Category: _author:Dileep Premachandran

IPL 2018: Chris Gayle and KL Rahul’s Form for …

As far as the 2018 Indian Premier League (IPL) is concerned, Chris Gayle hasn’t just announced his presence. He’s screamed it from the rooftops, and made himself as visible as the neon signs on Times Square. His three outings for Kings XI Punjab have seen scores of 63, 104 not out and 62 not out. Those 229 runs have included an incredible 21 sixes, six of them off Rashid Khan, who has befuddled batsmen across leagues for more than a year now.

His fitness issues may mean that Gayle continues to be used as an impact player, but every run he makes will mean further scrutiny of Royal Challengers Bangalore’s decision not to retain him, or put in a bid for him at the auction. Such hindsight is hardly fair though. There had been nothing in the runes to suggest that such a turnaround was likely.

You have to go back to 2015 for Gayle’s last great IPL season. Then, in addition to scores of 96 (56 balls), 62 not out (40) and 117 (57), he also delivered a stunning 10-ball 35 as Bangalore eased past a tough Duckworth-Lewis target. The following year, he began the campaign with scores of 1, 0, 7, 5 and 6. Had it been any other player, that would have been that.

But such was the regard that Virat Kohli and the team management had for him that they gave him more chances. Scores of 49 (31) and 73 (32) were followed by a devastating 38-ball 76 in the final. It was his exit that tilted the scales in Hyderabad’s favour.

But for a 38-ball 77 in Rajkot, there was almost nothing to savour in 2017, when his 200 runs came at a pedestrian strike-rate of 122.69. And it wasn’t only in the IPL that he struggled. In 14 innings across the first two seasons of the Pakistan Super League (PSL), he made just 263 runs at a strike-rate of 127.05.

The Big Bash League had drawn a line under his participation after 2016, for non-cricketing reasons, and despite the runs he plundered in the Caribbean and in Bangladesh, his struggles in India and the Middle East – which hosted the PSL – suggested that his days as a big-tournament player were behind him.

That Gayle has now found a sixth or seven wind is testament to his ability to reinvent himself in a format that he has mastered like no one else. That shouldn’t, however, be used as a stick to beat his former team with, not when all the numbers were stacked against the idea of retaining him.

Where Bangalore really blundered was in not keeping faith in KL Rahul. He may have missed the 2017 season because of the shoulder injury he picked up in the Test series against Australia, but his displays in 2016 had been integral to RCB’s charge to the final. He didn’t just make 397 runs at an excellent strike-rate (146.49), he was remarkably consistent, making 38 or more in seven of his 12 innings.

Only the Bangalore team management could tell you in which parallel universe Sarfaraz Khan is a better batting option than Rahul. Sarfaraz has started the season with scores of 6, 0 and 5. Rahul’s lowest scores in six knocks for Punjab is 18.

The performances of Rahul and Karun Nair with Punjab and Krishnappa Gowtham and Shreyas Gopal with Rajasthan have caused considerable heartburn in Bangalore, where the squad has no local presence to speak of. Of course, for practical purposes, it could be argued that Kohli, in his 11th season with RCB, and AB de Villiers, into his eighth, are as local as the IPL gets, in the same way that Gautam Gambhir was once one of Kolkata’s favourite sons.

But when you see names like Sarfaraz, Pawan Negi and Murugan Ashwin in the squad, it does make you wonder why players with a far greater knowledge of the Bangalore conditions weren’t considered a priority at the auction. Bangalore continue to place a premium on overseas talent, while the teams that have won the competition invest far more wisely in the best Indian talent, both of the established and upcoming variety.

Gayle’s renaissance may cause a few rueful smiles in the Bangalore camp, but it’s the failure to retain Rahul that could have greater long-term ramifications. No matter where they end up this season, that recruitment strategy certainly needs a second look. And then some.

Chennai Super Kings Acing the Act of Balancing…

Walking down the Queen’s Necklace next to the Arabian Sea, it was impossible to miss the hordes of fans in Mumbai Indians’ blue. Nearly half a decade after he retired, fewer and fewer of the shirts referenced Sachin Tendulkar’s once-ubiquitous No. 10. There was another difference too. Sizeable groups of fans wore Chennai yellow, and the flags waved with all the pent-up energy created by two years in the wilderness.

Between them, the two sides had won the Indian Premier League (IPL) in five of its ten seasons, and Mumbai fans, who had to wait until 2013 for their first title, missed no opportunity to remind the visitors that they had now won it a record three times.

Given how long some of Chennai’s players have been around, you’d have been forgiven if you half-expected them to take the field with Samurai topknots and Bushido blades. After the auction last January, when Chennai bought ten players over the age of 30, even their own fans dubbed them the Senior Kings.

On Saturday, in the opening game of the IPL 2018, all those thousands of miles in the legs showed as well. Of the seven bowlers that MS Dhoni turned to, Imran Tahir was 38, Harbhajan Singh 37, Shane Watson 36 and Dwayne Bravo 34.

Watson and Bravo bowled steady slow-medium pace, and Mark Wood’s inability to find the right length – he went for 49 in four overs – illustrated just why Dhoni has always been more comfortable with bowlers on the slow side of the spectrum. Chennai have Lungi Ngidi in their ranks as well, but he and Wood could struggle for game time especially if the pitches at Chepauk are low and slow.

