Dhoni’s sudden retirement: The rise and fall of ‘chelagiri’

MS Dhoni shocked the cricketing world by retiring from Test cricket mid-way through the India-Australia series, with India two down in the series. As you can imagine, the media and everyone who knows anything about Indian cricket (which is close to 1 billion people) are left speculating on possible causes.

The theory that has gained traction in the minds of many is that Dhoni quit because of the growing Shastri-Kohli nexus which was starting to run the show very differently from the way Dhoni used to. It’s hard to figure these from the outside and any theory can be pooh-poohed as mere speculation.

To read the rest of this post please visit the Economic Times website where it was first published.

“Out of the box” thinking in cricket and politics

M.S. Dhoni is faced with a selection dilemma as he leads his team into the second Test at Lords against England. The five bowler strategy failed at Trent Bridge because the pitch did not assist Stuart Binny’s medium pace while Jadeja failed to produce wickets. Thankfully for India, Binny justified his existence by playing a match-saving knock in the second innings of the first Test. Now the question facing Dhoni and his think tank is whether they should dump the five bowler strategy or simply stick to it for another Test before taking a call. They could swap Jadeja for Ashwin and still have the five bowler strategy. Alternately, they could drop both Jadeja and Binny and bring in Ashwin and Rohit Sharma as some experts seem to advise. 

To read the rest of the article visit the Economic Times website.

Sports in dire need of a real “Game Changer”

In the aftermath of the recent anti-corruption surge, an important bill that is in the works, the Sports Development Bill, is simply not getting the attention it deserves. This bill has everything to do with corruption and the unholy nexus between politics and big business. Interestingly this time around, the crusader who is on a war-footing to fix sports administration in the country is Union Minister of Sports, Ajay Maken. His opposition is the who-is-who of the country’s business and political elite. Sharad Pawar sits atop the biggest money-spinning sport in Indian history — cricket. His party colleague, Praful Patel, heads the football federation. The MCA is headed by Vilasrao Deshmukh, while the RCA is headed by Transport Minister, C.P. Joshi. The opposition parties are equally represented in this racket. Arun Jaitley of the BJP heads the DCA, Narendra Modi heads GCA, Farooq Abdullah heads the JKCA, Lalu Yadav heads the BCA, then there is Manohar Joshi and Rajiv Shukla, among others, who play dual roles as politicians and cricket administrators.

Next, all the business houses in the country have a piece of the cricketing action –Mukesh Ambani (Mumbai Indians), Vijay Mallya (Royal Challengers), Subrata Roy (Pune Warriors), N. Srinivasan (Chennai Super Kings and BCCI President), to name a few. Then, of course, you have the Bollywood stars who double as team owners like Preity Zinta (KXIP) and Shahrukh Khan (KKR), to name a few. This is just a shortlist of the rich and powerful with strong ties to cricket.

Click here to read the rest of the article in The Economic Times

Dumping Ponting is Not The Answer

Some former players and pundits have written off Ricky Ponting and called for a look to the future minus the star batsman. I think the critics are wrong.  Despite currently being out of form, without a doubt Ricky Ponting still remains Australia’s best batsmen. Australia’s biggest problem seems to be the complete lack of good, solid, capable players! Its as a simple as that.

Australia’s problems start right at the top of the order. Phil Hughes was a terrible replacement for Simon Katich.  Shane Watson despite not being a regular opener has adapted superbly to the task and deserves to remain at the top of the order. Along with Katich he provides a semblance of stability at the outset. With Hughes coming in, it was only a question how soon Australia would lose its first wicket.

Usman Khwaja appears to have the talent and should be in contention for  permanent slot in the future. Michael Clarke who is hopeless out of form and appears to be low on confidence could surely use a break. Mike Hussey showed shades of form but could perhaps use a break too. Steven Smith in his current incarnation is really an ODI player and simply unsuitable for Test cricket.

As for the bowlers, Australia’s spin chest seems barren at the moment. After Warne and McGill, Australia appears to have been stranded with no replacements. Xavier Doherty was clearly not up to the Test level, while Michael Beer, though a better choice between the two, was still well short of being the answer to Australia’s spin woes.  Nathan Hauritz who was discarded after a poor tour of India might have been a better bet than either of these two youngsters.

