Saturday, October 30, 2010

Puncturing Inflated Legends

Here's another cricket post!
I've been spending a lot of time on Cricinfo lately, where they've been busy compiling All Time XIs. These exercises are fun as they help you put the performances of current players into proper perspective by sparing some time to objectively judge bygone careers which are not fresh in the memory of the cricket watcher.

The passage of time often dims our memory of past players, to the extent that we're very unlikely to appraise them on their merits. Certain cricketers are unfairly forgotten as the years roll by since their once-impressive career records achieved under more challenging circumstances appear less flashy today - an era which has generally been kinder to batsmen. Certain other past cricketers are more fortunate. They end up occupying disproportionate mindshare thanks to legends that inflate with time!

This post concerns a cricketer of the latter kind - a top-class opening bat of his time who has gathered a somewhat undeserved reputation as one of the greatest batsmen of all time thanks to poorly remembered legends. Sunil Gavaskar.

Gavaskar's inflated reputation rests on his seemingly outstanding record against the premier team of his era which possessed a four-pronged pace attack - the West Indies. He averaged about 65 runs per test innings against them with 13 Hundreds! Seven of them in the West Indies. I encountered these stats about a decade back when my obsession with cricket was far greater than it is today and I was busy devouring any form of cricket literature.

My initial reaction was awe, but it was soon tinged with doubt and scepticism. Something was amiss I wondered. I didn't think it was quite likely for anybody to make that many big scores against an attack consisting of Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Joel Garner and Malcolm Marshall.

Thanks to Cricinfo Statsguru, I now discover that my doubts were well founded. Gavaskar played six Test series in all against the West Indies. Here's a summary of his performance in each of them.

1970/71 in West Indies 154.8
1974/75 in India 27
1975/76 in West Indies 55.7
1978/79 in India 91.5
1982/83 in West Indies 30
1983/84 in India 50.5

Very Impressive on first sight. But distinctly less impressive if someone actually bothers to visit the scorecards!
Let's briefly examine what Gavaskar had to contend with in each of these series.

1970/71 : This was Gavaskar's debut series. Probably the most outstanding series return for any batsman making his debut, in the history of Test cricket. The West Indian team he was up against was far from formidable. It was a team in transition captained by an ageing Sobers. The bowling attack was composed of Vanburn Holder (career bowling avg : 33.27), Shillingford (avg : 35.8), Noreiga (avg: 29.0) and Sobers himself (avg : 34.03).

The era of Roberts, Holding and Co was still 3-4 years away. I know it might sound a little churlish to grudge Gavaskar his accolades. Averaging 150+ over 4 games is an achievement in any form of the game, be it Tests or club cricket, especially for a 22 year old batsman. However, it is quite unlikely that Gavaskar on debut would've achieved similar results against the West Indian attack of the early eighties!

Gavaskar only played in two of the five test matches owing to injury. And he wasn't particularly successful against an attack spearheaded by the great Andy Roberts in the two test matches that he did play in. Note : West Indies was still some distance away from their era of fast bowling glory. Roberts had already announced himself. But the rest of the quartet were yet to make their test debuts. Gavaskar's friend and brother-in-law GR Viswanath was a lot more successful against Roberts in this series winning two test matches almost single-handedly at Kolkata and Chennai.

1975/76 :
Gavaskar did well in this series with two hundreds, including a match winning knock enabling India chase a 400+ target on the fifth day! Nevertheless, it is worth remembering that the record chase was achieved against an attack that was somewhat mediocre barring Michael Holding. The rest of the attack included B.Julien (avg: 37), AL Padmore (avg: 135), Imtiaz Ali (avg: 44.5) and R.Jumadeen(avg: 39.3). That's the kind of attack against which even a flat-track bully like Yuvraj Singh will fancy his chances.

1978/79 : Now, this was a rewarding home series for Sunny in which he harvested four hundreds! But, mind you, this was against a weakened West Indian touring party thanks to Kerry Packer! I grant that the great Malcolm Marshall was around. But hang on. This was his debut series!
The other bowlers whom Gavaskar flayed round the park were ST Clarke (avg: 28), N Philip (avg: 37) and Vanburn Holder (avg: 33). Hardly terrors on subcontinental pitches.

1982-83: Ah. Now, for the first time, Sunny Gavaskar was pitted against a full strength West Indian attack in the West Indies, with Holding, Roberts, Garner and Marshall operating simultaneously. Sunny averaged a paltry 30 over five tests.

1983/84: Here, I must give credit where it is due. He was up against some very formidable bowlers. Holding, Roberts and Marshall. Sunny acquitted himself well with a healthy average of 50, including an unbeaten 236* at Chennai in the final test. Nevertheless, the average of 50 looks flattering thanks to that unbeaten double century.

Sunil Gavaskar was one of the great Indian batsmen. Arguably the finest Indian bat of his generation. But his record against the WI is made to look more brilliant than it actually is thanks to some pretty easy pickings against weakened Carribean attacks on flat pitches.

His record against the full-strength West Indian attack of the early eighties is somewhat sketchy, not necessarily better than that of other great players of that generation against the same attack.

And yet, I invariably find pundits of all hues championing Gavaskar as one of the top 2-3 opening batsmen in the history of Test cricket! That may not be an altogether unreasonable claim, given that the guy scored over 10,000 Test runs and lasted nearly two decades at the highest level. But it is definitely not very easy to sustain that claim based solely on his record against the West Indies!



Sunday, October 10, 2010

Play back or Drive

The ongoing India-Australia Test series has marked my resumption of Test match viewing, after having practically lost all interest in the game over the past 4-5 years.

This post was prompted by Michael Clarke's soft dismissal by Harbhajan in the first innings of the Bangalore Test yesterday.

One of the most ungainly features of modern batsmanship is the almost instinctive lunge forward while defending a slow bowler. To my mind, it seems like a nothing shot. The forward lurch does not necessarily get you to the pitch of the ball. Also, it deprives you of the extra instant of time to judge the delivery.

The key to playing spin bowling well is to use your feet to reduce the element of uncertainty. There are two ways in which one can meet that objective -

By getting to the pitch of the ball
In which case it does not really matter how much spin the bowler has imparted to it.

By playing back!
When in doubt, one must always play back. If it isn't possible to get to the pitch of the ball, the batsman must always play late which helps him buy an extra second to examine the extent of deviation off the pitch.

By lurching forward, you're only making an offer of a bat-pad dismissal every ball!
And yet, this most ungainly of strokes has been inexplicably popular across the world for as long as I can remember. I wonder if there was ever a time in cricket history when the forward defensive was not in fashion!

And yes. It is particularly disappointing when batsmen of the calibre of Ponting and Clarke commit batting suicide by lurching forward.

These thoughts made me scour the net for similar polemics against the "forward defensive". Here's a video clipping of Don Bradman's defensive play in one of the 1938 Ashes tests. Check out the section from 1:45mins to 2:05 mins. What struck me was that the guy does not show any inclination to lunge forward. Instead, he plays back as a rule even if the delivery is not exactly short in length. No wonder he seldom got out caught at forward short-leg or silly point.

I thought it was a very good demonstration of how to defend against slow bowlers.



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