Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Commitment and Callousness - A Tale of Two Attitudes

(This post also appears in the author's Cricket Country column)

It was the fourth afternoon at The Oval and a certain RP Singh was having fun.

India were 300 odd behind England with eight wickets down, already 0-3 down in the series and whitewash written all over the wall, but for the final inevitable brushstroke. Yet, it did not stop the tail-ender from having the time of his life –having a ball while he threw his bat about.

In fact, from the moment RP had stepped onto the field on the opening day to bowl the first over of the Test match, he had given the indication of being in the middle of a hilarious vacation. Called over from the USA where he had indeed been spending his happy holidays, he looked incurably soaked in good times. Overweight, unshaven and glaringly unprepared, his first ball had pitched twice before reaching Mahendra Singh Dhoni somewhere in the wide leg-slip region. In the innings, he had bowled 34 overs conceding 118 runs without any pretensions of disturbing the wickets column.

Now, with the Indians batting with their backs to the wall, he was out there to enjoy himself. Flamboyantly striking the ball in all directions, with little or no correlation to the ultimate course, he had raced to a 23-ball cameo of 25 with five boundaries when an athletic catch by James Anderson in the slips brought an end to his jovial festivities.

All along the spectators were being treated to a master class. Rahul Dravid, at age 38, had taken up the unaccustomed role of an opener and was still there batting on 146. He had been at it for over six hours, had negotiated 266 balls and had looked impeccable all along. The Englishmen had all but given up trying to dismiss him, preferring the easy wickets that tumbled at the other end. It was only after the fall of the seventh wicket that Dravid had chanced his arm and lofted the ball, but even that had been carried out with on-drives signed with way too much perfection of technique to give a whiff of a chance to the fielding side.

Two balls remained of the Tim Bresnan over. Dravid stood stoically at the non-striker end with the immaculate demeanour that characterises everything that is pure in cricket, wedging his broad bat against the shutting door of the inevitable to allow a few rays of hope to trickle in.

No one expects Shantakumaran Sreesanth to set the stadium on fire with the bat. The only occasion one remembers him with the willow is when he swirled it around his head accompanied by energetic pelvic thrusts, in bizarre celebrations of his six off Andre Nel at Johannesburg in 2006. Four and a half years down the line, however, hardly anyone expects him to do much with the ball either.

However, one expects even a number eleven batsman to spare a thought for the man at the other end. The lone flag bearer of a pathetic Indian cause of the summer. Danny Morrison, a confirmed and self-confessed rabbit with the bat, had on one occasion hung on to his wicket for a session to help his side draw a Test match. When the situation demanded, even Glenn McGrath made his a wicket bowlers had to earn with back breaking hard work rather than receive as a gift wrapped with bubble paper. Could one not expect someone wearing the national cap and colours to show enough sense of honour and temperament to put his head down and make an effort to hang in there? To try and provide Dravid that bit of extra support out of sheer respect for the man's brilliance?

After a slower outside the off-stump that was left alone, Sreesanth took guard to face the last ball of the over. One more delivery negotiated calmly would give the Great Wall of India another chance to farm the strike, to reach his thoroughly-deserved 150, to make it somewhat more difficult for England to force the issue.

The ball was a half volley outside the off-stump, and Sreesanth flashed at it in an extravagant cover-drive. It was as if the spirit of Victor Trumper, Archie McLaren or the great Sir Don Bradman himself had entered his bat and was playing havoc with his senses. A ball which could be well left alone with a half-concealed yawn was now driven in the air and ended up in the safe clasp of Eoin Morgan in the short cover. With nine wickets down and a man who had painstakingly carried his bat at the other end, Sreesanth had resorted to playing the nonchalant hero with flagrant disregard for his own lack of ability. A typical No 11 dismissal – bowled, leg before or caught fending to the gully would have, perhaps, been excusable. But he had tried to play like the star batsman in mid-season form who had just walked in at No 3 with the scoreboard reading 327 for one.

And at the other end there was Dravid again, exemplifying all that is embodied in the spirit of cricket. His eyes followed the ball as it left the hand of the bowler, followed it as it was driven with the casual exuberance by the team's number eleven, watched it disappearing into Morgan's grasp ... and he turned without expression. There was no outward sign of disappointment, no exasperation at being let down by monumental ineptitude, no tell-tale body language showing the disgust that his admirers felt burning the chambers of their hearts. He turned and walked back purposefully to the pavilion, knowing fully well that he would have to come out within ten minutes and take guard as opener in the second innings – even after a six hours and eighteen minute marathon at the age of 38, outlasting all his batting partners put together.

