Cricket Conversations: On Test Cricket with Jarrod Kimber

I started a new initiative on this blog way back in May 2013 called “Cricket Conversations” which involves email back-and-forth on a variety of topics with bloggers, writers, fans and journalists. The first of the Cricket Conversations was with Siddartha Vaidyanathan on Spirit of Cricket, the second with Gideon Haigh on Club Cricket and the third with Ahmer Naqvi on cricket fandom.

What follows is the fourth installment of cricket conversations where I had email exchanges with Jarrod Kimber on why people feel the need to constantly worry whether Test cricket is dying or doing well , spread over a few weeks.


On Wed, Jun 1, 2016, Subash Jayaraman wrote:

I have been meaning to send this email to you for quite a while but your recent piece from England v Sri Lanka Test at Durham finally forced me to. You have written about it in your recent book Unauthorised biography of Test cricket and have spent a fair bit of column lengths at Cricinfo and CWB on the topic of “Is Test cricket dying?” I am not so interested in actually finding out the answer to that question from you but why is it that people wonder about the mortality of Test cricket, as it seems, all the freakin’ time?

One of the fun things I do – once you read what it is you will realize I don’t do fun things – is to type in “Test Cricket dying” in Google and look at the results. It generally yields upwards of six hundred thousand results and I like to go to random result pages and read the various times over the last century or more people have sounded out the alarm on the impending death of Test cricket.

If I remember correctly, even in the first decade of 20th century, articles were written about death of Test cricket because with the industrial revolution changing the lives of people dramatically, Test cricket was considered an anachronism and hence did not have a place in modern society.

So, through this conversation, I want to shed light on the constant existential crisis that the writers and mouth-pieces of Test cricket have felt over the years as to why that is. I mean it’s not like Test cricket survived through wars, corruption, match fixing, racism, sexism, classism, Packer, rebel tours or nothing.

One of the funny ones was by Jack Fingleton, the former Aussie cricketer, after whom the scoreboard at Manuka Oval in Canberra is named. He wrote in 1969 issue of Wisden that County cricket in England with its allure for the overseas cricketers would lead to the death of Test cricket. He felt that the “international blood of other countries [would] be sucked dry by England in trying to keep alive the out-moded, incongruous county cricket system.”

Let’s give, as you wrote in Balls, “the Woody Allen of Sports” a spot on the couch and let’s try to talk through the anxieties, self doubts and crises of confidence. We could start from the beginning or, start with the most recent: T20/Domestic Leagues. Your call.

-Subash

On Thu, Jun 2, 2016, Jarrod Kimber wrote:

The Daily Mail recently started putting up a bunch of articles about how Albanians are a problem for Britain. Of course, before that it was Romanians. And before that, the Polish. During all that time it was also Muslims. And Gypsies. Not to forget black people. Poor people. Anyone not from Britain.

It’s obviously bullshit, the names/countries/ethnicities of the people in these articles aren’t important. The point being at any time there is always something that you should fear. Something that you can’t do anything about.  Something coming for what you love. You see the same patterns all over the world. If you love something, someone will be around to tell you it’s being ruined, ruining itself, or dying.

Test Cricket is just one of those things. People are worried about it. People have always been worried about it.

A poorly attended Test, which financially means quite little to cricket’s bottom line, is a sign of the apocalypse. Every poorly attended, or well attended, Test match is someone’s “it’s hot/cold today, that proves/disproves global warming”.

Yet, think about this, it is quite possible now that every single Test match has more coverage, more viewers, more people who follow it in every way than at any time in history.  There are also more Test Cricket fans than in any point in history. And more cricket fans of any kind in any point in history. So if Test Cricket is potentially bigger than ever before. And Cricket is bigger than ever before. What’s the problem?

Our Albanians are T20 Leagues.

One of the funniest things about T20 leagues is that quite a few have folded. They always pop back up, and it’s not like that is a sign of T20’s death, but it’s also not really considered a blip.  All the blips are Test Cricket.

But to think that T20 leagues couldn’t or wouldn’t do damage is silly. Although, to think they can’t, or haven’t already helped is silly too.

What is the Armageddon scenario? That the IPL expands, or has two tournaments. That the Big Bash expands. And that England finally develops a league that isn’t designed around county cricket fans, and can become bigger than the big bash and smaller than the IPL.  Even a scaled down version of this schedule could mean that December, January, April, May, July, and August are mostly taken up by non-international cricket that makes more money. Test Cricket, and international cricket, becomes worth less… World Cups and World T20s remain, and Test Cricket and bilateral series, outside of warm ups for major tournaments, disappear. The smaller nations either find a way to monetize their leagues, or have small leagues that feed players to the bigger sides. And hope for national glory once every four years.

There are several reasons why this is tough to make happen, especially for Australia, India and England. International cricket in those places is big money. India’s next rights deal could mean that each international game they host is worth 25 million USD. Maybe more. The Ashes makes big money as well, as does hosting India. And you also need to play other teams. Because viewers get bored of playing the same sides over and over again.

So in order for T20 leagues to completely take over the world, the major boards would need to cut off their most reliable money source over their entire history, and go for something that hasn’t been tested over a long period of time.  McDonald’s might talk about healthy options, they might offer salads, and they might have even tried to make their burgers healthier, but they still essentially sell burgers.

How do we know an expanded T20 league in Australia or India will even make more money than international cricket, and we don’t even know what one in England will look like. We know that the Ashes sells, we know that the Indian national team sells.  Neither, it would appear, are on a downward slope.

