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Friday, August 31, 2012

England's Gentleman Captain



SportPulse cricket columnist, Jack Marshall writes a tribute to England's second most successful captain - Andrew Strauss.

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England's Gentleman Captain - A Tribute to Andrew Strauss


A circulating petition clamoring for the alteration of the definition of the word 'cricketer' in the Oxford English Dictionary from the current entry to simply 'Andrew Strauss', would quickly garner my signature; so aptly does the man personify the game. England's former captain and the country's 9th cricket representative to reach a century of Tests was a humble, erudite, insightful and committed cricketer over his 8 year Test career, as well as a reliable and steady captain.

Under him, England went from 51 all out at Sabina Park in 2009; from a team slathered in petty debris and buried under the rubble of the spat between Peter Moores and Kevin Pietersen, to successive Ashes victories - Home in 2009 and (infinitely more impressively) away in 2010/11 - and the ascension to the plateau of number 1 in the Test rankings. He has been the pillar around which the England team has risen, he has been the mortar in the Pantheon that is English cricket and while he may not have had the greatest of times with willow in hand, he has led the way admirable. He will, undoubtedly, be sorely missed.

Never the most flamboyant or the most attractive a batsman, Strauss was more an intellectual pragmatist than a romantic purist. His style is nuggety and compact; his slip catching is dignified in its textbook manner and his captaincy is reserved - One wouldn't want to come across as hasty, now would they Straussy? He is one in a million, and England were damn lucky to have had such a man in their roster since 2004.


Andrew Strauss started, somewhat surprisingly being the aristocratically English figure he is, as so many England stars do: in South Africa. But he was reared as a cricketer in England, having moved to the birthplace of the game at an early age. He was welcomed into the bosom of English County Cricket by Middlesex, for whom he scored 83 at number 3 in his inaugural innings as a spritely 21 year-old, and soon after switched to the opener's role: taking to it like a duck to water as he registered his maiden first-class century, a score of 111* against Northamptonshire, from the slot at number 1.

Strauss seemed destined to skipper. In 2002, when Angus Frasier shocked many with his out-of-the-blue retirement, the reins at Middlesex were tossed to young Strauss, still but 25 years old, with the best of wishes. It was, at the time, a subtle and camouflaged progression in the left-hander's development, but one which did not go unnoticed: he went on to captain an ECB National Academy side that featured the likes of Ian Bell, Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison. It seemed the fates had decided.

Then he bloomed. In 2002, Middlesex's young captain scored over 1000 runs in the Championship at an average of 47.20 with 3 hundreds, followed by an even more run-laden season a year later, 2003 yielding 1400 runs at 51.88 for Straussy, who was beginning to tap-tap on the imposing door that was the England team.


Good form for the England reserves against Bangladeshi XIs earns Strauss his frost taste of international cricket as he was selected ahead of the floundering Vikram Solanki in the ODI team to face Sri Lanka in late 2003. It didn't go as planned however, as England were routed for 88, Strauss offering just 3 runs, as Jayasuriya and co. romped to an emphatic 10 wicket victory. But the majority Andrew Strauss' accolades would come in the Test arena as opposed to on the ODI stage.

In 2004, just days before his 27th birthday, Strauss is called up to the Test team as cover for Butcher and Thorpe, both of whom recovered in time so as to delay Strauss' debut until May in the same year. Michael Vaughan twists his knee in the nets… and Strauss is given the all-important call up for the first Test against New Zealand at Lord's of all places. There's no place like home. 

Strauss starts as well as can be, hitting a suave 112 and becoming the first Middlesex captain to score a hundred on Test debut at Lord's, despite a few heart-in-mouth moments in the 90s that are granted to even the most weathered veteran. England's new star also looks set to score successive hundreds but for, as he entered the 80s, a cruel fulfillment of an England player's right of passage: being run out by Nasser Hussain. He had failed to register centuries in both innings of his Test debut, but he was now clearly 'one of the lads' thanks to Nasser.



Lord's has always brought the best out of Andrew Strauss, and it was on the famous ground that he hit his first ODI ton, against the West Indies in 2004, as he and Andrew Flintoff added 226 - a record partnership in ODI's for England. Again, his amendable efforts are for nought as a rampant Chris Gayle earns victory for the Windies.

But back to Test cricket.

In the summer of 2004, Strauss shone, scoring just shy of 600 runs in 7 Tests at an average of 45+: eye-catching form that he was to export to South Africa as he made his frost real mark on Test cricket, winning the match for England in the first Test and averaging 72.88 over the 4 matches. And then came the Ashes.

Andrew Strauss played as vital a role as anyone in England reclaiming of the little urn after 18 years of pain in 2005 as his tough opening partnership with Marcus Trescothcick helped England to a 2-1 series win over the Aussies, Strauss himself notching 2 tons and taking perhaps the slips catch of the decade as he flung himself to his left at third slip to desperately cling onto an edge off Adam Gilchrist.

Strauss is now an established regular in the England setup, and is rewarded with his first taste of international captaincy: for the visit of Pakistan when Vaughan and Flintoff had to pull out. His fairytale existence in Test cricket was, however, soon to experience some tainting. The Ashes series Down Under in 2006/07 proved difficult for not only Strauss, who failed miserably with the bat, but for England as well, Glenn McGrath's bold declaration that the home side would win 5-0 coming to fruition in a series that ardent England fans doubtlessly still wake up in a cold sweat about.


The once untouchable man was looking evermore fragile and susceptible; he regained his opening place in the ODI side for the 2007 World Cup, only to score just 46 runs in 4 innings. His form in the Test game was equally miserable: one of England's nice guys was finding the going tough. Strauss reached his nadir when he was dropped from the Test side following a disappointing return in the away series to Sri Lanka as England toured New Zealand without him. Strauss instead took up a place playing for the Northern Districts and was recalled to the side for the 3rd and last Test of the series. All hinged on how Straussy performed.

He was out cheaply in the first innings and, sensing the impending declension of the dangling sword of Damacles hovering like a guillotine over his head, decided to simply enjoy what he was certain would be his final Test innings… Coming in at number 3, Strauss proceeded to cart the New Zealand attack to all sides in his majestic innings of 177 in a England victory by 121 runs. Catharsis.