A study in contrast, between the attitude of two eras and schools of thought. Between commitment and callousness.

And where does this colossal callousness find its source of sustenance? How is it that the very same players putting up this spineless show of casual surrender can walk away with gilt-edged deals by swinging crude bats and bowling four hasty overs in T20 cricket?

The answer was demonstrated for all if one cared to wait a while in the afternoon and watch the Indian cricketers board the team bus.

Outside The Oval, there were the familiar concentric circles of fanatic Indian followers of the game, craning their necks to catch a glimpse of their heroes. As Duncan Fletcher emerged, he was booed all the way to the bus. And then, in a sight that defied belief, the fans descended in hordes to get the autograph of that selfsame Sreesanth.

On returning home the same day, one could witness a thousand or so ‘likes’ on the Facebook update that Yusuf Pathan was in the USA inaugurating an indoor cricket facility.

Indian fan following of the game of cricket leaves the realms of Page 3 in distant shadows when measured in terms of sound, fury and star-gazing.

No wonder that for many a handful of wins within the comforting confines of home in calendar cramming One-Day Internationals has already erased the debacle in England completely – with the Champions League in between having provided the much-required temporary anaesthetic that carries memory loss as its side effects.

In times when the focus is on the instantaneous, attributes such as long innings, extended spells, winning sprees or even lasting careers are too painstaking to contemplate for players and fans alike. It is the moment capturing the snapshot of glamour that matters, to lose senses in the intoxication of blaring music, raucous cheering, gyrating cheerleaders and the associated glitz and flash of all that surround the immediacy of the game.

It is scant wonder then that perseverance and poise are fast disappearing virtues and the buccaneering attitude of Sreesanth, RP Singh and their likes is more and more on the rise.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Why do people criticise Sachin? - A Cognitive Psychologist explains

(This post has been serialised in the author's Cricket Country column)

A quest : I had memories, statistics and inferences, but not the answer to a burning question. And that made me travel to Amsterdam.

I have memories.

My wife sometimes refers to my ability of recall  as ridiculously eidetic. While it has never enabled me to remember proofs of theorems or the final date of income tax filing, when the action shifts to the flannels on  green it is indeed striking.

I remember a young lad of 16, blood streaming from the nose, sprinkling the pristine white batting pads with  rivulets of red, and yet refusing to retire hurt – facing up to Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Zakir Khan and Waqar Younis in his fourth test match. Coming in at 38 for four, he saves the match with a three  hour vigil at the wicket scoring 57.

I remember a 17 year old, patient yet scintillating, coming in at 110 for four, save India once again with defeat staring in the face, working  his way to the first of 99 international centuries at Old Trafford.

I remember him as an 18 year old, taking on the fiery Australian pace attack on a lighting quick Perth pitch, scoring what remains one of the most talked about hundreds Down Under even as bigger and older names fall like nine-pins all around him.

I remember him waging lone battles in lost causes. Each time coming in at next to nothing for two. The 122 in Birmingham 1996 as I sat in the ISI hostel TV Lounge in Delhi. The 136 which brought India from 6 for 2 to the doorstep of victory against a rampaging Akram, Waqar and Saqlain in the fourth innings at Chennai. The 169 in Johannesburg against Donald, Pollock, Klusener and MacMillan after taking guard at 25 for 3. The 116 at  Melbourne against McGrath , Gillespie and Brett Lee while the rest of a vaunted line up collapsed like a pack of cards.

I remember him turning things around with a magical second innings 155 that gave Shane Warne nightmares and won the test and virtually the series for India in a fascinating counter attack under pressure. The two hundreds in Sharjah that had Tony Greig exclaim “Sachin Tendulkar wants to win the match.”  The one man assault he carried out with the bat and sometimes the ball against the Aussies all through the late nineties.
In the new century, in spite of a better Indian batting order around him, lone hands were often required. Rescuing the team from 45 for 4 at the Bloemfontein with a murderous 155. Batting out time to save the match from 11 for 2 in the second innings at Calcutta, toting up 176 against the West Indies.

For twenty years and more he has come in to bat with enormous expectations, seldom has there been a respectable score on the board and even now battling the odds after quick loss of wickets.

Through the amazing last few years, he has won an emotional Test Match against England with a fourth innings hundred chasing down a steep total on a turner. He has walked in to bat at 38 for 2 chasing 478 against Australia and has won the match with 214 and 53 not out. He has battled the pace of Dale Steyn to score two hundreds down in South Africa at the age of 37, each time coming into a boiling cauldron of heat and pressure.

