Philander, Pujara and the Differing Standards for Greatness

To say Vernon Philander has stormed on to the Test match scene, looking at his record-breaking wicket-taking spree, would be a massive understatement. In his short career of 16 Tests so far, he has been mowing down batsmen so nonchalantly, it is as if he is picking up soup cans from the supermarket shelves, with a strike rate of 36.7 balls per wicket and at average of under 17. He already has 9 five-wicket hauls and has taken 10 wickets in a match twice.

Cheteshwar Pujara made a bright Test debut, after knocking on the doors of Test selection for a long time, hitting a no-nonsense 72 paving the way for an Indian victory. He was briefly waylaid by injuries but is now back with a bang, reeling off runs at an average 61.5, including 4 hundreds of which 2 were double tons. He has been more than a capable replacement for Rahul Dravid in the lineup, so much so that people don’t even talk that much about what’s been lost with Dravid’s retirement.

Yet, when the accomplishments of these bright cricketers are discussed, one is accepted, and celebrated on face value without any qualifiers, while the other isn’t.

When fans and pundits go rightfully gaga over Philander’s mind-boggling numbers, there isn’t usually a voice from the back of the room that says, “well, let’s wait till we see how performs in the subcontinent before we anoint him as the second coming of Jesus, shall we?” However, as Pujara sets about his career, compiling the first thousand runs of possibly a dozen more, his the celebration of his achievements are tempered with “Let’s see how he does when he goes on a full series to South Africa, and England and Australia.” Even the man himself seems to think so.

Vernon-philander

But out of the 10 Test playing nations, the prevalent pitch conditions can be broadly split in to two categories –Asian (India, Pakistan (UAE), Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and West Indies) and Non-Asian (England, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa). So who came up with the notion that players that generally play in Asian conditions need to prove themselves in the non-Asian conditions before they can truly be ascertained as a good cricketer? If anything, a player that generally plays in non-Asian conditions should prove himself in Asian conditions, because, after all, the majority of Tests playing nations (6 out of 10) have Asian conditions.

Sure, it is fine for a batsman to say that he wants to judge himself based on how he does in conditions alien to his cricketing backyard, but those performances shouldn’t be the only barometer by which his achievements are evaluated by the fans and the analysts. While it is admirable that Pujara has set the bar for himself high, it doesn’t really help Pujara or his team that he is held prisoner to that.

When Shikhar Dhawan bulldozed the Australians on his way to the fastest century by a debutant in Test history, the insta-punditry verdict was that, “We shall see if he can do this in South Africa.” While Kyle Abbott sliced through the Pakistani batting line up in Centurion for a spectacular 7-fer, there weren’t voices saying, “We shall see if he can do this in India.” Why this double standard? If you are going to not give all the credit an Indian player deserves because you have doubts about his performance in alien conditions, why wouldn’t the same yardstick be used for performances of a South African in his own home conditions?

Who gets to decide these things anyway? Historically speaking, England, Australia and South Africa have played Tests the longest and the notions of greatness have been handed down through generations of writers, reporters, fans and commentators from those nations. And so, it has come to be that to earn his stripes, a player has had to perform in front of these audiences, and this has seeped in to the cricketing subconscious of those following the sport in other countries as well.

In the modern times where following cricket across the globe is no longer through the words of reporters but through the pictures streaming across the 14” computer screens, the established notions of goodness and greatness of players don’t really apply. Each player and his performances can stand on its own, without having to resort to the touchstone of tours to England, Australia etc. A player does not need the stamp of approval from the old guard. Getting your name on the Punjab Cricket Association’s honors board ought to be equally as good as finding it on another board in the posh confines of St. John’s Wood.

When Kevin Pietersen scored that magnificent 158 as the 2005 Ashes were winding down in favor of the home side, I do not remember reading opinions on the sport pages wondering how he will go in the subcontinent. The innings was celebrated for what it was and people savored with delight the baptism of a potentially great cricketing star in the international arena, and that rightfully so.

