Hayden's salvo and the angry fat man

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Friday, August 27, 2004

8.45pm IST - Mental disintegration? Go on, disintegrate

Matthew Hayden's statement that subcontinental batsmen are selfish and prioritise personal landmarks over team goals has attracted a lot of comment in India over the last couple of days. In The Numbers Game, our Friday column, Rahul Bhatia displays statistics (provided by Arun Gopalakrishnan in our Chennai office) that show that the strike rates of the top Indian batsmen between the scores of 71 and 100 are actually marginally better than that of the top Australian batsmen. (A counterpoint to that, of course, is the fact that Indian batsmen have more centuries than Australian ones, though India win much less.)

Harsha Bhogle, with characteristic candidness, writes in his latest column that there is some truth to what Hayden says. His hypothesis is that "in over-populated, and therefore insecure, countries the self will always dominate ... Where you are in a mob, and we are in a mob, self-preservation will always prevail; whether it is catching a bus, or getting out of a movie hall, or getting admission to a professional college."

Bhogle explains how it is impossible for a cricketer in India to rise to the top without playing for personal landmarks, and how "it is not easy to change; leopards in every profession are stuck with their spots."

Hayden, if he reads all this, must find it extremely funny. When Australians say bad things about their opponents, they do not always mean it, and are often just playing a game of mental disintegration, as Steve Waugh famously put it. Hayden doesn't care if Indian batsmen are selfish or not - but he would love to have their minds fret about things other than the game at hand during an encounter. The next time India play Australia and an Indian batsman crosses 80, you can bet that the Aussies will sledge him about his selfishness, trying to induce him into a rash shot.

With Australia due to tour India shortly, expect more such statements from the Australians. Glenn McGrath, famously for targeting an opposition batsman before a series, will probably pick Virender Sehwag. And many more snide comments will be made about the Indians, to put demons in their minds. Here are a few (untrue) statements that the Australians might well already have short-listed.

1. Sehwag's batting is too aggressive, and we'll just wait for him to throw his wicket away.
2. Sourav Ganguly would not be in the Indian side if he wasn't the captain. OR Ganguly can't play the short ball.
3. VVS Laxman can't run between the wickets in one-dayers. We plan to keep him at the crease so the scoring-rate slows down.
4. Sachin Tendulkar is no longer the same player he once was. Warnie's got his number.
5. Yuvraj Singh can't play spin. Warnie's got his number too.
6. Harbhajan Singh's doosra is suspect. OR Harbhajan's success in the last series was a fluke.
7. Parthiv Patel's a kid. He can't concentrate through an entire day of Test cricket.
8. Anil Kumble is past his best. We're not worried about him.

Now, none of these are true. But imagine you're Yuvraj, and Ricky Ponting lets out statement No. 5, and then you're playing Shane Warne in a Test - isn't it just possible that the allegations could be playing on your mind, and you might be over-aggressive or over-cautious as a result? And over-anything is a victory for the Australians.

So how do you counter such mental disintegration? Oh, Sourav knows how. He'll just keep Ponting waiting at the toss.

Another cricket blog - For all those who complain that my blog is updated too infrequently, click here for a cricket blog that might satisfy you. It's run by S Jagadish, an ex-Cricinfo employee, and Ganesh, a current one. I update less frequently than them because I prefer, in my endearing indulgent way, to engage with ideas rather than keep a diary of events. I can't change my spots, of course, and I hope you enjoy the other leopard.

7.50pm - Murali and Perl

Subra Srinivasan sends me an interesting mail regarding my post on Muttiah Muralitharan's attempt to prove his innocence ("Murali's redemption, and our arrogance"). Subra says, "If Murali can bowl his normal deliveries with the brace on, why not design a similar brace, albeit a much less bulky version, and have every bowler wear it?" He elaborates:

The brace could be the elbow protector that most players wear to protect against scraped skins. But they could have three sensors attached. One at the elbow, one above and one below, to basically track the angle. If needed, there can be another sensor at the shoulder to determine when the arm passes the horizontal [level of the shoulder] during delivery.

