Good riddance: Shane Watson quits

The vice-captain of Australia’s cricket team, Shane Watson, has stepped down from his post. Not from the team, just the post.

It’s good he did it, because that saves the selectors one job, of sacking him as vice-captain. Watson saw it coming and didn’t want to be humiliated.

But he may earn the ultimate humiliation anyway – he may not be in the team at all, the team that goes to England in June to defend the Ashes.

Watson has failed to deliver on many occasions and in India, as Australia lost a four-Test series 4-0, he did little, apart from walking out when he was dropped from the third Test for not completing an assignment given by the coach.

He returned and had to captain the team in the fourth Test as Michael Clarke, the captain, was suffering with a bad back.

Australia again lost, this time within four days (again), and Watson had little role to play in what little good Australia did.

Watson says he felt no pressure to give up the job. Sure, and I am the owner of the Eiffel Tower.

There is not much in the pipeline after Clarke and thus there is no crowd of people putting up their hands for the job. Someone will have to be groomed but the cupboard is pretty much bare.

Simply put, only Clarke, Peter Siddle and James Pattinson (when he is fit), can be sure of their places in the team. But Australia has never had a bowler as captain – not so far, anyway.

AFL: exclusive to home-born Australians

AUSTRALIAN rules football is a difficult game to understand. Difficult for anyone who has not grown up with it, difficult for anyone who has got used to other football codes because the structure and rules appear to be more loose than in other games.

One of the ways in which people grow to understand, become interested and then start following any game is dependent on the publicity that goes with it. With the AFL, the publicity is highly insular, nothing more so than the blather that passes for match commentary on radio or TV.

I grew up learning rugby union from the late Bob Harvey, one of the Sri Lankans who commentated on the sport on what was then Radio Ceylon. Most of my cricket was learnt from the commentary of John Arlott, Brian Johnston and Allan McGilvray, on the BBC and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Tony Cozier from the West Indies was another of those who contributed a great deal to my understanding of cricket.

You had a wonderful picture of the game in your head as you listened to these professionals. They took pains to ensure that the listener was always clued in as to what was going on and where it was taking place.

I’ve tried to follow AFL but the commentary is no help. Watching it on TV is no help either. No commentator seems to factor in the presence of people who are ignorant or just learning the game. The fact that AFL is played on an oval field certainly does not help when one has followed other codes on rectangular fields where it is much easier to have a spatial idea of where things are taking place.

Commentators like Arlott always made sure that the listener knew the field that was set. The listener could also orient themselves through the information that he made available. He was not obsessed with himself or what he knew. He was trying to help the listener be there in spirit.

That goal seems to be absent when AFL radio commentators take to the microphone. They never let people know orientation or personnel, where the action is taking place, or who is involved. They seem to assume that people are watching TV and listening to them speak simultaneously. One, thus, has no idea of where the game is, either in time or space.

Apart from the scoreline, which one does hear now and then, there is little that is intelligible in the radio commentary. People shriek and yell when they feel like it, they get excited every time a goal is kicked. That does not help the listener understand the game any better, it makes things worse.

The TV coverage is poor in quality. It seems to be geared more towards gimmicks, rather than the actual game, more towards the players’ emotions rather than the actual run of play. Of course, it is easier to dwell on gimmicks and players’ expression than to capture action when it happens.

So does the league not want newcomers to Australia to understand and come to follow the game? One wonders. Perhaps a book on basics could be printed and given away free or as a PDF. Watching the game on TV you come away with the idea that there are no rules, that it is a game for softies, or sometimes really violent types. The lack of uniformity in rulings is quite remarkable.

There are some things in AFL that make it different from other ball games. For example, the actual act of scoring, by kicking a ball between two posts, is something a player can do uninterrupted if he has caught the ball cleanly. Goals are sometimes kicked on the run, but once a catch is made – it is called a mark – the player can set himself up and then kick without being tackled. It makes for huge scores. In this aspect the game seems to be one for wusses.

Then there is the matter of obstruction. In any sport, if one is obstructed by an opposition player, that would be an offence. Not in AFL. You can “shepherd” one of your own players as much as you like. It sounds crazy and probably is.

It used to be that you could push a player in the back and get away with it. That has changed; now even if one tickles a player between the shoulders, the umpire blows his whistle.

The ball is passed either by means of kicks or else by hand-passes which have to be executed in a particular manner. Else, the latter action is penalised and termed “throwing”. Each time one receives the ball via a kick, one cannot be tackled, and has time to dispose of it without being interrupted. This is supposed to apply only if the ball has travelled 15 metres but the umpires seem to lack any idea of distance. When one receives the ball via a hand-pass, the player has to continue on without halting play as is possible when one receives the ball via a kick.

There is also an unhealthy obsession with statistics to the extent that a player who does X+1 of something is considered to have had more of an impact on the game than a player who does X of the same thing. Quantity is thus the focus, not quality.

Australian rules is tiring; the game itself runs for 80 minutes of actual playing time. The time when the ball is out of play is not counted. With six-minute breaks after the first and third quarters and a 20-minute break at half-time, the entire process can take close to 2½ hours. And given what I have just written, it will sadly be understood and followed only by those who watch it from an early age.

Phillip Hughes rides again

At times, the manner in which a batsman makes runs provides evidence of his ability. But the reverse is also true: at times, the way a batsman scores is indicative of reasons why he should not be picked.

