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    May 27, 2011

    Sachin Tendulkar skips West Indies tour

    Sachin Tendulkar's decision to skip the West Indies tour altogether (he had already opted out of the limited overs leg) to spend time with his family is bizarre, and unprecedented.

    He has so far skipped 3 test tours completely because of injury - Sri Lanka 2001 (fractured toe), Zimbabwe 2005 (not yet fit after elbow surgery) and West Indies 2006 (not yet fit after shoulder tear).

    So this would pretty much mean that his last act in a test match in the West Indies was being bowled by Pedro Collins for a brilliant 86, triggering a collapse that ended with West Indies winning the series 2-1.
    52.6 Collins to Tendulkar, OUT: Sabina Park erupts! super delivery on the off and cutting in, the ball stayed a touch low, Tendulkar tries to defend it but can't get down in time, the ball crashes into the off and middle stump, the Indian ship is sinking!
    His last act in all internationals in the West Indies was being bowled by Dilhara Fernando in the 2007 World Cup, for a blob.
    11.3 Fernando to Tendulkar, OUT, and Tendulkar goes! Could this be his last World Cup innings? The ball pitched outside off stump, nipped back, Tendulkar lunged forward, the ball hit the inside edge of the bat and crashed into leg stump, huge huge wicket for Sri Lanka and India are fading away.
    My worry isn't about him missing the series, but more about the why. If he wanted to spend time with the family, wouldn't it have made sense to skip the ODIs in West Indies and England, and make himself available for the tests? After all, everyone, including him, bleats on about how test cricket is the ultimate form of the game.

    I don't buy the argument that he should have rested from a few IPL games. His side hadn't yet qualified, and by screwing up a few games in a row at the end, they risked not making it to the top 4. As a captain, it was his responsibility to ensure that Mumbai Indians qualified. Remember that they didn't automatically qualify until Deccan Chargers went down last Saturday.

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    April 05, 2011

    World Cup review - Part 1 - Australia, Bangladesh, England, India & Ireland

    28 years ago, I was rudely woken up by relatives screaming "We have won the World Cup". It is quite likely that Saturday's final between India & Sri Lanka also ended around the same time as that game in 1983. I was well awake this time around!

    I can't recall exactly when I started following cricket with a lot of interest, but I definitely recall watching games from the 1985 World Championship of Cricket in Australia keenly. I did watch at least 1 day's play of the India v Pakistan test at Chepauk in 1987 and definitely remember Azhar taking a blinder of a catch. I can't recollect if it was off a spinner (Maninder) or off a medium pacer (Raju Kulkarni), most likely the latter since I didn't bunk school, and the last day of the test was on a Sunday. The 1987 tied test at Chepauk enthralled me. A few months earlier, I had read an account of the final over of the Brisbane tied test. Around the same time that the India v Australia game was coming to an end, with India in a winning position (50-odd runs to get with 5 wickets in hand), I was at my music class, and wondered aloud if a tie was possible. Needless to say, I got thrashed when umpire Vikram Raju's finger went up.

    Back to the present though. The final was an excellent exhibition of classy batting by Jayawardene, who I still believe to be over-rated in comparison to Sangakkara, nice partnerships (Sangakkara-Dilshan, Mahela-Samaraweera & Mahela-Kulasekara, Gambhir-Virat & Gambhir-Dhoni) and a fair amount of power-hitting at the end.

    Now that the tournament has ended though, teams & individuals need to introspect into whether they have achieved what they set out to.

    Australia needs to take a serious look at their approach to grooming spin bowlers. Under Ricky Ponting's captaincy (possibly because of his limitations when it came to playing spin bowling in tests), the only time he used "spin" with some degree of seriousness was when he was washing his clothes. They've never identified any sort of backup options for Shane Warne other than Stuart "watch-me-bowl-a-half-tracker" MacGill. They need to find at least 1 more young batsman to play alongside Watson, Clarke & Ponting. It is rare for Aussie ex-captains to play on for too long after they've quit as captain. While Ponting may play on until the 2013 & 2014 Ashes, it is quite likely that he'd have quit ODI cricket by then.

