Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Conversation With Cricinfo Pakistan Editor Osman Samiuddin

I know I should probably have something to say about the U.S. Open Final, but I really don't beyond the fact that del Potro outplayed Federer once he got over his nerves. Simple as that.

Anyway, over the last few days Cricinfo columnist and Cricinfo Pakistan editor Osman Samiuddin and I have exchanged a bunch of emails. We talked about the place of ODIs in cricket's future, the ICC, the BCCI, the state of Pakistan's national team at present, the influence (or lack thereof) of tape tennis on our players, the upcoming Champions Trophy and Osman's book project on Pakistan cricket. Without further ado...
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Ahsan: Hi Osman,

Thanks for taking the time out to do this. I've always loved your pieces for Cricinfo and I look forward to our discussion.

Let's get right into it. You told me a little while ago that you're looking forward to going to South Africa for the Champions Trophy. I think it's going to be an excellent tournament, mainly because the sides are so evenly matched, and the format (only the big boys) lends itself to close games. But I think -- or would like to think -- that this is one of the last hurrahs for ODI cricket. Let's run through the reasons.

1. ODI cricket is boring. I'm not talking about the common complaint of novices, that the so-called "middle overs" are boring because they're devoid of boundaries. I'm saying the game is boring because it's so formulaic (bash first twenty, consolidate next twenty, bash last ten), it gives bowlers no chance (I'll explain in a second why I think T20 cricket is friendlier to bowlers), and it takes eight bloody hours which is too much for casual observers and not enough for the purists. I don't even remember the last exciting ODI I ever watched.

2. T-20 can replace it. It is shorter, appeals to casual observers that cricket needs to survive, makes more money, is smarter from a television programming perspective (i.e. it's something you and your buddies can arrange to watch at someone's place after work; you can't do the same for ODIs if you're older than 18), and is much more entertaining.

3. There's more of a balance between bat and ball in T20. Despite the higher run rates in T20s, I would argue that batsmen, in a weird way, are more afraid of losing their wicket in T20. Why? Because the cost of a new batsman coming in and taking an over or two to settle down is much higher. Let's say your team is playing an ODI, chasing a moderate score of, say, 260. You lose your fifth wicket at 150 in the 35th over. The guy coming in at 7 can still bat. So what will he do? Knock it around for a couple of overs, knowing full well that a required rate of 7 an over in the last twelve or thirteen overs is no problem. He can afford to relax.

Now, contrast this with T20. Again, let's say you're chasing a moderate score, say 160. You lose your fourth wicket at 80 in the eleventh over (roughly the equivalent of my first scenario in terms of difficulty). The guy coming in at number six can obviously bat. Can he afford to knock it around? Yes, but only JUST. He must get a move on almost immediately, because the run rate is going to shoot up very quickly.

Do you see what I'm saying? The cost of losing a wicket in T20s is a lot higher than in ODIs. In turn, this is an advantage for bowlers, because they know one breakthrough, and they're right back on top. Plus, with the crazier batting, getting a wicket is easier.

4. There's no space for three formats. As it is the cricketing calender is so cramped. Test cricket is losing out, because T20s are eating into test cricket time, not ODI time. Right now, the average tour seems to be: 3 tests, 5 ODIs, 3 T20s. This is nonsensical. The average tour should be 4-5 tests and 5-7 T20s. T20s are easier on cricketers' bodies too, so there will be less complaining about schedules and the like.
Your thoughts?

Osman: Hi Ahsan

Thanks for that.

I have to say first up I am undecided thus far on the future of ODIs - I can't see why people feel they should be ditched entirely but neither do I see much happening to make sure they exist. I like the points you have made about ditching them, but in no particular order - and with barely a nod to coherence - here is why I feel they may have more to them than many people think.

1. ODIs are forumalaic - this is true and not-true also. It is true only in most of the subcontinent where they make the most shamefully dead pitches and know that 320 will be chased down without too much of a problem - Pakistan, India and Bangladesh are particularly bad at this. But if you make wickets - like Sri Lanka sometimes does - where there is more of a challenge to batsmen, the game becomes genuinely open, and a proper contest, which is all we need, over 20 overs, 50, or five days. If the ICC want to get serious about saving the ODIs - which I will get to shortly - and indeed all cricket, they must, must ensure that pitches are worth playing on: it's very well for the ICC and the cricket community at large to kick up a fuss about a dustbowl pitch like Kanpur (where SA and India played a super Test last year) where tests end in three days, but why doesn't the ICC do anything about the sick, dead pitches at Lahore and Karachi, where SL and Pakistan played their two Tests earlier this year? Why is cricket good only when many boundaries are being hit and millions of runs being scored, but substandard when bowlers are taking wickets and runs are difficult to come by? If you play ODIs on good pitches, you will get good contests.

