Monthly Archives: June 2011

In Defense Of Daryl Harper

Daryl Harper has withdrawn from the Third Test between India and West Indies, in what looks like a monumental fit of pique. Apparently, Harper — almost universally hated by every cricket blogger — is angry at the criticism he’s had to withstand from Indian players (including from M.S. Dhoni), none of who has been punished. Examples:

Indian newspapers widely reported that “a very senior member of the side” had claimed that the entire team did not want Harper to officiate in the final Test. “We don’t want him – you can quote it as the reaction of the entire Indian team,” was the alleged remark.

Another India player allegedly said: “It’s Daryl Harper six not out,” complaining that Harper had made three bad decisions in West Indies’ favour.

Regular readers know that I view the cricket umpire as a mythical demi-god who cannot be questioned. I have explained this before, but briefly, it relates to Hobbes’ reasoning in the Leviathan. Because all men are equal, all men have an equal claim to power. But that would lead to anarchy, so instead we consent to a sovereign and let him/her rule. You can question how much power you’d want to give in political societies, but on the cricket field, this makes a lot of sense — and anyone who has played pick-up cricket with more than three South Asians knows the values of this advice. Games without authoritative umpires quickly fold into silliness and disputes about rules and “who’s keeping score.”

So what’s the problem? Well, we now have something the Victorians didn’t — HotSpot and cameras, for one. And people look at replays and see wrong decisions and act as if they’ve been cheated all along. “What do you know,” they say, “the umpire is fallible!” This is the wrong lesson entirely: it was precisely the umpire’s fallibility (i.e., his human-ness) that led to us give him absolute powers. Now, even if you want more technology in the game, or don’t think much of my argument, the fact is both teams went into the Test series knowing fully well that Harper would be in charge. He’s made bad decisions, but he’s still the umpire — so lay off him, and do your job.

I supported Steve Bucknor when the Indians raised a fuss about him at Sydney, and I’ll support Harper now. Complaining about umpires mid-series is a terrible display of sour grapes; it also complicates the umpire’s mind-set (if I give a bad decision against the Indians, they’ll go home and cry to their BCCI overlords). If you choose not to have DRS in a series, and if you agree to play under umpires, and if you agree with the ICC’s umpire training and testing program, then shut up and play the game.

Why Watch Cricket Highlights?

During my occasional returns to the homeland, I am regularly surprised by the number of television channels that currently exist to serve the cricket fan. Yes, cricket is a big market in India, and it’s likely to get bigger with each succeeding year as more Indians join the ranks of the fabled middle-class. But there are markets and bubbles, and even in these years of packed calendars, there are days sans cricket (like today, or uh, yesterday). So what to these channels do? They play hours and hours and hours of cricket highlights.

Now, if you are part of the Indian diaspora, cricket highlights are a regular feature of your programming. There’s no way an expat cricket fan, no matter how dedicated to the game, can watch all the hours of a cricket game live. I imagine many do what I do: follow the game as much as possible on Cricinfo and Twitter, sneak a stream-viewing when possible, but then find extended highlights on YouTube or (if you’re smart), Cricket-online.tv. I enjoy this routine, but in a recent article (not about cricket, but sports in general), Chuck Klosterman had this to say:

It doesn’t matter how much I sequester myself or how thrilling the event is — if I know the game has finished, it’s difficult to sustain authentic interest in what I’ve recorded. I inevitably fast-forward to the last two or three minutes (even when I have no vested interest in the outcome). Since I’m watching the game purely for entertainment, it shouldn’t be any different from the real thing. It should, in fact, be better, just as it’s more enjoyable to watch self-recorded episodes of Frontline or Storage Wars or any other traditional show that lives inside my DVR. In theory, I should be able to enjoy every single game I want to see, on my own schedule — all I need to do is avoid the Internet for a few hours and not glance at the ESPN ticker on public TV screens. But it never works: I get home, I start watching the recent past, and I find myself rushing toward the present.