    Bangladesh need to have a rethink about their domestic cricket structure, and ensure that the top 25-30 players get a lot more exposure to cricket against first-class teams from countries that are better than them. It's quite obviouso that the talent is there, but they're not progressing beyond an odd upset every World Cup and getting thrashed by the rest of the stronger sides. Given their proximity to India & the vote that they bring to India's table at the ICC, I can't understand why they don't engage in some quid pro quo for test & ODI tours to India, and for IPL sides to pick their players.

    England performed extremely well against the stronger sides, but lost it against the weaker ones (and barely survived against West Indies). This seems to indicate that it isn't a skill problem, but an inability to understand how to play limited overs cricket. Constantly complaining about the schedule doesn't get them anywhere. The Ashes-World Cup schedule was known well in advance, and they had the better part of 3-4 years since the 2007 World Cup to have a squad of 20-odd quality players to pick from. They have the bowling. Anderson, Broad, Ajmal Shahzad, Tremlett & Swann are a pretty handy lineup. But the batting is far too unidimensional with Strauss, Trott, Bell and Collingwood providing at least 2 too many 'bat 30+ overs' batsmen & only Pietersen, Bopara and Morgan providing the flair.

    India won despite a bowling attack that was under threat of being smacked around every game, and a fielding unit (barring 2 or 3 players) which was ever willing to help opponents convert 1s into 2s, 2s into 3s, routine saves into 4s, etc. There's absolutely no doubt that they were the best side of the tournament, and they defeated all the top sides barring South Africa (England, perhaps conveniently, don't count). Yet, players like Virat Kohli & Sreesanth need to think about their game, and what they want to achieve. It is bizarre that Kohli, at 22, is unable to adapt his game to a situation where he goes in at #6 with a couple of overs left to go. He has to realize that he may not go in at #4 with 30 overs to go every time! Similarly, Sreesanth needs to realize that this was his 'last chance saloon'. He only had 2 opportunities to prove that he can be an effective #2 or #3 bowler in ODIs, and he fluffed up both times. If his strength is around generating late outswing, why did he pitch it so short on a very flat batting track in the final? Ashwin has most likely become the 2nd choice spinner, and I'd expect that he gets a lot more games over the span of the next 6-10 months to show that he can do a good job.

    Ireland had at least 2 opportunities other than the game against England (v Bangladesh & v West Indies) to show that they should be given many more opportunities to compete against good sides, and also that a World Cup was better off with them than without them.

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    March 28, 2011

    World Cup semis: The stories you definitely won't see

    Mahinda Rajapaksa invites Queen Elizabeth II and John Key to chill out at the World Cup semi-final

    Sri Lanka's President (& head of government), Mahinda Rajapaksa, has invited New Zealand's head of state Queen Elizabeth II and the head of government John Key to enjoy his hospitality during the World Cup semi-final at the Premadasa stadium as part of a diplomatic coup. The two island nations have been engaged in a 'cold war' since December 2006 after Murali was controversially run out even as he was walking to congratulate Sangakkara on his brilliant 100 at Christchurch.

    Nathan Guy warns team against any attempts to smoke weed before semi-final

    New Zealand's Minister of Internal Affairs, Nathan Guy, has issued a strict warning to the New Zealand team ahead of the World Cup semi-final against Sri Lanka. Acknowledging that New Zealand cricketers had a past history, he indicated that the team was under surveillance. Smirking & refusing to comment when this reporter asked him if he knew what South Africa's batsmen were smoking during the quarter-final, he said "I don't know about that, but what they were doing was a phonetically similar 7 letter word ending with 'oking'".

    All set for mother of all semi-finals

    Sri Lanka's media have lapped up the world's attention around the semi-final featuring Sri Lanka and New Zealand. Hordes of politicians, businessmen & celebrities have landed in Colombo. All hotels in and around Colombo have hung 'house-full' signboards and tickets are being traded in the black markets at premiums exceeding 500% of the list price.

    Will New Zealand finally break the World Cup jinx against Sri Lanka?