Another kind of slowness, however, would have bothered Dhoni, who was instrumental in India phasing out some legendary, but unathletic, names when he assumed the ODI captaincy a decade ago. Chennai were poor in the field. Bravo overran a ball on the boundary, Ravindra Jadeja saw a catch burst through his hands, and Suresh Raina watched a booming drive from Krunal Pandya streak past him.

As with the team Dhoni inherited with India, there were far too many fielders to hide, too many individuals so stiff and slow in their movements that ones invariably became twos. The rust was evident with the ball as well. Bravo’s first over, the 12th of the innings, went for 14, as Suryakumar Yadav smashed three fours in a row.

In late 2016, Bravo tore his hamstring so badly that it nearly separated from the bone. He admitted after his match-winning 30-ball 68 that it had been playing on his mind. “I’m no longer 24, so I have to be very cautious,” he said. “I started very slow and just needed to get momentum going into the game.”

With the bat, Chennai were pushed to the brink by the heroics of Mayank Markande, a 20-year-old leg-spinner from Bhatinda in Punjab. His three wickets included Dhoni, trapped in front by a googly that skidded on. “I thought he bowled brilliantly, we backed him when we saw him first at our camp,” said Mahela Jayawardene, the Mumbai coach. “He is quite accurate and probably a bit different to a normal leg-spinner as well – the way he delivers the ball, the control he has with his variations, and he is very confident for a guy who has not played much T20 cricket.”

In the end, however, the nous of Bravo, playing his 376th T20 game, and an impudent scoop over fine-leg from 32-year-old Kedar Jadhav, who came back out despite hurting his hamstring, saw the oldies limp home. The stands emptied quickly, with only hundreds of Chennai fans staying on to watch the presentation. Their numbers spoke of Chennai’s pan-Indian appeal, in a country where away-day travel hasn’t caught on because of both distance and cost.

In the build-up to the game, Stephen Fleming, the Chennai coach, had talked up the value of experience. “Not often do you see young players come out and make a mark,” he said. “People talk a lot about it but very rarely do young players shoot the lights out.”

Markande so nearly did, and Jayawardene offered a different view. “It’s a balancing act, isn’t it?” he said. “You need experience. We’ve got plenty in our camp as well. At the same time, we try to introduce a few younger guys to bring that energy through.”

Despite Bravo taking the way of the warrior to a famous victory – their last IPL game before this was the loss to Mumbai in the 2015 final – Chennai will need to find much more youthful energy of their own if they are to meet the expectations of their devoted fans.

Familiar Names Return as IPL Turns Back the Cl…

The more things change, the more we’re likely to experience some measure of déjà vu. A decade ago, when Lalit Modi – whose name is now mud in cricket’s corridors of power – launched the Indian Premier League (IPL), with green laser lights and other off-field gimmicks, cricket had just been shaken by Monkeygate. An Australian team that had won 16 Tests in a row were never again the same force, losing a golden generation to retirement and Andrew Symonds to gradual disillusionment with a game he felt had not done the right thing by him.

Now, as the IPL prepares for season XI, with a multi-billion-dollar broadcast deal in the bank, Australia is again at the heart of all cricket discussion. The ball-tampering controversy in Cape Town last month didn’t just cost the men in baggy green a captain and vice-captain. It left Rajasthan Royals and Sunrisers Hyderabad having to search for new leaders, with Steve Smith and David Warner banned from taking any part in the competition.

Some have laughed at the IPL taking a stand on the issue. ‘A cesspool of corruption’ is probably one of the less insulting descriptions the league has been given, especially after the spot-fixing scandal of 2013. But whatever the IPL’s past, and scandals have been quite plentiful, that’s no reason to be skeptical of its efforts to project a better image.

The reality is that cricket, a sport that specialises in shooting itself in the foot – witness the pathetic excuse that will be the ten-team ‘World Cup’ in 2019 – can ill afford to take its audience for granted. The Big Bash League, the only other domestic Twenty20 competition of comparable stature, saw the average attendance dip by more than 3000 people this past season. That it was an Ashes summer may have been a contributing factor, but it’s still not a great omen.

The average attendance in the IPL in 2017 was 26,126, well down on the 31,750 for 2014. The absence of Chennai Super Kings (CSK), banned for two years after the 2015 season, was undoubtedly a factor. This year, with CSK and MS Dhoni back ‘home’, you could sell out Chepauk twice over for most games, even in the enervating summer heat.

The ‘British’ team up in Jaipur will also expect similarly frenzied support, with the IPL returning to Rajasthan after a long hiatus. Smith may have been scratched from the Royals’ squad, but Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler and Jofra Archer make them dangerous floaters, especially if their exciting Australian wild card, D’Arcy Short, fires at the top of the order like Swanpil Asnodkar did in the opening season.

In those early years of the IPL, there was more than a bit of disquiet about the impact on the national side. Gary Kirsten, not a man who sought out the microphones, was quite trenchant in his criticism of ‘low quality’ cricket after India’s early exits from the World Twenty20 in 2009 and 2010. He had a point too. At that stage, each franchise had a handful of homegrown players who were weak links not really suited to the format.

Those days are long gone. These days, the IPL is viewed, with good reason, as a great audition for talents wishing to wear the national cap. Hardik Pandya’s progression from IPL swashbuckler to all-format India star is a perfect example. And this IPL, many eyes will be on Washington Sundar, to seem if he can maintain his staggering rate of improvement.

