling cricketer who catches attention by cleaning Sunil Gavaskar’s car, cricket action at the Wankhede caught from a helicopter ... in all this, Dev Anand displayed how he lived till his last day – as a pure unadulterated entertainer. 

May his soul rest in peace.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Century before lunch - that rare feat

This post by the author also appears in

The first session in a Test match, more often than not, used to be a leisurely affair.

Spectators in their hundreds used to trickle in slightly late, held up in the traffic and jostling that naturally accumulate near the entrance of a sporting arena on the big day.

There would perhaps be an angry word or two with the diligent policeman taking his job too seriously at the gate, but seldom would the latecomers be in tearing hurry. There would be a quick reassuring look at the two men at the wicket if the home team had been taking first strike, a tentative glance at the scoreboard to ensure that the world was in order – before hastening to find their seats.

The momentum was supposed to be built up only later – the first session of the first day was akin to heating up frozen action in the cauldron that was just beginning to simmer, for the feast that would spread out later during the day. It was in the afternoon that the excitement would be likely to begin.

Fans heard the likes of Sunil Gavaskar and Geoff Boycott swearing by the convention of giving the first hour to the bowlers, to ensure that the rest of the day was theirs. So, the crowd could very well take it easy for the first few overs or more before the batsmen got down to the business of scoring runs.

However, with the turn of the century, a few avant garde stalwarts, most of them made to order for the middle-order, redefined the art of opening the innings. Matthew Hayden, Virender Sehwag, Sanath Jayasuriya and Chris Gayle made the crowd dread the thought of missing the very first ball. Even as the opposition captain placed the age-old attacking field at the start of a Test match, these men plundered boundaries in the wide open spaces as if there was no second session. And even when the field was pushed back, the boundaries continued to come undeterred. With the wave of these virtuoso bats, the start of a Test match had been metamorphosed from the reposeful adagio to brisk, reverberating allegro – from the courtly slow waltz to jaunty jives down the wicket.

Yet, we note that the onslaught of fast starts have not been able to emulate something achieved only once since the Second World War, that too three and a half decades back in the pages of cricket history by a dapper Pakistani maestro.

Virender Sehwag misses the feat by one run!

Virender Sehwag did blast his way within one run of the feat on the first day at the Beausejour Stadium, Gros Islet, St Lucia, in 2006. Facing the last ball before lunch with his score on 98, he backed away towards square-leg and tried to cart Corey Colleymore over hîs head, but the ball trickled off a mistimed edge to mid-off and the batsman had to be satisfied with a hastily taken single. The Najafgarh Nuke eventually got the necessary run off the third ball after lunch, but the rare century before the break remained elusive.

The early names who are associated with a hundred in the first session of a Test match conjure up romantic images. It is a roll call of honour, a roster of superlative strokeplay, a checklist of champions.

Victor Trumper, the legendary Aussie virtuoso, probably the first superstar batsman whose pictures were pinned to the early 20th century oak cupboards, was the first to perform the feat at Manchester in 1902. It was an innings that lit up the ground with flashes of willow wizardry during an Ashes Test that saw remarkable action, including the death of a spectator due to excitement.

Twenty four years later, Charley Macartney came in second ball, and raced away to the second such instance at Leeds against a shell-shocked English attack. Legend has it that after Macartney had surveyed the field and noted the difficult wicket rendered sticky by thunderstorms, he taunted the famed Maurice Tate by saying, “Let’s have it.”

The Yorkshire ground saw history repeat itself just four years later, when 22-year old Don Bradman announced his arrival, walking out at No 3 and plundering 105 runs before lunch out of what would be 309 in a day and an eventual 334.

The first three instances of hundred before lunch were, thus, all Australian. According to The Don, it made them extremely possessive of the landmark.

Eight years later in Nottingham, Bradman himself was captaining the side for the first time, in a match made memorable by Stanley McCabe's immortal 232. The Gloucestershire opener Charlie Barnett started the innings for England by flaying the ball all over the ground. With Len Hutton settling down at the other end, Barnett was nearing his century at the rate of knots. Realising the approaching landmark, the Aussies threw themselves about zealously on the field, protecting the final single like men possessed, to keep the unfortunate batsman on 99 as he went in for the lunch break.

However, with Test cricket turning dour and professional in the post World War days, the opening batsmen building themselves on the correct and copybook template of Len Hutton, Bill Lawry and, later, the aforementioned austere principles of Gavaskar and Boycott, the deed remained unrepeated. Professionalism also ensured less number of overs bowled per session, and the game became increasingly dominated by fast bowlers with long, time consuming run ups. Hence, chances of the feat being repeated looked bleak.

Conrad Hunte did produce flashes which lit up many a hopeful heart, Roy Fredericks was sometimes fast and furious, Keith Stackpole often flattered to deceive. Some number three batsmen of the calibre of Greg Chappell and Vivian Richards had more than the required oodles of talent to come in at the fall of an early wicket and blaze away to a hundred of glory before pausing for the midday meal. However, the target remained elusive.

