On the Ice Buck Challenge and Lou Gehrig…

Last week, Rohit Brijnath responded to my Ice Bucket Challenge. This, was his piece on Sunday in The Straits Times on ALS, the challenge and Lou Gehrig.

 

“There is,” said the film-maker Alfred Hitchcock, whose generous figure suggested a man unfamiliar with anything athletic, “no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” And so the idea of being doused with cold water is far grimmer than its reality and the only way I can steel myself for the Ice Bucket Challenge is to utter the perceptive words of the Canadian comic, Russell Peters:

Be A Man.

A friend nominated me. He posted a video where he spoke of a motorcyle accident he had as a foolhardy young man which left him with facial paralysis and hearing issues. The accident was a cure for his silliness, but there is none for ALS, the disease which has sparked the Ice Bucket Challenge.

I am not overly keen on challenges. Partly because I am instinctively a coward. Mostly because challenges can be gimmicky and self-righteous all at once, rocketing across social media like a dazzling yet rapidly burning out firework. Once celebrities finish posting self-congratulatory videos of their drenched selves, we move swiftly on. To another Kardashian episode.

But this is idle cynicism. In truth, if people just figure out what ALS stands for – amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – it’s a start. It might make them read on disease or contemplate charity or travel to YouTube for new videos.

The Challenge provokes journeys. And mine has taken me to 1939, to a baseball stadium and to a moment which always reminds me why I love sport: A speech by a dying man named Lou Gehrig.

All sports fulfil a need and fill a cultural space. As a boy I always had cricket, so I never needed baseball. But the writer’s inquisitiveness is his constant ally and in my assorted reading years ago, I somehow stumbled upon Gehrig, the legendary New York Yankee.

I discovered his evocative nickname, the Iron Horse; I found out he had ALS and that he made it famous, which is why it’s also called Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

And I read about the speech.

By 37, you see, Gehrig had gone; but at 36, ailing, he came to Yankee Stadium to speak to fans through an echoing microphone.

In a world whose ideas are often condensed to 140 characters, the speech has become old-fashioned. No one remembers them any more. In sport, we only hear them in movies, where Denzel Washington barks the scriptwriter’s words in Remember The Titans. But that is dazzling fiction; Gehrig was heartbreaking reality.

In front of over 62,000 people, who had only recently discovered he had ALS, he started by saying:

“Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth. I have been in ballparks for 17 years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

“Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I’m lucky.”

Gehrig spoke, gratefully, of his team manager and of his parents. He said of his rivals, “When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift, that’s something.” He said of the Yankees, “When everybody down to the groundskeepers… remember you with trophies, that’s something.”

No, actually, Gehrig was something.

He was doing what athletes, especially now, rarely do. Not moaning, but counting his blessings in public. Not whining, but reminding us of how he felt privileged. Not telling us what he wanted from life, but what he had got and was grateful for. The old-fashioned hero is not a myth: There were indeed men like this.

I’m not always enamoured of modern sport and its obsession with money and triviality (“Wawrinka tells fan to shut up” becomes a headline these days). It’s why I like to return to Gehrig’s speech now and then. Just to reassure myself that sport is not merely an athletic enterprise but also a noble exercise. Just to remember that courage is not the player facing the 100mph fastball, but a young man confronting a finish line that had abruptly come to find him.

Last month, on the 75th anniversary of Gehrig’s address, a video was made which involved players from every Major League Baseball team reading out a line from the speech. It was appropriate, for in a time of biters and match-fixers, sport needs to preserve and honour the better parts of itself.

And so, as we douse ourselves, maybe the real Challenge is not the cold of the ice or the emptying of a wallet, but something far more profound. To reflect on a young man we never knew. Who was dying that day at 36, yet in fact was telling us a little about how to live.

 

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My Own ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and its plea 

Posted in General, Rohit Brijnath | 1 Comment

Running Against The Odds..

A feature from Rohit Brijnath in The Straits Times last Sunday. Carried now in asiaone.

The runner lies in bed as the darkness quietly gives way to light. Soon, just like you, she’ll slip on her Asics, tug on an old T-shirt and drip sweat onto the uneven road before her. But first, unlike you, she has this conversation with herself:

“Eyes clear. No double vision.”

Good.

“Ear fine. No deafness.”

Good.

“No disorientation as I rise.”

Good.

I’m OK. I can run. I better run. It’s what helps me feel OK.

Today, the runner is fine. Today, disease hasn’t come calling.

The runner, 46, is my friend, who has spent 20 years huffing down paths, 20 years hectoring herself (“You’re too slow. Go home.”), 20 years examining herself with infinite optimism on weighing scales, 20 years chasing the minute hand of a watch.

She presumed, just as we do, that she understood Personal Best, this notion of meeting challenge by rummaging through your brain for unknown and extraordinary parts of yourself. Like a climber perched on a rock face, running allows for an insight into faith, an observation into courage, an appreciation of our limits.

We’re never quite sure who we are, or what we have, and the road is our stern instructor. Yet there is no teacher nor any journey as awfully demanding as disease, for it brutally asks: What fight have you got left? How much faith do you own?

My friend the runner knows this for she has multiple sclerosis.

MS, which afflicts more than 2.3 million people worldwide, is an untrustworthy mongrel of a disease, which attacks the central nervous system. It is a stripping away of myelin, the substance which protects nerve fibres and helps messages travel smoothly between the brain and the body. The result is messages that come slower, are distorted or never reach.

It is not fatal yet is absent of cure. Its severity is varied yet it can leave you later in a wheelchair as it did with Betty Cuthbert, the four-time Olympic gold medallist in sprinting from the 1950s-60s.

MS – more prevalent among women – came to my friend in 2005 with the stealth of a sudden invader, stripping her of her Asics, wrapping her in a hospital gown, and sliding her 10 times into MRI machines which snarl and scan her brain. Regular runner has turned wounded walker.

The disease manifests itself in no single ugly way. One attack leaves her head feeling like a plank of wood – as if in an act of cruel magic, it has separated from the rest of her body – and her feet feel as if she is walking on a floor of cotton wool. Another time, her skin pulls painfully tight, as if it is shrinking and, she says: “It’s like my fingers are trying to burst.” She knows how to pick up a glass yet now she has to consciously tell herself how to grip it.

She’s a writer, typing furiously in intelligent, delightful sweeps, but one attack – she has had six – causes her to lose minor motor control and her fingers turn disobedient and clumsy. She is enchanted by music, yet she once couldn’t hear clearly for the disease draped one ear with an invisible purdah. She’s an ardent speaker, yet a combination of MS and steroids – used to combat it – once left her speaking with the slow slur of a drunk.

Some days, this is not a body but a machine of faulty wiring and misfiring connections. It is a terrifying loss of the self as she knows it, a breaking up of her being into uncertain, unworking parts.

It brings fury yet also fear: “That I won’t be able to live this life I have lived before. Not this fully functional life.” That the next attack will be too much.

It is why she has to run again.

To run is to feel whole, to find evidence of normality. To put foot after foot on a trail is “a reminder I can still do it”. To run again for 30 straight minutes is proof of life as she remembers it.

And this is where her Personal Best differs from ours. Because before she can think about going further or faster than she did before, she has to first get back to where she was before. Because once she’s finished with MRIs and medications and hospitals, she – who has been running 6km – is empty. Her tank bare. Forced to relearn how to run those miles again. So she starts from nothing. From zero.

It takes two months or more after an attack before she can lace up her Asics again, and she’s like a child finding her first steps as she begins: 90 seconds walking, 60 seconds running. It is a life lived in perfect obedience to the Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa’s haiku:

O snail

Climb Mount Fuji,

But slowly, slowly!

My friend adores sports and so she’s familiar with runner Wilma Rudolph’s tussle with polio and swimmer Eric Shanteau’s battle with cancer. She knows these stories, but it’s different when it’s your own story. Adversity can be imagined, yet you can’t know your response to it until it is there, before you, asking, questioning.

Irritation comes, anger arrives, but she knows that running, and sweating, and challenging, promises more than sitting at home wrapped in depression. “I get up every day. I tell myself I am going to be better. Even if they’re fractional improvements.”

She pauses.

“You have to give yourself the best chance to fight this disease.”

Bravery is mostly an anonymous tale, played out privately every day across the planet by extraordinary people whose names we just don’t know. My friend is just one of this vast tribe, whose heroism lies in a stubborn reclaiming of their bodies. After an illness, they get up and walk again. One step, then a mile. After an accident, they rise and cycle again. They take back life, they seize it. And only they can understand how exquisite the reward is.

Because one day, after two months of early morning runs, after two months of rising, checking her hearing, checking her vision, my friend gets there again. To her 20 minutes of running. Then 30 minutes. “Yahoo!” she shouts triumphantly into the morning. Madly, she texts her friends. They understand, for this is victory of its own curious, courageous sort in a race with no end.

She loves running, my bespectacled friend. Loves the humming feet of the long-distance runners and how their impassive faces suddenly crumple and twist in effort as a race ends. Loves running in Ethiopia and listening to locals grin and chant “run, run” as she jogs downhill. Loves silencing smart alecs who mutter “old woman is running” and then go quiet after they watch her do another round of the park and then another. Loves how she can sense the returning strength of her body and its capacity to rebuild itself.

Running isn’t really restoring my friend, her spirit does that, but running is her route to revival. Disease will always lurk on the periphery, but she’s not looking back, only ahead. Looking down the road. Looking at a number.

She runs 6km these days, but wants to reach 10km by next year. I hope she gets there, but in a sense it doesn’t matter. Her eyes are clear. Her ear is OK. Her balance is fine. My friend is running and it is wonderful for it only means she is repaired.

 

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On Understanding Talent…

Rohit Brijnath, in The Straits Times.

 

BUY a postcard. Type a tweet. Write an e-mail. Send it to Roger Federer and Michael Phelps. Don’t have to be profound, don’t have to go all gooey. Just say this: Thank you.

Thank you for reminding us that even as we watch sports, compare records, decipher tactics, we only think we understand talent. In truth, we don’t. Not its range, not its ferocity, not its meaning.

Phelps – about to compete in the Pan Pacific Championships – doesn’t race for 20 months, his muscles go limp, his technique dulls, and then he records among the fastest times of the year. It’s like those guys in school, who partied, never slogged, and then turned up at the exams and aced them. It’s freakish, it’s incomprehensible, and it makes you reconsider the entire notion of sporting prediction.

Federer is cut from a similarly mysterious cloth. Last year, people cried retire, now he’s US Open favourite; last year he had 45 wins all year; this year he leads the tour with 49; last year his record was one title, twice finalist, now it’s three titles, five-times finalist.

Watching these men is akin to attending a class in appreciating genius at a sporting university. We learn that rapidly rating players in some mythical “greatest ever” list is foolhardy, for we haven’t yet witnessed their body of work. When Federer first won Wimbledon in 2003, Milos Raonic, whom he beat this week, was 12; when Phelps first won Pan Pacific gold in 2002, Chad le Clos, who is the 100m butterfly world champion, was 10. Yet they push on.

We learn that their talent exceeds our belief, their idea of challenge always eclipses ours. If we had 58 golds like Phelps (18 Olympics, 27 world championships, 13 Pan Pacific) we’d happily quit; but it’s because Phelps has 58 golds that he believes in 59. Their lives are a mad pursuit of the impossible and a celebration of it.

We learn that this athletic twilight, where both men stand, tells us as much about talent as their prime did. Then, as they performed with an effortless genius, we thought, Dear God, what talent. But it’s now, really, when skill flows as if from a spluttering tap and still they compete, that we understand how staggering their talent is, how they’ve managed to nurture it and reshape it.

“Earlier,” said Federer, after he’d won Wimbledon in 2012, “it (winning) just comes”. Later, he added, you have “more respect for the game”. Because you have to reinvent it.

At breakfast last week in Singapore, Martina Navratilova, asked if she judges players solely on grand slam titles, firmly replied: “No.” Everything matters, she said. Tour wins through the year, No.1 ranking, head-to-head, how they play the game, consistency, but one more thing: How they adapt.

Phelps, 29, can’t replicate the workouts of his youth so he has to train smarter. But only the exceptional can reconfigure their rusty sporting machines, tuning them to find one more fast lap, discovering themselves how far they can stretch this rubber band of talent.

Federer’s 33-year-old legs have run more than most, not just in tournaments played but in how deep he reaches into every tournament. You can’t measure him, for instance, just with Andy Murray’s age, 27, but in matches: Federer has played 1,196, Murray 601.

So he’s slower and his press conferences are littered with words like “tired” and “rest”. But he compensates with idea, with tactic, with net play, with a new racquet. This transition is a talent.

So he’s patchy in matches, rhythm gone walkabout, break points frittered, yet he’ll steal a set from nowhere, as if the only glue he has is his joy and will. And this is a talent, too.

Federer always had a juggler’s feel for the ball and Phelps a mermaid’s affinity for water. But talent, they’re telling us, is more complex than hand-to-eye skill and arrangement of feet. Hard work is a talent. Recalibrating goals is a talent. Deafness to a cynical world is a talent. Stubborness is a talent.

But perhaps the most beautiful talent is hunger. That nothing is enough, no stroke, no shot, no cup. That when it is finally done, racquet and swimsuit packed away, there is no regret. Because talent, every last ounce of it, hasn’t been wasted, only exhausted.

And so Phelps may not win gold at the Pan Pacs this week. And Federer, currently riding the fortune of an injured Nadal, a confused Djokovic, an inconsistent Murray, may not win the US Open across seven five-set matches.

Just don’t tell them that.

Just don’t tell them they’re “almost back to their best” for it is meaningless. For there is no going back any more, only forward. Travelling to the extremities of their beaten-up and brilliant selves to find the very best they can be now. And occasionally even finding it. That is a talent.

Posted in Federer, Rohit Brijnath, Sports | 1 Comment

The Future Shows The Way …

Last week, Tara Tripathi Sarkar performed a big act. In the Straits Times this morning, Rohit Brijnath wrote about it.

You can’t imagine the nausea. Can’t feel the fatigue. Can’t touch the sores in the mouth. Can’t experience the diarrhoea or constipation. Can’t see what this drip of a chemotherapy drug does to the body. Except the hair. Always, in movies, in photographs, we see the hair gone. Falling in clumps from the head, vanishing from the eyebrows. It’s as if cancer leaves you naked, stripping away so much of you. Even vanity.

And so, in an attempt at visible solidarity with cancer sufferers, people shave their heads. It is a bare statement to raise funds for necessary research. It is painless and symbolic, yet I have failed to do it myself, as if the superficiality of vanity and the real absence of courage are stilling me.

My grandfather fell to lung cancer, dying in slow, painful motion, and so, yes, like you probably, I know this disease. I also know Thomas Jefferson’s words: “Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act”, and yet I don’t act.

But Tara Tripathi Sarkar did. And it’s why she’s better than me.

In a friend’s dimly lit study, Tara sits, one leg folded on the chair, arms semaphoring, two gold stars glinting in her ears, the room illuminated by her smile and the light reflected from a head with no hair. She’s healthy, loves dogs, fitness and movies and didn’t know what the word “vanity” means. She’s also shaved her head, cried when her hair fell out, and has raised $4,055 so far through St Baldrick’s Foundation.

Did I mention she’s 13?

At 13, you’re supposed to be unaware, Snapchatting after lights out and dreaming of Justin Bieber. You’re not supposed to be capable of taking a leap over the chasm that separates intent from action. It is the most telling of human acts: to not merely be good, but in fact do good.

Let’s be clear, this is no junior saint at work, no overdeveloped conscience in a precocious head, no child who read deeply on kids’ cancers and felt compelled by a rush of empathy. Discovery of the self is far more complex, it is about the first, tiny steps a person takes beyond his own, safe world.

And so Tara stepped out. And on her own.

Parents everywhere push their children towards virtue. Help a neighbour. Support a cause. But there is a substantial and separate beauty to the act that originates from a young teenager’s self, an idea to try something that is not coerced nor suggested by the parent. Where there is no adult hand to lead – in Tara’s case her parents were supportive – but only a childish one that reaches out tremulously to experiment on its own.

Tara is hardly the only child of her age in this city to shave her head and only representative of a breed. She’d heard about heads shaved for a cause. A friend told her she was going to do it. And she discovered St Baldrick’s Foundation, a charity that funds research for cures for childhood cancers and which has been supporting Duke-NUS’ Paediatric Cancer Research in Singapore since 2011.

So she sat, was shorn, was scared a little (what will people say?), yet emerged as an adventurer who’d made an early exploration into the idea of compassion.

The shaved head, for some, is a defacing of the self and is an idea that can alarm parents. People will stare, they’ll laugh, you’ll be that most terrible of things – different. You’ll stand out in a way we’re not sure you’re ready for. But perhaps we underestimate both the resilience of our children and their sensitivity.

Her head, Tara tells me, is an object of fascination, rubbed like a magic lamp. Respect has come her way, talk of bravery, a contribution from teachers in her school, stares, and yet also the awareness that “it’s OK to be bald if you’re a girl”. In a small way, perhaps not yet entirely digested by her 13-year-old brain, she is starting to appreciate the beauty of difference.

This is surely what we want, children who are sensitive to the differences, of colour, look, privilege, that percolate within a society. No one is advocating schools alive with unfettered self-expression and no boundaries, but blind conformity will suffocate the beautiful bits of individuality that make us so human.

It is where St Margaret’s Secondary School erred last year by chastising the brave girls who shaved their heads for Hair for Hope and did not wear wigs. To cover them up was to miss the point.

Growth as a person lies beyond the degree. As a parent of an older child, I wish for her a fine job, a stable marriage, but if I haven’t stressed the value of decency, the strength of integrity, the ugliness of bigotry, if I haven’t provoked her capacity to care and encouraged a spirit of adventure, then I have failed.

For that, in many ways, is the more real education. As Tara’s father, Mr Jyotibrata Sarkar, says: “It’s not a grand, noble step, but I thought it was a big step and I wanted her to take that step. To know there is a world beyond you and that it’s not always about you.”

Already, at 13, Tara is appreciating the power of the symbolic act, for if she wished to raise $400, now it is 10 times that figure. Already, she is negotiating feelings she is unfamiliar with: “I did feel I was doing something for somebody else. It’s a different kind of happy than doing something for yourself.”

One of the alluring parts of the young is that they are often absent of artifice, carrying with them a simple directness. And so Tara won’t allow us to lift her up as some glittering role model, and says: “It feels good, but it’s not as big a deal as other people make it out to be.” Her hair, she calmly points out, will grow back and, in her most profound moment, she adds: “I can’t say I understand how (kids with cancer) feel. I am not going through all that.”

There is, we’re learning, no prescribed age to make a difference. And a difference is being made. As Professor David Virshup, director, Cancer and Stem Cell Biology Signature Research Programme at Duke-NUS, says: “The survival rate for certain types of childhood leukaemia beyond 10 years from diagnosis is more than 70 per cent compared to less than 10 per cent in the 1960s. These young philanthropists are leading us in the belief that we can do better, and we must.”

For Prof Virshup, and every researcher, Tara matters. All these young kids who take a stand matter. Every fund and dollar matters. But for us it also matters because there cannot be anything more vital than to encourage the humanity that inhabits our children. For in a single act they can understand, and so do we, that when hair falls off, often people grow.

Posted in Celebration, heroes, Rohit Brijnath | 3 Comments

Postcards from a dream..

Long before A Gran Plan was even a plan, she and I, as much in love with cinema as we could be – watched Good Will Hunting. And within it, this scene stayed on loop – over and over and over again. Till we knew it.

Notice the cockiness of  Matt Damon’s Will Hunting at the start, the assured sadness of Robin Williams’ Sean Maguire, his delicate balance of counsel, admonishment and imploration as the camera lingers on him, the ambient sound underlining why this scene could have been done indoors but was better done in the real world. Look at when the camera returns slowly to include Will Hunting, his eyes just that bit shifty as a tenuous bluff is called, that hint of a gulp which one tries to disguise at a time like that but never really manages,  and notice too when the music comes in serenading the dawn of truth…

It’s a magnificent scene, brilliant in almost every aspect of film making and we remember seeing it often. Every viewing brought out a new perspective, a more exciting debate, a fresh nuance.  Its great quality is that even seen in isolation, the power of the dialogue (for Matt Damon’s fragile silence never allows it to be just a monologue) holds you and educates you.

But what lingers really is the gist of it: that experience is the only real intelligence…

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At the start, A Gran Plan was, as far as I know,  a nameless, featureless pursuit.

There were children who were attending a film appreciation workshop at Playacting and the grand plan was that the workshop would culminate in a film. Perhaps a short film, but something which exposed them to the art and craft of structuring a tale and then transferring it from vivid imagination to eloquent images.

That was all.

Every dream  has nubile beginnings till it gets nurtured by a desire which derives perhaps its greatest strength from its own innocence.

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Sangeeta had been toying for a while with the idea of the story which ultimately became A Gran Plan. The original premise was that it be staged somewhere, like some of her earlier works. As the film appreciation workshop developed, so too did the idea that perhaps this story could form the backbone of something bigger. Even at this stage though, its horizon was limited to doing it with a scratch crew and adult cast, almost entirely locally.

My sense is that the growing confidence and enthusiasm of the children fuelled  and emboldened the dream.

One reads and hears often of the meticulous planning and effort that goes into first ventures. A Gran Plan was none of that. What was the plan? Who was the audience? How was it going to get out there? None of these questions were asked.

All that was answered was a feverish desire to chase a dream.

But about a year later, it was conceived, written, named, sourced, directed, edited. Six months later, it was awarded.

***********

Along the way there were many – too many to mention, too important to forget – who bought into the dream and invested, among other things their time and other equally hard earned resources. As the dream grew, so too did their investment. As the dream faltered – for all dreams do – their resolution provided it with strength and their strength provided it with resolve.

The shared money, the time with the kids, the houses to shoot in, the beds to sleep in, the clothes to borrow, the schedules to coordinate, the tips on the weather, the visits to the hospital (that’s another story), the meals for the crew, the efforts at cleaning up, the liaison with the music director and singer(and so what if Shreya Ghoshal was his undying, unsolicited, unprofessed love), the late nights, the early mornings, the dialogue, the arguments, the debates, the celebration … they all contributed.

The only thing better than a dream is a shared dream.

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Being a part of or at least being around a film crew is perhaps something which should be on every bucket list.  This lot come together from diverse backgrounds, different age groups, unique skill sets and almost always have strong opinions on everything from the color of the set to left wing socialism. And yet, they somehow magically and implicitly believe in the Director and the actors on set. Its a very safe place.

A lot of the crew for A Gran Plan were a result of cold calls and cross referenced chats. Each arrived at various stages of the film, many on the first day of the shoot. You would never have seen someone buy-in and commit as fast and as much to something which was unknown.

The degree of suddenness of the commitment and bonhomie is eclipsed only by the abruptness with which it all ends. As the movie completes, they vanish just as soon as they had arrived, leaving pretty much only the Director holding the baby.

But there’s a beautiful lingering.

***********

The last time she played a central character, Farida Jalal won the Best Actress Filmfare Award even as the film, Mammo, won the National Award for Best Feature Film in Hindi. There were days in the A Gran Plan shoot when the crew and onlookers applauded her takes, only to be astonished when she would ask if she could give another take.

But as you sit to watch the film next week, notice too,  the cinema newbies – like Tania Mukherjee, particularly in the closing stages of the film.

Also, take a look at the kids – all acting in their first film. While you enjoy their dialogue and banter in helping set up the film, keep a close eye on the dinner scene or the scene at the end and watch the expression of their silence.

And most of all, watch Ollie. Oliver Kennett’s role has dialogue, a gamut of emotions never easy to portray and long pauses in scenes where its just him and Farida Jalal. In many ways, you’ll see that he walks away with the film. If I could have a Dollar for each time you’d want to hug him….

***********

Sangeeta thrives in the slipstream of doubters. Those who prophesize failure are the ones that inhabit her shrine. In itself, that is a romantic concept, but as the best advice of all time goes : Don’t try this at home.

Nevertheless,  her journey from scripting a story to making the film was a long, hard road and often a lonely battle. The parts I remember are really the good ones – the joy when Farida Jalal said “Yes”, the first shot that morning, the prayers before the first shot every day, the lyrics arriving from Jaideep Sahni, the first cut of the song by Shreya Ghoshal, the first look at uncut footage, the first cut, the first reaction from friends, the first private screening on a big screen,  the thrill of filling up festival forms, the acceptance at all those festivals, the excitement of heading off to New York and LA to attend the festivals, the call that day from New York saying she’d won the Mira Nair Award for Rising Female Filmmaker and that Farida Jalal had won Best Actress at Harlem, Ollie’s award as Best Child Actor, the trip to Delhi to attend the Delhi International Film Fest, the big cake by the Taj the next morning when she’d won Best NRI Film

There were other days too. A lot of the film was shot at home, it was edited entirely in the study and all those days of the process were a swarm of busy, lonely struggles. And that was before it was complete. The saga of trying to sell it in Mumbai was another story altogether – Aside from the fancy distributors who wanted to know if there was any “masala” (Sir, its Farida Jalal, a family and kids!) which you could forgive but not ignore, most of the rest of it was painfully cliched “It-is-great-but-its-in-English” or “It-is-great-but-what-can-I-do-with-it” or “Have-you-considered-serialising-it-for-television?”. The pain of an unreleased, completed work is a terrible downer.

But ultimately, it is here.

A Gran Plan releases in Singapore next week.

Sometimes, one sees a work ethic, a pursuit of a cause or a devotion to a dream and the surprise isn’t that there is success, but that there was ever any doubt.

The Trailer of A Gran Plan here.
The Song (sung by Shreya Ghoshal, lyrics by Jaideep Sahni, Music by Kabir and Kaizad) here.

Book your tickets here.

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The Sounds of Sport…

From yesterday’s Straits Times, this Rohit Brijnath piece on the sounds of sport.

THE cheapest object in Formula One is now its most useless. It is a Survival Kit I once bought in Singapore for $2, which promised not to protect me from injury but to ensure my sanity was retained. The kit included ear plugs – vital in a sport so full of itself and swollen with sound – but now they are redundant. A sport once famously loud is now whimpering and has about as much machismo as Optimus Prime after being gelded. It’s as unseemly as boxers blowing kisses in the ring.

The sound of the car reflected the testosterone of racing, its noise speaking of power if not pollution. In the scream of acceleration was felt effort, in the auditory invasion was felt raw emotion, in the insistent whine of the car you could literally hear a rival coming. Fast in our memories almost always had to sound furious.

Now we’ve got meek machines and the spectating experience is confused because sound is so integral to a sport’s personality. It is akin to handing cricketers an aluminium bat which might provide a pathetic clunk, not the sweetness of wood meeting leather ball.

Yet this grousing has had an unintended benefit, for it has alerted us again to the soundtracks to which sport unfolds. In boxing, pictures reveal an assault but the thud of glove on flesh brings its own audible violence. In football, there are microphones behind the goal, as if amid the shouting one might hear the whisper of ball being caressed by net. Table tennis, with its squeaking sneakers, is merely a mix of clicks and ticks but certainly no pings or pongs.

To turn down the volume on a TV during sport makes it one-dimensional, akin to erasing the background clatter of cutlery and music rippling in and out as actors converse in a movie. Sound enriches the experience, which is why cricket often has mikes in stumps, six on the fence and on each of its 32 cameras. The Olympics, always the show-offs, use 4,000 mikes for how else would we hear scuttle of feet and hum of cycle.

Dennis Baxter, sound engineer at many Olympics, has spoken of mikes under the flight path of an archer’s arrow, on the gymnasts’ uneven bars and on the hand-rail of a diving board. As he told The Atlantic: “You can hear their hands. You can hear their feet. You can hear them breathing.” You are there. Beside the divers. Hearing them perform. Allowed partial entry into their world.

Sound in sport, through the vuvuzela, is a clue to culture. Sound tells us instinctively which sport we are watching. If it’s calypso music in the stands, it must be cricket. Sound tells us where we are. Oooh go the genteel Wimbledon crowd; boo go the more easily offended French at their Open.

Sound is the athletes’ friend and their reassurance. They stand on pool decks and huddle in competitive corners with headphones on, using music and motivational tapes to shut out a braying world and either calm the nerves or arouse an emotion. Their world is full of fine vibrations and subtle notes which constantly offer hints about form and clues to rhythm.

Saiyidah Aisyah, rowing gold medallist at the recent SEA Games, listens – subconsciously during competition, attentively during training – to her oar cutting water. “It should make a soft splash and when you release an oar (take it out of the water) it must be as silent as possible,” she says. If the sound is not pure, “your technique is not right”.

Tennis players, those mobile detectives, interpret the sound of ball on a rival’s stringed instrument to rapidly decide how much spin has been attached and pace appended to a shot and thus deduce where it might land.

Sound is how cricketers tell timing and also learn about their sporting deaths. When they miss a ball, they are still looking forward, and it is rattle of ball on stumps behind them that signals their departure. “It’s the most horrible sound,” laughs former India captain Rahul Dravid, but 2008 Olympic shooting gold medallist Abhinav Bindra has his own version of hateful noise.

Shooting is so still, so clingfilmed in concentration, that in this cocoon the ear hears more than it requires. “When I have a panic attack,” says Bindra, “or am very nervous, I can hear my heart pounding. It is a filthy sound.”

One day, with a tiny mike placed on his chest in competition, his heart’s sound may be relayed to us along with its rate. One day, there will be no secret sounds in sport and sadly, every audible mystery will be unveiled – from a miked-up cricketer’s tactic to a golfer’s chat with a caddie.