Also, the introduction of a batting powerplay has made them less formulaic, and actually, for me, added a fairly interesting dimension to games: when to take a batting powerplay with respect to your team's batting position, and strength to come, adds a new, nuanced tactical angle to captaincy and the game: it brings with it significant implications for momentum shifts and that is not a bad thing for ODIs.

2. T20s actually don't always make as much money - the lucrative ones do for sure but one reason broadcasters love ODIs - and why the BCCI keeps organising pointless tri-nation series - is because there are more ad breaks and thus more money potentially to be made - 100 overs with ad breaks makes more money than 40 overs with ad breaks. This was one of the reasons why the IPL decided to introduce that strategic 7.5 minute break after 10 overs of an innings. But you're right in the sense that this can easily - and probably is already - changing. Ad spots for big T20s have gone up in a big way and soon I guess they could all be making more money than an ODI. The point about having the time to watch it - I think cricket has a certain kind of following that ultimately doesn't care too much about time - people still tune in and out of tests and have been doing the same for ODIs for years.

3. The balance between bat and ball is more dependent, like I said earlier, on the pitch than on the format. I agree with you that T20s are not as batting friendly and bowler unfriendly as people initially thought, but you need surfaces for it and I think this year's IPL, in South Africa, and even the World T20 proved that. If you play T20s exclusively in the subcontinent, I guarantee you they will become as dull as ODIs are seen to be.

4. Who says there is no space for three formats? Instead of cribbing about packed schedules, why can the ICC not sort out a proper calendar and celebrate the fact that it governs over a game unlike any other, with three different formats? The calendar is only packed because the FTP is becoming swiftly redundant and there is a proliferation of ODIs and triangular ODI tournaments. Make a window for the IPL, fix the number of ODIs and T20s - if T20s are more lucrative, that is even better in terms of cutting down on ODIs and increasing the number of T20s. A balance can be found if only people will bother to look for it. Cricketers btw care not a crap about the packed playing schedules as long as they keep getting paid - you'll remember what a fuss there was about schedules two years ago, before T20s really took off. Now that there is big money in the IPL and so on, no cricketer says anything about schedules which is fair enough.

I am only playing devil's advocate mostly on this issue - I myself am not entirely decided on this. But I can see both sides to this argument - you and I are looking forward to this Champions Trophy why? Because, as you said, there are few useless games in it, teams are fairly competitive, we both know that in SA there will be decent pitches, and most matches will mean something or the other. Therein lies the key surely no? The problem with ODIs is not the format itself, as much as the proliferation of them, and the millions of pointless ones we play every year: this year, what on earth was the purpose of India playing a quick five-match ODI series against SL? Why is there a triangular between NZ, SL and India about to start that nobody cares about? Why did India go to the Caribbean after the T20 World Cup? Why on earth is there a seven-match ODI series between Australia and England? Why not cut down on the ODIs, make each one more meaningful - maybe have a rolling championship - and streamline the major tournaments. Scrap the Champs Trophy if you want, but then make the World Cup like this Champs Trophy in terms of teams and format. I lved the 92 World Cup not just because Pakistan won, but because of how it was structured - you play every team once and the best four go through - fairer than that you cannot get.

Generally, I like the way ODIs bridge between a T20 and a Test. T20s don't allow, say, a batsman to resurrect an innings, they don't allow for a Miandad-type 86 Sharjah calculated heist, or even an Inzi at Ahmedabad in 05 type one. You can chase intelligently in T20s for sure, but the whole thing of seeing someone rebuild a tattered innings, with a cautious, but still urgent, hundred - I like that. And for bowlers - I love the fact that an Asif can go through a ten-over spell on a good pitch - a proper, thorough display of his full talent with new and old ball which you might not see in a T20. Ok, you see it in a Test, but in a different way. I mean, I loved seeing Umar Akmal scoring a hundred in Sri Lanka in his third match - in a T20 I might not have been able to see how a young guy comes in at a pressure point, takes stock of a tricky situation, builds his innings and still does it quick enough to make a 70-ball hundred - there wouldn't have been time for that in most T20s.

Ahsan: Look, I see what you're saying when you say it's not the intrinsic format of ODIs that has made them boring, but the way administrators have handled ODIs. I am broadly sympathetic to that argument. I also agree that pitches make a huge difference -- an ODI in England is a lot more fun to watch than one in India or Pakistan. But the reality of it is that pitches the world over are batting friendly -- what are you going to do about it? Adminstrators around the world are money-hungry -- what are you going to do about it? You can't divorce ODIs from the way they are handled by the game's so-called guardians.

Also...

