Sunday 31 March 2013

Pujara's wait

It was the pause. The ball had passed; it was already behind his head. He still waited. Eventually he just dabbed, deflecting its flight path well over Matthew Wade and away to the boundary. He was Cheteshwar Pujara orchestrating India's final run-chase of a triumphant series.

He must have played many more significant and less eye-catching strokes through the series but that upper-glance off Mitchell Johnson betrayed a batsman in complete, devastating control.

Pujara is emerging out of the haze surrounding Sachin Tendulkar's future as one of names that will loom over the next decade. Growing up through the 1990s, Lara, Tendulkar and Steve Waugh were the triumvirate that towered over the cricketing landscape. A benchmark that others (Dravid, Kallis, Ponting later) were checked off against. The batsmen whose dismissal opposition fans would celebrate desperately, but whose runs they would later cherish the most.

Over the next 10 years Pujara looks likely to join that rank. Already his numbers are frightening. After 13 Tests, Tendulkar had 666 runs and Lara 1108. Pujara has 1180. But it is the things the statistics don't reveal that is so magnetic.

The elevated calm, classical execution and understated charisma. The fact that ever since his debut, when his 89-ball 72 top-scored in a successful runchase against Ricky Ponting's Australia, he has flourished under Test-match pressure.

Set alongside his nationality and batting position, the Dravid comparison is obvious. But Pujara is very much a man of his time. His mentality and technique forming in an era where Twenty20 dominates means he has greater resources than Dravid to draw from.

Pujara's two (already!?) Test double-hundreds both began cautiously before shifting stealthily through the gears as opposition bowlers fatigued. When he feels the moment appropriate, he has all the shots of a short-form specialist. In fourth innings chases, with matches to be seized, he averages 93.00.

As a product of post-Ganguly India there is no trace of deference in the way Pujara carries himself. After his methodical dismembering of England in Ahmedabad he crowed: “The way they were batting it looked like they were a fragile batting line-up for sure. It's going to be a challenging task for them”. He has Kohli's aggression with (almost) Sangakkara's elan.

An enormous tasks awaits him in South Africa. They possess the world's most incisive pace attack and have the pitches to match. In three innings there – his only Tests outside of India - he did not pass 19. But there is nothing in Pujara's makeup to suggest he'll struggle.

He is neither front nor backfoot dominant and doesn't rely on a freakish eye in the way Virender Sehwag did. At no point has he appeared overawed with the duty of carrying India's top-order into the next generation. It suggests a temperament cool enough to ride out the dotball storms Philander and co will create.

There is something especially thrilling about watching youthful talent in its first throes. Kids coming to the game now will scrawl Pujara's name on their notebooks for years to come, fantasise about bowling to him, and try, over and again, to copy that pause before unfurling their strokes.

Monday 11 March 2013

Office space Australians

There is a great scene in Mike Judge's 1999-film Office Space where protagonist Peter Gibbons is reprimanded by his boss for failing to include a cover sheet on the report he filed. His six managers mean he gets the same reprimand over and again. Each time his argument that he 'forgot, the report is done, and it won't take long to sort a new cover sheet' is ignored. Eventually, he just stops caring.

It came to mind when news broke that Australia are dropping their best bowler, vice-captain and two leading reserves for failing to submit to management three points on how they and the team could improve.

Despite the lavish salaries and lifestyles cricketers enjoy these days, it's managerial and not player power that defines the era. It is clear in this case like it was with the KP fiasco last summer.

Perhaps these management tasks matter. It's possible Mitchell Johnson had crucial insights on the technical failings of his team's top-order but he's more likely to have made a difference with his left-arm slingers. On the field James Pattinson looks one of the world's brightest fast-bowling prospects; he's certainly Australia's best bowler. Is that not enough?

Iain O'Brien put it best when he Tweeted: “What if those 4 Aust players were training/netting/gyming – making themselves better personally - & didn't have time to “form fill”?”

In a managerial era such commitment doesn't count unless it's demonstrable through means acceptable, and accountable to those up top. In Britain this means NHS nurses are told they don't care unless they fill out the appropriate forms “proving” they've paid attention. In the Australian cricket team this means players must 'take responsibility' and be 'more professional' only by completing the tasks set by managers reading the latest in business leadership. It's less a case of empowering people than it is about infantilising them.

Drop Shane Watson for his failings as a batsman, not as an administrator. Else, treat him as a child and he might just stomp off home.