Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Stokes-Starc Drama

We have just witnessed one of the real oddities of the game of cricket. 

In case you missed it:
  • Kiwi-Englishman Ben Stokes hit the ball straight back to the bowler, the reputably aggressive Mitchell Starc
  • Starc hurled it back at breakneck speed attempting to smash the wickets and remove Stokes baseball style
  • Stokes stuck his hand out to block the throw and was subsequently dismissed for 'obstructing the field'
© foxsports.com.au

And now the cricketing world has blown up, a plethora of debate erupted from one ball of madness.

Question: Is it moral?
This topic is entirely subjective and farms out cricketing hypocrites like anything. The subject of 'gentlemen's game' and 'doing the right thing' is a red herring, even the cleanest outfit in the world has dirty laundry. The team in question is of course our humble Black Caps, remember the incident where McCullum ran out Muralitharan even though the universe knew he wasn't after a single? Now here he is on his high horse crying foul.

The Irish-Englishman captain in question has also taken the tall and mighty ground claiming he would have "withdrawn the appeal". Rubbish. I don't agree with Australians often, but George Bailey was bang on in calling this "a big thing to say". The poms are some of the worst when it comes to sporting behavior and moral standards on the field, the likes of Swann and Anderson are disgraceful.

They, and just about every other cricketing nation, has absolutely no grounds to call the card of "Blasphemy!  We would never do that!".

Question: Who do we blame?
There wouldn't be a debate if there wasn't somebody to point fingers at.

Suspect #1: Mitchell Starc. A bowler trying to destroy the stumps while fielding a return ball is commonplace. It could be a genuine attempt to run out the player, a cheap tactic to intimidate the batsman, or a dirty attempt to actually hit the batsmen. Usually only the Australians venture into the bottom end of the scale, as seen even by Starc himself taking aim at Kieron Pollard. *However* in this case I believe Starc was taking a legitimate shot at the stumps when the batsman was outside his crease. He was not trying to hit Stokes, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. 
Verdict: Not Guilty. 

Suspect #2: Ben Stokes. It is illegal to obstruct the ball from a fielders attempt at the stumps, he knew it and anyone with a reasonable eye on the game also knows it. However a look at the replays very clearly shows that this was all about self-preservation. He was genuinely concerned he was about to wear a leather red cricket ball coming at 200kph on his face, and stuck his hand out based on pure instinct and reflex. He was *not* trying to cheat and prevent his own run out. 
Verdict: Not Guilty. 

Suspect #3: The Rules. 
There is surprisingly a piece in the laws of cricket that captures the crux of this problem, self-preservation. 

Law 37 describes the following three circumstances where this applies, but the law is not limited to these circumstances. If, after completing the act of playing the ball, the batsmen willfully strikes the ball with a hand not holding the bat, unless this is in order to avoid injury, or any other part of his person or with his bat

This is a clear cut case of Stokes valuing his head (literally).
Verdict: Not Guilty.

This leaves one remaining culprit...

Suspect #4: 
The Umpires.
It went upstairs to be looked at, so the on-field umpires did the right thing here and called on the appropriate authority. They took the heat off themselves and avoided a rash and hurried decision. The third umpire then had the benefit of slow motion replays, interpreted the laws in a subjective and opinionated manner, and then sent Stokes on his way. In his eyes there would have been reasonable doubt either way, and in my opinion neither Starc nor Stokes were guilty... hence how can I fault the third umpire for taking a stance he had to make?
Verdict: Not Guilty. 

... Then who is guilty?

The answer is, nobody. And that is what makes any sport interesting.

The uncertainties and the debate are the life of the game. There isn't any right or wrong answer and it can be argued to death in every way. If it was possible to apply a mechanical decision on everything how boring would that be?

Truth is, the best we can all do is take a stance, have an enjoyably loud argument about it, and then get on with the rest of this fascinating series. 

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Ishant Sharma Conundrum

Oddly enough Ishant Sharma has been making headlines since 2007 (eight years ago!), most famously for getting in the faces of opposition.

What justifies running your mouth in the gentlemen's game?
The answer is actually brutally simple, the Australian's do it. If there ever was a template to winning a game of cricket, "do what the Aussies do" sits right up there and it seems like the new age India has taken this on board perhaps a little too seriously. We have Kohli throwing f-bombs, Gambhir shoulder charging men twice his size, Dhawan doing mock limps in the outfield to belittle an injured batsman.

And we have Ishant. 


Let's get one thing straight... this guy is a *terrible* bowler. 

Unlike the other aforementioned examples of cocky young Indians, this is one of the worst players operating in the game today. A reliable gauge for a good bowler is the bowling average, anywhere around 30 can be considered good while below 25 is top drawer. Ishant averages 36.5, poor by anyone's standard.