I remember him winning the VB Series finals with  two flawless demonstrations of batting, taking India to the final in the 2003 world cup with a calculated assault on Shoaib Akhtar that left all speechless except the bowler who now answers with a pen. And he achieved his goal of a World Cup win, topping the batting averages yet again, changing the match in the semi final, with a chancy yet colossally important 86.

I have statistics.

99 centuries, 30000 runs – several days of light between him and his contemporaries. In test matc wins, more than 5400 runs with 20 centuries.

India has won 61 tests when he has played – they had won all 43 matches in the 57 years before he made his debut. In  ODI finals he averages 54. In won finals he averages 96. Chasing in finals, what people would consider high pressure, he averages 54 with a strike rate of 92.

If we count only test innings where he came into bat in high pressure situations, he has 18 centuries and 26 fifties.

I have inferences.

Mann Whitney tests show him ahead of all the others in Test Cricket. In matches won by India he is significantly ahead of others.

A categorical analysis show him to be the pivotal factor in Indian victories beyond any doubt.

However, I still had questions.

I can see the data and statistics, I can remember the results, I can vouch people justifiably calling Sachin Tendulkar the 27 for 2 expert of India.

 I have followed his cricket in ways more than that of a cricket enthusiast. I have swayed with him each time a fast thunderbolt of fury have passed him on foreign pitches, I have winced every time his elbow or back has given up on him. I have felt the pressure he has had to deal with each time he has paused and turned to look at the sun before making his way to the pitch, the score perpetually not much for 2.

The questions: Yet, why did people still voice their conviction that Sachin was not a match winner? That he crumbled under pressure? Even supposedly intelligent people with statistical education.

Why did people believe Lara has often won matches with second innings centuries and Sachin always failed in such situations when Sachin, according to data, outscores Lara and has 3 centuries in second essays of won matches to Lara’s 1.

What makes numerous people wallow in make-believe quagmire of their own where a man worshipped by cricket fans all over the world is brought down in his own land?

I was seeking answers even more as a result of my recent visit to England. The old country was full of admirers who considered Sachin the absolute master. Why is it then that India abounds with people who turn their collective backs to data, statistics, logic and facts while embarking on single minded bashing of the greatest modern cricketer?

There were questions I posedas I met Dr. Suprakash Roy, cognitive psychologist and researcher in Leiden Medisch Centrum.

Both of us loved the night life of Amsterdam, the mellow yellow light of the warm bars, the endless excitement of the city, the cohabitation of physical and chemical sin with the quiet erudite introspection of the Dutchmen. However, for this meeting, Dr. Roy suggested Amstelveen, inside the green expanse of Amsterdamse Bos, in front of the VRA Ground which had hosted a handful of World Cup cricket matches in 1999.

As we began our discussion, the embarrassingly academic looking Dr. Roy wiped his glasses and looked at me with an accusing eye.

“I am disappointed in you, Senantix.”

As co-writers for Scroll, we have been meeting each other off and on during the last year, but I could not remember what I had done to cause his dismay.

Cognitive Illusions “I understand that before a cricket writer, you are a cricket lover – I can excuse you for that. What I cannot excuse is that you continue to expect too much from your fellow men even when you have a statistical education. To cap it all, you are a novelist. You of all people should know how the human mind works.”

I politely reminded him that it was his job to know how the human mind worked.

“Ah ... it is my job, true, but in this case, what I am going to explain could have come from you as well. Tell me Senantix, you really expect people to be data aware? To understand probability?”

I said that there are criticisms that are baseless. Sachin, at one point of his career, was criticised heavily for supposed failures in second innings. He went on to save a Test Match with a second innings of 176 at the Eden, he won with a 103 in Chennai chasing down a steep target in the fourth innings ... on numerous other occasions he performed as the best batsman in the world should, statistics pointed to that and yet ...

Dr. Roy smiled and looked at me.

“You want people to have your memory for cricket matches? You remember the occasion when we were watching the highlights of the 1986 Lord’s Test in which Vengsarkar scored his 3rd hundred and you went on blurting out the exact words of the commentator ..”
“I saw the same highlights capsule in 1986 and I remembered ...”

“Twenty five years later? Do you think it’s natural? You expect the others to remember every cricketing and statistical detail?” he laughed. “You see, Senantix, when people criticise, they seldom do it with data to back them up. It is not that they are malicious or have a hidden agenda – in some cases they do, but often they don’t. It is just the way human mind is fashioned.”

