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Friday, January 18, 2008

Pathan promises in Perth


Has there been a better advertisement for Test cricket in recent times than day three in Perth? Even West Indies' most endearing win over South Africa at the end of 2007 didn't come close.

India pushed Australia into the ground today, thanks to VVS Laxman, RP Singh, and the hero of the day, Irfan Pathan. With five players over the age of 33, India will be heartened to see the performance of Pathan, with 74 runs and four wickets so far.

And he's shown how much he's learned about the new ball, nipping out Chris Rogers and Phil Jaques before stumps. He's no means the finished article but he's a step closer to stamping his place in the side. He's seen the highs and lows already in a short career, and Pathan is better for it.

Australia are battling to prevent their worst defeat since the 2005 Ashes and when India pull off this sweet win, it will be right up there with the best ever.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Test cricket is the best

The Perth Test just keeps getting more exciting. If day one was an interesting one, day two was exceptional. Fifteen wickets in a day! Ten of them Australian! Who'd a thunk it?

All this proves is that India is the only team in recent times to get under Australia's skins. India have Australia pinned down and this time they are not going to get away. It seems the incidents of the last ten days has got to them, not to India. It must've come as shock to the Australian team to see their own public and press going against them.

This is going to end a fascinating Test.

And what about Anil Kumble reaching 600 Test wickets? Has this man got his due yet? Untiring, unflappable. Hats off, AK.

Perth musings

A 50/50 day of cricket in Perth and India have three stupid shots that may have cost them the game ... Ganguly, Dravid and Laxman .... all needless and the score could have been 315 for three or four instead .. what were Laxman and Dravid thinking? Sachin wasn't out, but thats the game, and Dravid was dropped on 11 too, so ...

Pathan and Dhoni can get the total up near 400, if not a little more, and there's Kumble too.

This Shaun Tait was thoroughly disappointing. All the hype for his inclusion in Perth, and then he bowls very average. The pitch wasn't the hellish track it was tipped to be. Interesting to see how India bowl. Zaheer and Sreesanth would've been a major lift.

Yuvraj has gone and injured his troublesome left knee playing football during practice. Do you need to play football, volleyball and kabbadi to stay a fit cricketer?

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Sehwag? No dilemma

Virender Sehwag should play in Perth. There's no point picking him for the tour of Australia - after he wasn't even included in the probables - and relegating him to tourist guide duty. Sehwag was presumably included for his success in Australia and the undoubtable X factor. He's not going to offer that sitting on the bench, as a 73-ball hundred against an ACT XI in Canberra indicated.

First things first, it wasn't a good bowling attack. But time spent in the middle is a good indicator of what a batsman can bring, and judging by his strokeplay, Sehwag can currently offer more than Wasim Jaffer and Yuvraj Singh. Jaffer has failed in two Tests and though he did score 92 in the first innings of this tour match, he's under pressure from Sehwag and Dinesh Karthik, who scored 97 and added 158 for the opening stand with Sehwag. Karthik won't usurp Jaffer as opener, but Sehwag will fit in smoothly to the line-up. And Sehwag says he's hungry for Perth. Take his word for it.

Sehwag opening means Rahul Dravid can leave that position, one at which he has looked uneasy. He's even said he doesn't want to open. But India would be wary of shifting VVS Laxman back down from No. 3.

This presents another scenario. A relaid Perth track is reportedly fast as hell, so Indid are unlikely to play Harbhajan Singh. Irfan Pathan is the man to come in, and he's a solid bat. Opening with him, and Sehwag, is not an altogether unforseeable option.

Yuvraj is a far better batsman than his scores in the two Tests against Australia suggest but he's looked like an utter rookie at the crease. Especially against spin. He needs to seriously sort himself out against spin. Its all fine in a one-day match, where there are no fielders around the bat and edges can run to third man, but in a Test, with three men hovering around the bat, Yuvraj is a sitting duck. You can argue that he bat higher up the order to get more strike against the fast bowlers, but who will you replace him with? Laxman has took to the No.3 spot like its rightfully his and Dravid has an excellent record at the same position.

India have selection dilemmas ahead of the third Test, and playing safe won't do them any good. Play Sehwag, and Pathan.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Taare Zameen Par

A brief sidestep from cricket.