For some odd reason however, he truly believes he is in the Brett Lee and Dale Steyn school of fast bowling, and so he finds himself constantly getting fined for launching into verbal tirades which are usually completely uncalled for.  The critical difference is that yelling at a batsman when you're bowling figures are 1-100 is far less effective compared to say 1-23 (if Steyn's average is an example to go by).

So why does India persist with him?

Politics? But let's ignore favoritism for a moment because that's nothing but hearsay.

An answer is potential.  In a desperate search for quality Indian fast bowlers this young lad sprung out of nowhere and flung down deliveries both accurate and quick, using his tall frame to generate hostile bounce which had even Ricky Ponting hopping around.  It was almost old school West Indian like, it was raw and it was exciting. All the tools were there to become the next spearhead.

Unfortunately he faded away faster than a black pillow-case left in the sun, all that bustle and noise devolving into harmless 
Agarkar level fodder.  There are odd glimpses, such as the current hostile spells which helped India win this series in Sri Lanka (who are about to have a rough few years), but the glimpses are fleeting as illustrated by his stats.

An equivalent of the long lost Mohammad Sami.

India hasn't had an answer since Kapil Dev, with only Javagal Srinath and the underrated Zaheer Khan offering years of good service but never quite scaling the heights they were capable of.  Ishant is *capable* of plenty, but how much longer can you pick someone based on occasional rose tinted memories?

I'd sympathize more, if he'd just shut up and bowl.

The tough guy act fools nobody, sorry you're not intimidating until you have earned your stripes. 

Your spells were impressive this time, good. How about half a dozen more?

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

World Cup 2015 - The Perfect Semifinals

Is this the first ever cricket world cup where the actual top four will battle the semi finals?

It couldn't have been scripted any better. Two understated sides who have never gone beyond the semi-finals, two loud and arrogant sides who are utterly desperate to prove they are number one. One of each completely contrasting opponent will make up the grand final.

You cannot split them, you cannot separate them. Each of the four deserve to win the title, and each of them equally badly want it.

Who will blink first?

Why New Zealand Must Win
To shed the under-achievers tag and the notion of "punching above their weight" once and for all. This time New Zealand *is* a heavyweight and world cricket badly needs more attention away from the India and Ashes triumvirate. A nation of four million are rallying behind the undefeated home side, we have waited 13 years for this and a loss here would simply be tragic.

Why South Africa Must Win
To rid themselves of the chokers stigma and finally prove the promise. They have been strong since they re-emerged in the 90s and yet don't have a single grand final next to their name. We have already seen legends in green named Pollock, Donald, Rhodes, Kallis go without a title... must Amla, de Villiers and Steyn suffer the same unfortunate fate?

Why India Must Win
To squash the overseas myth. Winning in India was one thing but winning in New Zealand and Australia? Months of puerile cricket has been instantly forgiven as Team Blue puffed their chests out and exclaimed #WeWontGiveItBack. It has been an extremely impressive 70 wicket campaign with the biggest surprise the overnight transformation into quick accurate bowlers and fantastic fielders. Did someone threaten with an IPL paycut? Whatever it is, it worked.

Why Australia Must Win
To avenge years of pain. Losing the world cup to India, losing the Ashes, losing to Zimbabwe... it has been a torrid few years of which the wounds are only partially healed. This is the big prize, the stage is set perfectly on home soil to reclaim back the mantle they so desperately long for.

What is the perfect grand final?

Australia vs South Africa - A rematch of the epic disasters of 1999 and 2007 where the men in yellow demolished all South Africa hopes. There is no better way for the Rainbow Nation to take sweet revenge, win the cup at the MCG.

New Zealand vs Australia - A clash between neighbourly rivals, fellow co-hosts, and a revisit of the match of the tournament so far. For New Zealand, beating their taller cousins would be the perfect finish to a fairytale tournament.

India vs South Africa - India will have to defeat the only team that beat them in 2011 to claim back to back titles. You can be rest assured South Africa won't turn in the same lazy performance in pool play with so much at stake.

New Zealand vs India - The match up I am hoping for. The two best teams of the tournament, both undefeated, both with roots tied directly to your humble cricket enthusiast. Who does this Kiwi-Indian vouch for here?

Regardless of whatever happens, we can be rest assured the cricket will be nothing short of fantastic.

Game on!

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

World Cup 2015 - Aus vs NZ, Match of the Tournament?

Forget the famous India vs Pakistan rivalry for a moment.

Forget the Ashes, England have descended back into the 90s and don't look like coming out.

If we are talking cricketing rivalries, surely Australia vs New Zealand is now the most anticipated match up in world cricket.  This match was no exception.