Now that doesn’t mean that T20 leagues can’t effect Tests, but everything effects Tests. Economy, growth, environment, politics, finance, TV, online, the truth is that while millions of Test Cricket fans exist, it’s a damn hard thing to kill. Even for planned Albanian blitz bash league.


On Fri, 3 Jun 2016, Subash Jayaraman wrote:

The other day Harsha Bhogle tweeted this: “Just saw some viewership numbers. Alarming decline in test viewers coupled with huge growth in T20 numbers.” Obviously, it doesn’t provide any context. Whether he was talking about Tests in 2016, or for the past year, or IPL or WT20 and IPL combined, or for all T20 leagues combined… but I guess he must have received a fair few pinging him with their support of Test cricket to which he responded, “Expectedly, everyone replying how great test cricket is. But if you watched, as you say, the numbers wouldn’t be grim in the first place!”

Let’s say the TV numbers are grim for Test cricket. What does that really mean? I am willing to guess that people who tune in for any extended period of any Test is less than those that tune in for a T20 game. But even if people can’t have the luxury of sitting in front of TV for a Test match, there probably is a sizable number that follow Cricinfo or Cricbuzz BBB, Guardian OBO etc. Should those numbers also count towards viewership?

At any rate, I am trying to figure out why Harsha may have tweeted that. He had written a piece in 2012 the crux of which was that Test cricket must become self-sufficient and it cannot expect to ride T20 and ODI coat-tails. [Although T20 has been riding on the coat tails of the names and stars from Test cricket to achieve its “cricketing legitimacy” and somehow that seems to have escaped people’s eyes. The irony!] If we are to go by that, it would be easy to see why he tweeted what he did. A huge proponent of free market sees the numbers for this anachronistic deadweight declining, and this young upstart backed by private enterprise is ruling the roost!

On the other hand, people (by that I mean, cricket writers) draw immediate conclusions that Test cricket is in poor health as soon as any Test is poorly attended. That used to be the stick with which the BCCI (and the fans in India) were beaten with whenever a Test wasn’t a sellout. But now, even Tests in England (away from London), and in Australia not all the Tests are sell outs. However, as you mentioned, the bottom-line is not affected by the gate receipts at Tests, and yet, almost every cricket writer pontificates about Test cricket’s health.

Why is that? As you know most of these folks, and perhaps have an idea of why that might be, do explain.

As to the point about T20 leagues and their effect on Test cricket, we can get back to it at a later time.

—-

On Fri, Jun 3, 2016, Jarrod Kimber wrote:

We can’t take Harsha’s numbers seriously because we haven’t seen them, or even truly know what to compare them too. It could even be that Test Cricket’s numbers are down after a high, for instance.

Last time I checked each test in India was worth six million USD. And that’s with the system that the BCCI use that says every match is worth the same. So that a T20 against Zimbabwe (should there ever be such a thing) in India is also worth six million. So in truth, each Test within India is worth, for TV rights alone, minimum 15 million dollars; even before sponsorship. But that is India, and even a dip in numbers there is not a worry.

And when Harsha says that, in truth, he is doing, I assume, what a lot of writers around the world are doing, thinking local.

I doubt anyone, unless the ICC are going from TV company to TV company, has worldwide figures on Test viewership. Cricket Australia trumpets theirs, the ECB try to hide theirs and off the top of my head probably only South Africa talk about theirs regularly. And I say this as a man who is paid to follow all these things. That is not really Harsha’s job. And here is the rub; it is also not the job of most cricket writers. Their job is to write about their team. I remember Alt Cricket tweeting about a conversation in the Trent Bridge press box that a cricket writer had about not knowing the Indian team. But the truth is that journo’s job was probably to know the Nottinghamshire team, and players in the local area, and players they would play against. One week a year the circus comes to town and he is sent over to cover the Test.

That is where most of this conversation comes from. So these sorts of people who don’t watch as much cricket as some of us sick fucks, suddenly look up and go, well Asia, the West Indies, SA don’t love Test matches.  There are problems in Sri Lanka getting crowds to the grounds, and problems in South Africa getting crowds to the ground. But they are different problems. Sure Indian grounds should be full, but so should Headingley, it’s fucken in Yorkshire.  The real problem lays in the lack of effort of getting people into the grounds . And there are obvious problems with how Test Cricket is marketed, or not marketed. Part of the problem is it’s treated like a Ming Vase, where in truth it is rock n roll. When Dale Steyn arrives in a country the local board should be putting out violent clips of him hitting batsmen and saying he is coming for our men.  Or when Warner turns up, there should be an ad campaign saying, this bloke bats in Tests like he’s a T20 player, or a wild caveman. It’s not polite, watch our men take him on.

Maybe all this will change when TV companies start saying, we’re sick and tired of showing empty grounds. But in truth, TV companies love Test Cricket. For two reasons, one they get five days of broadcasting including up to 40 hours of content with a consistent narrative that covers a huge chunk of the day and people are always happy to turn on even if they have missed an important moment. And they think it is undervalued by Boards. Especially in this new T20 world. They’d like it even more if it were played in prime time.

It’s only a billion dollar idea the old day night Tests, which is why 20 years after I first saw day night first class cricket we’ve had just one Test of it. If Harsha wants Test Cricket to be self-sufficient, then why almost 40 years after we started playing cricket under lights we haven’t managed to make Test Cricket work under lights? That isn’t the sport’s fault; it is the people who run it.