Watched Taare Zameen Par last week. Everyone had raved about it, which can often influence how you go into a movie. I expected a good film, and wasn't disappointed. Aamir the director trumped Aamir the actor by some distance. He's clearly been handed a fine script - credit goes to Amol Gupte here - and he handles it so magically. Its not without stereotype - the staff at the boarding school are dripping in cliches and the father breaks into hives at the drop of a hat - but Aamir's shepherding of young Darsheel Safary and the camera is superb. He shows he can narrate a story very, very well and does so without any glam, thankfully. Its a touching movie, expertly handled and I hope it does plenty to make people aware of children with dyslexia.

Safary is wonderful. TZP is about him, not Aamir, thankfully, and this kid does full justice to the role. Hindi movies have never had good child actors - the girl in Black was exceptional - but Safary has set the benchmark brilliantly. A real find.

Before the movie, I was crossing the road to the theater and two young girls, probably six and ten, stuck in the mayhem of a jam-packed Cunningham Road, asked me to help them across the street. There's no connection to the movie, but it set the tone for it.

After the movie, I went to Crossroads to a book reading by former students of the Rishi Valley School. It was a collection of poems and the students, now in their early and mid-20s, spoke so fondly of the visiting teacher who had inspired them to put pen their thoughts and think outside the box. and the evening, including a thoughful discussion afterwards, fit with my day.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

A failure to communicate

"But who is Ricky Ponting anyway?"

The question, from a very naive instructor at the gym, had me slow down the speed on the treadmill.

We'd been discussing the whole Harbhajan-Symonds racism controversy for a few minutes, and I'd fielded his questions comfortably. This guy followed cricket but wasn't a big fan and didn't know a lot about the game, evident from his questions, but this one came out so innocently and simple.

I wanted to reply, "he's a f**** cheat" but that would've confused this guy further. So I explained the scenario to him, as I saw it, that the laws of cricket had been sidelined, that there was clear-cut evidence showing Ponting was wrong with his "I play fair" claims on international television, and that Australian cricketers have gotten away with close to murder in the past, while subcontinental players received fines and bans and what not.

Clearly, this Sydneygate has gripped India like nothing else matters.

And what we have here is a failure to communicate. The umpires failed to communicate between themselves on Sourav Ganguly's 'catch' by Michael Clarke, a decision which swung the final session on day five Australia's way, and at the root of Harbhajan v Symonds we have communication.

By not consulting Steve Bucknor at square leg, and asking Ricky Ponting if Clarke took the catch, Mark Benson erred grossly. He turned a blind eye to the laws, to technology, and to the spirit of the game. This was the same Clarke who only a month earlier claimed the most blatant of bump catches, at square leg, in a Chappell-Hadlee Trophy match. On that occasion replays repeatedly showed the ball hit grass before his fingers, and the on-air commentators questioned Clarke's credibility.

And Benson asked the same Ponting, who didn't walk when he edged Ganguly, and who claimed a catch at silly point that replays showed clearly hit the ground, if HE though Clarke took it? Why didn't he ask his umpiring colleague? Why didn't he go upstairs? It baffles the mind.

The same Ponting then had the audacity to tell senior Indian journalist G Rajaraman, in a post-match presser, that there was no way in the world he grassed the catch. Ponting said, and I quote: "Sorry, I think you got something wrong there. There is no way I grounded the ball! If you are actually questioning my integrity in the game, you should not even be standing...."

Did he not see what millions saw on TV? How in the world can that man look himself in the mirror every morning? REPLAYS SHOWED HE GRASSED THE CHANCE. He lied on international TV. Nothing more to it. Clarke's attempted catch was not as evident, but there was enough doubt there to merit a referral to the third umpire. If you have technology, why not use it?

Australian cricketers have gotten away with plenty over the years. The same Michael Slater, who sat alongside Sunil Gavaskar and Harsha Bhogle in the Star Cricket booth at the SCG and spoke of being fair on the field, committed arguably the most offensive act back in 2001 during the Bombay Test. Arguing that he had taken a catch at midwicket cleanly - the third umpire ruled it not out - Slater walked up to umpire Venkat and furiously wagged his finger in his face. It was appalling. Given that the code of conduct forbids you from questioning a decision, how could Slater argue with the umpire? The third umpire had made his ruling. Final word. Done. Slater even followed Rahul Dravid back to his crease, telling him just what he felt. And the most disgusting? Steve Waugh, the revered Australian captain, stood on and did nothing as Slater shouted at Venkat. Only Jason Gillespie, far from captain or vice-captain, walked up and pulled Slater away. So much for Waugh and his damn fine spirit.