    New Zealand's rugby fanatic media woke up on Saturday to the breaking news that their cricket team had finally got rid of their bogey side, South Africa. Their elation was tempered after the realization that the semi-final was against Sri Lanka, who they have never beaten in any knock-out game at an ICC event!

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    March 21, 2011

    No authoritative performances in the league stage

    A month after taking a shot at the semi-final line up for the 2011 World Cup, it is now obvious that that either India or Australia will make it to the semi-final. That quarter-final will be played 1 day after the 8th anniversary of an inconsequential World Cup game, the last time these 2 teams met at the World Cup.

    The oddest part about the first round was that none of the major teams actually stamped their authority on the league stage. Australia was expected to blow away opponents with their bowling, but the only teams to suffer the wrath of Australia's 'quick gun Murugan' attack were Zimbabwe & New Zealand. Sri Lanka, Kenya, Canada & Pakistan were largely untroubled. Pakistan outwitted Sri Lanka and Australia, nearly slipped up against Canada and got thrashed by New Zealand. New Zealand got thrashed by Australia and Sri Lanka, but thrashed Pakistan in-turn.

    India and England tried their best to give Group B a lot of close games, and looked thoroughly unconvincing. While England did win against #3 ranked South Africa, India's wins came against teams ranked #8 and #9. South Africa were commanding overall, but had a brain fade against England. They've been celebrating the last over win against India as evidence that they've finally got rid of the 'chokers' tag. Sadly though, that win came in an inconsequential game. They will need to do this in a knock-out game to prove that their debutant players don't get the choker tag along with the national cap! West Indies and Bangladesh were generally incompetent but did show some promise.

    Sri Lanka and Pakistan did enough to suggest that the best way to catch Australia unawares was on a slow turning wicket. I don't particularly care if Ricky Ponting thinks such wickets are essentially 'rolled mud'. Since this is an ICC event, and the ICC has control over everything that happens at the ground, I assume that the pitches are prepared by the ICC's team. If that's the case, Ponting can't complain about anything.

    If the pitches are prepared by the hosting country's curator(s), then you have to question if that's fair. For a World Cup event, home advantage should be limited to playing in familiar surroundings, getting a lot of crowd support, being able to include replacement players at really short notice, etc.

    I don't know if Ponting will be playing during the 2015 World Cup, but I'd be interested to see how he reacts if the Sri Lankan captain says they were playing on a trampoline after seeing balls whiz past their heads at Perth. He wouldn't like it, would he?

    As for the semi-final lineup, it does seem from the Australia-New Zealand and New Zealand-Zimbabwe matches at Ahmedabad (venue for Australia v India) that the side batting first can be blown away. Mirpur (Pakistan v West Indies & New Zealand v South Africa) definitely assists spinners. Colombo (Premadasa) also shows that spin will rule. So, I wouldn't be surprised if the semi-final lineup was Australia v Pakistan and South Africa v Sri Lanka.

    In other news, Shoaib Akhtar said bye bye to international cricket after a mercurial career that included 100 mph deliveries, drugs, ball tampering, fighting with a teammate, faking injury, etc.

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    February 22, 2011

    Those who get the short shrift at the World Cup

    Last week, Haroon Lorgat, the ICC Chief Executive, announced that the 2015 World Cup would feature 10 teams. This almost effectively means that Associates and Affiliate members have no chance of competing (or is it participating?) at the tournament, unless the ICC introduces a qualification tournament.

    Around the time the 2007 tournament was still coming to terms with the early exit of India & Pakistan, I wrote that weaker teams should play in the tournament, but they should also get enough games against stronger opposition in the year leading up to the World Cup. I proposed a qualification round featuring the finalists from the ICC Trophy and the teams ranked #9-#11 in the ICC's ODI rankings. The top teams from a 10-game round-robin tournament make it to the main draw, which would now have a total of 10 teams.

    There are lots of arguments for and against the inclusion of minnow sides. It is undeniable that these teams get thrashed pretty much all the time. Across all games played at the World Cup, ICC Champions Trophy (& its earlier avatars) and the T20 World Cup, 9 out of the top 10 thrashings (margin of defeat in terms of runs) have been handed out to minnow sides. Yet, #11 in the list is England's 200-run thrashing of India in the 1975 Cup opener.