Among the seamers,  Peter Siddle showed the most promise but was not consistent. Perhaps with good support from the other end he could had more success.  Hilfenhaus is hardly a devastating bowler and Ryan Harris ran into injury troubles pretty quickly. Johnson is by far Australia’s biggest bowling failure. At a time when he should be leading the bowling attack, he comes in at first change and barring his performance at Perth, did little to justify his place in the team. The sooner the selectors can give him an extended break to regain his form the better.

Ricky Ponting had great success as a captain in the past because he had a formidable team.  In fact, he inherited a perfectly balanced team from his predecessor, Steven Waugh. Ironically, Waugh was phased out while he still had some cricket left in him. Hayden, Langer, Martyn, Gilchrist, Warne, McGrath, to name a few (apart from Ponting himself) of Waugh’s team mates were a class apart. None of the present members of the Australian team are anywhere close in talent or abilities to these champion players.  Its the very same captain, its just that he has poor resources to work with at the moment.  In the past, he just had to go out there and be a good batsmen (something that always came naturally to him) and the rest just took care of itself. Even if he failed there were many others in the team who could be relied on to score runs. Today its a very different story. Ponting’s failures directly impact the team. When he fails, the team fails. In fact, the performance of the rest of the team was so bad this Ashes tour, that I suspect Australia would have lost the Ashes even if Ponting had succeeded as a batsmen!

After having dominated world cricket for a couple of decades Australia finds its Test cricket at an all time low. Surely, the cricket administration bears some responsibility for this slow but steady decline. While I am no fan of Ponting’s captaincy I still believe that its best for the Aussies to retain Ponting as a member of the team and even as captain and spend the next couple of years grooming a team for the future. At this stage naming a new captain will be way too much pressure on the new comer who will have to establish himself as a player in the team and as a captain.  The bulk of the current crop should probably be shown the door or at least given a break to work their way back.  To dump Ponting and start afresh would be a wrong move for Australian cricket.

Aussie Selectors Panic

The Australian cricket team has dominated world cricket for the last decade and a half. This domination has slowly but surely come to an end. In fact, it has hastened over the last couple of years, particularly in Test cricket.  There is no greater proof of Australia’s decline in Test cricket than the panic-stricken “chop and change” approach of the selectors for the first three tests.

After the first two Tests, it appears that Australia’s biggest challenge right now is its bowling. The batting has shown some signs of success (though still insufficient) barring Ricky Ponting, who has struggled for the most part.  (Its hard to ignore that James Anderson dismissed Ponting with a gem of an outswinger in the first innings of the second Test.) Hussey, Watson, Katich, Clarke, and Haddin have all made runs. Marcus North is a lot like India’s Yuvraj Singh in that he scores a big knock every fifth Test. Unfortunately, this level of consistency is insufficient esp and not surprisingly he finds himself out of the team, much like Yuvraj himself.

The Aussie bowling on the other hand has been a complete disaster. Apart from one good performance by Peter Siddle, the bowling has continued to disappoint.  Australia always had one spinner in the playing eleven. After the failure of Nathan Hauritz on the India tour, the Aussie selectors decided to go in for Xavier Doherty. Unfortunately, during the two Tests, he never really looked like taking wickets let alone run through the side. For a team that once had Shane Warne (who incidentally is in the news once again for the wrong reasons), Doherty is a huge let down, to say the least. It is hard to imagine that Doherty is actually successful in the domestic circuit and if he in fact is, then it does not speak highly of the future of Autralian cricket when it comes to tackling spin bowling. The most surprising aspect of the Australian selection is the decision to experiment further in the spin department by going in for Michael Beer, an unknown spinner. Hopefully, the team management will make a sensible call and not play him in the final eleven.