Yet even as the experience of sound evolves, there is one whose effect is unchanged. A sound piercing and unmusical, heartbreaking yet joyous. A sound whose arrival is cheered one day and whose delay is prayed for the next. Nothing in sport is as beautiful and yet as ugly as this sound of the full-time whistle.

 

Posted in General, Rohit Brijnath | 1 Comment

On Listening ..

Rohit Brijnath in yesterday’s Straits Times.

 

In my school perched on a northern India hilltop, the wind at night rushed furiously through the trees and sounded to me like a fleeing cavalry of galloping ghosts. I remember this. I remember reading to the percussive sound of a monsoon rain, the unkind swish of a teacher’s cane, the clinking cans which were the milkman’s xylophone, the beseeching caller from a distant mosque.

Even as we grow older, the music of our youth never dims. Sound, after all, is essential to our personal histories, as if we are connected by a string of strange notes to another time and forgotten places. As children, our ears seemed as open as our minds, but as busy adults caught in a cacophonic planet, we have forgotten how to listen.

People wail online and harangue on Twitter and righteous opinion is hurled at us like tossed confetti. The television debate is often a poor version of the Gunfight at the OK Corral where angry rhetoric is fired from predictable positions. There is a lot of telling, but not much listening.

A wise fellow given to clever anagrams once shuffled the letters in “listen” and came up with “silent”. Sometimes, to do one requires an embrace of the other. To listen is to open up my world to receive from yours, it suggests I can be enriched by what you say, it means I must suspend my belief that I know it all and empty myself of preconceptions. Listening is a quiet and lost humility.

I had no idea till last week who Zeno of Citum was – a Greek thinker, who else – but he wrote: “We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more than we say.” It is simple mathematics that Anton Casey might have applied. If he had read aloud his puerile Facebook posts, the words percolating within, their implication digested, he might have deleted them and stayed happily anonymous.

Casey didn’t listen to himself or his prejudices, neither did some members of the online mob who flayed him. Few of us do these days, despite growing up to Simon and Garfunkel’s 1965 warning about “People hearing without listening”.

On the Net, irate comments to articles often have no connection to the topic at hand, just wild rants about imagined slights. Already amidst the tragedy of a missing plane there is irrelevant innuendo about meteors, aliens and Bermuda triangles. Who knew the human race needed so badly to be heard?

Listening is learning, it is reflection, it is an art worth reacquiring. It is not only about the words we hear, the tone we recognise, but also in the languages of the bodies we read. In a teacher’s still stance and stern face, we have all listened to disapproval.

As Evelyn Glennie, the profoundly deaf percussionist, wrote, listening is linked to sound, yet also feel. She would put her hands on the wall when a teacher played notes on the timpani – it produces a lot of vibrations – and found she could “distinguish the rough pitch of notes by associating where on my body I felt the sound”. Low sounds in the legs, high sounds on face.

Listening is not all seriousness, it is whimsy and pleasure, it is the hoot of laughter, the melancholic whistle of the departing steam engine, the crow cackling out a soliloquy. Perhaps it was easier as a boy for I had no mobile phone, no computer game, no iPod, no TV. So I had to listen to the world, if not my mother.

Now, with headphones on, few care to eavesdrop on the world. It is as if we choose not to experience life. Part of it is understandable for urban sprawls echo with the dull sound of rumbling car and groaning crane. It is why we must flee now and then into nature to listen to the planet.

In thick jungle, over the tranquil sounds of murmuring river and humming insects, it is the monkey’s alarm call and rustle of the panicky deer taking flight that help build a picture of a tiger prowling through his domain.

But even in cities we can find fulfilling music or at least find places to listen to ourselves, order our thoughts and restore our sanity. It can be found in morning runs when we are attentive to every beat of heart and gasp of lung and have conversations with our deepest selves.

It is discovered in kitchens, where a friend tells me sound is integral to his art, for he is attuned to the tales told by every spluttering spice and sizzling seed in his oily pans. It is found by the sea and in the quiet depths of the Botanic Gardens, where if you wait you might hear a leaf fall.

There is much to listen to if we care to and if we also accept that all of us are carriers of tales. Years ago, I found myself captive to three old men – their hearing faulty, their zest enchanting – as they exchanged tales of India’s freedom struggle and spoke compellingly of legendary figures from my schoolboy textbooks whom they had met. We were in a hospital waiting room and escape was impossible. I had to listen and then I was grateful for this was an oral history of my land.

The sentences of old folk can meander like a kite on a windy day, but listening is patience. It is waiting as a grandfather stitches memory together and tells tales of a different Singapore that will be lost with his passing. You cannot appreciate a nation’s present if you haven’t listened attentively to its past.

Yet old folk must pay attention, too, for the young are restless messengers of new ideas. In conservative nations an outdated hierarchy of speech persists, wherein women and children must be the listeners, not the listened to. It is underpinned by conceit for it suggests every voice does not matter, when of course it does.

We need not check our hearing, but only recalibrate our ability to listen. So read aloud a passage from a lyrical book. So remind yourself at parties, as I should, of the writer Russell Baker’s warning:

“When you’re talking up a storm so brilliant, so charming that you can hardly believe how wonderful you are, pause just a moment and listen to yourself. It’s good for the soul to hear yourself as others hear you, and next time maybe… you will not talk so much, so loudly, so brilliantly, so charmingly, so utterly shamefully foolishly.”

I am trying to open my ears. It is why two months ago – to the laughter of my daughter – I pressed a stethoscope against her stomach. My mind closed the door on every distraction and I waited for it, this faint yet frequent sound which a doctor friend had told me about. There… yes… I swear I heard it… did I? Maybe it was just my imagination, but it scarcely mattered. I was listening for my granddaughter’s heartbeat and listening to life.

Posted in Celebration, General, Rohit Brijnath | 3 Comments

Of Memories, Loss and Love ..

Rohit Brijnath in this morning’s Straits Times.

In a drawer in his bedroom, inside his neat house, next to his wallet and his watch, lies the card. It is like any other card, a piece of folded, white cardboard. It is like any other birthday greeting, full of wishes from her and exclamations of love. Yet it is like no other card because he doesn’t know if this is her last love letter to him. Not because she is going anywhere but because her memory is. She isn’t falling out of love with him, it’s just that she just might forget how to love him.

This is not a Valentine’s Day- approved love story. It has no happy ending, but then love stories often have elegant beginnings, it is their conclusions which are rarely tidy. Relationships fray, romance fades, companionship grates, disease calls. It’s when you know love isn’t a one-off bunch of exquisite flowers, but a grittier and more persistent virtue. Love is cleaning diapers, it is hard work.

This love story is about two people: Raj, 67, a man built of chunks of muscle and wit and gentleness; and Bobbie, 63, an elegant woman whose beauty has not yet been sanded away by time. They met in 1978 in Kolkata, travelled to another land, had a son, then three grandchildren and live amidst movies and books in a corner of Melbourne.

It is a neat and familiar suburban picture, except for this: Raj loves Bobbie, and Bobbie has dementia. Every year he gives her a Valentine’s Day present. Now she doesn’t know what the day means.

Raj cannot precisely summon the day when the threads of his wife’s logical brain and memory began to fray. Was it summer when she began to repeat herself? Was it spring when she watched television and kept asking the same questions?

He can’t remember, he just knows that over seven years, like a slow, unfixable leak of reason and recall and feelings, Bobbie’s momentary lapses have turned into a dreadful pattern. She knows the way back home from the shops but cannot recognise friends. She has forgotten familiar tastes – she relished curries, now she abhors them – yet rises in delight when her son steps through her door.

The death of neurons turns the brain into an erratic, clumsy machine which no potion can fix and no surgery can mend. Your wife is there before you and yet a terrible theft is under way, a hollowing out of her which you cannot stop. It imprisons you in a vice of confusion, helplessness, sadness, yet within this changed life Raj has not forgotten how to love Bobbie. He has just gently renegotiated the terms of this romance.

He is her listener. And so she will speak, and repeat, every day from a similar script, yet he will never silence her. He is her chef. He will wake at 5.30am to make her lunch and then return from work to put together her dinner, faithfully putting on a plate all that she likes. He is her compass and he is her detective. When she says her mouth is burning, he will investigate and find she has used detergent, not mouthwash.

He is her guide and he is her friend. He will take her shopping and stand mute as she gathers endless items and then pays the incorrect sum because prices and mathematics elude her. He just inclines his eyebrow at the shopgirls who are now his accomplices in a compassionate routine: surreptitiously they will put away items, yet never ruin her day.

In books, love is built of a scaffolding of shared words and sharp dialogue. In films, two characters meet, tenderness is expressed, feelings are returned and they bend for a kiss. Here, love is more silent and undemonstrative, here there is a limited exchange of the normal vocabulary of affection, for Bobbie cannot easily express emotion. So, on almost every day, nothing is taken by Raj, but only given.

It is as if he has embraced the idea embedded in the author Anne Morrow Lindberg’s words on changing love: “Relationships must be like islands, one must accept them for what they are here and now, within their limits – islands, surrounded and interrupted by the sea, and continually visited and abandoned by the tides.”

But then sometimes, for no apparently scientific reason, the tide turns. Sometimes, from nowhere, Bobbie loves him back.

Last year, Raj comes home on his birthday to find a bottle of bluish liquid waiting for him. “It is what you like to put on your face,” she tells him. She has bought him mouthwash, but she thinks it is after-shave. It is what he used to like, now it’s only the colour that remains with her. She also gives him a tracksuit, but it is small enough to fit their grandson.

It doesn’t matter to Raj: He just thinks of her walking to the shops, he imagines her rummaging through her memory, he considers her gesture – and then he sits down, this friend of mine, and he weeps. Her buying this bottle, he knows, is a profound act, for it is as if love has transcended dementia, as if for this brief, wondrous moment it has defeated the disease.

Love – even if it is quick flashbacks, sudden shards of recollection, unconnected pieces from a past – is possibly among the last of Bobbie’s memories. Old memories of this greying, bespectacled man who has spent a life alongside her, memories so deeply imprinted they are still defying erasure. On a recent night when I visited, when he bid her good night, she took his hand and kissed it, once, twice, four times, seven times. She never did this before, but these days she does and he cannot explain it. Except to say that he is grateful.

It is when he tells me about the card, the one he now keeps in his drawer. On Jan 4 this year, as she always did, she gives it to him. It is his birthday but she has bought him a wedding card and it is a beautiful mistake.

Inside she scrawls a message in her altered handwriting, but this year, like last year, she signs off in a way she has never done before. She writes, “Your wife, Bobbie.” Is she reminding herself who she is to him? Or is she telling him, Raj, please, don’t ever forget who I am to you?

Posted in Celebration, Rohit Brijnath, stories | 7 Comments

The Road Less Travelled..

Rohit Brijnath on the honour of completing a marathon. From this morning’s Straits Times.

EVERY athletic tribe, on casual examination, presents a particular image. Golfers look slothful and ice-skaters emotionally fragile. Marathoners, in contrast, seem like earnest, obsessive-compulsives who think War And Peace is light reading and the 100m is less a race than a short joke.

The marathoner, a deliberate fellow with a disdain for hurry, takes a 100 metres just to settle his water bottle on his hip. Usain Bolt, quick and flirty, might be fun to watch but his 100m race lacks the legend of the marathon.

No 100m runner requires mid-race alcohol rubdowns as occurred in the 1896 Olympic marathon. No 100m runner has been attacked by a defrocked priest during a race as happened at the 2004 Olympic marathon. And no 100m race is as frequently interrupted by hoaxers, short-cutters, Elvis impersonators, impostors and pranksters as the marathon.

Last weekend, in the Standard Chartered Marathon Singapore, a runner left the course after 6km and then reappeared at the end. Even if a finisher’s T-shirt was his only motivation, sportingly it made no sense. Why feel the need to finish a race when you have first abandoned it? What pleasure lies in symbolically completing the incomplete race?

But this journey to 42km and 195 metres, under a spectating sun, has always led people astray. No traditional race in sport is as long, and so solitary, leaving an athlete too much time to think. Runners lose their bearing – at the 1908 Olympics, a dazed Dorando Pietri entered the stadium and set off in the wrong direction – and occasionally their moral compass.

Some get to the finish line legitimately with blood in their shoes and some arrive at the end looking oddly cool, having ridden an air-conditioned bus over half the distance. In 1904, at the Olympics, Fred Lorz was declared the winner till he admitted his prank involved an 11-mile (17.7km) car ride. Then, reportedly, it broke down, so he had to run.

The marathon’s length beckons both short cut and ingenuity. In ancient times, no one filmed the runner quaffing a brandy. Now they are snapped by iPhones, tailed by TV cameras and tracked by smart chips. It is hard not to get caught, yet mankind is an unstoppably original species.

In 1999, for instance, the Motsoeneng brothers handed over their race number to each other in a roadside toilet and exchanged places mid-race during the Comrades Marathon. It was the perfect crime but for a minor error: A photograph revealed they wore their watches on different arms.

The marathon is intriguing because it is a race of honour yet it is uniquely open to deceit. Real marathoners know their pain, their miles covered, their timings. They know what they have invested, what they have endured and that everything must be earned. They know the short cut demeans every sacrifice they have made. This is the no-bull**** sport: Here it is fine to try and not finish, but not to finish without adequately trying.

Honour matters for marathoners are not imprisoned in a stadium – they can leave the road to pee and the route to flee. So they must live by a code. Most do, but not everyone does in this crowded race of 16,000 people, where amateur and Haile Gebrselassie run the same course on the same day.

Not everyone moves out of the way. Not everyone makes their way honourably to the finish. Amid so many, the vain and the unsure, the T-shirt wanters and the braggers, there will always be some who don’t fully comprehend the idea of the marathon.

But they must learn. The beauty of this race lies in its spreading blisters, its diarrhoea in the bushes, and in people still running despite all that. Its beauty lies in respect for the road, in pulling limping strangers along, in being part of a family of pain, in just finishing.

Not everyone will know this, but in those race kits given to runners lies a perfect platform to influence. Just add one page on which marathon tradition is recorded, history recounted, etiquette suggested, values noted. Some will toss it, others may read it, and perhaps an idea will travel widely like an echo: Running builds health but also character.

Legend tells us this race was born from a moment in 490 BC when Pheidippides ran a great distance to carry news of the Greeks’ victory in the Battle of Marathon. “Be joyful, we win,” is one version of what he said.

His words are accurate about soldiering, but don’t quite fit this race of peaceful citizens. The marathon isn’t about winning, for only one of thousands can. Victory lies simply in going the distance. And to suggest you have finished without completing the journey is to gently cross the wrong line.

Rohit Brijnath’s other piece on running, love and inspiration - here

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An Anthology of Sachin Tendulkar Tributes …

Sachin Tendulkar’s career had been overwhelming and so too was the deluge of tributes.

Here’s my (far from comprehensive) selection of favourites.

Rohit Brijnath wrote as only he can. If you were fortunate enough to live in Singapore, (or were a subscriber of the Straits Times), you’d have read a lot more than the ones that finally made it to the wider world outside. At first, there was The Patriotic Pandemonium of Sachin Tendulkar at the time of the announcement of Tendulkar’s retirement. This was on the 15th of October, more than a month before the day it all ended. Read the first line of the piece a few times before going further – “WILL he make a speech, this retiring Sachin Tendulkar, in his home city of Mumbai in November during his last Test and is it the closest we’ll come to a nation crying?“.
Then the long form Genius in Residence at Livemint, as much a letter of gratitude as a tribute. Finally, the day after it all ended, he captured the emotion of the last day of the Tendulkar career.

Rahul Bhattacharya had written Man-child Superstar on the occasion of Sachin’s 20 years in international cricket, among my favourite Sachin pieces. Here, he wrote Among the believers, a writing masterpiece where every line was superbly crafted, the article ultimately using Sachin’s last Ranji innings in Lahli as an allegory of the Sachin Tendulkar experience. Brilliant.

Gideon Haigh wrote on the inspiring greatness of Sachin Tendulkar.

Steve Tignor wrote On Gods and Humans which spoke of a vicarious respect for the legend of Sachin Tendulkar and the desire to savor the fading genius of Roger Federer.

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan‘s earlier tributes to Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman had both been achingly brilliant. At the time of Sachin Tendulkar’s ODI retirement, he wrote this piece which eerily, beautifully painted our lives alongside the Tendulkar One-day career. Here, at the end of the Test career, he wrote two wonderful pieces : In The grand piano has left the building, published on Cricinfo, he told us of how everybody had a Tendulkar story ; In When He Walks Out to the Middle, he deconstructed the experience of a Tendulkar innings, a piece stunning in its execution and brilliant in its end.

The Wisden India Extra had an Issue called The Sachin Sunset. It has some fine pieces by Dileep Premachandran, Saurabh Somani, Shashi Tharoor and a host of others, but my favourite was the one by Supriya Nair (on Page 18).

The Cricinfo coverage was comprehensive and had much to look forward to – with Andy Zaltzman‘s stats and pieces a huge personal favourite. However, nothing quite matched the evocative brilliance of Sidharth Monga’s Notes from Kolkata’s Sachin Festival – a beautiful piece on how everywhere Sachin Tendulkar went, he took the weather with him. Later, came an eloquent Sharda Ugra piece on the love, drive, discipline and balance of Sachin Tendulkar. Rob Steen wrote like Rob Steen, and Sachin Tendulkar. And of course, there was Sambit Bal talking about Cricket’s love for Sachin.

Deepak Narayanan had written at the time of the announcement, asking – When do you think it will sink in? Still resonates…

Mahesh Sethuraman wrote on the infinite posterity value of Sachin Tendulkar.

In two intensely personal pieces, Subash Jayaraman wrote about this trip to the last test and the significance of that journey, while Sriram Dayanand wrote a deeply poignant, intensely moving tribute to the eternal relevance of the Sachin experience.

There were others too – Ed Smith , Mudar Patherya, Rajdeep Sardesai, Sriram Venkateshwaran and Brian Carpenter.

Outside of the written words, there were a few other important things :

The Youtube video tribute series by Harsha Bhogle. There are 5 videos in the series. This is a link to the first one – you can take it onward from there.

Rahul Dravid’s interview with CNN-IBN on the Sachin legacy, where he displays the kind of humility which can only come from complete self-belief.

And finally, my favourite work. So often, we complain of the lack of sporting museums in India. I think the sheer effort that must have gone into the colossus of the digital museum which it is, makes the Sachin Memory Project by Star Sports, perhaps the best media tribute to the great career.

(more suggestions – and feedback welcome)

My piece – here.

Posted in Celebration, Cricket, Retirements, Rohit Brijnath, Sachin Tendulkar, Writings | 2 Comments

Of Tears, Words, Emotions and a Career..

The emotion of the final day of Sachin Tendulkar’s career .
Captured here by Rohit Brijnath.
From the Straits Times.

Today was too much even for him. Today, on his last cricketing day at Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai, even he, the impassive man, left the field forever with a stump in one hand and a tear wiped with the other. He was not alone, for this day – for those in the stadium and beyond – resembled an emotional mass. Sport has rarely seen the like of it.

Today, Sachin Tendulkar, who spent a life, he said, over 20 metres – the length of a cricket pitch – for 24 years, was retired. His white clothes to be packed. His bats to be mothballed. His competitive instinct to be buried. A long story, even if it went on longer than it might have, has concluded. There is for him no cricketing tomorrow.

Always he was a man of runs, rarely of words, a private man locked in this most public of professions. He let others do the talking about him, but this day, for almost 24 minutes, he yanked down his well-constructed veil and spoke. In time, people will return to YouTube not just for his innings but for this speech. Tendulkar has rarely been so personal.

In the stadium, an Englishman wept.

Today, with the match won by India, he took the microphone, a floppy white cap on his head, a list in his hand and a shadow across his face. You could not see his eyes, but in the silent pauses between his words you could sense his struggle.

His list was very Tendulkar – thorough and prepared. Nothing left to chance. He, the unforgotten, not forgetting those who made him. Alone he stood there under his last cricketing sun and said: “It’s getting a little bit difficult to talk but I will manage.”

He started with his father, Ramesh, who passed away in 1999. A father whose picture he carried on tour; a father who he saluted with a look to the heavens after every special innings; a father who he described as “the most important person in my life”.

At 11, his father told him to chase his dream, but advised “make sure you do not find short cuts”. Always his father told him to be a “nice human being”. Tendulkar listened well and for all his 15,921 Test runs this has been his finest achievement.

In the stands, the old, the young, together they wept.

Today, a man who a nation has given constant thanks for, expressed his own gratitude. He wondered how his mother put up with such a “naughty child”. He spoke of his sister Savita, who gave him his first bat and “fasted” when he batted. He honoured his confidante, his brother Ajit, who even on Fridaynight was discussing his dismissal in the first innings. “We have lived this dream together, he spotted the spark in me,” he said.

He paused. He swigged his water. There was more to say.

Today he spoke of family, not the cricketing fraternity, but his blood, his wife, his kin. No champion is built alone nor forged in isolation. For the athlete to succeed, the family must live to the rhythm of his wake-up calls, must answer to his dietary whims, must adjust to his varying moods amid defeat and during injury.

His wife, Anjali, a doctor, he said, stepped back from a career when they had children. “Thanks for bearing with all my fuss and all my frustrations, and all sorts of rubbish that I have spoken,” he said.

His daughter, Sara, 16, and son Arjun, 14, went birthdays and sports days without a touring father in attendance. He looked to his children and said, “Thanks for your understanding”. India has given much, but it has taken from him, too.

Behind her sunglasses, his wife wept.

Today he hailed his coach Ramakant Achrekar. For 29 years, he said, “sir has never ever said ‘well played’ to me because he thought I would get complacent and I would stop working hard”. Then he smiled and said, “maybe he can push his luck and wish me now, well done on my career”. Today the timing would be right, he said, speaking with an almost aching sadness, for there are “no more matches in my life”.

In the press room, veteran writer and apprentice scribe, together they wept.

Today, he praised his friends who would wake up at 3am when he was injured and take long drives with him through an empty city while reassuring him his career was not done. It was a startling and beautiful confession to the utter lonelieness of the sporting life. No, he told us, he was no impenetrable genius all the time, but this wounded man who needed help as he negotiated doubt.

Today, he thanked the doctors who healed him and physios who restored him. Today, he acknowledged the cricketers he grew up with and those he played with and accepted “it is going to be difficult not to be part of the dressing room”. In this room he was best understood, in this room he was allowed to be human and fail.

In Singapore, alone in front of his TV, a friend wept.

Today, Tendulkar gave thanks to India. To those who “fasted” for him, who had “flown in” from far for him, who supported him whether he scored “a zero or a hundred plus”. He looked and sounded a lucky man.

So often he batted with such concentration one might presume he was deaf to a nation’s plea and prayer, yet he was listening. “Sachin, Sachin”, this chant he heard, this chant he would never forget. “Sachin, Sachin”, he said, would “reverberate in my ears till I stop breathing”.

The crowd replied as only they could. They cried.

“Sachin, Sachin.”

Today, finally, his speech done, he did his lap of honour, then walked alone to the pitch, this 22-yard strip on which he became a myth, a man, a marvel. He stood on his piece of favourite earth, just him and the dust of his past. He touched the ground with both hands, he made a sign of respect, he left. Cricket had been left behind.

Of course, he was weeping.

Posted in Celebration, Cricket, India, Retirements, Rohit Brijnath, Sachin Tendulkar | 9 Comments

Learning Atheism from Sachin Tendulkar

Irony,  they say, brings a deeper and less friendly understanding.

Here’s an example : For all the years of living the cult by watching, listening to, reading about Sachin Tendulkar,  my biggest memory of him – the one which won’t leave me – is based on pure hearsay.

We all know the story.

Chennai, 1999.
Pakistan set India 271.
6-2.
Walks in, joining Dravid.
Not for long.
82-5.
Mongia arrives to join him.
Saqlain, Waqar, Akram; Snarling, Wily, Angry.
A partnership moves tentatively forward.
Arresting the slide? 

Time passes, India inches on.
The Chennai heat becoming an added oppressor.
They survive, refusing to give in.
A quiet second session.
Then, the third over after tea, a Sachin gear change.
Four boundaries off a Saqlain over. Then an attempt at a 5th. He misses. Moin fluffs the stumping. Phew!
Akram takes the new ball for himself and Waqar. A gamble.
It doesn’t pay off. 33 runs off 5 new ball overs.
Time for Plan B V2.0.
Saqlain with a harder ball on an increasingly crumbling pitch.
Crowd getting noisier.
Heat getting help from humidity. As if it needed any help.
But Mongia’s tasted new ball blood. Six!
Wresting the initiative?

Just 53 required now.
Then Mongia loses his cool. That’s the logical version. The emotional truth is that Mongia loses his sanity. Oh Nayan!
Anyway, still have Sunil Joshi. Six!
It’s around this time that the heat starts doing things that Sachin’s mind cannot control.
It starts to cramp the body.
How often does that happen in sport?
An athlete’s doing fine, his body resilient, his mind willing it on.
Then a break. Then the break. The body begins to crumble.
Just like that.
Sachin knows.
He wants to finish it.
Fast.
Two 4s off Saqlain.
Then that third –  which never was. Never will be.
India wilt. Lose by 12. Chennai give the victory-lap-Pakistanis a standing ovation.

This part we know. 

We also “know” that Sachin cried then in the dressing room. 

But it’s hearsay.

In the cult, all truth begins as hearsay.

***********

Because we knew him from the start, we felt entitled to Sachin. That’s the way it is when someone grows in front of our eyes. We felt a sense of interest which quickly moved to entitlement, ownership and … investment. At some stage, fuelled by the emotion that it generated, that matrix moved to the edge of religion. That’s just the way we are.

Because we knew him till the end, Sachin owed us. That’s just the way it is with the wish-fulfilling illusions that religion generates. Through incessant deed, the expectations of the cult had been recalibrated to unfamiliarly dizzy levels.  Yes, we expected him to march to the beat of a different drum, but that was only because he did. And sure, we might have expected him to keep improving, evolving even when he was 39, but hadn’t he constantly reinvented himself, just a couple of years ago? Hadn’t he taught us that “Impossible is Nothing?”

***********

He always set himself targets, he said. He must have.  But what were they? We never got to know, though once he’d finished 200 Tests and 463 ODIs, and notched up centuries with their distribution delightfully and decisively skewed to reflect which format he favoured, we believed we knew.

He had exploded on to the scene, discovering himself, expressing himself, dazzling at first, mastering opposition, taming weather, shouldering grief, elbowing away pain and ultimately, constantly reinventing himself.  Along the way, he must have reworked his targets. But by the end, the numbers were many and the achievements staggering. We were left with a body of work the magnitude and aesthetic of which left us with incapable adjectives and impotent grammar.

***********

Chennai, 11 December 2008.
Two weeks after the Mumbai terrorist attacks.
The one day series has been curtailed, the Tests rescheduled.
England have gone home and come back to a grateful India.
Life must go on, a statement must be made.
If emotion had a role in sport, this was it.

India trail by 75 in the first innings.
England declare on the 4th afternoon, setting India 387 to win.
The highest score successfully chased in the fourth innings in India is 276.
In Chennai, it’s 155.
Harmison, Anderson, Flintoff, Panesar, Swann. They can’t lose.
India is expected to defend on the 4th afternoon. They must defend.
Sehwag’s mindset isn’t built around stereotypes. Less than two hours later he’s gone for a 68 ball 83.
End of day 4, India are 131-1. In 29 overs.

Day 5. 90 overs to go. 256 to get. That’s still 110 more than anyone’s got here.
Early wicket.
141-2.
Sachin Tendulkar walks in. He’s the Mumbai guy.
Gambhir goes too before lunch. Laxman just after.
224-4. Still 163 to get.

It’s mid afternoon at the Chepauk now. Pressure stirring the heat cauldron.
Yuvraj comes in. He’s aggressive, volatile, capable.
Sachin has long conversations with him.
“We can do this”?
“We must do this”?
“Lets see if we can do it”?
“Keep Calm and …”?
Yuvraj settles down.
Sachin continues. A single here, a tuck there.
He seems in control. Just like 1999.

At tea, India are 304-4.
83 to get.
But the emotional intensity of the last session of a Test match in the balance can test the best. Ask Sachin.
It’s been 9 years since that match. It’s been 19 years into this career.
Sure, he’s shouldered us many times. But can he shepherd us this once?

He can. He does.
At 383-4, he hits a 4 to move from 99 to 103.
The winning runs and a century.
Who writes this man’s scripts?

Maybe he does.

At the match ceremony, he calls it the proudest moment of his career.  He laughs. He dedicates it to those affected by the attacks.

India sheds a tear. He probably does too.
But it’s hearsay.

************

Stripped of statistical staccato,  Sachin Tendulkar’s career inspired a divided divinity.

At the end, they said he had overstayed.

In a fine piece of writing called Fade to Grey, the late Peter Roebuck captured the essence of the ageing athlete.

Age creeps up on sportsmen. It is not that a curtain comes down upon a career. Sport is not as sudden or as gentle as that. Rather it is a slow process, a gradual fading. Nor can the player tell that the slide has begun. After all, he has known bad patches before, heard a thousand concerned whispers, and has learned not to panic but instead to withdraw into himself in search of the old powers. Great sportsmen listen to themselves.