For other sports, I think Klosterman’s right — it really, really sucks not to be able to watch Wimbledon live, because I can’t bear watching tennis highlights. Those episodes typically jump from moments in a set and show some great shots from players, which is cool and everything, but a tad repetitive by the end. But I do enjoy cricket highlights, and not just because I happen to like anything related to cricket. For one thing, watching how a wicket occurs is often fascinating — they only occur 10 times an innings, and it’s high-drama when it happens. But secondly, the best cricket highlights also provide a little context that build up a moment. Think of that Flintoff over against Ponting, or Ishant Sharma’s extended test against Ponting at Perth. You get an abbreviated story there, but an interesting little battle nonetheless.

Or am I just addicted to cricket? Thoughts on highlights?

Temporary Radio Silence

Sorry for the lack of posting of late, but I’m in the middle of moving apartments. Don’t forget me while I’m gone, cricket blogosphere! (And if any of you cricket-bloggers/readers reside in Brooklyn, lend me some sugar — I am your neighbor! I think more bloggers should meet in person and plan podcasts and wonderful symposiums. But more on that later.)

The Nerdy Chic of Rahul Dravid

Rahul Dravid fans, a harried lot for the past half-decade, have reason to cheer again. Another century, and the perfect ‘Dravid kind.’ Tell-tale features include: 1) A mini-collapse of the line-up; 2) A boring solidity, taking the sting out of the pitch and the bowlers by simply standing there; 3) The ‘quiet accumulation of small triumphs,’ to quote a cliche.

But while the performance was surely impressive, I want to make a somewhat ancillary argument about Dravid’s true attraction: his nerdy chic. Have you ever typed in Dravid’s name in Google Image Search? The collection of photos that pops up reveals a thoroughly unassuming middle-class man: handsome, but not distinctive; a flat hairstyle with a neat side-parting; family shots with his wife and child; the ‘forlorn’ look he famously perfected at the 2007 World Cup.

Dravid’s talents are immense, but out of the Big Five (Laxman, Sehwag, Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dravid), he alone is the most accessible to mere mortals. He lacks Tendulkar’s spark; Sehwag’s confidence; Laxman’s style; Ganguly’s shrewd mind — no, he is what talent looks like after it has been molded and beaten into submission by years and years of rigorous practice. He is the Asian nerd picked on in Harry and Kumar; he is also an example of cricket’s chief delight: our sportsmen are not ‘jocks’ and muscle-men. They really are gentlemen. (Well, most of ‘em.) And they part their hair down the side.

What Jay Leno and Rahul Dravid Have in Common

Rahul Dravid scored his 32nd century in the Test against the West Indies, and it came at a crucial time, with India’s young batting line-up faltering once again. At 38, Dravid gives little away about any impending retirement; the money has it that he and Laxman and (possibly) Tendulkar will leave over the next two years (the term of Duncan Fletcher’s contract), but I have a question: why retire at all?

A long time ago, I made the case that retirement in cricket will become increasingly obsolete. For the best players, there will always be stadiums open to them, from IPL to other budding T20 leagues (and lucrative “coaching” contracts). I want to add an addendum: if a player is scoring runs, why force him out? Call this the Jay Leno theory of succession: if the only reason you have to bench a player is some vague concern about the “next generation,” banish the thought. Why remove your star late-night performer only because your second-star late-night performer has a contract up? (No offense to any Conanistas!)

You don’t need to read a Simon Katich rant to see the logic here. I understand the underlying concern — at some point, even Tendulkar will stop scoring the necessary runs, and once he goes, we will be left with a bunch of blue-blooded hotshots who think slog sweeps are acceptable ways to score Test runs. But so far, India has played its hand surprisingly well. Its schedule remains ever chaotic and frantic, leading to injuries and rest periods, allowing opportunies for Pujara, Badrinath, Vijay and now Kohli and Raina.

A Test here, a Test there. If they’re scoring runs and still want to play, I say let Laxman, Dravid and Tendulkar stay ’til they wanna.

Watching Cricket In The USA

Over at Clear Cricket, Raza Naqvi has posted a wonderful (if somewhat florid) piece on the solitude of watching cricket in the USA:

Watching cricket with others is an equally agonizing process involving S-video and HDMI cables, compatibility issues and TV resolutions—the seventeen inches of a laptop are not conducive to communal viewing[…]And so cricket, here in America, is not only watched in poor quality, it is watched alone.