I frowned back at Dr. Roy’s smile. He just kept smiling.

“I see that you take slights to Sachin’s name personally.”

“You bet I do. I would do the same if people peed on the Taj Mahal.”

“Ah, but this is different. They know not that they pee. Let us look at the problem at hand. The assertion is 
that Sachin fails if there is pressure. This induces a conjunction based judgement. Sachin’s failure will have to be considered in conjunction with India’s crisis situation. Human beings in general suck at such assessments.”

“You are kidding, right?”

Dr. Roy turned serious. “I am talking of Cognitive Bias, Senantix. I cannot be more serious. It is part of my research. In 1974, a pair of scientists, Daniel Kanheman and Amos Tversky proved the assertion through a series of experiments. You know, I wish we could talk in hyperlinks. That’s what the internet makes of us. Wish you could click a link and see what I mean.

“However, the most common demonstration of this is the Linda paradox, followed by the Taxicab problem. Look them up sometime. But I will give you a more sporting example. Lean back and think of 1980. Wimbledon. What do you remember?”

“Borg and McEnroe.”

“Excellent. And you remember that before 1980, Bjorn Borg had already won the Wimbledon 4 times in succession. So, he was a favourite. A group of people were asked three questions. One- what is the probability that Borg would end up winning? Two – what is the probability that Borg would lose the first set? Three – what is the probability that Borg would lose the first set and still win?”


“The people in general concluded a high probability for Borg’s win, a low one for his losing the first set. But the funny part was that almost all put the probability of Borg winning after losing the first set in the middle.”

“Ah ... hang on ...”

“Right. If a trained mathematician thinks about it, he sees the fallacy. The third is an ‘and’ condition on events one and two, and so it should have a lower probability than both event one and event two. But, not many normal human beings think that way. People recalled all the recent Wimbledon wins and mentally computed a high probability of his winning. Winning in spite of losing the first set was also a relatively high probability outcome, but Borg the champion losing the first set? That is very improbable. This is known as conjunction fallacy. This experiment was conducted by Kahnheman and Tversky and documented in 1983. In fact, according to studies, the proportion of people liable to make this sort of fallacy error is as high as 90%.

“So, if you now conduct an experiment with a sample of Indian cricket fans before an innings and ask them the respective probabilities of Sachin failing, India facing crisis in an innings and Sachin failing with India facing a crisis, I can tell you what the results will be. Sachin, being the number one batsman of the world, will end up with a low estimated probability of failure. India, with the current anchoring heuristic of the English tour, will be given a high probability of facing crisis. But, Sachin failing and Indian crisis will have a high probability – defeating the probability rules altogether.”

He paused as I tried to reflect on this.

“But why is this firm-wired into the thought process that Sachin fails in a crisis situation, whereas throughout his career he has been playing in crisis situations? He has 18 centuries and 26 fifties coming in when the scores were little more than nothing for two or more. None of the demi-gods of Indian cricket, barring the two other greats Dravid and Gavaskar, even have 18 centuries.  “

The doctor smiled patiently.

“I was coming to that. Tversky and Kahneman tried to explain it by the representative heuristic. And they did a fairly good job. They normally did good jobs, especially if you consider that Kahneman got a Nobel Prize in 2003.

Inversion Fallacy “The fact is that human beings are not Bayesian. I am not talking about a walking talking encyclopaedia of cricket such as you. Ordinary fans do not remember scores with that degree of accuracy. And when it comes to computing a probability of failure of Sachin given crisis, they mess it up. The expansion of the Bayesian is pretty complicated to the human mind.”

He wrote it down : P(Sachin fails| crisis) = [P(crisis|Sachin fails) x P(Sachin fails)]/[P(crisis|Sachin fails)xP(Sachin fails)+P(crisis|Sachin does not fail)xP(Sachin does not fail)]

“Most men lose it when it comes to prior probabilities. In fact, in 1993, Dawes, Mirels, Gold and Donahue explicitly tested and confirmed that P(A|B) is most often approximated by the common human mind by P(B |A)”


“Right,” the doctor smiled. “I will explain with this specific example. This is called Inverse Fallacy. Suppose a normal fan is asked to estimate the probability of Sachin failing in a crisis situation. Will he go by data? No, he will go by recall and representativeness. He will try to remember all the occasions of crisis.