On Thu, Jun 23, 2016, Subash Jayaraman wrote:

Jarrod,

Apologies for the gap in communication. Work took me away for a while, and now I’ve found time to get back to this conversation.

Let’s talk about the people that run the sport. It was first Jagmohan Dalmiya in 1996, and later on Lalit Modi with IPL, that have tried to even increase the value of cricket with the broadcasters. Since then, ICC and the national boards have tried to maximize whatever they can get from the broadcasters but most of it was hinged on India and the Ashes.

Talking of cricket’s administrators, earlier today there was a report on Cricinfo that quoted Tim Anderson (ICC development manager) that there isn’t time in the cricket calendar for T20 to enter Olympics!!! Olympics, goddamnit! If T20 gets in to Olympics, USA and China would become bigger players and the fact that it would mostly run parallel to English summer makes the option less palatable for ECB. But something so obvious for the long term growth of the game around the world is being sacrificed for short-term protectionist myopia.

At any rate, why is it that the obvious choice of playing D/N Test cricket was never really picked up by the ICC?

Now coming back to our initial line of why people think Test cricket is dying or is dead already… T20 leagues. There was an announcement in a news outlet today that BCCI is going ahead with a mini-IPL in September in place of the erstwhile Champions League T20.

Considering all the things, there is one thing that is a finite resource, and this is the number of days in a year. With every new league, mini-league, Wt20s, Bilateral ODIs, Tri-series, Champions Trophy, World Cup etc. there is only so much time left in the calendar for Tests to take place. So by crowding the calendar with non-Test cricket and leaving little time for Test series tours with very little time to acclimatize, Test series are, as we are saying, one way beat downs. It is not so much Test cricket is dying, but it is being actually choked to death by not giving the space it needs to thrive.

You had mentioned at length the Armageddon scenario. It may happen or not happen. But if it were to actually materialize, and reduces Test cricket to a side show or completely wipes it off the table, would it be because people (fans/administrators/writers) allowed it to happen, or is it because that would have been the natural order of things? That is the question to answer.

If it is indeed inevitable no matter what we do, then sure. But if Test cricket were to vanish or were to become an irrelevant thing because we didn’t do enough about it, then the blood is on all of our hands.

On Mon, Jun 27, 2016, Subash Jayaraman wrote:

Kimbo slice,

I know it’s your turn to respond but I couldn’t wait. Ed Smith has a written a column at Cricinfo on “What has to be done to save Test cricket?” He efficiently ties Brexit vote and ICC meeting at Edinburgh together and launches in to his piece with what needs to be done to save Test cricket.

That he launches from the point of view of Test cricket needs to be “saved”, makes me think it’s his understanding that cricket fans by and large, would be thinking the same. This was the crux of why I even wanted this back and forth with you. That it is assumed without any proper measurement of following and cricket economics that Test cricket is in peril.

One of the points he makes for the poor health of Tests is that there are too many Tests!!! Without any sense of irony he says “Test cricket is prone to myth and nostalgia, but it is clear from speaking to former players – especially from the 1960s and 1970s – that the relative rarity of Tests added to their lustre and intensity”

So his research involves talking to a few old timers. Test cricket ecosystem is very different now than it was in 60s and 70s, and obviously, players in England – at the very least – paid more attention to playing County cricket (since it paid more and steadily) than internationals.

As with almost every Ed Smith column in its ham-fisted way of trying to provide solutions, he throws out another saying that players who are following the money of T20 will have a change of heart if there is a $10 million pot for the team that win the Test championship. This shows such severe lack of imagination on the Smith’s part (and one might extend it to the establishment and wouldn’t be too wrong).

By marketing Test cricket in ways that you had mentioned previously, the cricketers that choose to play Tests (in addition to T20 leagues) could find shit ton more money than splitting a $10m pot, really. The amount of money that a Test cricketer can make could easily blow the top paid T20 cricketers out of the water and yet, Smith could only think of a gimmicky Test championship pot.

At any rate, this column brings me back to the original question: Why do people feel the need to constantly harp on about whether Test cricket is dead/alive or it needs to be saved? Smith isn’t a local county beat writer. He follows (at least his topics of choice for his columns seem to indicate) a lot of cricket from around the globe, so we can’t even make the excuse of the Nottingham beat writer you’d mentioned earlier. What gives? By the way, this Smith column on Cricinfo is hot on the heels of a Mark Nicholas piece on Cricinfo about Test Championship, which, you guessed it, will allow us to save Test cricket.

—-

On Tue, June 28, 2016 Jarrod Kimber wrote:

I like Tim Anderson, but being that we have just found a slot for another World T20 on a whim, and we won’t be into the Olympics for years – that does seem amazing.

But the reason we don’t have day night Tests already is that in order to do that we would have needed a board whose sole goal was to improve cricket worldwide, while use cricket’s wealth to develop and grow. That hasn’t been their goal. They have done a little bit of growing, while always complaining, but and I have done a lot of research on this, the pink ball has developed with less than 2 million of cricket’s money being spent on it. Have no checked with the ICC, but I assume most of that money has come from CA and MCC, neither of which even know how much they have spent on it, because it was such a small part of their total spend that they didn’t count it directly.

Even T20 came about because of one board, the ICC isn’t driving the game, it just occasionally notices that things happen.

