Category Archives: West Indies

Is Dhoni A Feckless Compromiser, Or A Wise Man In Difficult Times?

Not that I’m obsessed with Teesra or anything, but I want to add to Devanshu’s discussion about the Dominica Test result/travesty/surrender. Devanshu argues that the Dominica Test is important, and more so now than it was at the time. Sitting on a 1-0 lead against the West Indies in 2011, you will recall, Dhoni decided to agree to a draw rather than chase a slightly risky target in the final Test. Since then, India have amassed one of their worst losing streaks, and Devanshu suggests we now view the Dominica Test not as “an inexplicable move by a #1 team, but as a tragic harbinger of a team in decline.” He argues that Dhoni’s move, far from betraying a defensive mindset, instead suggests that Dhoni accurately assessed his team’s talent, found it wanting, and decided to defer to loss aversion.

Samir Chopra disagrees, and on Twitter, he began a vigorous debate about what social scientists call the “direction of causality.” That is, Does India’s low talent lead to a defensive mindset? (Devanshu’s position), or Does India’s defensive mindset lead to its low talent? (Roughly, Samir’s position.) [Sidenote: This debate over Dhoni -- who can be infuriatingly defensive -- parallels many liberals' frustration with President Obama. Is he timid because he knows how insanely difficult Washington, D.C. is right now? (My position, roughly.) Or is Washington, D.C., so incompetent because it needs a take-no-prisoners president at its helm? (Most liberals' position.) End sidenote.]

This is a tough one. I’ve suggested in earlier posts that emotion has a rightful place in any sportsman’s arsenal; just watch Dale Steyn unleash the inner Hulk by getting angry at the most innocuous batsmen. And you don’t need to be a silly teenager (as I was) to believe that Ganguly’s fiery, improbably self-assured captaincy was what India needed in a leader. But I’ve also long believed that the West Indies and Australia dominated not necessarily because of their “aggression,” but because of their obvious skill. The fact of the matter is that this Indian team just isn’t that good, and even on its best days in the 2000s, it rarely had all three departments (batting, fielding, bowling) working together. If you have several Hall of Famers in all parts of your team (as Aus. and West Indies did, and South Africa do now), you go for the kill. If you don’t (India played at Dominica with batting newbies like Mukund, Vijay, Raina, Kohli, and bowlers like Munaf Patel and Praveen Kumar and Ishant Sharma), you take the money and run, as Devanshu notes. Dhoni did what any person bargaining from a weak position should — try to get what you can, not everything. To do otherwise is foolish.

After Dominica, I suggested that Dhoni was trying a new framework for dominance, what I called “Meh.” (At the time, India had won the World Cup and was No. 1 in Tests.) That is, India didn’t want to win Dominica because it really didn’t matter; what’s another Test win against a lowly team? At its worst, this attitude suggests a complacent arrogance (and indifference to the audience), but at its best, it is a form of dominance — “I’m so much better than you than I can’t be bothered to spend another hour on this field trying to win this pointless exercise.” At the time, I thought this was the correct interpretation; now, however, I much prefer Devanshu’s. The Dominica Test was not a “meh” draw; it was a shrewd move by a captain who looked at his team, saw that it wasn’t capable of greatness, and decided to settle. After 0-8 against England and Australia, and 1-2 against England in India, I am more than happy to have that 1-0 against the West Indies. Whoever said “offense is the best defense” never saw Ishant Sharma bowl.

Dealing With The West Indies’ Mediocrity

For a while, there was a dominant theme among cricket writers dealing with the downfall of the West Indies. During each Windies series, they would search for signs of renewal, then either find them or conclude that none exist and bemoan the loss of a great cricketing legacy. Now, however, thanks to some better-than-expected outings in India, Lord’s and at home from the West Indians, these writers have sharpened their pens: This team does reasonably well (given the circumstances), but where is Gayle and the other Bravo? Why can’t Darren Sammy do more? Why can’t they string more good sessions together?