“Now, when Sachin plays well, most often the crisis is averted very quickly. After an hour of Tendulkar at the wicket, there is no longer a crisis that seemed to threaten India. Now, with his modified style, maybe it takes a while longer. Most of the 18 centuries and 26 fifties that you speak of belong to this category.  People without the sufficient degree of interest and attention to detail will seldom remember when Sachin came in, and will not jot it down mentally as a crisis. The 214 he scored coming in at 38 for 2, chasing 478. If I have done my homework correctly, India ended up scoring 495. That will not register as a crisis situation.

“However, when Sachin fails, very frequently Indians do enter a crisis period. Very natural, given he has been the mainstay of Indian batting for 22 years. And these register as a conjunction of Sachin failing and crisis. Hence, you see what happens to the estimated probability? Probability Sachin fails given crisis is replaced with probability of crisis given Sachin fails. It is the representative heuristic. Normal fallacy of the human mind.”

He wrote P(Sachin fails |crisis) ≈ P(Crisis|Sachin fails). Cognitive illusion.

I was digesting this eagerly. At long last there was a scientific basis for all the hideous mutilation of facts I had been experiencing for a decade and a half. Amazingly it made sense.

“So, you mean to say there is no hidden agenda. This is a human failing?”

Other Biases The cognitive psychologist looked skywards and thought for a while before replying.
“I would not say that. This is the primary reason, but there are other external influences as well.

“First of all, we will deal with the Indian press. Especially, the vernacular one. Is there a limit to which they can stoop to bring an icon like Tendulkar down? They repeat every failure over and over again, in numerous sensation pandering television channels with the same intention of providing crude media masala. Repetition does lead to more and more acceptance of fables as facts. It is called, with minor variations, misinformation effect, mere exposure effect and validity effect. One can see the study of such effects in the works of Arkes, Hackett and Boehm in 1989, Schwartz in 1982 .

“Validity effect occurs when mere repetition of information affects the perceived truthfulness of the information. It takes on the form of recognition memory and is probably an automated process.  Hence, people are very difficult to convince even when they face data, since they believe that they remember. However, memory is nothing but a largely reconstructed structure based on current knowledge, beliefs and goals. The effect occurs for true and false facts equally. Advertising and propaganda are excellent examples. And what was done in the press from 1997 or thereabouts to tamper with Sachin’s image is nothing short of propaganda. Natural in a country where zonal bias tries creating own regional gods by pulling down legitimate greats. Also speaks volumes for a culture where Match ka Mujrim is so popular. You do recall that in the late 90s, a battalion of regional dailies went all out to tarnish Sachin’s reputation to place local gods on a pedestal.”
The caption with this picture in a Bengali daily
2nd Feb 2006, was -
"will Sachin stay on after such a dismissal?"
After that Sachin has scored
 another 4500 runs with 16 centuries in 52 tests at 56.53,
21 of them Indian victories (8 centuries) and 14 losses

Oval : Senantix (seen in reflection) taking the
 photograph of a journalist who penned
many such articles on Sachin ...
as also a glorifying biography

“I do indeed. I recall a line, even while keeping the little master of Bandra in mind we have to say that the number one batsman in current world cricket is ... And in 2005, when one demigod was sure of the axe, they reported that how could Sachin stay in the team even after his embarrassing dismissal? You know, I met one of these gentlemen who wrote such nonsense. At the Oval.”

“Did you throw him from the stands?”

“No I took a picture of him, actually. Unlike his writings, he looks a decent fellow.”

“ Anyway, to get back to what I was saying, if the same failure in the face of crisis is discussed over and over again by the media, picked up by the discussion forums of thousands of websites, recall becomes so much biased. That is the availability heuristic. Apart from creating the representation fallacy of identifying only Sachin’s failures as crisis as I explained some moments back, one also recalls the same press articles over and over again and these are more prone to immediate recall than the other fabulous innings played in similar situations.

 “I will give you an example of how immediate recall messes up actual statistics. In a well known experiment, participants were asked to deduce which is more – the number of words beginning with a letter, say ‘k’, or the number of words that have ‘k’ as the third letter. For k and also other letters, almost unanimously – or an overwhelmingly statistically significant part of the participants – concluded that the number of words beginning with the letter was more. However, the actual truth is the opposite. If you think about it, it is much easier to recall words beginning with k than words that have k in the third place. This is the availability heuristic, so prominent in the case of Sachin. It reinforces the representativeness bias.

“If you are wondering how Brian Lara gets the mantle of a great crisis player who wins matches in the fourth innings on the basis of one 153 he made against Australia, the answer is the same. Repetition induced availability. That particular innings has been talked about so often, it is an immediate recall. How many Indian fans have followed the career of Lara as you have done?

