Saturday, October 06, 2007

A tale of two leagues

England, Pakistan, South Africa and Australia all have domestic Twenty20 tournaments. The West Indies were also in the process of organizing one last year before it got postponed. So for cricket crazy India to completely keep away from Twenty20 cricket was indeed quite surprising. But in a dramatic change in events, India now has two Twenty20 leagues all of a sudden, with star players from different countries joining in to increase their profile.

When the Indian Cricket League (ICL) was announced, first impressions were that it was another Kerry Packer in the making but as time went by it soon appeared from far from it. There were some visible similarities though. Both leagues were conceived as a result of losing television rights and both sought to promote a new form of cricket in their own respective times. But as one was able to revolutionize cricket for all times to come, the other seems to have fizzled out before it has even started.

I really liked the concept of the ICL when it initially appeared. With names like Warne, McGrath, Lara and Inzamam linked with the series, it was indeed a mouthwatering prospect. But as time went by the ICL increasingly gave the impression of a retirement home for international cricketers as it failed to lure in current players even after they were reportedly offered unprecedented amounts of money.

Mohammed Yousuf was probably ICL’s finest catch. After just being awarded the Test player of the year, Yousuf is in prime form and I thought that his joining the ICL would cause other members of the Pakistan team, who had similar grievances with the PCB, to follow suite. This would have meant that cricket boards would probably change their authoritarian ways of handling things especially when it concerned the players. However, the present cricket boards showed that they have a lot more money and power than their predecessors of the Packer days as they ensured the retention of their players by showering them with incentives and threatening them with bans.

Perhaps the main reason for the ICL’s limited effectiveness so far has been due to the BCCI’s prompt reaction to its creation. By forming a Twenty20 league of its own, in the form of the Indian Premier League (IPL), the BCCI has been able to counter the threat formed by this so-called ‘rebel’ league. With more countries involved and by having the support of the cricket boards, the IPL has been able to grab players that were on the verge of jumping on to the ICL roster and has successfully sabotaged the ICL’s plan for a successful and financially rewarding tournament.

Everybody likes a bit of competition, but I’m afraid in this case there would be only one winner. Those players who had hastily joined the ICL may be regretting it now, since there is a similar opportunity available that has the approval of the boards and therefore does not have them out of favor with their own cricket authorities. But there are a few pros in joining the ICL. Firstly, the ICL is not much of a league but more of a tournament, with the whole event hardly lasting 2 months. This means quick money for the players, and that too lots of it. This would also ensure that it has a more following amongst the audience, as generally people like to have quicker results. The IPL, however, is a league in the true sense with the whole competition lasting a good 8 months. This would mean that some of the matches would inevitably take place during cricket tours that are already scheduled and would result in fewer appearances by star players. So I’m guessing the appeal would get dampened to some degree.

However with most of the current players joining the IPL, it is the cricket boards who have won. In the end, they are the ones who will make most of the money and still will dictate what the players can or cannot do. So I think the ICL did make a good attempt but in the end, unfortunately, they were in the wrong era for it to be successful.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Building on the success

With the ICC having amassed so many critics over the years it can feel proud of having staged a highly successful and competitive tournament after a very long time. The organizers of the World Twenty 20 were smart enough to learn from the shortcomings of the previous two World cups by lessening the number of participating teams, shortening the duration of the tournament, slashing the prices of tickets to ensure bigger crowds and taking steps to increase the atmosphere inside the stadium instead of trying to curtail any festive activities.

But perhaps the most important factor in the success of this tournament was the competitiveness of the cricket. The nature of the Twenty 20 game made it possible for almost all of the matches to have very interesting and close finishes, thus removing another factor of one-sided matches that was witnessed so often in the previous two world cups.

However, this positive response to the ICC World Twenty 20 can not only be held limited to the successful staging of a tournament, it should be more broadly viewed as the arrival of a new era in cricket, one that can be expected to take the cricketing world by storm in years to come.

The ICC however still remains skeptic over the future of this new style of cricket. With 7 matches sanctioned every year, each team would practically have a maximum of 2 Twenty 20 games per tour. FICA has also appeared weary of this new format saying that Twenty 20 is not yet in a position to provide the same amount of money that 50 over cricket can rope in. All in all there is some hesitation within controlling associations to give Twenty 20 cricket their full stamp of approval and let it naturally find its feet among Test match and 50 over cricket.