Indian cricket’s strength in depth is now the envy of the world, but with the white-ball team sides far from settled, despite recent successes home and away, there are opportunities aplenty for those, especially batsmen, who can impress between now and next summer. The IPL, with millions watching every evening, offers the biggest platform.

As for the franchises themselves, it’ll be fascinating to see if the old order changes at all. The opening game pits the team with the best winning percentage, Chennai, against the side that has won the most games and titles, Mumbai Indians. Both should be part of the tussle for play-off berths. But will a Kolkata Knight Riders team that let Gautam Gambhir go be able to replicate the successes it enjoyed under his captaincy? Or will Virat Kohli and Royal Challengers Bangalore finally end their jinx?

Delhi, with Gambhir at the helm and Ricky Ponting as coach, will certainly be more competitive than they have been in recent seasons, despite the loss of Kagiso Rabada to injury. Kings XI Punjab should be fun to watch, with R Ashwin as captain and Virender Sehwag on the sidelines. Two mavericks with quirky ideas on how the game should be played.

Sunrisers Hyderabad will have to overcome the loss of Warner, whose batsmanship and captaincy were so integral to their success in 2016. As for the Royals, they have gone back to another Australian to rediscover the stardust of 2008. Shane Warne turned water into wine that season, with ‘Goa Cannon’ Asnodkar, ‘Rockstar’ Ravindra Jadeja and the then-unknown Sohail Tanvir, bowling like a left-arm Mike Proctor. Back as a mentor, it’ll be fascinating to see what he spies with his eye for talent.

For the biggest stars, apart from a stage to perform, the IPL offers the kind of payday that can secure your future. For the rest, both journeymen and India aspirants, it provides an experience no amount of money can buy. As the tattoo on Pandya left forearm says, “Believe.”

Lehmann, The Wannabe Black Caps and Other Aust…

And so, the bans have been handed down, and the culprits sent home. A line drawn under one of cricket’s more controversial incidents. Or has it? Despite the announcements from Cricket Australia, so many questions remain to be answered. James Sutherland, wedded to ‘process’ over solution, in unlikely to give you any, and one can only wish Tim Paine luck as he seeks to turn around the team’s fortunes without two gun batsmen who have 138 caps, 12,562 runs and 44 centuries between them.

Perhaps once Smith touches down in Sydney, having been escorted through OR Tambo by police as though he were some common criminal, we might get a little more insight into the events of Saturday afternoon, when he traded a place in the pantheon for 12 months on skid row.

The ban has nothing to do with the ball tampering, clumsy and blatant as it was. It has everything to do with deceit, and doing further damage to the reputation of a team that already had very little to commend it. If the late Peter Roebuck thought that the Sydney 2008 vintage – with players like Michael Hussey and Adam Gilchrist – were like a pack of wild dogs, what would he have made of Darren Lehmann’s ugly crew?

Smith, and Lehmann – who has bizarrely managed to hold on to his job – had multiple opportunities to fix things once the TV pictures showed the sheer extent of Cameron Bancroft’s stupidity. Lehmann says he was on the walkie-talkie to Peter Handscomb, the 12th man, to ask what the f*** was going on. Seriously? That was your response?

A smart coach would have pulled Bancroft from the field, stripped him, put the sandpaper back in a kitbag where it belongs and locked him up in the loo for being a class-A idiot. Instead, nothing was done till a ‘chat’ at tea time. By then, Smith and Bancroft had been part of a charade that involved the sandpaper being pushed into his jocks, the umpires being lied to and willfully deceived by the exhibition of another piece of cloth.

It still wasn’t too late. After the day’s play, with the media contingent waiting and cricket fans across the world watching, Smith and Bancroft could have come clean. They couldn’t even do that properly. There was admission of premeditation, but Bancroft still denied that it had been sandpaper. Sticky tape with earth on it, we were told. Next to him, Smith didn’t blink.

Watching this absurdity unfold, it was hard not to think of Virat Kohli’s incandescent rage in Bangalore last March, when he was utterly convinced Smith and Australia were trying to misuse the Decision Review System. Again, Smith’s ‘brain fade’ was captured by a number of cameras. But instead of bothering with an investigation, Sutherland came out and spoke of his captain’s ‘integrity’ while suggesting that Kohli couldn’t even spell.

Had that nonsense been taken care of – instead, Australia strove to make sure the incident didn’t attract any penalty from the match referee, as it should have – things might not have unraveled as they did in Cape Town. When players lose sight of what’s right and wrong, and are not held accountable for their behaviour, they behave like the ‘spoilt brats’ that Jeff Thomson thinks they are.

Now that Smith, whose days as captain are surely over, has exited stage left, it’s Lehmann in the spotlight. One part of his mea culpa on Wednesday was especially laughable. “The thing for me would be if we take a leaf out of someone like, say, New Zealand’s book, the way they play and respect the opposition,” he said.

Rewind exactly three years to the World Cup final. If you watched it, what’s the one thing that sticks in your memory, even more than the Mitchell Starc thunderbolt to Brendon McCullum? I was there, and I can tell you it was the appalling send-off that Brad Haddin gave Grant Elliott. Elliott, remember, had shown the grace of a champion in the semifinal, going straight to a disconsolate Dale Steyn after the winning six had been struck.