“And then there are the little things of belief and confirmation bias. This is a tendency to endorse arguments whose conclusions you believe, regardless of whether they are valid or not. Evans, Barston and Pollard published a well known study in 1983. The confirmation bias – people searching their memory to conclude a hypothesis they want to prove.”

I laughed now.

“All these studies will come to nothing. Belief heuristics are so strong, they will not even listen to argument, however scientific. Nothing will get through.”

“Right. Most often these people will casually ignore the statistical arguments, data or numbers. They will bank on words and tangential arguments.”

I jumped up, excited.
“Exactly. Tangential arguments, little or very erroneous statistics. Even from statistics  post-graduates from reputed institutions.”

The doctor laughed. “Believe me, even experienced clinical physicians fall for heuristics and fallacies when making diagnosis. Causal criticism is so much easier, and all the hard work on statistics and truth can be bypassed by spurious remarks.”

“Yes, they draw weird parallels, with politicians, with poverty line.... anything but actual data based arguments. And sometimes smoothly evade statistical work saying suavely, I leave it as an exercise...”

“Ah ... statistical hard work is beyond one’s ability disguised as beneath one’s dignity. But, don’t be surprised at supposed intelligent people falling for cognitive illusions. And don’t succumb to the illusion yourself that all the graduates of a particular university are smart. Without pen, paper, calculators, excel sheets, cognitive bias is very difficult to overcome. Only one percent will make the effort. So, don’t beat your head against the wall.”

I grunted.
“But, when asked for statistical arguments, they take the discussion elsewhere – attacking Sachin because he chickened out of captaincy, bringing metaphysical arguments about it not being correct to call him god, googling Cardus comments about statistics to come across as erudite ...”

The Argumentative Narcissist “Stay right there, Senantix. Let me put my finger on what is going on here. I am sensing this took place as a series of exchanges on the web. If I know you correctly, you are not very averse from using your skill with words to paint your adversaries in poor light in an open forum. First of all the barrage of numbers are too much for lazy critics. Secondly, I am sure you have used ill disguised intolerance, contempt and generally degraded them in your posts. Well, human beings, especially narcissistic ones, are not very welcoming to that sort of treatment. So, when everything else fails, blatant criticism is bound to take place where truth and facts go out of the window. As the author of The Best Seller you are the last person who should be a stranger to this phenomenon. You have described it so well in the book.
“If someone else – a regional icon say – had given up captaincy to concentrate on his batting, the consensus would have been that the great man was giving up personal glory because India needed him as a batsman. In Sachin’s case, he chickens out. If Lara scores 600 runs in three tests all of which West Indies lose to Sri Lanka, he is a great batsman making runs against odds, as he indeed was. But when Sachin does that, the consensus is that if he scores India loses. Who can argue with irrationality?”

“Well, laughable as it sounds, one such guy also said that India wins in spite of Sachin.”

“Look,  Senantix, if suspect pens are used to wage a war of words, one can expect some inane graffiti to hide the writing on the wall. However, if one capable of such a rampantly ridiculous statement, does he merit a discussion?

Revel in Sachin “There are a lot of people who say Tagore could not write, Ray could not make films. Why care about such tweets?

“Want to gauge how great Sachin is?
“Look at the records and find out which other Indian has played a pivotal role in 61 victories.
“Look at the team mates and the way they look up to him.
“Look at the opponents and their reaction once he is out – and even more once his catch goes down.
“Look at the real connoisseurs of the game.
“I have a patient who used to play first class cricket in the 80s. He works for a Professional Management group. On some evenings, a lot of ex cricketers get together over a few drinks and lambast everyone in the Indian cricket team. There is one exception. No one speaks against Sachin Tendulkar.   
“Look at Don Bradman and whom he invited for his birthday.
“And enjoy his mastery for the few more days that he continues to play.
“Forget idiots and egocentrics. Let them fight on against the mountains of runs, the century of centuries and the barrage of wins.”

He matters to the ones who matter
Never compare genius ... Neville Cardus

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Wodehouse and Conan Doyle drive through the covers

(This article also appeared in the PG Wodehouse special issue of Scroll)

P.G. Wodehouse and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did not only share shelf spaces in bookshops, warm cockles of the hearts of the readers and the premises, cover and print spaces of the Strand Magazine - they shared the dressing room at Lords as well.

by Senantix

P.G. Wodehouse and Arthur Conan Doyle did not only share the premises and cover space of the Strand Magazine, but shared the dressing room at Lords as well.