Yes, if Test Cricket dies it will be an inside job from those who run it. And there will be plenty of blood on the hands of the fans who say they love it, and don’t do anything to support it. But in truth, if you have a pay TV subscription, if you want it when it is free to air, if you have an online subscription, if you buy tickets, you are supporting it. But if there aren’t enough fans, and we are a long way from there, and I’d be shocked if we don’t start to see spill over from T20 kids to Test fans, so then the only reason it would die is because it is not profitable enough, and that isn’t our fault. And to be fair, the recent noise from the ICC is good, a unified Test collective bargaining system would mean more money for everyone, a more structured Test season within the holes of the T20 campaign, and could be the solution in in the short term.

On Tue, Jun 28, 2016 Jarrod Kimber wrote:

I can’t really answer the zombie myth of why all cricket fans and media think Test cricket need to be saved, or why that myth has kind of always existed. But aren’t what Smith and Nicholas really saying is how it can be harnessed?  I mean you could just tweak their language a bit and it would be about harnessing the many fans and commercial nature of Test Cricket. They are focused on the death of Test Cricket because we have always been focused on it, hell you and I are doing it right now. You’re probably to blame for most bad things that happen in cricket.

Smith’s points about Test Cricket being more special in the 60s and 70s, and I haven’t read his piece (so am going on what you said) is pretty silly to me. Test Cricket was at its best in the 80s and 90s when we played more of it. And we aren’t going to sort out the future of Test Cricket by talking to old players.

One of my favourite answers at the Q&As for my film is always when I have been asked the inevitable, ‘surely what cricket needs is more Test Cricketers running it’, to which I usually bring up that one of the big three chairmen that tried to strangle the game was Wally Edwards, 3 Tests, highest score 30. To think that if he was more successful, or played longer or more, he’d have any more of an idea how to run what is now a a global industry including amateurs with professionals that is also run by a board, that is run by another hundred or so boards, that is then run by another 1000s of boards, in a competitive marketplace with government interference, trying to work out how to work out the best balance between revenue streams and the integrity of the game that has three completely different products that all cannibalise off each other, while people care about so deeply they are willing to burn effigies and that millions of many people get a huge amount of their national pride from countries that often have very little in common other than England once took a big dump on them.

So I’m just not sure a top score of 375, and 150 Tests would help you do that.  I could be wrong.

On Tue, 29 Jun 2016, Subash Jayaraman wrote:

Jarrod,

As we started this trying to find out why it is that the voices of cricket have almost always tended to dwell far more than necessary or appropriate on the death of Test cricket, it seems there is no straightforward answer to it than, “well, it’s always been like that.”

But it is good to know from someone that spent four years chasing the powers that be in cricket trying to find an answer to that question, and document it in form a movie, that if Test cricket were to eventually die out or fade away like that uncle in an elderly home that you visit once in a while when it’s Thanksgiving or Christmas, it won’t be because the people didn’t care about it (even though almost every writer ever blames the fans for not turning up at a stadium with shitty facilities, ceremonial lathi charge and cavity search) but because it would be inside job.

If apathy is what kills Test cricket, it would be the apathy of the people governing the sport. To the extent fans are responsible, I would say that cricket fans need to take an active role in monitoring how the sport they love is run and figure out ways to hold the administrators’ feet to the fire, rather than just voting online on the Greatest Post-War Left Handed Batsmen missing the Right Testicle XI.

The last word is yours. Thanks for engaging in this conversation. Cheers.

—–

On Wed, Jun 29, 2016 Jarrod Kimber wrote:

Wally Hammond only had one testicle, well he had syphilis, and he was a right hander, and he wasn’t great after the war.

But I bring up Wally Hammond for the cheap laugh, but also because of the myth of the golden age. That is what we do best in cricket.  Even during the early 1900s, in something we would later call the golden age of cricket, people were talking about the death of Test Cricket.  Since we have just come through, what at least in playing sense was another golden age from late 70s until late 90s, we can remember that in the mid 90’s that people said Test Cricket was dying.

And the truth is, Test Cricket was always better in the days when you really liked it the most. When compared to that point when you really liked it, Test Cricket is never going to be as good.

Sure, you might look back at Headingley ‘81 and notice there is no crowd, or the great summer of ’60/61 in Australia and notice the cricket around it was duller than Bob Dole speech, and maybe you’ll wish you were back in the 1930s when batsmen dominated to such new levels that one team was willing to go against their DNA and bomb the shit out of them. But secretly, and with sepia tinged emotive eyes, you’ll still think it was better than now.

We’re not in a glory age right now, and yet Test Cricket is worth more money is watched by more people, has more teams, we have more cricket to watch, and, with the Test Cricket ICC backed collective bargaining deal and two tier system, has never had a more decisive action to try and fix some of the flaws within it. And through this average age of cricket we still have Brendon McCullum dropping a clusterfuck of funk, we still have Virat v Root v Smith v Williamson, we still have the summer of Mitch, King Kumar, the cautionary tale of Amir, and the wrists of the Fizz. If that’s the worst Test Cricket can come up with, I’m in.  It will change, it will get better, it will get worse, it will do both at once.

And so I will leave you with this, is the phrase ‘is test cricket dying’, dying?

—-

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On Kumble’s Appointment as India’s Head Coach

Anil Kumble, cricketer extraordinaire, has been appointed as the head coach of the India (men’s) cricket team by the BCCI for the duration of one year, today. From the original list of 57 candidates which was pruned to 21, the Cricket Advisory Committee, that included leading lights of the last 25 years of Indian cricket, Kumble has been chosen despite his lack of any previous coaching experience, and despite the prior coaching track record and pedigree of some of those 21 candidates.