The problem is ODIs take too long. It's neither here nor there, you see? The test-cricket fan (like me) is really not going to watch games that are rarely close over a period of 7 hours, because it doesn't allow for the full range of the intricacies and skills of cricket. Meanwhile the Americans and Europeans and Africans that the ICC is trying to convince -- well, they're not going to sit around for seven hours; it's too long. Three hours? Now that, quite literally, is a different ball game.

Let's move on to something related. As a test-cricket fan, I am very worried about the future of the game. Since you are more familiar with the movers and shakers, I want to ask a simple question: do the game's administrators realize the problems here? And, do they care about test cricket? I mean really, deep down, care?

Osman: See, this is a very reductive argument in one sense. That way, we can say that Pakistan is a doomed country because the politicians or army will always use it to further only their own cause and to hell with what happens to the country: what are we going to do about it? If there is something wrong with something, it doesn't mean we get rid of it. It should mean that we try and fix it first to see if it can be fixed. If not, then fine, change it - but I am not convinced - and neither btw are the crowds if you take a look at recent ODIs - that the ODI is troubled enough to be put to sleep. As an aside, I don't think the idea that Tendulkar has suggested is a bad one - split the 50 overs into two innings of 25 each.

As for length - I think the ICC and others should stop pretending that the game will spread ever in Africa or Europe or wherever and if they do want to spread it there, T20s are the perfect vehicle for doing so.

Anyway, moving on to Test cricket.

I get the impression from various boards (I refer mainly to the boards who matter here, such as the ICC, SA's, Australia's, England's and India's, for they are the ones that matter in terms of shaping a future for the game and generating finances for the game) that they know something is wrong, but are either unwilling, or unable to do much about it.

Cricket, at the moment, is being steered by essentially the BCCI. CA, CSA and the ECB will pretty much do what the BCCI says - they have opposed the Test championship plan because it is not, profit-wise, the optimal structure they foresee (the BCCI would rather pick and choose to play what is sees as its most lucrative series - with Australia, England and Pakistan) rather than have one imposed upon them by the ICC, which sees them play every team home and away over, say, a two-year period. Personally I feel a rolling Test championship would be one way to really spark things up a little. The BCCI are pushing for an IPL window (and will get it), they will soon be pushing for a Champions League window (and will get it), boards are hankering after them to play tri-series, Test series, T20s, anything really as long as they get to play them just the once ( the survival of ODI cricket, to go back to the earlier question, depends heavily on the BCCI's attitude towards it).

I don't think anyone actively wants to kill off Tests, or even see them die - it is just that they are obsessed at the moment with how best to handle T20s, in terms of the freedom and power it offers players (big, contractual, freelancing money as opposed to central contracts security with a board) and the money it is generating, which is something cricket has not dealt with before and something all boards are really, really, really obsessed with. Everything they do and suggest - night Tests with pink balls or 4-day Tests - is a suggestion through this prism ( some of the ideas are not so bad to be honest).

People blame the ICC but unless the structure of that body changes, I don't see why they are blamed - the ICC is only the sum voice of its constituent parts and if the BCCI is the biggest, strongest constituent, then what can the ICC do? Unless it becomes a proper governing body, like say FIFA (not the greatest example but you get the point) that has powers over and beyond its strongest member, little will change.

I really feel - though think it unlikely ever happening - that the BCCI should take a lead in this. They have the power right now to do something but they are not looking at the bigger picture as far as the health of cricket overall, across its three formats, across all members, is concerned. If not the BCCI, then one of the other boards who dance to its tunes need to make some kind of move, become some kind of bulwark against what is happening. Maybe the MCC's cricket committee can play a role - they have some good thinkers of the game on the panel, but whether or not they exercise that much influence anymore, nobody knows.

Ahsan: Your point on the ICC being no more powerful than its constituent members is a simple yet powerful one. I am reminded of the hullabaloo over the UN's role in the Iraq war. "Why didn't the UN stop the U.S. from bombing the crap out of Iraq?" was the naive cry of the day. Well, um, why don't you think about that for a second, Einstein?

Let's talk about our team for a second. Like the state of the country, I'm actually less pessimistic now than I was, say, about a year ago. We finally have the right captain. We've found a young dynamo in Umar Akmal. We've found a battler with balls (Fawad Alam). We've found someone who can bowl quick with variety and with swing (Mohammad Aamir). Even our very own charsee is back after a couple years in the wilderness.

Allowing for tinkering between formats, I think a team of Ahmed Shahzad, AN OPENER (Afridi perhaps in limited overs cricket, Anyone But Butt in test cricket), Younis, Yousuf, Fawad, Umar, Kamran, Aamir, Asif, Gullee, and Ajmal/Kaneria is a pretty good team. But -- and this is where I want to get your thoughts -- it requires the following things to happen:

1. Misbah and Malik being dropped once and for all.
2. Asif not being seduced by coke, acid, mushrooms, ecstasy, or Tylenol again, at least for another couple of years.
3. Our fitness standards improving so key players don't miss months at a time.
4. Younis not being supplanted as captain in a moment of stupidity by the board.

