FROM THE TELEGRAPH OF 4 OCTOBER 2005.
An unperforming captain
Kevin Pieterson. Had I heard the name before? I wondered as I watched him hit his seventh six and break Botham’s 1981 record. McGrath and Brett Lee had tried their trademark intimidation, Shane Warne had tried all his guile, and still this man was at the crease, cruising past the century. What stroke play! And he had hit his first century in first-class cricket only seven months ago. Words fail me in describing his pluck, his flair, his nonchalance, but British gals are more eloquent: “He has got a nice ass n hair style. I wouldn’t of watched cricket this summer if he wasnt playin. Keep it up kp your doin the ladies proud,” …. “Kevin Pieterson, oh dear god, he is THE MOST HOTTEST MAN on this planet, I love him so much!!” And this one from down under: “God I soo agree he is so freaking hot….btw I’m an aussie so yeh….i love his hair oh god!”
And then the magic was broken by Sehwag grinning at an idiotic girl jogger gushing on about insurance, and Sachin going gaga over a tyre. As I waited for cricket to begin again, I thought, if only we Indians were not such clueless nationalists, we could watch superlative cricket, played by the world’s best players, every day. Instead we watch these celluloid elephants selling us all that we do not need.
But I spoke too early. Cricket never exhausts its surprises, least of all Indian cricket. It may be a pain to watch on the field; but what happens off the field defies description. Captain recommends a new coach. Coach comes and asks captain to go home. This is better than Bollywood.
Except for what is happening to Saurav: I would hate to see it even in a film. It is painful enough watching it in 30-second shots on television. This man is in deep trouble. He does not have to say it; his face says it all. Pluck? He has fear in his eyes. Flair? He is stiff with worry as he faces the ball. Nonchalance? He plays like a rookie soldier facing fire for the first time.
He was not always like this. In the winter season of 1999-2000, New Zealand and then South Africa toured India. In that season, Sourav scored at least 50 in half the matches, and centuries in a quarter of them. His winning streak started with the ODI against Zimbabwe on 1 October 1999 at the Gymkhana cricket ground, when he scored 139 not out and was declared Man of the Match. That November, he scored 153 not out from India’s total of 261 in the ODI against New Zealand at Roop Singh Stadium; New Zealand lost by 14 runs, and he was again Man of the Match.
Then came the tour of Australia. The crowd at Melbourne cricket ground on 12 January 2000 was rowdy, and the Indians lost in the ODI against Australia amidst tension and bad temper. But Sourav made a century before he was run out. In the tri-series that followed, he scored 43 against Pakistan at Bellerive Oval on 21 January; despite a scintillating 93 by Tendulkar, India lost. But in the return ODI four days later, Sourav scored 141 against Pakistan in the ODI at the Adelaide Oval out of India’s 267; India won by 48 runs. Back home, he scored 105 not out out of India’s 203 in the ODI it won against South Africa on 12 March at Keenan Stadium, and was declared Man of the Match. That winter was Sourav’s golden age.
He has never again reached the heights of those days; but he consistently scored 50s in a third of the matches. That is an average around which there would be statistical variation; that is what makes it difficult to estimate when – if at all – his decline began. The earliest date that can be given to it is the New Zealand tour of (our) winter 2002-03 in which Sourav scored an average of 10 in six matches. Three unbeaten centuries followed in the next two months. They were against Namibia and Kenya.
But even his hottest fan, whether she is Zimbabwean or Indian, would find it difficult to miss his decline in the past two years. It can be dated precisely to the 2004 tour of Australia. His average was 20 – and three of the matches were against Zimbabwe. He redeemed himself in the tour of Pakistan that March – his average was 33. So was it for the whole of 2004. In 2005 it came down to 17.
The statistics therefore show an unmistakeable decline in the last two years. How then can there be any doubt about his value (or lack of it) as a batsman (I confine myself to his batsmanship because it can be judged more clearly than his captaincy)? It is because he has always been a highly inconsistent batsman. It can therefore be argued that he has been passing through a bad patch and that he will score a century soon. That certainly is his argument; he thinks that he redeemed himself by his century against Zimbabwe.
Sourav’s mean runs per match are 32; their standard deviation is 33. That is extraordinarily high; if all players were so unreliable, India would do superlatively in one match in a hundred, and would lose most. So it does; whether it is because Sourav is the model for India’s players is a question I shall not answer in this column. For the moment, I am concerned with a more limited question: has Sourav become more inconsistent in recent times?
The answer is no. If we measure inconsistency by the ratio of standard deviation to the mean, Sourav is playing just about as inconsistently currently as he has throughout his career. His average inconsistency is 1.1; in 2004, it was only 0.9. In 2005 it has increased, but it is not much above his career average. He was at his most inconsistent in the winter of 2000-01 – the winter that followed his golden age. At that point his inconsistency reached a peak of 1.6. He is far below that level at present.
I therefore conclude that as a batsman, Sourav is a shadow of his former self. He was always an unreliable player; that is why he got nowhere close to first-class cricket from 1991 till 1996, and then got in only because he was a Bengali. After that he justified his inclusion for years. His value was in scoring spectacularly about a third of the times; when he did so at critical times, he became a hero. His mean is now in the teens; at that level of scoring, no one who judged him only from the figures would call him a batsman.
He cannot be unaware of this. He knows his own performance much better than I ever could. The only way he can get himself included in the team is by being captain – by hanging on to his captaincy. This is what the contention between Greg Chappell and him is about. The question that everyone should answer for himself is: is a player worth a captaincy if he is a lousy player?