  • Both teams are co-hosts and equally red hot favorites to win
  • It was 23 years ago at this very venue when Martin Crowe's men stunned Australia
  • The Trans-Tasman rivalry has been shelved in favor of the "big three" playing each other endlessly, we are deprived of Chappell-Hadlee battles.
The entire nation was humming, four million cricket nuts pumped and ready to dream big, boo David Warner and outplay the Aussies back over the ditch. For once we actually had eleven players capable of the feat, but even so it was an incredibly tough game to pick as both sides are extremely similar. Madness at the top, class in the middle, terrific bowling & fielding and a bloody mindedness to win at all costs.

Have we become a warm friendly version of the win hungry-Aussies, is little brother now an identical twin?

The match was arguably the most extraordinary world cup game of all time (top three at least). It was one of those rare surreal experiences in sport where the contest is so much more than just a bunch of guys on TV bashing a ball around with sticks. The history, the context, the emotion were all brewed in a perfect cocktail of cricket.

Like any truly memorable game the match swung like Wasim Akram in-swingers on grass:

1. Southee Nails Finch - Those first few overs were Zaheer Khan 2003 territory, a nervous wreck spraying the ball everywhere and runs leaking like a sieve. Was Australia going to repeat the 359-2?  Southee cleaning out Finch squashed that theory quick fast and got a nation of 4 million sighing with relief.

2. The Old Pro - The bespectacled king finally has the luxury of an actual bowling attack to work his magic around. His spell changed everything as no Aussie managed to make anything of his seemingly innocuous but unplayable balls. They tried to hit him out and that's when the rot began.

3. Thunderboults - Boult brought back the forgotten art of bowling *at the stumps*, hurrying the new batsman with raw pace and subtle movement and cleaning up the woodwork. A massive upgrade from the English and Indian attacks, maybe that's why Australia avoids us?

4. Greatness is Contagious - The first thing I thought of during the build up advertisement was "I can't wait for McCullum to actually face Johnson". I couldn't have asked for more, BMac was on a mission and he clouted fours and sixes with disdain, bulging left arm or not! Johnson tried to target this smashed arm and even then got pulled away to the fence, now that's raw Kiwi guts.

5. Beware The Wounded Aussie - I warned my fellow couch potatoes that there was a time Shane Bond destroyed Australia only to have Brett Lee issue the same treatment on us for a ridiculous comeback win.  You never discount Australia, and this time Haddin played Bevan and Starc played Lee, a demonic spell that had all of New Zealand wincing and covering their faces.

6. The Final Say - Kane Williamson, our only real class batsman. McCullum is great when he comes off but that won't be all the time, the rest of the batting is a scratchy awful mess in their first few overs especially when facing genuine speed. We wouldn't have reached 100 without The Next Crowe guiding us, remember that.

So what have we learnt?

The Cricket World Cup 2015 is alive and well and so far perhaps the best tournament yet. The 50 over game is truly the 'alternative' from to tests and T20 cricket and it's brand of big bats and small boundaries doesn't promote the arts of proper batting technique, hunting 2s and 3s instead of jogging singles, and scrambling in the field to save 20-30 runs per innings. This is how cricket should be played, all three facets with equal importance.

Secondly, genuine fast bowling is nothing without accuracy, Boult and Starc are fine examples of how it's done and gave us a timely reminder of the lost thrill of cricket stumps in genuine danger.

Now one can only hope for a rematch, if it does happen it will be semi-final or better still the grand final.

But a warning to the Black Caps, Australia will not be this sloppy next time.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

World Cup 2015 - India Have Arrived

India's lead up into the World Cup was atrocious.

The defending champions couldn't win a single game in Australia with key batsmen misfiring, their bowling & fielding were both the absolute pits, and captain Dhoni looked as bored as ever. An easy team to write off as title favorites given this form, particularly when up against the trio of Australia-New Zealand-South Africa who seemed to have all facets of the game under control.

But in the wise words of Bill Lawry "... all of a sudden it's all happening!"

Thrashing Pakistan was no surprise...
If there is one match India will always get up for, it's the opportunity to add to the 5-0 World Cup tally of beating Pakistan every time. At times it has been regarded as more important than winning the cup itself!

The surprising element was just how calmly they went about it.  There was no Sehwag whacking Gul half volleys, Tendulkar carving Shoaib Akhtar for dinner, or Prasad destroying Sohail's stumps. This time it was all patience and precision, patiently building a foundation until the 35th over and smoothly accelerating towards the psychological 300 benchmark.

Then with the help of scoreboard pressure, India found an extra bit of mojo plucked out of nowhere with ball in hand. Even more remarkably they turned in a fielding effort that wasn't it's usual lazy standard, India were able to record a professional display to get their world cup up and running.  