Number three is a long term thing, so let's ignore that for a second. Which of the other three options do you see as most likely to not hold up? And my second question is: do you agree with my underlying premise, that we're actually not that bad -- in fact we're pretty good -- and just need to play more cricket to show our talent?

Osman: I agree with you fully on this, that our team is not actually so bad at the moment and that I am pretty optimistic in fact that if they stick to what they have, the team can do pretty well over time, say the next two years or so, under Younis.

I know we lost both the Tests and ODIs in SL, but I was just really happy that one, Pakistan were playing Tests and proper cricket again, and two, that actually, with a little less stupidity, they could've won both series - and that is no easy thing given how little they have played and how tough SL are at home generally (I know their record against Pakistan at home is awful, but that is history). Guys like Fawad Alam and Mohammad Aamer and Umar Akmal came out, and guys like Rana and Yousuf did well after coming back from the ICL - any tour on which you can point to three new guys and say they'll be in the team for some time, has got to be a pretty decent tour.

What I am concerned about, and this will come to the fore over the next year, is how much the lack of Test cricket, has stunted the growth of guys like Gul, Butt, Akmal, Kaneria and a number of others who are at that age and stage of their careers where they need to be playing regularly to progress more. I think, for example, that was why Gul struggled a little during the Test series in SL - you could sort of see that he wasn't so familiar, all of a sudden, with this format. And though a lot of people feel Butt should not be within a country-sized distance of the side, I felt a little bad for him because the fluency was totally gone, and part of that really has to do with him having played hardly any Test cricket over the last two years: any player in the world would struggle to cope with a break like that, enforced or otherwise.

As far as the 4 points are concerned:

1. Misbah and Malik - I guess maybe some new faces in the middle order need to be tried out, and perhaps a consistent run given to some old faces. Misbah I would worry about more since his batting seems at times so unable to adapt to different situations - its more surprising given how flexible he was when he made his return.
2. Ideally it won't happen. But we've had men such as Sarfraz Nawaz and Shoaib in this country so I'm not ruling anything out. But if he comes back anywhere near his 2005-06 standards, oh dear rest of the world....
3. A long-term thing yah, but I feel David Dwyer has had a positive initial impact on a number of these guys.
4. Fully agree, though it seems unlikely to happen straight away. And of course, the moment of stupidity can also come from the captain himself.

Overall, yes, a little tinkering here and there and there is a very decent side out there. I would add to this that they really need to do something at some point about their fielding (though that is kind of like asking our army to not interfere in politics) - I can't believe how poor some of the younger guys are, not just in terms of catching or ground fielding, but actually their athleticism in the field: some 17 and 18-year olds lumber around like they're 45.

Ahsan: I think tape tennis cricket is to blame for that (the fielding and the lethargy). It's actually quite amazing how many of the Pakistan national team's characteristics are rooted in tape tennis cricket. First, we've always produced express quick bowlers who derive prodigious swing from their actions (and not the conditions) because that's the best way to get wickets in tape tennis cricket. This explains Wasim, Waqar et al. I would say Imran too, but I don't know how much tape tennis cricket he played as a youngster, given his fairly priveleged and sheltered life. Incidentally, this might explain why Imran was a more "classical" quick bowler in the mold of Holding and Lillee than a funky quick bowler like Wasim or Waqar.

Second, unorthodox spinners. Saqlain's doosra, Afridi's everything, the Mushy/Abdul Qadir finger-licking thing -- again, you can't bowl regular, normal spin in tape tennis and not get smashed. We know this from personal experience.

Third, batsmen with crap technique and terrible mental states. The inability to play long innings. The proclivity to lose concentration after 11 overs. Again, all results of playing 8 over cricket until their mid teens.

Fourth, bad fielders. You ever tried to dive on concrete or the dust-bowl "grounds" in urban centers around the country? Me neither. Fact of the matter is that while fielding is a thankless job at the best of times in cricket, it is even less appreciated in tape tennis, where it is usually taken as an opportunity to light up a cigarette or call somone from your cell or day dream or wait for your turn to bowl.

I want to pick your brain as a cricket journalist, because as a follower I always hypothesize about certain things but can obviously never be sure.

1. Who is the most personable and knowledgable Pakistani cricketer you've ever interviewed or covered? My guesses would be Younis, Waqar, Aamir Sohail, and Rashid. Am I close? I'd also ask who the biggest dick was but I know the answer and I don't want you to have to tip-toe around so I won't put you in a compromising position. Rest assured, as I said, I know who it is.

