Tuesday, March 13, 2007

A calypso for the master

A friend of mine is going to the Carribbean for the World Cup. He wanted me to write a calypso so that he could put up a banner. I don't know if it even remotely resembles one, but, anyway, here goes:

Three slips and a gully;
Pacers seething under their sunscreen,
Find da out-of-shape cherry,
Smashed back over da sightscreen.

Spinners can weave their spin
Do their drift or bounce or turn
But they're bowling to da kingpin
He milk da gaps for runs.

Ya fielders can sit back, drink a rum
Or watch mastery over a pint o' beer,
Ma'an, bring out da pipes and drum,
His Majesty, Lord Tendulkar is here.

He is da master of leg breaks, they hushed,
And the zooter, the flipper -- he's Warney.
Lord Tendulkar danced down and smashed
And Warney look real corny!

Y'all sit back and drink a rum
Or swig a pint o' beer,
Ma'an, bring out da pipes and drum,
His Majesty, Lord Tendulkar is here.

"He's my target," coo McGrath
"I will out him," he boasted.
Mighty Lord Tendulkar's wrath
Had da pigeon roasted.

Y'all sit back and drink a rum
Or swig a pint o' beer,
Ma'an, bring out da pipes and drum,
His Majesty, Lord Tendulkar is here.

"Fell him with pace, I can."
"I'm da fastest," say Shoaib Akthar.
When da ball sail over third-man,
He look like B-grade actor.

Y'all sit back and drink a rum
Or swig a pint o' beer,
Ma'an, bring out da pipes and drum,
His Majesty, Lord Tendulkar is here.

"I find a chink in his armour,"
Proclaim foolish Andy Caddick.
He was send out of da deep-midwicket stand
To look for da ball and his... trick!

Y'all sit back and drink a rum
Or swig a pint o' beer,
Ma'an, bring out da pipes and drum,
His Majesty, Lord Tendulkar is here.

And then the silly Olonga
He bowl an irreverent bouncah
The next time Lord Tendulka'
Make him fall Oblonga!

Da Don, da King and da Prince
Will all sit back, drink a rum,
Or watch mastery over a pint o' beer,
Ma'an, bring out da pipes and drum,
His Majesty, Lord Tendulkar is here!

-- Lord Imitator

Friday, February 17, 2006

Tendulkar vs Dravid: what is technique, really?

After India's third ODI against Pakistan, upon reading this article from Cricinfo blogs, I decided that I really did not understand what all this fuss was about: Tendulkar has been, in my mind, clearly technically superior to any of his contemporaries, and, arguably, of all time (I have not seen Bradman play). Nevertheless, I liked the article because it said good things about Tendulkar. And I forwarded it to groups of friends who shared my interest for cricket.

That caused me to be involved in a rather healthy discussion with a friend who responded to my forward.

He said, "It is clear that Dravid is (and has been for the last 2-3 years) the better batsman of the two in terms of statistics, clutch performances, consistency; however one wants to cut it. I do not believe that his one innings (his 95 in the third one-dayer) changed that one bit. In my opinion, Tendulkar was better technically, and no longer is."

I wrote back, "As you put it, in the last 2 years, in terms of statistics, defining performances and consistency, Dravid has been the better man. Clearly. And, in a sense, that is a reflection of his phlegmatic temperament and his well-honed routines at the crease, which help him switch off between deliveries and switch on effectively. Rahul Dravid has a tight defensive 'technique': a technique that works really well for him and integrates well with the qualities mentioned above. When I hear people speak about his 'technique', the entire package is what, I find, most of them are referring to. Sure, Dravid has an excellent defensive technique. But to say that Dravid is technically sound is quite another thing. If that sounds blasphemous, this is what I mean:

