Monday, September 27, 2010

The Return of Orthodox Off-Spin

(Also posted at: http://www.criticaltwenties.in/sport/the-return-of-orthodox-off-spin)

Classical finger spin bowling – particularly the right arm off-spin variety – has returned to the fore in recent times. Australia’s Nathan Haurtiz and, more prominently, England’s Graeme Swann have been enjoying a fine run of form, and appreciably are in their respective teams as genuine wicket taking threats as opposed to playing the roles of unadorned containing acts. In a game that is increasingly being stripped of its traditionalism, this renaissance of attacking, orthodox off-spin bowlers has made for delightful viewing.

Admittedly, there have been a few off-spinners who have had a significant impact on cricket in the recent past. Muttiah Muralitharan has only just drawn the curtains on a glittering Test Match career that had seen him amass 800 wickets at an average of under 23 runs per dismissal. Yet, for all of his feats, it was Saqlain Mushtaq who laid out the modern-day requirements in an off-spinners range of varieties through an extraordinary mastery of the doosra. Saqlain’s early triumphs were so phenomenal that the doosra came to be thought of as a necessity in the armoury of every such spinner. The successes of some of the off-spinners – especially Saqlain, Murali and Harbhajan Singh – in the new millennium has no doubt been outstanding, but some of the sheen, at least from a classicist point of view, is eroded when considering that their achievements had much to do with them possessing an effective doosra – a delivery, which can perhaps never be bowled without an unnatural bend of the arm, and one which required the rules to be suitably amended, for it to fall within the ambit of the law.

It is greatly pleasing therefore, to see Hauritz and Swann spin webs around modern-day batsmen, not through the help of a doosra, but by relying on ageless qualities of drift, dip and turn. The dearth of finger spinning off-spinners in contemporary times has been a product, chiefly, of an attitude that such spinners devoid of a potent doosra have no place in the game, let alone be regarded as an attacking option – thereby condemning them to the depths of a Stygian gloom. Yet, this lack of trust arose during a phase when Daniel Vettori had been in his pomp. The Kiwi, no doubt a left-arm orthodox spinner, has served abundant evidence through his accomplishments that finger-spinners could have an attacking part to play regardless of their ability to bowl an ‘other one.’

Haurtiz and Swann, though belonging to a larger class of orthodox off-spinners are still different in their styles. While Hauritz – like most Australian offies – concentrates on pitching the ball well outside off-stump, Swann is a more direct operator, seeking to attack the off and the middle stump with every delivery. The absence of a doosra in their artillery must however, not be mistaken for a lack of variation in their bowling, for both these bowlers possess the ability to beat the outside edge of the right handed batsman by using either an under-cutter, or an eternally effective drifter – thereby offering their respective teams a compelling attacking option.

Swann’s rise to prominence has in particular been marvellous. Having picked up a remarkable 105 wickets in just 22 Test Matches, since the turn of 2009, he has transformed from a player renowned more for his off-the-pitch misdemeanours to a match-winner of immense stature. A superb home Ashes series last year was followed by consecutive man-of-the-match performances in the first two Tests away at South Africa – a showing which catapulted him to third place in the ICCs world bowling rankings. In a career spanning only 24 Tests, he has amassed 9 five-fors, while simultaneously playing a prominent role for England in the shorter formats of the game. But for all the distinction of the statistics it is his style of bowling that has charmed the most.

"I don't go along with the idea that finger spin is a dying art," Swann once said. "If it was, I'd have stopped doing it. It became unfashionable for a while because everyone was searching for wrist-spinners, but there's no two ways about it, if you bowl it properly and it's doing something, you can get good players out. Things are changing for finger-spinners again." I wouldn’t disagree and surely not on the back of Swann’s success over the last two years.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Classy Berbatov; and the Merits of 4-4-2

(First posted at http://www.criticaltwenties.in/sport/the-classy-bulgarian)

Dimitar Berbatov lit up Old Trafford with a glorious hat-trick that gave Manchester United a 3-2 victory against Liverpool on Sunday. The first and the third goal were both headers executed albeit, in uniquely dissimilar fashion. While the former was a nonchalant flick off Ryan Giggs’s corner, the latter was a regal finish that saw the Bulgarian out-jumping Jamie Carragher to meet John O’Shea’s right wing cross before planting the ball with a twist of his neck into the bottom right corner. As brilliant a header as the winning goal was, though, it was emphatically overshadowed by his second goal – a sight that was surely meant for the gods. After plucking Nani’s cross from the right flank, out of the air with his thigh, back to goal he unleashed an overhead kick that was as majestic in its beauty as ingenious in its conception.

Berbatov has had his fair share of doubters, with his languid style often mistaken for a lack of interest. But not least because of the 30 million pounds expended on him, Sir Alex Ferguson has resolutely retained faith in the striker. In the build up to the Liverpool fixture, Ferguson described Berbatov, in his program notes, as possessing ‘a touch of genius’ – a statement that was comprehensively vindicated by his splendid showing. With Wayne Rooney beset by problems aplenty in his personal life, United have needed Berbatov to step up to the plate. And step up he has, with his seven goals in six appearances this season already greater than half of the tally he managed in the whole of the last campaign.