Kumble’s appointment has been welcomed -based on perusal of social media and news websites -wholeheartedly by fans, journalists and ex-cricketers. There seems to be a general sense of positivity towards Kumble’s reintroduction to the Indian dressing room. Based on what? I do not know.

Kumble’s credentials as a cricketer are beyond any doubt. His toughness on the field, his dedication to his craft, his relentless pursuit of wickets in an uncompromising manner, and the dignity with which he led the side before he left the international scene in 2008 are all there for anyone to see, but how do all those qualities transfer to him being a successful head coach, I do not know.

Of course, modern day “head coaching” is more man-management than working with the players on an individual basis to correct any flaws in their game. There are assistant coaches for the technical aspects. There are analysts that provide the data and information on trends and tendencies. Gary Kirsten, former India coach himself and a terrific player in his time, said on the Couch Talk podcast that “[t]he ability to get the best out of people [and] skillful man-management” are the most important skills in the modern day cricket head coach.

Kumble, after his playing career was over, served as president of Karnataka State Cricket Association, mentor for two IPL franchises (RCB and MI), Chairman of National Cricket Academy, and also in the ICC Cricket Committee. In addition to that, he is also the co-founder of TENVIC, part management, part academy, part consulting company.

How do all of this transfer to his likelihood of success as head coach? I do not know. More importantly, how did all this catapult him ahead of the other 20 candidates in the short list? I do not know. Some of those 20 included people who had played the game at the highest level – just as Kumble had, served in various capacities within cricket and beyond, and more importantly have a track record as head coach. For the CAC to pass all of them and make Kumble the head coach, they must have seen something in him – beyond their personal relationships over the last two decades and camaraderie as cricketing team mates – and Kumble must have provided a vision for the Indian team and the ways to achieve them that blew the competition out of the water, but we don’t know.

This isn’t to say Kumble will not succeed in his new endeavor. Far from it. A long home season (of 13 Tests) that follows a 4-Tests series in the Caribbean, provides as good a chance to succeed in the first year on the job as any. However, that the BCCI chose to make the appointment for only a year can be seen as them taking a punt on Kumble to see how turns out rather than a confident, absolutely certain move. Ajay Shirke, the BCCI secretary said just as much about the duration of the appointment: “[I]t was to help Kumble acclimatise to the job easier and for the board to have the cushion to reassess their options.”

Some journalists – who cover the Indian team closely and have long been following BCCI and its processes – I interacted with after the announcement seemed to suggest that the stature of Kumble as a giant of Indian cricket made his selection to the job an inevitability once he decided to throw his hat in the ring, prior coaching experience or not. If that were to be the case, then the whole process of CAC, minimum requirements, applications, and pruning of list etc., were just a charade. If stature in the game and knowledge of cricket were to supersede any/all of the other requirements for the job, then Kapil Dev would still be coaching, and there wouldn’t have been the bitter break up of Greg Chappell from the Indian team, but we don’t really know.

Without any real details on why Kumble was chosen ahead of a long list of equally deserving and well-qualified candidates – and it is highly doubtful that we will ever be privy to that, we can all feel “positive” about the appointment but that is just living in hope rather than anything based in substantive evidence beyond the obvious facts of his extraordinary playing career.  I say this because there has been an overwhelming approval and embrace of the choice of head coach that the underlying processes in selecting the best available person have been thrown out the window. When support of decisions is made based on personality rather than actual vetting of qualifications, the scrutiny that will inevitably follow will also be based on “gut feelings” and “vibes” rather than grounded in facts and evidence, and that is a bad situation for Kumble – with all of his 619 Test wickets – or anyone else.

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Cricket and Integrity

What is integrity? It is the exact manifestation of inner values as outward actions. We expect integrity of ourselves, and of our leaders and our governments. Society is a fragile construct and without the essential glue of integrity, it would fall apart. 

Sports have a major role in our society and are subject to the same expectations of integrity. The people watching and supporting it need to have the confidence that the contests upon which they are expending enormous amounts of emotions, time and money are fair. Hence the need for drug testing and constant vigilance against fixing, bone density tests and corruption. But these measures only apply to the participants in the contests themselves – the athletes and the players, but not to the ones that are governing and administering the sport.

Case in point: Cricket and the ICC. The ICC includes “Fairness and Integrity” in the set of values that drive its goal of making cricket “a bigger, better global game”. But even a casual look at some of its conduct in the recent years would show that its outward actions are not the manifestation of its stated inner values.

Three years ago, BCCI, ECB and CA ran roughshod over the organization and its principles in what can only be called as a naked money grab, while the other ICC members allowed it to happen, motivated by their own greed and needs. With change in personnel, some of the damages from the Big Three takeover are being undone, while some will forever stick.

Yesterday, ICC unveiled the Champions Trophy 2017 tournament to be held in England. The draws and schedules were announced and Jonathan Liew at the Telegraph minced no words in calling the deliberate scheduling of India-Pakistan match in the group stage as fixing the draw, and he is right. ICC Chief Executive David Richardson dressed up this deliberate attempt to rig the schedule that guarantees the marquee (only in terms of TV viewer numbers and not quality of contest) match-up takes place as follows: “It’s hugely important from an ICC point of view. It’s massive around the world and the fans have come to expect it as well. It’s fantastic for the tournament because it gives it a massive kick.”

