Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Great Tragedy of Indian Cricket and its Suffering Supporters

I’m writing about this here as for sheer drama this is no less than an Othello or even your average Bollywood family drama – cant decide though, whether it should be classified as a thriller or a tear-jerker…

The early exit of the second-favourite’s for the tournament (odds ranged between 5.5 to 7.5 on most betting sites at different points in time over the last year), the side with the most experience (the Indian squad had over 2258 ODI’s between them – about 700 more than Australia and about 11 more than Sri Lanka), the side with the most money through endorsements (don’t think any stats are needed to prove this one) and for sure the side with the most (fanatical) supporters, has shocked one and all

Theories abound as to why this has happened – was it the coach, was it the captain, was it too many commercials. Was it the format ? Unlike the 2003 edition, where India played terribly for the first 2 games, but was still able to recover and reach the finals, this time if you got 2 games wrong, you were out…

I don’t think it was any one player/coach or even the format but more systemic (almost strategic) issues. I’ve boiled it down to a few simple ones - I’m going to look at a few factors which are not what most analysts / columns have been looking at.

Reason 1 : We had too many players who were past their prime
We were carrying a few stars who shouldn’t have been in the side if we looked at performance alone (and why shouldn’t we ?). I have a simple statistical method to prove this point, its something we often look at in business and is pretty eye-opening when you apply it to cricket / the Indian team. The principle is to compare your career average (whether batsman or bowler) to your more recent performances – for ease of comparison I have picked the last 15 matches and the last 50 matches. Since most of the persons I’m including in the analysis have played at least 150 matches, it does give a startling picture.
Now the ideal picture, of course, is that the Last 15 match average should be greater than the Last 50 match average which in turn should be greater than the Career average. This would imply that over the last year or so, the player is doing quite well and over the last couple of months has been in blistering form. Dravid and Ponting for example have such figures, where the pink line (last 15 matches average) is higher than the yellow line (last 50 matches) which is higher than the blue line (career average)(in case you're having problems viewing the graph, pls right click and open in a new window).

Sachin and Sehwag though make for somber reading – no sane, non-starstruck, performance oriented selection committee would have picked either of them. Their last 50 match average is below their career average and their last 15 match average is comfortably below even that ! In Sachin’s case, his last15 average is lower than his career average by 10 runs ! And, I’ve put them side by side, to demonstrate another more damning point – his 15 match average is lower than anyone else on the list except his clone and buddy, Sehwag’s. Also, because I’m sick of arguments in defense of Sehwag like ‘but he plays so aggressively’, ‘he’s a match-winner’, I’ve put in another player os Sehwag’s ilk, the man who is the oldest player in the list, Sanath Jayasuriya. While their career averages are somewhat similar, Sanath’s Last 15 or Last 50 average is higher than Sehwag’s by 10 runs !!! So, it is possible to be aggressive, yet consistent when it matters !

If you thought this was bad, wait till we do the bowling ! I looked at the same indicators for two measures – the bowling average (ie runs conceded per wickets taken) and economy rate (ie runs conceded per over bowled).
So, both Bhajji and Kumble are leaking more runs per over than they used to and also, the miserly Kumble turns out to be not so miserly after all, conceding almost 2 runs per over more than either Murali or Pollock. This equates to almost 20 runs more per match (assuming they bowl their full quota of 10 overs) for the batting side. Also, as an aside, both Murali and Pollock have their last 15 match econ rate well below their career econ rates…

Of course, this wouldn’t matter if either of our spin twins were taking more wickets – or taking more wickets per runs conceded to be more precise. But that is not the case either. Harbhajan has actually doubled !!!! His every wicket now (last 15 average) costs a mind-boggling 60 runs vs his career average of 30 (Murali or Pollock cost approx 17 runs each, last 15). The contrast for both Bhajji and Kumble in terms of either the numbers (the actual averages) or the trends (the last 15 average being well below the career average) cannot be more stark vs Murali or Pollock. I know whom I would prefer in my team….

So – if players like Tendulkar or Harbhajan are being picked, where their last 15 match averages are worse than their last 50 match averages and they are in turn worse than their career averages…plus the actual number (last 15) is much worse than that of their peer group (either in the Indian team or outside), then clearly, they are being picked on the basis of their proud past / their star billing, without paying heed to their pathetic present !

Reason 2 : Joie de Vivre
It’s a soft factor but I feel an important one. I think a French phrase which means ‘Hearty or carefree enjoyment of life’ best sums up how all of us should live life. I’m paid a decent amount for actually doing what I enjoy (marketing/innovating). Cricketers, especially the Indian ones, are actually paid obscene amounts to do what is supposed to be their passion (play cricket). Yet, especially compared to other cricketers, there was/is a complete lack of Joie De Vivre !! I loved watching the Bermudan’s and Bangladeshi’s play – their enthusiasm and joy was infectious. The way they used to celebrate each opposition wicket, they way they were smiling / laughing / joking on the field – even when the chips were down…it was a lesson to the superstars of the Indian team on how to play. And it wasn’t just them – battle hardened teams like Sri Lanka and Australia still seem to be enjoying the game. The Sri Lankan’s in the match against us clearly wanted to win more than us, were jumping / bouncing / loving every minute on the field while the Indians seemed to have the weight of the world / the burden of a billion people on their shoulders.

I know that the pressure on the Indian team is probably the most – but that’s always been the case / its nothing new and each player in their past must have developed a way of coping with this. They’ve forgotten the old principle of ‘Laughter is the Best Medicine’ and also the fact that keeping their sense of humour intact could be a fantastic way of releasing that very pressure.

