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The return of one of the less practised arts livened up the year, and there were other things to cheer as well
December 28, 2011
If the sight of Vernon Philander snaking the red ball around late this year did nothing for you, then perhaps you should not bother reading further: cricket might not be your game. Outside of legspin, swing is the most artful form of bowling, and like legspin, it creates the perfect environment for attacking cricket. Happily for cricket, Philander wasn't an exception: his was merely the best story in a year when the ball wobbled in many corners of the cricket world.
Raw pace produces the spectacle - balls flying, batsmen hopping, weaving and jabbing, or hooking, pulling and swatting. It tests courage and reflexes, and it gets the pulse racing. But swing bowling is set more in the image of Test cricket - it is subtle, more nuanced, tests the skill and character of the batsman, and draws the viewer in and keeps him engaged.
No battle was more engaging and more stirring than the one that heralded the new year, between Dale Steyn and Sachin Tendulkar in Cape Town. It is impossible to imagine outswing bowling reaching a level beyond what Steyn delivered over two spells either side of the lunch break. It was fast, not a ball off the perfect length, almost all of them landing in a corridor from middle to a few inches outside the off stump. Tendulkar was well into his innings already but it took all his experience and skill, and plenty of luck, to survive that 11-over spell. It fetched a mere two wickets, and that was only because Tendulkar weathered the bulk of it. Steyn ended the innings with five wickets and Tendulkar with 146 runs. They were both winners.
Steyn is that rare breed, a genuine fast bowler who can swing the ball. But James Anderson is evidence that you don't need to be express if you can move it both ways. During the last Ashes he showed he could do it outside England too, and at home against India he produced the finest spell of the summer, in the first Test at Lord's, and India never recovered. Equally delightful, if not as impactful, because of the woeful lack of support, was the performance of Praveen Kumar, whose hands the ball leaves like a gentle breeze, only to arrive at the batsman swaying like a drunk.
But no story was more joyous than Philander's, who, till the Australians arrived in South Africa, had caused amusement mainly because of his name. His bowling average, 12.37, is bound to inflate, and he will have tougher days, in conditions not as conducive to his wares, but when the ball swung, he made it sing. He might perhaps never have another day like the one in Cape Town, when he wrecked Australia with 5 for 15.
There is a broader aspect to the recent prosperity of swing bowlers. That everything is cyclical in cricket is true. A few years ago the classical offspinner looked destined to be driven out of the game. Today the lead spinner in most Test-playing countries is a proper offie. Graeme Swann is as classical as they go, and so is Nathan Lyon, whose rise in the Australian ranks is the stuff of fairy tales. Though Saeed Ajmal can bowl a mean doosra and R Ashwin has three stock balls, they both possess the most traditional tools of the offspinner: loop and dip. Of course they are all gifted, but they also have an advantage: the bulk of contemporary batsmen haven't faced too many of their ilk while they learned to bat.
A similar famine of swing bowlers for a good part of the last 10 years seems the most plausible cause of their strong comeback. With pitches flattening out and Glenn McGrath being the pin-up man for all aspiring quick bowlers, bowling back of a length and in the channel became the template, and batsmen adjusted by learning to hit through the line on the up. With swing back in the air, batsmen will have to recalibrate their games once again. But even when they do, watching swing bowling will never get boring.
A landmark investigation and judgement
In one part of the world swing bowling never went out of fashion. England may provide the best conditions for the ball to nip around in, but over the last four decades the Pakistanis can be credited with having not only kept the art alive but with having given it new dimensions. Seen in that context, Mohammad Amir's descent into the dark world of match-fixing is one of the great tragedies of cricket.
|The problem with technology is that it raises expectations for perfection, where the reality is that it is nowhere near being able to deliver it on a consistent basis|
From a wider perspective, the criminal trial of the three Pakistanis charged with spot-fixing and their subsequent sentencing was a seminal moment for the sport. The News of the World, as the world has learnt now, has been guilty of many unethical journalistic practices, but cricket owes it a huge debt of gratitude. Match-fixing is the hardest of crimes to nail, and it can be argued that a sting operation is the only way to do so. In this case, the means certainly justified the end.
Player associations reacted with horror to a suggestion that the ICC should explore similar methods to entrap corrupt players. Invasion of privacy is a legitimate concern, but as Rahul Dravid said in the Bradman Oration, players must be prepared to sacrifice a bit of privacy to protect their game. For all its best intentions, the ICC is ill-equipped to deal with crime and investigation. It did conduct an efficient trial and administer its own justice in the spot-fixing case, but as deterrents go, a jail term easily beats being banned from playing cricket.
It was fortunate, too, that the matter came to light in England, where the justice system is tight and swift. There were murmurs in Pakistan about matters of sovereignty, about Pakistani citizens being tried and punished in a foreign land, but cricket's problem with the earlier episode of match-fixing is that too many got away. Mohammad Azharuddin, who is serving a life ban now sits in the Indian Parliament; many others who were accused, charged and reported are now in positions of similar respectability. Some boards didn't even bother to follow the investigation to its logical end.