"Let us consider the approach of viewing every ball at face value, and simply base our judgement of how that particular ball is played. Then, our assessment of how well the ball is played and the percentage of risk involved in (1) the selection and (2) the execution of the stroke, and the ability to do it on a regular basis will essentially define the quality of the player. In my opinion, on these benchmarks, Tendulkar is definitely a better player. Even after taking into consideration the fact that, after his elbow surgery, the top-hand is not in as much control of his shots as it should be. Technique, to me, is more than just the grip or how one lifts the bat. It is about balance, and always getting into a position which allows you maximum time to play the safest and most productive shot to a delivery. There is a certain compactness and precision -- an inexplicable assurance -- about Tendulkar's positioning which, to me, is a fruit of his method, perseverance and the learning environment that he must have grown up (as a batsman) in. It is an extremely rare quality to find in a batsman. Even rarer in an attacking batsman. Even Gavaskar, for all his compactness, used to fall over his flicks at times, or, get caught in the slip cordon often. Let me give you one example of what I mean. I have never seen Tendulkar move too early to play a shot: I have never seen him being opened up by a delivery. On the other hand, Dravid has been shown up by top bowlers like Wasim Akram (Chennai test, and the entire 1999 series in fact) and Shane Warne (looping it on the leg stump, drawing him forward and beating him with the turn). On the other hand, Sachin has not, so far, displayed any such weakness. (A common criticism of him has been that he has played across many a time and has been bowled or LBW. But that is more a suggestion of intent than one of technique.) He always makes precise movements at the latest possible split second.

"In short, Dravid's technique is about his defensive play, while Sachin's technique is about his shot making ability. But the figures over the last two or three years show that technique is not the only thing that matters. It is all about being in (and maintaining) a frame of mind that facilitates the best expression of your technique."

It looked like both of us seemed seemed to agree on the major points and the point of contention of this discussion was merely our slightly different interpretations of the word "technique". To him, it is "just a means to get to the goal and the goal is scoring runs consistently and in diverse circumstances", while I'd like to think of technique as one's methodology of reacting to a ball and playing it safely and productively, preferring to relate the mental aspect with "temperament".

Whatever you choose to think of technique (and temperament) as, what is most important is that your "technique" (and your temperament) should work for you. The best "technique" (and temperament) is one that helps you bat for long periods and score the most runs possible in a situation.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Observations on Sachin Tendulkar

Sachin, Nov, 26, 2005 (Pic courtesy: Indiatimes)

Sachin, Jan 7, 2003 (Pic courtesy: The Hindu)

(This post was originally posted at http://panvista.blogspot.com. Have reposted it here considering the topical relevance to this blog.)

Much has already been said and written about Sachin Tendulkar's return to international cricket: his onslaught in the first two innings and the subsequent quiet. The batsmanship of Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar -- his compactness in technique, minimal and precise footwork, balance, the power he generates on his shots and, most of all, his understanding of his own game -- has evoked a lot of interest from cricket followers world over.

Like millions of Indians, I find myself fascinated by the man's game when he is on song. Of particular interest to me are the technical adjustments that he makes for every series: the transfer of the shuffle to the front or back foot, and minor adjustments in his grip. Of late, I have been particularly intrigued by the change in the way he grips the bat. That he grips the bat very low on the handle is a well known fact. But, starting World Cup 2003, I noticed that Sachin began to grip the bat with the face of the bat more closed than earlier. It is tough to explain a grip, but I will make an effort to do so. It seemed to me that, when he gripped the bat, the webbing of his top hand was more towards to the "back" of the bat handle ( i.e. if you draw a line extending the line formed by the intersection of the two wedges at the back of the bat) than earlier and not towards the outside edge (as is in the conventional grip), while the webbing of his bottom hand had shifted a little towards the 'back inside edge' (the edge between the back of the bat and the surface of the inside edge) of the bat. Simply put, with this sort of a grip, the bat face will seem more closed than normal when one takes stance.

If a beginner tries to copy the grip, he will probably find his coach telling him that, with that kind of a grip, he will be restricting his range of shots on the off-side. But Sachin, almost all through the World Cup, did not even look like failing or having difficulty playing the classical extra-cover drives. On the bouncy wickets of South Africa, he was his aggressive best. I decided to observe more closely to try to get an inkling of how he managed to successfully adapt with that kind of a grip.

On closer observation, I found that his wrist-cock was more pronounced than before. I will try to describe what the cocked position of the wrist is. If you take stance holding the bat with your top hand alone, and, keeping your forearm still, try to lift your bat up straight back to about thirty degrees upward, you will find that the wrist of your top hand is in a cocked position. The wrist cock, any bio-mechanics expert will tell you, is one of the most important power-generating mechanisms while batting (or, for that matter, in most racquet sports). It is almost as if you wind the bat upwards and expend all the wound-up energy while coming down hard on the ball during the swing. Coming back to Sachin, to the simplistic observer, it looked almost as if he was levering the bat up (like with 2 class one levers in series, a fulcrum at the elbow and another at the wrist) and coming down on the ball. It seemed to me that he had made this technical adjustment for the bouncier wickets of South Africa, so that when the ball bounced more, this kind of a lever mechanism, in fact, made it easier for him to keep the ball down when he played the cover drive or the extra-cover drive, or even the flick. Most important, he was able to pull off this adjustment and still play the cover drive with ease because he was still side-on while shifting balance to the front foot and hence did not disturb the rotary mechanics of his trunk while hitting the ball. Also, most Australian and South African batsmen -- batsmen reared on bouncy tracks -- have a pronounced (sometimes exaggerated) wrist cock, and so the pieces seemed to fit and I could not help marvelling at the man's cricketing acumen.

