Category Archives: Australia

Diagnosing Australia

Jarrod Kimber has a fine essay on Cricinfo about all that ails Australia. It’s a beautiful piece, and I recommend it in full. That said, while I’m not nearly as smart or observant as Kimber (the little I know about cricket, I learned from commentary), I want to add a note of caution to the recent diagnoses of Australia.

Please keep in mind, all ye critics, that Australia just lost a great number of players in the past five years. Not just any set of players — but some of the greatest to have ever played the game. In my mind, it is still an open question as to whether Australia will face a terminal decline (a la The West Indies), or merely slide to something more mediocre and less dominating (but still very, very good). I’d like to think that a nation with as much cricketing history, talent and infrastructure as Australia will not allow Michael Clarke to suffer as much as Brian Lara did in the early 2000s. We shall see.

At any rate, think about how different this team would be if they still had, say, Michael Hussey. I’m not saying that they would be winning now, but perhaps they’d be more like Sri Lanka’s Jayawardene-Sangakarra — a combination that can still occasionally stop the opposition in its tracks, and provide succor and stability to the rest of the (largely middling) batsmen. Hussey’s retirement (as I understand it) caught Clarke by surprise, and I think it’s fair to say this Australian team would have had a less embarrassing transition had Hussey stuck around for another year or two.

Because let’s keep in mind as well that Australia are also playing against England in England. We’re dismissive of Watson and Hughes and Cowan (and Warner), but both Cowan and Warner performed admirably against India when India played in Australia in 2011-12. Of course, England is not India — Jimmy Anderson and Swann are much better than latter-day Zaheer Khan and Ashwin. But playing in England against a great swing attack is no easy task; even the mighty Australians of yore (e.g., the 2005 squad) failed that test. (Please also note: When Anderson played in Australia in 2006-2007, he was a shambolic travesty: five wickets in three Tests and 93 overs. He got better, sure, but it took a long time.)

So what are we comparing this Australia to? Are we comparing it to the Australians who didn’t relinquish the Ashes urn for nearly two decades? If that’s the case, we’ve got a problem — we are refusing to recognize the greatness that has passed. No, compare Australia to a team that’s in the middle of a generational change — didn’t England suffer in 2006-2007? Didn’t India suffer in 2011 (against both Australia and England)? Every cricket fan from every country has been humiliated in the past; now it’s your turn, Aussies. Stop being so dramatic about it.

Is It Time To Root For Australia?

Like most cricket fans who matured in the 1990s, I have very little love for Australia. Here’s a team that won three World Cups in a row, along with 16 consecutive Test games. Here’s also a team that had some of the most arrogant (and capable) players on its scorecard — people like Hayden, and Warne, and Ponting…that is, players who inspired more respect than love. I had a friend in Bombay who told me once he always rooted for Australia, and it nearly destroyed our relationship. Because it signaled a lack of imagination — it’s like rooting for the sun to come up, right? (I felt the same way about Federer fans in the mid-2000s.)

But all that’s gone now. I don’t think Australia is as bad as people say, but they are clearly not as good as they once were. Should we bury our resentment and forgive Australia for their past sins? Do you still draw strength from watching them fail? It’s funny how time shapes our preferences and favors. I imagine there is a whole lot of fans from the 1970s and 1980s who still respect the West Indies team, despite the last decade and a half. I wish I could throw off my 1990s skin and like this Australian team, but then they go and do something silly like appoint Darren Lehmann coach. All of a sudden, the flashbacks appear — the brashness, the “I’m too stupid to understand sports science,” the masculine chumminess. I suppose it’ll take 16 consecutive defeats before I’m ready to urge on an Australian victory.

Three Thoughts on Australia’s HomeworkGate

1. Michael Clarke says that the punishment came after a series of incidents, and not just one. Let’s assume he’s telling the truth — that is, let’s assume he didn’t rest four players (including his best pace bowler) because they didn’t complete a “mundane” assignment (more on that later). Let’s also realize that the issue involves more than silly paperwork. The culture of an organization — in this case, a cricket squad — is immensely important. (John Wright, India’s first successful foreign coach, once marveled at how junior Indian cricketers would have to bring tea to the seniors– a tradition that no doubt unleashed waves of resentment, entitlement, etc.) For a team like Australia, where most of the players haven’t played many Tests, this period marks a dangerous moment: the rookies don’t know the traditions or the rituals or the customs, and they could set Australia on a course very different from the one it’s been on for the past 15 years. Listen to what Clarke says:

“We can’t accept mediocrity here. This is the Australian cricket team. Maybe I am biased [but] there is a big difference between this team and other cricket teams. If you play for Australia there is a lot that comes with that and standards, discipline, culture that is all a big part of what we are talking about here.” [emphasis added]

Clarke sees the future, and it’s bleak. He probably knows that Australia will likely not dominate the way it did in the 1990s and 2000s, but there’s a still a lot of room between South Africa and Bangladesh. We can disagree about where culture comes from, or how best to enforce its norms. [The Indians tend to favor a fatherly foreign coach who leads by example (Kirsten apparently moved Indian cricketers to become fit because he was, as a 40-plus-year-old, more capable than they were) or by gentle coaxing. Not really sure what moves Australians.]