Thoroughly reinvigorated, Strauss regained his place opening the innings and undertook the biggest challenge of his England career yet: the full-time captaincy job. In the wake of the Moores-Pietersen debacle, Strauss and a wounded and fragmented England side emerged from the ashes a severely weakened and fragile side. Strauss led his team to the almost inevitable series loss away to the West Indies and began, with new interim coach Andy Flower, the redevelopment process to exorcise the England team of its demons and reset its Sat Nav to display 'destination: number 1 Test team in the world'.

Flower, now the full time coach, and Strauss led England to an impressive 2-1 home Ashes victory over the Aussies. Strauss particularly succeeded, leading the run-charts for the series and captaining England with wisdom and consideration. England were now on their way under the two Andy's. Their 1-1 drawn series away to South Africa showed the world that England meant business, and while Strauss himself struggled, the emergence of the likes of Cook, Trott, Bell, Prior, Broad, Swann and Anderson as seriously impressive cogs in the England machine spoke volumes of Strauss' impassable man-management skills.

Having sat out of the tour to Bangladesh in 2010 - thus giving young Alastair Cook (Strauss' protégé) some time at the helm - Strauss captained his country to wins over Bangladesh and Pakistan at home in the run-up to the much-awaited Ashes Series Down Under. England landed in Australia with high hopes, and even higher expectations. The series started as badly as possible for England's skipper. Out to the 3rd ball of the series, Strauss watched as his team earned a positive draw at Brisbane, before the tourists really hit their stride, pummeling the Aussies at Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney to retain the Ashes with a dominating 3-1 series victory. Strauss and his team were on cloud nine; they were at their peak, their powers at the complete zenith.


The World Cup proved ultimately disappointing (as always) for England, but Strauss' 158 against India in the tied game in Bangalore was a personal high for Strauss, who retired from the format after the competition with 127 games and 4200 runs to his name at an average of 35+. England now had their sights trained eagerly on the likes of Sri Lanka and India in their efforts to ascend the Test rankings and reach the number 1 ranking. An emphatic 4-0 home victory over India gave England the scepter, and although Strauss' powers with the bat were waning, he was in no danger of departing the Test scene.

The first signs of trouble in paradise begin to show themselves as England crash to a humiliating 3-0 sub-continental loss to Pakistan, a series which proved an apt barometer of England's complete ignorance of how to play spin bowling. By now, Strauss really was struggling with bat as he bagman to look more and more like a Test cricketer in his mid-thirties. A brief interlude from his poor form against the West Indies provided the man a satisfying twilight to his career, which came off the back of a convincing drubbing from the touring South African side who, with their 2-0 series win, replaced England as the number 1 Test side.

Strauss retired after the series, leaving the younger generation of captain Cook to take the reins and lead England into a new chapter. A new chapter that will surely be more predictable than the one in store for England when Strauss took the captaincy with the side in tatters. Andrew Strauss, 3-times Ashes winner and 4th in the all time England century scorers, has done a fine job. He came into an unfulfilled team in the mid 2000s and left them as genuine contenders for the number 1 title in all three formats. His captaincy, while not everyone's cup of tea, was steady and reliable - just what was required. His batting has never been his defining feature. His character and temperament say so much more about a man without whom England would certainly not be where they are today. 

Andrew Strauss, we thank you.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

King Strauss calls it a day!



South Africa's Graeme Smith, also known as the king killer, just last week annihilated the English at Lord's as shouts of 'The king is dead, Long live the king' went around the stadium.  South Africa assumed their place at the top of the ICC test rankings and the fat ruler, Smith had conquered the cricketing world.  The deposed team's leader, Andrew Strauss announced that he was abdicating his throne today in the aftermath of the annihilation and the controversy surrounding the exile of England's bravest knight, Kevin Pietersen.

Strauss walks into the sun set
The South African born, English king, Andrew Strauss announced that he was stepping down from captaincy and retiring from all forms of cricket, bringing to end an illustrious fourteen year career that saw him captain the English team for the last three years.  Strauss who played his 100th test against South Africa at Lord's last week has 21 centuries next to his name - one short of an English record and is England's second most successful captain.  Strauss' two biggest achievements as captain are winning the Ashes twice and leading the English team to the top of the ICC test rankings.
"I am extremely proud of everything I have achieved as a cricketer, and I have found myself very fortunate to play in an era when some of English cricket's greatest moments have occurred. I have loved every minute of it. All that remains is for me to wish Andy, Alastair and the rest of the team the very best for the coming months. I will be an interested spectator."  - Andrew Strauss
Alastair Cook will now take over the reigns of the English test side, as he tries to rebuild the English team back to his former glory.

King Strauss with the crown jewel that was recently captured by South Africa
Graeme Smith, is now responsible for the fall of three English skippers.  Nasser Hussain stepped down in 2003 after losing a test to Smith's South Africa and the tale repeated in 2008 when Hussain's successor, Michael Vaughan stepped down after a series loss.  And now its Andrew Strauss.  Smith has always been a thorn in the side for England and he continues to remain as that.

ECB's CEO, David Collier paid his tribute to the opener, and said,
"On behalf of the ECB and everyone involved in cricket I'd like to thank Andrew Strauss for his outstanding contribution to the game. "Andrew has been a highly successful captain and opening batsman for Middlesex and England, who will be remembered for leading the side to two Ashes victories and to the top of the Test rankings. He has shown tremendous integrity, dedication and commitment both on and off the field and under his leadership the side has grown immeasurably and reached new levels of professionalism.  Andrew's calmness and authority when dealing with some of the most difficult moments in our sport in recent times should be applauded and I have no doubt that his contribution as an ambassador for the game will be recognised by anyone who has had an opportunity to spend time with him. His legacy within the game will be felt for many years to come and we now need to continue to build on the progress we have made under his leadership."
Strauss' final walk back to the pavilion
With Strauss calling it a day, it brings to end one of England's most successful periods and an interesting future full of questions and challenges awaits the English team.  Fare thee well Strauss in your life away from cricket.  