The underlying thoughts are easy to comprehend. ICC is beholden to the broadcasters (in this case, STAR) and had to ensure the broadcasters will get the bang for their buck, integrity of the draw be damned. Ever since the 2007 ODI world Cup when India and Pakistan failed to progress beyond the first round, and the broadcasters suffered losses, ICC has been bending over backwards to ensure, first and foremost, the interests of the broadcasters are catered. It is no surprise that Mr. Richardson could talk on one hand about meritocracy of promotion and relegation in the proposed two divisions of Test cricket, while also saying that “[n]o doubt we want to try to put India versus Pakistan in our event”. The two divisions will be made of 12 teams, 7 in the first division and 5 in the second. You might wonder why 7 and 5, and not the seemingly obvious 6 and 6. First of all it takes 7 votes (of the 10 Full ICC member nations) to pass a proposal and secondly, keeping it at 7 guarantees that the big TV markets are all part of the first division, and hence makes it a lucrative product for the broadcasters.

Any which way you turn in cricket, it is impossible to miss the conclusion that it is the broadcasters that dictate the proceedings. Cricket has caught on so firmly to the teats of the broadcasters for its funds that any other financial model that doesn’t make the sport a slave would require a complete overhaul of the sport itself, and that would require tremendous will and vision from the member boards. But why do the hard work of steeling the sport with a strong back bone of integrity when you can just wheel and deal, and ensure the fans get to watch over-hyped rivalries from time to time? Sure, Champions Trophy 2017 would be the *sixth ICC event in a row where India and Pakistan have been scheduled to meet in the group stages, but we are giving the broadcasters fans what they want.

You really want to know how much ICC really cares for the integrity of the sport and the results of its contests and not the broadcasters? You will have to look no further than the Duckworth-Lewis method (now modified as DLS) it had adopted to artificially arrive at the result of a cricketing contest.

Here is what Messers Duckworh and Lewis stated as the need for their method (as included in the FAQ listed at Cricinfo): “Players (and officials) need to move on to their next matches for which transport (and hotel) arrangements will have been made and are often difficult to rearrange at such short notice. TV companies covering the matches would prefer to avoid upsetting their schedules both for their viewers and their outside broadcast crews. The ground’s management would need to employ all their staff again incurring extra expense.”

When the result of a game, and basic belief of players and the fans that “anything can happen” till the last ball is bowled or the last out is made, is compromised at the altar of expediency and profits, we can expect no better from the administrators than to rig the schedule to ensure broadcasters – profit-driven corporations – are not discomforted in any manner.

During the recently concluded World T20 held in India, there was so much hoopla surrounding the India-Pakistan game. After all the politicking of venue, security etc., were done, the stars and the celebrities showed up en masse at Eden Gardens for this marquee match up. While Amitabh Bachchan and Mamta Banerjee were singing praises and covering themselves in patriotic glory in Kolkata, there was another India-Pakistan match in Delhi that was brought to an abrupt, artificial conclusion. Defending a seemingly small total of 96 runs, the Indian Women had reduced Pakistan to 77/6 in 16 overs when rain interrupted. Even as rain relented, and the sun shone bright with the ground ready for play, the game was called off with Pakistan declared winners by 2 runs using the DLS method. Care to venture why? The broadcasters needed the cut off time so that their transmission from Kolkata of the pre-match nonsense preceding the clash of the arch-rivals could go unhindered. Who knows what could have happened in that Women’s game? Who knows how the rest of the tournament would have panned out if India were able to defend their low total? We will never know. So much for integrity of sporting results.

It isn’t just that a draw for a tournament is rigged to ensure best possible outcome for the broadcasters, or that a statistical device is used to conclude a sporting contest to ensure no undue burden is placed on the broadcaster, or that boards with the bigger muscles bullying the others in to compliance; These are only the things within cricket we know of. But once we are willing to compromise on the integrity of a result, or a draw, we can extend it to almost every decision that’s taken in running the sport so that it satisfies the broadcaster or whoever the big boy at the table is, or what’s convenient, and that isn’t good for the sport or the society it lives in.


  • – Thanks to @shyamuw for catching the error. The original version said 2017 Champions Trophy as fifth ICC event in a row where India and Pakistan are scheduled to meet in group stages.
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T20s and Us

Virat Kohli has had a fabulous T20 season both in Internationals as well as in the IPL. He has shown with his remarkable batting abilities a level of consistency in T20s that has never before been seen. To average upwards of 80 runs per dismissal is an astonishing achievement whether you are playing T20 or having a knock about with a tennis ball in a corridor with modified rules or in Tests. The fact is that he is a tremendous batsman. We have already been given ample evidences of that in his career and his purple patch in the last two seasons only burnishes the luster.

But the question arising out of Kartikeya Date’s recent piece at ESPNcricinfo “Two Myths about IPL”, isn’t whether Kohli is a great batsman, but is his style of batting – a more ‘conventional’ mode of building an innings – best suited for T20s (in this case IPL)? Date has argued that, even as mind-boggling Kohli’s returns are in IPL 2016, he “was not even the best player in the Royal Challengers Bangalore side, let alone in the IPL”.

Going by Strike Rates of batsmen (min. qualification: 7 inns, Average length of inns: 15 balls), the best eleven “hitters” in the IPL 2016, in decreasing order of strike rates, were: Krunal Pandya, Chris Morris, AB de Villiers, Andre Russell, Steven Smith, Virat Kohli, David Warner, Chris Gayle, Dwayne Smith, KL Rahul and Yusuf Pathan.