Before the World Twenty 20, I was also among the many traditional cricket followers who considered the format a mockery of the sport. But after watching more and more of this new souped up version of the game have I become convinced that it is here to stay. For years the 50 over game has become more and more dull and predictable with alterations made every now and then to keep its appeal going within cricket followers. With more action filled in less time, the game can be seen as a more attractive alternative to a 50 over a side game, and like many people including Wasim Akram, I believe that Twenty 20 would absorb 50 over cricket completely in the near future.

Hence, cricketing authorities would be better off embracing Twenty 20 cricket instead of delaying the inevitable. I don’t see how Twenty 20 games cannot bring in the same amount of money as 50 over cricket does if it is given an equal opportunity to flourish by allowing teams to participate in complete series instead of one or two match contests. In fact, with the immense popularity witnessed just recently, Twenty 20 cricket has the potential to earn a lot more than what 50 over cricket does at this point in time.

At the same time, authorities should be more aware of not over scheduling the number of Twenty 20 matches which would further risk player burnout. In fact if used sensibly Twenty 20 cricket could, on the contrary, be effectively used to control player burnout as 20 over games should in theory be less physically demanding provided reasonable gaps between matches are kept and the number of matches per series does not exceed beyond agreeable limits.

With associate teams not being able to compete with Test nations at both Test and Limited overs level, the Twenty 20 format should also be able to provide a nice stepping stone for associate sides to get a feel of international cricket before diving in to the longer formats of the game and thus avoiding defeats with embarrassing margins. Even though skills required in Twenty 20 cricket can be at times drastically different from what is required in the other formats, it still can provide for experience to play against top quality players and give the opportunity to learn some of the tricks of the trade along the way.

Cricket does seem to have a bright future all of a sudden. With higher run rates at Test level and hence more enthusiastic crowds watching the 5 day game, the traditional form of cricket does seem to be secured. And with the arrival of Twenty 20 cricket, the demand for more from less also seems to have been met.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The future of English bowling

When Ryan Sidebottom was selected to play in the test series against the West Indies, I wasn’t too impressed with the selectors. Having seen him debut against Pakistan a good 6 years back, I remember him being nothing more than ordinary. But his performances throughout the summer have been quite brilliant. Swinging the ball both ways is one thing, to make sure that you pitch it in the right areas is another. To get both things right makes you somewhere near unplayable. If I may even go on to say that I don’t remember watching such accurate swing bowling since the days of Wasim and Waqar may not be a complete exaggeration.

Then came the Oval test against India. The wicket was as flat as you can possibly get in English conditions. As you would normally expect of a typical English swing bowler, the conditions made his bowling as blunt as a butter knife. Trying to imagine how he’d fare in the subcontinent made me even more doubtful of his ability to adapt to non-swinging conditions. It’s the same with good old Hoggard. Hoggard’s a decent swing bowler but pretty much ineffective when there’s no movement on offer.

No wonder England’s record over the past 6 years has been rather up and down. They haven’t lost anything at home (before this Indian series) but on the other hand, they haven’t won anything substantial abroad, save for a test series in South Africa where the conditions suited their bowlers. And I’m afraid this trend seems likely to continue with their new crop of bowlers being more swing dependent such as James Anderson and Liam Plunket.

The thing about the 2005 Ashes winning line up was the incredible variety it had. There was Hoggard with his swing, Harmisson with pace and bounce, Simon Jones with reverse swing, Flintoff with seam, swing and reverse, and Ashley Giles with some orthodox spin.

I remember watching Simon Jones and Freddy Flintoff bowl incredibly with the old ball during that Ashes series. Reverse swing was something that the English were usually at the receiving end of, until Darren Gough successfully emulated Wasim and Waqar. It seemed that the torch had passed on to Jones and Flintoff. But after 2 series in the subcontinent and an Ashes series in Australia, reverse swing appears to be something that requires some level of assistance from conditions as well, at least for the English. So it would appear to me that England has a very condition dependent pace attack.

I believe Harmisson had brought the x factor to England’s bowling. With pitches such as those in Australia, even with very little sideways movement on offer, there is plenty of good bounce that allows Harmisson to be very awkward to play. Even on ordinary wickets, Harmisson is able to extract that bit of extra bounce that can trouble most batsmen. But then Harmisson’s extended run of bad form puts a number of question marks on his attitude and the technical soundness of his action.

Does this really explain the ineffectiveness of England’s bowling outside of England? I would believe it gives more than half of the picture. However, with the emergence of Monty Panesar over the last year or so, England should be able to win more matches abroad. I don’t remember an English spinner with so much zip and such an incredible fan following. To be able to take 5 wickets in an innings at pace friendly Perth says a lot about his ability to adapt to difficult conditions, especially since Warne has never achieved this feat in all these years.