It is not very well known, but both of these supreme scribblers who have delighted readers for more than one hundred years were also very keen cricketers.

In fact, Sir Arthur was a first class cricketer of some ability. Wisden says in his obituary that “while never a famous cricketer, he could hit hard and bowl slows with puzzling flight. For MCC v Cambridgeshire at Lord's, in 1899, he took seven wickets for 61 runs, and on the same ground two years later carried out his bat for 32 against Leicestershire, who had Woodcock, Geeson and King to bowl for them.”

It is of curious interest that his only wicket in first class cricket was of a batsman by the name of W.G. Grace. The creator of Sherlock Holmes got the great man caught by the wicket keeper.

P.G. Wodehouse, although never a first class cricketer, did play with some distinction for Dulwich College. In the first eleven in 1899 and 1900, he once took 7 for 50 against Tonbridge as a fast bowler. His eyesight, though, stood in the way of pursuing greater feats with bat and ball, and hence the typewriter perhaps took over. However, some years later, he took up a position in the Emsworth House School in the Hampshire town of Emsworth, and his main responsibility was to help the boys with cricket. He often turned out for the Emsworth sides, and it is of scarce wonder that one of the most lovable earls of his canon is named after the town.

Wodehouse and Conan Doyle also played cricket for the curiously named Allahakbarries, a team founded by J.M.Barrie, named after the African word meaning ‘Heaven Help Us’ consisting of literary men who played against the various villages in the Home Counties.

PGW later gravitated to golf, his other great passion and the theme for many a book. However, he does recall that the days before all the controversy of broadcasts and internment camp life during second world war he was having a good time playing cricket after many years, confounding batsmen with excellently pitched leg breaks.
The two men were the mainstay of not only the Strand Magazine, but also the cricket teams fielded by the Authors to take on the might of Publishers and Actors. At Lords in 1902, Conan Doyle captained the Authors side against the Publishers, and a twenty one year old P.G. Wodehouse was one of the better players of the wordsmiths.

It is no surprise then, that some of the works of both these men feature the pure English game, and sometimes cricket becomes the main theme in the stories.
Sir Arthur’s collected poems are not as well known as his Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Challenger or Brigadier Gerard stories. However, one of his poems contains a wonderful account of how he got WG caught off his bowling when the ‘wicketkeep’ Storer made sure of a terrific skier from a ball that the Doctor had diagnosed incorrectly. The poem is reproduced in at the end of this article.

Late in his life, Conan Doyle wrote the story of Spedegue’s dropper, published as one of the ‘other stories’ with Maracot Deep. Sepdegue, the hero of the tale, develops an underhand delivery, a lob flung high enough in the air to come down at the pace of a fast bowler. It was like fast bowling delivered from above, attacking the batsman vertically. When he achieved accuracy, Spedegue won a famous Test Match for England against Australia.

Sir Arthur’s other reference to cricket was in one of his Brigadier Gerard stories, where he describes a French officer’s rather calamitous efforts at the game as a prisoner of war.
However, Conan Doyle did have a rather peculiar peeve about left-handers, contending that left-hand batting should not be permitted since it held up the game.

P.G. Wodehouse,during  the beginning of his career when he wrote school stories, did write a full cricket novel, Mike. Mike Jackson, the hero and a friend of his latter day adult protagonist Psmith, hailed from a family of first class cricketers, three cricketing brothers. In the novel, he plays for his school eleven and ultimately scores a century in a first class match.

In Psmith in the City, cricket again features prominently, and Mike’s batsmanship is reinforced by Psmith himself who turns out to be a canny left arm spinner and a tail end batsman who hits the ball with something approaching the tee shots of golf.

In the rather rare editions of P.G. Wodehouse’s poetry one finds his fascination with the game becoming more manifest.
In a small poem titled MCC, he writes:
In speaking of our cricketers,
                This maxim guideth me,
If they win a match the’re England,
                If they lose they’re MCC.

There are some delightful humorous poems about cricket – The Outcast – A Tale of a Ladies’ Cricket Match, Missed, The Umpire...
However, it is in one quaint little poem entitled The Cricketer in Winter that his affection and romanticism for the game is most apparent.
Things of the past are drive and cut,
With which erstwhile we would astound men;
The gay pavilion’s doors are shut;
The turf is given up to groundsmen;
Gone is the beautiful length ball,

Young Wodehouse as a cricketer

Gone too the batsman who would snick it
Silent his partner’s cheery call.
Football usurps the place of cricket.        
Or, if in vein for gentle toil,
Before he seeks a well earned pillow,
He takes a flask of linseed oil
And tends his much-enduring willow,
Feeling the while, what time he drops
The luscious fluid by degrees on,
Given half-volleys and long-hops,
How nobly it will drive next season.