Statistics however, fail to do justice to his talents. His ability to link-up play and the frequent displays of his extraordinary vision are a joy to behold. Even against Liverpool, apart from the goals that he scored, the manner of his affiliation with Wayne Rooney made for pleasurable viewing. A dummy that perplexed Carragher and released Rooney down the centre was particularly noteworthy for its ingenuity. His versatility however, remains to be proved beyond question. While his style seems perfectly complimentary to a 4-4-2, he is yet to demonstrate his abilities as the lone centre-forward in a 4-5-1 or a 4-3-3.

While on the subject of tactics, it is also fascinating to note that although the 4-4-2 is considered to have passed its sell by date as an attacking formation, Ferguson continues to place faith in the system. The recently concluded World Cup Finals, as Jonathan Wilson points out in his outstanding column in the Guardian, has served as a death knell for the system. The shape fashioned by Viktor Maslov with Dynamo Kiev in the mid 1960s had come to represent the archetypical formation of modern-day football. For years in the Barclays Premier League, teams rarely seemed to deploy anything but the 4-4-2 – viewed as the formation that distributes personnel across the pitch in the most proportional manner. Arsene Wenger is reported to have said: “I think the 4-4-2 is simply the most rational formation in most cases. With it, 60% of your players are occupying 60% of the pitch. No other formation is as efficient in covering space.” It was after all the preferred formation of Ariggo Sacchi, one of contemporary football’s most shrewd tacticians.

Yet in recent times, at least amongst the teams occupying the top echelons in the Premier League, the 4-4-2 has come to be replaced either by the 4-3-3 or the 4-5-1, depending upon the specific needs of the team or the personnel at its disposal. Roy Hodgson whose excellent run with Fulham was predicated upon a system involving a 4-4-2 has also joined the herd by lining Liverpool up in a conservative 4-5-1. Although some may argue that this is a product of the squad at Liverpool’s disposal with Fernando Torres – the only renowned forward available – the impact on the Manchester United-Liverpool fixture this past weekend that David Ngog’s introduction had dispels such a notion. Ngog may have his limitations as a footballer, but his very presence seemed to provide Liverpool with greater attacking options that resulted in two goals that may not have been created if not for the space made available to Torres by the Frenchman’s running. Although Manchester United, who themselves were arranged in a 4-4-2 with Dimitar Berbatov and Wayne Rooney plying up front, emerged victorious, Liverpool’s rearrangement in the second half with the substitution of Ngog for Maxi Rodriguez showcased some of the attributes that the 4-4-2 continues to offer.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Indo-Pak Express

Also posted at http://www.criticaltwenties.in/sport/the-indo-pak-express

I was hoping to tell the tale of a fourth Indian Grand Slam champion. Unfortunately, Rohan Bopanna and his Pakistani partner, Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi succumbed to the Bryan twins – Bob and Mike – in the final of the U.S. Open Men’s Doubles yesterday. But the pair, nicknamed the Indo-Pak express, as the final score (7-6, 7-6) suggests, did fine justice to its undeniable talent.

It was a testament to the quality of the two teams on show that there wasn’t a single break of service throughout the match, especially considering the blustery conditions. That Bopanna and Qureshi were excellent is also exemplified by Bob Bryan’s post-match comments: “This has been the best match we ever played. These guys played incredible. We had to step up and match their energy.”

The Indo-Pak duo remained aggressive right through the match, serving purposefully and volleying adroitly, with √©lan. Adopting the I-formation on both their first and second serves, they stayed true to their game plan, attacking the Bryans on every conceivable opportunity. If anything, it was their inability to play the big points well that turned the tide in the Americans’ favour, as evinced by the fact that they failed to convert any of the four break points that they had fashioned. Even in the tie-breaks, the Asians had surged ahead only to let nerves get their better at crucial junctures.

The victory marks the Bryans’ ninth Grand Slam triumph and they are now only two short of the Todd Woodbridge-Mark Woodforde axis. The win also means that Bob Bryan is only the fourth player to hold the Men’s and the Mixed Doubles at the U.S. Open simultaneously. But for all the feats of the Bryans, the match and perhaps the year as far as doubles tennis is concerned has belonged to the Indo-Pak duo who came together to play under the banner ‘Stop War, Start Tennis’, an initiative of Peace and Sport (an international organisation that seeks “to promote sustainable peace by raising awareness about and educating youth about peace using the structuring values of sport”).

These statements – whether viewed as political or otherwise – is however, aside from the remarkable season that the pair has enjoyed. The year has seen them lift the title at Johannesburg and reach the finals at Casablanca, New Haven, Nice and Napoli. In Washington, they had defeated the Bryans in the quarter-finals, only to fall to the twins in the semi-finals at the event at Los Angeles that preceded the U.S. Open.

There is no doubting that both Qureshi and Bopanna are commendable doubles players. Their respective games dovetail beautifully – the Indian possesses the more powerful serve and is better from the baseline, while the Pakistani has quick hands at the net and is able to vary the angles on his volleys with aplomb. They are no doubt late bloomers, (both are aged 30) but if they manage to stay united, they could well make more than a mere political mark at the world stage.

With the interest in doubles tennis having regressed over the last decade, the Bopanna-Qureshi combine could well reinvigorate the format. In paying tribute to the Bopanna-Qureshi pair, Mike Bryan said: “What they're doing to bring India and Pakistan together is pretty special. A sport can bring people together. These guys are going to be great for the game for a long time. Hopefully they stick together, and I think they will.” And brother Bob added, “They’re going to be around for a long time, I think, if they stick together. They do too many things well, big serving; they've got all the doubles skills. It’s going be good to have just another high marquee team, high profile team out there. It’s really going to help doubles.”