Age brings understanding to the thinker, the craftsman, the artist. To most sportsmen, it brings defeat. To them, time is not a friend bestowing gifts, bringing wisdom and providing an opportunity to hone skills, but a reminder that the eternal present of athletic life is the merest illusion. Almost from the start, their clock is ticking. Children may deem themselves immortal. Once whiskers start to grow, the sportsman knows that already time is running out.

Nor is Tendulkar a machine or still the tousled boy who used to arrive at Shivaji Park every dawn. He is a fully grown man with much on his mind. To expect him to bat the same way, the fearless way, as he did in Perth all those years ago, is to undertake an exercise in futility. In between, he has discovered the perils of life and the pressures of expectation. His body is heavier, his eyes are not as sharp, his nerve is less reliable. He is human, a fact that ought to provoke not regret but a greater appreciation of his feats and carriage.”

This was May 2006. 8 years, 26 revamped international hundreds and a World Cup later, Sachin is Fading away.

********

We knew him from before he was 16, when our extraordinary expectations were built on hope. At the end, we had come full circle. Now, our hopes were based on expectations built over 24 extraordinary  years. At each stage we had been spoilt by our own perceptions of an unknown reality.

Ultimately then, he wasn’t quite God. But if there is one, then imperfections and all, the Sachin Tendulkar career was a wonderful human prayer.

Posted in Celebration, Cricket, India, Sachin Tendulkar | 6 Comments

In tell-all planet, nothing is sacred anymore.

Rohit Brijnath on Sanctity in modern sport. (From The Straits Times this morning)

A RETIRED Indian cricketer is discussing a book project with a journalist friend a few months ago. He is interested in a book but of a certain type. He might examine greatness but not gossip, he may offer the secrets to his genius but not of the dressing room. He is blunt: “Did I play cricket to make friendships or to sell books?”

He is a noble fellow who considers his cricket relationships to be sacred and unprintable. And he is right. He will not sell many books.

Alex Ferguson is selling a lot of copies of his book, My Autobiography, and not because he is a mild gossip but because of the excellent mind he has and magnificent club he managed. His book is chatty, informative and perceptive, ghosted by the terrific writer Paul Hayward and mottled with enough tidbits to guarantee sufficient controversy which in turn makes book publishers drink congratulatory gins at long lunches.

So Ferguson tells a few dressing room tales. Yawn. Who doesn’t these days?

Australian cricketers, a gruff, hard tribe of beer drinkers, now point fingers about dressing room spats in breathless books. In England, a “space monkey” story escaped the football dressing room before its final line was probably uttered.

Sacred anyway seems out of date as a sporting idea. Sacred appears an uncool, romantic notion in a confessional culture. Sacred can’t survive in a planet of tweeting players, club Facebook pages and official websites that tell you “10 favourite snacks” of a new football signing as if revealing the menu of the last supper.

Modern sport is caught in a mindless feeding frenzy and sacred just needs to get the hell out of the way. Every line is being blurred or crossed as entertainment is no longer restricted to the field. This year, America’s National Football League ordered that cameras be situated in every dressing room. It is terrible news for we are about to discover that the average football coach is not Denzel Washington reciting a speechwriter’s brilliance in Remember The Titans. Still we will watch.

I must step carefully for as a journalist it is my job to get into sacred places. I have sat in team buses. I have waited with a player in the dressing room as he readied for a Davis Cup tennis match. I’d sell some of my friends just to attend a half-time team talk in football. I asked a Singapore coach once. He told me to buzz off.

Maybe he did the right thing. Maybe the tension of winning a match or the terror of losing should always be private. The defeated must be allowed their dignity and the victorious their brief moment of collective joy.

Part of the allure of sport anyway must be its mystery. How did they do it? What did the coach say? To have everything in sport filmed “live”, every team instruction relayed to us, might be vaguely interesting but it is also the death of imagination.

We will never need to wonder what happened. We will never grow legends in our minds or build myths and sport is less interesting without them. Ferguson’s “hairdryer”, for instance, was far more fun when it was still a myth.

The sacred in sport is dying not just because of our craving for detail but because the athletic community is neither protesting it fiercely or protecting it faithfully.

The dressing room retains an element of sanctuary, a sweaty temple of “us against the world”, a place where men can reveal their furies and foibles and not be judged by all of us. Till the tell-all books hit the shelves and athletes tweet about in-house discord. We love this gossip but perhaps we are losing something precious in the bargain.

The sacred in sport is not sustainable any more, it is not sound business. Now most things are for sale. Now any hallowed ground is open to be stamped on by logos. Now Ferguson, who didn’t much care for the media, is doing interviews all over the media.

But just when you think sport has tossed out everything sacred – even golfers call each other cheats in public these days – something gently old-fashioned and cherished occurs.

On Sunday night, Roger Federer lost in the final of the Swiss Indoors in Basel, collected his runner-up trophy and the crowd clapped and it would not stop. They clapped till he was bewildered and they clapped till their hands must have hurt.

No one was gaining anything here. No secrets were being shared. No ratings were at stake. No intrusion was occurring. It was just a nation offering its man a standing ovation. And in doing so they gave us a sweet reminder. Some rituals sacred to sport are still loudly alive.

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A video of that ovation.

 

Posted in Celebration, Federer, Rohit Brijnath, Sports | Leave a comment

The Patriotic Pandemonium of Sachin Tendulkar

On the announcement of Sachin Tendulkar retiring, Rohit Brijnath, in this morning’s Straits Times.

WILL he make a speech, this retiring Sachin Tendulkar, in his home city of Mumbai in November during his last Test and is it the closest we’ll come to a nation crying?
Will grown men snivel, maybe me, too, for his 24-year journey since 1989 was made alongside ours. He, 40, is part of our history, our dialogue, our reading, our growing up. Sport always goes on, but there is a sense of something ending – his career and every vestige of our youth.
Will another player ever find his entry to an Indian field an event in itself? He had India’s attention before it could see him, a frozen nation  waiting for him to emerge from the pavilion and adjust his crotch and take his stance, the only sane man in the stadium Tendulkar himself, unmoved as the crowd  sang out his name like a single-word anthem. Perhaps Napoleon arrived on the battlefield with such similar pomp.
Will people elsewhere ever understand what he meant and the absurdity of his life, wherein a vast, ancient land  found something sporting, substantial, reassuring and unifying in a 16-year-old with a bat? Genius who didn’t swear, smoke, drink. Genius so venerated that he never got to taste the beauty of the ordinary life.
And genius he was, evident in his technique, his composure, his consistency, his longevity, at his best a perfectly-designed, perpetually-polished machine of batsmanship.  He could never be the greatest batsman ever for Donald Bradman had that seat, but he was there next in line.
Will he awake in December happy not to be this secular god any more? Or will he ache for the applause that was his daily music? Tendulkar could not tuck his shirt in or burp without India clapping. All worship has a tinge of madness and a taste of addiction.
Will he potter through 2014, no team meetings, no nets, and will he pick up a bat and put his nose to it, searching for the intoxicating smell of wood, sweat,  tension? Will he switch on an old DVD of himself and watch alone, lonely forever without this game?
Will he regret his last years, his stumbling towards his final century, his testing of public faith, his riding for a brief time on his name when for his entire career he had so wonderfully done the opposite?
Will he write a book and confess his fears or would fans rather he did not, for few want to see their heroes as imperfect? Will he, a reserved man, speak out and settle scores or will he remain this modest, decent, fast-car-driving, image-conscious, soft-spoken enigmatic poet’s son?
Will he watch TV and enjoy the truth that he is the measurement by which modern batsmen are gauged? Yet  will he cringe and wish people would not use his deeds to  burden another prodigy for he knows too well what burdens feel like?
Will India pander to the moment by awarding him the Bharat Ratna, its highest civilian honour, and will he please refuse it for despite all he did, highly-paid cricket does not truly qualify as service to a nation? The star athlete is unworthy alongside the anonymous hero who helps the disadvantaged lead a more dignified life.
If India truly cares it should strike a medal in his name, given not for hundreds scored, but to the young man of any given year who wears his excellence unpretentiously. Greatness is common; in wearing his greatness gently and his legend discreetly, for so long, Tendulkar was uncommon.
Will he please agree to some tests of heart, brain, muscle so we can map his genius and unravel how he wore pressure so persuasively? And what pressure it was.
He played not for a club like Ronaldo, not for a franchise – except later in Twenty20 – like LeBron James, not for himself like Tiger Woods. He did all his work in an India shirt for a struggling nation absent of sporting idols to the sound of patriotic pandemonium. He was constantly informed he was not allowed to fail.
Will Tendulkar, as he lets go of cricket, be finally let go by India, can he be returned, older, worn, lined, back to his family with grateful thanks, for what more can a nation take from him?
India should let him breathe and stand at a distance and at best point and grin and say his name. For the generation that grew up with him, he will be always “Sachin” , never “Mr Tendulkar”. For them  he is forever that boy of wonder  and the batsman who can never be equalled. Without such myth, sport is incomplete.
But  will Tendulkar also understand that everything passes, even him, and new generations own separate heroes, and there will be a time when a snotty kid will ask, in earshot of him, “This Sachin, he was really that good?”
Ah, unless you lived in his time, you’d never believe it. He wasn’t just a person, you see, and certainly no god, he was in fact a singular Indian experience.

Posted in Cricket, India, Retirements, Rohit Brijnath, Sachin Tendulkar | 25 Comments

The Silent Shadow

Earlier this week, Sangeeta (the significant mother), premiered her new play, about domestic abuse.

Image

After the performance, Rohit Brijnath, spoke to the audience about something he’d shared with us earlier. This morning, a version of it (without the emotion in the voice from that evening)  is in the Straits Times.

===

Every day, somewhere in the world, someone’s daughter is being hit, slapped, kicked by a husband, a boyfriend, a lover. Every now and then we might see a picture on a poster of someone’s battered daughter but rarely hear or see the invisible wounded. Every so often someone’s daughter is told by a husband “I’m sorry”, by a family, “let’s compromise” and it goes unreported.
Every time I hear this, I think: I hope I told my daughter differently, I hope she heard me.
I have multiple identities, but clearly my most profound one is as father of a daughter. In morning trains, on my evening couch, at my daily desk, she – my only child – is the one I debate most in my head. How is my child? Where is her life going? Has she lost weight? Why hasn’t she written? Did I tell her enough about life and love and cruelty?
Did I tell her about men who hit women? Yes. Do I still tell her? Yes. Did I tell her enough? I’m not sure.
This struck me again a few weeks ago when a friend, Ms Sangeeta Nambiar, who wrote and recently directed a devastating, dazzling play on domestic violence, The Silent Shadow, called me. Ms Nambiar and I had once spoken about the conversations I have with my daughter and she asked if I would speak about them to her audience after her play – whose current run has ended but will be staged again on Nov 19 – last Wednesday.
I didn’t want to. I am a writer of words whose friend is silence except for the raised, private voices in my argumentative head. The spoken word is foreign, yet I felt compelled to speak. Because as much as we see ourselves as an evolved planet, we still exist in a time when patriarchy and sexism and violence against women run strong and so every man, irrespective of his geography, needs to stand up and speak up for women.
My daughter is grown up, joyous in a marriage to the very gentlest of men, and she is an academic by profession and a feminist by instinct: She teaches me and I hope I once taught her. As a parent I am no different from others: I want to protect my child, but I also always wanted her to protect herself. I wanted her to see herself as bright and tough and capable. Not confined by her sex to a role but a kicker-down of glass ceilings forged by idle chauvinists.
I wanted her to educate herself and find economic independence, partly because no woman should feel imprisoned in an abusive relationship. The most awful predicament, after all, is the absence of choice. In my parents’ generation, when women often stayed at home with their secrets, I wonder how many led lives of silent suffocation.
I mostly wanted my child to understand – through my attitudes and remarks and conversation – that women are equal, completely, and if a man ever strikes her she is not to feel shame or hide it but tell someone. Me, a friend, the police. Because it’s inexcusable and it’s not something you compromise over.
This is not a favour we do for our children. This is our obligation. On where I stand on this, she must never be in doubt. Of my protection, she must never be unsure. A woman who recently escaped an abusive marriage told me: “I am lucky that I have supportive parents.” The unintended sadness in the phrase was inescapable; to have “supportive” parents is “lucky”?
Men hit women all over the world in numbers that are startling. In Singapore, according to Family Court statistics, the number of personal protection orders given has risen from 2,019 in 1997 to 3,073 last year. But, as Dr Sudha Nair, executive director of Pave, the lead agency dealing with family violence here, says: “We at Pave think that people are now willing to come forward, so the numbers are increasing.”
In the United States, notes the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, “one in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime”.
In Britain, the Women’s Aid website quotes a 2000 study that “though only a minority of incidents of domestic violence are reported to the police, the police still receive one call about domestic violence for every minute”.
We are appalled by this, of course we are, because we are all decent and moral people. But still it continues and decent and moral people will occasionally shrug and say, maybe she provoked it, and, clearly he’s a good provider, and anyway, it was just a slap.
It is easy to be outraged by the confronting image of a woman with a broken nose and swollen lip. But is the slap not worth a police complaint, not worth a churning between families, not worth walking out for? So what do I tell my child, to adjust and bear it and turn another Christian cheek and let it go?
But just as we insist there must be zero tolerance in matters of sexual harassment, then a similar standard must apply for domestic violence. So it is my duty as a parent to empower my daughter to understand that even “just a slap” is too much. That even “just a slap” is worth her outrage and mine.
We have to open dialogues with our daughters and never close them. When young, they hear but may not listen and so when older we must tread these paths again. One day, my child will have to instruct her daughters and might begin by telling them they are no one’s property.
I never liked the phrase “giving the bride away” because she is not some possession handed over for safe-keeping from one man to another. She’s not a thing, she’s a person, she’s my child, who is never abandoned by me. And this matters because in cases of domestic violence, daughters can feel too embarrassed to come home and parents can refuse to let them feel welcome at home.
Terrible triviality comes in the way of common sense. A daughter’s immediate tragedy and safety are submerged in distracting discussion on losing face in society, on the difficulty of getting remarried, on the trauma of police cases. But my child surely matters to me more than any of this and my child has to know this from me. She has to know, always, that she can come home for she is never a woman of a single, fixed address.
I think my daughter knows this. Still, when I told her I was going to speak about fathers and daughters, she did say this to me: “Perhaps fathers should also start talking to their sons.” For they are doing the hitting.

.

Posted in Debate, General, Rohit Brijnath, Sangeeta | 5 Comments

On the Boorish Sports “fan” ..

At last weekend’s Singapore F1 race, Sebastian Vettel won comprehensively, only to get booed at the podium for the nth time this season.

The following is Rohit Brijnath‘s piece on it. Quite superb.

 

THE Sunday boos in Singapore at the F1 had no powerful cause, no sudden provocation, no comic underpinning. They were not a spontaneous reaction to an unworthy act nor a chorus of disapproval against a racist, hateful figure. No, the boos on Sunday were just a dull weapon in witless hands.

Aimed at race winner Sebastian Vettel, the boos came from an unknown crowd. They were a minority but the boo, an unseemly single syllable, can cut harshly through any cheer. The booers know this for they come not to make a point but to be heard while shrouded in a mob. They come to attract attention and steal a man’s moment. The boo is many things but it is rarely brave for it leaves the athlete with no comeback.

The boos were annoying but flicked off by Vettel as he did the headband of sweat on his forehead. He’d driven 300km in Singaporean humidity with the effortlessness of a tourist on a city-drive in a fancy car. He is fabulous without fuss and a man who leaves the world behind him does not stop to worry about boos.

The boos have been following Vettel around like a personal soundtrack. Partly they are born of his overtaking of team-mate Mark Webber in Malaysia even after the team ordered he should not. It was a calculated, crude, opportunistic move and he was rightly criticised. Then the sport moved on but not the boorish.

Boos have since chased Vettel across continents as if his transgression was worth an extended humiliation. Now these righteous hecklers are beginning to smell like bullies. If Ferrari folk, for instance, despise him, they might remember their own German, who swept through races like the Sirocco, a wind hot and fast. Michael Schumacher was a devilish talent but scarcely a saint either.

Partly the boos appear connected to Vettel’s superiority – three straight F1 titles – for somehow, as with even Schumacher once, the formidable athlete can become unloved for his dominance. Fans relish change but refinding excellence every week, every month, every year, as Vettel does, can never be routine. It is, in fact, breathtaking. If we boo great skill then we don’t deserve great sport.

Booing isn’t new but it is now harsher, it is the audible version of the Twitter troll who believes rudeness is clever. Booing is orchestrated to put off a rival and aimed at anthems to make a feeble nationalistic point. It is born of tribalism which is the most disquieting child of modern times.

“My team” in sport now means the only team and there is a blindness to this philosophy – if you can only see your football club or your car racing team then you only see half of sport. In his superb, recent piece on booing, my friend Greg Baum, a columnist with The Age in Melbourne, wrote of crowds: “There has been an overall change in tone and temper, less informed by humour, more personal, more shrill … nearer in disposition to a lynch mob.”

Tribalism has sparked an exaggerated competitiveness, even in tennis, where a delight at the Roger-Rafa duet increasingly became a divided tale of Federer and Nadal. To elevate one now, sadly requires diminishing the other.

In a world where they, the athletes, hug generously, fans see no reason to embrace another’s view. Even if, ironically, it is impossible to admire Federer without praising Nadal – and vice versa – for one man’s gifts, and limitations, are seen clearest when in the company of the other man.

Sport, of course, will always be about choosing sides, it will always evoke tears when a team falls, for it is an intensely emotional and personal activity. But as we take our kids to these arenas, preaching the value of sport, surely there is more at stake than taking sides and scarfs worn and boos uttered.

Perhaps sport is also, even if grudgingly, about acknowledging a victor’s courage and appreciating his varied skill. After all, in seeing a rival as worthy, we make beating him a finer deed.

If sports, too, is reduced to this primitive idea where you are either with your team or against it, then we are bringing a black and white view to one of life’s most colourful landscapes. Sport, of all things, should not be so crude; sport, of all places, should summon the better parts of us.

And then sometimes it does.

On the morning after the booing of Vettel, I ran into a religious United supporter, now washed in irritation after defeat by City.

I asked him about City’s first goal, an improvised dance by Nasri-Kolarov-Aguero and he did not pause, or curse, but said this:

“Just beautiful.”

United for him is the best team, but he understood that on some days there can be a better team. Even if it is a disliked, rival team. And by choosing not to jeer City, he was, in his own simple way, actually cheering football.

 

Posted in Rohit Brijnath, Sports | 1 Comment

On Lionel Messi…

If you watched the game, or even if you didn’t…

Rohit Brijnath in this morning’s Straits Times.

 

FIFTH minute. Busquets to Leo. Leo to Xavi. Xavi to Leo.

Calm chess pieces on a football field. Trigonometry in boots. Take your pick.

Leo touches the ball with the outside of his left boot. It bounces gently. He’s in a crowd now, he can feel the breath of five men. Three behind, two in front. Like Jack Reacher in a fight.

He has no time. No space. You think. He counts time differently, in smaller, almost slower fractions. He sees space differently, he sees gaps that haven’t opened yet, he sees tackles before defenders have even considered them.

The ball leaves his left foot without violence. This is not unusual for his game is infinitely quieter than Cristiano Ronaldo’s. His goals are rarely thunderous, they are deft.

The ball is in the top left corner of the net. The goalkeeper can only appreciate it, not save it.

1-0.

It’s brilliant, it’s not enough. It’s never enough with him.

Leo can score (53 goals in 42 games this season), he can win, and they still ask: Leo, more. Leo, again. Leo, a goal today. Leo, tomorrow, too. For every rebuttal through a dribble, dart, twist, flick, chip, there’s always another absurd feat to challenge him with.

Oh well, they say once: Leo’s never scored in England. Then he did. Oh dear, they say weeks ago: He’s never scored against Italian opposition from open play. He has now. The irony of genius is that the finer you play, the more records you set, the more improbable a feat you achieve, the more ludicrous it all turns. He has to keep impressing, till he can’t any more.

Maybe Leo knows this. Maybe it’s why he made those charming, almost self-mocking ads for HerbaLife. He bowls a batsman by side-volleying a cricket ball. He converts a basket by flicking a left-footer over a basketballer. It’s like Leo laughing at himself.

At the end, Leo for once he doesn’t look a kid, but a stubbled, exhausted man. His mind is unreadable, but his team, and him, play not with a familiar arrogance all night but as if they are wounded, proud, angry, desperate.

A declining team? A team that passes without purpose? A player lesser these past few months than Ronaldo? Sometimes history is motivation, sometimes athletes just want to shut us up.

Critics flip-flop with their respect. Not opponents who know reality, who chase the ball and then can’t keep it. They know it’s foolish to undermine Barcelona, even if their defence is made of toothpicks, or underestimate Leo.

All night defenders bring Leo down to earth literally. But then, with a half-smile, they haul him up, as if sheepishly admitting, you had me there, so please understand I just had to trip you. It’s almost the best moment of the night.

Till Leo scores again. He slides left. He has a defender before him. As he strikes the ball, the defender thrusts his right leg out, a gap opens up between his legs, the ball goes through, into the corner of the goal.

2-0.

Is it luck? Or is it anticipation, and idea, and precise response? Has Leo read the lunge, calculated that a space will open between the legs, understood the goalie might be fractionally unsighted, and thus strikes the ball low?

Is this genius?

But the night’s best moment is yet to come. At around halfway through the second half, he has a free kick outside the box. He places the ball, shifts in his red-laced boots. And he hits the wall.

Huh! Leo misses! He can miss! The anti-climax, on this particular night, is stunning, almost funny yet it is lovely. Yes, he’s not perfect, he’s just more perfect than anyone else in football on most given nights.

Celebration is under way and then it will start again. The challenges. Well, we’ll see if he can take Barcelona to the Champions League title; let’s wait and watch if he can outplay Ronaldo after two recent Real defeats. Again, and again, a man imprisoned by his own brilliance must find ways to keep playing with freedom.

But this is what genius wants. The opportunity to parade a skill. And maybe to go home and listen to a commentator offering simple homage – as happened on Tuesday night after the first goal – with a one-word prayer:

“Leo, Leo, Leo, Leo, Leo.”

Sometimes there is nothing else to say.

Posted in Not Cricket, Rohit Brijnath | 2 Comments

On Imposing Discipline..

Rohit Brijnath’s piece on the Australian Cricket saga of the past few days. From this morning’s Straits Times.

 

REVENGE is always gleeful. Mauled on the field by Australia, envious of their casual unity, cricketing nations have spent decades in painful prostration before them. Now, in a delicious irony, a grinning world is offering them lessons on team culture and spirit. If you live long enough, there is nothing in sport you will not see.

Four Australian cricketers – James Pattinson, Mitchell Johnson, Shane Watson, Usman Khawaja – have been ignored for selection for the third Test in India notionally for not sending in suggestions to coach Mickey Arthur on how to improve their team. It seems the equivalent of being asked to stand outside class for forgetting homework. For a macho nation, it is a hideous image.

The only paperwork that once concerned Australians was the scoresheet. They wrote history on it, not notes. An Australian journalist described the crime to me as a “parking infringement”. A former cricket coach of another nation noted “the Australians are cracking”. In football, where Wayne Rooney was once benched for a night out, this spanking would be standard; in cricket’s unique world, this is contentious.

Team captain Michael Clarke later insisted more was at play here: “I want the public and the media to understand, it’s not just about one incident.” Yet, nothing was spelt out, a lack of transparency about the sins at hand which led only to speculation. Clarke does not like Khawaja. An egotistical Watson’s exit was planned. In this, team management has slightly mismanaged a team.

Argument is raging like a verbal bushfire. The former cricket coach told me “not everyone likes to write”. Presumably, they can at least text. Times have changed. Shane Warne in his day might have turned any request form into a paper plane, but his homework was evident in his performance.

Exceptions for sinning are always made, but usually for the exceptional. As the saying goes, “the bigger the pain in the a** you are, the bigger your game had better be.” The old Australians were dominant and victory forgives everything. The current practitioners are mostly average and only building a culture and every little thing matters. Be on time. Fulfil media duties. Obey the captain.

The former cricket coach asks: “Did the players know if they didn’t respond they wouldn’t be in the next Test?” If it wasn’t clear, why not? If it was, what does it reveal of their motivation?

Indeed, if Khawaja, on the team’s periphery, is keen to play, such a minor task like listing three points in four days should be within the ambit of even someone with a tiny attention span. The counterpoint is that, if the task is minor, so should be the penalty.

In most sports, the coach is revealed as an autocrat, personified best by Alex Ferguson, who runs a well-documented hair-dryer company. But cricket’s ruling figure is the captain. In a long game full of tactical consideration, he fashions the culture, his position is not ceremonial but deeply influential.

For traditionalists, the modern cricket coach is an inflated invention, who mistakenly sees himself as a football-like figure. But he is supposed to only assist the captain, not dilute his role.

But, since it is Clarke’s team, he must wear responsibility for their slackness. And, if he is unhappy with discipline, he should have spoken out first – not Arthur who is being mocked – and with clarity and authority about his indiscreet team-mates. Sometimes the identity of the voice gives a legitimacy to a punishment.

But, either way, discipline is non-negotiable as teams are constructed. John Wooden, the US college basketball coach, insisted in the 1950s that his team never use profanity, criticise each other or arrive late. Others bind teams through ceremonial acts, like the the Australians visiting Gallipoli to remember their war dead.

Playing for a nation should be sufficient motivation to walk a disciplined line. But, in a distracting, celebrity world, all manner of ideas, some in the guise of gimmicks like listing three points, is flirted with in the search of spirit.

When it works, it is brilliant invention. With Australia currently, little is working, and, if their harsh penalty has earned ridicule, it also might be calculated to get the players’ attention. The danger is revolt, the reward might be a higher new standard.

With its dope scandals, the silliness of its swim team and now the cricket controversy, Australian sport, once a model, now looks bruised. It only proves that great sporting cultures do not simply keep breathing strongly but must be carefully preserved.

The cricketing management believes, and not entirely wrongly, that success in the short-term is worth sacrificing for a process to be set in place. But, by allowing it to become a public and ridiculous spectacle, a presumed lesson on discipline has turned also to evident distraction. A good point has been clumsily made.

Posted in Australia, Cricket, Rohit Brijnath | 1 Comment

What Sport Needs …

In this morning’s Straits Times, Rohit Brijnath writes about what Champions need to do to champion sport.

The names of the kids don’t matter. Their geographies are irrelevant. Maybe they’re a postman’s son, a teacher’s child, a janitor’s daughter. They run, kick a ball, wield a racket. Let’s say they’re 17, own an unusual turn of speed, a heightened gift of hand-eye coordination. Just kids, like a million others, who want to be great.

They breathe sport, they worship the field. They dream of a Ferrari one day, a house for their parents, a title. They practise, sweat, vomit, bleed. Hour after hour. They’ll do whatever it takes to get there.

So how do we tell these kids that “whatever it takes” in modern sport isn’t what they thought it was?

In locker rooms, the kids will see talent. They will be seduced by the cult of celebrity and enamoured by the sense of entitlement. They will hear stars laugh about diving in the penalty area. Dad may have said football was about character, but maybe dad was wrong. They want to be great. Maybe they should dive.

Whatever it takes.

The kids may have presumed Australia was a promised sporting land, but a new report scarily titled “Organised crime and drugs in sport” has confirmed no nation holds the moral high ground.

They will read the seizures of Performance and Image Enhancing Drugs at the Australian border rose 106 per cent between 2009-10 and 2010-11; that hormones detected rose 225 per cent in that period. They will be shaken that prohibited substances are being facilitated by “sports scientists, high-performance coaches and sports staff”.

What should the kids do? They are given pills, vitamins they are told; they take it. They are given drinks, to replace fluids they are told; they drink it. At Essendon footy club in Australia, some players reportedly complained about injections but still had to take them. Do these kids have the authority to challenge their trainers?

Or just take whatever it is?

Kids just want to compete. Sport at its simplest. But it’s never that simple. They know cricket has been tainted. Tennis has banned fixers. Now, again, football matches are being investigated.

Inevitably the kids will hear strange conversations and find strangers trying to befriend them. They will need to be taught strong codes, but instead will get the one about “omerta”, the code of silence. Don’t rat on your cheating fellow players or clubs to officials, media, the world.

What can we do for these kids?

We talk, we change policy, we involve the police. Fifa recently asked all its 3,182 officials to sign an Integrity Declaration. There are cameras outside dressing rooms in some sports. There is a hotline in cricket, there is new one for Fifa. They promise anonymity. Does anyone dare call?

Perhaps what the kids need are heroes for they still believe in them. Just stand-up guys, anti- Lance Armstrong guys.

If established athletes tell of advances by crooks, if they insist on more drug tests, it is reassurance. The job of the athlete is to play, and to play cleanly, but excellence in itself isn’t enough any more. Sport needs protection and it needs it from players willing to speak out because this is their life.

So let’s introduce the kids to Andy Murray. In tennis, in 2011, only 131 blood tests were done – incredibly less than the 195 in 2006 – and only 21 were out of competition. It’s feeble. So the Scot challenged it powerfully:

“If one in 100 players is doping, in my eyes that isn’t a clean sport and we need to do everything we can to ensure that everyone that’s competing at the highest level – and below – is clean. I think that comes with the biological passports and with more blood-testing.”

The kids will hear Murray recommend a cutting of prize money – presumably from top players – to fund testing. They will hear him say of cycling, “I don’t want that happening for my sport”. They’re kids but they understand that once a sports’ reputation dives, it’s hard to retrieve it.