    The 10 lowest all-out totals have been made by minnow sides. Sri Lanka feature as the punching bag on quite a few occasions on both lists. They've not done badly over the past 25-30 years, have they? Admittedly, they do have a few more things going for them (compared to say Canada).

    In my opinion, the minnow sides Cup can (and must?) actually be supported by one or more of the main teams. For e.g., Bermuda by West Indies; USA & Canada by Australia/New Zealand; Scotland, Ireland & Netherlands by England; Afghanistan (& Bangladesh to some extent) by India/Pakistan/Sri Lanka and Namibia, Kenya (& Zimbabwe) by South Africa. This should include the 'A' team playing home & away series against the minnow side's national and 2nd XIs as well as under-19 tours.

    If the ICC can't get the individual boards to agree and implement a development programme for associate and affiliate members that makes sense, and helps them prepare to play at a good level, the ICC should just announce that this whole "Let's globalize cricket" idea was just a pile of nonsense. The minnow sides get the short shrift at pretty much every ICC event, and you feel genuinely sorry to see sides with talent who get blown away because of lack of opportunities.

    I feel the same way when it comes to the Indian cricket fan who pays his way to watch cricket at stadiums. In general, cricket stadiums (or stadia?) in India tend to be massive 50,000+ capacity concrete structures with pathetic spectator facilities.

    The bulk of the 50,000+ seats are allotted to corporates, sponsors, people in (or close to) power and affiliate clubs of the state association. This typically leaves around 10-20000 tickets for the general public, usually resulting in a mad rush and stampede when the ticket counter opens. On quite a few occasions, the purchasers of most of these tickets find that they've landed a lemon, because of a ticket scam.

    All the stadiums that're hosting World Cup games have gone through significant renovations, primarily targeted at improving player facilities. From all reports, it seems like there have actually been on-ground improvements. Yet, the upgrades have come at a cost. To take just 3 examples, the Wankhede and Chepauk will seat 10% less while Eden Gardens will seat 25% less.

    That decrease in capacity will quite likely not impact the hand-outs to sponsors, affiliate clubs and local bigwigs. The only ones who will get the short shrift are those who brave any sort of weather to queue up and buy tickets.

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    February 08, 2011

    Predicting the 2011 World Cup semi-finalists

    If the last couple of weeks were primarily around World Cup selections and omissions, the focus this week is on players being ruled out through injury (Mike Hussey, Nathan Hauritz, Eoin Morgan and Praveen Kumar).

    A few others like Jacques Kallis, Stuart Broad, Graeme Swann, Paul Collingwood, Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Ricky Ponting and Shaun Tait are still out of action, and we'll definitely hear about more withdrawals over the next few days.

    Moving on from injuries, can we use the period from after the 2007 World Cup to identify trends related to how various teams would perform?

    I'm restricting the analysis to games involving only the top 9 teams. (Australia, Bangladesh, England, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka & West Indies). Where required, I filter out matches not played on the sub-continent. Although Pakistan isn't a host, having played there gives teams a half-decent idea of the conditions they can expect at other venues. One problem though is that West Indies has only played 3 ODIs in the sub-continent in the period, and one was rained out!

    The parameters I consider are overall win-loss record, team stability (measured as # of matches / # of players), overall batting average, batting average for top order (#1-#4), middle order (#5-#7) & lower order (#8-#11), overall bowling average, wickets per match and overall bowling economy rate.

    Here's how the rankings look across those parameters.