And the 6 foot 7 Chris Tremlett should be able to make things even better. If he can use his height in the same manner that Harmission so effectively did, things should improve. There is definitely potential, but so far that is all there is.

Pakistani bowlers have generally fared well on English soil. This may be because of the fact that they are more acclimatized to English conditions as most of them do play county cricket on a regular basis. For the England team to be more prepared on subcontinent type wickets, it wouldn’t be such a terrible idea to arrange for more overseas tours, both for the national side and the ‘A’ and Under 19 squads. Suddenly the Indian Cricket League (ICL) appears to be a more appealing concept than first perceived. I just hope the ECB doesn’t ban their players from participating in the league, as the PCB has done with its players, since the benefits of participating in such an event clearly outweigh the negatives.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Going beyond the 10

The world cup in 2007 has seen 16 teams participate in the event. Despite many people arguing that it would dilute the entertainment on offer, the ICC maintains that it’s necessary for global expansion that the lesser nations are given the exposure that they so badly need. But is exposure alone enough to ensure that cricket is able to grow in these countries? I do have my reservations with this approach. The ICC’s methodology of allowing 6 associate nations to play against top teams once every 4 years is not only ludicrous but shows lack of planning for the future.

The world cup has given us two great upsets so far. Bangladesh’s win against India is considered important with regards to Bangladesh’s graduation from high school to the professional league of the test playing nations. But it is Ireland’s emphatic victory over Pakistan that has got everyone talking. The ICC have already started giving everyone their we-told-you-so’s, but how much impact will this victory have on Irish cricket in general is still much debatable. Kenya caused their first upset in the 96 world cup; they were semifinalists in the 2003 version. But is cricket better off in Kenya than it was 11 or even 4 years ago? I really doubt it. It’s been more or less at a standstill. Zimbabwe beat Australia way back in the 83 world cup. It has been almost 25 years since and Zimbabwe have instead taken a few steps backwards.

The world cup is the most followed event in the global cricket community. Not only have the extra teams increased the number of matches being played but have also increased the span of the tournament to a month and a half. These extra number of matches, which usually end up in results with embarrassing margins, not only take away the gloss from this much coveted tournament, but also does not significantly help the process of global expansion. I would not suggest removing all the associate teams from the tournament altogether, but would recommend only the best two to be allowed to play. It can be easily seen that Ireland was the best among all the associate nations whereas Bermuda could not find their feet at all.

Instead of 16 teams playing in the one day world cup, it would be more suitable for the same number to be in the Twenty20 world cup. With lesser number of overs in offer, the associate teams would not only have a much better chance at competing with the big boys but the format will be more easily accepted by their public.

But it is even more essential that the ICC continues to support the cricket establishment once cricket does begin to grow in one of the offshoots. The ICC can be held responsible for the majority of Zimbabwe’s failure to establish themselves in the cricket world. When Zimbabwean cricket was on the up, especially during the 99 world cup, and it had a number of world class players in its ranks, quite a few of them (Neil Johnson and Murray Goodwin being the most prominent) had to part ways with the national side in order to earn a livelihood. The ICC having enough money in its coffers could’ve easily supported the development of cricket in Zimbabwe. Instead it chose to deal the matter with utmost naivety and apathy.

Ireland, on the other hand, have the advantage of an established domestic cricket circuit in its proximity (that being English county cricket). So the win against Pakistan would do them more good than it would have to any of the other minnows playing. What Irish cricket needs is more popularity and that is exactly what the super 8 advancement got them. But even if cricket in Ireland does become popular, it will always remain in the shadows of English cricket as most of the talented and performing players would have a priority to play for England. But for now, Ireland should enjoy their success and hope that they can cause a further upset or two in the super 8s.

Friday, March 23, 2007

A tribute to the world's worst runner

I don’t remember ever being this emotional about a player retiring. Maybe because in Pakistani cricket you hardly ever get to see a player choosing to retire before the board forcefully shortens his career; therefore never giving an opportunity to the player for one last hurrah before an appreciative crowd. Or maybe because it’s been two losses too many in the space of a couple of days. Or it could be due to the fact that Inzy was a damn good player. I guess it would be all of these reasons, plus many, many more.

I can’t even imagine the Pakistan team without Inzamam. I started watching cricket with the 92 world cup, as did so many other people of my generation, and up till now Inzy has been a permanent fixture in Pakistan cricket. Over time we’ve all appreciated his pulls over midwicket to the fast bowlers, or his coming-down-the-track to the slower ones, or probably most of all, his running (or rather lack of it) between the wickets. His calm and composed approach both on and off the field (save for one incident in Toronto) has won him both critics and admirers.

