Sunday, 18 March 2012

The 100th Hundred: It had to happen this way

It had to happen this way. One year of mounting hysteria. A team that climbed a once-unattainable high only to take a flying leap off it into a seemingly unending abyss. Form deserting not just him, but most of the trusted mates around him, who had helped in getting to that high. And always, the mounting expectation. It just had to happen this way. Sachin Tendulkar got to the 100th International hundred in slow, ugly, and ultimately futile (in terms of winning the match) fashion. 

The table below captures exactly what happened as the match unfolded and Tendulkar started getting close to his century.

India Score
India R.R.
SRT score
VK/SR score
R.R. Difference
At 30 overs
78 (98)
57 (68)
30 to 35.5 overs
9 (21)
9 (14)
35.5 to 43.4 overs
13 (19)
32 (28)
43.4 to 46.5 overs
14 (9)
19 (10)
46.5 till End

Note: R.R. stands for Run Rate, SRT for Sachin Tendulkar and VK/SR for Virat Kohli or Suresh Raina – who were the two batsmen at the crease with Tendulkar from the time he got close to his hundred to the time he got out.

At the 30-over mark, India was going along fairly well, with Tendulkar and Kohli set and scoring at a good rate. At the end of that over, Tendulkar was in sight of the elusive hundred – and that is when the crawl began. One can make a case for the bowling suddenly having become better during this period – but then, Kohli’s scoring rate didn’t see as drastic a come-down as Tendulkar’s did. Before the 30th over, he and Kohli were scoring at an almost identical rate, in the period from the 30th till 35.5 (when Kohli fell), Tendulkar’s run-rate was fully 50% less than Kohli’s. The falling run-rate had a predictable result: Kohli tried an extravagant shot that wasn’t on, and was out.

The next phase saw Suresh Raina come in and immediately get into his stride. While Tendulkar also increased his scoring rate a little, Raina was outscoring him by a distance. Until he got to his century, Tendulkar’s scoring rate was 67% less than that of Raina’s. At 43.4 overs, Tendulkar finally got to his century. And immediately, there was a sharp increase in his scoring rate. Raina’s scoring rate also increased exponentially, but as the Run Rate Difference column shows, the difference between their scoring rates was a lot less than it had been. It stayed that way till the pair of them got dismissed off consecutive deliveries at 46.4 and 46.5. And expectedly enough, the rest of the Indian innings progressed at normal slog-over rate. 

The numbers don't lie, and they say that Sachin Tendulkar very clearly slowed down considerably when in sight of his century at a time when the batsmen around him continued to score much quicker, and started scoring quickly again after the ton was complete. While it is indisputable that Tendulkar slowed down, the question to ask is: Does it really matter in the larger scheme of things?

Yes, a match was lost to an unfancied opponent. India could have scored a fair bit more if the go-slow approach hadn’t happened. And yes, it wasn’t as if they still couldn’t have won the match if the bowlers had put in a better performance. But does the fact that India lost a match in a tournament that is only marginally important, weigh against the gains they can potentially have, now that the monster of the 100th hundred is off Tendulkar’s back? It had become more curse than landmark this past year. Till the end of the World Cup, Tendulkar had been in sublime form Tests, ODIs and even in the IPL. The 99th ton happened during the World Cup, and a nation and more, entered the first phase of collective hysteria. Since the end of the World Cup, till before the match against Bangladesh, Tendulkar played eleven Tests, returning an average of 37, and eight ODIs for an average of 18.63. Given that everytime he picked up a bat, there was someone helpfully at hand to remind him of the landmark, and that everytime he didn’t get it, there was someone else to remind him that he didn’t get it, the numbers weren’t so surprising. Tendulkar would have had to be alien to not feel the mounting pressure. He’s not alien, he’s human. He’s not God either, he’s human. In this setting, the only natural course - the human course - for Tendulkar would have been to get to the hundred in the fashion he did. Of course, he did slow down while approaching it. He did feel the pressure of it. He did want it over and done with. Maybe he even cost the team a victory by it. But Indian fans should count it as a bonus that it came in one of the least important tournaments of the past year. 