Even Ponting, in an ODI between Australia and Bangladesh in early 2006, told a batsman (it was either Aftab Ahmed or Rajin Saleh) that he was out and should carry on back to the pavilion despite waiting for the third umpire. When the batsman was given not out, Ponting had strong words with the on-field umpires. How can this man get away with this?

Clive Lloyd, the former West Indian captain and ICC Match Referee, told The Wisden Cricketer recently that he had very little tolerance for players who stretch the laws. "Anyone who is punished during the game shouldn't be able to take any further part in it," he said. "When you get a red card in football, you don't keep tackling and passing, you're off. We should have sin bins at international games. Then we could do away with all this stuff of waiting until the end of the game ad handing a guy a piece of paper."

Lloyd makes a vital point. If Harbhajan did really make a racist remark to Symonds, or Brad Hogg called someone a bastard or whatever, and if the stump microphones heard it, then the match referee should be able to say look mate, you've been reported, we heard it, and you're going to miss a session, half a day, match, whatever.

But without hardcore evidence, how can you hand someone a three-Test ban? You're going to take the word of five Australians to that of two Indians? Come on.

"It is a shame that this issue has come to dominate the Test because from my point of view I believe that overall both the Melbourne and Sydney Tests were played in terrific spirit," said Ponting. Hah. The man who cries every time Australia are pushed on the field, the man who doesn't walk, the man who claims bump catches. If you've ever played cricket, even in the office, back yard or gully, you know when you've taken a catch. Sorry, Ponting, you have no argument.

But he goes on: "Since I took over from Steve I have taken it on myself to personally ensure that each new member of the team is fully aware of his responsibilities to the game."

Clarke, supposedly the heir apparent to Ponting, obviously wasn't listening. Adam Gilchrist is supposed to be Australia's hallmark of integrity. Hang on, wasn't he involved in the utterly incorrect and influential decision against Dravid on day five?

The Australian's Mike Coward wrote that the Australian cricketers regarded themselves as hard-nosed and aggressive but failed to understand that many in their own country and beyond found their antics "boorish, arrogant and ungracious". Correct. Australia's long-standing proclivity for sledging has indeed helped introduce such aggression into the game. Which is incorrect. Australia's on-field behaviour has been extremely unsportsmanlike.

And what about this race angle? Cricketers, all sports persons, have a duty to inculcate the right attitude in people. Like Lloyd said, provocation is not an excuse ... you don't see colour in sport.

Is the Courier-Mail, an Australian daily, putting Symonds' head on a picture of Hanuman not racist? Is Navjot Singh Sidhu, the former Indian batsman turned commentator/analyst, terming Symonds a "savage barbarian" in 2006 not racist? Its the same as Darren Lehmann calling Sri Lankan fans "dirty black c****".

Where are the yardsticks to measure and respond to racism?

I think the Deccan Herald's R Kaushik has got it right: "[ICC Match Referee] Mike Procter has set a dangerous precedent with his logic-defying verdict. Having admitted that umpires Benson and Bucknor had told him they had heard nothing, the South African has probably unwittingly pioneered a trend that could become infectious if personal scores are to be settled by using the race card."

India’s anger and dismay is not unsurprising. What is, however, is the ICC's first reaction. Why should the ICC remove Bucknor or bow to India's threats to return home? Yes, India is the richest cricketing nation but they do not run the game? I firmly disagree with India flexing its financial muscle with a threat to boycott the tour unless Harbhajan's suspension is reversed. Instead of disputing Harbhajan's punishment, India should condemn racism.

This whole mess has escalated into a complete sham. Its gone beyond 61-year-old Bucknor's gaffes or racist comments.

Thankfully India had Anil Kumble as captain during this controversy. A weaker man would have had it much rougher. Dravid would have probably broken down, Dhoni would have wilted and said something stupid, Ganguly would have been furious and said something in vain, and Sachin Tendulkar ... well, he would have gone straight to Gavaskar. Kumble kept his composure and acted like a true ambassador for Indian cricket.

Cricket has been relegated in the middle of all this. What happens in Perth remains to be seen.