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Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Cricket - An Asian Sport

Recent article by Steve James, ex-England Test Cricketer, in the Telegraph of 16th April 2011 makes a thought provoking read. The article refers to raging debates on the question - ‘Is the influence of Asia destroying world Cricket?’

James also presents his arguments in predicting the eminent fall of Indian Cricket, marked by their defeat in this English summer. Indian Test stature is under threat, thanks to its senior players getting too old, the absence of a coach at present, and the risk of complacency, caused by the extreme adulation the Indian Cricketers enjoy. 

A few weeks ago former ICC Chief Executive, Malcolm Speed released his memoirs, Sticky Wicket, making the point that “India's influence must be managed”

Over two billions viewers follow Cricket today according to most estimates, making it the second most watched sport in the world, second only to the “Beautiful Game”. A very large majority of these followers are Asian. These fans in their numbers and the market they represent make Cricket the powerful sport it is today. Thanks mainly to the invention of new formats pioneered in England, this fan base is growing. The early innovation in Cricket was accelerated by the World Series Cricket of Kerry Packer in the late 1970’s. As veteran game fanatics will recall, the World Series Cricket was a player mutiny against their respective Boards, for disproportionately low rewards. It was also recognition of the media possibilities in this relatively confined sport.  

In my analysis, these two issues - the negative impact of Asian dominance on world Cricket, and India’s fate in the English summer, are largely unrelated.

The second one is more fun to dissect, from a followers’ perspective. It has everything to do with on field performance, so that’s where we go first.   

India has held the number one Test ranking since Dec 2009. This rise was hard fought over a long period of building. Like every team sport which has top drawer contenders, at some point the top spot will be occupied by another competent side. The era of Test Cricket domination for a decade or more is now probably over. In the long history of the game there have been long periods of domination by England, Australia and the West Indies. The top spot in recent times has always been under threat, much like ATP rankings of tennis pros. This is good for the game, as uncontested leadership makes the sport less exciting. Recall the period of domination in F1 of the Ferrari Schumacher combination, which forced significant changes to the sport, to open up the field. In Test Cricket today there are at least five teams at any point within striking distance of the number one spot, keeping the whole “Cricket Industry” interested. Akin to the changes in F1, the threshold into this variable era of Test Cricket leadership was marked by the famous English victory over the dominant Aussies in the Ashes summer of 2005.   
  
No team can afford complacency, beyond a healthy level of confidence, aiming to maintain the winning habit and the momentum. India will be very conscious of complacency, either for the upcoming West Indies tour or the English tour this summer. England, they well know have always been very tough competitors, especially in their own typical conditions.

Any ardent follower of Cricket will know that all teams go through periods of uncertainty and change at the helm. England and India are no different. Both teams in the past years have had changes and issues in this area. At present England and India seem to be the among the few Test teams going through a phase of stability in Test Captaincy. Gary Kirsten, most certainly did a tough job as India Coach and did it brilliantly, as did his opposite number, Andy Flower, for England. These are big shoes to fill. Both men are highly regarded by their respective teams. The picture of Gary Kirsten on the shoulders of the Indian team at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai a few weeks ago is iconic. Gary understood the nuisances of the job and deserves all the accolades he has received from Dhoni, Tendulkar and the others.

Trouble at senior management level is not unheard of, in sport or otherwise. It happens sometimes in the public eye, as it did between Saurav Ganguly and Greg Chappel. However this is not unique. This headline is not that far back, 7th Jan 2009, on BBC Sport website “England captain Kevin Pietersen has quit in the wake of his rift with coach Peter Moores, who has been sacked.”

We recall the impact on Australia with the departure of McGrath, Gilchrist, Warne and Hayden in quick succession. Their rebuilding process has been ongoing since. The Indian Test side have long standing performers in Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and Zaheer Khan, who are not getting younger. This is certainly a concern for Indian Cricket and an opportunity for the opposition, be it West Indies or England.

A closer look at the last Test Series India played in England in July-Aug 2007 throws up interesting points to ponder. The ground conditions were tailored to suit the strengths of the English attack. In this series of three Tests, 80 wickets were accounted for by seamers; 41 of these were shared between the Indian seamers, including Zaheer Khan, RP Singh and Sreesanth. The English seam attack of Sidebottom, Anderson, Tremlett were equally dominant bagging 39 Indian wickets.

India’s veteran performers Tendulkar (averaged 38) and Dravid (averaged 25) did not make a big impact in this series. Laxman and Dhoni each averaged above 50, while the only centurion for India in the series was Anil Kumble at the ripe old age of 37, in his 118th Test appearance, as I recall. The top run getter for India in the Series was young Dinesh Karthik, who does not find a place in the Test side at present. Sehwag was not included in the touring party, and Yuvraj did not get a Test, though he was in the team.

A good domestic circuit, the annual gluttony of the glitzy Indian Premier League and the three international level formats, all seem to help India find young batting talent. Examples in recent times that are visible include Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina, and are in good company with the likes Gambhir, Sehwag, Dhoni, Yuvraj, Harbhajan, Ishant and Sreesanth. The selection of the Indian Test side for the English summer will present a few good problems to the Indian selectors.   

England has some of the best regarded Test  players in their ranks. Insatiable appetites like Alistair Cook, Jonathan Trott, alongside skipper Andrew Strauss, Ian Bell, Kevin Pietersen, Ravi Bopara and Matt Prior. The real strength in the English squad will be provided by the bowling battery of Anderson, Swann, Broad, Tremlett, Finn and Bresnan. That is a very strong line up, in any conditions. Engalnd selectors also have a problem of plenty.

It is surprising though that in several quarters there remains a popular belief that India is spin heavy and depends on turning tracks. The best spin bowler in the world today is Swanny, who spins the ball and uses the bounce, in all conditions. Name two top class Test spinners in India today? Harbhajan Singh and….…….….my point exactly! Going back again to the 2007 series, the only stand out spinners were Kumble and Monty. There is emerging talent in the Indian spin department, the likes of Amit Mishra, R.Ashwin and Pragyan Ohja, but these players have yet to make an impact at the Test level.    

Seaming pitches and heavy weather conditions in England are enjoyed by all bowlers, as evidenced in the 2007 series. Way it probably works is that a seamer who works to swing the ball in the sub-continent, exploits English conditions as well, if not better. Pitches around the world, other than those in the sub-continent, offer pace and bounce in varying degrees. It is the heavy conditions in England that add to the drama. The English groundsmen prepared the pitches to seam specifications in the 2007 series, and yet the one really tough period Indian batsmen faced was at Lord’s on an overcast fifth day, when Anderson and Sidebottom were swinging and seaming away.  

There is no doubt that the upcoming England India Series will be a tough contest, a hard fought battle, and to die for, for the Cricket aficionado. The predication of English dominance may need support from the weather, more than the grounds men. And as we know, it hardly ever rains in England!

There ends my analysis and thoughts on the India England Test Series of summer 2011. 

Watch this space for the second and concluding part.   

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