    W/L record in the sub-continent: India, South Africa, Australia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, England, New Zealand, Bangladesh & West Indies

    Team stability (no sub-continent filter): India, Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Bangladesh, South Africa, West Indies, Sri Lanka & England

    Overall batting average: Australia, South Africa, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, England, West Indies, Bangladesh & New Zealand

    Top order batting average: South Africa, Australia, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, West Indies, England, Bangladesh & New Zealand

    Middle order: Australia, India, Pakistan, England, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, West Indies & South Africa

    Lower order: New Zealand, Sri Lanka, South Africa, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, England, Australia & West Indies

    Bowling average: Sri Lanka, South Africa, New Zealand, England, Pakistan, Australia, India, Bangladesh & West Indies

    Wickets per match: South Africa, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, England, Bangladesh, Australia, India, New Zealand & West Indies

    Economy rate: New Zealand, Sri Lanka, South Africa, West Indies, England, Australia, Pakistan, Bangladesh & India

    Assign ranks to each of the teams in the categories (e.g. for the sub-continent w/l record data, the ranks would be 1: India, 2: South Africa, 3: Australia, etc.). Add up the total ranks across all categories. The teams with the lowest 4 totals are the most likely to get to the semis based on the past trends.

    New Zealand48
    South Africa29
    Sri Lanka35
    West Indies68

    This indicates that the 4 semi-finalists would be South Africa, Australia, Sri Lanka & India with Pakistan also being in the reckoning. Sri Lanka & Australia are in group A while the South Africa & India are in group B. So at least it won't be an impossible situation.

    A few things are very obvious from the individual parameter rankings: South Africa have had a fragile middle order. Australia's lower order batting has been weak & their bowling in the sub-continent hasn't been too great. Sri Lanka's bowling has done a great job so far. India's bowling has been downright pathetic. Pakistan are sort of average across all parameters and so suffer in comparison to teams who have good stats across 3-4 parameters & bad ones in the remaining parameters. New Zealand's tail end batting and bowling (econ rate) have been really good. England have trouble with their batting. Bangladesh gets saved by their middle & lower order pretty much each time.

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    February 03, 2011

    World Cup - Surprise picks and omissions

    Similar to India's 1 surprise pick & Sri Lanka's 2 surprise omissions in their 2011 World Cup squads, most other teams had at least one selection that was odd.

    Australia picked Brett Lee and David Hussey, who hadn't played any internationals for nearly 1.5 years. With the tournament being played in the sub-continent, Australia picked 1.6 specialist spinners (Steve Smith bowls 6 overs per game on an average). Now that's a bizarre pick. Australia's part-time spin options are David Hussey (2 overs per game before he was picked in the squad) and Cameron White (2-3 overs per game when he had the skipper's trust and had not even bowled a single ball since August 2009). With 5 quicks & an all-rounder, clearly Australia are relying on pace to win. Seems like a gamble to me.

    Despite investing nearly a year in Craig Kieswetter and Steve Davies, England went back to Matt Prior. Other than that, the squad seems reasonably balanced, with a couple of bits-and-pieces players in Luke Wright & James Tredwell.

    Luke Woodcock is the unknown player in New Zealand's squad. He hadn't even played an ODI before he was picked. The squad seems weak on the batting though, and the opening slot hasn't yet been sorted out.

    Pakistan didn't have any major surprises in the squad, but they did come up with one bolter. They didn't name a captain! That said, the batting definitely looks shaky with only Younis Khan & Misbah having the skills to do a good job with the middle overs. Only 2 specialist spinners were picked, which seems odd for a Pakistani side playing a World Cup in the sub-continent.

    South Africa, by contrast, picked 3 specialist spinners, 2 of who are newbies. South Africa's problem is with #6, #7 and #8. Having dropped Boucher, who used to come in at #6 & #7 and salvage a crisis, they don't have too many experienced players to fill up those slots. The batting essentially ends after Duminy (typically at #5).

    West Indies have picked just 5 bowlers (3 quicks & 2 spinners) and are obviously hoping that Dwayne Bravo will bowl his full spell and pick up wickets regularly.

    The other omission was that of Eden Gardens. The ground won't host the India v England game & the match will now be played at Bangalore. But there seems to be some ambiguity around it. Kyazoonga, the official ticketing partner, doesn't list the India v England game. Does this mean backroom negotiations are still going on, and Eden Gardens will get the game?

    Actually, the Cricket Association of Bengal, which is really the main agency to be blamed for the fiasco, should just relinquish its hosting rights for the other games at the ground, each of which is guaranteed to bring in crowds of at least 90000.

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