When MS Dhoni was asked about Pujara’s comments after the Test at Hyderabad, he said, “I always believe in living in the present. Of course, he has set his standards but he needs to enjoy the moment.” It would be helpful, not just for Pujara, but for the cricket fans and pundits to take a hint from Dhoni and enjoy the spectacle as it unfolds rather than ponder about standards that are at best dubious, as well.

I do believe Philander is a very good bowler. I do believe Pujara is a very good batsman. This isn’t about their relative merits as cricketers. It is about us pushing our conventional cricket thinking, handed down through centuries, shaped by spread of the game through colonialism, on to those players and how they ought to be perceived. It is unfair that Pujara will have to jump through hoops before he is deemed to have unlocked the wizard level while the same may not be applied to Philander.

  • Ranjeet

    Until Philander blasted England in the third England Vs SA match, Philander was given the same treatment (let’s see how he performs outside SA) and even now, after 16 magnificient matches, he is questioned on whether he can bowl at a flat and low sub-continental track.

    • thecricketcouch

      @Ranjeet – But the overarching narrative was that there was no need for that sort of validation for player performances in non-Asian conditions. I mean, for the longest time, touring the subcontinent itself was never the main priority for Eng/Aus etc. Sure, there will be voices that temper Philander’s performances too, but to what degree does it compare to say, the analysis a pujara or dhawan is subjected to?

  • Prashant

    A valid point discussed lucidly.

    Talking of backbencher voices, I did shout out for Philander to be sent across to survive the “scn disease” as rites of passage in my bygone avatar.

    @cricketvenkat

    • thecricketcouch

      Prashant,
      I am glad you did so. The basis of the post isn’t to prick the Philander Bubble or paint Pujara as a victim, but it is to question the conventional way cricket is thought about, analysed etc.

  • Devanshu

    Part of the reason may be that bowlers are fungible resources– you overuse pace in non-Asian pitches and spin in Asia. Bowlers are *expected* to be replaced or under-utilized based on conditions. Batsmen have no such luxury; it is a double standard because batsmen have the same workload in all conditions. Doesn’t explain all the knee-jerk punditry, but there is a legitimate reason for treating them differently.

    • thecricketcouch

      It is an interesting point you brought up Devanshu. Even if we were to compare bowler-to-bowler, and batsman-to-batsman, I think the essential point of the post holds. The conventions of what is defined is good and great were established a while ago, and have been far too skewed one way based on, as I mentioned, cricket’s origins, and the way it spread, and how the information was spread, and who was read.
      Also, IIRC, MS Dhoni mentioned in a press conference a while ago, and I’m paraphrasing this here “We play more than 50% of our cricket in India, and 75-80% of it is in Asian conditions, and to discredit your performances over the substantial amount of cricket you play does not make sense. If you do well abroad, well and good, but your home performances should not be discredited because you didn’t perform away.” or something to that effect.

  • Aditya Baliga

    Because only when you survive in alien conditions that you will qualify for becoming a great
    Because of players of Yuvi and Raina who are sub continent tigers and embarrassing to watch outside of it and I, personally, am sick of it.
    Because of R Ashwin who has had an equally stellar start to his career like Philander but struggled in Aus and won’t be taken in the same breath as Philander
    Because of 8-0
    Because, like you said, Pujara wants to raise the bar for himself and really test his talent and character (and that essentially breaks down your entire argument)
    Because I have been pampered by the generation of SRT, VVS, RSD and SCG and want the new ones to fight and prove themselves like their immediate predecessors

    As a postscript, MSD’s comments are worrying, this ‘in the moment’ and ‘horses for courses’ attitude stops us from planning for the future. I know SA tour is far away, and we have immediate problems to be fixed. But, if you don’t look for players who will help you survive, and may be even thrive, in foreign conditions you will be always mediocre and never surpass that.

    • thecricketcouch

      Aditya, Let me address your angst, as well as I can.