As for the fast bowling line up, Mitchell Johnson has been on a steady decline over the years. It makes no sense whatsoever to drop him for a Test and bring him back as the spear head of the attack in the very next Test! Bollinger who showed a lot of early promise surely failed to make a mark in the second Test, but sending him packing after one Test is bound to destroy his confidence just when the Aussie talent pool seems wanting. Hilfenhaus is capable of picking up a few wickets from time to time, though he is no Glenn McGrath. That leaves Ryan Harris, who is easily Australia’s best bet in the bowling department. Perhaps the Aussies are better off playing four seamers, than including a spinner just for the sake of it. Playing Steven Smith in place of Marcus North might not be a bad bet because he is a better bowler than North and a gritty batsman as well and this will help field four seamers and one spinner.

No matter what the team combination, Australia’s chances of a turnaround depend entirely on good bowling performances and the return to form of Ricky Ponting. Without these, the pressure of being one down in a home Ashes series is enough to destroy the team’s remaining self-confidence and make them crumble further.

IPL: Time to clean up cricket administration across India

The recent controversy that has arisen over the Kochi franchise has brought to light a number of issues. The IPL has become a billion+ industry in a short span of 2-3 years. The promoters led by Lalit Modi have been subject to very little oversight let alone any degree of scrutiny whatsoever. So the ruckus over the Kochi franchise is a blessing in disguise.

The coming together of big business, Bollywood and cricket with no formal mechanism for checks and balances has served as a perfect breeding ground for corruption and favoritism. Its time to ensure complete transparency.  Also, the issue of subsidies to to IPL and its franchises needs to be accounted for as rightly pointed out in recent article in the Hindu.

The BCCI-IPL cost the public crores of rupees each year in several ways. The waiving of entertainment tax worth Rs 10 crore -12 crore for the IPL in Maharashtra alone was discussed in the State’s Assembly. It was little reported and less discussed in the media. Maharashtra has extended other support to the IPL, which is yet to be quantified. This, despite being a State whose debt will cross Rs. 200,000 crore in the coming year. And there are similar subsidies and write-offs extended to the BCCI-IPL in other States, other venues.

A whole raft of concealed freebies from public resources to the BCCI-IPL is also not discussed. We have no picture of their full scope. No questions either on why a public sector company should be billing itself as the “sponsor” of a team owned by the fourth richest man in the planet. No questions asked about issues ranging from super-cheap land leases and stadia rentals and low-cost stadia security. We don’t even know what the total bill to the public is: just that it is probably in tens of crores. We do know that these supports to the IPL from public money come at a time when subsidies to the poor are being savaged. But we don’t want to go down that road. An inquiry into the IPL must cover the BCCI as well and must record all the open and hidden write-offs and subsidies that both get.

The bulk of the media is deeply focused on the emerging “hot news” ranging from Shashi Tharoor’s personal life, his text message to Modi, speculation about his resignation/firing, Modi’s intricate web of family members and friends who own stakes in the IPL teams, charges of bribery, the Gujarat team vs the Kochi team, among other things. The bigger story with a potential positive long term impact is an opportunity to clean up administration of not only the IPL but also the management of cricket across the country. The clean up process should start at the state and district levels of cricket. For instance, why are state cricket boards headed by politicians? (Lalu Yadav, Arun Jaitley, Farooq Abdullah etc.). Is there transparency with regard to funds of the various state cricket board and their distribution across each state? Why should the BCCI be headed by a politician? Why should India choose a politician to head the ICC?  Why was the ICL squashed by the BCCI? After all ICL was the first of its kind and should have been allowed to co-exist along with the IPL. One can only hope that the media does not move on to the next hot story (once the public interest dies down) and lose track of an opportunity to bring about lasting fundamental change to India’s most popular and profitable sport.

Mohammed Azharuddin: Tainted Star to Muslim Mascot

Life is about to come a full circle for former Indian cricket captain, Mohammed Azharuddin, as efforts are underway to revoke the lifetime ban imposed on him by the BCCI. After attempting for years to get his ban revoked, Azhar seems to have found the route to redemption in politics.

In the caste ridden politics of Uttar Pradesh, Azhar turned out to be at “the right place at the right time”. Joining the Congress was a master stroke far better than any of his delightful leg glances.