2. We've spoken off the record about this topic before, but can you please tell me why Ramiz is such a bad commentator despite a decade of practice? He still speaks in cliches, he still offers no insight, he still uses words which don't belong in the sentences he's using just to show he has an MBA, and he's still boring as hell. You, from what I recall of our earlier conversation, disagreed with that assessment. Why?

3. Can Pakistan beat Australia in Australia this winter? I actually think we can. When I find myself thinking this, my alter ego tells me I'm bloody nuts. Am I nuts?

Osman: I won't agree with you fully on the tape ball thing. It has played a huge role in the way these guys have developed for sure but fielding is something that was bad in Pakistan - in fact appalling - way, way before tape ball became so big. If you read accounts of the early tours of Pakistan, in every Test, at least 3-4 catches, it seems, were dropped and as this is verified by almost all the actors involved - the fielders themselves too - it isn't to be taken as a literary exaggeration. Thus fielding, even when guys were growing up playing on polished, proper grounds such as Minto Park, or the University Grounds, or Jahangir Park in Karachi, was still poor.

Tape ball cricket has made it worse probably but also it has to be realised that the majority of these guys who make it to the top stop playing regular tape ball from a fairly young age - say 13 or 14, if they are seriously talented and spotted, most of their cricket will be hard ball and on proper ground with actually decent surfaces. That is an age where you are still fairly mould-able, physically and mentally, and the fact that you can get a guy like Ahmed Shehzad come up through the ranks - or Salman Butt - says something about the coaching more than the environment in which they play.

And also, in India, where you have equally dusty and bumpy grounds, you have a whole raft of pretty superb, athletic young fielders coming in to the side, like Raina, Rohit Sharma. Take the examples of Virat Kohli and Ahmed Shehzad, U19 contemporaries, who faced off in the U19 World Cup - how is Kohli, who has gone through a broadly similar path to the top, so vastly superior and lithe and athletic, compared to Shehzad? The grass isn't that much greener on the fields of India. No, this is more to do with the way the establishment works on fielding in Pakistan than tape ball cricket.

Wasim and Waqar actually didn't play too much tape ball cricket when growing up - tape ball is a very recent phenomenon, restricted in its early years predominantly to Karachi. It really took off in the mid-80s in Nazimabad - though it has been played at some level since the late 70s/early 80s. There was a lot of tennis ball cricket before that, but again much of it was in Karachi. Imran almost certainly never played any tape ball cricket. Tape ball may have given birth to unorthodox offies like Saqlain, but Mushy and Qadir were hardly unorthodox - they were classical leg-spinners and Qadir didn't really play tape ball ever.

Batting: All kids from junior level upwards, in almost all countries, play predominantly limited-overs cricket when they become serious about cricket. Very rarely do they play two-day cricket to begin with and there are restrictions on this on most U16 level cricket around the world. Again, by a certain age, most youngsters will be playing proper, controlled forms of cricket and not so much of tape ball stuff - I agree that there might be a tenuous link in your early grooming, but how does that explain guys like Yousuf, Younis, Inzi, Asim Kamal, even Misbah and Malik (who have both played immensely long innings), Razzaq (remember his 4 in 76 balls in Melbourne once and his match-saving Mohali knock?) Even a younger guy like Umar Amin, who is a product of the tape ball age, is a proper batsman, who sets his stall out everytime he goes out to bat - all I am saying is that it's not such a simple thing and I feel sometimes tape ball's influence - while definately there in helping skills such as reverse swing and bowling yorkers - has been unduly exaggerated in Pakistan. Batting technique is an iffy thing really these days - what is a classical, good technique anymore? Sehwag ostensibly doesn't have one, Yousuf's backswing is too high and often crooked, even Ponting lunges and pushes hard early on, Katich shuffles like a bitch (Fawad Alam too and it didn't stop him), Inzi had stodgy footwork, Amla has the crookedest backswing ever, Smith falls over so much onto the offside: we make too much of poor techniques. The flipside of tape ball cricket is that it really sharpens your hand-eye coordination, which is something, say, that forms the basis of much of Sehwag's game.

Now for the questions (apologies to all concerned who read through what has just gone - its quite lengthy):

1. Younis, Rashid, Waqar are all superb interviewees and good guys to chat to. I'd add Inzi as a really, really good guy to meet and talk about cricket and life with. Danish is funny - Asif is a really, seriously intelligent brain on bowling btw, totally at odds with his brain on other things, but his bowling thinking is sharp and very, very refreshing too in the Pakistan context (he isn't as obsessed with speed as the rest of the country for a start). Akram is a good thinker about bowling too. Aaqib also thinks about the game intensely, maybe a little too much at times, but that is hardly a fault. And the guy who I think you may be referring to is actually not such a dick at all when you meet him and chat with him - in fact, he's surprisingly caring and personable in one-on-one interactions. Just one to add, whom I almost forgot - Mohammad Akram. A genuinely good guy and one of the very few ex-cricketers here who is not bitter about how he was treated or the way the game has become or whatever - a thoroughly decent guy. Nur Khan, an old PCB chairman, is as sharp as they come when it comes to administration - actually this list could go on a fair bit. Imran himself, when you get beyond the domestic argument and the ad-hoc nature of the PCB, is a smarter than many think observer of the game, especially in the social context in which it is played.