In the Trent Bridge Pavilion hangs the framed picture showing
Sherwin ad Shacklock at the two ends of the middle row

It is another remarkable similarity between the two masters that the most celebrated characters created by both had cricketing origins. Sherlock Holmes is supposedly named after two Nottinghamshire cricketers, Sherwin and Shacklock. When Shacklock played for Derbyshire, his fellow fast bowler was William Mycroft, after whom Conan Doyle named the brother of Holmes.

 Jeeves originated after the name of Warwickshire county cricketer Percy Jeeves, a fast medium bowler killed in action during the First World War. Wodehouse was enjoying a short holiday in Wensleydale, and happened to come across a cricket match at Hawes where Percy Jeeves was playing and thought the name would be ideal for one of his characters

Although we have limited our discussion to two giants who strode the Strand, there have been plenty of other hallowed literary names who have once in a while or often come down and graced the great game with their powerful pens. The names include Lord Byron, Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hughes, Rupert Brooke, Robert Graves, Ben Travers, J.M.Barrie, A.A, Milne, Ernest William Hornung (Raffles was a cricketer of repute) and Samuel Beckett (another first class cricketer). E.V. Lucas, Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter.

However, one exception was Geroge Bernard Shaw who was caught napping to an innocent half volley.
Asked by a reporter in 1908, “Who do you think will win the test?” his reply was, “What are they testing?”

A Reminiscence of Cricket – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
(an account in verse of how the great writer got the wicket of the great cricketer in a battle of part time doctors)
Once in my heyday of cricket,
 One day I shall ever recall!
 I captured that glorious wicket,
 The greatest, the grandest of all.

 Before me he stands like a vision,
 Bearded and burly and brown,
 A smile of good humoured derision
 As he waits for the first to come down.

 A statue from Thebes or from Knossos,
 A Hercules shrouded in white,
 Assyrian bull-like colossus,
 He stands in his might.

 With the beard of a Goth or a Vandal,
 His bat hanging ready and free,
 His great hairy hands on the handle,
 And his menacing eyes upon me.

 And I - I had tricks for the rabbits,
 The feeble of mind or eye,
 I could see all the duffer's bad habits
 And where his ruin might lie.

 The capture of such might elate one,
 But it seemed like one horrible jest
 That I should serve tosh to the great one,
 Who had broken the hearts of the best.

 Well, here goes! Good Lord, what a rotter!
 Such a sitter as never was dreamt;
 It was clay in the hands of the potter,
 But he tapped it with quiet contempt.

 The second was better - a leetle;
 It was low, but was nearly long-hop;
 As the housemaid comes down on the beetle
 So down came the bat with a chop.

 He was sizing me up with some wonder,
 My broken-kneed action and ways;
 I could see the grim menace from under
 The striped peak that shaded his gaze.

 The third was a gift or it looked it-
 A foot off the wicket or so;
 His huge figure swooped as he hooked it,
 His great body swung to the blow.

 Still when my dreams are night-marish,
 I picture that terrible smite,
 It was meant for a neighboring parish,
 Or any place out of sight.

 But - yes, there's a but to the story -
 The blade swished a trifle too low;
 Oh wonder, and vision of glory!
 It was up like a shaft from a bow.

 Up, up like a towering game bird,
 Up, up to a speck in the blue,
 And then coming down like the same bird,
 Dead straight on the line that it flew.

 Good Lord, it was mine! Such a soarer
 Would call for a safe pair of hands;
 None safer than Derbyshire Storer,
 And there, face uplifted, he stands

 Wicket keep Storer, the knowing,
 Wary and steady of nerve,
 Watching it falling and growing
 Marking the pace and curve.

 I stood with my two eyes fixed on it,
 Paralysed, helpless, inert;
 There was 'plunk' as the gloves shut upon it,
 And he cuddled it up to his shirt.

 Out - beyond question or wrangle!
 Homeward he lurched to his lunch!
 His bat was tucked up at an angle,
 His great shoulders curved to a hunch.

 Walking he rumbled and grumbled,
 Scolding himself and not me;
 One glove was off, and he fumbled,
 Twisting the other hand free

 Did I give Storer the credit
 The thanks he so splendidly earned?
 It was mere empty talk if I said it,
For Grace had already returned.
-- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle