Thursday, August 25, 2011


On reading this piece by Andrew Miller on Cricinfo (How good are this England side?), I was left with quite a few questions in my head. There are a couple of points in that piece that immediately left me shaking my head in disagreement. Here is the first bit:

"It is said that the acid test for this England team will come when they are faced with Asian pitches in the UAE and Sri Lanka this winter, though it's hard to believe that's really the case. If any side has the ingredients to triumph in such conditions, it is England - the fittest squad of international cricketers on the planet, whose batsmen have demonstrated the dedication required to grind out big scores in attritional passages of play, whose bowlers build pressure by strangling runs, and whose spinner, Swann - for all that he falls short of true greatness - is indisputably the best in the game at present."

I do not quite understand why is it so hard to believe that the acid test for England will come on Asian pitches. The current England squad is undoubtedly brilliant, and arguably at the peak of its powers at the moment. They managed to earn a hard-fought draw away in South Africa, flattened Australia in Australia, and demolished India at home. Like the great teams of the past, the only ground that remains to be conquered is the sub-continent (or broadly Asia, since they will be playing Pakistan in UAE).

He reasons that England is the fittest squad currently (though I think that the South Africans might want to challenge him on that), their batsmen have the capability to be attritional and score big, bowlers can strangle runs when needed, and they have the best spinner in the world. Fine reasons those!

But each of those reasons applied even to Steve Waugh's men who conquered everything in their path... or rather, almost everything! They were the fittest squad of their time, some of the batsmen and bowlers on their payroll are acknowledged today as all-time greats, and they definitely featured the best spinner of their time - one who even managed to make it to Cricinfo's All-Time Test XI as a unanimous choice!

Yet, on either side of their run of 16 consecutive Test wins through 1999, 2000 and 2001, Steve Waugh's Australia failed in its acid test on Asian wickets. The Kolkata and Chennai defeats to India in 2001 are famously remembered, but what is not remembered is that just before the start of their 16-match winning streak, they had recorded a series loss in Sri Lanka (September 1999).

So hard as it may be for Mr. Miller to believe that Asian pitches shall be their acid test, they would really still need to pass it to be able to make a further claim. Just having ingredients of success is not enough, as we Indians learnt it the hard way this English summer! We may not have had all the ingredients of success in our Indian squad, but we had managed to hold on to the No. 1 ranking with whatever ingredients we possessed for 20 months. It all came down spectacularly in 1 month! While I don't think it will be quite as dramatic for England, they still do have a task on hand to consolidate their top-of-the-table ranking.

Now, coming to the second excerpt from Mr. Miller's piece that I actually managed to frown upon:

"Passages of play such as Mishra's stand with Sachin Tendulkar prove that England are not unstoppable, but given that no team in the world can replicate their current levels of desire, it's going to take something extra to derail their ambitions."

Just one question here - just how does one claim that a certain person or a certain team's level of desire is the greatest or the least? I am really not a fan of blanket statements such as these where desires, ambitions, courage, spirit, and other such immeasurable aspects of a sportsman or sportsmen are judged.

I was not the only one who did not quite agree with this statement. There were others too, like @thecricketcouch and @grangergabblog. In reply to @thecricketcouch's question as to how could he make such a statement of England team's desire, this is what Mr. Miller (@miller_cricket) replied: 

Honestly, I believe this is as wrong an argument as any I have seen. I don't think that desire is always directly proportional to your on-field performance. Does that mean that every time a team loses a match, they did not desire to win it? It's a very rhetorical question... so lets just explore this with a few examples.

India lost 7 for 33 vs. England at Bangalore, 4 for 30 during the middle overs vs. the Netherlands at New Delhi, a mammoth collapse of 9 for 29 vs. South Africa at Nagpur, and even a 7 for 50 vs. West Indies at Chennai during the league stages of the World Cup 2011. Does this mean that they had no desire to win it? Going by @miller_cricket's response to @thecricketcouch on Twitter, it would tantamount to lack of desire.

Lets use an English example. England lost 6 for 63 in the first innings of the 1st Ashes Test match at Brisbane last year. Does that mean that the Australians had more desire to win that Ashes Test match than England? Does Rafael Nadal's loss to Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon finals this year (2011), or his loss to Robin Soderling in the 4th round of French Open 2009 or Federer's loss to Nadal in the finals of Wimbledon 2008 imply that the victors were the ones who desired those wins more?

That, in my opinion, would be an insult to the vanquished - be it India this summer, Australia last winter, or Nadal and Federer over those (and other) matches. Every sportsman in every sport (be it a team game or an individual sport) takes the field of play with the sole desire to win. That is my opinion at least, for that is how even I used to play during my school days even against an XI comprising of seniors! These men are professional, and to compare and judge their levels of desire, in my opinion, is quite like insulting them!


Ravi Gurnani said...