2. Yah I don't think Ramiz is that bad though perhaps that is because my interaction with him is not based solely on me listening to his commentary. He is, in fact, excellent company and a great story-teller when not behind the mic: I would add him to the list above as a person to talk to about Pakistan cricket. I've begun liking Waqar as a commentator recently, especially when he talke about the nuts and bolts of bowling, actions, wrist positions, swing etc - you realise just how pathetic the PCB was in letting him go as a bowling coach. Aamir Sohail's thinking on the game, which comes out in his commentary often, is good as well though he isn't rated much.

3. You're not stand-up, psycho-crazy yet. I don't know if Pakistan can beat them, but I reckon, if all things remain as they are (and that is a big ask), they can do well and certainly be the toughest Pakistan team to go there in over a decade. I mean, they've lost nine consecutive Tests to them, the last time they won a Test against them was four years before Musharraf coup-ed in and Basit Ali was still around, and they've never won a series there. It's not difficult to improve on that record and I'd be over the moon excited if they won even a Test on this trip. Which I think they might be able to if Asif is there, Gul is there and Younis and Yousuf are in some kind of form.

Ahsan: Good points all, and thanks for setting the record straight on the tape-tennis thing. The contrast between young Indian fielders and young Pakistani fielders, despite fairly similar socio-economic conditions growing up, is appalling, as you say. When Imran Nazir and Shoaib Malik came up with a year or so of each other about a decade ago, I thought: here we go, from now on, all our younger guys will be the same, and as the older generation gradually walks away to be replaced by the young brigade, we'll become a good (maybe never great) fielding side. Man, was I wrong.

I know you're busy so we'll wrap this up with a few predictions on the Champions Trophy. Three questions: who's winning? Who's losing the final? And which team is disappointing the most (i.e. not necessarily playing the worst cricket, but playing the worst cricket relative to expectations of them going in to the tournament)?

Osman: Who's winning? It actually is one of the most open tournaments in recent memory I reckon (apart from the World Twenty20s). Australia have come back to the rest of the pack but maybe not as much as people think. India have a very flexible line-up though I reckon their batting is not nearly as robust as is the general impression. NZ are definately better on these pitches than they are on subcontinent ones but they are perennial semi-finalists. Also SA, the hosts - they are bound to win a big tournament one day and this seems like as good an opportunity as any. And of course there is Pakistan....we haven't even mentioned Sri Lanka. Honestly, it's difficult to pick a favourite. England I can say with with some certainty, will not win it. I think England actually is the most disappointing ODI side ever - they used to be really good during the 80s and 90s but everything has seemed to pass them by over the last decade. They just seem so lacking in dimension, especially when - as is the case here - both Pietersen and Flintoff are out.

Ahsan: Um, you didn't answer any of my questions there, Osman, but no worries. Your only penalty will be to answer an additional question before we sign off.

You told me in an earlier off-the-record conversation about the fact that you're writing a book on the history of Pakistan cricket. I know you've been working on it a while now, so I wanted to ask you a couple of things about it. First, and most important, when is it coming out?

Second, what surprised you the most while working on it? Was there one particular set of preconceptions you had that proved to be especially misguided?

Osman: Hahaa....I didn't answer the questions because I genuinely don't know.

The book is scheduled to come out next summer. I will be done with it by the end of the year hopefully. It is a non-academic, oral history of sorts of Pakistan cricket mostly told through the tales of cricketers.

Many things have been surprising, not as much in the sense that preconceptions were misguided as how little I knew. Once you start finding out about things, trends, themes, players, politics, then you see how it repeats itself through the years. Everything that happens has gone before.

I was shocked about one thing - about documentation of Pakistan's early years. I thought there would be little to nothing, but guys like Qamaruddin Butt, Kardar and MH Maqsood produced enough books through that first decade. I think above all, the thing I have loved most is how much I have learned, not just about Pakistan cricket, but Pakistan itself over these last few years. I didn't know much about the country when I came here in 2002 and this book, the research for it, has really sort of lit the path to finding out more.

Ahsan: Well, it sounds fascinating, and I look forward to reading it as soon as it is released.