The loss here can be absorbed for the potential gain of Tendulkar batting the way he did in 2010 again. He said as much in a rare media interaction a day after the event. "I have to admit I was relieved. This is now out of the way and I can start a new chapter. It was possibly the toughest phase of my life. There was so much hype and attention about the 100th hundred."

The landmark is now over; it’s time for the batsman to return.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Stranger, Legend, Martyr - Champion

"Rahul Dravid gets a raw deal" - this was the headline that I saw in the newspaper after the Indian selectors had picked the team for the 1996 World Cup. The words have stuck with me. Not because he scored 95 on his Test debut at Lord’s. Sourav Ganguly scored a century. Not because he scored 145 and 153 in ODI cricket’s only two triple-century stands. His batting partners scored in excess of 180. Not because he scored 180 from No.6 in the greatest fightback of the modern era. He was second best to a man that scored 281. Not even because when he scored his 12,000th Test run, he saw the man who has always reigned in the hearts of his countrymen score his 50th Test century. They stuck with me because I have also been guilty of the charge that they made.

When Dravid made his international debut shortly after that 1996 World Cup, he didn’t exactly set the world on fire in the ODIs that he played. In one excitable teenage fan, he evoked scorn. Perhaps even derision. Who was this fellow, touted as the 'next great Indian batting superstar', who couldn't play ODIs properly? Why was he not more flamboyant? Why was he so slow? The old-timers spoke of Test matches as if they're the greatest form of the game, but I found them boring. ODIs were where the excitement lay. My teenage mind confused it with skill too.  If Dravid couldn't score quickly or big in ODIs, I wanted no part of him. I don't remember if I knew the word, but if I did, I would have derisively called him 'plodder'.  Yes, there were some fine Test performances later on, but to a mind obsessed with the quick-scoring and excitement of ODIs, these merely served to illustrate that Dravid was only fit for Tests, and wasn't really cut out for the limited-overs game. 

He was dropped from the ODI team in 1998, and though two years older, I wasn't two years wiser. He deserved to be dropped. He was a stranger to the format. The thought that after a few adjustments, he might be very successful in ODIs too, or that this was a batsman of exceptional ability that was being jettisoned didn't cross my mind. I can only plead 'teenage' as apology.

Go well, you stranger.

The transformation came quickly. And once it started, it just rolled on. In Test matches, there was none to match him from 2002 to 2006. Ricky Ponting got more runs at a higher average, but played in a team that was significantly stronger. The classics kept coming - at Headingley, Adelaide, Rawalpindi, Jamaica. He was to say later that choosing his favourite among them was like 'choosing between sons'.

That vein of form was evident in the ODI arena as well. Gaps were found instead of fielders, singles and twos instead of dot balls, runs instead of early dismissals. And in the once-teenaged fan, the transformation was as radical: stranger turned to legend.

Adverse conditions? Overcome at Headingley in 2002. Champion team? Conquered, at Adelaide in 2003. Weight of history? Shrugged aside, at Rawalpindi in 2004. Need to be the lone man standing? Easy, in Jamaica in 2006. Sportswriters are given to more clich├ęs than most, but it was difficult to describe Dravid's feats as anything other than legendary during that period. Who knew what peaks lay ahead?

Go well, you legend.

As it turned out, there weren't any peaks in sight for a long while after Jamaica. Dravid endured the worst slump of his career. "I always took it as a joke," he said after he retired. "I thought you guys were setting me up by calling me the Wall, so that when a form slump came, you could say the foundations are weak or the bricks are falling apart." But no one laughed and the joke wasn't funny when the man who bore a resemblance to Dravid walked out to bat for India for most of 2007 and 2008. At first, no one knew quite how to react, except with disbelief. Wait - he pokes uncertainly outside off-stump too? What do you mean his feet were not in perfect position? When you say 'he' was falling over, you don't mean Dravid, right?