It was widely believed that Azhar’s minority status was his big liability when the scandal broke. Most other accused players escaped with relatively smaller punishments, while some bigwigs like Kapil Dev walked away completely scott free. Despite his repeated attempts to make peace, the BCCI turned down his requests and ended his career in every way imaginable.  Ten plus years hence, its a different story. Azhar’s minority status is his biggest asset as the Congress attempts to corner the Muslim vote, and checkmate Mayawati, SP and the rest of its opponents in the short and long term. It has been a long wait for one of India cricketing stars but it surely seems like this second innings is going to be a game changer for him.

It has been quite a journey for Azhar. In fact, it has all the ingredients of a Bollywood flick — humble beginning, rise to cricketing stardom, family discord, divorce and re-marriage into the world of glamor, Bollywood connections and links to the underworld, a major match-fixing scandal, turns underdog as everyone except him escapes a life time ban, tries all he can, fails,  finally chooses to enter politics, wins election by a thumping margin and finally on his way to revoking the ban. Throw in a few item numbers, and the odd villain and some sc0pe for revenge and you have a Bollywood sizzler!  Quite a heady mix, huh?

Now, check out Azhar on screen.

Dravid Dropped: Right Move, Poor PR

There seems to be plenty of press about Rahul Dravid being dropped from the ODI side for the home series against Australia. “He got a raw deal”, “this is weird”, “It makes no sense” etc.  seems to be the common sentiment and understandably so.  Rahul Dravid was brought back to the ODI team after the young turks in the Indian team where found wanting when it came to negotiating the short pitched delivery.  Dravid played the series against Sri Lanka and the Champions trophy in South Africa and did a decent job before being dropped for the home series against Australia. The obvious questions that arise are: Why was he brought back? Shouldn’t the youngsters have been given a chance in South Africa to see if they are capable? What did he do to be dropped? Is this a way to treat one of our cricketing heroes?

Despite of all these legitimate questions, by far the most troubling was the fact that the selectors did not face the media after announcing the team (it is quite surprising given that Kris Srikanth is fairly outspoken).  This is ridiculous to say the least (PR at its worst) given that cricket is so obsessively followed in India. It is highly possible that the selectors didn’t have a discussion with Dravid either about the rationale behind the decision either. However, I guess that Dravid has the maturity to take this in his stride if not understand the thinking behind this decision. An interview with Dravid (while he was fielding!) in the recent Champions league gave some interesting insights to the man himself and his mental make up. The conversation went something like this ..”Rahul, you running around like you are in your 20s”…”Well, this is T20 and you have all the young boys running around so you can’t exactly hide in the slips like in a Test match”…”Well Rahul, for someone who holds the world record for the number of slip catches, I wouldn’t exactly call it hiding in the slips”

The decision by itself is not a bad one for several reasons.  There is plenty of proven young talent that can do well on Indian pitches.  Dravid’s dropping has little to do with his form or his performance. This series is a perfect chance for youngsters to prove their mettle against the best ODI team in the world. If they can’t deliver on Indian pitches then they are not up to “scratch” anyway. Besides, with the return of Sehwag, Gambhir and Yuvraj there is plenty of strength in the batting order.  Moreover, this series is not like the Champions trophy where the stakes are simply much higher. Last but not the least, cricket is played all round the year, so there are always injuries and loss of form to deal with from time to time.  If such situations arise, Dravid can certainly be called upon like he was recently. I only wish the selectors had given Harbhajan and Ishant Sharma a rest as well. Both overexposed, jaded, out of form players who are being dragged around from series to series with no significant contribution to speak off, Bhajji’s five wickets against SL not withstanding.

p.s: The coaches were also fired. I guess someone had to be held accountable for the recent back to back defeats in two major tournaments. Wonder if this is a message to the captain?