Great stuff, and it has rightly received praise from many other bloggers. I particularly like the piece because it neatly falls into a genre of blogging I’ll call meta-cricket — these are posts that deal more with the experience of watching cricket, rather than the game itself. The difference lies between reading another match preview or game analysis (or even selection policy), and reading about commenatators, annoying cricket ads, and new technologies (or old — see Deep Backward Point’s post on Tape Delay Cricket).

One last thing about Naqvi’s piece: he presents watching cricket alone as an immigrant’s attempt to stand against all-encroaching modern America, with its ubiquitous media culture. That’s true, but I’ll go further and argue what I have in a previous post: watching cricket (and especially Test cricket) is also a protest against modernity, a stance against Kim Kardashian, VH1 shows, hyper-politics and corporate ladders (to use Naqvi’s examples). As I said before in a review of cricket in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse:

Cricket here comes across as a noisy invasion (“the sudden bark”), whereas I enjoy Test cricket most precisely because the long periods of time and frequent intervals of nothing-is-happening mean I can let the game fade into the background, so it becomes a soothing set of sounds (to use Woolf’s words).

Which raises a more difficult question: do you other immigrant-bloggers find now that it is sometimes easier and better and more enjoyable to watch cricket in the USA, or back home in South Asia? Because while I initially thrill to seeing cricket everywhere when I return to Bombay, I quickly sour when I read all the ink wasted on the sport in the papers and the time reserved on television and all the endorsements and the…that little protected space for cricket, so isolated in the USA, gets taken over by everyone else in India. And it’s not always fun.

Best West Indies Board Meeting Ever

Sriram Veera’s latest dispatch from the West Indies makes for some compelling reading. It describes a heated meeting between Chris Gayle’s representatives and the West Indies Cricket Board, two parties that have been caught in a toxic brew of ego, incompetence and conflicting visions for the past month or two.

This is the best moment in Veera’s piece:

After the meeting on Wednesday, in which tempers are said to have flared, allegations from both camps flew thick and fast. A WICB source alleged that Dinanath Ramnarine, the president of the West Indies Players Association (WIPA), had lifted his chair and threatened to assault the board CEO Ernest Hilaire. WIPA denied the incident but conceded that there had been verbal disagreements and that Ramnarine had got out from his chair at one point, but had neither lifted the chair nor tried to hit Hilaire.

Obviously, I like the detail about the chair, but I think Veera deserves extra credit for eliciting a reaction from the WICB that clarifies someone did get out from a chair, but said piece of furniture was never lifted. Such distinctions are the stuff of master spin.

And what is all the fuss about? Apparently, the board wants Gayle to apologize for some remarks he made. That is it. Why boards don’t follow Australia’s example, which just received a severe tongue-lashing from Simon Katich, is simply beyond me. No, instead, we cannot have players talking to the media freely, and if they do, they need to be sanctioned, and if they don’t apologize, they need to be punished. Words can’t hurt you, don’t you know.

The Munaf Patel ‘Spin’ Question

I just read Andy Roberts’ comments on Munaf Patel’s lack of pace, and I’m a bit confused:

“When he [Munaf] came to the West Indies in 2006, he was quick,” Roberts said. “But now, he is spinning the ball. Ishant Sharma with his height and action was very promising when he began, but now he seems to have lost steam.”

Roberts claims to diagnose a larger ‘problem’ with Indian bowlers: as soon as they make their international debut, a conspiracy of pressure and know-it-all coaches convince them to change their style. The evidence comes in a batch of three: Irfan Pathan (who famously disintegrated during the last West Indies tour); Munaf Patel, and Ishant Sharma. The reason I’m confused by this critique is that Patel’s recent performance cannot be impeached; the guy was the third highest wicket-taker at the World Cup and has an average in the low-20s over the past dozen games.

I suspect the source of this criticism — and the reaction it provoked from Javagal Srinath and Roger Binny — may come arise from two subtle undercurrents: 1) Indians are generally sensitive to claims their pace bowlers aren’t really ‘pace’ bowlers. Foreign bowlers are routinely described as ‘fast,’ but ours are ‘medium fast’ or simply ‘medium.’ This wouldn’t be a problem, but there’s a large segment of cricket fans who connect pace with masculinity, and not hurling a ball down the pitch is apparently a girly thing to do. The insecurity is compounded by Hindu-Muslim relations; I’ve often heard it said the best cricket team would combine Pakistan’s bowlers with India’s batsmen.