What did Haddin do? You can check the pictures. And Lehmann laughed it off later. Now, he wants to emulate New Zealand. Good luck with that.

In cricket, where the coach’s inputs seldom influence matches the way they do in football or American football, the main remit is to create the right culture around the team. What Lehmann created is there for all to see. If Cricket Australia think he’s the man to change that environment, they’re even more delusional than young Bancroft was.

Unlike trees, which rot from the roots, organisations decay from the top. It was nearly 15 years ago that Sutherland announced that the spirit of cricket was to be one of the four pillars of the game in the country. We saw how well that message was taken on board at the end of the recent Ashes series, when Cricket Australia produced a backdrop so cringeworthy that even the most partisan fans were embarrassed.

As much as Lehmann, it’s Sutherland who should be asked the toughest questions.

Ball Tampering Controversy: When Smith Decided…

A year ago, an Australian tabloid compared Virat Kohli to Donald Trump ‘for his continual perpetuation of fake news’ and for being ‘the man who last week launched a scandalous attack on [Steve] Smith and the Australians where he accused of them being systematic cheats’. Now, Smith, the Australian captain whose behaviour – looking to the dressing room for DRS advice – had enraged Kohli and lit the fire for the rest of the series, finds himself facing the same fate as another US President.

It took intrepid reporters and insiders with a conscience to reveal the true extent of the Watergate scandal that cost Richard Nixon his presidency in 1974. All that was needed to leave Smith’s captaincy in tatters was perhaps the most dim-witted attempt at ball tampering the game has seen.

Make no mistake, tampering isn’t the issue here. Long before Pakistan’s Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis made reverse swing controversial and then sexy in the early 1990s, teams were trying different ways to ‘make’ the ball. Bishan Singh Bedi still swears that John Lever and the English side used Vaseline strips to alter the condition of the ball more than 40 years ago. Imran Khan and others used bottle crowns and miscellaneous sharp objects.

Once reverse swing became ingrained in the sport’s lexicon, other methods were also employed, mints and cough lozenges being among them. Faf du Plessis, currently South Africa’s captain, used the zipper on his trouser pocket to scuff up one side of the ball. Vernon Philander used his nails. Shahid Afridi went for the big bite.

But most of those incidents, like Michael Atherton’s dirt in the pocket, were spontaneous stupidity. What Smith and Cameron Bancroft admitted to on Saturday was far worse – a conspiracy hatched in the dressing room and then implemented on the field. And even then, it’s unlikely they told us the whole truth. Bancroft’s assertion that it was sticky tape in his pocket is especially suspicious. What the footage showed was a firm object. Sticky tape, even with grit on it, wouldn’t hold its shape like that.

There’s little point having a go at the International Cricket Council (ICC) for the leniency of the punishment – just a one-match ban for Smith. According to the laws of the game and the existing code of conduct, that is the maximum penalty they can levy. But what Cricket Australia choose to do is another matter.

Robert Craddock, veteran journalist and broadcaster, put it best when he wrote: “It was the culmination of a grubby win-at-all-costs culture deliberately crossing the thin line between self-righteous rule bending into a world of shameless, bald face cheating.

“Having teased and taunted and demeaned opposition sides for years Australia developed such a shallow respect for the spirit of the game that it decided a little bit of cheating would not go astray.”

That self-righteousness that he speaks of is at the heart of the problem. During the Monkeygate crisis back in 2008, when Ricky Ponting’s Australians had just equalled Steve Waugh’s side’s 16-match winning streak, a player called up an Australian journalist and asked him: “Why do you blokes hate us so much?”

Of course, no one hated them, but any admiration of their on-field prowess was tinged with disgust at the pack-of-wild-dogs mentality that the late Peter Roebuck called out. When Rahul Dravid was fined for shining the ball with a lozenge in his mouth in 2004, Ponting spoke of how “I don’t think you’ll see us doing anything like that.”

From a team that loved to live on the edge, the holier-than-thou approach was especially galling. The great West Indies sides of the 1970s and ’80s were no angels – there was much ugliness on the tour of New Zealand in 1980, and quite a few flashpoints in the latter years of Viv Richards’s captaincy – but then they didn’t go around mouthing inane catchphrases like ‘hard, but fair’ or tom-tomming the ‘Caribbean way’.

What began as mental disintegration in the Waugh years has descended to utter boorishness in the last half-decade. David Warner has been especially culpable and if Cricket Australia want to retain even a shred of dignity after this sorry episode, he too will be exiled from the captaincy forever.

In one of those delicious twists of fate that life throws up, we can now look back on the closing lines of that Kohli-is-Trump article. “Test captains, under the rules of the game, are supposed to be the flagbearers for upholding the spirit of the game, yet the ICC has allowed the Indian captain to destroy one of the foundations on which the game has been played for more than a century.”

Kohli didn’t cheat, and he destroyed nothing but the illusion of the Smith-and-Lehmann-led Australia playing hard-but-fair cricket. Now, if only we could say the same of Mr Smith. When he and his co-conspirators get the sack, assuming Cricket Australia do the right thing, they can always audition for roles in a movie adaptation of a great Australian novel – Peter Carey’s My Life as a Fake.

BCCI Contracts: The Women Deserve a Better Dea…

Jayant Yadav last played for India in February 2017, against Australia in Pune. His only ODI appearance was back in 2016, and there have been few signs over the past year that he’s part of the plans for the 2019 World Cup. Jayant is a very capable cricketer, and his all-round displays against England – a superb century in Mumbai, and wickets at crucial times – proved that he could match wits with the best, at least in home conditions.