Monday, August 27, 2012

Game Review: Cricket Coach 2012



A few weeks ago, I reviewed International Cricket Captain 2012 (ICC) and this time I give my thoughts on Cricket Coach 2012 (CC).  Before I go on to the review I must state that these two games are the best in the small genre of cricket management simulation and while I'll try not to compare the two products which are unique in their own ways, there are still bound to be some small comparisons which are inevitable.  Having said that, let's get down to the review.


Review -

The latest edition of Cricket Coach by Rockingham Software takes the cricket management games to another level.

The Game -

For those who are wondering what Cricket Coach is all about, its a sports management simulation that allows you to be the coach of a team.  It is very much like Football Manager and those who've played it would feel at home here.  CC gives you more control over the dynamics of a team than ICC whereby you not only manage the pitch, the stadium, the first team, contracts and the finances but also managing fixtures, controlling the A-team, seconds and even the under 19 team.  It is much more comprehensive in that regard and also let's you be in control of any team - including Fiji (yes, they play cricket there) or some lowly club in Zimbabwe.  The career option here is very realistic and you can start unemployed, settle with a small team, and slowly improve your ratings till the big teams start begging you to take hold of their teams.  There are some very interesting features and the attention to the small details is exceptional.  This is pretty much as complete a coach you can ever be, living the dream to lead your favorite team to unimaginable glories.


Features -

CC has always been about stats and this edition doesn't disappoint.  Which cricket fan, does not like statistics?  The numbers are mind boggling and the things you can do with them even more so, as you try to arrive at a decision such as dropping a player.  The stats for even the lesser known teams is stunning and makes the game that much more geekier.  The stats is overwhelming at times and that's the beauty of it all.  The database is easily searchable and you can do quick research and planning based on it.

The CC almanac [example] in my opinion is one of the coolest features ever!  It is a compilation of  all the events of the year saved as an HTML document which you can view anytime.  Again, it is an archive of stats and numbers and its all based on your performances.  So its nothing but your records!

You can also delegate some responsibilities to your assistant coach so you're not burdened with every trivial decision and can concentrate with the first team.  You can also schedule practice matches for your players before an important series.  You can negotiate the number of matches in a series with the other cricket boards and schedule more series on top of the already hectic FTP, if you think your players are just lazy and have time to play.  You can also arrange friendlies to make your players schedule more hectic.


The various T20 leagues such as the IPL and the BBL are well represented and though the teams have different names (due to CC not owning the rights), they are well represented and again the depth in details is very impressive.

The menu still continues to look like something from the 80s and despite the various improvements the general UI feels retro and not very 21st century like.  However the plus side of this is that everything is bright and easy to find.  Unlike ICC 2012, there are no 3D graphics and I'm not a fan of the 2D graphics one bit.  It gets very dull and playing long hours can be very irritating.  I know most people wouldn't mind it, but for me the graphics does matter and that is one big thing CC lacks.  

These are just a few features that caught my eye and if I had to talk about every single one then I'd have a long, long article to write.  CC is all about stats and details and that is the thing that makes this game sell.  However be warned that it has a very small audience and unless you consider yourself a cricket fanatic, then you wouldn't enjoy this game much.  For a cricket fan like me who always wonders just what it would be like to be in a dressing room with Dhoni and run it, this game is a dream come true.      


How did I fare playing CC 2012?

Not very well.  The learning curve is quite steep and it takes some time just getting used to the menu and where everything is.  After that is the understanding of the way the match engine and how it works.  I found myself declaring what I thought to be good targets to set only to find the opposition reach it with overs to spare.  But once I got the hang of it, I did fine and in my Indian career, I managed to win 5 series without losing a match (some 18 matches there).

Positives
  • Stats, stats and more stats
  • More teams to manage - A teams, seconds and U-19s
  • Lesser teams such as Fiji and Bermuda with complete player database
  • Delegate responsibilities to assistant coach  
Negatives
  • No 3D graphics (a big minus in my books)
  • Prehistoric UI
  • Steep learning curve 
  • Only for a selected audience (ie. Cricket fanatics who love stats and numbers)
Score - 6/10 

My Take -  CC with all its detailed stats and figures still has some ways to go to inspire a great playing experience.  Playing long hours gets monotonous after a while and CC while a lovely game, does not remain an engaging game, that I'd play for a whole Saturday.

You can download the 2 day trial and try out the game before buying it [download link].

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The King is dead! Long live the King!



"The King is dead!  Long live the King" was the shout that reverberated around the Lord's Cricket Ground yesterday evening as South Africa managed to hold onto their nerves and win the match and seal the series.  This sees the South African team taking the crown of test cricket, becoming the no. 1 team in the world.     

The King is dead! - England in a somber mood.
Here's a few things that were confirmed about South Africa during the course of the series.
  • Gary Kirsten is indeed a king maker.  I won't be surprised if he can take Bangladesh all the way to the top.
  • South Africa are indeed the number one test team in the world without a single shadow of doubt.  Now that has been confirmed on paper.
  • South Africa not only have the world's best bowling attack at the moment but also perhaps the world's best batting line up too.
  • The best fielding side in the world?  That's South Africa too!  Now it makes sense that SA are the number one team, doesn't it?  After all they do have the world's best bowling and batting units and are also the world's best fielding side.
  • Dale Steyn > Jimmy Anderson (sorry English media - you guys are wrong).  There's no comparison there!  Its like comparing Harvey Spectre with Louis Litt from 'Suits'.  They might have their specialties which they are good at, but at the end of the day, Louis is no match for Harvey.
  • Chokers?  South Africa are slowly and steadily getting rid of that tag, aren't they?
  • Finding a replacement for a legend like Boucher would be difficult?  Not if you're South Africa.  AB de Villiers was sensational with the gloves.
  • Graeme Smith - the fat, proud ruler, is someone who strongly believes in his team and that is one thing that is never lacking with this South African team - belief.
  • South Africa have just defeated the world's number one team in their own backyard and look like a winning team in any condition.  A true hallmark of a champion team!
The new Kings of test cricket!
Congratulations South Africa and may you rule test cricket in a fair and just way!  "The King is dead!  Long live the King!"

Monday, August 20, 2012

VVS Laxman: A gentleman from another era



Retirements are always bitter sweet and Laxman’s farewell is no different.  It is bitter as Indian cricket is losing one of its most loyal servants – one who has served selflessly for over a decade and a half – and it is this that makes this a difficult pill to swallow.  However at the same time as farewells go, it is a time to celebrate the career of Laxman and be grateful to a man who has helped transform Indian cricket.