The kids need to hear about Simone Farina, an Italian footballer whose actions confirm courage is more than not flinching from a tackle. In 2011, Farina reported an offer of bribe, Farina stood up, 17 people were arrested. Farina said recently: “(The management) cannot leave players isolated and afraid to speak out when they are confronted by the wrong individuals.”

The kids should watch a 2011 speech made by Indian cricketer Rahul Dravid, who said: “As players, the one way we can stay ahead for the game, is if we are willing to be monitored and regulated closely. Even if it means giving up a little bit of freedom of movement and privacy.”

Dravid flirted with the idea of lie-detector tests to clear the innocent and with finances being scrutinised. It seems too much, but he added: “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” Imagine if it has come to this.

Some athletes will always lean towards cheating. And there’s no elegantly precise solution. But if champions are presumed to lead by example, here’s where they can start. Off the court and outside the arena. At clinics and press conferences. Vocally asserting their authority and exerting their influence. And trying to reclaim sport by giving it a true, clean voice.

LeBron James, Lionel Messi, Sebastian Vettel, Rory McIlroy, Tseng Yani, Jessica Ennis, Sun Yang. All of them saying: test me, check me, any time. They owe it to themselves. And sport. And the kids.

Maybe it’s time for them to do whatever it takes.

Posted in General, Rohit Brijnath | 1 Comment

Spin. And a Fresh Turn.

Rohit Brijnath in this morning’s Straits Times - on the joy of watching Spin.

 

 SOME days a sport reminds you why you fell in love with it as a boy. Why nationality is irrelevant in front of art. Why for all the plastic surgery a sport undergoes – and cricket can sometimes be unrecognisable – an essential beauty lingers still. One of those days was Sunday. When men ambled in, took a few dancing steps, turned their arms and spun hallucinations with a ball that left me and a host of batsmen giddy.

Of 89.3 overs bowled on Sunday in the second India-England Test match, 78.3 were spin. Six bowlers, three left-handed and three right-handed, bowled spin. Two of them were Sikhs with different passports and stalked by Son of Sardar jokes. A third mangles tunes for a band called Dr Comfort and the Lurid Revelations. Fifteen wickets fell all day and all to spin. It was like Merlin having his brothers over for a conference on magic spells.

Fast bowlers have menace, limited vocabularies, possibly bad breath and low IQs. Or that’s what batsmen say. But spinners are a different breed, first cousins of fellows who love drop shots in tennis, footballers who like to dummy and basketballers who use no-look passes. Fabrice Santoro would be a hell of a spinner.

Fast bowlers have plans, spinners have conspiracies. Fast bowlers own a hitman’s glare, spinners have a conman’s gleam. Fast bowlers will hurt you but bruised fingers will heal; spinners will cause much more sweeping and serious harm. They make you look stupid.

When Englishman Mike Gatting had his nose broken by West Indian Malcolm Marshall, he resembled a bruised, black-eyed fighter from a manly art; yet when Shane Warne deceived him with his magical ball in 1993 – a delivery simply known as that ball – Gatting’s face had the stunned look of a man who’d committed a faux pas on TV.

Recently, a bowler wearily told me that almost every kid in India wants to be a batsman because they know who gets the applause. Batsmen get an ovation after every boundary, every stylish shot, every subtle cut; the bowler only when he gets a wicket. But not this Sunday.

This Sunday, cricket balanced itself. It was India against England yet something greater than nation against nation, it was spinners against batsmen. A battle of forms.

This game tilts towards batsmen yet here they were mostly revealed as duffers, illiterates who could not read nuance. Spinners can evict you even by not turning a ball, but by making you think they might. Monty Panesar bowled one straight at Sachin Tendulkar and he was gone.

Only one of 11 Indian batsmen lasted 20 balls in the second innings and even the surliest, flag-painted jingoist had to guffaw at this irony. At home, on Indian wickets, made at their own request, India couldn’t – comparably – bowl spin or play spin. While Kevin Pietersen and Alastair Cook played it as if their driveways in England are layered with 22 yards of Indian mud.

Sunday was not quite Warne in his pizza-eating genius prime. But the intensity was making my TV smoke. Between a fast bowler’s deliveries there is time as he returns to his mark. Here there was no respite. The spinners moved rapidly from ball to ball, over to over, suffocating the batsmen, the ball fizzing, leering, drifting, darting. Tempo is a lovely word, coincidentally to be found in music, in chess and in Panesar’s action on Sunday.

The English weren’t over-experimenting, weren’t flirting with this new-age nonsense of teesras and carrom balls. As Bishen Bedi, the former Indian spinner, said: “The English bowlers were delightful to watch. They didn’t try to do too much.”

All the while, fielders tightly encircled batsmen like a hunting dog pack. Batsmen can hear conversation and intent. They feel closed in, but do they dare step out? In his knee guards, short-leg stands there like an armoured acrobat.

There is a great bustling of activity in a small space like many men stuffed in one boxing ring. Tension is inevitable when a spinner bowls. Says former batsman Rahul Dravid: “There’s a feeling of claustrophobia and it’s intimidating at times.”

Yes, and riveting.

When India lost 0-4 to England last summer, there was endless teeth-gnashing. Which ended with the expected defiance of the defeated: “See you in our backyard”.

England came, are 1-1 in the series, won by 10 wickets, and by using an art form Indians claim as their own. Even Doctor Dhoni can’t spin such a defeat. But really, I don’t care who wins. In the end, it’s only the craft that remains in sport.

Posted in Captain, Cricket, Dhoni, Dravid, Rohit Brijnath | 7 Comments

‘Gastrosexuals’ are hard to stomach ..

Someone had to say this. I’m glad it was Rohit Brijnath. From today’s Straits Times.

 

Once upon a lovely time, men were simple: We drank, burped, watched sports, picked noses, tossed back chips and thought John Coltrane was cool. We sank into our couches, yet travelled widely on the literary coat-tails of Hunter S. Thompson.

But men have evolved, if you can call it that, and it is all rather disturbing. The aftershave as a default gift has died quietly: Now one friend craves only a particular brand of hair-moisturising mousse and another vain fellow is partial to facials and scrubs. Who are these people?

Men are changing. The rugged hero of the Marlboro ad is long forgotten, and even Clint Eastwood doesn’t spit as much in his movies. Now men would tire Mrs Imelda Marcos while shoe shopping, inhale cigars with the authority of chaps who have just lunched with Mr Raul Castro, window shop for spectacle frames and shrink from any whiskey unless it is 18 years old.

Of course, when I blind-tested my friends once, at least one such connoisseur picked an Indian whiskey that could run a truck as tasting finer than a Lagavulin.

This world is hard enough to navigate for a man like me, who has more skin tags on his face than he has shoes. But it is the new foodies who are unbearable. The metrosexual can be handled, the ‘gastrosexual’ is intolerable.

These are men who gently marinate pig’s testicles, toss around words like “sauteing” and are found by women to be irresistible. Evidently the kitchen is the new bedroom. Chef Nigella Lawson once told a newspaper that “the notion of women eating makes men lascivious”, but sweaty men in aprons are evidently even saucier.

Making an omelette that didn’t explode was a triumph, but now a man must know his cinnamon from his cardamom and his Chinese from his chinois.

TV chefs, mostly male, are the new celebrities and Hell’s Kitchen is no longer a tough New York neighbourhood but a cooking show with a theme song.

In a way, it is rather beautiful. The kitchen has become an equaliser (hey, I wash the dishes) and salad tossing has its own masculinity. Even in The Godfather, a roadside execution is followed by the immortal words, “leave the gun, take the cannoli”. Only the deep-fried chauvinist will argue against this delectable division of labour.

But must I applaud the amateur male cook because he’s vaguely dextrous with a saucepan? And much worse, is it beholden on me to join this elevated middle class, of both sexes, who view chatter on recipes as high conversation and aim their camera-phones at their restaurant plates to preserve a culinary memory?

It is the fetishness of foodies, and their attendant superiority, which makes me want to broil them. It’s one thing when a friend buys meat for his steaks with the finicky care with which his wife chooses handbags; it’s quite another that when I want mine well done, I am labelled a “culinary caveman”.

Among these folks, a fellow’s sensitivity index is now determined by his palate. It scarcely matters what you think of Saudi Arabian women drivers, but can you taste that sprinkling of sesame? And if you don’t know the best neighbourhood shop to buy aubergines from, well then why are you on this planet exactly? There is almost a fake religiosity at work here sometimes, with its accompanying pressure to conform.

I like Luciano Pavarotti, Rafael Nadal and Akira Kurosawa; I just find Italian food uninspiring, can live a complete life without paella and am very happy for you to drape yourself in seaweed sheets. Food is a necessity for me, not a hedonistic pursuit.

Maybe the simple eater – daal, bhindi, naan, paneer and, yes, I could eat it for every meal – is becoming an endangered and disdained species. Being a basic hunter-gatherer – hunt down familiar restaurant, gather takeout curry – is to be boring. And worse, irrelevant, for constantly there is a sense of people around talking in a foreign language called Epicure.

Emu, said a male friend to me the other day.

Fine beast, I said.

It’s for dinner, you idiot, he replied.

I requested butter chicken instead, he – with great pain, one must admit he is a decent cook – countered by slandering me in his food column as a “loud, loutish, Punjabi intellectual”. Not a word of that is true. Alas, not even the last.

People have always enjoyed food, and as Oscar Wilde once wrote: “After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relatives.”

But it’s the pretentiousness that’s slightly overcooked on occasion.

At one level you have the courageous eater, whose machismo is inflated by his ability to digest teriyaki cockroaches. To not nibble, one presumes, is seen to be timid. At another level is the fellow who reads restaurant menus as if reciting Shakespeare, with its “sliver of celeriac”, “lightly kissed by a lemongrass sauce” and its “delicately balanced fusion of flavours”. This is a shrine to the supercilious.

And that’s even before it arrives on the table, where you need a microscope to find your food, which is arranged in a design that suggests the chef is a failed interior decorator. And yes, I look at the right side of the menu, for I was born in a nation where malnourishment still thrives.

No disrespect is intended to chefs – whose mushrooming headgear is evidently intended to make them seem even more stately – for they genuinely see food as an art form. But the act of eating, and what we digest, need not be everyone’s pursuit. How we indulge our various senses is a uniquely private pleasure. Taste can’t be dictated to, for that carries with it a certain conceit. To paraphrase the great Louis Armstrong: “You say parmesan, I say paneer.”

That said, emu-eater and associated gourmand friends are soon descending on Singapore for my birthday. E-mail messages have flown, dinners debated, instructions given. It may be my day, but butter chicken is uninvited. I might just sulk and sit in a corner and eat risotto and raita. Really, it isn’t as grotesque as it sounds.

 

 

Posted in For the wives, Not Cricket, Rohit Brijnath | 3 Comments

Making New Moves

This is Rohit Brijnath on Vishwanathan Anand.  From India Today. In 1997.

You look at V. Anand and you cringe; you think, forgive him Father for he knows not what modern sportsmen are supposed to do. He refuses to jell his hair, pierce his ear, give opponents the finger, burn suits that don’t have an Armani label, thank spectators with an uppercut. Instead, he wears a buttoned down, maroon shirt (with dark grey trousers) that requires dark glasses to view it closely; he wincingly admits, that he, the man who spends two hours of spare time learning about geography on his computer encyclopaedia, tucks himself into bed with soap operas; and he pursues a lifestyle so healthy that even his seconds have pleaded during matches, “Be unhealthy, hit the disco, come back at 6 a.m.”

The man is a conventional mess. Still, he is excused, forgiven everything. Most of it because he brings to Indian sport a freshness. First, unlike many of his Indian contemporaries, he doesn’t have to do frequent mri scans to check if he’s got a brain; the man is Mr IQ Just Short of Einstein, who can play 10 games at a time blindfolded never seeing any of the boards, just knowing where each move should be. Secondly, he’s honest, telling you straight off that he was a weak player (he was No. 2 in the world when he said this, so I guess the rest of you chess players can start weeping), admitting that Garry Kasparov turned him into a ragtag wreck by the end of their 1995 World Championship face-off. Thirdly, he didn’t sit on his behind and moan: working six hours a day, sometimes in 45-day stretches — just studying one of Kasparov’s openings means scrolling through 80,000 games — he’s taken his game to a different level. The world championship begins in December; the Indian who challenges for the crown this time bears no resemblance to the man who sat with Kasparov. Well, may be only the maroon shirt.

To understand Anand is to first decipher what makes a great chess player. Unlike Sachin Tendulkar, whose skills lie evident on a field, chess is not exhibitionist, and so Anand’s virtues lie invisible, locked into his head. Patience, concentration, logic, reasoning, chess knowledge … and memory slightly more complicated than remembering your car number. Chess legend Bobby Fischer once called a friend in Iceland; he was out, his daughter spoke to Fischer in Icelandic explaining in detail where her father had gone. Fischer did not understand Icelandic. Still, he called a friend who did and repeated verbatim what the girl had said and asked what it meant. That sort of memory. So over lunch in Chennai, I pull a test on Anand to check his memory.

A chess-playing friend has helped me out by randomly selecting positions — chess pieces set in a particular pattern — from three games out of a few million or so played. I have a photo of these chess boards. There is nothing else, no names of the players, no year, no type of competition it was played in, no frame of reference. I show him the first picture of the chess board.

Two seconds. “That’s Lasker’s study.” It’s from 1892.

Then the second picture.

He looks. Two seconds later, he says: “Fischer-Najdorf 1962, the knight’s the key, because then …”

Third picture.

A second. Perhaps less. Grins. “That’s me against Kamsky 1994.” My jaw is unhinged.

The information Anand has to deal with is staggering. When he played Anatoly Karpov in 1991, his study was worth 20,000 bytes; prior to playing Kasparov, it was 350,000 bytes; and then just in the two months of preparing for Kasparov, it rose to 2.5 million bytes. He’s not impressed; Kasparov’s is nearly 9 million bytes. He must take this information — perhaps culled from the 500-600 books he has and a million or so games on his database — remember it, dissect it, juggle patterns in his head, think five moves ahead down four different avenues. He must also reason fast. They say chess players can solve a Rubik’s cube in their head. “No,” says Anand, “but some are known to solve it through equations.” Faced with a board where he must decide which of 10 roads his pieces must travel, knowing only one will lead to a draw the rest nine to a loss, his memory, his logical skills, his judgement are all tested.

“You measure memory,” he says, “through the mistakes you make.” He hasn’t made too many of late. This summer he was joint winner with Vladimir Kramnik (who has overtaken him as world No. 2) in Seville, won the blindfold, rapid and overall title in Monaco (defeating Kramnik), beat Karpov in a rapid tournament in Frankfurt, came second behind Kramnik in Dortmund, won the Credit Suisse tournament in Biel and put $170,000 or so into his bank. Somewhere in between he played six of the top computer programmes — Rebel, Genius, Hiartcs, Fritz, Kallisto, King all running on 200Mhz Pentiums or the like — winning three, drawing two, losing one. Kasparov on hearing this would say: “Is Vishy mad?” He was the wrong man to ask that, having almost driven Anand to insanity himself. And to truly appreciate Anand today is to first realise what Kasparov did to him.

In late 1995, when Anand sat down with his four seconds to prepare for the world championship, his world disintegrated. Chess games can be sectioned into two parts: opening game (the line between that and the middle game has become blurred) and the end game. Opening theory — or the complex variations that comprise, say, the first 17 or so moves — is vital. In a sense more important than Pete Sampras’ serve means to him at Wimbledon. It sets the tone. Yet not only did Anand find he had a “limited repertoire of openings”, in a month’s time his seconds had found innumerable flaws in them. This was fatal. Learning new opening theory is akin to grasping a new language, it takes time. You cannot just sit down at a chess board and be inventive. Says Anand: “If I had played myself then I would have wiped myself out.”

Then began a tactical war Anand could not win. Unlike Anand’s seconds who had access to his secrets, Kasparov did not exactly know Anand’s frailty in openings: so he guessed. And when he eventually spotted a flaw he began to systematically map out and exploit Anand’s weaknesses. “By the 10th game,” says Anand, “he broke me.”

There were other complications. To start a chess game, you can use one of four main moves — say A, B, C, D — which eventually lead to complex opening theories. Anand could play only one such move. Kasparov could play all four. He would then note Anand’s response to each of his four plays; and if he found, for instance, that Anand was least comfortable with C, Kasparov would begin to work specifically on that opening. The problem was Anand did not know that Kasparov was readying that one play, so he would prepare his reponses to all four. “I was losing time,” he said. And the world championship.

At home in the hotel, the Anand team was edgy, psychologically worn out from bluffing on the board each day. The match was out of reach, but not the future. Chess players who lose world championships are known to suffer crises of confidence. Instead, Anand decided, “I have to work really hard.”

And so in February 1996, closeted in a room in his house just outside Madrid with his second Georgian GM Elizabar Ubilava, he began. First, a 45-day session, then 15 days in May, then another 45 days in October-November and finally another 45 days in February-March this year. An hour or so in the morning, a long walk, then four hours and more in the afternoon-evening. The education of Anand had begun. The subject: opening theory (most of the time anyway).

Tick, tick, tick, Anand’s finger keeps punching the delete button on his computer. He is demonstrating to me how he studies. He is interested, he explains, in understanding a position in a particular game, at the point where black has just made the 16th move. He is trying to learn what 17th move white can make and what 18th move black can reply with. So he programmes his computer to call up every game played at this position; about 200 are found. Then the computer begins to display each game on his screen. Anand takes 3-4-5 seconds to scan the board, then presses delete; either white’s move 17 is uninteresting, or flawed, or black’s 18th move doesn’t work. He sees all this, reads the game, finds an error, when I haven’t even focused on the board completely.

Eventually he is left with, say, 15 games, which he will peruse carefully, look for some unseen gem, inventing one himself, all over two-three days. That done, he will start his computer’s engine again. The computer, he says “is useless in telling you your structure is wrong, but brilliant in calling bluffs”. Say that Anand has decided to sacrifice a few pawns assured that his attack will end in checkmate; if there is a defence to that strategy, the computer will find it. As his summer results show, his education has paid off. “There was mental relief too,” he explains, “because I wasn’t bluffing.” Now, like Kasparov, he can start with all four opening moves.

He is a better player. And in a way the new format of the world championship in December-January could suit him. Aware that 20 games of seven-hour classical chess make spectators and sponsors wince, fide (chess’ world governing body) has changed the championship format. Instead of challengers playing each other across two years, culminating in a five-week match with the defending champion, this year the entire tournament will be held in December-January. Now 103 players will play two-game knock-out matches to qualify as the eventual challenger to Karpov (a sulking Kasparov is not playing). It is a format that has upset purists, for instead of careful, cunning chess, it allows for a certain superficiality. “The two-game format doesn’t reflect classical chess,” says Anand. “It has made it exciting but also a lottery.” But Anand is known to be a quick thinker. Better still, if there is no winner after two games, the tie-breaker is a 15-minute rapid game. Just his style.

He has left now, back to Madrid, to collect himself before a final onslaught. His life is good. He is married, loves Spain, is not intruded upon by the press. He is finally recognised too. When he arrived in India a month ago, he stood outside Delhi’s international airport looking for a bus to take him to the domestic terminal. A man came up to him. “Are you Anand?” he asked. “Yes,” came the reply. When the inquisitor realised what Anand was waiting for, he momentarily forgot the guests he was waiting for, bundled Anand into his car and drove him where he wanted. “It’s the least I could do,” he said. What’s the least Anand can do? Winning the world championship would be nice. But getting rid of the maroon shirt would be a particularly good opening.

Posted in heroes, Rohit Brijnath, Sports, Vishy Anand, Writings | 2 Comments

Of Sporting Behaviour …

From this morning’s Straits Times, a typically persuasive, imploring piece from Rohit Brijnath on the importance and legacy of fairplay:

****

BEFORE we get to Ashley Young or Luis Suarez and a football planet of unembarrassed divers, before we even get into a present time of uneven fair play, let’s retreat to the past. To Berlin 1936 and Hitler’s Olympics. It is an uncomfortable time, and the beginning of a terrible one.

Jesse Owens is black and American. Luz Long is white and German. One man is the antithesis of Hitler’s warped view of a master race, the other personifies it. Except, as they duel at the long jump pit, this happens: Owens is the greatest long jumper alive. He has three jumps to qualify for the final, which should be a simple affair. Yet he fouls his first jump. Then his second. One more foul and he’s out.

Except in this tense stadium, with Hitler watching, it is Long, his rival, who comes to his aid. His English is scratchy, yet he tells Owens, this is only qualifying, so why not make a mark six inches before the take-off board and jump from there? You’ll qualify easily. So Owens takes his advice and…

We should stop this story here, return to the present and ask ourselves this: Could this happen today? Or is it more likely that in 2012, a modern Long would sneer at Owens: ‘Hey buddy, no chance you’ll qualify.’ Or that a modern coach would tell Long: ‘Don’t help Owens, it’s about winning, you idiot.’

It’s not as if sport in the past was an angelic activity, for beauty and crudity have always walked arenas together. Yet in an exceedingly competitive time, when winning forgives everything, fair play is gently eroding like an ancient castle in the wind.

As a philosophy, it gets aired like an old carpet to make us feel better, and then put away once the whistle blows. ‘Fight Against Racism’ banners are waved, and then bananas chucked on a field. Athletes speak of respect because it sounds honourable, but many don’t live it. Civility on a field is almost an indulgence.

When cricketers mouth abuse, they’re just being aggressive; if Tiger Woods kicks a club, it only shows how much he cares; when fans rapidly forgive Suarez, they are just being supportive. We are not just ignoring incivility in sport, we are excusing it. And it’s a problem.

In a recent survey of 1,250 children in Britain aged from eight to 16, it was found that 51.1 per cent had been subject to ‘mental intimidation’ on a field. To swearing, taunting, threats and distraction when trying to concentrate. Even before adulthood, it seems, many are mastering disrespect.

Fair play – and its cousins sportsmanship, respect and nobility – does not necessarily arrive from a clutch of rules, but a culture handed down. It is presumed to be an unwritten code among athletes, not Moses-like commandments inscribed on dressing room walls.

In cycling, admittedly rife with dopers, waiting for a rider who has crashed and not attacking is part of the code. In tennis, still, some players will hit a ball at another player and then apologise. In rugby, a bruised line will form to shake a victor’s hands.

Chivalry dies when generations refuse to hand it down, if they view it not as an essential part of the culture but a peripheral notion. And if athletes don’t care, if it is irrelevant to teachers, to coaches at lower levels, to top managers especially, who can be disingenuous when it comes to fair play, then it won’t matter to children who revere them. Ideas become outdated only if we fail to emphasise them.

Small things in sport have an enduring impact, and we still see them. Shaking a rival’s hand after he’s outplayed you isn’t easy, but this is what character is. Saying sorry for a netcord in tennis isn’t an apology for winning a point, but for winning it that way. Calling a penalty on yourself in golf isn’t just following the rules of a sport, it is protecting the sport. It is saying this is a worthy enterprise, one of skill, but also spirit.

Men in shirts with a club insignia view themselves as wearing a uniform, but this is only a fake war. To confuse the two is absurd because no one in sport comes home in body bags. Sure, no one wants sport shorn of ruggedness. When athletes compete and collide, they will rage, challenge, tease, throw a racquet, and it is understandable, for they are not robots.

But absent of fair play – of accepting that for all the money and reputation at stake, this is only a game – there is a point beyond which sport loses its value and transforms into a base, primitive contest where anything goes.

At a recent Davis Cup match, a victorious Janko Tipsarevic complained that his defeated rival Radek Stepanek made a rude gesture towards him and offered an ugly word after the match. If this doesn’t bother us, then why do we convince children to play on fields and tell them they’re going to get an education? In what?

Sport, we accept, has turned into a business. Business is sponsors and full stadiums. Full stadiums are often predicated on winning. The most followed clubs are the most successful ones. And this is where it turns murky, because for athletes, and managers, winning is often about destinations (where you go), not journeys (how you get there).

Winning, they argue, is the only thing they record in books. Perhaps, but not in the memory. After all, sometimes it takes more than winning to deserve a statue.

In 1956, during a 1,500m race in Australia, a runner clipped the heels of Ron Clarke, who tripped and fell. The great miler John Landy, running behind Clarke, tried to get out of the way, but by accident spiked him. It was an honest error.

Except, astonishingly, Landy, who was chasing a world record, stopped, apologised to Clarke, and then started running again. Incredibly, he won the race, yet the statue that stands in Melbourne is not of victory, but of his act of sportsmanship.

Yet for all such stories, winning, in whatever way, still overrides everything else. It is why Aleksandar Duric, a footballer I like and respect, wrote about Ashley Young’s diving: ‘What Young did, he did for the team, and at this stage of the season it is less about fair play than it is about winning at any cost.’

I admire Duric’s candour, but I disagree. First, it suggests if you’re cheating for the team, then it’s fine – but is it?

Second, to say the dive was understandable at this ‘stage of the season’ suggests fair play is not a philosophy but a convenience.

Third, is winning at any cost really where we should be heading?

Because then who draws the line on what is acceptable? Are we fine with a planet where not kicking out the ball when a player is injured is cool; where saying absolutely anything to a rival if it distracts him is tolerable; where rewarding American football players for tackles that injure rivals is appropriate?

If you agree with diving, how do you disagree with all this? It’s only a matter of degrees. Perhaps one day a World Cup football final, with a planet watching, will be determined by a blatant act of unfair play, and we will have no one to blame but ourselves. Because we allowed this culture to flourish.

If fighting to keep sport clean, and fair, is an enduring battle, then it is comforting that the greatest athlete of present times, in the greatest sport, appears to believe in it. Lionel Messi is no saint, but he does not cheat, dive, play-act, complain theatrically. He plays, he falls, he gets up, he starts again. He is a man driven, yet decent.

Owens and Long would have liked Messi. That day in Germany in 1936, Owens qualified and beat Long at the long jump final. When the American won, the German hailed him, and Owens later said: ‘Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace.’

Winning matters, of course, but fair play gives it a superior shine.

****

Posted in Nostalgia, Rohit Brijnath, Sports | 2 Comments

A sportswriter’s love letter..

Have always considered Rohit Brijnath’s writing as love letters to sport. This probably captures it best. From the Straits Times this morning.

The end of the world as I know it has arrived. Because there is an athlete in my house. And it ain’t me. I was supposed to be the sportswriter jock. Friends were supposed to ask me about form. Quiz me on pain. Now they flick me off like cheap lint and talk fartleks and carbo-intake with my wife.

This is wrong. My wife spent her life yelling: “Don’t put your sweaty self on the sofa.”Now it’s the other way around. On Sundays I close the curtains against the heat and she goes and runs into it.

It’s mad, it’s beautiful. After nearly 25 years since I first saw her in a badminton skirt that played hell with my blood pressure, I am learning sport from my missus. At 50 – older than me which cuts the fragile male ego even deeper- she can run further, and faster, than I ever could.

These days I hit the 5km mark on the treadmill and think I’m Rocky. She did a marathon last December after starting to run for the first time in January 2009. I know women are smarter, tougher, but this is plain cruel. Maybe that’s nandrolone she ingests in the morning? So I checked. Bah, vitamins.

My wife wasn’t keen on watching sport. She wonders why there are Gunners in football and if Formula One is a maths problem. Except now there are seven pairs of sneakers in the shoe rack and only one is mine. There is a skyscraper of sports books on the bedside table and they’re hers : anatomy of a runner’s body, Born To Run, Murakami’s musings on running, Runner’s World, a running manual.
It’s an education I tell you. For me.

My wife’s running told me you have to find the right sport to suit your personality. I crave the tension of playing someone; others, like her, relish the freedom of the lonely road, the company only of the ticking watch, the fight against the painful voices within that cry: “Stop.” It’s told me that there’s no time set to fall in love with sport, or as a line in Time’s recent cover story Forever Young reads: “The meaning of age has become elusive.”

What is age-appropriate anymore? The laws that applied to middle-aged people –  without being unreasonably risky – have been run over. A 76-year-old climbed Everest; a 92-year-old has just run the marathon. The road in front is only as hard as you make it out to be.

When they, the so-called has-beens, line up at the marathons – 3,367 of 54,982 at last year’s Standard Chartered event were 50 years and over – it is like they’re reinventing life’s finish lines.

Abruptly, my wife has become another person, immersed in timings, shopping for Vibram FiveFingers, sending me off to parties alone. I have to guess my Glenlivet calorie intake, she charts hers at home on a graph. But I am a new person, too. I have a minor degree in sports-bra selecting, energy-bar buying, vaseline-slatering. I thought Hammer Perpeteum was a WWF wrestler till it turned out to be endurance fuel.

When she leaves the house she resembles Clint Eastwood with her gunbelt of tiny, powder-filled bottles and assorted armaments of chest strap, shoe sensor, heart rate watch. The woman’s a walking gadget display. But she’s challenging herself at 50. She’s discovering a person within she hasn’t met before. She’s found a private space which I, rightfully, am not invited to.

I am learning close up from her – and her tribe in this city whatever their age – about perseverance. Because I don’t have it. But true athletes are conquerors of pain, they step through walls of exhaustion that are impenetrable on first look.

It reminds me of David Halberstam describing the rower Tiff Wood in his book The Amateurs: “When he thought of rowing, the first thing that came to mind was the pain. After the first 25 strokes of a race… his lungs and his legs seemed to scream at him to stop. The ability to resist the impulse, to reach through it… while others were fading, made him a champion.”