2. I find it a bit strange to read posts about how Australia’s management technique appears to be ripped straight from Office Space, a 1990s film that lampooned the tedious, bureaucratic and often meaningless rituals of American managerial culture. So some people didn’t file their paperwork before a deadline! Big deal! What if they were training all day? Yeah, except this is what modern athlete management looks like. It means that players have to file tons of paperwork to let coaches know their fitness levels, how much they need to train, and rest, etc. When we were all praising England’s player management, what did we think we were talking about? This is the “price of modern cricket,” as I wrote in 2011 — someone records and analyzes hundreds of hours of video footage, then tells bowlers what’s wrong with their action, and then the players train obsessively to correct it. Or players go on the field wearing instruments strapped to their arm to measure every single step they take. The reason I find the Indian approach to cricket exasperating is that it is largely unplanned, ad hoc, and driven by often competing (and fickle) impulses.

3. In 2010, I quoted from David Foster Wallace’s incredible profile of Michael Joyce, in which he examined the kind of intelligence that is needed to succeed as a modern athlete. Wallace’s conclusion — that you have to completely zone out as many intellectual distractions as possible — suggests modern athletes are, basically, a special kind of dumb. Now, in that post, I wondered whether the same could be said of cricketers, whom I like to think are a breed apart from their colleagues in soccer or rugby or swimming or even tennis. The sheer complexity of Test cricket and its length of time require both discipline and strategic nous.

Or does it? Tom Moody’s reaction to the sacking was basically, ‘Well, fast bowlers aren’t the best at writing reports.’ But Mickey Arthur presumably wasn’t asking for intellectual manuscripts; he wanted his cricketers to reflect and think about their game. It’s a very common exercise in coaching — “Tell me what you think you did wrong” — as it forces you to get out of habit and to see your flaws. Wasim Akram once said that he’d often be frustrated when batsmen-captains hoped to get him to bowl better by saying cliched stuff like, “Line and length, line and length.” Wasim would think, “But why am I not bowling line and length right now? Why am I failing?” So, this wasn’t really that ridiculous an assignment at all — if you want a bunch of players who can analyze their strengths and weaknesses and express them clearly enough, then this makes perfect sense to me.

The DRS Will Not Give You The Truth

Over at A Cricketing View, Kartikeya has another excellent post on DRS (at this point, the man could put together a 1000-page collection of his writing on the subject). In reviewing yesterday’s Michael Clarke LBW decision, Kartikeya reiterates a conclusion I’ve long supported: that the DRS, far from offering an objective, neutral, “scientific” review, merely offers just another subjective description of reality. The debate over umpire review is not one of Truth (i.e. Machine) v. Non-Truth (i.e. Human Fallibility); it is, and always has been, Sorta Truth v. Sorta Truth. The crisis we face in cricket is trying to decide whether we want to replace one mode of judgement — human observation — for another — computer/video gizmos. There’s no escaping the wormhole, friends.

I just want to add a quick reflection on this Ian Chappell quote (reported by Kartikeya in his post):

“There never has been, nor will there ever be, a case where a 50-50 decision causes animosity on the cricket field. Players are conditioned to accept that one day these decisions will go your way and the next they’ll go against you. What does cause animosity on the field is the absolute howler that can change the course of a match.”

I’d like to suggest that this is not actually true anymore. During Day 4, a couple of Australian batsmen — David Warner and Ed Cowan, I think — behaved as if they were wrongly given out. As they shook their heads while walking back to the pavilion, they seemed to be saying, “If only the BCCI allowed DRS! Oh, the travesty!” By my estimate, however, only Warner could claim that his case was close, but both decisions were eminently reasonable.

Now, maybe this was just two isolated examples of touchy batsmen, but I think the existence of DRS has alarmingly fed this myth among players (and perhaps fans?) that umpires are fallible and that machines are not. That is to say, DRS is starting to eliminate the howler/non-howler distinction; anything marginal or benefit-of-the-doubty is considered an outright injustice. I imagine that as more players come to experience DRS, or a successful umpire review, they will increasingly believe that the umpires must be wrong. Looking at the number of unsuccessful reviews (mostly for LBWs) over the years, I wrote on Twitter  that DRS has revealed either how many cricketers don’t seem to understand the rules of the game, or, more charitably, how many use terribly biased sensory perception to evaluate reality.