      1) Sure, you may be sick of Raina or Yuvraj not performing in non-sub continental conditions but I do not know whether your concern is their performance in Tests or ODIs. Because, in ODIs those two are fantastic pretty much anywhere you let them play. As far as Tests go, those two may not be in the same echelon as Pujara even in subcontinental conditions. You don’t have to use their non-Asian conditions performances to say they aren’t good. Hope that made sense.
      2) Ashwin had a very good start to his career and taking 85 wickets in 15 Tests is no mean feat, no matter where you play or who your opponents are. You can only compete against what’s put in front of you. Sure, you may have tempered your expectations of Ashwin till he went and played in non-SC pitches, but then one has extend the same yardstick to bowlers like Philander as well.
      3) As I mentioned in the comment response to Devanshu, Indian players are going to be playing nearly 80% of their cricket in SC conditions and home performances need not be discredited because of how a player’s output is away. Some of the great teams of the past, such as WI, built their “greatness” by performing really well at home. There was a piece by Dileep Premachandran some months ago to that effect. Look it up if you can.
      4) Dhoni does not say that Pujara should not look to do well abroad, but he is cautioning against having overseas performance as the only touchstone for his performance.

  • http://twitter.com/NotKohli Virat Not Kohli

    Excellent article Mr. Couch. I’ve seen this type of discrimination on every social media platforms be it twitter/fb or Cricinfo.

    As you mentioned in the article, Australia & England press have a lot of headweight, ‘some’ of their journalists are basically trolls with valid license. They always have a inferior sight towards touring teams (of late, India esp)

    As mentioned by you in a comment, our players are lions at home & get thumped over-seas. Add IPL, BCCI’s bullying attitude towards other nations, that recent WC has increased their intention (call it jealous) to hit us harder.

    Their stubborn attitude can be changed with our good perfomances overseas. Neither this article or my comment would change their attitude.
    Mind you, they always respect anyone who performs better against them, we need to earn it.

    Example: Many Pom/Aus always argue Punter is better than Sachin, though Punter was very poor in India & Sachin better in Aus.

  • Sandeep Dabur

    You have raised some good points, yet i believe true greatness is achieved only by performing in different conditions. This is one reason that i do not consider Sangakkaras or Saeed Anwars as “greats”. Moreover you are discounting the impact of general image of batsman-friendly conditions in Asian conditions. In any case greatness in bowling is much harder to achieve in today’s batsman-friendly game of cricket. It’s mighty hard for bowlers to get man of the match awards. In such a bleak scenario if a bowler comes who bowls at medium pace, has toiled for years in domestic cricket and is able to take bagful of wickets in International cricket with little ball movements on either side, i am not going to be resentful. What Philander has done is extraordinary. It would have been colonial mindset had we anointed a westerner a great batsman with the same or worse record than Pujara. But this is not the case. Despite scoring heavily Alistair Cook is still not “the great” or talked about everywhere.

  • http://Www.chrispscricket.wordpress.com Declaration Game (Chris)

    The underlying point that cricketers continue to be assessed on ethnic grounds is clear (the example that bugs me is the way Asian bowlers are referred to as medium pacers, when their English equivalents are called ‘quick’ but hit the same mark on the speedometer). It’s the use of Philander and Pujara to illustrate the point that surprises me. Pujara shows the technique and mindset to score big runs everywhere. Even when batting on a flat Indian track, he doesn’t bat like a flat-track bully. And Philander’s young Test career has been accompanied by a lot of comment that he isn’t as good as his figures suggest. I wonder whether both batsmen and pundits are seduced by Philander’s simple method?

    • thecricketcouch

      Chris, Thanks for the comment. The point of this post was to highlight that accomplishments on non-seaming tracks are somehow of inferior quality, and that we should all judge players on how they go in tracks that you would often associate with England.

      I am not sure what the pundits are seduced by, but one of the things I highlighted as a possible reason is due to the history of cricket, and us as fans, have been conditioned to think in a particular manner.