And 2) Roberts has just come off a tour promoting the new cricket documentary Fire in Babylon. For those who’ve resisted my (and others’) countless reviews, the film basically is a paean to ultra-fast bowling, exemplified by the likes of Roberts and Holding et al. Roberts unabashedly argues his fast bowling was merely giving back to Whites (particularly the Australians) what they had dished out for decades. So, for him to see fast bowlers not use pace but guile and mystery to achieve the same ends — i.e., taking wickets — must be difficult. And indeed, that has always been my central problem with Roberts’ kind of argument: in order to defeat the West, we have to imitate it. That line of thinking leads to less creativity and a benchmark not at all suited to diversity and self-expression.

How Tough Is It To Be A Cricket Umpire?

This question came up recently during a Twitter discussion with @freehit_mj. I assumed it was universally accepted that being a cricket umpire is among the toughest — if not the most difficult — referee job in global sports today. The reason I say that is simple: 1) Cricket is an unbelievably complex game, and its rules and regulations are notorious to outsiders for their specificity and exceptions. For a good recent example, head over to Deep Backward Point for a lesson on why batsmen can’t hit the ball twice (except to protect their stumps). And 2) I can’t think of another popular game that comes close to this level of nuance. In tennis, you have a crew of linesmen to help you adjudicate calls. In soccer, the hardest thing is the off-side rule, and even then, you have help. (Soccer and other sports are certainly more physically demanding, but that’s a different matter.)

Freehit_MJ suggests that contact sports may be more difficult. I’m not sure why. I confess I have only a vague idea of what American football referees do, but it can’t be that hard if the most disputed call is whether a foul occurred or not. I also don’t think these questions raise to the level of importance of appeals in cricket. Losing a wicket is tremendously important to a batting side, whereas a foul in soccer/basketball/etc. is only a big deal in certain situations. I think cricket accords umpires so much protection from dissent precisely because we understand how difficult the job is. For more that, go here.

Coming To Terms With The West Indies Decline

From Sriram Veera, another statement of yearning for a West Indian cricket resurgence:

The locals, both in Trinidad and Antigua, have a resigned look when talking about cricket. It’s sad, and to say as much is almost condescending. It feels wrong, especially when one is from a generation that grew up in awe of them, to write about West Indies cricket in words of pity. Reality can be cruel. More proof came through the mail this morning: Zaheer Khan and Sreesanth skipping the Test series to be ready for sterner trials in England. Wise decision, of course, but it reflects the state of West Indies cricket in some ways.

This type of story comes once every few months, and the format has almost hardened into genre. First, begin with a general lament of the current state of affairs. Second, remember how it used to be. Third, face the fork: either look at current players and offer either guarded optimism (in the past, Gayle, Sarwan, Chanderpaul, Jerome Taylor; now, Pollard, Bravo(s), Roach) or resigned defeat.

Not having watched the West Indies greats (other than in polemical documentaries, i.e. Fire in Babylon), I can’t say I completely identify with prevailing sentiment. I suspect this malaise is more felt by a previous generation, and its source isn’t merely the facts on the ground — namely, the string of Test losses and mediocre players — but nostalgia. There’s also a sense of human limits: a feeling that men grow old, they leave the realm of action and the next generation does not always take its place.

That may be the most difficult element of the West Indies storyline: it runs counter to the progressive vision of history of constant improvement and a trend-line always-on-the-up. The vision of decline on display frightens older folk, but it also serves as a cautionary tale for those in the 20s (especially us Americans, currently facing the limits of power). More hardened folk would look at the West Indies’ run from 1975-1995 and say, “Such great feats are to be admired, but never repeated,” and accept history’s judgment that the small archipelago enjoyed an anomalous run.

But the fears remain: what if India cannot sustain its own brilliant run? What if we turn into Australia, now in the midst of severe infighting? What if the talent dries up? Who will fill the ranks of the next generation? Looking at the West Indies now is like studying Ancient Rome and wondering, What if our own grand works will be reduced to dust?

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