What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?

What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?

This is the Immortal quote from arguably the greatest book written on any sport, in this case, cricket from “Beyond the Boundary” by CLR James. This was obviously inspired by Kipling’s poem, “The English Flag “where he asks “And what should they know of England who only England know?” to celebrate the British Empire’s global reach. James says what he said to convey that it’s always in one’s interest to evolve and never stagnate.  I was thinking about this after today morning’s seemingly bitter argument between two friends in one of these ubiquitous cricket themed WhatsApp groups about the primacy of IPL versus Test cricket with the conversation getting increasingly heated and personal. I am assuming thousands if not more such groups will be having similar debates and wanted to think this aloud – I don’t expect any brilliant new insight to emerge but sometimes writing this out may clarify our collective thoughts, or that’s the aim!

At the outset, comparing the two formats is blasphemy, one is a 150-year-old sporting institution with a rich history and legacy and IPL is a15 odd year young upstart that shocks the purists. A lot argue that these two are in fact two entirely different games. I wouldn’t go as far as that but let us see where they get together and where they differ.

Tests with their ebbs and flows almost mirror life, you lose the toss and have a disastrous first session, why the whole first and second day as well or like the first test in the England series that concluded recently, be behind the match so much but still Pope scores an all-time great or freak innings and England win. That causes all of us tragics to rant and rave but suddenly India turns up and beat them 4-1. Or the last Australia series where after the 36 all out ignominy of Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Gabba became classics for the ages!  Similarly, all the Ashes rivalries, Bodyline Series, India Pakistan test matches and so on, each cricket lover will have 20 test matches close to their heart for a variety of reasons.

IPL in contrast is an Indian Bollywood like affair with auctions, mix and match of foreign and Indian players, owned by celebrities – Movie stars and businessmen and rules like Calvinball , sort of made up as we go along the tournament over the years . The impact player in the last 2 versions is an example – last year it was a novelty. This year the think tanks of the teams have got a plan to exploit it and we have seen an immediate impact already – scores of 270 plus are common and we may see a 300 soon. The theory is having an additional hitter mentally frees up the other batsmen to bat more freely than they may otherwise. Is this tinkering with the basic structure of a playing eleven – sure it is! However, the crowds love it and so we enjoy the hitting and feel mildly sorry for the bowlers. The cult following of certain teams ( CSK – my team!)  is something else. Anyone who has been in the ground at Chepauk especially if not any ground when MSD Dhoni enters to bat this year will have an experience of a lifetime!

Has the IPL rubbed off positively on the traditional form of cricket – Tests? Let us examine the evidence.  The scoring rates of tests this millennium is way higher than it was ever before. The number of draws is also very few and far in between and mostly we see a draw only in case of a weather exception. (The Sydney- one arm and one leg Horatio Nelson like stand of Ashwin and Vihari being a glorious exception!). It has also enabled batsmen to be way more adventurous in tests – Rishab Pant reverse scooping Jimmy Anderson in a test and Bumrah using slower balls to get Bairstow out in tests in England come to my mind. There are numerous such examples where the innovation, cheekiness and variations of the IPL are brought on to the test matches making them exciting. New talent from the hinterland is unearthed, the kids make their name and fame in IPL and do well for their countries in tests as well. Jurel being the latest case in point. Fear of losing and playing under huge pressure with a lot of crowds is something young Indian players learn very young to adapt and that stands them in good stead in tests too. range and power hitting as seen by the Indian youngsters as well as foreign players and the 150 km and more speeds cranked up by young bowlers is a treat to watch !

Is it all roses then and IPL has no faults?  The age-old virtue of grinding out a session appears to be a bit lost but there are still players like Pujara who do it to great success  ( He does not play much of IPL or no one selects him much !) . Much was made of the Bazball hype by England but when all all-time great test batsman like Joe Root reverse scoops Bumrah to the slips when the series was in balance , the idea lost its hype I would imagine even though the English and their cloying press still cling on to it. The Ashes later this year should settle that argument once and for all!

From Indian cricket point of view, there has been interesting ramifications. In Tests since the inception of IPL, the Indian test team for most parts has done exceptionally well, have been the no 1 test team for long periods of time, have won two away series in Australia and only South Africa has been the last bastion yet to be conquered. However, we have lost both the WTC finals, on the face of it that cannot have anything to do with IPL. More worryingly after 2008 we have not won any ICC white ball trophy, the cruelest cut being the final we lost to Australia last year at Ahmedabad. I do not fancy much our chances in the T20 WC as well later this year in the Americas. Can this too be correlated to IPL – let us see what is the evidence again if any.