The totality of this England side will be tested in the subcontinent i.e. can they win on the "dustbowls". Yes Australia did not win in Asia before and after their juggernaut. But fact is that they came back and beat us at home in 2004-5 with pretty much the same set of players. South Africa has a very good record v India in India. So in that sense, the subcontinent will be the acid test.

Unknown said...

This is the first time in my game following days that i have come across such a Austrailiaque performance from the Poms....winning with a 4-0 margin is highly commendable and Andrew certainly has been blown away by it....let him enjoy it as long as it lasts....btw i cant see them replicating such feats on Asian "dustbowls"....lets wait and watch

Anonymous said...

Shridhar, let them enjoy their moment. They are not used to this - being on the top. So, you get such gibberish as analysis.

Russ said...

Shridhar, I think you are over-reacting to Miller's point. Waugh's side were in no way suited to Indian conditions, most of the team could not play spin well, and Warne always struggled where there was little bounce or pace in a wicket (Indian wickets are suited to spinners who push the ball through, like Kumble or Harbi).

Asian pitches aren't all alike anyway, so it is a moot point in some ways. But I think Miller is correct that England are well suited to that style of cricket.

I also don't understand our second complaint. Clearly, some players are more professional in approach, more prepared, and harder-working than others. Clearly too, some players are great by virtue of their genius, and others by their dedication and (yes) desire. That doesn't mean the others lack desire, but some players (and therefore teams) have it heightened to extremes. Consider the difference between John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl, acknowledged greats both, but the latter clearly had more desire (or dedication, if you prefer) to push himself. Or Clarke and Ponting, Clarke is the better batsman, but Ponting wants to win and score runs more. And does.

Unknown said...

Russ, my point in reacting to Miller's column is just my exasperation in the way he has been dismissive of the sub-continental tours by calling them "hardly" acid tests.

You say this English team might be more suited to the sub-continental conditions than Waugh's men. It may be so, but they don't have too many fond memories in the sub-continent so far. Suitability does not always yield results.

By the way, Waugh's men weren't all that fish-out-of-the-water like here. Hayden had his career revival here. Slater's averages in Pakistan and Sri Lanka are higher than his career averages. Langer was uncomfortable, but the Waugh brothers were very good players of spin with good averages in India and Pakistan. For all of Ponting's troubles against spin, he's got a 50+ average in Sri Lanka who had Muralitharan in their ranks!

I admit that Asian pitches aren't all alike. But apart from Mohali and the Nagpur pitch of 2004, most Indian pitches are very similar to the ones in Sri Lanka - slow, low and turning from Day 1.

I am not entirely in agreement with your suggestion that Indian pitches assist spinners who push it though more. Warne struggled because he was attacked by some very good players of spin bowling who were unafraid to play against the spin. Muralitharan could bowl loopy off-spinners as well as push it through, and he was very successful in both ways. India's spin quartet of 1970s hardly ever bowled quick through the air. Yet they were immensely successful.

My second complaint in the bigger complain. Professionalism is distinctly different from desire to win.

I was unfortunate to have note been born in the era of John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl. But if I were to use another tennis example, then lets just take the present day tennis.

Federer is a genius. He hardly seems to break a sweat when he wraps up his victories. Nadal on the other had has to work hard for every point. He does not have the talent that Federer has been blessed with. Nadal has even had to adopt playing left-handed when he is naturally a right-handed person!

I think this example fits well to your statement - "some players are great by virtue of their genius, and others by their dedication".

But I do not agree that desire is lacking in either of these two great competitors. Just because one works harder and is more dedicated does not mean he has more desire. If one is not a genius, he has to work harder to achieve the same desire!

You used the Clarke and Ponting example. Does that suggest that initially in his career, Ian Bell was lacking in desire? We all know what a batting talent he is. But his failures in the past were, in my opinion, more to do with him not being able to find himself comfortable at the Test level, rather than lacking the desire to do well in Test matches.

Anonymous said...

I'm with you, Shridhar, on the 1st issue -- Asian conditions will indeed be England's greatest acid test. I'm surprised by Miller's view... coz if he really believes Asia will not test England, then he should also contend that England are better than any other team in the last 25 years (who have all been tested).

Yes, England can potentially win. But that is not to say that they won't be severely tested. Pakistan still have quality in Ajmal, Rehman and Gul. SL have Mendis and Herath. India do have problems with the bowling, but they have over a year to work things out. And all 3 batting lineups will stand up much better to England in Asia.

BTW, I also think SA in SA will be another big Test (SA in England will be too). The only team to beat SA in recent times was Australia, when Mitchell Johnson found himself under a blue moon! He was even more devastating than Steyn in that series. Broke a few Saffer bones, he did.

Anonymous said...

As for who has the "greatest desire" that is very difficult to judge.