These sensors needn't be anything complicated electronics-wise. They can be just brightly coloured buttons or LEDs. A computer-connected camera can then track these light-points during delivery, calculate the angle that the arm goes through during delivery, and determine if the degree of flexion was within permissible limits.

This device can actually be a handheld device (think Simputer) that can do this minimal task. It will just be a matter of the device beeping when the degree of flexion exceeds permissible limits. Shouldn't be that difficult for a techno-crazy industry that uses missile-tracking technology to determine if the ball would have hit the stumps (think Hawk-Eye).

Subra continues, "As they say about the programming language Perl, the best devices are ones that serve purposes that they weren't originally intended to serve at the time of invention. The brace could prove one such ..."

I think Subra's idea is a terrific one, and though it sounds messy and complicated, it'll appear ridiculously simple if implemented, and we'll all go, "Darn, and to think for a century we argued about chucking. Why didn't we think of this before?"

But, Subra, I suspect you're rather ahead of your time. The technophobes and Luddites that run the game, and comment on it, will certainly bemoan the possibility of any such development, and will dredge up science-fiction fantasies of how technology could kill the human aspect of the game. "This kind of stuff," they will say, "is best left to Hollywood." Well, if so, could Angelina Jolie play Murali, please? Or Halle Berry?

We all know Brian Lara can.

7.25pm - Why plan for the World Cup?

I wrote in a previous post ("A trophy on the mantelpiece, or a pot of gold?") that cricket teams often stress the short term over the long term, and Kumar Srichapan, a third-year student in IIT Chennai, has written in saying that some sides are doing exactly the opposite. He feels that in planning for the next World Cup, which is in 2007, teams are missing out on short-term gains. He is particularly upset, and I share his grief, at the exclusion of Michael Bevan from the Australian side.

"The reason behind Bevan's exclusion," says Kumar, "is that he would have retired by the time the World Cup came around. But the World Cup is another three years away. If they do want to groom a team for that, well, perhaps they could start six months before [the event] ... OK, maybe a year, at the most."

Kumar continues: "The results achieved by the England Test and one-day teams could not have been in greater contrast. And again, the reason is [that they are] trying to groom a team for the World Cup. Mark Butcher is not being picked precisely for that reason. At least Australia have the bench strength to warrant the axeing of Bevan, but not so England."

Quite. Next we'll have Bangladesh planning for 2007 and axeing Habibul Bashar while making a youngster - like, say, Rajin Saleh - the captain. Oops. Half of that has just happened.

6.50pm - Angry fat man, dead fat man, and the first law of robotics

"Could you not have written on something more exciting?" came an irate mail from Manik Bisht. "Morality in cricket? What's that about? It's a sport, for [expletive deleted]'s sake. You win games, you perform well, you get sponsors, you get endorsements, you make lots and lots of money, money makes you happy, your being happy makes everybody around you happy, and happy is good. You know what I'd do about that darned trolley? I'd take out my camera-phone and take snaps of it going over the five guys. One, two, three, four, five, one nice shot of each of them, and a final one of the aftermath of the carnage. Then I'd message it to all my friends."

Hmmm. And what is that vibrating sensuously on my thigh? Ah, the cellphone in my pocket. Thanks, Manik, nice.

My last post (Do the right thing. But what?) provoked a variety of responses, some to do specifically with the question of walking, some about cricket and morality in general, and a couple simply about the trolley problem. Colin Beck wrote in with an alternative explanation to why we react differently to the two questions that were posed. In the first one, he says, "We can save four lives by flicking a switch. We have a natural tendency to believe that the switch is mechanically sound, and that there is no risk of anything going wrong." But in the second instance, he says:

[T]he cause and effect are not so clearly coupled. Although we are told that the fat man will stop the trolley, a number of potential problems are immediately apparent. First, we may not be able to push the fat man off the bridge - he is fat after all, and he may struggle. This would lead to an angry fat man, and five people killed by the trolley. Second, even if we were successful in pushing him off the bridge, he may not land in the appropriate spot to stop the trolley, leading to a dead fat man and five people killed by the trolley. Third, even if he does land in the correct place, his bulk may not be sufficient to stop the trolley, again leading to a dead fat man and five people killed by the trolley.