Cricket: Rotation is the best policy

India failed to qualify for the semi-finals in two major back to back tournaments — the World T20 and the ICC World Championship. While the first had a lot to do with fitness (and fatigue following the IPL), the second was mostly due to poor performance, particularly by the bowlers. With a year long cricket season having become pretty much the norm, its impossible for players to perform continuously over a long period without succumbing to injuries or by simply losing form.There are no shortage of examples. Even Sachin Tendulkar looks his best every time he returns from a break.  Rahul Dravid and Ashish Nehra appear to be back in reasonable form after a break. Sehwag, Gambhir, Sreesanth, and Yuvraj have been struggling with injuries. Dhoni has run into indifferent form and has become a shadow of his former belligerent batting style. Gone are the days when Dhoni could whack the ball from the get go. Rohit Sharma and Robin Uthappa belong to the category of talented young players who lost form (though some argue that these two have been busy in fashion shows and the like).

It is best for the selectors to settle on a formal rotation policy — one which is well communicated and understood by the players without giving them the feeling that they are being dumped everytime they miss out on a game.  Ishant Sharma, R.P. Singh and Harbhajan Singh top the list of those badly in need of a rest.  It is a complete mystery as to why there have been no calls whatsoever for giving Harbhajan a rest. He has been so thoroughly overexposed that the Pakistan batsman appeared to be capable of playing him in their sleep. The Aussies had little trouble either. His  five wicket haul in Sri Lanka was an anomaly rather than the norm. Barring this fine bowling in the final in in Sri Lanka I can’t remember the last time he produced a match winning performance. He has played the role of defensive bowler for way too long while what India lacks is a wicket taking bowler. Pragyan Ohja and Amit Mishra are both promising younger players who deserve an extended run. Piyush Chawla and R. Ashwin are both capable players who deserve a shot as well. Besides, Romesh Powar and Murali Karthik are still around if experience is preferred. In short, Harbhajan badly needs a break and its time the selectors gave him one. His continued presence in the team is not only preventing India from winning it is also shutting the door on other promising, talented players.

Looking ahead to the next World Cup, India is still in need of an all rounder. Irfan Pathan has fizzled out. While his batting is impressive, his bowling is unreliable and is getting slower by the day. Yousuf Pathan seems more suited to T20. Abhishek Nayar and Ravinder Jadeja appear to have promise but thus far are mostly untested. India has to fill the all rounder spot if it has to consider itself as a serious contender for the next World Cup. It makes sense to rotate a pool of players, and pick those in form but give everyone a share of rest without making them feel dumped.

Rahul Dravid’s Return: It’s all about form

There has been plenty of analysis and theories about Rahul Dravid’s returnto the ODI team. Shouldn’t the selectors look to the future? What if he fails? Is this his ODI farewell? etc.

As cricket gets more and more commercial and players end up with a near 12-month cricketing calendar it is next to impossible for any player to perform consistently over an extended period of time (not to mention challenges posed by frequent injuries).  It is just too demanding and hard to sustain. Dhoni is a prime example. The man who burst into the scene with a slaughtering 180+ score against SL now says “I need time to settle, I can’t hit from the first ball!” Ironically, it was this ability of his that made him a favorite of so many Indian cricket fans.

To adapt to the year long cricket season, teams must select players purely based on current form. Proven stars like Viru, Sachin and Dravid are assumed to be in form unless proven otherwise. Dravid was dumped when he was out of form and returned when he showed that he was back in form. He is probably sufficiently rested and hungry to perform well again. The return of Ashish Nehra is another example. He showed that he was in form in the IPL and resurrected his career, thanks partly to Zaheer Khan’s injury and Ishant Sharma’s slump. Dinesh Karthick is another example of a player who worked his way back by virtue of good performances in the IPL and in the domestic season.

When India failed at the T20 World Cup, heads had to roll, deficiencies had to be addressed, so those out of form like Rohit Sharma were dumped in favor of those in form with the necessary skills.

Srikanth and co. deserve kudos for selecting “in-form” players regardless of age. It sends a clear message to young talented discards like Sreesanth, Rohit Sharma and Uthappa that if they return to form opportunities could open up for them. Unlike Australia, India does not have to worry about losing players to retirement all at once. There is plenty of bench strength and rotation among a pool of players makes a lot of sense.  There is no point looking to the future when India is losing in the present. India should try to forge a combination that can win in the present and the future will take care of itself.