Since making her debut for India Women back in June 1999, Mithali Raj has won 267 caps across formats. The vast majority of those (189) have come in the 50-over version, where she has represented India in five World Cups. There have been two runners-up medals (2005 and 2017) and a third-place finish (2009). In her own way, she has been as colossal a figure as Sachin Tendulkar, an inspiration for thousands of girls hoping to make it to the top.

Earlier this week, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) – or the Committee of Administrators (CoA) appointed to administer its affairs – announced vastly improved new contracts for Indian cricketers. Those that excel across formats – five players including Virat Kohli – stand to make 7 crores as retainer. Even those fringe players at the base of the pyramid, Grade C, stand to earn 1 crore, half of what the highest retainer is currently.

Jayant is one of those players, though his chance of wearing the India shirt in the immediate future – there are hardly any home Tests over the next 18 months – are next to non-existent. At the same time, the women’s contracts have also been made more lucrative. Mithali, whose previous retainer, long since lapsed, was worth 15 lakhs, could now earn 50 lakhs. Jhulan Goswami, the other bulwark of the Indian women’s side over the past two decades, Harmanpreet Kaur and Smriti Mandhana also come in the same pay bracket.

So, there you have it. A fringe player who may not play for India in the foreseeable future will be paid twice the retainer that one of the greatest women’s cricketers will be. Yes, we know that comparing men’s and women’s cricket is like mixing apples and oranges. Yes, it’s the men who command the millions of eyeballs that bring in the revenue. Yes, it’s the Indian Premier League (IPL) – contested by the men – which has put obscene sums of money in the BCCI’s bank accounts.

But there lies the rub. The cricket board is not a for-profit enterprise. The bottom line shouldn’t be its priority, especially when it enjoys such riches. The fact is that individuals like Mithali and Jhulan, who have done so much to raise the profile of Indian women’s cricket while earning far less than 50 lakhs over the duration of such long careers, deserve so much more.

And it’s not just about them either. Look lower down the food chain and the numbers are pitiable. Under the new payment system, male domestic cricketers will be paid 35,000 Rupees a match day, with that fee halved for Twenty20 games. The reserves will be paid half that. With the Ranji Trophy stalwart guaranteed at least six matches, and several other limited-overs tournaments dotting the season, it adds up to a decent living if you’re proficient across formats. But when you consider that the average Sheffield Shield player was making A$200,000 even before the new pay structure was put in place, those numbers don’t look too flash.

Yes, there are cost-of-living indices to consider, but they’re almost irrelevant in a field where you’re one bad injury away from oblivion, and where even the longest career seldom goes beyond 15 years. But if you think the men are underpaid, don’t even look at what the women make. That’s just embarrassing.

Even after the latest proposed hike, the women who play the domestic circuit will make 12,500 Rupees a day. At first glance, that’s definitely not a trifling amount, given that they don’t even make a third of that now. But here’s the thing. If you consider a state team like Hyderabad, which has produced a few Indian internationals over the years, they played just eight (one-day) matches this season. Half of them were in the T20 format. So, a player who played every game would make just 75,000 Rupees. For a full season.

The zonal competition, four three-day matches, remains to be played, but that obviously excludes the majority of state players. Imagine buying kit, eating according to the dietary recommendations, and training, and all on just over 6,000 Rupees a month. When some of these girls then go on to do India proud, as they did at the World Cup last summer, the tendency is to shower them with cash and plots of land and other camera-friendly gestures. But at the grassroots, and even domestic level, they have their task cut out to excel.

Once the women are good enough, goes the argument, the sponsors will come, as will the lucrative fees and contracts. In that case, we need to ask, what constitutes good enough? Two finals and a third place in the last four World Cups isn’t? Besides, should Indian cricket even be depending on sponsors?

The minimum retainer for an Australian woman cricketer right now is A$72,000 (approximately 36 lakhs). Even the state players are guaranteed nearly A$26,000 (around 13 lakhs). With so much money in the bank, the BCCI’s focus should be on how India can approach the standards set by the Australian girls over the past two decades.

Instead, we’ll slap ourselves on the back over having given the women such a generous hike, and completely ignore just how hard it is to stay invested in the game even at the state level. The proposed structure is a pyramid alright, but by focussing so much on the apex, it ignores every structural issue that still holds back Indian cricket.

Time the Aussies Realised They Don’t Have a Bi…

The gentleman’s game. What a laugh. If cricket really was that, David Warner wouldn’t be anywhere near the field at St. George’s Park in Port Elizabeth when the second Test against South Africa begins on Friday (March 9). By not throwing the book at him and banning him for at least a game, cricket’s authorities have failed miserably to clamp down on atrocious behaviour.

In his defence, this is part of what Warner said. “I’ve always felt that when it comes to family or racism comments or anything like that, that’s just a no-go zone,” he remarked. “I’ve been called everything under the sun out in the field and that, quite frankly, doesn’t bother me.“

“Each individual is different, of course, but if we are going to jot down everything that is in that sort of spectrum, whether it is calling me a slowcoach on the field or whatever it is, it is up to the individual, but at the end of the day, the other day was, I felt, was probably out of line.”