On that note, Osman, I'd like to thank you for giving up your time for doing this. Enjoy South Africa and keep safe.
_____________________________________________________________________________________

Osman's columns for Cricinfo are archived and can be accessed by clicking here. For those interested, I have had such email conversations before. Click here for my conversation with Dawn editorial writer and op-ed columnist Cyril Almeida, here for the one with political economist and The News columnist Mosharraf Zaidi, here for one with a Wall Streeter in the aftermath of the financial crisis, and here for one with an Indian foreign affairs blogger after the Mumbai attacks of last year.

16 comments:

F-Machine said...

"you can't bowl regular, normal spin in tape tennis and not get smashed. We know this from personal experience."

I beg to differ. It appears that you have forgotten my loopy leg spinners, interspersed cleverly with the odd off-break and the odd faster yorker that had many a batsman in a bind at OWU.

Please also try and recall the legendary over I once bowled to BIN (Farooq can help jog your memory).

Perhaps these memories will help change your stance on spin in tape tennis cricket.

F-Machine said...

Ok jokes aside that was a great read.. thanks Ahsan bhai and Osman bhai

Ahsan said...

I don't remember any of that, but I do remember you chucking and bending your elbow at a 45 degree angle.

And really, you're proud of tying up BIN? I mean, really?

Raza said...

First of all, I want to congratulate Osman for being one of the finest cricket writers going around (i'm not just saying that because of my Pakistan bias--you're a legitimately better writer than the majority of your peers). And I'm jealous of Ahsan for having the opportunity to pick your brain. But if you're still around, I, and probably every other Pakistani cricket fan, would like to do some picking ourselves.

You say the BCCI controls the game. This is well documented. I think what Ahsan was getting at was: does the BCCI understand what that means? I mean, surely at some level somebody at BCCI HQ must realize the future of the game in their hands. They must realize that milking every penny out of cricket is unhealthy for the sport. And if not the BCCI, then CA, CSA, ECB, hell David Morgan... someone MUST realize that it's in the best interest of the game to, for example, start a test championship, and NOT let India decide who they want to play. Because if you take the status quo to its logical conclusion, Windes, NZ, SL, BD, maybe even Pakistan, will fall by the wayside (well maybe not SL, but the West Indies are going bye-bye).

Also, relatedly, what exactly can be done to change the ICC's structure which, as you suggest, is detrimental to the game's health? If the BCCI is supreme, and the status quo suits the BCCI, then well... you have the classic self-regulation problem. Does anyone in cricket's governing structure have the ability to do anything? Or do we fans have to start a populist revolution?

You guys both say that Pakistan's generally got a good crop of players. I agree. But barring this brief recent drought, haven't we always? Osman, with you research on the Pak team and your relative closeness to it, have you managed to distill what it is that makes us tick, what gives us that extra somethingsomething that allows us to play consistent competitive cricket. I'm guessing the short answer is a strong captain (Imran, Wasim, Inzi), but surely its more than that.

Pakistani domestic players over years (most recently Saeed Bin Nasir on Pakpassion) have bitched and bitched and bitched about how one doesn't get selected to the national team on the basis of performance alone. One assumes they're on about favoritism/nepotism type stuff. I'm sure that goes on to some degree (as I'm sure it does in every country), but is it a particularly prevalent problem in Pakistan, perchance? Are we being denied top talent because of it? Is that why Asim Kamal got screwed?

Aaqib Javaid: does he over coach? Why'd he get sacked?

Last, who in their right f***ing mind made Ijaz Butt chairman of the PCB? Oh wait...

F-Machine said...

Well I dont remember any of your SPECIALIST bowlers tying up BIN.. and my elbow bends at 15 degrees which was then illegal but recently made legal.. i was just ahead of the curve

FZ said...

great read. I am going to go out on a limb and take Pakistan for the Champions trophy. I believe the short format will help us given our inability to perform over extended periods of time. Plus I don't know how it happened but all of a sudden there are no obvious weaknesses in the team (provided we play to our abilities). My only quibble is why that guy Rao Iftikhar in the team? That guy sucks. I would have picked Razzaq or Sohail Tanvir for sure. Hopefully they won't play him.

PS. You better live blog this...

AKS said...

Nice work Ahsan.

"Meanwhile the Americans and Europeans and Africans that the ICC is trying to convince -- well, they're not going to sit around for seven hours; it's too long. Three hours? Now that, quite literally, is a different ball game."

Its not just the Americans and Europeans and Africans who find 3 hours convenient. I work six days a week and taking time off to watch cricket isn't easy, and it isn't fun following the live commentary. Three hours of cricket, especially when it takes place at a decent hour - as the World T20 did, allows one to get done from work, head off to a friend's house or a coffee shop (or a bar if you live in a civilized country) and watch the match. It makes cricket a more social exercise, much like football.