It’s what my wife is for me.

She comes home, calf complaining, glutes aching, but her face shines with a satisfaction I wish I could feel. In last year’s marathon, her first, she ran 32km, cramped, stopped, then forced herself to limp the last 10km. It’s a story that is echoed in lanes and roads across this land. I used to think people who didn’t run the entire race didn’t deserve the label marathoner. I was wrong.

Now, I like the fact I sleep next to a warrior – except for those damn 5am alarms. Some mornings, semi-awake, I see her shadowy figure slip out, a stranger in tight shorts on a journey of her own invention. There is no medal beckoning, no grand prize, but just the most precious of victories to be won on a silent street of no applause. Victory over the self.

Posted in Rohit Brijnath, stories, Writings | 16 Comments

A faithful perspective..

No innuendo. No name calling.
Rohit Brijnath’s piece on the spot-fixing saga in this morning’s Straits Times.

A boy has Sachin Tendulkar embossed on his underwear. A salesman peers over a crowd for a glimpse of cricket on a TV in a shop window. An entrepreneur sends his chauffeur to a darkened stadium to pick up discarded ticket stubs of a great match. Walk a lane in Pakistan, a street in India, an alley in Sri Lanka, and if cricket is on, you can see it. Faith.

Faith is the thread that stitches admirer to athlete. Faith, wrote my friend Sambit Bal in Cricinfo is “the most important aspect of this relationship”.

The fan can be imperfect himself, his adulation can be ugly, his manner parochial, but he believes deeply in his team. He dislikes losing, he cribs, but he comes back, he has hope in better days. Because faith is a handshake, it is a deal, it is cricketer saying “come cheer”, it is fan saying “of course, just give your best”.

In the subcontinent, this handshake is like a lifeline, for the game transcends entertainment, it translates into escape, into hope, into a distraction from the hard lives. The game on is a life turned off. To cheat then, which some Pakistani players have been accused of, does something cruel, it tears at the fabric of this faith.

Cheating isn’t new because humankind isn’t. Tour de France cyclists were once rumoured to leap on trains en route and boxers soaked their hands in plaster of Paris.

There is no moral grading with cheating either. The football diver, the spying manager, they all corrupt their sport and lower its credibility. Some of it is so pervasive that we even let it go with a lazy shrug: Such is life! Everyone does it! As fans, perhaps we have become too forgiving.

But when an athlete sells himself and thus his team, he doesn’t just undermine the idea of contest, he reveals himself as the worst thing: hero as fake. Talent may not work on a particular day, but it can’t be up for the highest bidder.

The fan can’t reconcile himself to it, for as a former state cricketer from India says: “There is something of me in my team.” Maybe there is no more disbelief, not like the kid fan plaintively asking baseballer Joe Jackson, who was banned after the 1919 World Series fix: “Say it ain’t so, Joe?” Maybe there is only despair now.

The problem with faith disappearing is that it is replaced with cynicism and we know this from the apathy that followed cycling for a while. Now the Pakistani fan must wonder, cricket again wonders: Which other acts and matches were counterfeit?

Cricket’s spot-fixing can be so minor – pre-deciding which ball to bowl a no-ball on – and may not even affect the result, yet it taints the game. Because we might look at ever easy catch dropped, every absurd run-out – all natural occurrences of everyday sport – and shadow them with suspicion. It is like wondering if an awry Steven Gerrard backpass was fixed. It’s why an Indian cricketer tells me he is “sickened” for trust has eroded.

Other sports can absorb a level of chicanery by virtue of their breadth. If a lesser tennis player fixes, we are reassured by the chivalry of the many great ones. If a second-division Bundesliga player fixes, we are comforted that Manchester United and their elite peers are cleaner.

But cricket is a relatively miniscule game, not in fans, but in teams, for only nine nations play test cricket. To ban one team is to amputate a sizeable part of the game, to have one corrupt team causes seismic activity across the entire sport.

Restoring faith requires the help of players, captains but mainly cricket’s clumsy administration. Cricket has a fresh fascination with money, the game – in some nations – is rich and it has wonderfully given young men strong livelihoods. But it is also fraught with dangers.

Money can turn into obsession, for those who have it and for those – like Pakistani cricketers who were left out the lucrative Indian Premier League – who don’t. Money can bring a charmless crew of hangers-on, shady agents, greedy coteries, all grasping at the vulnerable young player.

This seductive universe requires wise navigation but there remains an appalling failure of guidance. Mohammad Amir, the Pakistani allegedly involved in the current fix, arrives from a small town of Gujjar Khan. You wonder: did anyone tell this 18-year-old of fixers, agents, information seekers? Has he been taught to invest his earnings? Has he a cricket counsellor for inevitable hard times?

Cricket’s true beauty in the subcontinent is that it is more democratic – anyone can play for Pakistan or India – not just city boys. But opportunity is not enough without direction.

We owe that to these young men, to the game, to the fans. Else an ineffably sad mail will arrive, as this one did from the fine Pakistani cricket writer Osman Samiuddin yesterday. As he wrote to me: “I was telling someone the other day that my reaction has been like that of someone who has seen someone pass away.”

For him, alas, faith has long gone.

Posted in controversy, Cricket, match fixing, Pakistan, Rohit Brijnath, Writings | 1 Comment

To Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before …

It started on Tuesday and carried on till Thursday. It was one of the great moments of Sport.

The Match

John Isner, Nicholas Mahut and History

The match generated a huge amount of interest as it indeed should. Across all media –  newsprint, television, blogs, facebook, twitter and the coffee machine chatterbox – it remained a central discussion piece. This piece by Rohit Brijnath I thought best did justice to the match.   (From the Straits Times, Singapore)

IN ANCIENT and grimmer times, boxing had no roped rings, no gloves, no set rounds. Punches flew till a man fell and could not rise. It is not the sort of contest one expects on Wimbledon’s aristocratic lawns, yet John Isner and Nicolas Mahut produced something similar in a spectacular tennis epic that spanned three days and passed 11 hours before Isner prevailed. It was sport pared down to its raw, unadulterated basics. Sport that was all breathtaking, bloody-minded commitment. It was last man standing stuff that flirted with the fictional.

Their story began on Tuesday, when the day ended with 28-year-old Mahut, the Frenchman, tied with 25-year-old Isner, the American, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (9-7), 6-7 (3-7). On Wednesday, they played just one single unfinished fifth set, 59-59, over seven hours and six minutes. That set alone was longer than the previous longest tennis match of 6 hours 33 minutes.
Last night at Wimbledon, combat continued, and Isner-Mahut remained joined at the hip, tennis’ inseparable Siamese twins locked in combat till the American finally won 70-68 in the fifth set.

The fifth set defeats the imagination for no analogy fits. Even 60-59 in a penalty shoot-out won’t work. This was not 22 men taking a few kicks, but two men serving, sliding, lunging. Two men, scrapping for longer than six football matches. Two men, unbending. “It was madness,” Mahesh Bhupathi, the Indian doubles star, told The Straits Times. “It was ridiculous. I saw the match. Pretty much everyone in the locker room was watching.”

They watched, entertained and awed, because this was tennis’ perfect storm and we are naturally drawn to the outlandish, seduced by the possibility that what is before us will never be repeated. Said Roger Federer: “I have almost no words any more watching this. It’s beyond anything I’ve ever seen and could imagine.”

Sport rests on the assumption that a human will eventually err enough for a rival to take advantage, or an inspired shot will tilt a match or luck will intercede. But this is freakish. It is inexplicable that it took three days to separate them, even if you factor in their big serving which made them hard to break. When they finished, Isner had 112 aces, Mahut 103.

It was beautiful because it was sport devoid of gimmick or controversy. There was no distracting talk of equipment, pay cheques, coaches. Distilled to its essence, this was simply about will. Every person has quit in them. It is part of our measure as athletes, amateur or professional. At the 10th km, one man halts; at the 14th, another stops.

Humans push till they collide with what seems their breaking point. The knees weep, lungs cry. Courage is defeated by weariness and a contest does not seem worth it any more. We give in. Psychologically, we leave boxing’s white towel of surrender on the green grass.

But not Isner, not Mahut. They ate, drank, grimaced, taped fingers, fell to their knees. But they would not quit.

It was beautiful, too, for they played for nothing really. It was not a final, but a first round. Not on centre court but on court no. 18. No million dollars at stake, but $38,700 to the man who got through. No country depended on them nor a teammate.

The comparative irrelevance of the match makes their performances stirring. For they were playing for personal pride. Just doing their day job. Professionals giving everything. Trying to earn ranking points. Trying to bend their bodies into one more serve. Just one more.

They had no boxing trainer to wipe the face. No football masseur and coach to rub legs and give advice at half-time. It was just two men jousting on a court. Nothing else. It is why Wimbledon’s refusal to have a fifth-set tie-breaker is right. To win, sometimes you must go to the very extremities of the self.

On Wednesday night, the match unfinished, Frenchman Mahut, who single-handedly has shamed his football team with his desire, said of Isner: “He’s just a champ.” No, they both are, irrespective of result. Because what they did out there on court no. 18 wasn’t just tennis. It was what sport desperately needs in these hair-jelled, overpaid, pretentious times. An unadorned show of human spirit.

Posted in Celebration, heroes, Rohit Brijnath, Sports, Tennis | 23 Comments

Sports, Sportswriting & The Celebration Of Being Alive ..

Long hiatus and can’t possibly be sure if its a resumption of the blog from its spontaneously combusted state. Its just that earlier this morning (admittedly days after it was published first in the Times UK), I happened to read a brilliant piece by Simon Barnes.

Its a piece as much about boat racing as its about other sporting disciplines and in my view, captures the essence of sport.

Here is the link to the piece. But I’m not going to take a chance with a link dying somewhere down the line – and so here is the piece in full.

The Boat Race: a joyous celebration of pain

Sport is supposed to be a sorting process, one that separates winners from losers, first-raters from second-raters, champions from also-rans. The Boat Race tells another story: 16 faces alike in distress, two crews united in the democracy of pain.

Winning is bad enough. To lose the Boat Race is perhaps the most devastating defeat in sport.

There is no consolation. There is no money for coming first, let alone second. There is no fame. The Boat Race offers nothing but the staggering drudgery of training, impossibly combined with some form of academic work, and the return to obscurity. Boat Race oarsmen pass from nonentity to nonentity through a brightly lit valley of pain.

And if you happen to be watching the Boat Race with the wrong sort of person, say a would-be intellectual smartarse or a girlygirl without sensible shoes, you know what follows: “Why do they do it? Why? What on earth’s the point?” One answer – if you don’t know, I can’t tell you.

But let’s look a bit farther. Most of us who read the sports pages will be sympathetic to the view that there is a point in rowing yourself stupid and feeling agonies you never thought possible. But all the same, what is it?

It’s not a bloke thing. I remember, years ago, standing at the finish of the Devizes to Westminster canoe race, an event that makes the Boat Race look like a paddle round the Serpentine. It’s 125 miles, takes 20 hours if you’re good and if you’re less good the agony lasts a great deal longer. Men and women take part and I met woman after woman leaving her slight boat with extreme difficulty and saying: “Never again!”

“The first time it’s a challenge to complete the run,” one contestant told me. “You don’t even consider doing it twice. Then around Christmas you say to yourself, ‘The old DW is coming up again…’” And they’re back again, and they paddle again and they finish again, and they step from their boats and what do they say? You’ve guessed it.

So here are some of the things that bring a person to an extreme event like the DW, like the Boat Race – bearing in mind that women have a Boat Race, too, and it hurts just as much and they don’t even get an audience.

Beauty

Rowing feels good. Each stroke contains a beautiful, stretchy moment when, as you withdraw your blade, the boat glides on. It’s as if you get more for your effort than you put in. Most sports are in some senses lovely to do: to kick a ball, to run, to ride a horse or a bicycle – these are things people do for the simple pleasure of it. Being very good indeed at such things makes them feel better.

Pain

Your smartarse and your girlygirl will look at the rictus of agony on the faces of the dying oarsmen and sneer: “They must be masochists.” This is a shorthand term we use without much thought, meaning someone whose wiring is wrong, someone who finds pleasure in things a normal person would find intensely disagreeable. But pain proves you have done something. Pain tells you that you have done the best you could. Pain tells you that you have pushed your limits and probably shifted them a bit. Pain is a validation.

Team

Some social anthropologists explain that the English love sport because it is a social facilitator. We use it to get over our awkwardness and relate to other human beings. It’s an excuse for intimacy. While I would reject a lot of this (see beauty, especially), it is certainly true that for many people, being part of a team is a supreme experience.

If you share an experience of great intensity, you have links with that person for as long as you both live. A chance meeting with old members of the Tewin Irregulars is not a trivial matter to me. Sharing big matters is a powerful thing. I remember, a few months ago, sharing an evening of quite extraordinary euphoria with a group of strangers after an incredibly close encounter with bears. Sport unites.

Competition

Sport gives you someone to beat. It gives you a simple and irrefutable reason for doing something. In order to be part of us, you need a them. It is a concept that brings life down to a brutal and glorious simplicity. Sport divides.

Elitism

To take on something a little out of the ordinary is to promote yourself. You do something special and you are a little bit more remarkable. You have taken the road less travelled by; and that makes you slightly special. People will run the marathon for that reason. No one runs the London Marathon for charity. Rather, charity is the beneficiary of the urge to be a little special. Raising a lot of money for a good cause by running a very long way – it’s an incredibly potent combination.

Addiction

As you push the beauties of doing the thing to a higher level, so you find a new kind of beauty. In rowing, in running, in endurance riding, you find a self-hypnosis, a meditation, a way of stepping beyond yourself that is as near as we get to meditation in the West. It is not purely a matter of endorphins, either. It is the setting aside of self, the ultimate simplification, in which you do not take on a task, you become that task.

Ambition

When you do something that matters to you, you want to do it better. If you run for exercise, you want to improve your time. If you cook, you want the next meal to be the best. If you watch birds, you want to improve your field skills. The desire to do things a little better is part of the pleasure of doing them. You want to go beyond your own boundaries, and as you do so, you are inspired by the thought that you can do still more. You find twitchers who want to see every bird in the world, you get athletes who want to set world records. If you are good at rowing, you want to row still better. A great event, and better, a victory in that event, is a peg on which such ambitions can be hung.

Self-knowledge

There is a strange attraction in the idea of testing yourself. You really don’t know whether or not you will pass. You want to be the sort of great person who doesn’t break, but in order to find out, you have to put yourself to the test.

Anti-death

All these matters come down to this last. All the guff about dreams and challenges and honour and glory come down to this: the seeking out and accepting of an opportunity to live more intensely. It’s about being alive, about knowing you’re alive, about celebrating being alive. Look at the losers in their agony – they look as if they’re dying, they feel as if they’re dying, but they have never been more alive. So don’t sneer. Don’t pity. Envy.

I’ll leave you with a tale told by Sir Michael Parkinson: “We were sitting together watching the World Cup on television and Holland were awarded a penalty. The taker scored but was ordered to retake it because of a technical offence. As he placed the ball on the spot looking nervous, the commentator said: ‘Who would want to be in his shoes at the moment?’ ‘Oh, I would,’ said George Best. ‘Oh, I bloody would.’”

Posted in Celebration, General, Not Cricket, Simon Barnes, Sports, Writings | 5 Comments

The Man in the background – and why we need him in focus …

kirsten1

The following piece – penned by Rohit Brijnath – appeared this morning in Tabla.

The question it asks is one that we should ask in the good times. If this is the wind beneath the team’s wings, what can we learn from it. Too often, we’ll wait for the bad spell before casting blame.

Also, is this all Gary K’s doing ? Or are the BCCI gag orders responsible. Does it matter, either way.

Read on.

Gary Kirsten is apparently the coach of the Indian cricket team. This is sometimes hard to tell. Certainly he is hardly to be seen in the newspapers, a fellow more low profile than a sulking mole. This is not altogether unpleasant for the last fellow in the job had yet to meet a microphone he didn’t like. Greg Chappell talked too much, Kirsten seems to talk not at all.

It might be argued that Kirsten’s job is not to talk anyway but to teach. Certainly John Wright could be a recluse, but in front of Kirsten he resembles a campaigning politician. Kirsten has learnt from Chappell’s error, that the spotlight belongs to the player not the coach, but this low-profile act, probably not of his making entirely, has gone too far.

Since the team is winning we presume Kirsten is having a fine effect. We must presume because there has been no major profile worth remembering, containing Kirsten’s thoughts, in an Indian paper (though, unusually, there was one in an English paper last year). Certainly the team is a choir singing his praises, but otherwise he’s as familiar to us as a blind date.

How does he cajole Sehwag and cool down Bhajji? What ideas are propelling this team? What areas does the team need to sandpaper? How do they balance the three teams? Questions abound. One of India’s finest commentators, says simply: “I don’t know anything about what he thinks.”

Is this bad? Well, it’s not a national crisis, not reason for chest-beating or office-burning, but let’s say this much. What Kirsten is doing, Indians especially deserve to know. Fans have the right to be part of this journey, they invest in their team, they might want to understand the mechanics of their team’s tilt at greatness, might like to know the man running their team. It’s not their right to know everything, but enough.

If Kirsten prefers not to speak, it’s a shame (though this is unlikely since he was blogging till told to stop). More likely, Kirsten is not being allowed to speak by the BCCI and that’s silly. A gag, if it exists, is an overreaction to Chappell and fails to recognise the obvious truth that no two men are the same. It is also immature. As if to say, we can trust a man to guide India’s precious team, but we can’t trust him not to be indiscreet.

Coaches can be engaging customers, whose creative enthusiasm allows us to keep looking at cricket differently. The late Bob Woolmer was full of original thought; the professorial John Buchanan is never shy of speaking. Sport needs ideas in the public domain, it makes for more interesting discourse.

Undoubtedly, the predatory part of India’s media pointlessly spins controversy from even a banal quote, and some wariness is warranted. But Wright gave strong, sensible interviews occasionally, one particularly famous one to Sambit Bal of Cricinfo in 2002, giving us an insight into his self and his mission.

Kirsten should tell the board he is smart enough to pick his words and his journalists. He should reveal parts of himself, tell us what he thinks about Indian cricket, let people look into his lined face and make up their minds, instead of emailing answers to India Today’s Sharda Ugra, whose intelligent enquiring questions were recently met by stilted, bland answers.

The fine, intelligent coach at work with this team, it would be nice to know him a little. As requests go, it hardly sounds unreasonable.

Thoughts welcome.

Posted in BCCI, Coaches, Cricket, Debate, Gary Kirsten, Greg Chappell, India, Rohit Brijnath | 14 Comments

The King of bad times

A self proclaimed high brow news channel’s top presenter was interviewing Mr. Dr. Vijay Mallya on his bid for Kevin Pietersen at the 2nd edition of the IPL auction. The first statement which was made was something to the tune of ‘Everyone always knew you would get KP into your side Dr. Mallya’ with unmasked admiration in the presenter’s tone. Dr. Mallya smilled laconically (as laconic as on can get under that beard) at the statement, his ego suitably massaged and I switched away from the channel.

It was the same Dr. Mallya who has been in news recently over pledging of a decent chunk of his shares in the UB group. The Kingfisher Airline is on the verge of being grounded as the state run oil marketing companies are threatening to pull the plug on their ATF supplies. One may still argue that the KP buy need not be looked at in tandem with his other business ventures. That it is in the Royal Challengers’ interest. With the captain (?) Rahul Dravid already under pressure for a place in the team and Mallya hinting at KP being considered for captaincy (a man who lost 5-0 in India and was fired by his selectors), there is going to be tremendous turmoil in the team in the near future.

One suspects though, that it was ‘brand KP’ that attracted Mallya with his super sized playboy image. He found his own mirror image in KP and he knew that he had to buy KP, come what may. He had already got the flambouyant Uthappa transferred from Mumbai in exchange for Zaheer Khan. KP would make the change from a supposedly dour, boring team (RD, Kallis, Chanderpaul, Jaffer) into an exciting one, complete.

If one looks back at the auction, this open desire of Dr. Mallya to have KP in his team cost him USD 200K more. Dr. Mallya started off the bid at 1.35MM.. one could clearly see that no other team had any real interest in KP, especially as Freddie had gone for USD 1.55MM earlier. Then Rajasthan Royals put in a bid at USD 1.45MM. Now it was an open secret in the auction room that the RR bid was just to make Dr. Mallya pay higher. And as a smart businessman all one had to do was not to hike the RR bid. The RR bid was a bluff which cried out to be called. Imagine what problems the RRs would face if KP went to their team. Warne has already talked about getting an increment on the paltry sum that he was bought for last year. KP getting 4-5 times his fees would have been interesting. Add to this volatile mixture, Graeme Smith and you would have a potential money spinning reality show on your hands.

Lalit Modi has famously announced that IPL is free from the dreaded ‘R’ word. The IPL II results haven’t been convincing enough. The same day that KP was bought at the astronomical sum, Kingfisher Airlines announced a cut in its pilots salary by Rs. 80k per month. Welcome to the bad times!!!

Posted by Rahul

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Fed down of Rafa

The sun sets in the east?

The sun sets in the east?

Roger Federer was left wondering where will the No 14 come from as he was beaten yet again by his nemesis Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open in 5 thrilling sets. The quality of tennis was outstanding at times but the result crushingly familiar for Federer. Nadal may actually claim to be a better all court player than Federer, having won 3 slams on different surfaces. Even Federer hasn’t managed that and barring injuries to Nadal, the French Open trophy looks like a distant dream.

Andy Roddick had famously commented ‘ I need to win once in a while to call it a rivalry’, when questioned about his tennis rivalry with Federer. Federer may not say it but coming out second best to Rafa 5 times in a row gives the same deja vu feeling. The last time Federer won against Nadal was in November 2007. And Nadal is improving consistently where Federer seems to be caught in a rut. The vintage Federer has gone missing some where and though we see some glimpses of his mojo, it doesn’t seem like the same anymore.

Maybe it’s all in the mind for Federer when playing against Nadal is concerned. The only way to equal and then surpass Sampras’s record is hope. The hope that Nadal is beaten by some one else. The hope that Nadal gets injured. Or maybe to get back that mojo, the motivation to improve. Nadal’s irresistible march to Tennis greatness continues. Time will tell if Federer managed to slow the march down.

Posted by Rahul

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Shock and Awe

It was a good day, it was a bad day. It was January 7, 2009. Though it had started off as an ordinary day with little to indicate the stunning events that were to follow. It was a day of mortals turning super men, it was a day of falling angels and all categories of men in between the two extremes. It was a day to remember, it was a day to forget. It was a day of some terrible decision making and some terrible decision makers. It was a day of painful truths; some physical; some ethical. It was a day for making statements. Some forceful, some forced.

 smith injured

The moment Dale Steyn was dismissed and the Australians began celebrating their victory, there emerged from the shadows of the SCG stands, a man with a mission. A man who refused to lose. Graeme Smith might have had a broken finger and a sore elbow but he also possessed a stout heart. He walked out in the middle to partner Ntini, who himself had shown admirable gumption in sticking around. Smith’s heroic gesture was a captain’s message to his team. The captain never abandoned his ship. He went down with it. It was a message to the opponents. South Africa was not willing to give an inch even in a dead rubber. They would scrap all the way down. They would use all their reserves and more.

In the same match, the opposite number had acted the dual role of the plaintiff and the judge, a throwback to the good old Sydney 2008 days. Some crucial decisions went against the South Africans and the final match result also was painfully similar to 2008. But in Sydney it was not surprisingly the opposition captains who walked away with all the glory. Kumble for his steely but calm reaction in 2008 and Smith for his show of defiance in 2009.

Kevin Pietersen resigned from the England captaincy (or was he asked to go?) following his not so private tiff with Peter Moores. A man who had emerged as a statesman for his efforts to make his team tour India after the tragic events in Mumbai, was suddenly finding himself standing alone sans the team. What had happened in a month to alienate himself from the team members who were solidly behind his decision to tour India? One should know of the reasons in a few months in his next biography.

The shock though was reserved for another statement.

http://www.financialexpress.com/news/satyam-fraud-full-text-of-rajus-letter-to-board/407799/

The leader of one of the largest software companies in the country, one which had received the Golden Peacock award (for excellence in corporate governance) a few months back, was admitting to commiting a massive fraud on an ongoing basis for many quarters. A company that was started, built and nurtured by him was being taken down by the same man. A company of 53,000+ employees was left rudderless.

On January7th 2009, a captain, in physical pain, in batting for his 10 team mates ended up making a nation proud. On January 7th 2009, a captain, a leader of 53,000 people, pulled down a proud nation by a couple of notches. It was a good day, it was a bad day.

Posted by Rahul

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Birthday wishes on a post card

As is the norm, many a time, major uprisings are signalled by some minor, commonplace event. For the boy, it was an afternoon TV show on chess in the Philippines in the late 70’s, which ironically, he rarely had a chance to watch, the culprit being his school timings. At the end of the show, the viewers were given some chess based puzzles to solve and the winner would receive a book for his/her mental exertions. In his absence his mother would note down all the games showed and the puzzles/ questions asked and after his return from school, the two of them would diligently solve them, write the solution on a post card and mail it to the TV station. It may seem ludicrous in today’s age of SMS entries and heavy duty prizes, to compete for a book. Most probably the SMS today itself may cost more than that. But the mother and son duo kept on sending their postcards and more often than not won the book. Not much is known about the books that were sent to them and whether those books lie on his shelf anymore. What is known though is that matters quickly came to a head. The channel came back to them and asked them to take as many books as they wanted, albeit with an assurance that the boy would not participate in their contest any more. Philippines gave Vishwanathan Anand some more sweet memories; the Junior World Champion title in 1987 and also the Manila Interzonals title in 1990, which qualified him for the candidates’ cycle of the World Championships.

 

A normal middle class background, comprising of a strict father, a doting mother and a brother and a sister, was an unimaginable breeding ground for a chess prodigy in that era of Russian champions manufactured by the dozens in special chess schools. His was a happy, if unexceptional childhood. He sometimes had to skip playing chess for months if his academic performance was not up to the mark. There was no special treatment meted out to him at home and he was never made to feel ‘special’ or ‘better’ than anybody else by word or deed. It wasn’t that his parents were just passive spectators in his march towards glory. His father sponsored his Junior World Championship at Manila and Anand was supported wholeheartedly by them through his career. But it was just ingrained in him that success was not something to be advertised by shouting over the rooftops and failure was to be accepted as a part and parcel of life. Chess was not a ‘be all and end all’ of his life. He went and studied Business Economics after his high school because he was afraid that he was becoming a ‘chess nut’. He loves listening to music, especially U2, loves Monty Python and Hitchcock movies and loves reading. His upbringing has been largely responsible for his being the person whom we know today. The genial genius!

 Susheela Vishwanathan Anand

 

Anand’s marriage to Aruna in 1996 gave him another source of strength. Aruna handles his appointments, schedules his interviews, looks after his travel arrangements and playing itinerary and, most importantly, is just ‘there for him’.

Maybe it was the background that made a lot of people (especially the Russians) question his killer instinct. He himself has admitted that he doesn’t like conflict and as a personality most comfortable in peaceful surroundings. But his genius remained unquestioned at any point in his career. His 5 chess Oscars stand testimony to this fact. It seems fitting for a person who loves travelling and has visited 49 countries at the last count, to win the Oscar bronze statuette titled ‘The Fascinated Wanderer’.

The speed of his game has always given him an advantage over his opponents and has brought him success in all forms of Chess; classical, rapid and blitz. He is the first World Rapid Chess Champion, the first to win the World Blitz Chess championship and now the World Champion. What he has achieved can be compared to a cricket team being the champion in all three formats of the game and more. MSD and team, who are supposed to present Anand with a diamond ring in a ceremony organised by the Indian Chess Federation, should feel privileged to do so.

The story behind the preparation for the match against Kramnik is fascinating and intriguing at the same time. In an interview given just before the match Anand had come up with some stunning observations and a brief insight into his strategy. The 12 game match was not a straightforward ‘go their and play your best game’ situation. Both Anand and Kramnik had played against each other over the past 15 years and both knew each other’s game pretty well. The player who could neutralise the other’s strengths and who was well prepared for a similar strike from the other side would be better off in their exchanges.

For starters, Anand had been studying Kramnik since the end of April 2008. If shown a position from a Kramnik game played in the past 20 years(which number in the thousands), Anand was confident of identifying atleast 90% of the games. He knew that Kramnik knew this as well and that Kramnik would try to surprise him by playing a bit differently. On the other hand Kramnik would be doing the same and Anand had to find an answer to it. Both were trying new paths with the computers and their seconds by which they could attack differently, defend the opponent’s strengths and be ready for a surprise.

There were rumours before the match that Magnus Carlsen, the new star on the horizon, was acting as Anand’s second for the match. When quizzed about it, Anand declined to answer it, saying it was a part of the pre-match psychological games and it was for Kramnik to figure out if this were the case. It turned out finally that Carlsen was not his second.

Anand knew that Chess is as much about making one’s moves right as about being emotionless on one’s exterior. To show any emotion in a long drawn match was giving a glimpse into one’s thinking to the opponent. He declared that he didn’t look much at his opponents’ face as most top players, sans Kasparov, didn’t show their emotions openly while playing. He had an answer to it. He actually would concentrate on the opponent’s breathing!!! The speed of breathing was a pointer for Anand on his opponent’s state of nerves. Anand talked more about emotions, gestures and other softer aspects of the game before the World Championships. Maybe this was a strategy in itself.