The line. That mythical creation that only Australian cricketers seem to understand. That boundary either side of which they get to decide what personal abuse is and what isn’t. After the incident, I spoke to an Australian friend of mine, who was on the beat for years. “It’s complete bullshit,” he told me, of the notion that Australian cricketers don’t get personal and only their opponents do. “We’re the worst. Bullies who don’t like it when it’s directed back at us. We start fights and try to weasel our way out of it by claiming provocation.”

So, making jokes about Quinton de Kock’s surname is banter. Calling sometime else ‘fat’ or ‘slow’ or a ‘spastic’ is fine. But God forbid that I bring your wife into it. But see, here’s the thing. Once you open your potty mouth and abuse me, you’re opening yourself up to anything that I may choose to respond with. If I decide to mention your wife’s past, that’s my prerogative. If I want to talk about your grandfather’s peccadilloes with sheep, that’s fine too. You don’t get to decide my response. Once you start the fight, I can finish it however I want to. Can’t take it? Then zip it and get on with playing the game.

Part of the problem lies with the media as well. Every so often, we bring up the amusing old sledging anecdotes – Darryl Cullinan and Shane Warne, Kumar Sangakkara and Shaun Pollock – and talk of how it adds to the game’s tapestry. It probably does. But the fact is that for every such humorous exchange, there are a few dozen instances of men like Warner and Jimmy Anderson just unleashing four-letter word after four-letter word. The Sangakkara sledge was funny because he was clever and witty. Most chronic sledgers are unimaginative boors.

“I wasn’t there, I can’t categorically speak for another person,” said Ottis Gibson, the current South Africa coach who grew up watching a generation of Caribbean greats who let bat and ball do the talking. “There’s this thing and I have seen it recently now about the line. They are saying they didn’t cross the line, but where is the line, who sets the line, where did the line come from?”

Bear in mind too that we’re not talking about an over-the-top wicket celebration, however unedifying those can be, or a player having a strop at an umpiring decision that goes against him. We understand that they’re not robots, that things will be said and done sometimes in the heat of the moment. No, we’re taking of relentless on-field abuse, which trails a player even back to the dressing room. It’s constant, and it’s moronic, and it reflects poorly on the captain and coach that allow it to happen.

The line should be drawn by the umpires, but when was the last time you saw a truly obnoxious cricketer banned from the game? Cricket has a pitiable record when it comes to clamping down on misbehaviour. It’s perhaps time for yellow and red cards to be introduced, and for umpires to be empowered to use them. And while we’re at it, let’s turn the stump microphones on to full volume as well. The Sangakkaras of the world don’t need to fret. Genuine banter of that sort can continue. But let’s go out of our way to embarrass the dimwits who have nothing more than abuse to offer.

There were so many words spoken soon after the tragic death of Phillip Hughes about the need to play the game in the right spirit. And yet, how little has changed. It surely isn’t a coincidence that almost every ugly flashpoint over the past two decades has involved Australia. There is actually a line – it’s called civilised human behaviour. Maybe Warner and the louts that keep defending him could look it up. Till they grasp what it means, they should be prepared to cope with whatever bullies have coming to them.

Rahul Dravid Has Never Had to Put On an Act, H…

I still remember that afternoon because of the self-control he showed. These years later, with him now 45 and I not far behind, it remains the most eventful interview I’ve done. Much of the talking was done in his car while he drove – back then, cricketers did own unfashionable vehicles like the Honda City – but I also had to wait around while he recorded a message at a radio station in support of a wildlife initiative and then inaugurated a sporting goods showroom on Brigade Road, then very much at the heart of Bangalore.

It was at the second event that I nearly punched someone, whose hands were all over my face and body as soon as we stepped out of the car. Just because I was with him, it was assumed that I too was some sort of a star, and not a young journalist trying to finish off the biggest interview of a fledgling career. As I wrestled away and looked towards him, he was being mobbed. Scratch that. Manhandled would be the apt word.

As I seethed with rage, he went about his business as though nothing had happened. He shook hands, spoke to people and signed at least two dozen autographs. Had the selfie been around then, we might have been stuck in the store a lot longer. Only once did he get flustered. Just as we were in the car and ready to drive away, a middle-aged man thrust a currency note and pen at him, asking him to sign on the image of Mahatma Gandhi. “I can’t do that,” he said. “Please get me a piece of paper.”

As the interview wound down an hour later, I asked Rahul Dravid how he managed to stay calm, especially when there was such little respect for his personal space. “They do it out of affection,” he said with a shrug. “Indian cricket means that much to them.”

As the years passed and the accolades grew, he didn’t change. Instrumental in every major Indian Test win for half a decade, he was the natural choice to take over from Sourav Ganguly. Long before Greg Chappell arrived with his tough-love methods, John Wright was telling anyone who cared to listen that Dravid was the man to take Indian cricket to the next level.

But because of what transpired with Chappell, the job that no one should have grudged him became a poisoned chalice. We don’t often speak of historic Test series wins in West Indies and England, or of the maiden Test win in South Africa. Instead, the Dravid years are invariably associated with that World Cup failure in Trinidad.

By the end of it all – in England in 2007, with no coach around, he would even supervise the availability of balls for net sessions – his form too suffered. But even as he withdrew into himself and the cocoon his family offered, the way he behaved didn’t change. He would respond to messages and calls and was unfailingly polite even when saying no.