One worrying trend is players prioritizing IPL over national duty – classic case seems to be Hardik Pandya, I do not remember him missing any IPL but in national colors, he seems to twist an ankle or pull a muscle even while sneezing. While the Aussies seem to have a party at the IPL almost appear to take it as a lark , earning big money in millions while in national colors, they seem to give their blood and more to win. Maxwell being the case study for this, RCB his team is the butt of a million memes and he does precious little for them on most occasions while for Australia he plays impossible knocks to win them tourneys!  I cannot think of any Indian player like that while like Pandya we may have several examples. Similarly the IPL spin offs owned by the same franchises have undermined test cricket in other countries as well. South Africa sent a third XI to New Zealand to play a test series as their main players were busy with their version of the T20 league. This can be explained away as a scheduling issue, though players can only play for so many days in a year and need to rest and recuperate. The balance between the pride from national Duty to the commercial windfall from T20 leagues is a tricky one. BCCI to its credit has tried to address this by specially incentivizing players for test wins, though the other boards may not have the financial muscle to do that.

IPL has done a lot to popularize cricket with women and children, it has brought a new demographic who hitherto were cold to cricket and made them follow the game and its nuances. Sure, it can be described as a pure tamasha but the basic skills of the game are on display and the next generation is getting hooked on to the game. Given cricket was always a game played by a handful of countries this is important for the game to survive for the next 50 years and more. There was a recent survey in India amongst kids younger than 10 years and for the first time ever football was rated as the game that they followed or played most! That means IPL is necessary for even tests to survive in a manner of speaking.

In summary IPL has its utility, it is more entertainment than pure sport but some elements of the sports are sharpened due to it and the benefits spill over to make the oldest format of the game, test cricket,  more interesting. The caution is young players prioritizing one for the other, it is perfectly fine that a young player prefers IPL over national test duties but the commercials and risk reward mechanism should be structured in such a way that the decision does not become a heavily skewed one to  favor League Cricket . We still will have a Bumrah , a Rishab Pant and a Travis Head making an impact in all formats of the game and entertaining us !

Re-finding lost love of Cricket

15th February 2015 brought home a realization. India’s ICC- Cricket World-cup campaign had begun with a bang with a convincing victory against the arch rivals. While the social media in India made fun of Rameez Raja and chanted “mauka mauka mauka”, I began contemplating what had changed in me since the moment MS Dhoni hit Nuwan Kulsekara for a 6 to clinch the world cup nearly 4 years ago.

My earliest memory of cricket is a world cup memory – India vs Kenya 1996. Sachin scored a century, Jadeja had added a fifty and India comfortably won the game. I was just under 6 when this game was played. I must have watched cricket before this game as I remember being a Sachin fan. I have some cricket memories before this game, but I cannot be sure whether I remember those games from following them live or just as a collection of memories fused with highlights seen in the coming 15 years as a cricket fanatic. Memory being a tricky concept isn’t just what you remember about a time in the past, but it also encompasses the broader emotional and informative thinking about that “time in the past”. So I assume that memories of me watching matches like “Hero cup final 94” are fabrications because I don’t remember my emotions during this game, unlike the WC-96 Ind-Ken game.

Being a cricket fanatic didn’t just mean being glued to television sets when the match was being broadcast. For me, it also meant learning to read Marathi well. -we didn’t subscribe to English newspapers in my childhood. It also meant the ebb and surge of emotions as a function of Indian-Cricket. The 1 or 2 months of cricket free time seemed to stretch like years. Even trailing 2–0 in a test series didn’t deter me from following through with the same vigor. Waking up at 4 am to watch India beaten in New Zealand in 2002 in 3days or remaining awake till 2 am to watch India’s famous win @ Port of Spain. The sad loss in WCFinal-2003 on my birthday didn’t dampen cricket for me though it saddened my day. The same can be said of India’s loss to Srilanka on the same day in 2007 which included Sachin being bamboozled by a 150+k MPs Dilhara Fernando ball for 0 and India crashing out of WC2007. The cycle of the game went on. The heartbreak @ Chennai against Pakistan where Indian tail fell like a pack of dominos after Sachin’s wicket was reduced greatly by the heroic 10Wicket-match-winning haul by Jumbo @ Delhi in the following match. The spell Indian cricket enjoyed from 2001–2004 under Ganguly and 2007–08–2011 under Kumble and Dhoni was the crowning achievement of Indian Cricket till then. India began winning test matches overseas. Nothing pleased me more than 5 idyllic days of watching dukes ball cricket from 330 to 1030 in the Home of cricket (The duke’s ball is used for Test cricket in England; In India, we use the S.G ball, Australian Kookaburra ball is used in all other countries. I believe that the best contest between bat and ball happens with the Duke’s ball). I still remember the India-England test series 2002 and 2007 and Ashes 2005 with utmost nostalgia.