Heartbreak for Farokh Engineer

Interestingly, Indian wicketkeeper batsman Farokh Engineer came remarkably close – scoring 94 in the first session at Madras in 1967 against a West Indian attack consisting of Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith, Gary Sobers and Lance Gibbs. He got to his century soon after lunch.

It was finally in late October 1976 that in a debonair display of majestic hitting the elusive hundred before lunch of the first day was accomplished after a 46-year hiatus.

If the Australians had been zealous custodians of the landmark, it was their lesser cricketing neighbours who allowed a fluent and graceful Pathan to enter the select group.

Already two down in the three-Test series, and without their star batsman and skipper Glenn Turner, the Kiwis were not the most spirited side going into the match at Karachi. However, with Richard Hadlee spearheading the attack, along with Richard Collinge and Lance Cairns, the seam attack was more than potent. But, Majid Khan, with magnificent – almost regal – elegance, started the innings by timing the ball imperiously.

Accompanying his illustrious partner, Sadiq Mohammed, he drove crisply, down the ground and through the covers, with the bat caressing rather than forcing the ball, gently showing it direction between the fielders. And when the pacemen bounced, he hooked with an arrogance seldom witnessed in the subcontinent.

In some ways, it was fit that Majid would repeat an exploit that had been witnessed only during the Ashes encounters of early twentieth century. In spirit and charisma, with his Cambridge accent and long sideburns, he looked and strutted about like an early English amateur playing for pleasure.

On his day he looked the most sublime of batsmen, a fact made more remarkable because he took batting seriously only after a back injury and suspect action cast a threatening shadow over his test career as a pace bowler.

Unfortunately for him and Pakistan, the number of days when the joy of batting bore fruit was limited. His enormous potential did not amount to more than eight centuries in 63 Tests.

But this balmy autumn morning had been manufactured for him, to showcase his grandiose flair at its most eloquent, signed with the éclat of his characteristic flourish. Eighteen boundaries marked their flaming trails across the turf and two impeccably-timed sixes stamped his panache in the first session.

Majid ended with 108 at the interval, falling to Richard Collinge almost immediately after resumption, adding just four more.

The Kiwis were not spared the cruel stick with Majid's dismissal. Captain Mushtaq Mohammed pranced along to a hundred and a young sensation named Javed Miandad piled on a little matter of 206. However, some shoddy wicket-keeping and close catching ensured a draw, with some tenacious batting by the Black caps on the last day.

Thirty five years on, century before lunch on the first day of a Test match remains unrepeated. If we consider the other four days of Test matches and look at the list of hundred-plus runs scored by batsmen during any of the five available first sessions, it makes Majid Khan's accomplishment even more noteworthy.

It has been done only 16 times in the 134-year history of Test cricket – apart from the four instances on the first day we have already seen.

Of these 16, once again the pre-Second World War list reads like a Who's Who of the greatest names to grace the game, including Clem Hill, K.S Ranjitsinhji, William Bardsley, Jack Hobbs, Stan McCabe and Wally Hammond.

Since 1935, however, apart from the Majid Khan masterpiece, there have been only seven more such mornings of merrymaking. But, not all of them can be considered in this elite group.

Three of the hundreds – two by Brian Lara and one by Mark Taylor – were compiled during extended sessions which saw 150 to 161 minutes of play rather than the usual 120. And of course, the minnows played their usual part in skewing modern day cricket records, with Inzamam-ul Haq, Lara and Ian Bell making their runs against either Zimbabwe or Bangladesh.

As a result, there are only two occasions that can be counted alongside the other first session run feasts. The first – when the impeccable Greg Chappell scored exactly 100 on the second morning of the 1982 Christchurch Test. And the latest instance being the morning of mayhem when AB deVilliers piled on agony for India by hitting 119 in the 2010 Test at the Centurion as the Proteans looked to amass quick runs.

However, those were innings that had already taken off, the launch pad prepared, the progress of run-making put into gear by the preceding men, all that one had to do was to press the accelerator and keep it pressed.

In that light, the magical morning of Majid Khan, striding out with a swagger and stroking his way to the century with grandeur and élan is a very special chapter in the history of cricket. More so because of the enthralling way he went about getting those runs, donning the mantle of Trumper, Macartney and Bradman with class and bravado that the venerable masters would have been proud of.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Final day at Wankhede - queering the pitch for Conspiracy Theorists

This post also appears in the author's CricketCountry columns

The final few overs at the Wankhede resonated with millions of hearts throbbing in unison, while knuckles were cracked to their limits and nails chewed down to the quick.

The phenomenal day, on which all four results seemed equally likely till the penultimate ball, provided not only one of the most dramatic ends to Test matches, but also underlined the glorious uncertainties of the great game. While Ravichandran Ashwin failed to turn quickly enough and charge down the wicket to complete the second run, nothing can be taken away from the young man who produced one of the best ever all-round performances for the country.

However, the ones who have indeed been caught on the wrong foot are the hundreds of chaotic voices, also known as critics, who till the fourth evening had shouted in various degrees of righteous indignation about supposed doctoring of the pitch. It won’t make happy reading for the tribe, but it has to be accepted that a Test match wicket that ended up producing such a great game has been exonerated of the charges, vindicated by the outcome.

Test cricket is a treasure trove of surprise delights because of the vagaries of fortune, the twists and turns of tale that can bubble up during its five day flow. Just as demonstrated by the recent series in the other hemisphere, predicting outcomes based on the first half, three quarters, or even 90% of a Test match can be hazardous, prone to as many errors as wagers on a throw of dice. There are too many parameters in the longer version of the game to always make a reasonably accurate prediction – the surface of the turf, the moisture in the air, the direction of the wind all have their say in the final result, as in no other sport. Voicing opinions while there are hours and overs left to be played can be risky business, making one perilously prone to be put down as the false prophet.

Understandably we are used to tracks that turn square from the first day, where a ball pitched up often gets lost in the puff of dust is discharged from the strip even before the players have had their first midday meal of the game. This is especially true if we are playing against a side known to be susceptible against the turning ball. However, by definition, a sporting track is not a bowler-friendly minefield from the first hour. And talented batsmen like Darren Bravo being difficult to dislodge does not automatically imply that the pitch has been made for a purpose other than a simple game of cricket.

In fact, pitches that start out having lots of runs in them and then break up towards the latter part of the match are nothing new in the history of Indian cricket. During the Mohammad Azharuddin-Ajit Wadekar era, India won Test after Test by piling on a huge score on an apparent featherbed which turned square from the third afternoon, allowing Anil Kumble, Venkatpathy Raju and Rajesh Chauhan to torture and torment the opposition batsmen with looped up poison tipped slow balls while a battery of close-in fielders crouched in wait. Perhaps, if India had won the toss in this Test match, this wicket would have been clubbed in that old category, the line of criticism changing to the safer track of pampering our spinners and being tigers at home. However, the chancy coin proved faithless to the Indian cause, and the critics ended up shooting themselves in the foot.

Test cricket makes some significant demands on the cricketers. Along with talent, flair, temperament, one of the much-needed ingredients for success is patience. It is that attribute which allows a batsman to tire down the bowlers by shouldering arms ball after ball during long innings, that quality which allows a bowler to stick to a plan over after over till it bears fruit in the form of a snick, that virtue which allows the fielder to react with the speed of lightening and grab the only chance that may come his way in more than a day and a half.

Strangely, this same demand – in a different degree – is made by the game on its spectators. To enjoy the finer points of the game, and capture the essence of entertainment, one needs to stick to the action in the middle with serene persistence, allowing it to mature and pitch forth the delicious surprises and secrets to the persevering. Sadly, in these days of the instantaneous, jumping to conclusions with fallacious judgements in the face of uncertainty is too rampant.

It is remarkably easy and mouth-wateringly attractive to look for correlations between the placid wicket and Sachin Tendulkar’s landmark, surmising with smug self-satisfaction that the latter influenced the former. It is easy to get brownie points through Facebook likes, accolades in discussion forums or prominence in the media circus by voicing supposed patriotic concern about the robbery of a national 3-0 victory for the fruition of personal landmarks. So sure were these critics of themselves that they did not even qualify their charges with possible face-saving buffers like ‘probably’, ‘possibly’ and ‘perhaps’.

However, cricket is a strange game – and there is always the danger that such unverified words may have to be swallowed with the bitterness of truth. Indeed, when 17 wickets fell on the last day, and run-making seemed increasingly back-breaking, all those who had been crowing about the placidity of the track were themselves caught on sticky wicket, their own pitch queered by even a Marlon Samuels getting the ball to turn, bounce, stop and talk.

Some pointed their desperate fingers at the West Indian batting line-up, prone to collapses on any day and surface. But, given that the likes of Rahul Dravid, Tendulkar and VVS Laxman found run-making extremely difficult, perishing to balls that turned, bounced, stopped or came on quickly, the claim can be dismissed with a carelessly concealed chuckle.

The wicket, it turned out, was one of the most sporting, which gave batsmen the upper hand for the first few days, and then, with the end in sight, switched allegiance to the bowlers. The match thus produced will go down as one of the most fascinating encounters of all times.

Performances in the face of crisis will be recalled with the greatest admiration and awe. Virat Kohli’s crucial knock will be remembered for genuine maturity and a fascinating forecast of future. Darren Sammy’s tactic of slowing the game down by clutching his hamstring and ultimately frustrating the young batsman into playing a cut shot down the throat of gully will remain one of the most memorable mind games witnessed on the ground in recent times.

As Test match aficionados, we can now regale in the memories of the fantastic contest that was on display – a testimony to the continuing robust health of the noblest format of the noble game.

And as a concluding note, we can say that Sudhir Naik, the curator, ended up doing a brilliant job with the strip. Formulae for such wickets need to be urgently added to the business plans – if any such plans exist, that is – for luring spectators back to the stands.