VVS Laxman announcing his retirement
When Laxman dressed in a formal suit, from the conference room of the Rajiv Gandhi stadium announced that he would be retiring from international cricket with immediate effect, a surprise murmur spread and emotions of disappointment, anger and frustration at the BCCI’s selection panel, gratitude for a man who served Indian cricket for over a decade and a half, admiration at the genius that was Laxman, sadness at the unfortunate ending of such an illustrious career, and a sense of worry looking at the future of Indian cricket without Laxman flooded the hearts of millions of Indian cricket fans.  Perhaps it was only fate that Laxman retired in the same fashion that he has always played cricket for India – with an axe hanging over his head, horde of criticisms and admiration from his critics and fans alike.  Whatever the circumstances be, the fact is that Indian cricket has lost one of the greatest gentlemen to have held the willow.

VVS Laxman – the man who turned his back on becoming a physician remains one of the nicest men to have ever played the game.  Laxman was part of a golden generation of Indian cricket and despite being overshadowed in a dressing room that consisted of stars such as Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tenulkar and Sourav Ganguly, he has managed to hold his own and has carved himself a place in Indian cricket’s history and every cricket fan’s heart, and that speaks volumes of this man’s contribution.

When one thinks of Laxman, immediately it’s the magic in his wrists that come to mind.  Laxman was a wizard in every sense of the word, and the only wand he wielded was the bat in his hands.  He was elegance personified and his batting had a sense of class that I’m sure even James Bond when seducing a lady would have tried hard to replicate.  It was this exquisite and graceful style combined with a solid technique that saw Laxman triumph with the bat.  A ball, swinging away at 90 MPH on the middle stump would be clipped fashionably away through midwicket or square leg as easily as a baby would drink milk.  Laxman’s magical playing style (style is an understatement) was often described to be similar to the Indian prince Ranjitsinhji and former Indian skipper Azharuddin.  Everything about his playing had a sense of royalty about it.  His often ‘lazy’ stance had a majestic and regal edge and as he waited for the bowler to run up and deliver the ball, Laxman looked lost – a wizard lost in a duel, and when the leather made contact with the wood, there was magic – simple yet indescribable magic as the ball races away to the boundary.  Laxman was an artist and he confused the pitch as the canvas, the bat as his brush and the ball as the paint.  He made the simple look so rich and complex that it took your breath away.  There was no better sight on an Indian summer than watching Laxman bat, as one slowly sipped some cool lemonade or hot chai.

Magic in his wrists - VVS plays a trademark flick.
In a team of heavy weight batsmen, Laxman was unique.  While Sehwag would bludgeon the opposition senseless as a remorseless butcher would of a piece of hard mutton, or Tendulkar chop up the bowlers in neat, small pieces as a chef would of a delicate fruit, Laxman would make fine cuts like a chief surgeon, so fine and delicate that one would hardly notice that the opposition is slowly bleeding to death. 

Laxman is credited for being the chief architect of the greatest resurrection in history since Lazarus when he helped India do the impossible by winning the Calcutta test in 2001, after being asked to follow on by the Australians.  Braving the world’s best bowling attack of the time, under extremely humid conditions, VVS Laxman batted for over 631 minutes (10 and a half hours) alongside Dravid to score one of modern day’s most epic double centuries.  His 281 consisted of 44 hits to the fence and had the Australian captain, Steve Waugh in a mess that he had 9 bowlers (except him and Gilchrist) bowl at Laxman.  History was made that day as India not only went onto win the match but also the series.  It was a feat worthy to be included in the epics alongside Achilles and Odysseus.  That innings of Laxman, heralded the dawn of a new era in Indian cricket that saw the team rise from one high to another.    

VVS Laxman - a recurring nightmare for Australian bowlers.
Laxman always had something special for the Australians and Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting must be wondering just what grave sin they had done, to be punished by Laxman.  His first century came against the Aussies – a 167 at Sydney, and it was perhaps fitting that his last test be against the team he so enjoyed performing.  Laxman was a warrior and like all great warriors, he loved fighting against the best and the Australians found that out on more than a few occasions.  In the 2003-04 series, he was again the main tormentor and the Australians slowly started respecting this enigma that thwarted them time and time again.  Steve Waugh didn’t have a dream farewell as he expected, and Laxman helped India seal a memorable overseas series – the first of many.  In 2004, he again showcased his temperament as he helped India to a win in the Mumbai test, in an otherwise disaster series for India.

Then came the slump in form and having fought his way back, in 2007, Laxman of old surfaced.  In 2008 amidst all the controversies, Laxman managed to hold India’s batting firm as Australia witnessed again his silken touch.  Same year in Delhi, he scores his second double century and again against the Aussies.  In 2010, Laxman plays an undefeated knock of 73, struggling from severe back pain that makes standing a herculean task.  Sedated by painkillers, he helps India register another memorable victory against Australia by rallying the tail on a crumbling pitch of the final day.  He showed tremendous courage and commitment and his knock of 73 was equal to that 2001 Eden Gardens knock, and Laxman's face at the end of the match which betrayed just a small smile, betrayed the pain he was trying to hide and the relief and joy of taking India to victory ruled supreme.  Laxman also had a love affair with Eden Gardens and time and time again he scored there.  His 173 against the West Indies in 2011 was another stunning Laxman masterpiece. 

Laxman’s presence in the middle had a calming effect on the dressing room, and was a player generally relied to turn a precariously bad situation into a decent or a good position.  The 2010 Mohali test where he rallied with the tail, facing the odds and a searing back was everything Laxman was.  He always put the team before himself and even in his retirement, he has stated that despite having been selected, he steps down before the New Zealand series, so that a chance can be given to blood a youngster in familiar home conditions.  Such is his selflessness.  The IPL witnessed the same, when in the first season, he declined Deccan Chargers making him their Icon Player, thereby saving the franchisee millions so they can better spend it on building a strong team.