In the quest to remove “absolute howlers,” we may have inadvertently destroyed the authority and tradition of the cricket umpire, one of the quirkiest (and I think essential) figures in sport. And for what? Look again at Michael Clarke’s reaction to his dismissal — as Kartikeya writes, he looked ruefully at the pitch, because had the ball not hit a certain spot, it would not have bounced so erratically. Fate and chance conspired against Clarke, but does anyone among us believe it to be unfair? Of course not! Why can’t we treat the umpire who occasionally errs in the same fashion? Why are we willing to forgive landmine pitches, but not extremely competent umpires who mess up now and then?

Just Who — Or What — Is Shane Watson?

Does anyone know what, who, or why Shane Watson is? Are we fascinated/infuriated with him because we cannot understand him? How can someone alternate so quickly and so often from injured to essential to needy to demanding to invaluable? From Cricinfo, an almost-daily exercise in trying to uncover Watson’s true nature:

watson1 watson9 watson8 watson7 watson6 watson5 watson4watson10

Cameron White Is Wrong About Marlon ‘The Legend’ Samuels

Just a quick recap for non-cricket fans: After Shane Warne got in Marlon Samuels’ face during a game, Warne then threw a cricket ball at Samuels (it  may have just been by accident). At this point, Samuels — who, really, had just heard quite a tirade from Warne — threw his bat high in the air (and in Warne’s general direction). The video is below:

So, Warne got into a fair amount of trouble, but Cricinfo reports the verdict for Samuels (and Cameron White’s reaction):

Samuels was let off with a reprimand after the Code of Conduct commissioner John Price ruled that Samuels threw his bat after “extreme provocation” from Warne, who had just thrown a ball that hit Samuels.

“Being provoked, I don’t think you can use that as an excuse,” White said in Melbourne on Tuesday. “It’s remarkable, isn’t it? How many times have you seen someone throw their cricket bat on a cricket field and get [reprimanded] for being extremely provoked? I’ve never seen it before. That’s what the judiciary came up with.”

White is acting as many parents do when their squabbling children start to yell, “Well he started it — No, I didn’t — Yes, you did!”  The easiest course for any parent at this point is to appear neutral and punish both sides equally, and leave aside the thorny factual question of who started what.

While that approach may work for parenting, it’s silly when it comes to adjudicating conflicts among adults. Sticks and stones may break bones, but words can still fucking hurt. Warne was clearly the provocateur during this incident, and his constant, unyielding attempts to unsettle Samuels was designed to elicit some reaction.* I’m passionate about this case because of a similar one that occurred in 2008 between Gautam Gambhir and Shane Watson. The Australian tormented Gambhir during the course of his innings, and started to swear at him. Gambhir, understandably angry, elbowed Watson. The judge — the estimable A. Sachs — dismissed Anil Kumble’s argument that swearing is particularly offensive to South Asians, who place high stock on the power of words. As he put it, “However severe the verbal assaults on them may be, players are obliged not to give vent to their anger through physical retaliation.”

Again, very silly. Speech matters, and it can in fact cause harm. To focus on the physical aspect of an argument seems natural, since violence among men is always a concern. But it is ridiculous not to view harmful speech as potentially injurious as well. Sachs would prefer that players turn the other cheek for as long as they stay at the crease, and maintain a masculine silence about the whole thing. Meanwhile, the sledger — the one having fun at somebody’s expense — enjoys a massive legal loophole, because he knows that, to a large extent, sledging in cricket is tolerated (and increasingly celebrated).

No, commissioner Price was right, and White wrong: you get in another player’s face, then you should expect to have a cricket bat coming at you.

*I understand that Warne was simply “repaying” Samuels for tugging at Hussey’s shirt, which I felt was reprehensible. However, cricketers are not judges, and Warne should have left it to the match referee to pass judgment on Samuels.

I Still Like England

My Spidey-senses may be off, but I detected a notable whiff of Anglophobia on Twitter as the South Africans were finishing them off at the Oval. I think I know why: a) England humiliated India, so a bunch of unhinged fans are panting for revenge; b) the English press, buoyed by an impressive at-home record, have lost any sense of humility, and c) some folk genuinely like South Africa and want to see them do well. (Why aren’t there more rabid South Africa fans, by the way?)