When he was plagued by tendonitis in his left elbow -- the 'tennis elbow', so to speak -- the one major difference in his game was that the wrist cock was visibly absent. As a result, it looked like he was using only his bottom hand to pick the bat, and when he played the cover drives, it was almost as if he was trying to guide the drives into the cover-point gap using his bottom hand. There seemed to be very little of the top-hand in play. It was almost like the fulcrum at elbow during the levering action was missing; similar to how you 'cheat' while doing the tricep-curl at the gym, lying down, with the barbell, pulling your elbow out of the line. I find myself unable to recall seeing a single booming extra-cover drive during that period -- India's tour of Sri Lanka for a one-day tournament, and subsequently, Pakistan's tour of India. It was no surprise, really, that he chose to undergo surgery on the tendons of his left elbow.

The whole of India waited, with bated breath, for his return from surgery and every practice session of his made news. I managed to watch all his innings but the most recent two against South Africa -- starting from the Challenger Trophy -- since his return, and I noticed that there is more top-hand control in his shots now than there was pre-surgery. Why, in his return match against Sri Lanka, he played a well timed extra-cover drive and even came down the track to Maharoof and smashed him over extra-cover. But watching him smash the bowlers, though a very pleasurable experience, has, strangely, been not as fulfilling to watch as some of his earlier innings. For, it seems to me that the top-hand is still not taking complete control, and the wrist cock is still not quite in place, which is a sure sign that he is still recuperating from the surgery. When one cocks the wrist, the muscles of the outer forearm have to pull right back to the elbow while the tendons at the elbows stretch, and maybe his elbow is not quite ready to take the full stress yet. I found a couple of the photographs that have captured him all poised to play the ball. One cannot read too much into a couple of photographs but there are a couple of important leads in them. Specifically, notice the difference in the ways in which he has picked the bat. In the second photo (courtesy Indiatimes, Nov 26, 2005), he has picked the bat to play a shot and the wrist is not cocked (had it been cocked the bat will have been straighter and higher) and the left-elbow is a little out of the line. In contrast, look at the first photo (courtesy The Hindu, Jan 7, 2003) where you can see him waiting for the ball, the left hand firm, with the wrist cocked. Essentially, after watching his comeback matches, I seemed to get the idea that he is still in the process of recovering and not back to his fittest yet. And, I am hoping that this is indeed the case, and that this is not going to be a permanent niggle for him.

The Indian public will probably do well to give a thought to the possibility that he might have played the first two matches the way he did purely on adrenaline, and that he might not have recovered one hundred percent yet. And the Indian media will certainly do better to refrain from writing mindless baloney to instigate public opinion. It is paramount now that he is given a little more time (maybe even a break from cricket) before the scrutiny and the assessments begin. For, people like him (and Brian Lara and a few others) are of a rare breed that can pull the masses to the grounds and need to be nursed carefully through to their twilight. I hope, as the whole of India does, that Sachin remains to play for a good three years more, for the cricketing world will experience as much delight seeing very few other batsmen in action.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Leg Stump, please!

My good friend Vathsa and I have decided to start a blog to air our views and commentary on cricket -- the game, its technicalities and cricket literature. Vathsa is pretty conversant with cricket literature -- the likes of CLR James and Neville Cardus -- and I hope to pen some of my own thoughts on the technicalities of the game. So, we hope that the dichotomy that our varied interests might bring forth to this commentary will make this blog readable.

The first ball has already been bowled, and so it is time for us to take guard.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Sachin is a rare gem

Of all the Tendulkar panegyrics that are only too rampant everywhere, I took an especial liking to this article. It was one of those that I cut out of the day's newspaper and treasured. That it is written by Greg Chappell is no mere coincidence.

This article came out in print during the ICC Cricket World Cup, 2003. From the pages of The Hindu, Mar 5, 2003:

Sachin is a rare gem

By Greg Chappell

He is one of the best four batsmen I have seen and he is the best player of his generation.

What is it that makes Sachin Tendulkar so good?