Laxman’s fitness has come up as an issue more than once, and it was probably one of many other reasons that saw his ODI career being curtailed so early.  However, he worked hard on it and as a fielder, he was one of India’s safest houses.  He was a brilliant slip fielder, and now with the likes of Dravid and Laxman gone, the slip cordon like the batting looks empty.  He was also an equally good close in fielder with amazing reflexes and he often fielded close for the spinners pulling of stunners on a turning pitch.


It is very rare that a very good human being is also a very good cricket player, and Laxman was more than just good in both aspects.

The one thing that makes Laxman so heroic among the other great cricketers of our times is that Laxman never really belonged in the modern age.  He had an archaic charm and was one of those nice gentlemen that you’d read in a story.  He was a person too good to be true, a romantic idea if whispered would be lost forever, and yet India had the honor to have such a man don her colors and represent her with honor and dignity.

Perhaps that is what makes this retirement more tragic than others.  It’s the way that Laxman has decided to go.  For a player of his stature, the selectors must have been more patient and shown respect.  His loyalty and commitment after all was unquestioned throughout his career, and perhaps Srikanth and his fellow selectors would have done some good in reciprocating some of that.  It was disgraceful the way they handled the entire situation, and a blight on the BCCI’s part.  Its tragic to see such a illustrious career come to end like this and making Laxman the scapegoat for India’s recent failures isn’t a very productive move on the administration’s part.

Farewell to one of India's glorious sons!
Anil Kumble, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and now VVS Laxman have all called it a day and with it a generation of Indian cricket comes to an end.  India is yet to fill the void left by Ganguly in 2008, and now with the quick retirements of Dravid and Laxman, the Indian middle order that was once was the pride of the nation and envy of others is no longer there, and a bare emptiness remains.  The Indian bowling has never looked weaker and now the batting after a decade will finally lose the sheen of stardom it had held.  India is in for difficult times ahead as the new, young bloods try to fill up the big empty shoes in the middle order.  Only then will we fully understand what we had in Laxman and how blessed we were to witness this grand moment in Indian cricket.  The youngsters however with lofty expectations on their shoulders don’t need to look very far for inspirations. 

VVS for most reporters has stood for Very, Very Special, and as special Laxman is, it is simplicity that defines him.  He is a gentleman from another era – a regal aristocrat who believed in austerity and a wizard whose magic was all in his wrists.  The future indeed looks bleak for Indian cricket with the departure of one of India's glorious sons.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Episode 21: Not one big happy family!



Recorded on 15 August 2012; Duration 42 minutes.


DescriptionIn the latest episode, Michael and I are joined by SportPulse cricket columnist, Jack Marshall and we talk about the feud between KP and the ECB.  We also look at the Headingley tests, and Jack gives us his insight of the contest between the world's two best test teams.  In Stats Class, Michael has a special guest - Tim Randle and they look at some very interesting numbers regarding five wicket hauls in test cricket.


Panelists - Jack Marshall, Michael Wagener, Tim Randle and Christopher David

If you wish to download the podcast click here. You can also subscribe to it via iTunes or any other podcatchers.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

An unstoppable force meets immovable object



Our man from England, Jack Marshall writes yet again and this time on the Kevin Pietersen - ECB feud.
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What I would give to see inside Kevin Pietersen's head...

The man is erratic to the point of paradox; he is a genius, he is foolhardy. Egotism itself is envious of KP's seemingly boundless narcissism but he is an invaluable team member. He contradicts his own contradictions and asserts in discernibly dulcet South African tones that he 'is proud to be English'. In an era of social networking, he is a modern enigma. His recent fall from grace is the most contentious and polarising issue in English cricket since his spat with Peter Moores in 2009: he has never been the most popular character in the dressing room, either with fellow players or management, but he is now deemed to be more trouble than he is worth.

If one is to analyse the situation from a completely impartial and neutral position then the crux of the entire debacle is the scheduling. Kevin Pietersen plays pivotal roles in all three formats for England and has a lot on his plate. As an international superstar, Kevin Pietersen has plenty of suitors in the IPL, suitors who he would very much like to play for. In recent contract negotiations, Pietersen requested, not demanded, to be allowed to play next year's IPL in its entirety, which would entail missing some of the Test series in New Zealand. While the ECB is reluctant for KP to miss a chunk of a Test series, one can fairly point out that if they simply were to fashion a window for England's créme de la créme to showcase their skills in an exciting and highly competitive, not to mention lucrative, format, then there would be no need for anyone to miss any Test cricket.

KP - Hard times
The creation of a window of a about a month and a half in the international calendar in which all T20 competitions take place, with players allowed to choose which to play in a lá football league style, could provide a possible solution. T20 cricket is too enjoyable (for both players and spectators), lucrative and marketable for the game to ignore for much longer, so subsequent measures should be taken as opposed to the petty squabbling that we see between the likes of the ECB and the BCCI (and the IPL) regarding T20 cricket. It is counter-productive and not in the best interests of the game.

But back to KP.

Pietersen's contract negotiations were leaked not by Kevin, but by the ECB themselves for some reason. Because of this, I retain a degree of sympathy for KP who has been painted out in the media as a big-headed and greedy figure, unconcerned with how English cricket fares. This is not the reality: KP is an astute professional, but his ego sometimes causes him to act irrationally albeit with savory intentions. He has also been poorly advised. But Kev has to shoulder the majority of the blame. He may have had cause to be disgruntled, but the way he dealt with things invited criticism and resulted in the mess he currently finds himself in. His retirement from limited overs cricket was hollow and a signal of intent from both parties, who steadfastly stuck to their guns to the point where the damage was irrevocable; beyond any YouTube apology or sullen expression of regret regarding texts.

KP played on of the best innings in modern day cricket at Headingley in his last test.  He scored  149.
Flower can't succumb to player pressure, and Pietersen's narcissism has been received with a straight and solid bat from the coach, an assured recipe for conflict. Pietersen's century celebration at Headingly was revealing. His isolation in the dressing room became notably apparent when he raised his bat to his family and to the crowd, barley acknowledging the dressing room. His actions in the interview post-match were also interesting. KP emerged sans skipper, Strauss, in a display of his ostracised position in the dressing room, and when asked why he hadn't waited for Strauss, he replied: "I'm not waiting for Andrew Strauss."