Anand had finished last in the Master’s tournament at Bilbao, just a month before the World Championship. Whether this was done in order to prevent Kramnik from guessing the direction in which Anand was likely to approach the match is an open question.

Here is what Gary Kasparov had to say about the actual Match: “It was a very well-played match by Vishy. Except for the loss of concentration in the tenth game he played consistently and managed to enforce his style. His choice to open with 1.d4 was excellent. He reached playable positions with life in them, so he could make Kramnik work at the board. Anand outprepared Kramnik completely. In this way it reminded me of my match with Kramnik in London 2000. Like I was then, Kramnik may have been very well prepared for this match, but we never saw it. I didn’t expect the Berlin and ended up fighting on Kramnik’s preferred terrain.”

Anand was born on 11th December and this is our ode to the World Champion.

Anand’s mother when asked about which game was her favourite had the following reply: “I like all his games. I always think he is going to be the winner!
Like all mothers feel their children are the best in the world, I also feel the same for my son.”

In Mrs. Susheela Vishwanathan’s case one can’t argue.

Posted by Rahul

Posted in Cricket | Tagged , , | 14 Comments

Thank you. Honestly …

Kumble & Team India

Kumble & Team India

Now that one thinks about it, it couldn’t really have been any other way.

The country, as was often the case with him,  cribbing and questioning in the background. The batters scoring 600. And the team failing to win from that position. But Anil Kumble battling on till his body wouldnt do his mind’s willing anymore. One hand hurt going for a catch that would ordinarily have been well left by most in the team. That hand then administered 11 stitches under general anaesthesia. Kumble asking if the stitches could be administered under local anaesthesia ( I need to bowl tomorrow) and being told that it was a medical decision and not a cricketing one. Then coming out to bowl the next day and taking three wickets including a caught and bowled. All this while, as we now know , having decided that the next day would be his last in Tests. Waiting then till the game was safe before informing all that this was it. That every last ounce of effort and grit had been squeezed out by him. He couldn’t take it anymore and didn’t want to let the team down. That yes, there was unfinished business and he wished he was part of it – and he would be there in Nagpur – but not in the team shirt but still with the team spirit.

It really couldn’t have been any other way.

Sportsmen are like that. They crave performance. And the win. What else is there, after all is said and done. But with this man, somehow always plagued with questions, there has always been more.

India played Australia earlier this year under his captaincy and we remember Sydney but forget Perth way too easily. What does it take to come back from that ? What kind of leader is it that so inspires his men in a foreign land that after 16 wins, its the winning captain who’s inviting criticism ? What kind of man so lives the spirit that when he says that only one team was playing by it , it doesn’t evoke Jardinesque memories? Controversy, dubious umpiring , relentless media pressure, errant behaviour, 0-2 down in the series heading to the favourite turf of the world’s no 1 team. And we won.

And yet we thanklessly questioned.

Earlier this series, in Bengaluru, Ricky Ponting called it right and on a no-help pitch , he bowled 40 nagging overs in the first innings to make the Aussie juggernaut seem like a caterpillar crawl. Then the shoulder acted up and he couldnt bowl for a good part of the second. And we told-you-so-ed. And then, with a billion people in the know, he came out to bowl again and as the cameras tried their darndest to help us, we couldn’t catch a grimace.  But that we ignored and we looked for turn where no one got any. And we thanklesssly questioned.

But now, he’s gone. And because he wasn’t the kind that marketing gurus would like to project in their infinite wisdom , we won’t see him in too many advertisments , like we haven’t in his career. But he will remain a model.

Many years ago, he did an ad campaign. Here are the details from an India Today story which captured the essence of the man after his 10 for …

Tears stream down Vasanth Raghuvir’s face when she remembers the son she had — and lost. Velan, 19, died on May 21, 1998, his body unequal to the battle his mind waged against his corroding muscles, the degenerative muscular dystrophy. But Raghuvir’s tears fall not just from her grief; they’re her tribute to a little-known love Kumble offered Velan with the same dedication that he brings to his bowling.

Raghuvir does not try to understand the bond Anil Kumble shared with her dying son. “All I know is that he made a tremendous impact on Velan during the last year of his life,” says Raghuvir. For, that year Kumble was Velan’s life support, visiting him frequently, talking to him or when he couldn’t speak, simply being with him. She recalls a day in December 1997 when her son’s lungs collapsed, his body stricken with pneumonia. Kumble called that day, bound for Sharjah. “We told him Velan was critical and could not talk to him, but Anil insisted we just put the phone close to Velan’s ears and he would talk to Velan,” says Raghuvir. “My son was battling for his life and here was a man who until a few months ago was a complete stranger to all of us infusing him with life, with determination to fight back.” She recounts Kumble’s final visit to her son in his critical state. “It was,” says Raghuvir, “probably the happiest and greatest year in the life of my son.”

Velan, a first-class 2nd year biochemistry student in Chennai, was wheelchair-bound since he was 10 years old, when his wasting muscles took away the use of his legs. One day in May 1997, Raghuvir got talking to Rahul Dravid whom she met at a shop. She explained how she could not take her son to a cricket match because no stadium in India had a ramp, how it was humiliating for him to be carried. Dravid promised to introduce him to Kumble. On the appointed day, the spinner was there — 15 minutes early. “He need not have paid so much attention, but he was hovering around Velan, just being by his side.” Before leaving he fished out a giant autographed poster for Velan. “I can never express the joy I saw on my son’s face at that moment.” It was the start of an uncommon relationship. As it blossomed, Velan one day asked Kumble if he would appear in a campaign to build ramps for buildings. There was no hesitation, just an immediate yes. Kumble flew to Chennai and did a seven-hour shoot, all gratis. “The standing ovation he got for his 10 wickets is not enough, he should be given one every time he walks into a room,” says Raghuvir. “Just for his golden heart.”

Today, he says that in the future he plans to start an academy for budding cricketers. The future seems bright already.

Thank you, Jumbo.

Posted in Captain, Celebration, Cricket, heroes, India, Kumble, Nostalgia, Retirements, Rohit Brijnath | 16 Comments

Is Everybody In ? The Ceremony Is About To Begin …

While most in the financial world (is there any other kind ?) have been busy – (these past few weeks there’s been this image in my head of finance whizkids driving this snazzy car, but the rearview mirror keeps getting bigger and bigger till its bigger than the windscreen, and they’re frantically rummaging through the glove compartment looking for a map) – the sporting world has, thankfully,  gone on regardless.

Not that its an excuse for being absent from the blog and if an India v Australia series doesnt get me going , virtually nothing will. Who knows, it might even be therapeutic …

So, efforts on to get back to blogging. And cover this series and matters related.

Rahul’s already underscored Dada’s farewell that will run through the series, but as the Steve Waugh farewell tour showed, emotional undercurrents aside, the cricket between these sides always scores.

Highlighting this, is a typically wonderful prelude to the Tests penned by Rohit Brijnath. It followed a beautifully written Elegy for the long player, the romanticism of which seemed to awaken the Twenty20 generation to the subtleties of Tests and related sportswriting.

The following piece was carried yesterday in the Straits Times, here in Singapore.

THE All Blacks in New Zealand. Rafael Nadal on clay. Chelsea at home. Michael Phelps in any water. Every sport has its ultimate challenge. In cricket, subcontinental patriots will insist there is possibly only one thing harder than beating India in India, and that’s beating Australia anywhere. And so when Ricky Ponting’s posse come to Anil Kumble’s turf, a confrontation between gum-chewing mates and white-trousered gods, we’re about as close as we can get to cricketing nirvana.

India versus Australia, which begins again on Thursday, is a fresh tradition in an antique game, it’s a duel of contrasting philosophies, it’s a contest of shared respect and constant misunderstandings. It is, if you take some artistic licence, a bit like Ali-Frazier, it’s skilful, edgy, passionate, brutal.

It’s had walkouts threatened and racism charges hurled, it’s had spats and sledging, and it’s had some of the most incendiary cricket we’ve seen this decade.

Of the 15 Tests played since 2001, six have been won by Australia and five by India. And even the draws have not been dreary. Why these sweaty, cricketing mini-series aren’t played out over five Tests (like Australia-England, or now England-South Africa) is just another bemusing decision by cricket’s unsure officialdom.

The Indians run world cricket; the Australians own world cricket. Indians have a fine affection for a broken-Hindi-speaking Brett Lee, and Australian crowds rise wherever Sachin Tendulkar goes. The visitors, more aware of and open to India, have learnt there is more to Indian curries than a vindaloo; the hosts, less bashful after these exchanges, have learnt that toughness and professionalism are at the core of Australia’s consistency. For two nations, geographically distant and culturally disparate, cricket has been teacher, ambassador, meeting point, battleground.

It is a series that has re-energised cricket and helped nations connect. But like all young relationships, it is an imperfect and often tempestuous one. When Indian observers whine about how well a local Indian association has treated the Australians with regard to facilities, they are incredibly suggesting that a hospitable nation is somehow being too hospitable. When Australian journalists write that Tendulkar’s breaking of the most-Test-runs record would relegate the capture of Osama bin Laden to page three, it is a flippant lack of understanding of how deeply wounded India is by terrorism. Cricket, perhaps, can teach only so much.

This is the fifth India-Australia Test series already this decade and worse overkill is found only in a Schwarzenegger movie. Duels need time to breathe, time for victory to seep in, defeat to be digested, revenge to be plotted, teams to learn new tricks. That said, so bereft is cricket of the competitive, high-class contest that no one is complaining too much. There is talk that Australian cricket’s halo has lost its shine, their aura punctured, their crown askew, but it is all cheap blather. The only proof in sport is victory.

India have to win this series to give substance to the word “rivalry”. The boys in blue grabbed the Twenty20 World Cup and outplayed Australia, in Australia, in their last one-day encounter, but in the Test arena total triumph has been elusive. India’s team have learnt to roll up their stylish sleeves and compete with a compelling fierceness, but they have won only one Test series of the past four against Australia, and none of the last three. Victory seems for some only a matter of time, but Australia’s resilience is underestimated by only the ignorant.

India have to win else their treasured reputation at home will be further eroded, and losing will help dissolve one of the great mythologies of cricket. India have to win because cricket can do with some evenness. The game’s one-sidedness is not the fault of the incomparable Australians, but the sloth of their competitors. If indeed Australia are not as potent these days, yet still win, it says even less about their rivals.

India have to win because it is in cricket’s wider interests. At the game’s new headquarters, the cult of Twenty20 is dominant, and this exciting, energetic but amputated sport (about as much a test of cricket as doubles is of tennis) is threatening to overshadow the traditional game. Test cricket is a harder sell to the young Indian, for it is a longer, sweatier process to greatness, it offers none of the immediate fame and instant riches of Twenty20.

It is why Kumble and his gang must play brilliant salesmen, must produce performances of bravery and imagination, must construct a seductive advertisement for their form of the game. If the Test game has to be saved, the great battle for it must be fought on Indian soil.

Finally, India have to win else it could mean the cricketing death of a band of the game’s grandest heroes. The end of Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Kumble, Sourav Ganguly, V.V.S. Laxman is imminent anyway, but victory will extend their lives a few months, another year. The Australians will not care. Like all majestic teams, they make a living writing epitaphs.

Posted in Australia, Cricket, India, Rohit Brijnath | 5 Comments

The Big Bong

Do unto others as they
have done to you
But what the hell is this
world coming to?

Blow the universe into nothingness
Nuclear warfare shall lay us to rest

Fight fire with fire
Ending is near
Fight fire with fire
Bursting with fear…………

Metallica

Dedicated to the man who made one proud just for the fact that the Australians hated him. He, who showed his six packs much before his team owner did. He, who was born a prince, became a king and ended a commoner. He, who always had something prickly to say to the opponent. He, who always had statistics to throw at his critics (many times factually incorrect). He, who was Adam in the gardens of Eden. He, who was the first cricketing representative of a changing, confident, abrasive India. He, who jogged a single when there were three for the taking. He, who could pierce the off side with the precision of a swiss watch. He, who was a demigod in his state, an enigma to many others. He, who kept on rising like a phoenix. He, who taught us how to fight. He, whose autobiography, will be one of the most eagerly awaited in India. He, who, even in his departure will garner attention, as the captain/ selectors can’t drop him for the next 4 tests against Australia. Master stroke from a master striker.

Au Revoir Dada!!

Posted by Rahul

Posted in Cricket | Tagged | 9 Comments

For whom the rings toll

Twenty minutes into the most high profile match of the current EPL season, the irritating ring tone on my phone, which has created a mini storm in marital bliss, informs me of an incoming message of supreme importance. The next 90 odd minutes are going to one of the toughest tests of my married life over the continuous ringing of the SMS alert.

The SMS waxes eloquent on the end of the 84 match unbeaten streak at home for Chelsea. Man United have scored a goal and the message sender is going gung ho over it. A calm-down request from self, pointing that the match has another 70 minutes left falls on deaf ears.

Next message is from this side of the fence blasting Joe Cole for blasting the ball over the goal. A lot many messages are exchanged on the favorable treatment meted out to MU by various referees and comparisons with the Australian cricket team are used in abundance.

The other side is under the impression that the match is being watched at a watering hole and on the motto of ‘chance pe dance’, goes on to hail Scholes as the ‘best midfielder in the world’. Seriously, this is one of the better jokes I have heard in quite some time and the appreciation is instantly conveyed.

By the end of the first half, the other side is going ballistic on all the first win at Stamford Bridge since almost 4.5 years. The 2nd half is as exciting as it can get with one team in complete control. Anelka and Joe Cole keep on missing the target with boring frequency. I get delirious messages when Ronaldo is introduced. “God has arrived” is the gist of most of them. ‘God’ has an immediate impact on the game by falling at the slightest touch. A few messages discuss the ‘ground beneath his feet’.

The rescue act is done by Kalou. 1-1. Suddenly the victory dance has stopped and tension mounts. After 90 minutes of intense football the match is drawn. The SMSs continue for another half an hour post the match. The final SMS from the other side says ‘1 point was what we came to Stamford Bridge for and so we go away happy’.

The wife can’t take it anymore and snatches the instrument and changes the SMS alert tone. “Were these exchanges about the MU-Chelsea match?” she queries. “Yes” comes a sheepish reply.

“But why were you so worked up? you support Arsenal don’t you?”

Posted by Rahul

Posted in Soccer | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Its not all about money, honey!!!

Being constantly bombarded by the daily headlines screaming multi million dollar deals for buying out football clubs, exorbitant transfer fees for football players funded by petro dollars, and the ever rising prize money (which seems to be giving a fight to the rate of inflation in Zimbabwe) for various professional sporting events, one had started to question the very existence of sport being played for enjoyment. It was becoming just another entertainment industry like Hollywood, pop, porn or gambling. All one had to do was find a bunch of talented players across the globe, locate top coach, throw obscene money at them and make a winning team. Chelsea was a prime example, which didn’t live up to the standards that its owner set. Manchester City joined the club (pun intended) last week by signing Robinho. One is taking football only as an example to put one’s point across. This phenomenon is being replicated in many other sporting arenas as well (more in team sports one would add).

Formula One hasn’t been an exception in the recent past with the budgets of the top 2-3 teams putting a few emerging countries in the shadows. The ‘also rans’ were there to make the numbers, with little money to invest in technology or hire drivers with proven talent. The minnows had to get the engines from the Big Boyz and give chances to untested talent. Winning a Formula One race wasn’t within the realms of reality. Picking up the crumbs left for the 6+ places in a race was the best they could hope for.

There was an air of expectancy at Monza on the 14th of September 2008, when a laggard team’s driver was going to start at the pole position on the grid. The pole was attributed chiefly to the rains during the qualifying sessions and nobody really expected a rookie with an average car to hold on to the lead for too long. It was a flash in the pan, more like the lighting in the storm clouds that hit Monza on the Saturday qualifying sessions. Sebastian Vettel proved everyone wrong by a mile and more. Controlling the race from the beginning, the 21 year old drove a dream race, winning it comfortably in the end. It reaffirmed one’s faith in the uncertainties of sport where by every passing day; the odds on the favourites have been shortening. It encouraged the willingness to dream, the willingness to believe that impossible is nothing and that even in this Orwellian world of ‘some people being more equal’, fairy tales do happen. Sebastian Vettel and Toro Rosso have given every F1 lover a reason to cheer, a reason to smile.

 

But one doesn’t want to stop where most fairy tales end. What happened to David after he slayed Goliath? Did he become another Goliath? The philosophical problem here is that once David has slain Goliath, he doesn’t remain a David. He is not an underdog any more. In Vettel’s case, we may hear in a few days  that he will be driving for a Ferrari or a McLaren. One tends to read these stories of small football clubs unearthing talent and then being forced to sell the talent to a bigger club because ‘the player wants to play the champions league’. One can’t argue against the individual player’s right to define his career goals and priorities.  And the romantic idea of ‘sports for sports’ sake’ can’t and won’t stop the commercialisation of sport. Gravity pulls everything down and money is the gravity for today’s sports.

 

Maybe it’s still all about money!!!! But maybe we can return to being cynics tomorrow…

Posted in F1 | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

The Fabulous One

Asked for the umpteenth time in is career on Sunday whether he felt any pressure when he went out to bat, this time in the first innings of the 2nd test match between India and Sri Lanka, after having lost the first one comprehensively, Virender Sehwag said for the umpteenth time that he didn’t. He couldn’t understand what the brouhaha was all about. He went there and played his natural game, enjoyed himself, smashed the bowlers all over the park, scored a century, smashed the bowlers all over the park, scored a double century, carried his bat, came back for another crack, scored a fifty. All this was done with minimum fuss and a jovial smile on his face. Even his opponents couldn’t begrudge him his achievement. Murali almost rushed to congratulate him when the 200th run was scored off his own bowling. Rarely has one seen a bowler do that. It was a wonderful gesture from one champion to another.

Back in December 2007, when Sehwag had been out of the Indian test team for more than 6 months, the selectors decided to exclude him from the list of 24 probables for the upcoming tour of Australia. For a man, who was the only triple century maker for his country, this was a cruel blow. In those 6 months, Sehwag had played a few ODI’s and was also a part of the T20 World cup winning team, but had failed to impress with consistently decent scores. To top it Sehwag had not performed in the domestic matches as well and his previous record in Australia was not enough for the selectors to augment a place in the list. Gautam Gambhir, who was initially included in the list, got a shoulder injury and Sehwag was surprisingly included in the final 14 declared for the Australian tour 2007-08. It is widely believed that captain Anil Kumble’s support tilted the balance in his favour. Kumble might have lost a few crucial tosses after that, but had called it right on one of the more important moments in Indian cricket.

Over the past few years, Sehwag had emerged as the man most feared in the Indian Test team. For a man who came to the team as a SRT clone and who had opening thrust on him due to a packed middle order, this was some achievement indeed. Tendulkar was almost revered, Dravid was hugely respected by their opponents. But when it came to pure unadulterated fear, Sehwag was your man. When an opposition captain was asking the Shakespearean “To declare, or not to declare” question, for setting the final target, the Sehwag factor added a few more runs to the equation. The sheer presence of the man contributed to the team in times of crisis. The significantly lower second innings average, notwithstanding. But he seems to have been coming to terms with that statistic as well after his brilliant 151 at Adelaide. The worrying factor for the opposition is that the man always seems to tide over his short comings. The ‘Bowl short pitch at his body’ mantra worked for some time, doesn’t work too well now, ‘bowl incutters to him’ was temporarily effective but may not be any more. He is not a complete player and one is not trying to attribute qualities to him out of thin air. Just the fact that by the time you get the ball in the right area he might have actually scored 50+ is a headache for most opponents.

Sehwag evokes a gamut of reactions in fans of Indian cricket. Amazement, wonder, awe, anger, frustration, disgust, one gets everything at the Sehwag show. There’s a very thin line between amazement and anger, wonder and frustration and awe and disgust. It’s as thin as the line between ‘carefree’ and ‘careless’. Ask Kevin Pietersen. But the fact that Sehwag averages above 50 reveals that more often than not, it’s his ‘carefree’ approach that wins the day.

‘The man hunched over his motorcycle can focus only on the present instant of his flight; he is caught in a fragment of time cut off from both the past and the future; he is wrenched from the continuity of time . . . in other words, he is in a state of ecstasy; in that state he is unaware of his age, his wife, his children, his worries, and so he has no fear, because the source of fear is in the future, and a person freed of the future has nothing to fear.”  – Slowness  by Milan Kundera
Virender Sehwag’s batting style seems to fit the abovementioned fragment from “slowness”. It seems like a daredevil approach to the game. He enjoys his game and the absence of any fear of the future leads to his pressure free game. One feels that some how it doesn’t capture the essence of Sehwag’s batting. It’s not all wham bam. Maybe it is more nuanced.

One is not sure if this description of a speed demon applies to the top F1 drivers of our time. The present instant of his flight is what the driver may be concentrating on, but at the same time he has to be perfectly attuned to his current position, the condition of his car, the track conditions, the weather, team instructions and the strategy that he is running on. It’s not the straight line speed that can be achieved by his car that matters as much as his ability to control that speed and brake at the last possible instant on curves and bends.  The split tiny micro second more that he takes to brake than the other drivers may be the differentiator for the championship standing. What also matters is the reliability of the car, the speeds it can give on various segments of the track and the car’s braking ability. Being a relative greenhorn to F1, one may be excused for any unintentional errors. But there is little doubt that F1 is one of the ultimate tests of man – machine combination.

Maybe Sehwag’s essence can be described as this combination of man and machine. He has the talent, the hand eye co-ordination required to hit the ball better than most. Maybe he is the ‘natural born hitter’. But at the same time his mind is not in a tizzy at times of his exhilarating stroke play. He seems to be on the way to becoming a great race driver as well. He knows what the team strategy is, he knows what the conditions are, he knows whether he has to push himself or just sit back a bit, he knows that he is control of the immense speed which has been gifted to him. He is on the way to becoming a more consistent driver. All F1 drivers make mistakes, so will he. It’s the consistency that can propel him ahead.

But does the protagonist’s description as a cricketer who bats phenomenally and bowls occasionally does him service. One would tend to disagree. There’s more to him than his cricketing skills. Ishaant Sharma’s extra over to Ricky Ponting at Perth which decided the fate of the match is a point in case. Sehwag has shown a keen cricketing brain beneath his easy going exterior and the fact that he is the vice captain for the SL tour bodes well for the future of Indian cricket. Who will take over from Kumble when he hangs his boots is an interesting poser, though one would believe that MSD is going to be the front runner, his ‘rest’ notwithstanding. The selectors have given enough hints about MSD’s elevation to India test captaincy and they wouldn’t want to upset the apple cart unless MSD is finding it tough to be in the Indian test team at that time. But this is just speculation, and at present post Dinesh Karthik’s sterling contribution in SL, the bike loving (no reference to the Slowness piece intended) MSD would be the odds on favourite. But Sehwag is surely going to be considered for the job.

Virender Sehwag should do well to remember Shakespear’s quote from Twelfth Night – “Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them”. Amen.

                                                                                                                         Posted by Rahul

Posted in Cricket | Tagged , , , , | 16 Comments

Passing The Bat On …

The previous week seems to be the one to have witnessed the passing of quite a few batons. Men’s Tennis might have seen it on Sunday (a bit too early to call, admittedly), the Left parties passed the baton of the support to the Congress led UPA to the SP, and Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar passed one to Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

The news paper headlines screamed that Pepsi had decided not to continue with SRT as its brand ambassador. His endorsement contract which had expired was not renewed. A couple of reasons were assigned to it by unnamed sources. SRT’s endorsement fees were deemed to be “too steep” AND Pepsi wanted to focus on the younger generation, who they felt, would not be attracted by him. Pepsi had earlier dropped Rahul Dravid and Saurav Ganguly as its brand ambassadors as well. Informal estimates now put MSD as a higher earner through endorsements than even Mr. Tendulkar.

Given the current happenings in the world of Indian cricket, this didn’t come as bolt from the BLUE. Youngsters are ruling the world of limited and super limited cricket in India and the veterans are sidelined (?) to play Test cricket. The Indian audience wants it staple diet of limited overs cricket and it identifies with the game of the ‘youth’. The brands obviously want men/boys who are under constant public glare and hence the abovementioned fallout. Demographics are the name of the game.

A few hours later MSD conveyed his wish to be rested for the Test match Series in Sri Lanka citing fatigue from playing incessant cricket over the past 15 months. And there was no doubting the veracity of his statement. From Jan 01, 2007 MSD played 14 tests, 55 ODIs and 9 T20 matches, which amounts to a possible 134 days spent on the field playing international matches. He also played 16 IPL games captaining the Chennai Superstars team in the IPL league. One is ignoring the Ranji trophy/ Challenger tournaments that he participated in during that time frame. To put things in perspective, he captained and kept in 39 of the matches in the smaller version of the game and captained in a test match as well. The pressure that was being soaked up by MSD was enormous. He raised his misgivings about the back to back matches scheduled at the Asia cup at a press conference. The BCCI immediately jumped on his statements suggesting that any player feeling overworked should opt for a rest. Its reaction was too swift, too sharp and not in good taste. The guy was only complaining about back to back matches. But being MSD, he converted this threat into an opportunity and conveyed his decision to rest during the SL tour.

This is one of the rare occasions in the annals of Indian cricket when an Indian cricketer has voluntarily rested by himself. And that too for a test match series. It’s a reflection on the confidence of the man and also on the consistency of the selection process. Just a few years back, this step would be looked upon as a career limiting move, but no more.

While saluting the tireless efforts of the ODI captain and his need to have some rest, one has an uncomfortable, niggling doubt at the back of one’s mind. The timing of the ‘rest’ and the occasion seem to be like a typical MSD shot. Powerful, but lacking grace.

MSD’s step has reopened the simmering debate of playing for the country v/s playing for money and the priorities of the post modern cricketer in terms of Test cricket v/s the smaller format. To further complicate matters, maybe even a ‘seniors’ v/s ‘young turks’ cold war has been alleged by some parts of the media.

One has not heard of any formal communication between MSD and the current test captain and whether there was any discussion about his decision. Being the vice-captain of the test team makes it even more imperative for getting the captain’s nod. MSD may have had the captain’s go ahead, but one hasn’t heard of any such newsflash from the ever vigilant media.

Another question that is left unanswered as of now has been Dhoni’s availability for the SL ODI tour. Now that is a million dollar question (frankly given the current numbers thrown around as remuneration to cricketers and the depreciation of the USD, it should be a ‘billion’ dollar question). If MSD indeed joins the ODI team in SL, it will throw up a lot of uncomfortable questions. Does his being the ‘captain’ of the ODI team matter in his decision making? Is he giving more importance to the limited version of the game?

Being a ‘professional’ player, Dhoni has every right to make his future secure. So one is not even getting into a debate of whether he should have skipped IPL to get his ‘rest’. Though one still has doubts about the reasons for his playing as a wicket keeper for a major part of the IPL tournament even when Parthiv Patel was a regular in the Chennai team.

This decision throws up a few questions for the future to the selectors as well. Will they have a candid chat with MSD about his future as a potential test captain? What happens if Dinesh Karthik performs splendidly in the tests? Will the selectors have the guts to drop MSD? He has, by no stretch of imagination, been the MVP of the Indian test team. They have to decide whether this fact is acting as a motivator or otherwise on him.

In India, when the going is good, especially in cricket, everything one does is turned a blind eye to. A possibly ‘selfish’ decision is hailed as a ‘brave’ one. Dropping senior players out of the 30 probables for champions trophy is termed as ‘forward looking’. Players attending fashion shows and parties and ad shoots, is a photo op. One feels it’s better to be a cynic in rosy times rather than being one in disastrous ones. Look at all those brave souls on CNBC who talked about Sensex touching 40k when it was at 21k.

Sachin Tendulkar might have passed the baton to MSD in terms of endorsement contracts. But maybe in terms of his legacy as a ‘brand’, if this is the passing of the baton, one reserves the judgment on whether it has indeed passed in the right hands.

Posted by Rahul

Posted in BCCI, Captain, Cricket, Debate, Dhoni, Dravid, IPL, Kumble, Rahul, Sachin Tendulkar, selections | 9 Comments

Green Turns to Brown …

“…Now, on Nadal’s ad side there’s a 16-stroke point. Nadal is serving a lot faster than he did in Paris, and this one is down the center. Federer  floats a soft forehand high over the net, which he can get away with because Nadal never comes in behind his serve. The Spaniard now hits a characteritically heavy topspin forehand deep to Federer’s backhand; Federer comes back with an even heavier topspin backhand, almost a clay-court shot. It’s unexpected and backs Nadal up, slightly, and his response is a low hard short ball that lands just past the service line’s T on Federer’s forehand side. Against most other opponents, Federer could simply  end the point on a ball like this, but one reason that Nadal gives him trouble is that he’s faster than the others, can get to stuff they can’t; and so Federer here just hits a flat , medium-hard cross-court forehand, going not for a winner  but for a low, shallowly angled ball that forces Nadal up and out to the deuce side, his backhand. Nadal, on the run, backhands it hard down the line to Federer’s backhand, Federer slices it right back  down the same line, slow and floaty with backspin, making Nadal come back to the same spot. Nadal slices the ball right back – three shots now all down the same line – and Federer slices the ball back to the same spot yet again, this one even slower and floatier, and Nadal gets planted and hits a big two-hander back down the same line – it’s like Nadal’s camped out now on his deuce side; he’s no longer moving all teh way back to the baseline’s centre between shots; Federer’s hypnotized him a little. Federer now hits a very hard, deep topspin backhand, the kind that hisses, to a point just slightly on the ad side of Nadal’s baseline, which Nadal gets to and forehands crosscourt; and Federer responds with an even harder, heavier cross-court backhand, baseline deep and moving so fast that Nadal has to hit the forehand off his backfoot and then scramble back to get back to centre as the shot lands maybe two feet short on Federer’s backhand side again. Federer steps up to the ball and now hits a totally different cross-court backhand, this one much shorter and sharper-angled, an angle no one would anticipate, and so heavy and blurred with topspin that it lands shallow and just inside the sideline and takes off hard after the bounce, and Nadal can’t move in to cut it off and can’t get to it laterally along the baseline, because of the angle and topspin – End of Point. It’s a spectacular winner, A Federer moment, but watching it live, you can see that it’s also a winner that Federer started setting up four or even five shots earlier. Everything after that first down-the-line slice was designed by the Swiss to maneuver Nadal and lull him and then disrupt his rhythm and balance and open up that last, unimaginable angle – an angle that would have been impossible without extreme topspin….”