Disbelief slowly gave way to acceptance. He had been the prime mover behind correcting India's abysmal record overseas. Had that half-decade of excellence taken too much out of him? India were well on the way to being a consistently good, occasionally excellent, and always competitive side. Was he going to be the first martyr to the cause of getting them there? The words 'drop' and 'Dravid' started appearing in the same sentence, without sounding heretical. Ironically enough, that was heresy in my eyes. Dravid's career had turned 180 degrees, and my own equation with him had changed equally. When he started off, full of promise, I was ready to write him off at a moment's notice. Towards the end of his career, with age not on his side and form deserting him, I couldn't bear the thought of his exit.

Go well, you martyr.

He ended his retirement statement by thanking cricket fans. In what was otherwise a piece of prose as precisely conceived as one of his innings, that was perhaps the only redundant sentence. He didn't need to say it, but he did anyway, because that is the mark of the man. He didn't need to because his deeds were his gratitude. When he never left the field without shedding that bucket-load of sweat, it was thanks enough. He thanked the media too, and straddling both worlds as I did - fan and media - it was humbling to be thanked twice.

I have often thought that when David Gilmour sang 'Come on you Stranger, you Legend, you Martyr and shine…' of Syd Barrett, he could just as easily have been singing of Dravid, for the perfect way in which the adjectives lent themselves to his career. I know now that I was wrong. The adjectives are incomplete, because they miss out one vital one at the end.

I can trace my growth as a cricket fan by the way in which Dravid grew in stature in my eyes. From the adolescent who railed and ranted at Dravid's 'slowness' in ODIs to the adult who found joy in one of his innumerable perfect leaves. From the fan who thought Test cricket was 'boring' to the one who felt cheated that Rahul Dravid didn't get to bat in more than six Tests in 2009, because that was the year in which he shook off the haunting nightmares of the 2007-08. From the one-among-many who switched his television set off when Sachin Tendulkar got out, to the one-in-a-thousand who cursed if his entry came after Dravid's exit.

I haven't just grown up with Dravid, I have grown with him. So many have - which is why, even though it was inevitable that he would go sooner rather than later, it was equally inescapable that he would break our hearts when he left.

Go well you stranger, you legend, you martyr. Go well, you champion.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Fighter, Foreman, Painter, Priest

One of the shortest articles I've ever written - wrote it before the India-Australia series started. Seems a lifetime ago now...

Virender Sehwag walks into a gladiatorial arena. There's a yearning need to establish who is the greater destroyer in his battle. And when Sehwag walks in, the arena is the Colosseum and he is General Maximus. The fiercest gladiator in the arena, the most feared man for any opponent unlucky enough to be on the opposite side. Fear? What's that? It's for lesser mortals, the ones facing him.

Rahul Dravid walks into a construction site. There's a foundation - sometimes well laid, sometimes not. But he's the foreman. It's his responsibility to see to it that a building is built, brick by painstaking brick. If the foundation is faulty, he lays a new one. If it's good, he builds a sky-scraper on it. Sometimes, he works with material that is not always top-class. Sometimes the men who sit in offices assign him unreasonable demands. And yet, Rahul Dravid continues to build - making the unreasonable possible, converting mediocre material into solid high-rise buildings.

Read the full article at Cricbuzz: Fighter, Foreman, Painter, Priest

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

The Old vs the New

It's the favourite pastime of cricket nuts all over the globe, it's probably been done since the 1800s - even when only two countries played the game - and it will continue to delight, divide and opinionate fans in equal measure. But for sheer fun, nothing beats selecting an all-time eleven in cricket (except perhaps if you're Sachin Tendulkar and are on the doorstep of a 100th international century). And with the 2000th Test about to be played, it is the perfect time to pick an all time eleven.

The difficulty - the only and primary difficulty - with the exercise is of who to exclude. The selection feels like a cop-out if you select more than eleven players, but at the same time, which selector - even an armchair one - would fancy a decision where he has to select only one of Viv Richards and Brian Lara and drop the other? It can't be done and therefore, this exercise will pick two all-time elevens: one modern, comprising players that I have seen and the other classical, comprising players whom I've not had the privilege to watch live...

Full article at Cricbuzz here: The Old versus the New.