Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Waffling around

I wrote this piece for Mint to coincide with the Boxing Day Test today. Two ideas: balls haven't changed much over the course of the game; second, these measures to have day-night Tests and pink balls and whatnot are just diversions from where cricket might actually be headed - the league format.

Go beyond repackaging

India is due to start its cricket campaign against Australia today. Test cricket’s audience has dropped for years. Could day-night Tests be the answer?

They could be a brilliant spectacle and will attract a larger audience, as Cricket Australia officials recently explained. The opposition from cricketers and most media has been intense. The fear: Test cricket is about to lose its sanctity by being tied to commercial needs.

But is it? For years, Tests, as we know them, have evolved from even, balanced competitions to encounters where batsmen celebrate on flat pitches. Bats have evolved, bouncers have been checked, but the science of cricket balls, around which the game revolves, has not advanced beyond minute tinkering. This, in effect, makes it a batsman’s game, with the bowler severely disadvantaged (Is there any other sport where the balance between contestants is so unequal?).

Whether due to boring encounters or other choices on television and in life, people have steadily trickled away from Test cricket. One-day cricket, while still popular in India, is saturated elsewhere. Cricket’s response to this has been Twenty20, and we all know how that’s gone. But cricket is headed somewhere else, somewhere obvious, and these innovations seem like bells and whistles. A prototype of its future lies in leagues such as the Indian Cricket League (ICL) and Indian Premier League (IPL).

When players aren’t represented by countries, the market gets to work. It chooses players from everywhere, whether a Canadian batting talent or a freakish leg-spinner from Chad. Where the player comes from becomes irrelevant because he isn’t held back by the limitations of his national side. Had market forces been at work, a very capable bunch of Zimbabweans and Kenyans would have had extended careers and more games to play. And would anyone recommend Brian Lara continue playing for West Indies instead of a Galacticos equivalent? Would there be no takers for Mark Ramprakash? It would also be ruthless. Great players in poor form would be dropped with fewer reservations.

Right now, all cricket is doing in the name of progress is playing with uniform colours, and timing and scheduling—apart from Twenty20, which has so far been as much a bowler’s game as a batsman’s.

Administrators hold on to their territories with a vice grip, ignoring the fact that cricket’s growth requires something more meaningful than playing in Disneyland or Abu Dhabi. Unless local talents are involved extensively, cricket, as it is now run, remains open to the whimsies of local administrations and political imbroglios, such as the Zimbabwe situation. Private leagues remove regionalism. They actually make things fairer.

Zee’s ICL venture was less than successful, but it set in motion a concept Lalit Modi had only spoken about for a while. The IPL was a reaction to this threat, but it was inevitable. The cricketing world is only so big. And its largest audience, India, finds its attention drawn to more diverse things every day. Cricket could survive without changing, and probably remain healthy, but it cannot grow without proliferating and entering the vocabulary of newer, more diverse, audiences.

If day-night Tests take off, we’d do well to remember that it’s only a repackaging served to the same audiences. Compared with where cricket could be, it’s actually quite traditional.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Garbage Unlimited

Vic Marks, in the Guardian:

"On this tour only Alastair Cook scored more Test runs but Bell has received the most criticism. So he must be a good player. The problem is that he has seldom changed the course of a match throughout his Test career. One consolation for Bell: they used to say the same about Sachin Tendulkar."

With a few nifty jabs, Marks manages to appear sympathetic to Bell while relating him to Tendulkar's predicament without being offensive to either. He's being thoroughly dishonest, and very slithery about it. "They used to say..."? Oh, come on.

Marks' piece, by the way, isn't a particularly good bit of writing. The chief criticism about Tendulkar is that he hasn't won enough matches for India single-handed. This is what I think Marks actually means. Even then, the assumption is simply incorrect. The image of the hero in sport is of a single person battling or blazing away to victory, etc. Is this what Marks subscribes to? When we talk of a batsman winning it, in our minds he has finished the job or nearly completed it. This involves the batsman being present in the second innings, where Tendulkar has been less good (avg: 42.98) than in first innings, where he averages 61.75. Surely Marks knows that to define a batsman by his being there at the end is to shortchange him considerably. What about the set-up, which Tendulkar has done many times? Or snatching the initiative, which is a characteristic attributed to men such as Gilchrist and Sehwag now, and Tendulkar earlier? Statsguru shows us that Tendulkar was often in the middle of India's larger first-innings scores, and often the only person between a decent score and a bad one.

What about presence and averting embarassment? Tendulkar, at a time, made a difference by simply being there.

In first innings where no one else scored a hundred, Tendulkar averages 121.63. The average team score is 322.75. This is against meaningful opposition. Dravid, in comparison, averages 179.83. The avg team score for Dravid's sole-hundred innings is 456.

But take a look at this. In each of these innings (there are six in all), each of Dravid's ten teammates have averaged: 23.3, 20.8, 22.8, 24.7. 30.1, 26.1.

In Tendulkar's eight innings, this is what his mates have averaged: 13.5, 10.7, 22.6, 10.5, 34.8, 17.3, 20.3, 16.9. (Where does Bell fit in here?)

The extras scene is revealing too. In Dravid's case, there are nearly 30 extras per innings added to the Indian total, which tells me the bowlers weren't exactly all there to begin with, or that Dravid drove them to distraction. In Tendulkar's case, the fielding side would concede less than 18 runs on average, which tells us that bowlers kept things quite tight.