This, of course, was 2006. Roger Federer won in 4 sets. But it highlights how things have changed. In that grand magnum opus of a final on Sunday, for the most part , it was Rafael Nadal in control. For much of those five hours, it was he that was maneuvering the pace and forcing issues. It was not just about somehow keeping the ball in play. This Sunday, he was just that much further than he was last year and just as he was making near impossible geometric threading-the-needle angles on court, so also was he making some deep inroads into what had seemed thus far to be a near impregnable mindset of the ice cool Swiss.

The fact that all this was happening in Roger Federer’s own den is what makes it all the more special. Lets get the stats out of the way. The last time the Fed had lost anywhere on Grass was 2002. He had a 65 match unbroken streak going into the finals at Wimbledon. 5 straight Championships. No sets dropped en route to this final. At the start of this year, with 12 Grand Slams, it seemed that the only real challenger he had was history itself. So complete has been his dominance that it seems almost incomprehensible that he never made it past the quarterfinals in the first 16 Grand Slams that he entered. (Of the next 21, he’s won 12, been a finalist 4 times and a semifinalist thrice.) Most importantly, in Roger Federer, Tennis has the kind of champion that the sport deserves.

Its ironical that Wimbledon’s Lawn Tennis Museum in a section about the history of the rackets used there has a climax which reads thus :

Today’s lightweight frames made of space-age materials like graphite, boron, titanium and ceramics, with larger heads – mid-size (90-95 square inches) and over-size(110 square inches) have totally transformed the character of the game. Nowadays it is powerful hitters who dominate with heavy topspin. Serve-and-volley players and those who rely on subtlety and touch have virtually disappeared.

The irony is amplified because this is, and has been Roger “Subtlety and Nuance” Federer’s decade. Tennis should be proud.

And on Sunday, so hard was the challenge, so determined the competitor, that the champion was virtually forced to win every point (ok – the majority of the points, but allow me the emotional overdose for its only been 36 hours) through extraordinary shots and he nearly did it !

Which brings us to Rafael Nadal. Hopefully now, we (amateur commentators) will stop equating him with muscle and power and speed and recognise him for that rarest quality that he shares with the greats of most sport. Aggression devoid of hostility. Oh and yes, some indefatigable determination. And this ability to be inspired by defeat. And stay grounded in victory. And that apart from all the technical attributes of the sport that enable somebody to so quickly transform a game from complete dominance on the clay of Rolland Garros to the, admittedly increasingly sunbaked and hence slower, grass of Wimbledon. 

If this was a passing of the baton (and it is too early to say), then its in good hands.

Posted in Celebration, Federer, heroes, Nadal, Tennis | Leave a comment

Of wounded Tigers …

For years Roger Federer has steamrolled, dismantled, and humbled his opponents with consummate ease. The ranking of the opponents or the stage of the tournament didn’t really matter. The comments that followed from the vanquished ranged from ‘I played my best Tennis but he still outclassed me’ to ‘To be called a rivalry, I’ve to start winning once in a while’. The almost humble salute to the crowd after every victory, the graciousness to his opponents in victory and also in the odd defeat, had become synonymous with the Federer Tennis style. Almost every opponent who has played against him, every coach who tried to plot his downfall admitted that the gap was too wide and Federer stood taller than the rest.

The hallmark of a true champion has always been the fear and respect that he generates in the minds of his opponents and the continued dreading that he can and may win against them even from impossible situations. Federer generated that awe in his opponents from the start of 2004 when he became the top seed. He generated a kind of hopelessness and despair in an opponent which was rarely seen in the sport. The frustrating part for the opponents was that they couldn’t even hate him for that. He was not overtly aggressive. He wasn’t in-your–face. He was too polite to be engaged in verbal warfare.

For all these years Rafael Nadal had stood between Federer and the unofficial title of the ‘all time great tennis player of the world’. Nadal was his Achilles heel. Nadal was his nemesis. Nadal was his Kryptonite. Nadal was the only current player to have a better head to head record against Federer (if one takes a minimum of 5 matches or more, else Andy Murray also qualifies) 10 – 6. The French open trophy was the only one missing from the cupboard, thanks to Nadal. Federer hired Jose Higueras, a clay court specialist as his coach in April 08 in a desperate attempt to fill this void on his trophy cabinet. This was after a hiatus of playing without a coach for almost a year. This showed his desperation to find an answer to the Nadal riddle.

A few points to note in this entire Federer – Nadal rivalry was that, in spite of the better head to head stat for Nadal, there was still a yawning gap between them in the ATP ranking points. The head to head on a clay court was favoring Nadal 9-1, which meant that on all other surfaces it stood at 5 – 1 Federer. The fact that most clay court skirmishes had happened in the finals was ample proof that Federer himself was no mean clay court player. The fact that they met only 6 times in non-clay court tournaments with Federer winning many of them (the tournaments) & more, also is self explanatory. But all this analysis to Roger would be nothing but a pointless excuse. The search for perfection didn’t stop with 2 surfaces, nor did it stop with the ATP rankings. Not for Roger for sure.

The year 2008 hadn’t been too kind to Federer. A Win/Loss record of 26-7 with only one title to show, losses to Mardy Fish, Radek Stepanek, Andy Murray and a stunning straight 3 set loss to Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open semi final didn’t bode too well for his chances at the French Open 2008. He later revealed that he had suffered from mononucleosis during the Australian Open. But critics had started questioning his aura of invincibility. Was he past his prime? They had built a super hero image around him and a super hero wasn’t allowed a slump in form. The appointment of Higueras had given mixed results. He lost to Nadal twice at Monte Carlo and Hamburg in the finals. The entire world’s eyes were fixed on the French Open though. If news paper reports were to be believed Roger limped through to the finals. 3 out of the 6 matches that he played were won in straight sets, 3 were won in 4 sets. The 4 setters included the quarter finals and semi finals. Raffa on the other hand had blasted through his opponents without dropping a set. He seemed to be in imperious touch. It was one of the most eagerly awaited finals. Bjorn Borg, whose record Raffa was set to equal had put his bet on Roger, stating that he had become more aggressive and this could be his year.

Cometh the final, Roger Federer was rudely reminded of the gamut of feelings his opponents went through while playing him through out his glittering career. Hope at first, a bit of irritation at missing a few, a feeling of frustration when one’s best is not good enough for the guy on the other side of the net, desperate new measures and tactics to get a toe hold in the match, a sense of helplessness to see those tactics fail and finally complete abject surrender. All this happened in a span of less than 2 hours.

One feels that more than the result or the manner of losing, what would have stung Roger more would be Nadal’s reaction on winning the match and his comments there after. When Nadal closed out the victory, his celebration was muted. He briefly raised his arms and walked to the net, where he and Federer put their arms around each other.

“Today it was tough for Roger, I think,” Nadal said, “and I have to be respectful with one very good guy.” “Roger, I’m sorry for the final,” Nadal said. An opponent feeling sorry for you is the worst thing one wants to hear after a crushing defeat.

Roger Federer for a long time needed tremendous self motivation to go out there and perform because of the lack of any real consistent threat. How long can one sustain the motivation for improvement if one is already way above others? Others start catching up with one and if one’s form dips a bit one’s supremacy starts getting seriously challenged. Maybe Federer still thought that it was his dip in form which was losing matches for him. Normalcy would return once he recaptured the elusive form. But the French open was more than a loss. It was humiliation and a humiliated champion is like a wounded tiger.

There is an interesting story about Aravinda de Silva and Kapil Dev. That was the time when Aravinda had just arrived in international cricket as an extremely gifted batsman and Kapil was just slowing down a bit with age. In those days bowlers normally were not given the charge. But Arvinda had started to give him the charge even before the ball was delivered. Arjuna Ranatunga who was batting with him came down and asked him to mellow down. He said some thing to the tune of “don’t arouse a tiger, even an old one can destroy you”. One has read this story many years back so the details may be incorrect.

Roger Federer is only 26, not an ‘old tiger’ by any stretch of imagination. The French open defeat may sting him into some serious introspection & action.

Federer won the Halle tournament last week in an emphatic fashion. With this victory he took his unbeaten record on grass to 59 matches. He didn’t drop a set or even his serve through the tournament. Raffa at the same time won his first grass court title at Queen’s club in London beating Djokovic. Wimbledon 2008 promises to be riveting.

Tiger Woods is another name that comes to mind which generates that sinking feeling in an opponent sans any hostility. To take the latest example, the reaction of Rocco Mediate to Tiger’s magical 15 feet birdie put that took the 108th US Open to a 18 hole play off –“You can’t ever expect him to miss”. How can one believe that one’s opponent, who is struggling with a knee injury, on the last hole, one stroke down, can make that shot under that kind of pressure? Mediate did. Tiger made him think so. The play off was equally exciting but Woods prevailed as was expected. No wonder Nike saw a great opportunity in bringing together 2 of the greatest sport icons in the form of Federer and Tiger Woods in their promos in 2007.

This was the Roger – Tiger ad from Nike last year

The difference of 2 remains constant, though the score has moved to 14-12 now. One wounded tiger will be chasing another wounded (literally) Tiger’s record. The saga continues.

Posted by Rahul

Posted in Federer, heroes, Not Cricket, Rahul, Sports, Tiger Woods | 2 Comments

Cricket according to Clarkson …

Have been reading ‘The World According to Clarkson’ written by Jeremy Clarkson. He writes a weekly column in The Sunday Times and is better known to BBC viewers as the anchor of Top Gear. His writing style is witty, irreverent and (not atypically British) pulling down everything and every one. Many of his views/ opinions about things in general and Europeans in particular need not agree with this reader’s digestive system but he’s a compulsive read. One came across this article & found it hilarious and admittedly exaggerated.

But what the heck, one needs to laugh at oneself and other fellow cricket lovers once in a while. 

Cricket’s the National Sport of Time Wasters

I understand that England recently lost a game of cricket. Good. The more we lose, the more our interest in the game wanes and the less it will dominate our newspapers and television screens.

Cricket – and I will not take any arguments – is boring. Any sport which goes on for so long that you might need a ‘comfort break’ is not a sport at all. It is merely a means of passing the time. Like reading.

Of course, we used to have televised reading. It was called Jackanory. Now we have Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is much better. Things have moved on, but cricket has not.

I’m not sure that it can. Even if Nasser Hussain, who is the captain of England, were to invest in some new hair and marry Council House Spice (aka Claire Sweeney, the ex-Brookside actress turned Big Brother contestant), it wouldn’t make any difference.

Nobody is quite sure how cricket began, though many people believe it was invented by shepherds who used their crooks to defend the wicket gate to the sheep fold. This would certainly figure because shepherds had many long hours to while away, with nothing much to do.

The first written reference to cricket was in 1300, when Prince Edward played it with his friend Piers Gaveston. And again, this would figure. Princes, in those days, were not exactly rushed off their feet.

Cricket was spread around the world by British soldiers who found themselves marooned in godforsaken flea-bitten parts of the world and needed something to keep them amused, not just for an hour but for week after interminable week.

Today Australia dominates the game – which furthers my theory. Of course they’re good at it. They have no distractions. And the only way we can ever beat them is to round up the unemployed and the wastrels and give them all bats. Certainly, they’d feel at home in the pavilion. It’s exactly the same thing as sitting in a bus shelter all day.

Let me put it this way – is there a sound more terrifying on a Sunday afternoon than a child saying ‘Daddy. Can we play Monopoly?’

Like cricket, Monopoly has no end. The rules explain how you can unmortgage a property and when you should build hotels on Bond Street but they don’t say, and they should, that the winner is the last player left alive. And what about Risk? You make a calculation, based on the law of averages, that you can take the world but you’re always stymied by the law of probability and end up out of steam, throwing an endless succession of twos and ones in Kamchatka. Still, this is preferable to the modern version in which George W. Bush invades Iraq and we all die of smallpox.

Happily, my children are now eight, six and four so they’re way past the age when board games hold any appeal. Given the choice of mortgaging Old Kent Road or shooting James Bond on PlayStation, they’ll take the electronic option every time.

Then there are jigsaws, which I once had to explain to a Greek. ‘Yes, you spend a couple of weeks putting all the pieces together so you end up with a picture.’

‘Then what happens?’ he asked.

‘Well, you break it up again and put it back in the box.’

It’s not often I’ve felt empathy with a Greek, but I did then. And it’s much the same story with crosswords. If scientists could harness the brainpower spent every day on trying to find the answer to ‘Russian banana goes backwards in France we hear perhaps’, then maybe mankind might have cured cancer by now.

Crosswords like jigsaws and cricket, are not really games in themselves. They are simply tools for wasting time. And that’s not something that sits well in the modern world.

We may dream of living the slow life, taking a couple of hours over lunch and eating cheese until dawn, but the reality is that we have a heart attack if the traffic lights stay red for too long or the lift doors fail to close the instant we’re ready to go.

Answering-machine messages are my particular bugbear. I want a name and a number, and that’s it. I don’t have time to sit and listen to where you’ll be at three and who you’ll be seeing and why you need to talk before then. And even if I do pick up the phone personally, I don’t want a chat. I’m a man. I don’t do chatting. Say what you have to say and go away.

British film-makers still haven’t got this. They spend hours with their sepia lighting and their long character developing speeches abd it’s all pointless because we’d much rather watch a muscly American saying ‘Die, m**********r.’

Slow cooked lamb shanks for supper? Oh for God’s sake, I’ll get a takeaway.

Cricket, then, is from a bygone age when people invested their money in time rather than in things. And now we have so many things to play with and do, it seems odd to waste it watching somebody else playing what is basicallyan elaborate game of catch.

Please stop watching – then it will go away

This was penned by Jeremy in 2002. Before Twenty20.
Posted by Rahul.

Posted in Clippings, Cricket, England, Media, Rahul, Writings | 11 Comments

A Royal dare ….

Let one start by admitting that this is not going to be the standard match summary/ report that one reads on haloed cricket sites. This is a fan’s account of the celebration, torture, hope, despair and sweat, which was the IPL semi final between the Rajasthan Royals and Delhi Daredevils.

The day started normally. One had no intentions to watch the match at the stadium. Long discussions on the previous evening had convinced every one in the room (cant call a dealing room a department) that watching the match in a pub with friends was far superior to going through the trials and tribulations of a Wankhede visit. Come noon, a few brave souls had started calling up friends to enquire about their well being in general and availability of extra tickets in particular. The replies were encouraging but needed a wait of another couple of hours. There was an air of quiet confidence in the group. Things began to change over the passage of a couple of hours. Confidence gave way to hope, hope to expectancy, expectancy to stark reality. Reality is like a life jacket. It takes long to sink in. One could hear growing mutterings about the stupidity of sitting in a packed stadium watching some pointless match. A couple of hours before the scheduled start time, plans were afoot to watch the game at a pub, when Christmas reached the shores of Nariman Point a tad early. Someone had caught hold of Santa Claus and arranged for 10 tickets.

This caused a surge of excitement across the room and frantic calls to the better halves were made excusing themselves for the evening. As is the norm in this country droughts are followed by floods. Sipping cold barley water at a watering hole, trying to fortify against the inhuman heat of the city, one suddenly realized that 15 tickets for 10 people was a bit of the American style of living. 5 lucky co-guzzlers were the recipients of Santa’s benevolence. Their initial reaction was of frank incredulence. They checked and rechecked the tickets to figure the catch. There was none. Having done the good deed of the year, one proceeded to the stadium.

The semi final was billed to be a clash of the titans. Shane Warne had turned an average Rajasthan Royals (RR) team into an outstanding one. Virender Sehwag’s Delhi Dare Devils (DD) was well balanced. One was interested in the spectators’ reaction to the two teams as the home team was already out of the semi finals. Royals seemed to be winnings hands down in this category. The huge roar that preceded McGrath’s first ball was just an anomaly. The majority were backing the Royals. Normally Indian crowds back the underdog. A team which was standing at the top of the points table in the league stage couldn’t be termed as one. But the perception of RRs being a weak team, which was built up before the start of the IPL seemed to be lingering after a span of some 40 odd days. Or maybe it’s just that Mumbaikars disliked Delhi more.

Graeme Smith, who was injured in the prior two matches was opening with Swapnil Asnodkar. The first over went off quietly without any major cricketing action. Mohammed Asif seemed to forget that Asnodkar was a passable boxer at a young age. Upper cuts and jabs and pulls continued to form a large part of his cricketing prowess. A straight bat was anathema to him. A couple of short ones from Asif and the floodgates opened. Graeme Smith immediately pulled one of his many muscles and asked for a runner.

Whether Sehwag commented on this later in the post match conference is not known. If a player who has sat out of 2 matches with a suspect injury is played in a crucial tie with common knowledge that he may get unfit during the course of the match then the opposition captain has every right to deny him a runner. Adam Gilchrist had commented on the DDs strategy of using good fielders as substitutes. It did bring into picture the concept of fair play. Smith’s inclusion highlighted it.

With Smith and Asnodkar giving a flier of a start, Yo Mahesh decided to contribute. And boy, did he contribute. He was pulled, flicked, cut with impudence. Maharoof dropped a sleeper (it was easier than a sitter). The momentum seemed to be turning the Royals’ way. Smith departed, followed by Asnodkar with Maharoof trying to make up for his earlier lapse. In walked Shane Watson. The stadium erupted. His name was chanted with a religious fervour. He didn’t disappoint. Along with some help from Yomy, he never let the run rate slacken despite wickets falling at regular intervals. Sehwag got Asif back desperately trying to get Watson. Why he didn’t try to bowl himself or throw the ball to Dilshan will never be known. The highlight of the evening was a gala solo from who else but, dear reader you guessed it right, Yo Mahesh. A Watson shot sailed in the air towards deep mid wicket. YM who was probably wearing a telescope lens in the reverse, thinking the ball to be far ahead of him rushed forward gallantly. The ball seemed to have reassessed the situation and decided to jump and kick a bit more. YM was seen lying flat on his stomach on the practice pitch and the ball was lying outside the boundary. That one moment encapsulated the day for the DDs. Yusuf Pathan got into action with his customary swats and the scoreboard showed 192 by the end of 20 overs.

It was heading to be a good close match. Sehwag and Gambhir had been in good touch and with the likes of Shikhar Dhawan, Dilshan, Dinesh Karthik and Manoj Tewary to follow, the match was on. Well it got switched off pretty early. In fact it never was switched on. Watson cleaned up the top 3. Even Munaf Patel looked threatening. The crowd was getting restless. It had come to watch a breath taking contest but only the extreme heat and humidity seemed to be succeeding in doing that for them. By the eighth over the fat lady had sung and the stadium was emptying out. Watching Warne bowl was the only reason that kept one glued to the seat. Once that objective was achieved one was out of the stadium in a flash.

The walk back home was not pleasant. Cabs were at a premium and after half an hour and a 4 km walk one was back at one’s castle swearing never to watch a live game again.

As one is writing this, frantic calls are being made to check the availability of tickets for today’s game.

Posted by Rahul

Posted in Cricket, IPL, Rahul | 2 Comments

T20, Tests, Jim and Edna …

Watching with interest the debate on T20s and Tests, I wonder if there is any right side at all.

Its all perspective – …

Jim and Edna were both patients in a mental hospital.

One day while they were walking past the hospital swimming pool, Jim suddenly jumped into the deep end. He sank to the bottom of the pool and stayed there. Edna promptly jumped in to save him. She swam to the bottom and pulled Jim out. When the medical director became aware of Edna’s heroic act, he immediately ordered her to be discharged from the hospital as he now considered her to be mentally stable.

When he went to tell Edna the news he said, “Edna, I have good news and bad news. The good news is you’re being discharged, since you were able to rationally respond to a crisis by jumping in and saving the life of another patient. I have concluded that your act displays sound mindness. The bad news is, Jim, the patient you saved, hung himself right after you saved him, with his bathrobe belt in the bathroom.
I am so sorry, but he’s dead.”

Edna replied “He didn’t hang himself, I put him there to dry.”

Posted in Cricket, Debate, General | 2 Comments

The Olympics Curtain Raiser ..

On 08/08/08, the Olympics begin in Beijing. They like that number and consider it auspicious. Lucky even. The Olympics are, of course, more than just that.

Take a look at this piece by Rohit Brijnath carried over the weekend in the Straits Times.

Its called :

Natalie is courage, she is self-belief.

Often in sport, we speak of it, this idea of human spirit, this triumphant mesh of hope, courage, self-belief, this staring down of adversity.

It is hard to define this spirit, but we know it when we see it. Because it makes us feel puny, because it lifts us, because it reminds us of the potential of the human race.

This spirit is Karoly Takacs, a gifted pistol shooter of the 1930-50s, losing his right hand in a grenade accident, learning to shoot with his left, and eventually winning Olympic gold.

It is Cliff Meidl, a plumber, hitting a power cable with his jackhammer, getting a 30,000 volt shock that cracked his skull, burnt his toes, resulted in three cardiac arrests and 13 surgeries on his legs that were almost amputated. Ten years later, he competed at the 1996 Olympics as a kayaker.

And it is this young woman.

Her name is Natalie du Toit, she is 24 years old, and she owns a laugh that is almost musical. And in August, at the Beijing Olympics, when the women line up for the 10km open water swim, you will see her.

She will be hard to miss because she will be the only one there with one leg.

Look at the leg, it is okay, she is used to it. On the phone from South Africa the other day, we spoke of it. Never has an athlete with such a disability qualified for the Olympics, and it is understandable you will look at it.

But eventually get over the leg. It is part of her, yet she is more than that. She does not want to be seen as a symbol for anything, she is not bridging a divide, between abled and disabled athletes.

She is just, she says firmly, “an athlete trying to get better”.

What  Natalie du Toit is telling us is, please, look at my ability, not my disability.

Natalie did not make the Olympics because a car ran into her in 2001, which led to a through-knee amputation. She made it because it was a dream she would not get go of, a dream held on to so ferociously that even a car could not run over it.

“The Olympics have nothing to do with my disability,” she says, “it’s a dream I had as a six-yer old.”

Four months or so after the amputation, she was back in the water where you cannot see her leg or the lack of one, back in the water where she is herself.

There is a cheerful matter of factness to her voice, an unwillingness to pity herself or sell a sad tale, so you must imagine her world then. A body unable to balance itself, unable to push itself off the wall, unable to kick during sprints to the finish, unable to do what it once naturally could.

And then wonder at the self-belief that surged through her, her appetite for work, her ability to wear pain, her stubborn refusal to accept her quest was over. It was an acceptance of a challenge that was, well, Olympian.

Ask her about inspiration and she points to Lance Armstrong. “He cycled when it was snowing, in the cold, when others were scared of getting injured, ” and she is not referring to teh cyclists cancer but his intensity. “It’s about putting in that little extra,” she says.

And so she did, slowly, steadily the mind constantly teaching the body to adapt.

Long ago, she said of her return to the water : “It was not nice seeing little babies beat you. So I just had to train harder … get up with the guys … get up with the seniors … get back to the level I was swimming at before.”

She got so far that a year later, she was in the 800 metres freestyle final at the Commonwealth Games, an astonishing feat for no disabled athlete had swum in an able bodied event.

And then three weeks ago, in Seville, she qualified for Beijing by coming fourth in the 10 km open water world championship.

On her website, he motto reads, “Be everything you want to be”. And because she has lived it all these years, she is finally where she wants to be.  At the Olympics.

Natalie, who does not use a prosthetic and compensates with a thrower’s upper body, says, “I never thought of being disadvantaged”, but she is.

Which is why coaches, she said, told her to try the 10k, “because there are no turns and not much sprinting so you don’t lose as much.”

Its a race that demands from the mind, for as she says” after one hour you’re already aching, you start to hurt, but everyone is hurting, and you have to raise your game”.

Quitters are not invited to this contest where elbows fly under water, and at the World Championships, Du Toit exited with a black eye and says that one of her male teammates had a cut cornea.

And then there is the seaweed, which is the only time her voice raises an octave, for she says, “I hate seaweed”, believing as she does that sharks occasionally linger there.

Ask her about Beijing, and gold is never spoken of. “I just want to improve”. she says.

A medal ? “If it comes it will be a bonus”. What she is clear about is her effort. “I will try my utmost,” she says, and that we believe.

So when the Games commences, remember this name, look for this swimmer. She will probably be easy to recognise, only because of the wide smile on her face.

After all, a medal would be nice, but Natalie du Toit will know that just being in Beijing is proof of the power of a child’s dream and the strength of a woman’s spirit.

Posted in Celebration, Clippings, Dreams, heroes, Olympics, Rohit Brijnath, stories | 7 Comments

What the Doctor ordered …

XYZ Newswire: May XX 20xx

Doctor Vijay Mallya hit the nail on its head, pierced the bull’s eye and put his finger on the problem all at once when he commented, “At the end of the day people need to understand that the IPL has a corporate side to it, and a very definitive corporate side at that. It is not at all cricket in the traditional sense.”

This was indeed refreshing news to be greeted with first thing in the morning. We happened to be staying in the same hotel as the Royal Challengers and were not shocked to find a slip of paper under our doors outlining Team RC strategy. Or so one thought.

In today’s world where people hear of banks rationing toilet paper, Team RC’s strategy wasn’t uppermost in the mind of the writer(s) of the piece of paper. It was about controlling the team’s expenses in these times of high inflation. A few salient features which could pass the test of the Censors are reproduced below.

As all the players may be aware, the US-led global economy is entering a recessionary cycle and the Royal Challengers team is showing no signs of coming out of one. As the good doctor mentioned, it’s not at all cricket in the traditional sense. The buzzword is ‘performance’. Repeated stress on this key issue seems to have inexplicably increased the stress levels of the players, coaches and managers. This is clearly unacceptable. The franchise is losing money faster than Ricky Ponting is losing friends and the writer losing his hair. With a view to bring back some semblance of business sense to the said undertaking, players are advised to adhere to the following principles.

  1. It has been observed that each player has been carrying more than 8 bats in his kit. Team work is all about sharing and caring. Henceforth, the team will have a rolling stock of 6 bats with 6 more being kept in reserves. The remaining bats will be sold off at auctions. Players are requested to get autographs of other teams’ star players to enhance ‘bat valuations’.
  2. For ‘home’ games, local players are requested to take care of their team mates’ boarding & lodging requirements.
  3. During the remaining tenure of the IPL, players will be provided with rations of 3 bottles of beer. This step has to be taken as the cost of a beer bottle for the owners is higher than the cost of bottled water, which is produced only to be displayed on TV ads. Players will have to pay a (subsidized) rate for additional beverages consumed.
  4. Players who haven’t played in a single match till date are requested to take care of the laundry of the entire team. A washing machine will be provided at all venues for assistance.
  5. All players will have to attend a daily crash training course for pursers. All future flights will have to be undertaken as pursers/air hostesses (there’s no cause to worry as all uniforms will be provided by the management). In an extreme case, a player may be accommodated as the co-pilot. Players with international driving licenses are requested to register themselves with the management.
  6. At the end of every match night, there will be a round of ‘match ka mujrim’ (for the uninitiated, this program is a witch hunt on a popular news channel after every loss of the Indian national cricket team) to decide who pays for that night’s drinks and dinner.
  7. It is proposed that Katrina Kaif be sacked as the team ambassador. A search for the replacement is on. One of the cheerleaders has shown keen interest in the said position.
  8. One of the members of the accounting team has expressed his surprise at bats being treated differently from abdomen guards and has ….

The remaining part of the text has been edited to prevent offending the sensibilities of the millions of sensitive souls out there.

One common refrain of most commentators on the Mallya episode has been – We told you so. This is what the IPL will do to cricket. Make it a slave to accountability taken to its extreme, at best and the whims and fancies of the owners at its worst.

What Mallya has done by publicly criticizing Rahul Dravid’s team picking ability is nothing but publicly castigating his team’s captain for it’s pathetic performance. Accountability may be one thing but the manner in which people are held responsible for a debacle is quite another. Mallya went too far.

But does this incident prove that IPL is out to convert cricket into a completely different entity. Let’s take the case of the other 2-3 teams which haven’t done too well. The Deccan Challengers seem to have been the underperformers of IPL season 2008. With big name signings like Gibbs/ Gilly/ Laxman / Styris/ Rohit Sharma / Andrew Symonds and Shahid Afridi, they can be safely called one of the top contenders for the wooden spoon. The DC owners may be extremely upset with the results, but one has hardly come across any statements or actions from them. Similarly Mukesh Ambani may have the right to feel peeved about his team’s standing and also the sort of team that was picked up for the tournament. No harsh words/actions from him either.