Phillip Hughes of New South Wales has again been awarded a contract by Cricket Australia. On the tour of India in February and March, Hughes failed repeatedly. He showed an inability to tackle spin – and that was about all that was doled out by the Indian team.

Hughes’ scores in the series were 6, 0, 19, 0, 2, 69, 45 and 6 as Australia was hammered 4-0 in the four-Test series. During the knock of 69, he was like a cat on hot bricks. He survived 166 balls through sheer luck, and zero ability. He was as jumpy as he had been during his previous five innings.

If there was any indication that he needed to be replaced, this innings was it. Usman Khawaja, who is known to be a decent player of spin, should have got a chance in the next Test.

But Khawaja had blown his chances of playing in the third Test by not completing an assignment handed down by the coach. He, and three others, were not considered for that Test.

He was considered for the fourth Test. Or maybe he was not. That he was not picked indicates that Australia’s selectors go by only one criterion – scoring runs. Hughes happens to come from NSW, the state that has the most influence in Australian cricket.

So he has got another chance and a fat contract. Khawaja is again out in the cold. And Australia’s selectors have made it plain that politics is more important in the game than ability.

Hughes will next be seen in action during the Ashes in England. Khawaja is unlikely to be in the touring party given that the selectors are looking to somehow win back the urn. It doesn’t matter if they have to pick batsmen who are on the verge of retirement – there are hints that Chris Rogers and Adam Voges may be picked as they have made plenty of runs in English county cricket.

There is already bad news for Hughes – the lanky Chris Tremlett, who troubled him greatly during the Ashes series played in Australia in 2010-11, is fit again and just returning to the game. If Tremlett gets back in the England side, Hughes will no doubt be haunted by memories of how he failed repeatedly against the big man.

The selectors are looking to save their necks. Not to build a team for the future. And to play their politics right – else when they are shown the door, the next opening in the cricket industry may be a long time coming.

Black money drives the IPL

Back in 1967, the then Indian finance minister Morarji Desai had the brilliant idea of raising taxes well beyond their existing level; the maximum marginal tax rate was raised as high as 97.75 percent.

Desai, who was better known for drinking his own urine, reasoned that people would pay up and that India’s budgetary problems would be more manageable.

Instead, the reverse happened. India has always had a problem with undeclared wealth, a kind of parallel economy which is called black money. The amount of black money increased by leaps and bounds after Desai’s ridiculous laws were promulgated.

Seven years later, in 1974, the new finance minister Y.B. Chavan brought down rates by some 20 percentage points, but by then the damage had been done. The amount of black money in India today is estimated to be anything from 30 to 100 times the national budget.

No deal of any size in India can be done without paying part of the price under the table. I had great difficulty in 2004 in selling a flat I owned, simply because I wanted all the money paid above the table. And that flat was being sold well below the market rate so that I could complete the deal soon and return home. But without a black money component, nobody wants to do a deal.

Given this background, it is not surprising that the Indian Premier League, a cricket competition that is played every year and which has been in existence since 2008, pays its players – who come from every cricket-playing country – huge sums for a few weeks of Twenty20 cricket. The government pretends to be surprised about this and often vows to investigate the issue but is really not bothered; instead it is happy that black money is being converted to legal tender.

Industrialists own teams and pump their black money into paying the players. They gain a measure of publicity, both for themselves and their companies. And that is something they love. After all, black money is not of much use unless can utilise it.

In India, corruption is a way of life. You have to pay to get anything and everything done, even to get a proper bill for your monthly consumption of electricity. The symbol of one of India’s main political parties, the Congress (I) is the hand; it would be better to make it an outstretched hand because that is what one encounters in India right from the moment one gets off the plane.

Hence for anyone to say that black money has no role in the IPL is akin to saying that people do not need to breathe in order to live.

Brownwash leaves Australia shattered

Last month, Australia completed a miserable cricket tour of India during which it lost all four Tests, the first time this has happened since 1970.

On that occasion, a strong Australian team went to South Africa and was creamed 4-0; the South Africans were captained by Ali Bacher and included legends of the game like Graeme Pollock, Mike Proctor, Peter Pollock, Barry Richards and Eddie Barlow.

But in India, a weak Australian team came up against opponents who were not that formidable. The one thing that was clearly observable was the fact that the shorter forms of the game have had a bad effect on the Australians’ ability to stay at the crease and grind out the runs.

The contributor to this lack of stickability is Twenty20 cricket. In the one-day game one has plenty of time to build an innings; the highest individual score in this form is 219, by the mercurial Indian, Virender Sehwag, against the West Indies in 2011. Sachin Tendulkar has made a double-century as well, against South Africa in 2010. In Twenty20, one cannot build an innings; one has to start swinging the willow from ball one.

Additionally, Twenty20 games are generally played on placid surfaces to ensure that the batsmen can entertain the crowd. Else, the whole point of the game would be lost. Test cricket is often played on surfaces which try the patience of batsmen and that’s why it has that name – it is a test.

India did not have a top-class bowling attack but the spinners it fielded were enough to bamboozle the Australians who are uncomfortable facing this kind of bowling. Australia’s bowling attack wasn’t all that bad apart from the spin department which was the area that needed to be strong.

For Australia, losing in international cricket is a national shame. The country is crazy about sport, understandably so since it has little else to boast about. The sense of shame will be compounded in mid-year if Australia is unable to win back the Ashes from England. And things will really come to a head if the Australians are beaten again in the reverse Ashes which are to be played during the Australian summer.