I can’t even remember when I last saw an Indian player actually laugh heartily during a post match interview. I recently was watching Hayden being interviewed just before a key game, the South Africa group match, and in response to a question he was actually laughing for a full minute before he was able to resume the interview. I think the Indian players have forgotten how to laugh, how to enjoy themselves while playing what is supposed to be their first love…they’ve forgotten why they took up this game in the first place and behave more like 9-5’ers rather than a group which is having fun doing what they do best !

Reason 3 : Too many Dot Balls / Over-reliance on boundaries
I wasn’t able to pull up the stats for this one but over the last year or so, I noticed this dangerous tendency once again. We used to have this long ago – when Kapil / Gavaskar were still around – when most batsman would ignore the singles / two’s and deal mainly in 4’s and 6’s. God alone knows how many matches this has lost us…keeping the scoreboard moving eliminates risk, keeps most run rates within touching distance, transfers the pressure back on the fielding side…I could go on here. For a while – I think it was in 2005 – we’d actually started becoming good at this. Kaif / Yuvraj / Dravid were all pretty lethal at this and nicely counterbalanced the all out attack of the three S’s - Sachin / Saurav / Sehwag. Neither of the first three suffered from poor strike rates either and each of them (especially Dravid) had developed a knack of reaching his 50 in about 50/60 balls, having hit just 1-2 boundaries, without offering any chance whatsoever to the opposition of giving his wicket away.

Recently, this has been replaced by either of two extreme’s – either attack or solid defense. Attack implying either a four or six – and this has an inherent danger of giving your wicket away if you try to do this consistently (ask Sehwag / Dhoni, they know this all too well first hand). Defense, unfortunately, has started to imply dead bats and dot balls. The moment the batting is under pressure due to an eary loss of a wicket (and thanks to Sehwag, we’ve become pretty accustomed to this), we’ll have different people (Sachin / Saurav / Dravid) coming in and just stone-wall the bowlers. They seem to be waiting for the loose ball to punish, without realizing that most professional teams have made this commodity as rare as the Bengal Tiger.

I’ve witnessed live matches like the Champion’s Trophy clash against the West Indies in Ahmedabad where we had something like 180 dot balls. That’s in a game where the total balls received (50 overs) is 300 !!! How can we expect to win if we do this ? Imagine the pressure to score off the remaining 120 deliveries – even if we say a par score is approx 250 runs, then if we let 30 overs (180 balls) go by without scoring, we have to score at more than 12 runs per over to reach the par score. The situation, of course, becomes worse if we are chasing as then there is the additional pressure of having a definite target to reach / a sort of a do or die mode.

Reason 4 : Fielding
If I was leading the Indian board, I would offer Jonty Rhodes a blank cheque and ask him to takeover as fielding coach. Lord knows we need him. Again, too many players who are content to be ordinary when excellence is the need / minimum requirement of the day. I could break this down in terms of any stat – throws which hit the wicket / run-outs / half chances dropped / boundaries stopped etc etc and I think the answer would be crystal clear. India and Pakistan are probably the two worst fielding sides in the tournament. Is it a coincidence that these are the two that are on the early flight home ?

In a perverse, a bit self-centered kind of way, the tournament is poorer without India and Pakistan. Cricket is not evolved as football - there the defending champions / hot favourites can exit in the group stage (happened in 2002 with France and Argentina getting knocked out early) without making the tournament poorer. The Indian supporters provide much of the colour and atmosphere in cricket events. I was there for the famous Natwest Series final at Lord’s where all the sound / support (even when India was 5 down) was coming from the Indian section. India also provides the bums on the seat – the Windies super 8 match against Australia in Antigua had vast stretches of empty seats / it wasn’t even half full. This is unimaginable for an India match – we could be playing a super 8 match on the moon and it would still have full attendance.

I as a cricket fan, have suffered as much or probably more than most others. For the last year, I / my family have been planning our trip to the Caribbean for the world cup. Call it arrogance or short sightedness, I bought tickets almost as soon as they went on sale for all of India’s (team B2’s) Super 8 matches and the semi-final and final. I bought four such tickets and planned to take my family along, including my wife, parents and two kids. For the last three months hardly a day has gone by when we were not in some way or form searching the internet / calling up travel agents for flights or accommodation in the Windies. All of this is now down the drain…there is only a certain feeling of loss, an emptiness, a sense of surreal-ness as I watch a super 8 contest sans India. And, oh !, there are some huge cancellation bills !

Here’s to the vain hope that the Board / the captain and the coach get it right next time….


Anonymous said...

If we had Jonty Rhodes as our fielding coach, that would be awesome...

Prashant Misra said...

The only point where I disagree with you is the “2nd favorite” tag of the Indian team. India as per the ICC ranking was placed at No. 6. The ICC does this based not on how bookies perceive various teams but on the performance. This is a better indication of what we should have expected.

One of the biggest reasons as I see, and you have mentioned it, is the age factor. It is difficult to have the same fire/drive to win when you have played the game without break for 15-17 years. Very evident in the game against Bangladesh and probably more so in the match against Sri Lanka. The body language and the meek surrender said it all.

As for Sehwag: Arre Bhai Usne 309 score kiye the…what do you mean kab? Arre isi Millennium mein to kiye the? And then isn’t he the guy who said “I will be the first one to score 200 in ODIs”? Kuch time do bechaare 200 years…

My bets for finals, if they don’t meet in the semis, are Aus and Sri. What say you?

Anonymous said...

I know its a little late...but todo analysis!!
It kinda gives u a picture which makes my killing them sound more rational!!

Anonymous said...

This is great info to know.