T20 has been around since 2003, and IPL has been around since 2008. Teams have been trying to figure out a way to squeeze the most out of their resources (11 players and 120 deliveries) by cobbling together the best possible XI and identifying strategies that would yield them the best avenues for success. Recently, Indian spinner R Ashwin stated just as much: “I think that T20 cricket is a completely different sport. The percentage of people and teams that realise and move in that direction will find early success in this game. I think we are in transition phase.”

After 14 seasons of T20, we are reaching a point where we might be able to imagine what is possible in T20. We are beginning to understand what sort of players will be best suited for it and what roles are expected of them. And we have already seen some of this put into practice.

When the numbers bear out that a line up of boundary hitters (sixes preferable over fours) with an ability to last more than the basic arithmetic need of 12 deliveries in a T20 game, would accumulate more than someone as grounded in what Ed Smith calls as “Total Batsmanship” like Kohli is, it makes us question our own views and understanding of cricket. How is that someone averaging 80+ per dismissal, striking at 152 runs per 100 balls, with the remarkable consistency of 11 50+ scores in 16 outings including 4 hundreds have his value questioned?

When I read Date’s piece, and saw his thoughts on who’d constitute his IPL 2016 Best XI (ignoring the limit of only 4 non-Indians per side), I wanted to reflexively remonstrate with him about excluding Kohli. Why choose Warner or Smith over Kohli when they have similar strike rates? Because, Warner and Smith score boundaries (4’s & 6’s) at a faster rate, and that they do get dismissed more frequently than Kohli which allows for someone else with better boundary striking ability to take strike. In other words, better utilization of available resources.

I wanted to remonstrate because I looked at it from the point of view of what Kohli brings to the table and not what is actually required (and is possible) in a T20, to maximize the scoring. It is impossible not to be seduced by what Kohli has accomplished this IPL season, by implementing a classical batting style and bending the arc of T20’s needs to it. To question Kohli’s value as a batsman in T20 is to question the value of cricket in T20. But then, it isn’t really about Kohli or AB de Villiers. It isn’t about Krunal Pandya or Andre Russell. It is about our own perceptions of what is a good measure of merit.

Players come, players go. Perhaps 2016 was a fluke one for Pandya. Perhaps Kohli won’t be able to replicate the consistency of 2016. But the basic need of T20, or for that matter any enterprise, to maximize the effectiveness of available resources indicate that the sport will further move towards a deeper lineup of big hitters (already shown to work by West Indies WT20 winning sides). A Kohli with his classical approach is even in the discussion is an exception rather than the rule. The future of T20 batting is Pandyas and Russells of the world and not Kohli. (It is bloody hard to do what Kohli has done, for one). If R Ashwin, with his experience and insider’s view, is anyone to go by, we are still very far from what T20 could actually become.

T20 makes it imperative that we disentangle from the romanticism of cricketing aesthetics, because a cold, hard sport built on capitalistic principles demand it. (One can claim the same about Tests and ODIs but the resources and outcomes are markedly different). If we do, then, we can make sense of the fact borne by numbers that a de Villiers is a better hitter in T20 than Kohli, and Pandya is a better value and fit than Kohli within the confines and demands of T20.

As followers of sport, it behooves us to understand what it is that we are following; Whether what we spend innumerable hours watching and dissecting is of any merit, and what those measures of merit are. It is an innately human to be curious and to understand and interpret reality. That’s why we have science, to provide explanation of some aspect of the world around us, by repeated testing and confirmation through observation and experimentation.

When a Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane or for that matter Kohli bat in a Test match, we can reasonably conclude whether they are batting well and when they are not. It is based on their ability to size up the conditions and the bowlers, having a tight technique, knowing where their off stump is, choosing when to leave and when to defend and when to play an attacking shot, evaluating risk vs. reward every delivery they face, trying to score runs while holding their wickets dear for as long as possible. How fast they are scoring the runs and how many sixes they hit to get those runs, by and large, are inconsequential. This knowledge of the measure of batting merit in a Test has come to us through watching and understanding the entire scope of time and space occupied by a Test match.

Now, if we were to consider the batting merits of the same three batsmen mentioned above in a T20 match, how would we evaluate it? Not many would argue if the claim is made that Kohli is the better T20 batsman than Pujara and Rahane. Obviously, it would be based on certain measures of merit. What are those? Are they the same as in Tests? (No.) Do batting averages matter in T20? (No.) Do strike rates matter? (Yes.) Does boundary hitting ability matter? (Yes.) Does the ability to hold onto your wicket as long as possible matter? (No.) Does the ability to hit sixes clear boundaries matter? (Yes.)

If we agree with the basic premises of the two paragraphs above, it would then be apparent that Tests and T20s are two different sports, played by an intersection of players and some specialists. Saying T20 is a different sport than Test doesn’t boost Test’s credentials or takes anything away from T20. If we consider T20 as a different sport from Tests and not just miniaturized version of it, it could just only mean we disassociate the measures of merit in Tests that have come to be over the years and have withstood scrutiny and analysis, and improvements. T20 will, as time goes by, have its own set of robust measures of merit. Even T20 broadcasts do not show a batsman’s average but the strike rates. Some broadcasts show “Batting Index” (Ave+SR), and another has a “Power Index” which incorporates a slew of things.

Now, one could very well argue that metrics of six hitting rates, boundary rates, and strike rates etc., do not accurately define the reality of batting in a T20. Well then, go ahead. Propose your model. Compose your theory. Provide evidence. Repeatedly test and confirm through observation. If your theory describes the reality of T20 better, that will be the one that will be embraced and will supersede any existing models and theories. The name of the player doesn’t matter.