Let me humbly offer an alternative to this fit of rising expectations: the most I ever hope for from any two teams is to be entertained. There’s a lot of bonus stuff apart from that, but if two teams give me a reason to watch, the end result largely does not matter (if India is playing, I’ll add a big asterisk to this statement). So, for me right now, I watch the Windies because of Chanderpaul and Bravo, and occasionally a supporting actor (Samuels, or Roach, or Bishoo). I also have come to appreciate their brand of attritional cricket, which may not ever deliver victory, but is a) a throwback to olden times; b) a “price” on victory; and c) perfect for the setting in England. I can’t tell you how much joy I derive from nothing happening on a cricket field.

So, then, does it matter to me that the Windies will lose this series? Not really. Should I get myself into knots about their performance? Again, not really — as long as the above factors are in play, I’m happy. Jarrod Kimber may argue that this attitude is condescending; as he memorably writes, the whole reason we like the Windies is that they are underdogs, occasionally play above expectations, but rarely challenge a preferred team. But I think most writers on the Windies suffer from the past, and so watching the Windies play now is always a reminder of what-use-to-be. I much prefer my approach: find something to like, enjoy it, and then move on.

The Big If For The West Indies

From Andrew McGlashan, reporting on a strong day for the Windies against the Lions:

If Kemar Roach, Fidel Edwards and Ravi Rampaul can be given decent totals to bowl at West Indies could provide stern opposition…

Much of the series, then, will depend on Darren Bravo and Shiv Chanderpaul. Two good reasons to watch.

Can We Blame R. Ashwin For Not Taking That Second Run?

Kridaya links to a plaintive tweet from R. Ashwin and asks whether the spinner/batsman could have, in fact, won the game against the West Indies:

From the video, it looked like Ashwin was way back in his crease and played the shot off his back foot. Perhaps that was the only way to play the shot, but it also meant that he didn’t have much momentum going into the run. By the time he had pushed himself off to take the run, Varun Aaron was already halfway to the striker’s end. If Ashwin had been jumping out of his crease, taking a few strides and hit the ball somewhere to the side of some fielder, it could have opened up the possibility of a tight second run and because of that, put more pressure on the fielder and maybe a useful misfield.

Kridaya quickly (and rightly) notes that all this is easier said than done. I, for one, wouldn’t even think about “jumping out of my crease” against Fidel Edwards (or even Darren Sammy, actually). And Kridaya is also right to point out that to blame Ashwin misses the larger picture; he did as much as anyone else to bring India so close to an improbable victory. No, once again, the fault (if you must find one) lies with the vaunted Big 4, who failed to put their collective heads down and grind out a century a la Darren Bravo, leaving India behind in the 2nd innings.

Which is all to say that I found Arun Lal incredibly annoying at the end of the game. With his grating, whining voice, he kept asking why Ashwin didn’t run harder. “I can’t understand it,” he said, over and over again. There aren’t many ways for commentators to express dismay and frustration without sounding like know-it-all Indian uncles. Sunil Gavaskar is even worse; he adeptly mixes condescension and backseat-driver-confidence. He usually sounds like the know-it-all Indian uncle who emigrated to America and returns on vacation to tell Indians why their country will never be great.

Word of advice: if you don’t understand why a player on a cricket field did something, just follow this French commentator’s cue after the infamous Zidane headbutt. “Eh pourquoi? Mais pourquoi?”

 

The India-West Indies Test Depresses Me

So far, none of the reasons I offered to watch the West Indies Test has come good. That may change today if Darren Bravo and Chanderpaul “come to the party,” as Ravi Shastri would say, but it’s unlikely. We are going to see another India Test victory here, and it’s the most boring kind: a huge 1st innings score, followed by two pointless (and long) days.