His vulnerability in those years taught me a great deal about what life must be like at the cutting edge of professional sport. As the runs dried up, I would almost always send messages before matches, telling him that his luck would change. Many sportspersons cultivate relationships with the media in the lean times, and then promptly become recluses if and when the glory years return.

But when his career graph stopped sliding, with a century in Mohali against England – “If they had dropped me after that Test, I wouldn’t have had any complaints,” he told me later – he remembered those messages. “There were times when you believed in me more than I did in myself,” said one. I was one of many. Ricky Ponting had sought him out after the 2008 series in India, and told him that it was only a matter of time.

When the curtain came down, with a disastrous series in Australia mere months after a three-century summer in England, he called everyone he knew well in the game and informed them before the final press conference. He left with no scores settled, no points made. Media work, in the age of instant and often strident opinions wasn’t really for him. With the Under-19 boys and the A team, he really is in his element, doing with them what he credits the late Keki Tarapore for when he was a teenager finding his way.

Many top sportspersons have been compelled to pretend to be paragons of virtue because it made cold commercial sense. A few of them are Indian. Dravid never had to put on an act. He really was a nice guy, the sort of bloke even the opposition seldom had a harsh word for. Whether he was a gentlemen, or a man from another age, depends on your perspective. But with him, what you saw was always what you got. His embarrassment at being awarded more money than the Under-19 players and support staff doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. This is the man who wouldn’t sign on a currency note, who knew the value of things.

He was a special person to know as a player. He’s no different as a coach.

OPINION | Virat Kohli Knows Best How to Lead T…

Soon after the playing XIs were announced in Cape Town, for the first Test of the South Africa-India series, I tweeted: “Really don’t understand the fuss over selection. Captain and coach have always said that they’ll pick those in form. And Rahane’s overseas runs were more than three years ago. Frankly, this team management has earned the right to pick Coco the Clown if they want to.”

This was, as with many things said on Twitter, a remark made with tongue firmly in cheek. Few things are more fun than being provocative on social media, and then watching the comments fly. But as much as it was a comment made partly in jest, I still stand by the gist of it. This is Virat Kohli’s team. The captain gets to decide which XI he is most comfortable with, especially when going into such a big game. And no one sitting on the outside, expert or otherwise, will ever be able to gauge the various factors that go into selecting a side as well as those that are part of the inner sanctum.

Second-guessing football coaches or cricket captains is a fun exercise, but the reality is that we don’t know half of what they do. Which is why they’re in those jobs, and we’re not. And if they get it consistently wrong, in terms of results, they pay a price. Leaders of high-profile sports team don’t get the second chances that us Ordinary Joes do. Zinedine Zidane has won the Champions League back-to-back with Real Madrid, yet he could be out of a job before this summer is over. That’s how brutal the pressures are.

Kohli’s words after the victory at The Wanderers – he was far calmer than after the Centurion loss – gave great insight into how he views the whole selection debate. “We don’t think like people on the outside,” he said. “When things don’t go well, we as a team don’t say ‘Oh, we should have done this’ or ‘We should have done that’. That’s the easiest thing to do.

“I can say or write anything about anyone, but when you’re in there, facing their bowling attack on that sort of a wicket …when you decide to bat first, you need to be sure, and you need to have belief in yourself. We certainly back ourselves as a team and that’s something we have done throughout this tour. Yes, we were disappointed things did not come together in the first two games, but we are really proud of this effort.”

Even if he feels that leaving Rahane out for the first two games was a mistake, and there’s no indication that he thinks it was, Kohli isn’t obliged to go into a confessional box in front of the whole world. Teams learn their harshest lessons from defeat. The captain, who absorbs them far quicker than most – witness his imperious batsmanship in Tests two and three after failing to make a telling contribution at Newlands – will certainly have filed away plenty of things after going 2-0 down.

As for the siege mentality, that’s perfectly natural given how the media narrative has changed in the past ten months. Long before the differences of opinion with Anil Kumble became public knowledge, and he was instantly labelled the villain of the piece, Kohli’s behaviour had been under excessive scrutiny. It’s almost as if the Indian captain must be cut from a certain kind of moral cloth, and the Kohli fabric doesn’t fit.

Few positive stories have been written since. In South Africa, the focus was on whether Kohli’s attitude and demeanour would enfeeble his teammates, with the likes of Graeme Smith quoted on the matter. But there were plenty of others saying very different things. They just didn’t suit the prevailing narrative.

“What a fantastic batsman he is,” Dr Ali Bacher told me, after watching his half-century on the opening day in Johannesburg. “A lot of people are critical of his decision to bat first. But as someone who’s played and watched cricket here for so long, I can tell you your captain has made the right decision. A very brave one at that.”

He most certainly had. And the pacers he has reposed so much faith in rewarded him handsomely. They took 50 of the 60 wickets to fall, an unprecedented return for an Indian attack. As for Jasprit Bumrah, whose selection was a matter of such debate, he ended the series with 14 wickets at 25.21. Among those he dismissed? AB de Villiers (thrice), Faf du Plessis (thrice) and Hashim Amla (twice). Those are pretty handy notches to have on a new belt.

Unlike Indian captains of the past, Kohli has been steadfast about trusting in pace even at home. Before he got injured, Mohammed Shami was central to India taking a 2-0 lead against England. And the come-from-behind win against Australia would not have been possible without that magnificent second day in Bangalore, when India kept the visitors to 197 for 6. As superbly as R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja bowled, it was the control exerted by the pacers that was most eye-catching.