But I think a lot of people dislike England because they suspect it’s the new Australia. That is, they may be the latest team that will dominate cricket in a ruthless fashion and with meticulous detail. I think we’re all worried because, as I wrote, we now live in a polarized cricket world, wherein S.A., England and Australia (and, on a good day, India)  can all claim the No. 1 spot. And by and large, I’m OK with that, because each team on that list has suffered embarrassing humiliation in the last few years (think whitewash for England and India; think Ashes losses for Australia, and think “choker” for South Africa).

These teams aren’t Australia, 1990s edition — they are more human and flawed and occasionally brilliant. And that’s why England don’t bother me all that much. Even after that 4-0 India drubbing, I could cling to at least one thing — in 2007, I watched this team succumb 5-0. I saw them at their worst. That’s something I couldn’t think of Steve Waugh’s lot.

Relive The 2005 Ashes

I saw this documentary on television once and then spent years on the Internet trying to find a copy (mostly for the Stephen Fry commentary). There are great cameos from Mike Atherton (who explains why Shane Warne was so difficult to face), as well as Simon Hughes, whom I adore. There’s also a great dissection of the Warne-Ponting relationship. If you feel any need to indulge Flintoff/Simon Jones nostalgia, or “the swing works the oracle again,” spend the hour-plus watching this:

P.S.: Now that I think about it, the 2005 Ashes aren’t as significant as they were at the time, mainly because of the 5-0 drubbing that followed, but also because England went on to win in 2009 and 2010. Winning against Australia in Australia was monumental, and the hectic, manic Tests of 2005 seem almost amateurish compared to the clinical nature of their expedition down under. Still, watching these Tests is watching something real — the closeness of the games overshadows the guile, strategy and effort; only sheer desperation and human emotion are left.

Dealing With Greg Chappell’s Culture Argument

I’m generally not a fan of cultural determinism, which is why I don’t think much of Greg Chappell’s latest evaluation of the Indian team. Remember the days when economists dismissed the economic potential of Asia because of Confucian and Buddhist asceticism? Remember the ‘Hindu’ rate of growth? Or the many claims that Arabs, because of their tribal and ‘primitive’ ways, could not yearn for democracy?

The culture argument is also politically charged. A white Australian accusing the Indian team of lacking leadership because of the country’s culture — well, it’s designed for an incident at the United Nations. The problem is that Chappell can’t explain variances or anomalies — he says Indians can’t handle leadership because the country shoots down anyone willing to take responsibility; he then turns around and says he has nothing but respect for M. S. Dhoni.  Ergo, Dhoni isn’t Indian? He also can’t explain the relatively good run that India had until the England tour. Why did this deficient ‘culture’ kick in then, and not before?

Still, it’s important not to completely dimiss culture as a source for inquiry and analysis. Poverty researchers in America now kick themselves for ignoring the ‘culture of poverty‘ thesis after the 1960s, as they then ceded ground to conservative critiques of minority culture that lacked nuance and rigor. But I’m not even sure how to begin to analyze a team like India’s, with its motley collection of religion, regions, and languages. I suppose there’s also a larger question of organizational culture — a particular set of rules and customs inherent to a team structure independent of any external cultural origins.

But I wonder what it was like to be coached by Chappell. Did he secretly nurse every Orientalist stereotype of Indians — these effeminate, lazy, cheating, cunning boys who need strong discipline and education to become adults?

The Stages Of A Fast Bowler’s Life

I remember little from middle school, but I do recall a lesson on the Hindu conception of the stages of life. (Hint: you eventually reject life and wander the hills as an ascetic.) It seems fast bowlers go through an evolution as well, until they reach the final stage — a place currently occupied by the likes of Lasith Malinga and Zaheer Khan. It is here that bowlers learn (cue sonorous zen master voice) that to beat a batsman, you must first learn how to think like one.  And not only do you understand batsmen, you have the skill and control to execute the arcs of your plans.

Listen to the way commentators talk when Khan or Malinga run to the crease. They talk about each ball as if it’s part of a specific plan; it’s all evidence of a master plan — and watching it unfold over the course of a few overs is watching a master at his craft. He controls everything in his domain and the batsmen have little hope to do more than survive. I had this impression last night; Malinga bowled slower full balls; slower short balls; fast yorkers; slow yorkers; fast short balls — apart from a bad wide, I didn’t think the batsmen were going to make it. (They didn’t.)

I think these types of bowlers are much more respected than those like Dale Steyn. Don’t get me wrong; Steyn is a great bowler with a similar level of control. But he relies on sheer pace, and he hasn’t been through the trial and tribulation Malinga or Khan have. Steyn is all about innate talent; Malinga and Khan are about bowling within very strict limitations. Wasim Akram may have been the first true fast bowler guru who understood mortality and ascended to nirvana; he shortened his run-up, figured out how to hold a ball, and then knew exactly where it would land and what it would do. All those who follow are reincarnations.

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