If the 2007 world-cup disaster was the nadir of the Indian cricket fan, then things could only improve from then on and they did. India won a Test series in England under Dravid. India won the Inaugural T20WC in September in SA. That was followed by the Perth victory and winning the CB series. Sachin who had been criticized (justly) since the 2000s for failing in finals, led the team in both finals to silence his critics. Indian cricket had never reached such consistent high plateaus. If anything this was the foreshadowing of even better things to come. India beat Australia twice in India in tests and drew 3 Test series with the Proteas. (Sadly India played only 2 and 3 test series with them). Indian cricket team also began to chase 200+ run totals successfully in test matches with the most memorable chase (of 387) coming in Chennai against England with Sachin scoring a fourth inning hundred. We even wrestled the No-1 spot in both rankings. Meanwhile, the once written of Sachin was in his purplest patch since the 97–98 season. Scoring runs in Tests ODIs and IPL, he kept pleasing his gigantic fan base. Sachin and Gambhir facing the incredible spells of fast bowling of Steyn and Morkel @ Capetown with elan to set up an incredible series win (Which wasn’t to be; due to Kallis and Boucher)with the series poised @ 1–1 were extremely fulfilling. The natural course for this buildup of performance was bound toward the WorldCup dream which was realized in early April 2011.

The post WorldCup party lasted for days. But fortunately or unfortunately within days, the focus was on IPL, thanks to the advertisers and organizers who were quick to exploit the euphoria of World-cup win. Never a huge fan of the 20 over format, I had nonetheless followed previous IPLs. But if anything was overkill, it was the IPL in 2011. The somewhat scripted drama, the page 3 news, the frequent controversies, all conspired to dampen the spark caused by pure cricket. Then began the sudden fall of Indian cricket with consecutive 4–0 drubbings in the 2011–12 season.

A few days after the comfortable win against Pakistan, I sat contemplating why don’t I feel any longing, connection, or zeal toward Indian cricket (even cricket in general). The answer is multi-faced. Maybe the ambition of the Indian cricket fan was completed emphatically with Dhoni’s 6. The abysmal performance in England and Australia, (my 2 favorite cricketing locations) once a regular occurrence now felt unworthy of world champions. Having supported this very team after numerous debacles, suddenly I found the rapid fall from the cricket zenith too much. Engaging in a more active social life, I found following Test cricket which I never missed, difficult. Excess of 300+ scores in 1Day games has also made the contest between bat and ball-less appealing. Cricket (At least the one Indian cricket team played) since 2011, seemed to focus on economy rate instead of strike rate. All these reasons combined made cricket much less appealing for the most part of the previous decade.

But then things again began to change for me and Cricket over the last couple of years. I have followed the 2018 India England series, 2018 India Australia series, and 2019 Ashes and 2019-WC somewhat sincerely but never reaching the pre-2011 levels of interest. Then came the 2020-21 Border Gavaskar series.

Having taken a break from social media (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook) and reading and writing (history, politics, literature) & still following social distancing norms, I started following the cricket between India and Australia more and more as the tour went on. Surprisingly the 36 all out at Adelaide did not turn me off from the rekindling of my lost passion. I continued following the series which turned out to be as good a series as any I have followed (up there with 2001 India Aus and 2005 ashes). The finale at Brisbane was well and truly beyond the wildest dreams of any Indian fan from before 90’s and 2000’s. I will not be adding to the already exhaustive coverage of the recent series here but just note that this series was truly remarkable as test series go.

With completion of the this extraordinary series, not only is my interest back but also the adrenaline and tension. With 2 India England series and Ashes to follow, 2021 looks like a promising year.

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MS Dhoni – the Master of Methodical Madness

MS Dhoni decided to hang up his boots yesterday after a long and slow decline in his cricketing outputs. It was the COVID pandemic that ensured that we MSD fans don’t get a farewell inning from Mr Cool Captain.

MSD’s cricketing career has been defined by a streak of what I call “Methodical Madness”. He burst on to the scene with a squash buckling century against Pakistan at Vishakhapatnam. Later on, he went to make many more scores that elated the country – like the 183 against Sri-lanka. Perhaps even during these early days, his nerves of steel were often on display, especially during the Indo-Pak ODI series in 2006 , when Dhoni and Yuvraj chased 2 big scores with almost serene calmness that later became Dhoni’s signature.

India in Pakistan 2006

After Dhoni became the captain of a young Indian team for the inaugural T20 World cup, India and Pakistan, both underdogs went into the final against the run of play. The final was a close-fought contest which had truly swung into Pakistan’s favour owing to a splendid inning by Misbah-Ul-Haq. Going into the final over, Pakistan needed 13 from 6 but with the momentum truly in Pakistan’s favour. India had only 2 bowling options, the offspinner Harbhajan Singh and the slower than Shahid Afridi medium-pacer – Joginder Sharma. Harbhajan who had seen 3 sixes fly past him from the blade of Misbah, was not given the final over. Dhoni threw the ball to Joginder. After hitting a clean six, Misbah the last man standing, holed out to S.Sreesanth standing at short fine leg. Throwing the ball to the mediocre (no offence) Joginder looked a gamble, but for Dhoni, it was a calculated risk. Misbah had the bad habit of trying unorthodox shots when none were needed, and such shots are riskier to execute against the bowling of medium-pacers with the old white ball. MSD backed his brains, not his instincts in my opinion.

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