This is not to argue that there isn't any place for ODIs, but that T20 does offer something entirely different.

karachi khatmal said...

great work ahsan :)

however one thing that strikes me is that osman has made it clear that the future of the game would be decided by where the money is. as i see it, ODIs make the most, followed by T20s, followed by tests.

most people who call for the end of ODIs are geniune fans, like shane warne or ahsan, who can't imagine a world without tests matches. but an administrator, or a marketer, might just be looking at the figures alones. and i think other than the ashes series, there isn't any test match in the world that has a full crowd guaranteed. i saw repeats of the the SA tour to Oz last night - no full crowds. there weren't even full houses when tendulkar broke i think gavaskar's record against the aussies in mohali. imagine that? a decade ago indian home tests against zimbabwe would have full crowds.

i think the future of test cricket is far graver than we might think, and the furore over getting rid of ODIs hides this fact.

consider this as well - if there are no ODIs, then adninistrators would have a choice between t20s and tests. with no one showing up for a test, and no one viewing it in its entirety, there is a great chance they might start having one off tests only, or no tests at all.

i just fear that ODIs might survive, and tests might not.

Indophile said...

How does playing with every team in the world will save test cricket, any cricket for that matter ? As the earlier comment said there are not enough crowd for test matches like India- Australia in India, so how does playing against the likes of Zimbabwe, Bangladesh or WI will pull the people back to stadium.

Test cricket are rarely won by weak teams . Lastly from an Indian point of view Kohli is an ass !! Old dudes for us anytime

Ahsan said...

Raza:

Osman is super busy, what with the CT coming up, so I doubt he'll drop by. I did send him an email though, saying that our readers would love a response to some comments, so let's see what happens.

FZ:

I will live-blog the games on the weekend for sure (which for us is the India game) plus maybe our first one against the Windies. Won't be doing the Aussie one, I don't think.

Rao is dependable yaar. He's not going to put the fear of god into batsmen, but he will keep it there and thereabouts.

AKS:

I made the exact same point in point no.2 of my first email.

KK:

I see what you're saying, but IF we get rid of ODIs (or minimize them) then I think test cricket will be healthier by default. But I agree with you, it's quite worrying.

Indophile:

You don't have to have full grounds to ensure the safety of the game. It would be nice, sure, but it's not 100% needed. What's definitely needed is some sense that the administrators actually care about this, which I don't see.

Sikander Hayat said...

Cricinfo is a better website for having him.

http://real-politique.blogspot.com

Anonymous said...

KK, nice comment. You're a much more likeable guy when you're keeping it civil. *Hugs*

Your anonymous friend :)

Chandan said...

"You say the BCCI controls the game. This is well documented. I think what Ahsan was getting at was: does the BCCI understand what that means? I mean, surely at some level somebody at BCCI HQ must realize the future of the game in their hands. They must realize that milking every penny out of cricket is unhealthy for the sport. And if not the BCCI, then CA, CSA, ECB, hell David Morgan... someone MUST realize that it's in the best interest of the game to, for example, start a test championship, and NOT let India decide who they want to play."

Raza,

I think the idea of test championship was shot not because BCCI wanted to pick and choose who to play but because it had a faulty way of sharing the money from TV rights.

I personally thought that the idea of test championship was great but the idea to put all the TV rights money in one common pot to be shared by every board equally was atrocious.

Why would BCCI and ECB who get majority of their cash share through TV rights, share it with other boards?

Raza said...

@Chandan

BCCI does want to pick and choose...otherwise they'd have no problem sharing. And getting as much as every other board sounds fair, no?

In any case, do Tests really make that much money? IPL, ODIs, and IT20s produce the lion's share of TV income. Even with a shared revenue Test Championship shared revenues, the BCCI's overall paycheck will be fatter than all boards combined.

And in long run, sidelining certain countries will hurt the BCCI's bottom line. No one's gonna give a shit about a sport with 4 legitimate competitors.

This all leads back to my second question to Osman. I completely understand the BCCI's self-interest--they're capitalists after all--which is why somebody needs to grow a pair, and tell them that they're screwing the game.

Chandan said...

Raza,

It is almost unbelievable that you said it. Why would a board want to share its money with the rest of the boards which has been generated from its domestic tournament?

Moreover, in India they have separate TV rights for test and ODIs and BCCI earns heavily here too without picking and choosing.We have played test and ODI series with almost every country in India, apart from Bangladesh, whether they are appealing to the mass or not. Why would BCCI want to share it with other boards? Same with ECB and CA.

It was a ridiculous plan that ICC came up with and it was duly shot by the boards who earn more.

Wonder why BCCI alone should get the blame for it!!

David Mutton said...

Just to echo the above comments really but Osman is a superb journalist. His latest tour diary on Cricinfo is absolutely superb: http://blogs.cricinfo.com/tourdiaries/archives/2009/09/stepping_out_of.php.