Six months is not a lot in a lifetime. It is only a matter of months before Amir walks a free man. Of course, he will still have four years of the ICC ban to serve, but with his admission of guilt he has already taken a huge step towards redemption. Cricket must give him a second chance.
Pakistan's healthy glow
On the field, the Pakistan story was far more encouraging. Statistically they were the most successful team of the year, winning 60% of their Tests, and nearly 78% of their one-day games - a higher success rate than India, the World Cup winners, and Australia, who remain the No. 1 team in the ICC rankings. The top wicket-taker in Tests is also a Pakistani - Ajmal with 50 wickets - and four of their batsmen feature among the top 10 run-getters in Tests.
Of course the numbers are a bit misleading because Pakistan played the bulk of their Test matches against Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and a weakened Sri Lanka. But numbers are not the thing. The real story about Pakistan is that they were back on the road playing cricket again, and playing lots of it. They have finally said goodbye to their comically catastrophic president Ijaz Butt, and though it is hard to see international cricket returning to Pakistan in the foreseeable future (the scheduled Bangladesh visit in 2012, pending a security inspection in January notwithstanding), they are settling into their home away from home in the Middle East, where they have recently taken control of the pitch-making process. The resumption of bilateral ties with India will depend on the politics of the region, but if the selectors stay patient and the administrators vigilant, Pakistan could be on the road to recovery
Technology: here we go again
The DRS story has stayed so boringly monotonous that I am almost tempted to reproduce what I wrote in last year's review. But in some ways the arguments about it keep pub chats interesting in much the same way that umpiring did in an earlier era.
Of course, the arguments in favour of the review system are fairly convincing and well laid out: it helps to reduce errors, allows umpires access to the tools used to judge them, and does justice to players. As Michael Hussey went, fuming, after being wrongly given out caught behind first ball in the Melbourne Test, howls of disapproval rang through the MCG: imagine if the batsman had been Sachin Tendulkar, commentators asked on Channel 9. Later in the day, Ed Cowan, the impressive debutant, was on the wrong end of a marginal caught-behind decision. It was close enough to the edge, but Hot Spot picked up nothing.
The counter-argument came later that evening. An impassioned appeal from the Indians was turned down after Zaheer Khan pinned Brad Haddin on the back foot. The pitch mat had the ball pitching in line and the line looked straight. Would India have won the decision had the review been available? No, as it turned out. Eagle Eye, the technology used in this series for ball-tracking, couldn't come up with accurate projections because of the extreme variations in light: it was brilliantly bright on most parts of the field but dark shadows covered the pitch. Imagine the situation had the DRS been in place. India would have got two decisions in their favour overturned, but when it came to their turn at seeking justice, the tool to deliver it wouldn't have been available.
Actually, the Cowan dismissal was the perfect illustration of the grey zone involving edges. The ball was certainly close enough to the bat; there was a sound, and the umpire's response to the appeal was instant. However, Hot Spot drew a blank. What would the umpire have done had DRS been in attendance?
Dravid had two not-out decisions overturned against him on India's recent tour of England, even though Hot Spot showed no contact. In the first case, in the second innings of the Oval Test, the television umpire went by a perceived deflection, only marginal. On the second occasion, in the first ODI, in Chester-le-Street, he went by the sound. The second instance drew the sharpest of reactions from MS Dhoni, but about the first dismissal Dravid conceded he had got a feather onto his pad.
The problem with technology is that it raises expectations for perfection, where the reality is that it is nowhere near being able to deliver it on a consistent basis. Hot Spot failed several times during the England-India series, and Hawk-Eye got its tracking embarrassingly wrong for a leg-before decision that went against Phillip Hughes in Sri Lanka. And earlier this year, the operator pulled out a replay of the wrong delivery in a Test in the West Indies when the umpire asked for a review to check if the bowler had overstepped on a wicket-taking delivery; it turned out that the umpire's instinct was right, but it was too late.
This is not an attempt to string together a series of isolated examples to discredit technology, but I have been consistently sceptical about the ball-tracking system, which has more variable and manual interventions than technologists will lead you to believe. And no perfect technology has yet been found for faint edges. Yes, decisions like the one against Hussey can be eliminated, but cricket hasn't yet found the perfect way to do so. Leaving the prerogative to call for a review in the hands of the players is bound to result in challenges for plenty of marginal calls. Can a way be found to hand over the tools to the umpires and let them make the best use of it, just as they do with run-outs, stumpings and now no-balls, without slowing down the game?
It's easy to sympathise with the Australian players. Playing different matches under different regulations makes a mockery of the integrity of the game. Why do I sense I might be repeating these words next year too?
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