Now, I’m a cricket fan. A serious one. So I’ve followed this Test and I’ll see it to its conclusion. I also know enough to try and invent excuses to keep myself interested (yesterday, it was R. Ashwin; today it’ll be Bravo). But would the average fan, stressed in the middle of the week, care to watch this? Why are we putting out a product that we know has only minimal interest for the market?

Other bloggers, all much smarter than I, have offered solutions. Make it easier to get into stadiums. (That includes slashing prices to nothing.) Schedule Tests on the weekend, please. Consider giving each Test some sort of context by creating a Test championship (a pipe dream, this one; the Big 4 — South Africa, Eng, Aus, and Ind — have no incentive to change the current setup, which gives them flexibility to schedule what series they want). I know that at some point, India has to play weak times like Zim, or West Indies or whatever, but can’t we give these games some stakes? The point can’t be, “Let’s give our batsmen practice so they’re ready for the Australians.”

I take that back. That’s not such a bad point. Carry on.

A Few Reasons to Watch India Play the West Indies

1. Shivnarine Chanderpaul. The man’s ugly as sin on camera, but somehow, he gets results (as shown on Day 1). If we’re lucky, we’ll see the Chanderpaul Special — keep hope alive by shepherding the tail, blocking hundreds of balls hour after after, and try to secure the draw. (Note: this performance is made even more special when Chanderpaul fails in his quest and his team loses.)

2. Darren Bravo. Don’t know much about this guy, other than he’s way more talented than Dwayne (half brother) and hopes to match Lara (first cousin once removed). The guy’s very, very young — which means I hate him all the more — but he looked solid against the Bangladeshis.

3. This may be the second-last series we see Dravid/Laxman/Tendulkar together. Scary thought.

4. Did Gautam Gambhir recover successfully from that concussion, or has a new, more incompetent alter-ego taken hold? Or did Duncan Fletcher take the opportunity to brainwash the lad?

5. We may finally be able to convince ourselves that India is ready to take on Australia in Australia. Granted, I’m assuming a convincing victory — and one against a middling team like the West Indies — but my nerves are shot. I need a confidence booster. Anything. Tell me this team used to be No. 1 only a few months ago.

Ishant Sharma and Hero Worship

Sriram Veera snags an interview with man-of-the-moment Ishant Sharma, who got his groove back during the series against West Indies. Unlike most exchanges with athletes, this interview makes for a fascinating read, particularly Sharma’s ruminations on his time in the “wilderness” — by my count, the period extending from his attack on Ricky Ponting at Perth until this last series. Take this little revelation:

I was trying to copy Zaheer Khan’s action. No doubt he is a great bowler, but I guess I shouldn’t have tried to copy his action. We are entirely different in styles. [...] When South Africa came to play in India, I started to copy him. I wanted to be a swing bowler. I was forgetting my natural strength of bounce and hitting the deck. When I bowl with my natural style, the ball automatically starts to inswing. That was my strong point, and I should have just stuck to that. That was my greatest mistake.

At first, I thought Sharma was completely and utterly daft for thinking he could become successful by simply copying another bowler’s action. I  thought a bowler’s action was sacred stuff; each one has his own signature (and each with his own tell). For Sharma to think he could just be like Zaheer by, um, being Zaheer betrays a comically childish perspective. It’s common among teenagers and cricket fans to copy the greats during pick-up games; to see an international player do the same is kind of shocking.

But, but, but: I stopped this train of thought in its tracks when I read Sharma is only 22 — a baby in both the athletic and real worlds. Imagine being that age and having colleagues like Khan, Tendulkar, and so on. What does that do to your psyche? How do you cope with the pressure and the inevitable failures? Consider also the particular charm of this confession. In the age of bowling coaches and video training and biomechanics and what not, Ishant Sharma has just confessed to changing his action because he wanted to be like his idol. That’s a beautiful thing — modern athletes rarely betray such naivete and wish-fulfillment. I guess we all have dreams.

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.

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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