Sunday, April 29, 2018

Cricket Opens Up

Cricket has always called itself a gentleman's game. And in order to ensure the gentility remains, there have strict regulations on who can play and which matches get "official" status and which don't. All of this reeking of colonial hangover and class segregation. Where every other sport is opening up to new markets, cricket had constrained itself to remain within its own little club. The club was expanded but very gradually. and new members could trickle in, say once is a decade or two! But once inside, no power could nudge them out, whatever their atrocities (looking at you Zimbabwe!) [except South Africa who got banned for over 20 years that too a decade after  they had been thrown out of the Olympic movement].

Once a member gets full status, they stayed in and tried to make life more difficult for the next ones in the queue (Bangladesh and Kenya). Ireland might have bloodied many a Full member nose over the last decade, and Afghanistan were creating an almost unimaginable fairy-tale across all sport. But the two of them couldn't play Test cricket. For a game which talks all about fair-play, the officialdom was making a mockery of fairness where South Africa beating Zimbabwe inside 2 days a 4-day match got the exalted Test status, while a keenly contested 5-day Intercontinental Cup Final between Afghanistan and Ireland is only a First-Class fixture! And to further elaborate the point, recently there was a 10-team qualifier for two spots in the 2019 World Cup. Matches involving Netherlands and Nepal had List A status while all others had ODI status. Different statistical rules for the game in the same tournament! Ironically both these teams "achieved" ODI status by the end of the tournament!

Its in the context of this class-ism and reduction in the World Cup teams came two recent announcements by ICC. One, taken last year to provide Afghanistan and Ireland, full member and Test playing status. And two, just last week to provide T20 International status to matches played between all its 104 members. What a drastic, unexpected and welcome change!

The expanded cricketing world - Hoping to see the coverage go and all in a single colour!
Certainly exciting times ahead for the cricket tragics and statisticians! Imagine the number of new entries which will come up in cricketing databases. And we could go into the era of some really funny stats! Some new landmarks could be broached in a game between Bhutan and Iceland (come to think of it that would be a game of fire and ice!). But that's how expansion happens. And honestly, cricket is over-focused on the arbitrary statistics. [Well, Slipstream Cricket is also guilty of the same. Come to think of it that section will see a boom in entries].

Apart from statistics, there could be a whole new dynamics opening up in the game. This could also create a stronger case for the franchisee/club model which is prevalent in football. The Knight Riders are already creating a multi-country franchisee, maybe some others will also jump in! We already had some top Associate cricketers (and some full member ones too) who had become mercenaries for hire. Given that ICC has also relaxed the eligibility criteria for playing for another country, there could be some interesting career jumps across the globe. Someone struggling to break into a Ranji team might soon jump shores and play international cricket for some other country! This would really open up the game. Retiring cricketers may get a fresh lease of international life through a second passport or having a grand-parent from another place. And finally with 104 country base (split West Indies and incorporate some into Great Britain), cricket could make a serious case for inclusion in the Olympics. 

Good to see ICC finally make real progress in expanding the game. Hopefully, they will also increase the World Cup participants. Maybe they can find new revenue sources, which will not have them dependent on the whims and fancies of the Big 3 and the other Full Members!

Certainly good times ahead for the cricket tragics!

Thursday, April 19, 2018

A Little Bit on Ball Tampering

Ball Tampering – "unlawful alteration of the surface or seam of a ball on the field, to affect its motion when bowled."

Cricket is a batsman’s game. Over the course of last one and a half centuries, laws of the game have been tweaked to make it “swing” increasingly in the batsmen’s favour. Covered pitches, restrictions on bowling, restrictions on field placements, shortened boundaries, better safety equipment, bigger bats, and changes in the front-foot no-ball rule. Almost every single rule change tilting the balance further in the batsmen’s favour. 

Meanwhile, the bowlers have also lived up to the ask, with constant innovations, Bodyline, Swing, spin, chinaman, doosra, reverse swing, knuckle ball, carom ball et al. In due course some have even resorted to the dark arts as well. 