This is not as flippant as it sounds. Colin goes on to say, "People will subconsciously compare the surefire simplicity of flicking a switch with the messy, error-prone, and frankly unlikely act of pushing a fat man off a bridge." This explanation, which focuses on the practical aspect of the logistics of it all, seems to me at least as plausible as the one about how we have an evolutionary bias towards passivity in situations of conflict, or the one that is often cited by philosophers in this context, the doctrine of double effect. But what would I know? I'm just a cricket writer.

Walking, Mankading and the Mahabharata

Hifzur Meerapatel and Alex Holman both wrote in to say that while they applaud a cricketer who walks when he knows he is out, they do not condemn one who knows he is out but waits for the umpire's decision. There is no contradiction in this. When he walks, the batsman is following a general moral rule about honesty; when he stays, he is following the laws of cricket, which leave that decision to the umpire. So, much as we may praise Adam Gilchrist for walking in that World Cup semi-final, it is perfectly natural, also, to not raise an eyebrow when one of his team-mates does not walk despite an obvious snick. That is the way the game has been designed.

Sriram Gopalakrishnan writes in disputing the assertion that a batsman who does not walk despite knowing he is out and a fielder who appeals knowing the batsman is not out are equally culpable. Sriram points out: "All players are expected to uphold `The Spirit of Cricket', which specifically says it is considered cheating to appeal knowing that the batsman is not out (Section 5), while there is no specific mention of expecting a batsman to walk if he knows he is out."

Sriram goes on to say, "I admit that the difference I've described is merely a technicality as described by the laws." Well, Prasanna Ganesan writes in that a defence on technicalities is "a sure sign of indefensible morality". Prasanna illustrates this with the famous incident in the Mahabaharata, in which Yudhisthira, known for speaking the truth, deceives his great opponent, Dronacharya, by making him believe that his son has died, while not technically lying. (Click here to read about it.) But the technicality does not help Yudhisthira; his chariot, which always sailed four inches above the ground because of his rectitude, comes down to ground because of this act.

Md Rahmatullah writes in from Japan to raise the more thorny question of whether it is right for a bowler to run out a non-striker who is backing up too far - also known as Mankading, after the great Indian allrounder, Vinoo Mankad, who did it twice to Bill Brown in Australia in 1947-48. There is a tradition in the game that if a non-striker backs up too far, the bowler should warn him, and only if he continues should he be Mankaded. Courtney Walsh was praised for doing just this in a match against Pakistan in the 1987 World Cup, which cost West Indies a place in the semi-final. And a decade ago, Kapil Dev did run out Peter Kirsten in just this fashion, in a one-day international at Port Elizabeth. Kepler Wessels, then South Africa's captain, was rather mad at Kapil, and hit him on the shins with his bat, supposedly accidently. But was Kapil wrong?

A non-striker who backs up too far is not only committing an illegal act according to the laws of the game - and therefore should be run out without a warning - but he is also engaged in what is effectively cheating - wilful or otherwise. He is, in other words, contravening both cricket's laws and the wider moral laws of society. But there is another unwritten code between players that affects their behaviour, and that code is the repository of the taboo upon Mankading someone. It is an illogical rule, in my opinion - a non-striker backing up too far is committing an illegal act, in trying to steal a run, and deserves punishment. The threat of Mankading adds an extra dimension to the game, and frankly, I would rather enjoy it.

Wraye Wenigmann, who is a scorer in Germany and writes for cricket.de, suggests that Isaac Asimov's first law of robotics ("A robot may not harm a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm") should be adapted to cricket. "Perhaps," she says, "we could change the Preamble to the laws to state, `No cricketer, through action or inaction, may bring the game into disrepute.'" That would, according to her, make a passive act, as Mike Brearley would have put it, as culpable as an active one. (A passive act? Well, you know what I mean.)

On that note, tra-la.

Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.

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