What good cricket is all about

This ability to adjust to conditions, as shown by Dravid, is a sure sign of high quality batting but, normally, it isn't very clear what is good or bad cricket.

AMIT MATHUR

Virender Sehwag goes for a shot during the Super Six match of the World Cup between India and Sri Lanka in Johannesburg. When things clicked for Sehwag superlatives were freely used. Otherwise knives were drawn. ؅ Pic. REUTERS Pic. REUTERS-

IN the Super 6 game against Sri Lanka, Rahul Dravid faced Muttiah Muralitharan towards the end of the innings, looking to accelerate and collect crucial runs. Murali, everyone knows, is not someone you can tonk, he keeps the ball in the right place and does not permit a free hit.That day,as usual, he was exceedingly tight, operating with third man in the circle and deep point on the boundary. But when he dropped one just a shade short, Dravid saw his chance and cut — against the break. The audacious shot was placed perfectly, it beat both fielders to reach the fence.

That is sheer class, exclaimed captain Sourav, clearly delighted. That is a fantastic shot. Dravid did not make a hundred but, though batting at 5 or 6 that too towards the death, showed what good cricket is all about. He is a high quality player, gushed Sourav. Game after game, he delivers, irrespective of what he is asked to do. He adjusts easily to different situations, meets the demands of the team and knows exactly what to do.

This ability to adjust to conditions, as shown by Dravid, is a sure sign of high quality batting but, normally, it isn't very clear what is good or bad cricket. Every now and then a debate is sparked about judging players, rating them and passing a judgement on their merits. These discussions remain inconclusive despite violent arguments because comparisons are tricky and there are so many variables to contend with. When Sehwag or Kaif have a good game superlatives are freely used to describe their talent and ability. But as soon as they have a bad run, criticism starts, knives are pulled out and unsparing critics waste no time in shredding them to bits.

Criticism, many will argue, is as much part of the game as Murali/Shoaib's suspect action — it can't be helped, players have to live with this. Which, in a way, is okay because unfair criticism is compensated by unfair praise, so why complain? The players realise this, they understand that people do go over the top and, anyway, news about a hero failing or screwing up is good stuff for the media. Tendulkar making three hundreds in a row is terrific, but Tendulkar making three ducks (if that happens, ever) would be completely sensational.

But how does one decide what is bad cricket? At a fundamental level this is easy because the scorebook passes a judgement and indicates whether someone has goofed up. But problem is the scorebook deals in stats, it is one dimensional and inaccurate, it cannot distinguish quality. In the scorebook, runs made by Salvi and Sachin are the same, there is no distinction whatsoever.

If we put runs aside for a moment it is easy to list examples of bad cricket. Hitting across the line, playing away from the body, stretching for a drive outside off stump will cause a coach to frown, perhaps even curse. Likewise, wrong shot selection, going over the top when long off and long on are waiting to catch the hit, is not very clever. By the same logic, attempting a huge slog when the score is 74 for three in the 20th over shows the player lacks discipline and could do with a stern lecture from Sandy Gordon about having concern for team interest. Playing for personal records (for a hundred or a not out to boost average) and ignoring team needs is an ultimate sin. None of this is recorded in the scorebook but in a team players know each other, they have a way of finding out and separating the heroes from possible villains.

Compared to instances of bad cricket, good cricket is much more difficult to identify. Obviously, quality of strokeplay is a factor here, a batsmen scoring runs from edges to third man is not the same as someone who smashes fast bowlers to mid off of the back foot. Players applaud when a batsman slashes a quick bowler deliberately over point, or delicately runs an off spinner to third man beating the fielder in the circle to his left. Also, taking a nicely judged single when the fielder is in or hard running between the wickets to make three instead of two is good cricket.

Dominating an attack and taking control of the game is a major quality, a certain indication that the batsman is special. When Wasim Akram and company are destroyed by Tendulkar in the first few overs by a string of powerful strikes that is supreme batting. That is authority, power and arrogance at its best — high quality stuff from a top quality player.

To correctly assess the worth of runs it is important to know the conditions and state of the match. It is one thing to make runs when openers have put on 150, quite another when the team is floundering at two down for 20 on a wicket which is doing a bit. The latter situation requires guts, application and a lot of character, hence the runs scored in such situations are more precious. In a one-dayer batting at no. 5 or 6 is difficult as batsmen have no time to adjust, which is why runs made by Yuvraj (earlier by Jadeja) are valued highly.

To a large extent, the type of judgement passed about a player depends on who is doing the judging. Ordinary fans make an ordinary, simple judgement based on stats because this yardstick is convenient, easy to understand and, beyond a point, impossible to argue with. Sachin Tendulkar is the best because his stats are absolutely awesome, the sheer weight of his runs, made consistently over a long period, has stilled all arguments. If some misguided people still feel Lara is competition or other batsmen are getting close then they must be off the boil.

Interestingly, players have their own way of assessing each other. Their method is accurate, and rigorous, because they know each other like nobody else can. In their private world there is no hiding, there are no secrets.

Players respect batsmen who give tadi, a player who bats with authority, controls an innings and wins matches. For this reason Viv Richards is the greatest player of the last two generations, no other comes close. Viv chewed gum and the bowlers. He was ruthless and merciless, an arrogant butcher who destroyed the opposition.