I think a fairer way would be to say England have as much desire, if not more, than any team at present or in recent years.

I believe SA, under a new captain and Kirsten and Donald will exhibit just as much hard work, preparation and planning as England. In that sense, I think SA's desire will be no less than England's.

On India, we have to wait and see. The BCCI's scheduling and the IPL & Champions League demands make India's job harder than others.

Anonymous said...

Clarke and Ponting, Clarke is the better batsman, but Ponting wants to win and score runs more. And does.

Vigorously disagree. Except against spin, Ponting has been a far superior batsman. But yes, he also seemed to have more desire. Often too much... and it made him cross over to very poor behaviour and actions.

Russ said...

Shridhar, let's start with Warne, Murali and Indian/Sri Lankan pitches. Warne has a better record than Murali in India (avg. 43 vs 46); Warne also has an excellent record in Sri Lanka (avg. 20). Murali's record against India is much better at home. For whatever reason, Sri Lankan pitches (and UAE pitches,and Pakistani pitches) were significantly better for both Warne and Murali. Partly that is the batsmen, but Murali still averaged in the 20s against India at home. Whether Indian pitches remain the same now as in the 70s is an interesting question.

Miller never said they were "hardly" acid tests, merely that England was well poised to meet them when they arrived. In any case, he is entitled to his opinion, does one paragraph deserve a whole post?

You are right, we can make a distinction between dedication and desire, though the latter does push people to do more of the former. Federer began his career as a wasted talent, he had to be pushed by coaches to acquire the desire to push himself.

The Bell example is irrelevant; desire is not everything, and noone would ever claim it is. Though he needed to be dropped to learn the importance of his wicket to the team. You are deluding yourself if you don't think some professionals, even amongst the very best, have more desire to win. Warne for example, was a genius with limited dedication and enormous desire, the fiercest competitor I've ever seen. Ponting is too, which is why he can point to a career of runs when it matters, and it is hard to find examples where Clarke did the same.

It isn't easy to separate desire from other aspects of a player's play, particularly in cricket where players don't push beyond their physical limits. But it is no insult to say some players have greater desire, or that desire is expressed more keenly in some games than others (Australia used to lose a lot of dead tests, what is that, if not desire?). Whether that applies in the case of India is worth consideration; whether England can maintain their current level of desire now they've reached number one is also an interesting question. I suspect they'll find it harder to rise for lesser contests though they ought to win by the quality of their play. But you seem to be claiming that every player goes onto the field with the same level of motivation? That just isn't the case.

Unknown said...

Russ, if I were given the liberty to rephrase Miller's sentence from the first excerpt, this is how it would read: "It's hard to believe that the acid test for this England team will come when they are faced with Asian pitches in the UAE and Sri Lanka this winter."

Yes, it's his opinion. And he is entitled to it. And I am entitled to disagree with it!

As to whether it deserved an entire post... well, to be honest, I have been irked by a lot of posts and articles that have come up in the aftermath of India's 0-4 loss that could not and should not be justified. I just chose Miller's post to write about it because it was the last one I had read.

I thought I'll write my post on Scyld Berry's article. But then, I thought the better of it. I have touched upon my views on Mr. Berry's article in the comments section of Dean's blog here.

As to your last point, I admit that all players may not be going onto the field of play with the same level of motivation and desire (again, both distinct from each other). Yet, I want to ask how does one claim that English cricket team's desire to win a Test match is a lot more than India's or South Africa's or Australia's!

By the 3rd and 4th Tests, India had been deflated and might have been lacking in motivation by then. But saying that they had lesser desire to win would tantamount to saying that they did not mind losing. That is not right either!

Russ said...

Shridhar, the thing, I'd agree with that statement completely. Neither Sri Lanka nor Pakistan are strong opposition. England won't face an actual acid test until they return to South Africa, or go to India, which is not this year. Claiming otherwise is tantamount to saying England have passed all tests if they succeed in Sri Lanka and the UAE.

I agree that measuring desire is hard. It is a "by their actions shall you know them" thing. In which case "dedication" is a superior term, and there is no question England are the most professional and hardest working team. It is all relative though, India might have been de-motivated or lacking in a real desire to be on the field, relative to England, but that doesn't mean they didn't want to win. They now have a point to prove (or should), and although some players do have an almost obsessive will to win, I don't think England have many of them. Probably only Swann and maybe Broad, Trott and Prior are really driven. But you only need a couple of players to really push their team-mates along (or drag them backwards).

Unknown said...

Ha Russ, we have finally gotten to some kind of a middle ground where we are in agreement! :-)

And like you said, I agree that England looked a lot more professional outfit in the middle, and more dedicated too during their warm-ups and practice sessions.

But to say that that is a direct indicator of the desire to win and succeed (which the opposition team was lacking and other teams also don't have as much as England) is not justified, in my opinion!