But Thrashing South Africa?
Where did this come from! India did not lose any of that India-Pakistan intensity, and that too against a team widely regarded as title favorites.

Dhawan and Kohli saw off the new ball threat without losing their heads (again), and this time it was the best in the world with a Steyn-Philander-Morkel pace battery.  They made sure a strong 300 total was secured rather than aiming for a more subcontinental score of 350.  But the real surprise again was how India bowled tightly with genuine pace, how they held their catches and fielded like demons.

They even executed run-outs! Blasphemy.

They turned the World Cup favourites into chumps, they out South Africa'd South Africa.
Suddenly pool A has a new boss.


So What Does This Mean?
We now have a fourth player for the ultimate prize, the blue bandwagon is up and running. If India keep that level of high quality cricket up, they could very well go back to back here.

The already widely open World Cup has another reason to be excited, the defending champs aren't about to let the tight Kung Fu grip on their trophy be pried off anytime soon. This is particularly important with Pakistan, England and the West Indies playing like... themselves.

Bring it on Team Blue!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

It's World Cup Time!

Just a matter of hours until the 2015 Cricket World Cup kicks off !!

And this time I won't be battling petty annoyances like time differences. This is without doubt the pinnacle event of cricket, the one tournament that demands undivided attention among all cricket fans.

I was 7 years old when the 1992 edition was hosted in Australia and New Zealand. Forget calling that a distant memory, it isn't a memory at all... and that makes this edition even more special with cricket's showcase event right here in our humble back yard.

Why Should We Care?

There is no test match championship, there is instead a dodgy ranking system which nobody really understands or pays attention to.  So with the 'pure' form of the game not having a marquee tournament, this fifty over World Cup becomes the closest thing we have to gauge which cricketing nation is the best in the world.

Does it truly reflect the greatest team?

Australia rampaged through a triple strike from 1999 - 2007 when they were clearly the best in the business, so that made sense. But then again South Africa constantly under-achieve, New Zealand constantly over-achieve and Sri Lanka pulled off an underdogs dream in 1996 without dominating before or after.

The answer then? Yes and no... two months of good cricket is enough to win the cup but is hard to pull off unless it is really deserved.

So Who Will Win in 2015?

It's a cliché, but his is truly one of the most open world cups in a long time. Ever since Australia climbed a few rungs down the latter it became largely an open playing field among the big guns.

Let's have a go at the order of likelihood to win:

Unfortunately we have to write off UAE, Afghanistan and Scotland. I always welcome the little guys but again there are a few too many soft games coming our way. Of this group, Scotland is the most likely to pull a surprise.

Bangladesh and Zimbabwe are capable of much more but can't seem to get it together.

The West Indies won't show up among their political and selection battles, poor Jason Holder has to carry this hopeless mob on his young shoulders.

Ireland will annoy one or two teams, may there be plenty of Irish luck.

England are a poor ODI squad, they are all noise and hot air.  Led by an Irishman who pretends they aren't scared of Mitchell Johnson, it's pretty hard to back the poms to go beyond the quarters.

Sri Lanka rely too much on their ageing old boys club, there is surprisingly little else going on in their line-up. If Malinga turns up fit though then there could be surprises.

Pakistan are the joker card of the pack, capable of anything and at the same time nothing. They are the gambling man's bet, although on paper though they are disappointingly inexperienced and average this time.

This leaves.....

New Zealand, who were dubbed by AB de Villiers as "World Cup favorites" not long ago... right before he and his men thumped us. A nice piece of reverse psychology! The fact is we finally have the talent for once, and that might actually go against us. We're famous for sneaking into semi-finals unnoticed but this time all the big boys will be watching closely.

Australia and India are two teams never to be written off, both are cocky and annoying but they have genuine match winners littered in there and a genuine hunger to succeed. Always beware the wounded Aussie, however India will have to overcome their horrifically poor bowling and fielding.

South Africa are the most complete team in the world, and yet you can never confidently say they won't pull out their token choke.

Some predictions then:

Winner: South Africa
Deserved Runner Up: Australia
Unlucky Semi Finalist: New Zealand

Most Runs: Hashim Amla
Most Wickets: Dale Steyn
Best Strike Rate: Shahid Afridi
Best Economy Rate: Daniel Vettori
Most Sixes: Brendon McCullum

Meaningless but pretty 20 Award: Shane Watson
Last Man Standing Award: Misbah ul Haq
Disappointing Golden Duck Award: Chris Gayle
Reverse Pull Slog on 99 Award: Glenn Maxwell
The "Why Me" Award: Jason Holder
The Shut Up Award: James Brayshaw (Big men and big levers!?)

Player Most Missed: Dwayne Bravo
Player Most Missed (by opposition):  Ishant Sharma

Let the games begin!