Anyway, I meander. I could keep looking at stats all day but there's other work to be done. So Mr Marks, in a nutshell, the damn comparison's all wrong. I'd love to go on but I'd go bankrupt if I kept this up. Thank you for wasting half my day because of one half-wit paragraph.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The fiction in travel writing

Given a chance, a travel writer is capable of misreading entire cultures. But this genre of writing is not journalism, and so the rigorous standards of journalism do not apply. You only have the writer’s piece as proof. Ask anyone what they expect of travel writing and you will receive many answers, but most will demand accuracy and an interesting story. But is travel writing seriously read for its accuracy? I don’t think so. To be a travel writer is to allow yourself to be taken in by the stream of events around you, like a twig in a river of raging currents. You speed by actual happenings, capturing only their echoes. Try this: sit in a speeding vehicle and, staring at one spot ahead of you, describe the countryside. This is what writing about a place can be like.

Our times require precise information quickly, and travel writing unfortunately cannot be entirely accurate nor on demand. The result would be equivalent to: “8.15am: Woke up. Brushed teeth.” It is a loose form of non-fiction and fiction: It is likely, in an extreme case, to contain imaginary incidents and conversations that could have happened. These things are difficult to verify for all you have is the writer’s word. We know this and, as we do with all single sources, accept their word with a little skepticism. The instinct to not be fooled is strong in many of us, but I suspect deep down we’re wired to like good tales. That is what travel writing is, and will remain at its height. It cannot influence international events, and cannot change the course of history anymore. Once, people who brought news of foreign lands were, in all likelihood, travel writers. There is no need for them anymore. Reporters specialize, travel writers generalize. This is Paul Theroux from The Great Railway Bazaar:

The Singhalese…turned on the fan, sat on one of his crates, and began eating a stinking meal out of a piece of newspaper – the smell of his rotten onions and mildewed rice was to stay in the compartment for the remainder of the journey.
A fact-checker for the New Yorker would have quite a task with this: Was he Singhalese, did he turn on the fan, was he on a crate, did it stink, were the onions rotten, was the rice mildewed, and did the smell really stay for the rest of the journey? I lived with a Korean in New York who stank up the fridge, but the smell was offensive only to me. He ate his food without fuss.

This is Camilo Jose Cela, in Journey to the Alcarria:

The girls are young, very young; but they already seem to have in their eyes that special patient sorrow that one sees in hired animals, dragged hither and yon by bad luck and evil intentions.
This is precisely the kind of matter that suits travel or fiction. A journalist or historian looking for the feeling of the times will find value in the sentence.

William Dalrymple’s books contain the right kind of dialogue in the right kind of places. From an “unshaven, shambolic and friendly” tailor in In Xanadu:

“We live here under an undeclared apartheid.”
The last lines of the book, featuring a Chinese communist party official:

He grunted something in Mongol. Then he translated it for us: “Bonkers,” he said. “English people, Very, very bonkers.”
This is unreal. The comments are perfectly placed, the words strikingly lucid. There’s no reason to doubt Dalrymple’s conversational skills, but who can ascertain whether these things were really said to him, or whether these are recollections of broken conversations which, when remembered, the mind makes complete?

And yet there is an audience for this stuff because good travel writing takes you somewhere, as good fiction does. The truth cannot be completely sacrificed, but it can be subverted to make the story better. This is not to excuse writers who aren’t truthful. I have my doubts about a number of travel writers. But given the distance from editors, and the fact that travel is a very personal experience, it is possible to bend the truth. It’s why we don’t take travel writing seriously anymore. Our perceptions of it have changed. We don't want it to inform, just evoke. The genre has found a new place for itself.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Sisyphus - right arm fast-medium

The gods have got nothing on today's cricket administrators. First, the free hits. Then cancel reverse-swing. At the same time, refuse to change the ball's dimensions, which would allow it to bounce or swing more. Now, day-night Tests.

Do bowlers need a union?

Numb to niceness

To drive in Mumbai is to become numb to niceness. From the first hesitant laps onwards, drivers quickly learn that it is better to snatch from others, for others will snatch from you too. If you choose to not snatch, it is assumed that you have parked the car. But this niceness, when it arrives, is so strange and unfamiliar that drivers will be momentarily stunned. The giver is preening; his magnanimous gesture elevates him beyond the classless masses. The recepient is taken aback by this generosity. How should he react? Is it some kind of trick? Today a recepient stood still, even as this driver furiously gestured to him to come forward and complete his U-turn - that the offer was genuine. He didn't buy in to the niceness. He inched forward with trepidation, wondering when I'd fuse my car with his. I waited. He waited. He came forward and stopped. I waved at him. His girlfriend looked at my fender with fear. He looked concerned. Two blocked lanes of cars began to honk. He advanced and stopped, still unable to believe his destiny. I gave up and drove by. No more generosity. It slows down everything.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Bearable happiness

There are some kinds of happiness I can deal with, and others I can't. My own happiness is easy to comprehend. The happiness of others is another case. This isn't against people being happy; I'm all for the joyous. This is about the kind of happy state that leaves me completely clueless, and I wonder what the hell's going on. I'll sketch out the meaning for you. When a happiness can't be related to, or there is a fundamental disconnect between the reason for joy and the response, it's confusing.

A kid with connections

Freaking hell.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Delhi nights

Everything is dark at six. People have returned home, industries have shut down for the day. The cold pricks my knuckles and neck. I inhale something sharp and odorless. Bombay's air carries a hint of where it came from. This stuff is cold and unfamiliar. I like Khan Market because there is human activity. Somewhere inside there are warm bookshops, elsewhere there is steam rising from dinner. A bright place in what is otherwise a damn quiet place. Is it any wonder that everyone's trying to be part of one club or another in this city?

A rickshaw driver asks where and the extortion begins. It is late, roads are empty, so who cares how much? On the way there are beautiful parks without people. Intricate and firmly shut gates. Clean and high walls. Beggars ask only once.