He was no Imran Khan when it came to captaincy, but he still was a good captain. Yes, there were a few negatives, but there were some great positives too. After a very long time Inzamam was able to create a dressing room environment that was free from all politics. This, I believe, would be his standout achievement as captain. Everyone in the team respected him as a leader. I also think he handled the Oval fiasco very well under the circumstances, regardless of what the general opinion is. He stood for what he believed, and that again is a sign of good leadership.

Well his retirement has only been from the one day arena but I can’t help but wonder if he might call it quits from all forms of the game. Pakistan is scheduled to play its next test series in December this year so that would be an awful amount of time before Inzy could get to play again. I just hope he hangs in there a little more. Finally, thank you Inzy for 16 marvelous years of sheer entertainment, and I hope you still remain a part of Pakistan cricket in some way or the other.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

When cricket loses its meaning...

The world cup has ended for Pakistan even before anyone could say “Which group is Pakistan playing in, again?”. Like every Pakistani I was (or rather, am) gutted. The performance of our players can’t even be described in words. I was going to delete the slog blog once and for all (not that it would’ve mattered), and promised never to watch a game of cricket again. But then Bob Woolmer died. For some one I have never met, Woolmer’s death did affect me a great deal. Not only has he been described by many to be the best coach for the game of cricket to date, he was a gentleman in the true sense of the word. Never have I ever read about him losing his temper or being involved in any negative incident at all. And I don’t remember anyone coaching Pakistan for nearly 3 years at a stretch. He’s had his critics, but all I can say is that Pakistan was doing very well under him before the Oval Test last year. After that, event after event saw the team wither away.

Bob Woolmer was probably the only coach Pakistan has had who was respected by all of the players. Everyone liked him. Maybe that is why his death is more saddening. One thing is for sure, all of this has given me some perspective. Sure, the selection of the squad was wrong, sure, the team played appallingly, sure, the captaincy was next to nothing… but in the end, it’s only a game. Cricket in the subcontinent has an emotional connection with the people, understandably, since there are very few things the general public can look up to with hope and anticipation given the political and economic situation of the country. But in the end, we must try not to forget that it is nothing more than a game; a game with a winner and a loser, and there may be times when we may end up on the losing side.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

It's still anyone's cup!

I thought it would be appropriate to celebrate the theslogblog’s one year of inactivity by writing something.

Considering that Pakistan was ranked handsomely at third place just a month back in both one-day and test levels, it did come as a mild shock when I learnt that Pakistan’s odds for winning the world cup are less than all the test playing nations with the exception of Bangladesh. However, even without Shoaib and Asif, I still have considerable belief that Pakistan can win this year’s World Cup.

Well firstly Pakistan still has a very strong team. The most critical player in my point of view would be Rana Naveed. If everyone could go back a year and a half, we would have an idea how Pakistan was winning matches. Important to note, we were playing more matches in the subcontinent. Also, Rana was by far our most dependable wicket-taker. We have a batting line up with commendable experience and class, save the openers, and if the bowling holds there is no reason why the team cannot win matches. Rana’s recent form has been the most worrying and crucial factor in our lack of success in South Africa. It is his and Umar Gul’s partnership with the ball that should more or less decide on how many runs the other teams will score. It should also be important to note that we beat India in the 2004-05 odi series in India WITHOUT Asif, Shoaib and Umar Gul. And we all know how it is to play against India in India on batting wickets.

What I don’t understand is how New Zealand have all of a sudden become favorites for the world cup. Yes they whitewashed a relatively “weak” Australian side, and I do think that they are a good team, but they certainly haven’t become world beaters all of a sudden. Everyone is forgetting that they were playing Australia in their own backyard and if they could go back a couple of years when the Chappel-Hadlee series was also played in New Zealand they can see apparent similarities to the recent concluded series. New Zealand successfully chased Australia’s 331 (a world record at the time) and lost by 2 runs chasing 322 in another match. And Australia was playing their best eleven.

South Africa has become the No. 1 team according to the one-day rankings. Again, most series that they have won over the last year were on home soil. I have a lot of skepticism on how their one-paced attack will fare in subcontinent type pitches.

All I’m trying to say here is that Pakistan may be a bit down these past few months but they most certainly aren’t out of it as yet. In fact they have as much (or as little) of a chance then any of the other teams playing. Statistics only show half the picture.