He has an exceptional physical talent. He has outstanding balance. He is very competitive and is very strong. He has exceptional speed. He has great presence and an excellent temperament. He has a huge desire to be the best and he has an extraordinary mental ability.

Batting at the highest levels of the game is as much about mental skills as it is about physical talents.

The better players may have a greater range of strokes than the rest but you can bet they also have a greater mental capacity. Sir Donald Bradman was the best batsman of all time because he was the most determined and mentally strong batsman there has ever been. I am sure I have seen batsmen who have had as much physical talent as Bradman, but they have not had the same ruthless drive to make big scores. Bradman seldom felt the pressures of batting that mere mortals feel. This allowed him to concentrate for long periods.

What exactly is concentration?

Concentration is the ability to focus on the important things at the right moment while blocking out the rest. Some things are more relevant than others at different times. At the point of delivery the only thing that a batsman should see in his field of vision is the ball leaving the bowler's hand.

Just prior to the point of delivery the batsman should see the full view of the bowler as he folds up into the delivery position. The ability to be able to track between the two at the appropriate times separates the men from the boys.

Testing that was done with Bradman concluded that his eyesight and reflexes were within the normal' range. What he did better than the rest was to pick up the cues from the bowlers' action just prior to, and at the point of delivery, better than others.

I have no doubt Bradman, a well organised man, had a process of concentration for each and every delivery. His instincts were well trained from hours and hours of hitting golf balls with a cricket stump as a young man. His brain had a greater capacity for storing information than the most complex computers that man can build.

The most important part of a batsman's development happens in the early stages of learning the game. The instinctive skills that are learnt at this stage are relied upon when under pressure in a match situation. These instinctive skills are learnt rather than taught. A good coach will create the environment in which the young player will train these instincts. The early environment in which Sachin learnt his skills must have been excellent. His instincts are outstanding.

I have been lucky enough to see all of the best batsmen of the past 50 years. Some of those whom I rate in the top of the elite group of players in that time would be Peter May, Ken Barrington, Neil Harvey, Garfield Sobers, Rohan Kanhai, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, Graeme Pollock, Sunil Gavaskar, Clive Lloyd, Barry Richards, Doug Walters, Viv Richards, Javed Miandad, Gordon Greenidge, Ian Chappell, Allan Border, the Waughs, Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden, Brian Lara and Tendulkar.

Each one of these players had slightly different methods and styles but each had great instincts.

If I had to pick the best of these I would choose Sobers, closely followed by Pollock, Viv Richards and Tendulkar in no particular order. They all possessed `genius' quality and could win matches on their own. Each hit the ball with incredible power.

Sobers' record has stood the test of time for he made runs under all conditions against all types of bowling.

Tendulkar's record is also exceptional and he has played well against quality pace and spin. His clashes with Shane Warne in recent times, especially the past two Australian tours of India, have provided some excellent theatre.

I have also seen him take on Saqlain (Mushtaq) and (Muttiah) Muralitharan in Sharjah and Sri Lanka respectively and he has taken them on and come out on top nearly every time. Tendulkar's record in the games that India faced a must win situation is excellent and stamps him as a true champion.

His footwork and brute force are awesome to see and his range of strokeplay makes him the most awkward of customers against whom to bowl. I love to watch him bat because he has two or three options to the same delivery and he is just as likely to hit the best balls for four, or six.

If there was a chink in his armoury some would say it is against quality fast bowling on the bouncy wickets of Australia. If that is true it doesn't make him Robinson Crusoe! All good players have been troubled by quality fast bowling on bouncy wickets at one time or another.

As the pre-eminent batsman of his time, Tendulkar is always targeted by the opposition and has been tested on innumerable occasions. He has come out on top more often than not and his successes have usually carried India's fortunes with them.

Few of Tendulkar's predecessors have played as much one-day cricket as he has and few, Bradman apart, have had to endure the pressure of mass adulation at home as he has.

The fact that he has endured the adulation, and the pressure of expectations of one billion fans, and has been able to maintain his equilibrium and his passion for the game is a great credit to him and his parents who obviously set an excellent foundation for him.

He cannot last forever so I make every effort to see him bat whenever I can for he is a rare gem, the like of which does not come along very often.

India's fortunes in the remainder of this World Cup campaign will no doubt parallel the vicissitudes of this `little master's fortunes.

Cricket and Spirituality

"The English are not very spiritual people, so they invented cricket to give them some idea of eternity."

-- George Bernard Shaw