Pietersen's determination to do things his way, to emphasize his independence, has not been met with approval from the ECB. Even his video apology was done on his own terms as opposed to through typical and formal ECB protocol. Instead of a statement made in conjunction with the ECB and both the captain and the coach, Pietersen came out and released an uncensored and candid interview: how is the ECB supposed to endorse and encourage such blatant disregard for the formulaic norm?

And then we come to the texts. KP has officially apologised for his comments in text messages to unknown members in the South African side, the team the England team is currently jousting with for the right to stake their claim as the number 1 Test side in the world. Pietersen's derogatory comments regarding his captain Strauss, who mopped up the mess in the aftermath of KP's altercation with Moores, were too much for the ECB to stomach: too untrustworthy for Kevin to take up his place in the team.

KP and ECB - A marriage gone all bad
There are those who claim that KP's personal texts are not the business of the ECB. This I would agree with in principal, but in the circumstances that we find ourselves in, considering Pietersen's history of disputes with officialdom, considering to whom the texts were sent, they were very much the business of the ECB. They were the ECB's business because they undermined their authority. Andrew Strauss has emphasized in interviews on the subject, that despite numerous apologies, Pietersen isn't worthy of the trust that the coach has to invest in all England players. He is too unpredictable and coarse and his high-profile nature and the extent of his actions make his case more volatile and potentially inflammatory that that of say Swann, who expressed his disappointment at being dropped for the second Test in a more subtle and professional manner.

Both sides are to blame, although to differing extents, in this matter. The ECB have showed their inflexibility with regards to the schedule (possibly the essence of the problem) while KP has shown his unnecessary independence through his video apologies and texts. The whole issue is complex, it is confrontational and it is concealed in hidden and uncertain nuances that will forever be veiled form the public eye. Interpretation is relative, and opinions are diverse. But what is clear, is that it is a perplexing impasse: KP wants to play, the ECB wants him to play… but reputations, egos, image and trust have clouded the issue.

Unstoppable force meets immovable object.

Jack Marshall is an English student from Manchester who lives in Gran Canaria, Spain. He loves cricket and football and supports Manchester City and the England Cricket Team. In his free time he likes to read, write on sport and listen to music.

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You can also listen to him talk about the England - South Africa test series on Verbal Slogs podcast.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

ECB drops KP for the Lord's test!



ECB have taken the most drastic step in dealing with Kevin Pietersen as they omitted his name for the Lord's test.  Pietersen's career was in speculation ever since his press conference on Monday but it seemed like that he saved it after a humbling apology in a video where he said that he was committed to England unconditionally this morning.  However after news broke that he had sent alleged derogatory text messages about Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower to South African players during the Headingley test, ECB  reacted sharply and dropped KP for 'undermining a unity of purpose and trust.'

I can't wait to play in Straussy's 100th Test next week. These things make me happy. Winning makes me happy.

The decision though not a massive surprise has taken the world of cricket by shock and just when the story looked like having an happy ending with KP committing to England, there's another twist.  Even KP was expecting to play the next test!
"I can't wait to play in Straussy's 100th Test next week. These things make me happy. Winning makes me happy." - KP
Kevin Pietersen without any doubt is England's best player and dropping your best player in a must win match is shooting yourself in the foot.  KP's knock at Headingley was one of his best in recent times, and it won him the Man of the Match award.  So here is a batsman in form who loves performing against the South Africans (so much that Smith is said to put his head down when KP walks into bat) and has just treated what many consider as the world's best bowling attack wwith utter disdain in the previous match and he finds himself not selected for the next encounter.  Sounds very foolish.  Very, very foolish, but that is the decision the ECB has taken.

KP says he's committed to England
ECB's move is backed on the fact that KP in the team disrupts team unity which is very vital and is  an impediment to the proper functioning of the team.  Has things gotten that bad?  Unfortunately yes, and in the dressing room, KP is now an outsider and it is no secret that he is not exactly welcomed in the team.  His suspicion over the parody KP twitter account was managed by one of his fellow team mates shows just how low the trust level between him and the other members of the team is.  Without a doubt KP in the team does affect the team chemistry and considering the events of the last week, things are bound to be more tense and the atmosphere colder, but the fact still remains that KP remains the best player.  ECB had a very difficult dilemma in hand where they had to weigh the positives of KP playing against the negatives of his selection and its effect on team unity and they have concluded that KP in the team is more harmful than any good he might do, leading to the unfortunate decision of dropping him.

While KP has done many stupid things and the sending of the derogatory texts is just another one in a long list, and does warrant being dropped, I wonder if the ECB are justified in dropping him ahead of such a crucial test where England must win to stay number one in the test rankings.  The ECB very well could have waited for the end of the series and sat down to talk - and KP expressed his interest in playing for England just this morning has opened new doors of possible resolutions which could have been looked into - rather than rush into a decision that not only weakens the team that is to play the Lord's test and distract its players by more controversies but also further complicate what little strained relationship that exists between the two.

Something was going to give and it didn't take a genius to figure out that unless both or one of the two - the ECB (who are adamant that a power hierarchy is established and are not very tolerant to anyone disturbing that) or Kevin Pietersen (whose arrogance and ego stand tall alone) were willing to back down and settle for a compromise, the worst was inevitable.  Pietersen decided to back down, but that just wasn't enough and the ECB has finally cracked the whip saying enough is enough.


In my opinion, the ECB have acted hastily.  While no player is bigger than the team, it remains that KP is England's best player and the best XI England can field at Lord's has KP in it.  So by dropping KP, England go into a must win match with the series and their number one rank in test cricket at stake without their best player.  Bad mouthing your skipper cannot be tolerated and ECB are justified in dropping KP, but it is timing that is the problem.  What is the cost of this disciplinary action?  Surely it could have been done after the Lord's test.  Also while the reason for dropping are the text messages, one has to wonder if all the other events of the week had any role to play.

ECB have made an example of KP and this will serve as a reminder to any in the future who might think of doing the same.  Its a very brave call and often as brave calls go, they are foolish.  If England win the Lord's test without KP, then a new dawn in English cricket starts - one without KP, and we might have seen the last of the swashbuckling talent for the three lions (though speaking of KP, there's always the unexpected) but if England do lose the test, and the series and their number one rank with it, this decision might prove to be very expensive and one that ECB might just regret.  It remains to see if the decision will stand if that happens and what happens next for KP.