There will be more ‘controversial’ selections in England and Australia later this year. Controversial, because we have newspapers to sell, TV ratings to top, and website hits to match. For all the criticism that went Kohli’s way for leaving Bhuvneshwar Kumar out at Centurion, check out what Vernon Philander – the most accurate of the South African bowlers, and the one Bhuvneshwar is most similar to – did in those conditions after his 9 for 75 in Cape Town. His figures were 1 for 71, in a game where the heavy balls bowled by Lungi Ngidi fetched him 7 for 90.

Kohli is no fool. He knows as well as anyone that a poor run of results in England and Australia might cost him his job. But till now, in the three years that he has led the Test side, he has accumulated more than enough credit to be allowed to trust his own instincts. It’s convenient to scoff at his achievements – the 3-0 win in Sri Lanka, for example, a year after Steve Smith and Australia were routed by the same score – and downplay the hunches that have paid off, like Bumrah.

But to constantly focus only on the negatives would suggest agendas at work. And the Indian cricket captain, and the millions who follow the team he leads, deserve a lot better than that. After all, he hasn’t really played Coco the Clown.

‘Pitching it Right’ – Johannesburg Surface a R…

Johannesburg: The first Test matches I covered as a reporter also happened to be two of the greatest games of all time. Kolkata 2001 needs no description. Everything about it speaks for itself. But if you ask me, Chennai the following week was every bit as good. Until Steve Waugh bizarrely handled the ball with the score 340 for 3, Australia were running away with the Test.

Even with Harbhajan Singh taking 15 wickets, it went right to the wire, with Jason Gillespie’s final day spells in the searing Chennai heat – you could have cooked a steak on the old concrete steps at Chepauk – as good as anything we’ve seen on Indian soil. The surfaces the two Tests were played on were normal Indian pitches, great for batting over the first three days, with deterioration bringing the spinners into play on days four and five. They were part of the narrative, but they weren’t the story.

Contrast that to last year’s home series against Australia. Starting with the moon-landing surface in Pune, the pitches got as much attention as the performances. In the Australian papers, these blocks of clay, mud and grass got nearly as much coverage as a certain world leader’s foot-in-mouth disease.

Pune was atrocious, Bangalore not that much better. Ranchi was deathly dull, and Dharamsala, while exciting, far from what you’d usually expect in India. In short, not one of the surfaces was anything like the ones India and Australia had played on 16 years earlier, in the greatest three-Test series in history.

And it’s not just India either. Think back to the most celebrated series of all – the 2005 Ashes. There was spice in the Lord’s pitch for the first Test, but it never tipped over to spitting-cobra territory as this Wanderers surface has done. Whether it was Edgbaston, Trent Bridge, Old Trafford or The Oval, there was something for everyone. Memorable centuries were made, Shane Warne took 40 wickets and England’s pace quartet harvested 75 between them. If it’s recalled with misty-eyed fondness even now, it’s because the balance between bat and ball was seldom lost.

How much balance have we seen in this series, and especially at The Wanderers? Just think of the knock AB de Villiers played in South Africa’s first innings. This, remember, is a man who has been one of the world’s finest batsmen for a decade. He’s also someone in prime form, as he showed in testing conditions in Cape Town and Centurion. Yet, in 19 balls at the Bullring, he should have been out leg before once, got struck on the gloves and was then bowled by a ball that shaped in like a boomerang.

Instead of the world’s best all-format batsman, he looked like a struggling tail-ender. Had that solely been because of the bowler’s skill – think Glenn McGrath putting Kevin Pietersen through the wringer – then it would have been acceptable. But here, the pitch had everything to do with de Villiers’ 33-minute struggle.

I also can’t be the only one who finds the whining about pitches even more pathetic than the formulaic platitudes trotted out at press conferences. Go through the transcripts of the five days at Centurion – Each day had a lengthy whinge about the ‘subcontinental’ pitch –and you wouldn’t imagine that South Africa had won by 135 runs.

So petulant have players become that it’s no surprise that we’ve arrived at the farce that is this Test match. The pressure on ground staff is intense, with coaches and players missing no opportunity to let them know their ‘order’. And if the menu gets changed – often, it can because of the vagaries of the weather – the toys are hurled out of the pram and dummies spat out.

The only circumstances in which player rants should be tolerated is when you have surfaces that have nothing for any type of bowler, because then we might as well watch batsman against carefully calibrated bowling machines. Pitches like the ones in Ahmedabad (vs Sri Lanka, 2009) and Perth (vs New Zealand, 2015) should first be dynamited, and the venue then banned for a season.

Years ago, when you went to a venue, you knew what to expect. Adelaide, like most Asian pitches, would be excellent for batting over the first three days, and then gradually favour the bowlers. The same was true of Sydney, and The Oval. These days, with drop-in pitches and curators messing around so much because of the pressures brought to bear on them, you often have no clue what lies in wait.

If the trend of home boards loading the decks in their favour doesn’t stop, the ICC needs to step in and form a central authority that will supervise pitch preparation for every series. As with the two greatest series we’ve witnessed, the pitch should only ever be part of the backdrop. Once it takes centre stage, then you’re one small step away from absurdity. That’s been apparent from day one of this engrossing but ultimately flawed game.