Maybe the problem with Mallya is that, despite his utterances he thinks he knows the game himself. To draw an analogy, one has to go back in time by just an year. The kind of reaction after India’s WC debacle from the ‘knowledgeable’ public and experts and the team selection demanded for the Bangladesh tour was very similar. They were over reacting and so is the good Doctor.

The English Premier League which is supposedly a role model for the IPL has enough and more examples of Team Owners conflicts with managers. Jose Mourinho, who was brought to Chelsea by the Russian billionaire Roman Abrahamovich, quit at the start of the season as matters between the two had come to a head. Two EPL titles in the past didnt matter. Ostensibly, Schevchenko not playing was a point of contention. Or so says the omnipresent rumour mill. But really it came to a standstill / standoff when Chelsea got just 11 points from their first six games this season and Arsenal and Man United were running away. Then there’s the current struggle between the American owners of Liverpool and their current manager Rafa Benitez. In most of the cases, team performance has been an issue. But normally the owners haven’t claimed to possess sports knowledge worthy of the managers.

Mallya taking hardly 3 weeks to blame someone for failure and the years it took for the Indian Sports Ministry holding Gill responsible for the IHF functioning are two extremes of the spectrum. It’s not the IPL that is bringing this phenomenon single handedly to cricket. The inexorable march of modern sport to professionalism will ensure its presence in the near future. Amen.

But, is it really all evil and dangerous ? Were the 1 crore bonuses paid to the selectors for daring to choose a largely newbie team which resulted in the ODI series win in Australia not “corporate” ? Are all the brand endorsements that everyone so strongly condemns as a reason for our defeats (in the oh-so-pure forms of cricket ) really a corruption of the game ?

Sure, Vijay Mallya’s behaviour was “signature” egoistic, but if thats good enough to generalise the corporate evil then we’ve seen it before.

Not that we agree but thats a bit like saying
Pawar corrupts. Absolut power corrupts absolutely”….

Posted by Rahul and Sfx

Posted in BCCI, Cricket, Dravid, India, IPL, Media, Rahul, selections, Twenty20, WC07 | 25 Comments

9.something …

Running a race is the closest a human being can come to feel and express one’s natural abilities. It’s a pure show of physical strength and stamina sans any artificial extensions like a tennis racket or a cricket bat. The 1500m or a 10km race is not only about speed. Its about tactics, its about outguessing one’s opponent, its about pacing the race and timing the final assault on the finishing line.

However the sexiest event of an athletic competition happens when the guns go boom to a line up of 8 human F1cars. The 100 meters is the most watched one unarguably. It’s a bit like T20, it’s over before one says ‘twiddledums’. It’s thought to be pure speed. But just like T20 it has it’s own nuances, its own strategies. Those 9.some seconds are what most sprinters live for. Some choose to sacrifice themselves for the same by using banned substances. Probably because the stakes are so high and one has no second chances. No time to pull back. Well almost.

They kneel down to push their torsos up from their bent down position, every muscle in the body ready for the assault. They have their goal literally in sight, only 100 meters away. The start is important, the finish more so.

Beijing 2008 will be witness to a muted but intense rivalry to decide the title of ‘the fastest man on earth’. Asafa Powell has always been in the race (pun intended). The sixth son from 2 country pastors from Jamaica has been one of the more soft spoken faster guys around. His biggest clean competitor around has been another soft spoken guy. Tyson Gay.

Powell is the world’s fastest man with a 100 meter timing of 9.74 seconds but has no major championship medal to show for all that speed. Tyson Gay is the triple event winner of the 100m, 200m and the 4 X 100 meter winning team in the 2007 Osaka World championships. Their rivalry has been at best an underplayed one, at worst nonexistent.

ESPN had a brilliant interview with both the protagonists before the world championships at Osaka in 2007. Both of them talked about respect for each other (unlike a heavy weight boxing title aspirant who Maurice Greene represented). They thought that they were the best. They reminded one of a Federer and a Nadal. Fierce competitors in a nice way. They were egotists maybe, but they had enough humility to disguise it. There was a shared respect amongst the world’s two best sprinters. And it seemed genuine. What is interesting to note is that no matter which sport, there’s only one road to excellence. It is about being in the zone. It is about relaxing. It is about doing simple (?) things perfectly right.

 

The Perfect 100


Powell: Every race is about 48 steps. At the start, you try to stay low out of the blocks. Then you go to your drive phase, then to your lifting phase, at about 50 meters. After 60 meters you can’t go any faster, so you’re trying to stay relaxed and maintain that speed to the 100-meter mark. My toughest part has been the end. But I’ve worked really hard on that — maintaining form and trying to stay relaxed.

Gay: I’m trying to work on my start. As a 200m runner, you can have a bad start and still catch up. You don’t have room for mistakes in the 100.

Powell: When you’re head-to-head with one or two guys, the natural reaction is to try harder to go faster. It will mess you up. Start to finish, don’t pay attention to anyone. It’s just you.

Gay: It’s scientifically proved that if you relax, you run faster. I’m still trying to understand it.

Powell: You have to visualize, make the race happen before it actually does. At 50 meters, I’m thinking, Lift! Lift! And, Swing your arms! That’s the only thing going through my mind.

Gay: The big thing is not changing anything when you get out there. You’ve got to practice the same thing over and over, so it’s basically muscle memory. For me, the perfect race is more a feeling, not necessarily the time — a race where I feel at ease, like I’m not trying.

Some one had to lose at the show down at Osaka 2007. Powell did. And he did it badly. Tongues wagged about his inability to perform under pressure. People talked about his inability to win major championships. With the Olympics looming in, tongues have started to wag again. This is what Michael Johnson, the legend had to say about Powell just a week back

SALVO, North Carolina, April 29 (Reuters) – Jamaican 100 metres world record holder Asafa Powell is not the world’s best sprinter, retired 200 and 400 record holder Michael Johnson said.

That honour, he said, goes to American world champion Tyson Gay.

“I measure sprinters based on consistency and (Gay) is the more consistent,” Johnson said during an online chat on the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) Web site (www.iaaf.org).

“He’s got better performances at championships,” Johnson added of Gay, the world 100 and 200 metres champion.

“Asafa Powell is a great talent but he can never get it done. He’s failed time after time at the championships.”

Powell’s world record of 9.74 seconds is a 10th of a second faster than Gay’s best of 9.84 but the Jamaican has never won a global sprint title.

That will not change in Beijing, according to Johnson.

Asked by an online questioner how Powell could win 100 metres gold at the Beijing Games in August, Johnson replied jokingly: “Trip Tyson Gay.”

He made the comment before Powell’s manager announced the Jamaican would not compete again until late June because of a pulled pectoral muscle.

Johnson also predicted Gay would win the 200 in Beijing to match his 2007 world championship sprint double.

It is possible that Johnson is practising ‘mental disintegration’ on Powell. Powell failing at major championships is a fact, but maybe it wasn’t due to choking every time.

Rafa Benitez, the Liverpool coach had commented on Didier Drogba’s diving capabilities before the second leg of the Champion League’s semi final with Chelsea. Many people might agree with Benitez (I sure do), but the timing of the statement was dubious. Here was a coach who was trying to pull down a player from the opposition before a crucial match. He was showing his desperation but he was also playing with fire. Drogba maybe a Greg Louganis on the football field, but the man can use his legs to perfection. He did. Drogba scored 2 goals in a 3-2 extra time win over Liverpool. This is what he did after scoring the first one. If a picture could tell a story, this one would be nominated at the Oscars.

Drogba said in an interview later that he had pinned Benitez’s photo in his locker to motivate himself. He wanted to react to Benitez’s allegations by scoring goals. And boy he did. Maybe Asafa Powell should take a leaf out of Drogba’s book and answer his critics once and for all by winning gold at Beijing. It will be a pity if he doesn’t, after dominating the short race for years. One can always send him Michael Johnson’s photo to pin in his room.

Powell will do well to remember what Sun Tzu has said in his ‘The Art of war’ – “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”

Posted by Rahul

Posted in Asafa Powell, Athletics, China, controversy, Debate, Not Cricket, Olympics, Rahul, Soccer, Tyson Gay | 3 Comments

Cricket is dead. Long Live Cricket…

Its not just a game, they say. Its an artefact which we must preserve. And they’re right, of course. Cricket is a game of immense skill and strategy. Of ebbs and flows. The essential cricket battle is not just about which side scores more runs – but the manner in which innings are constructed and bowling strategies countered. A drama of ability calibrated to such high levels that everything extempore seems beautifully choreographed. The time honed skills when on peak display are a rivetting spectacle – their spontaneity making it better than theatre.

But what good is that theatre if it isn’t watched? And how far can we go to make it watchable ?

Thankfully for us, cricket has always been up to the task.

In its early form, Test Cricket was a timeless fight to the death, so to speak. Once a game began , it would end with a result. No rain nor storm could force a draw. It was a Test of many things, not the least of which was patience.

Then, the “I-have-to-catch-a-boat” Test happened and Timeless Tests morphed into those with an end date. 5 days (with an interspersed rest day) was a major innovation which fiddled with Test cricket’s fundamental traditions and actually set a deadline for when a match would finish. Now that one thinks about it , it must have been fairly blasphemous when first suggested but it brought a new set of nuances in. Now you had to construct and pace your innings, strategise (occasionally declare) and develop plans with time constraints. The idea of this first major – and all subsequent – innovations was to retain the sanctity of the inherent skills while also respecting the time of those involved ; spectators, players and administrators alike.

By the 1960s, having tasted the aggression of people like Don Bradman earlier, even that was beginning to seem long – and in response to growing demand for more action , One Day cricket was first introduced in England. This not only reduced the format from the existing 6 days to a single day but also brought it to one innings per side ! With limited overs !! As with all things which are built in response to market needs, it was (despite its fair distance from the traditions of the game), a resounding success. In 1971, somewhat by accident , a Limited Overs international was born and although it was the first time that national sides were playing each other in this form, it captured the World’s attention enough for the World Cup of One Day Internationals to be born a few years later.

Test cricket meanwhiled trundled alongside. It had travelled a long way from the Timeless Test age when it all began and now cohabited the sports’ stage with a compressed form of the game which increased the sports popularity as more countries joined in striving to compete with the best. Surely it could only be downhill from here. And for a while it seemed like thats what it would be.

Kerry Packer came and with him came the World Series Cricket circus. Not only were players not playing for the establishment, but there were other breaks from tradition to infuriate and sadden the purists. Night cricket , coloured clothing (pyjama cricket, if you please), white balls, players wearing double entendre’ T shirts (Big / Bad Boys play at night), Tina Turner videos and players playing (gasp !) for money rather than nation. Kerry Packer’s crew played Tests as well as Limited Overs Games and admittedly they were not well received initially but soon, the concept of the Day-Night game caught on. And Kerry Packer became legend. “There is a bit of whore in all of us, Gentlemen. Name your price”, he said to the Australian Board. And ultimately they did. In the words of Dr Greg Manning ” Packer paid $12 million not to buy cricket but to turn the cricket into something he could buy. The real meaning of his victory was that the game would never again be beyond price.”

At the height of the dramas surrounding World Series Cricket, Packer vouchsafed in a press conference that cricketers had long been exploited by authorities, and that they deserved better pay and conditions because of the pleasure they gave to millions. A journalist took up the thread for his remarks and wondered if the businessman was saying that his enterprise was “half-philanthropic”. Packer’s realism was too embedded for him to agree. “Half-philanthropic?” he said. “That makes me sound more generous than I am.”

Kerry Packer was the “commercialisation of the sport” as we now know it.

And yet, Australia now consider him the second biggest influence of the game (in a good way) for the sport in Australia after The Don. On his passing , the MCC observed a minute’s silence as a mark of respect for his contribution to the game.

Justifiably so. For Kerry Packer not only provided a much larger audience for a sport, and money that made the crumbing finances of cricket worldwide viable , but with the influence of his initiatives and the growing popularity of one day cricket – Test Cricket changed forever as well.

The ODI inarguably enhanced Tests. More results , more entertainment (of the pure cricket kind) and more revenues made it a bigger audience attraction than ever. Most importantly, in terms of skills – Better running between the wickets and fielding standards were natural offshoots but techniques went outside the textbooks and worked ! Of course, players of aggressive intent were part of the sport before the advent of ODIs but clearly that aspect of the game got more widespread.

So why this big hue and cry about Twenty20 in general and the Indian Premier League in particular ? How different is it from the Limited Overs game and how different is the inherent commercialisation from what Kerry Packer was doing ? Why are we so keen to dismiss the format at its very inception ? Why is there a school of thought that considers it so sacrilegious that they won’t watch ! Why are some so upset that obits of Test cricket are being considered and no positives – absolutely none can be seen ?

Equally importantly, why is something that was invented (yet again) by the British (in 2003 in response to the “Man and his dog watching County Cricket” syndrome), suddenly now Brutish ?

The origin of Twenty20 was really to bring cricket into a time “zone” which was comparable with other popular sport like Soccer or (Grand Slam) Tennis. The idea was, as most ideas are, a response to market needs as Cricket sought viewership. The idea was not to replace other forms of the sport – and just as the ODIs have not replaced Test cricket or other forms of first class cricket, its early if not erroneous to assume that Twenty20 will.

Initial cynicism is acceptable – and even welcome. After all, sixes and fours rain. Bowlers feel good with 7ish economy rates. Batsmen ostensibly don’t value wickets. Building an innings is almost a sin. Greed obliterates fear. Almost each toss has the losing skipper saying “conditions won’t change much”. With 3 hour match durations those are understatements. Things move lightning quick. Dot balls are gold. Risk is not a four letter word.

And without denying one’s own early cynicism , its also completely wrong to call T20 a parody, caricature or clone of the game. As we’ve said before , there are always those that will crucify themselves between regret of the past and fear of the future. Understanding the value of every delivery is an intensification of the game rather than a dilution of it. Striving to maximise returns and cut down errors from the word go is placing a big premia on performance.

As far as the IPL itself is concerned, the criticisms are many but the targets keep moving so they’re hardly easy to address. Is it the amount of money ? The source of the money ? Bollywood ? The T20 format ? Lalit Modi ? Loyalty ? Royalty ? Media ? All of the above ? There must be something right, surely.

How different are these concerns from the ones that were doubtless raised when Kerry Packer surfaced ? How long did that last and how much good did it bring ? These are questions which we are in the process of answering every passing day.

Somewhere the “off the field” entertainment, which is causing so much unrest amongst the connoisseurs, will find the right balance with the on field skills but as of now its doing the same job that coloured clothing, black sightscreens and their ilk were doing in the 1970s. And getting as much attention at the expense of the cricket from fans and critics alike.

Somewhere we’ll begin to realise and accept that Brendon McCullum’s 150 in 20 overs (an astonishingly good score for a team at the 20 over mark in the one day game) was an act of great cricketing skill and while the element of orthodoxy was missing , it was perhaps telling that Mike Hussey of the phenomenal Test average nearly matched it soon enough. For those that say that this does not adequately test enough to separate the best from the rest, its equally significant that at the time of writing , these two share the top batting slots with cricketers such as Matt Hayden , Sangakarra, Adam Gilchrist, Andrew Symonds and MS Dhoni. Isnt it a vindication of skill that 4 of those 7 are Australians and come from a team that are thrice World Champions ? Haven’t Glenn Mcgrath and Mohd Asif shown their class ? Haven’t the leadership bluffs of the weaker captains been called?

Another concern is that it pays so much that it’ll destroy the first class structure – already moribund in terms of spectator interest. And there are two aspects of this – money and format.
Money first : These are professional sportsmen and if they bring in the revenue, a share of that to them is really a matter of justice. How else would we like it to be ? But spectator interest for the longer version first class games is a concept that struggles because of the premium that we now place on our time. The ICC bravely tried a “Us and Them” Super Test as a concept and it failed from the start and thats because the problem isn’t one of quality, which is high enough to justify interest – but of time.
Perhaps the format itself will go through changes. Maybe we’ll now have 4 innings of 25 overs each instead of 2 innings of 50 in a One day game to get a hybrid of sorts. But either way, the better cricketers will adjust. Sachin Tendulkar was born about the same time that limited overs internationals were. As were Rahul Dravid, Saurav Ganguly, Shane Warne and Glenn Mcgrath. They grew with, and indeed helped grow One Day internationals – but so seamless was their transition that its unlikely that any of them will be considered as having harmed Test cricket. If anything, they have embellished it.

And the performances will undoubtedly improve. And the IPL – and maybe other leagues of value – will contribute to them because they remove barriers to learning that geography created. First class cricketers and newbie internationals are rubbing shoulders with all-time greats. Getting encouragement, strategising along , playing in the nets , understanding preparations, celebrating victories and analysing losses alongside and imbibing mindsets. Even seasoned players see the value in competing with and against contemporaries that national duty would not typically allow them to.

Test Cricket has survived as long as it has because it has adjusted along with the times. Its monumental oceanic presence taking in the shades and shapes of all the new streams that joined in.

Test cricket is not going to die because the highest form of theatre lives on and because the art form is constantly evolving. It’ll probably get squeezed into an increasingly niche audience but those that are willing to carve the time to watch a performance will always stay. However, if we are to make time for it , then it too must keep with the times.

Without tradition“, said Winston Churchill, “art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd“. Then, as with all things Churchillian, he added the punch line – “Without innovation, its a corpse.”

Earlier post related to the IPL here.

Posted in BCCI, Cricket, Debate, Dhoni, Dravid, ICC, India, IPL, Sports, Twenty20, Warne | 21 Comments

Global (S)Warming …

If you’d been trapped in a time warp for a while now and haven’t noticed Asia’s growing influence in sport – virtually all sport ; well, its happening.

Rohit Brijnath, himself a symptom of this growing ascendancy, and writing now for, among others, the Hindu, the BBC and here in Singapore for the Straits Times, penned the following piece on the subject for the ST last week. Its typically balanced and invites thoughtful debate.

 “There has been no call from Augusta but then I wasn’t expecting one. There are enough Brits in the field. Now if I were the only person in the country, a la China, I might get in. It’s a strange way to make up a field for a Major championship – TV rights.
– Colin Montgomerie

AFTER a lifetime of enjoying being Colin Montgomerie the Scot, after enjoying the enormous privileges of growing up in a Western golfing nation (courses, access, home advantage, a certain affluence, a culture that promotes sport as a career alternative, sponsor invites), now he wishes he was called Colin Wang!
 
Now, he’s saying the Chinese, Indians, Thais, who by the way don’t have a single Major in their backyard, whose Tour has the least influence, are advantaged?
 
Now, finally, when the East has some clout (financial), and tournaments want Asians in their fields because it boosts television ratings, and perhaps sponsorships, it is favouritism?
 
This is the funniest thing in sport since English golfer Ian Poulter, world No 24 and Major-less, insisted he was Tiger Woods’ only rival.
 
Merit, it is said, should determine the Masters field, and thus China’s Liang Wenchong (ranked No 111), Thailand’s Prayad Markasaeng (No 93) and India’s Jeev Milkha Singh (No 80) do not deserve to be invited to Augusta when Mr Montgomerie (No 75) isn’t.
It seems a sound argument, for sport should not be about favours or preferences, but performance.
 
But, of course, sport does have its quota of favours and preferences. Golf tournaments have sponsor invites, and John Daly, world No 186, makes a beery living from them. No one complains. Tennis events (and only eight of 65-odd events are held in Asia/Dubai) have wildcards. At the US Open, seven of eight wildcards go to Americans, and the eighth to an Australian on a reciprocal deal. No one complains.
 
So then why complain about these three Asians at the Masters?
 
Having navigated the globe repeatedly, Monty should know that geography is fundamental to sport. If football wasn’t keen on globally spreading the game (and earning revenues), it wouldn’t decide entries to the World Cup through continental quotas, but simply invite the best 32 teams. But then it wouldn’t be a world cup.
 
Part of Monty’s problem is the pain of his growing irrelevance. If he was still a great player, the Masters would embrace him (all fiddling involves lesser players), but those days are fading.
 
The entertaining Scot is allowed his little pout, but he might as well get used to making way for Asians. Sport is changing, sometimes radically, sometimes slowly. Once, not only was most of the decision-making in most sports confined to the West, the decisions mostly suited the West. Now that is altering.
 
Sports is desperate to capture Asia’s attention and its dollars (tennis’ Australian Open sells itself as the “Grand Slam of the Asia/Pacific”) because here is where the new audience and new money lies. And the evidence of this courtship is everywhere.
 
Formula One has five races now in Asia. Soon India will join in, Abu Dhabi will roar, and South Korea smoke. Yet, 10 seasons ago, only once in the year did cars race in Asia. Premier League clubs, with shirt sales on their minds, routinely go on seduction missions across this continent, and the idea of the international round had our piece of the planet in mind.
 
Dubai is now not just Roger Federer’s practice town but a place for dirham-counting golfers to build shining courses. Including Monty. Of course, when you are doing good business on this side of the world, then presumably there are no complaints.
 
In cricket, change has been most telling, for now money, ideas and influence flow East to West, and it is a discomforting reversal of roles for some. Expectedly almost, some doubt shadows the sub-continent’s ability to lead the game, and it has led to some artless double standards.
 
The recent possibility, for instance, that the chairman and the chief executive of the International Cricket Council could both be Indians was viewed in some quarters as an uncomfortable idea. But when these two posts were held by Australians some years ago, it was considered just fine.
 
The sporting East is tired of such disrespect, tired of being patronised, tired of the discordant notes that men like Montgomerie hit, even if inadvertently.
 
The East wants to be a major player in sports, and it eventually will be, but it needs to remember as well that respect on this journey must be earned, not just bought.
 
It must manage its new economic power responsibly, it must not bully as it does frequently in cricket, it must be wary of wearing a chip on its emerging shoulder, and it must not be content just hosting glittering tournaments but become competitive in them.
 
In a perfect world, Asian players would not need a favour from the Masters. And, well, neither would Monty.

. . .

Posted in Cricket, Debate, General, Golf, Rohit Brijnath, Sports, Writings | 4 Comments

Walking the Talk …

Given all the media hype about the upcoming Olympics – the security surrounding the torch, Bhaichung Bhutia, Aamir Khan and Tibet;  and the Indian hockey team –  one question that always begs to be answered is – How many gold medals can India win at the Beijing Olympics. This is as standard a topic one does hear before the commencement of a competitive multi-country sporting event like the Asiad or the Olympics, as the real estate prices in Mumbai, as how the only difference between a first class and a second class compartment in a Virar local is that the sweat is perfumed, as how the new generation is so irresponsible, as how inflation is affecting the monthly household budget, as how the Indian middle class is not so middle any more, as Shekhar Suman laughing and arching his already arched plastic surgery related eyebrows on a comedy show. One can go on listing more standard topics of discussion but respect for space and a distinct lack of creativity forces the conclusion of the same. Most sportswriters, it is alleged, have one standard piece, which is submitted to editors. The year and the location are variable. Everything else is unchanged. Death, taxes, people falling in borewells (how do people manage to do this is beyond one’s imagination) and these Olympic related pieces are the only certainties in an otherwise subprime hit uncertain world. The article generally starts with – “India’s chances of securing a medal are as good as L.K. Adwani embracing Bardhan. —— our only hope is the hockey team —– what we need is a complete overhaul of the system —- the administrators need to be made accountable —- everything will be forgotten till the next Olympics — we suck’. Period. One hopes that the editor edits the hockey bit this time around.

It is whispered (now one understands why that game is called Chinese whispers) by informed sources within the CPM (After consultation with the Chinese delegation which attended some annual meet some where in India) that 4 honorary gold medals are assured by the hosts as a prize for the CPM’s dogged support.  Yechury wins one for blabbering, Karath wins one for intransigence, Bardhan wins one for existence and Buddhadeb wins one for his singurar, oops, singular focus on Industry. Any other Olympic medal 2008 is as distant a dream as Leander lauding Mahesh, as the shooters getting ammo, as the archers getting arrows, as weight lifters going without drugs, as distant as the swimmers coming 7th in heats (there are 8 lanes,  remember?), as the boxers landing a punch.

Bollywood has a solution for all these problems. If you can’t beat them, make a movie. We have seen ‘Lagaan’, ‘Chak De India’ and ‘Dan Danandan Goal’ transform the normally dour, humourless common man into an aggressive, patriotic and adrenaline charged animal. These movies confirm our suspicion as a nation that we are slated for ‘greatness’ in sport.

(The first rider to the clubbing of these 3 movies is that in no way is one trying to equate the movie quality from a movie critic’s perspective).One common thread that runs across all these movies is the nature of sport involved. Cricket, hockey and football are all team sports. By the inherent nature of a team sport, there will be a lot of potential to show contrasts, underlying tensions and the spirit of camaraderie. There is always a ‘win at all costs’ loathsome opponent who is the hands down favourite. (To be fair though, Chak De didn’t delve into this caricature).  One has seen enough Hollywood back-from-the-brink, David-beats-Goliath, feel-good sports movies. But the audience reaction to their Indian movie counterparts is way more enthusiastic. Just as in any Hollywood action movie, the entire room (mostly full of army men) gets up and claps at the end to cheer the hero for services rendered, at all the multiplexes one visited the mood was as jubilant. Every goal was cheered, every wicket celebrated. How one wished this was a real life event. One has watched all these movies in a cinema hall and the rousing audience response to the underdog’s (read India) victory has set off some introspection.

We, as a nation have been witness to very few sporting achievements since independence –  but that was acceptable a decade back. We ourselves had very low expectations. A champion was celebrated by the nation but winning wasn’t every thing. We were an emerging economy with very little to show for our 50 odd years of freedom. The 21st century has brought a booming economy and a burgeoning middle class. Serious problems still exist but there is a new spring in the step of the nation. The biggest change that has come about is the one in attitude. The country exudes self confidence (some view it as arrogance). We are not the dregs of the world any more. We don’t perceive ourselves to be inferior to anyone. But there is still this small matter of almost non-existing sporting excellence.

The advent of satellite TV opened up a whole new world to the passionate Indian sports lovers. Gone were the days of the woefully inadequate 1 hour of ‘World of  Sport’ on a Sunday evening with Dr. Narottam Puri. The world’s best talent in almost every sport, be it soccer, Tennis, Formula 1, Badminton, Golf, Bowling (Sfx in Singapore, I believe is queuing up to file mental harassment claims) could be viewed with shock and awe. You name it and you get it. What the nation saw were champions at work. Mediocrity was passé. The nation wants more from its sportspeople. Just like the famous cola tagline of yesteryears (which incidentally is creatively borrowed from a Bengali song). India wants her sporting heroes and she wants them quick. The one glaring problem in this ambition is that the world has moved too far ahead and India is playing catch up. The Milkha Singh record was broken only a few years back. Our FIFA world ranking is in mid 100’s. We have one player in the Top 50 in Tennis. Sporting underachievement rules.

There’s enough ‘respected’ opinion out there on how to tackle the problem. Heartfelt angst is poured out in articles and pieces about the pathetic condition of Indian sport. Well meaning advice is freely circulated to get rid of the ailments. Administrators are lambasted, the ‘system’ is blamed and a new beginning is advocated. Talking to a friend, who was one of the top TT players of the country, one realised the challenges faced by any budding talent. Matches were played on Badminton courts, there was little or no monetary aid, facilities were non existent and there was no future financial security. Many will say that this is a common story in our country and one would tend to agree with it. (Today she is happily married and settled.) But what hurts is to see talent go to waste. This was about 8 years ago – and what is perhaps typical and what one must realise, is that the biggest reason for her to stop playing was that parental suport existed to a certain stage, but not beyond. Sport as a ‘pastime’ was fine but not at the cost of one’s ‘career’.

All this finally brings one to the moot point. Should we as individuals keep on moaning and ranting about the obvious problems? The problems always lie externally. The ‘system’ is the soft target. The oft cited villain. Is one’s responsibility to the cause fulfilled by writing caustic articles on the state of affairs? Or can one make a small but significant contribution to the sports culture of the country. Can one build a sports culture?

The point about the burgeoning middle class and new found confidence, made earlier in the piece was not a random one (readers may assume that all others were). If one pledges to make one’s kids play at least 2-3 sports and whole-heartedly support the kids’ progress in case of any visible signs of talent, then that can be construed as a good start. There will be years of blood, tears and perseverance that will be needed to attain any decent level. There will be disappointments along the way. Education might have to be given a back seat. A lot of sacrifices will have to be made (both by the kid and the parents). One tends to agree that as an individual, one can hardly try to cleanse the mess in team sports like Hockey. Because the mechanics of a team sport work in a way such that no one player can control/change the system and thereby the destiny of the team. But individual sport is where one sees a ray of hope. As mentioned in an earlier post, the player controls his/her destiny.

If one looks at the rare success stories of Indian sport, excluding cricket, most games where we have excelled have been games which can be afforded by the middle/ upper middle class and some facilities were available. Golf, Tennis, Chess, Billiards, Snooker and Shooting, to name a few. Waiting for the government and/or various associations to come up with radical and fundamental changes is too much to expect .

A better way is to contribute to the story by deeds and actions rather than mere words.

A lot of things have been left unsaid in this piece. And of course, this is only the tip of the proverbial (albeit non melting) iceberg.  

Maybe one can start by taking a look at the following -

The Special Olympics oath is:

Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

These words were spoken by Roman gladiators as they entered the arena, facing the greatest battle of their lives.

We are too !

Posted by Rahul

Posted in Debate, Dreams, General, India, Olympics, Rahul, Sports | 8 Comments