Whatever one makes of this ECB's decision on KP, the fact remains that we've all (the English team included) been robbed of KP - at least for the time being.     

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Yohan Blake and his cricket dreams



The buzz from the Olympics interestingly is cricket now, after Jamaican sprinter, Yohan Blake, talking to an Indian journalist started to speak of his cricketing aspirations.  Having won the silver, he has already started planning his next goal.  He said that he would like to play in the Indian Premier League for the Royal Challengers Bangalore franchisee.


Blake also confessed that he thinks he can bowl faster than India's Zaheer Khan and it certainly would be interesting to see a competition between these two.
"I love cricket. India loves cricket. But you know what, I can bowl faster than Zaheer Khan."
He told DNA newspaper,"I am coming there next year. I'll play in the IPL."  He apparently has been honing in his cricket skills and wouldn't it be great if he actually gets to play in the league.
“I want to play in the IPL. I am working hard for it, Chris is a great friend and I follow his side very closely. I also like Kolkata Knight Riders and Chennai (Super Kings). But I want to play for Royal Challengers Bangalore because of Chris.”

Blake is a good friend of Chris Gayle and he plays for the Kingston Cricket Club.  He is said to be in the reckoning for a place in the Jamaican team.

This is not the first time a sprinter is in the news for cricket.  Even Usain Bolt - the fastest man on Earth who bagged gold at the Olympics for the 100m is a very good fast bowler and in a charity match managed to hit the then West Indies skipper, Gayle for a six, before coming back to bowl him over.


Melbourne Stars of the Australian Big Bash League have been chasing Bolt and it won't be a surprise if these sprinters do pick up their cricketing careers in the T20 format.

It certainly will liven things up and will be brilliant marketing for the game.  Also running between the wickets will now be that interesting. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

Game Review: International Cricket Captain 2012



Review -


The latest installment in the International Cricket Captain franchisee - International Cricket Captain 2012 (ICC 2012) is out and here is a look at it.  I've been playing ICC since my school days and has been a game that the cricket fanatic in me has enjoyed for years.

The Game

For people new to the ICC series, the game is a full management simulation game very much like Football Manager.  However there are plenty of differences compared to FM.  The game allows you to be the coach/captain of a county/international/franchisee team and control all aspects from finances, player signings to the playing whereby you set the the field for your bowlers and set where they would bowl the ball and set the aggression of your batsmen at the crease.  It is a complete package and you're part of the action every ball.

New Features



The latest installment as expected is not a major step forward from the 2011 edition and the interface, game functionality and graphics remains the same.  At the same time however, there have been a few updates such as the inclusion of the IPL (Indian League) and updates in the T20 leagues of the Australian (new) and English domestic circuit.  So that definitely is a big plus and the Indian market finally has some domestic feel with the Indian League.

The AI has also improved and the computer now makes more knowledgeable decisions.  The match engines have also been fine tuned and the games are even more realistic.  The shorter formats are now more difficult to master than in the previous editions thanks to the introduction of specialized players for each format.  The player signings/auctions have also been improved and the prices reflect their specialized abilities and form.

In the stats department ICC has always lagged behind Cricket Coach and this time they have done some work to close that gap with the addition of bowler strike rates, retired players and other details.  The specialized roles in each form such as opener in ODIs for Ian Bell and a middle order batsman in tests now adds a different and more realistic approach to the game.


The 2012 edition makes the game more realistic and more engaging to play, while not really improving much from the 2011 version.  It still is more than a pleasant way to spend your time and test just how successful you'd be at the highest level, managing the stars you watch play.  For someone like me, who dreams of a cricket career but never could make it past the college level, this is what keeps the dream alive.  It is a very enjoyable game and though it is not everyone's cup of tea, it certainly will trill a cricket fanatic.

How do I fare playing ICC 2012?

I tried the Indian League and since ICC don't own the rights the teams are named differently, but ICC '12 does give the option of editing the team names, which makes up for it.  So I led the Bangalore team to the IPL finals and lost to - surprise, surprise - Chennai.  This however got a bit drab after T20s after T20s.  In the English county I have led my Nottingham to the County Championship and managed to finish last in the other two limited overs events.  The match machine is not as easy as it was in the ICC '11 edition and the games are more life like.  A mixed bag of results and am keen on improving it.

Positives
  • Enhanced match engine and AI.  More realistic rendering of matches and results.
  • Improved stats from ICC '11
  • Introduction of specialized roles in different formats
  • Introduction of Indian League (Big, big positive for Indian fans!)
  • Improved player contract negotiations
  • Cloud saving
Negatives
  • Same UI as ICC '11
  • No improvements in graphics (still better than the the 2D rendering of Cricket Coach though)
  • Only for a selected audience (ie. Cricket fanatics who know the game well)
Score - 8/10 

My Take - It is the best cricket game in the genre and if you are crazy about cricket, this game will keep you entertained and also educate you in the ways of leadership in a realistic simulation.

You can download the 2 day trial and try out the game before buying it.  It is available for Mac, Ipad, and Iphone too [download link].

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Return of Irfan Pathan?



Irfan Pathan was once the answer to a question, and the all-rounder India so dearly needed and had, then his form fell and he became a shadow, that India tried hard to hold on to, and finally went into exile as the all-rounder India could have had, and the player he could have been.  Many comebacks along the way saw him remain in the selector's frame, and still remain as the all-rounder India searched for, and now his performances in the just concluded India -Sri Lanka ODI series, has once again lighted the small flame of hope, that Pathan has returned to the Indian fold, to be that all-rounder and that answer that has been left unanswered for a few years now.

Pathan - the all rounder India searches for
The interesting thing here is that Irfan Pathan wasn't supposed to tour Sri Lanka and wasn't the Indian selector's first choice after a mediocre IPL season, but that changed with an unfortunate injury to Vinay Kumar.  Pathan got Kumar's ticket and yet another chance to prove to the selectors, the fans, and most of all to himself that he still could be India's answer to the all-rounder question.

Pathan ever since the slump in form had lost his bowling.  His batting improved, but his bowling hit rock bottom, and it was Pathan, the bowler that India needed more than Pathan the batsman.  However the time away from the International arena gave the Baroda boy a chance to slowly rediscover himself and regain much of the magic he once had with the leather ball.  He wasn't up to his prime but he was back and that was enough.