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Couch Talk 189*

couchtalk-logo-2It. is. done.

I have decided to take an indefinite – and most likely infinite – break from Couch Talk Podcast.

The podcast started as a hobby and was something fun to do in my spare time. I had lost the fun quotient of it a few months ago but kept motoring on till the thought formed fully in my mind that I was done with it. Today is that day.

Thank you all for your wonderful support with your constructive criticisms, feedback, sharing and pushing me to do more with the podcast.

A lot of people played significant roles in the shaping and growth of the podcast, and in its visibility. I am grateful for that but I want to give specific thanks to Jarrod Kimber, Siddhartha Vaidyanathan, Kartikeya Date and Shrikant Subramanian for all they did for the podcast.

Thanks to all the folks that appeared as guests on the show. Without their generosity -of time and thoughts, the show would be nothing.

I cannot thank Bharathram Pattabiraman enough for all the tireless transcribing he has done over the years. His help was instrumental in Couch Talk finding a larger audience.

A huge thanks to Aravind Murali (now a National Award winning music composer) for composing the intro music in a matter of few minutes and letting me use it for all these years. Thanks are to Sunny Mishra for helping me set up the feeds on iTunes etc. Thanks to ESPNcricinfo for featuring the podcast on their site, first as a part of the Cordon blog and later as a Feature.

I had some ideas and reasons behind starting the podcast and doing it for nearly 5 years (The first episode was published on June 2, 2011). I knew I was doing something right when a former international captain said, “It’s a good thing you are doing. Keep it up.” But all things must pass.

It sort of feels sad but 189* is not a bad time to leave the game. The King will be proud.

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Couch Talk 189 with R Ashwin on T20s

ashwinIndian spinner R Ashwin discusses the role of spin bowling in T20s, the asymmetrical contest of bat v ball in T20, and states that people ought to consider T20 as a different sport and not even part of cricket.

 

Download the episode by clicking here or listen to it on SoundCloud.

Read the entire Transcript.

Subscribe to Couch Talk:  iTunes    Sound Cloud   TuneIn Radio  Stitcher Radio

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Enjoy.

Credits:

Intro Music: Aravind Murali and Jaishankar, mixed at ‘Music from The Place’

Transcribed by: Bharathram Pattabiraman

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Couch Talk 188 with Sanjay Bangar

bangarFormer India cricketer and currently their batting coach Sanjay Bangar talks about the responsibilities of his job, the influence of a great generation of batsmen like Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid on the current side, batting plans in Tests vis-a-vis limited overs, and how he works with players going through a rough patch etc.

Sanjay is on Twitter as: @ImSanjayBangar

 

Download the episode by clicking here or listen to it on SoundCloud.

Read the entire Transcript.

Subscribe to Couch Talk:  iTunes    Sound Cloud   TuneIn Radio  Stitcher Radio

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Enjoy.

Credits:

Intro Music: Aravind Murali and Jaishankar, mixed at ‘Music from The Place’

Transcribed by: Bharathram Pattabiraman

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Couch Talk 187 with Anjali Doshi, “Tendulkar in Wisden”

srt-wisdenAnjali Doshi, editor of “Tendulkar in Wisden” talks about the idea behind the Wisden Anthology, the process of distilling 24 years of writing on Tendulkar in Wisden, her own experiences of covering Tendulkar and discusses the Sachin phenomenon that transformed from being about a great player to the level of infallible.

The book is available from Bloomsbury (LINK) and Amazon (LINK).

Anjali is on Twitter as: @anjaliadoshi

 

Download the episode by clicking here or listen to it on SoundCloud.

Read the entire Transcript.

Subscribe to Couch Talk:  iTunes    Sound Cloud   TuneIn Radio  Stitcher Radio

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Enjoy.

Credits:

Intro Music: Aravind Murali and Jaishankar, mixed at ‘Music from The Place’

Transcribed by: Bharathram Pattabiraman

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Couch Talk 186 with Mike Hussey

Winning Edge Cover-1Former Australian batsman Mike Hussey talks about his new book “Winning Edge: Behind the scenes of elite cricket”, his coaching philosophies, the change in T20 batting approaches, and the various captains he’s played for, amongst other things.

The book is available here: AMAZON LINK

 

Download the episode by clicking here or listen to it on SoundCloud.

Read the entire Transcript.

The podcast first appeared on ESPN Cricinfo.

Subscribe to Couch Talk:  iTunes    Sound Cloud   TuneIn Radio  Stitcher Radio

RSS Feed

Enjoy.

Credits:

Intro Music: Aravind Murali and Jaishankar, mixed at ‘Music from The Place’

Transcribed by: Bharathram Pattabiraman

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Couch Talk 185 with Graeme West, WI U-19 Coach

westWest Indies U-19 side’s coach Graeme West talks about moulding a side of young individuals from the different regions of the Caribbean as a unit, the game plans, the Keemo Paul Mankading incident and the fall-out from it, and looks ahead to the future of the under-19 players, among other things.

 

Download the episode by clicking here or listen to it on SoundCloud.

Read the entire Transcript.

The podcast first appeared on ESPN Cricinfo.

Subscribe to Couch Talk:  iTunes    Sound Cloud   TuneIn Radio  Stitcher Radio

RSS Feed

Enjoy.

Credits:

Intro Music: Aravind Murali and Jaishankar, mixed at ‘Music from The Place’

Transcribed by: Bharathram Pattabiraman

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