The cricket ball, like everything else on this planet, follows the laws of physics. Bernoulli’s principles regarding motion through a fluid holds especially true. Although, no one has worked out the exact calculations or made big differential equations on the subject, it can be safely said, the more the difference in the nature of the two halves of the ball, the more its tendency to swing. So ensure that one side stays as smooth as possible while other side stays as shiny as possible. Although keep in mind, that is one of the many variables affecting the swing. Others being speed of release, angle of the seam, ambient temperature, wind etc. However, while other variables are not exactly in control, the shape of the ball can be “managed” in multiple ways. Some legal, some illegal, and many falling in the grey area. It is certainly an art, although there are some who move into the darker arts. 

Below is a pictorial representation of the different techniques to manage the shape of the ball. 

Use of any visible agent to change the shape certainly falls in the definitely illegal category. And that is what Cameron Bancroft was caught doing against South Africa. Caught on the cameras with a piece of sandpaper in his pocket which he then tried to hide in his pants post instructions from dressing room, all of which caught by the South African cameramen who were specifically assigned to the task of catching any Australian transgressions. Post the day’s play, Steve Smith admitted to the leadership group’s involvement in the shenanigans. Next day, Tim Paine was leading the side with both Smith and David Warner having resigned in the middle of the Test! 

The fall-out was brutal. And especially so given that it was Australia who was involved. After all this is a team which makes a hue and cry of playing the Aussie way, “hard and fair”, maintain a holier than thou attitude (e.g. Warner’s comments on Faf du Plessis being caught tampering, or Ponting’s reactions on using England using “specialist” substitute fielders), and discuss sledging or “mental disintegration” as a team strategy! There was no way the rest of the cricketing world would not have jumping up with glee at seeing the quagmire in which the Aussies had landed. And just to spice things up a little, there was the bad-tempered theatrics from both sides preceding the event – a constant war of words, Rabada may or may not have deliberately bumped into Smith, Warner had to be pulled away from de Kock, fans and officials had also got in the act, and all of this caught on hyper-sensitive stump mics and CCTV cameras! All setting up for an ugly showdown, until the Australian side imploded on a bit of sandpaper! 

There were repercussions off the field as well. The situation seemed akin to a national emergency in Australia with the Prime Minister issuing a statement of condemnation. The trio lost their individual sponsors while the national team sponsors issued their own threats. ICC reprimanded the trio as per its regulations. Too mild, shouted the watching crowds. Everyone was baying for blood. Cricket Australia got into the act, conducted an enquiry of its own, and declared the trio guilty and banned Warner & Smith for a year each and Bancroft for 9 months. The watchers were stunned by the severity of the sentences. It was followed by scenes of the players facing upto media, admitting their guilt and accepting their sentences. All of this accompanied by bucketful of tears. In the aftermath, Darren Lehmann also resigns as coach of the team. 

While the sentences were severe, there was lingering sense of doubt about the whole goings on. Were none of the bowlers and the coaching staff aware of the plan, if not actually complicit in it? And the leadership group mentioned by Smith, comprised just of Warner and himself? Was Cricket Australia simply trying to contain the damage by throwing the trio under the bus by taking such severe action? And were the actions a fall-out of last year’s pay dispute? Too many questions left unanswered suggesting there is more than what meets the eye. Will we ever get to know? Guess, will have to wait till somebody writes a tell-all book on the matter. 

Some of the reactions were funny. When former Aussie captains took a stand that team culture under them was different, it just reeked of hypocrisy. Then there was a rumor of Michael Clarke expressing a willingness to come out of retirement to lead the team! But the best take came from the Irish. Recently elevated to Test status, and missing out on a place in the 2019 World Cup, they suggested that if Australians really want to repent, they should drop out of the next World Cup to introspect and give the place to Ireland! 

Now that would be true over-the-top punishment for putting some sandpaper on a cricket ball!