Pathan celebrates his 5 wicket haul in the 5th ODI
The five wicket haul yesterday - Pathan's second in ODIs - held much importance and his face after bowling  Sachithra Senanayake off the last ball in his spell betrayed a amalgamation of emotions.  First joy and exhalation as he jumped into the air with his hand up high and then the slow relief, happiness, and realization flooded through him as he kept glancing at the skies in almost a state of disbelief and thanking the stars.

Pathan and Raina were involved in a undefeated 92 runs partnership in the 3rd ODI that saw India home in the very last over
Pathan in the series hasn't really had an exceptional run like Kohli did and his numbers from the 5 ODIs don't set the world on fire, but what they do is show that there is still a fire burning within Pathan and that India can do with a player like him.  With the bat, Pathan scored 76 runs at a strike rate of 92.68, which is exactly what was expected from him walking in at 8.  His match winning partnership with Raina in the third ODI perhaps is the best testament of the extra strength the Indian batting derives with Pathan in the team and his value with the bat.

With the ball Pathan was again decent with 8 wickets at an average of 26.37 - one of India's better bowlers in the series.  Pathan showed signs of his past brilliance and his early strikes in the series with the ball certainly was a key in India's 4-1 victory.  Under overcast conditions he did get the ball to swing around, and surely is more than one can reckon on a pitch offering assistance.

The Answer
Is this the comeback and the redemption song for Pathan?  I would certainly like to think so, but there's still some way to go.  Whatever the case, his performances in the emerald isles has put him back in center stage and an Indian team with an in-form Irfan Pathan in any form of cricket is a more balanced and versatile team.  Pathan still remains the India's answer to questions about team combinations and flexibility and his return will only do the team good.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

A Swannless England - Slow and steady wins the race…



SportPulse cricket columnist, Jack Marshall writes on England's omission of their jesting spinner, Graeme Swann from the second Test.

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A Swannless England - Slow and steady wins the race…

The omission of Graeme Swann, an ever present in the England Test team since his debut against India in 2008, took many by surprise. And with good reason. The dynamism and ebullience that Swann brings to this England team can not be disregarded; neither can his skill and maturity (when bowling at least). Not since the significantly darker days of 2003 have England entered a Test match sans spinner and despite concerns over Swanny's fitness, the risk is huge for Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower.

Swann's omission has surprised the world and raised plenty of questions.
A pace quartet is a romantic notion for cricket fans drooling over the prospect of having four big fast men bouncing and beating opponents up from 22 yards. The chance to say, 'look, we don't need a spinner because there is no chance you'll survive against these lads', may be tempting to garner some cricketing face, but in this situation it was a decision that was uncalled for. Realistically, the tetrad of Anderson, Broad, Bresnan and Finn, while still forming as impressive pace attack as world cricket has to offer, would be deftly inferior to a triumvirate of Anderson, Broad, Bresnan/Finn, ably supported by the wisecracking and perpetually smirking Swanny.

Put yourself in Graeme Smith's shoes. They may be a bit large seeing as he's a big lad, but proverbially wear them nevertheless. Which would you rather face: the bowling of four seamers who all bowl at similar speeds of 83-90 mph, or a rotating attack interjected with spitting off-spinners from Graeme Swann? I know which I'd choose as I were, and this is why England have made a mistake.

The England fielders struggled in the slip cordon at Headingley.
But Swann is more to England than a mere off spinner. His slip catching is world class and his absence at 2nd slip next to his captain was felt as his replacement, Alastair Cook, shelled a sitter and gave the struggling Alviro Petersen a lifeline on 29. He went on to make 182, taking the Springbok total to above 400 in the process. Granted, Cooky made up for his blunter by snaffling Kallis with a good, low catch off Jimmy, the original victim from the opener's butterfingers, but Swann is an overall better slipper than Cook.

One cannot overlook his happy-go-lucky attitude towards fielding either, which, as opposed to distracting him and his teammates, helps him and those around him relax and unwind between balls and overs. At the other end of the spectrum - the spasmodically-visited (for Swanny at least) serious boundary of thought - Swann's input and insight from a tactical point of view is also of beneficial value. One could say with veracious candor that Swann is a vital organ to England's bodily functions: a salient cog in the England machine.

England seamers struggled on the first two days as the South African batsmen piled on the runs.
His batting, which has earned him 4 first class hundreds, is the kind of thing which has elevated this England team to number 1 in the Test rankings. Again, I ask you what you do not want when you have a side 8 down; once you have removed Bresnan (who has two scores in the 90s in Test cricket) and Broad (who's 169 against Pakistan marked his coming of age as a Test all rounder), what is it that you do not want? Graeme Swann coming in and bludgeoning the ball to all parts to score a quick 20 or 30.

The demoralization of seeing yet another batsman come in after you have grafted and poured plentiful quantities of energy and effort into dislodging the previous man is appreciable only when you yourself have experienced such a predicament. Andrew Strauss once said there is nothing more frustrating to a skipper than a tail-ender sticking around and fighting it out. Why spare your rivals for the Test mace this agony?

On top of everything, Swann is simply and irrefutably a world class off spinner who warrants selection regardless of the conditions or the opposition. Over the past 4 years, Swann has been the world's best bowler, let alone spinner, having taken more wickets than anyone else, with 188 scalps: 22 ahead of the next best (Anderson with 166) at an average of 29.38. Able to spin the ball lavishly, to vary pace and to deploy a very deceptive arm ball, Swann has all the tricks to cause any batsman trouble and has done for the entirety of his Test career so far. Such evidence is incriminating and begs the question to the England management, who have in all fairness got very little wrong during the reign of the Two Andys, why omit Graeme Swann from the England side? 

Remember England, pace and brash pugnacity is all well and good… but sometimes slow and steady wins the race.

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Jack Marshall is an English student from Manchester who lives in Gran Canaria, Spain. He loves cricket and football and supports Manchester City and the England Cricket Team. In his free time he likes to read, write on sport and listen to music.

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You can read Jack's earlier article for TWP here.
You can also listen to him talk about the England - South Africa test series on Verbal Slogs podcast.