On Grief, Loss and Memories of Dad..

This morning, Rohit Brijnath wrote in the Straits Times on his father’s passing, on grief, loss and the memories.

 

For an honest man with perfect eyesight my father was a beautiful liar. He’d look at me, gangly, chin-less, awkward, 14, and then at my two slightly more becoming brothers and proclaim like a judge:

“You are my handsomest son.”

I’d grin at this transparent sweetness and say: “Relax, Dad, it’s cool. I know what I look like.” My self-esteem was strong and only because he’d helped build it.

My father “was” is a hell of a thing to write, but this is the unarguable grammar of death. In these pages I’ve written about his shoes, his train journeys, the anxiety of his ageing and the scruffy white field of his beard, which he pulled like a man tugging at new ideas. I feel I owe him some final words as he’s gone travelling, back into the earth from where he believed he came. His god was nature.

Even in the week of his death, my father was helping me learn. Intensive care waiting rooms at night, I realised, are therapeutic, long hours of silence that invite reflection. Here, no one god is greater.

The young man in the next chair, whose father awoke from brain surgery and could not speak, said little to me but we were united by apprehension. In a life smudged by uncertainty, the loss of a parent is inevitable. This is our shared humanity.

Down a snaking corridor from where I sat, my father lay, ventilator down his throat, a man who sang Summertime with such gusto now silent as winter edged closer. Medicine sometimes cannot return a man to a dignified life and yet it will not let them pass to the next world. They are stuck in this holding area of diminishing hope. Illness strips humans of personality and authority and if he was awake my father would tear away these tubes and say “enough”.

Days later, when he’s gone, I go through his bedside drawer, exploring his clutter of old bills, folded notes, a poem to his mother and a list of great men he’d made for a lecture series he had done at a school. Lincoln is there, Gandhi of course, Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad, and also Michelangelo and Akbar.

In possessions lie clues to a person and my father had few, a cigarette salesman at the start who preserved his simplicity. He had his shirts stitched at a local tailor and got the roadside cobbler to make his shoes. Some men who come from little can be nervous about wanting more. When my eldest brother bravely bought him a Business Class ticket to Dubai I could imagine my father approaching his luxurious seat with suspicion.

I enjoyed rifling through his cupboard because it spoke of him, two ancient cameras (he was a lousy photographer), an unopened after-shave, a musty set of binoculars, pens with no ink, a clothes brush and, befitting an old-fashioned man, a tower of handkerchiefs. But his treasures, we knew, lay elsewhere – his family, his hats and his Encyclopedia Brittanica.

Grief visits like the tides but I am grateful. I don’t believe in god but I do in luck, in the inexplicable cosmic lottery that places you as a child in the arms of a decent man. My father stubbed out his last cigarette years ago but in my mind he’ll always smell of old smoke and out-of-date after shaves. It was my smell of safety.

At the end, he did not suffer long and he was not alone and neither were we. The Turkish novelist Elif Shafak spoke to the National Public Radio this year about the Cemetery of the Companionless in Istanbul, where “there are no tombstones, no surnames… nothing personal on the graves, just numbers”. It is the place, she said, of “many outcasts”, of sex workers, AIDS victims and refugees.

I read this recently and it makes me think of my fortune. I have family who use love to soak up each other’s sadness, friends who bring food and emotional sustenance, the local vegetable seller who comes in the ambulance with me to the funeral. Everyone knows loss and in the stories that are exchanged is found perspective. One friend lost her mother in childbirth and another his father 23 years ago.

My father died at 84 and I am fine with it, for to see him already diminished, struggling to recite Rumi, his memory unable to resurrect familiar lines, was hard enough. His favourite word came from Urdu, and it was “insaniyat”, or “humanity”, and part of it is the quality of being kind. Letting go is also love.

My peace also arrives from my absence of regret. We were men who left no love unsaid and no argument unfinished. Behind the label of “father” was a man I liked immensely and I told him. An atheist of conscience and knowledge, imperfect and gentle, provocative and generous, who assailed bigots on the television with a string of invective. My father swore loudly and musically, while my mother sat unmoved like a veteran school teacher who could not be surprised any more.

Fathers give us things and so he handed me John Coltrane, Joe Louis, James Baldwin and bad jokes. Mostly he gave me a voice. He did not ask me to fear him or blindly obey him, he did not patronise me or order a career for me. He let me be contrary, let me fence with him, let me slam doors and try out ideas. Freedom is a gift. One of my brothers wanted to study tigers and my father pulled his beard and worried and then opened the door to the jungle for him.

Middle age is comforting but also confronting. If our lives are like jigsaws, and we’ve spent five decades finding a degree, then a job, maybe having children, putting a life together, then now some of those pieces, often in the form of friends or parents, are falling off. There’s no replacement for them and we just become people with parts missing, incomplete forever.

Loss is a companion in the shadows, who suddenly flickers into view. I see chess boards and peg measures and I think of my father. What we are left with is memory and things, like old watches that speak of another time, just small fragments of a life lived. One of my brothers took two of my father’s shirts home, another has asked for a hat but, through sheer coincidence, I have his last full sentence.

I was the first of my brothers to reach India and the infection that eventually claimed my father had begun to seize him. He was barely conscious and yet, even in his distress, he found the lucidity for one final act of fatherhood. He smiled and said to me what he always did:

“Hello, my beautiful boy.”

And then he went to sleep.

On the terrific Kiwis

In this morning’s Straits Times, Rohit Brijnath looks forward to the World Cup Cricket Final – and looks back at New Zealand sport.

Find something black to wear tomorrow. Pin a silver fern to it. Open a bottle of Steinlager. You can then consider yourself an honorary Kiwi for a day. If you feel the urge to do an awkward haka in your living room, let the moment pass.

It’s World Cup final day in cricket and if you are not English then presumably you are cheering for New Zealand. As Sharda Ugra, senior writer for ESPNcricinfo puts it, “after your own country, they are everyone’s favourite second team”. Because their competitiveness is not stained by conceit and their skill not sullied by vanity. They are the unstarry team persistently chasing an outsized dream.

One of their great runners, Peter Snell, a three-gold Olympic champion in the 1960s, titled his book, No Bugles, No Drums. It sounds like the story of New Zealand at this Cup. Quiet heroics and no fanfare. When they felled India in the semis, captain Virat Kohli found an apt word for them. They were “braver”, he said.

New Zealand is famous for its film locations, a humane prime minister and for rolling chocolates downhill. For many years in Dunedin, on the steepest street in the world, they send 75,000 Jaffas – a type of round chocolate – skittering down a slope. How can you not cheer for such a land?

If they are eccentric, they are also stylish. Perhaps they have a Zorro complex for they do almost everything sporting in black. Jerseys and names. The All Blacks (rugby), Black Sticks (hockey), Tall Blacks (basketball), Black Caps (cricket) and Wheel Blacks. If you haven’t solved the last one, it’s their wheelchair rugby teams.

New Zealand is one of sport’s great Davids, a spirited sporting land undeterred by its modest numbers. It has few people (4.8 million) in a large land (268,000 sq km) and as John Wright, a former cricket captain who grew up on a farm near Canterbury, says: “It’s an outdoor country.”

Wright, 65, speaks with quiet fondness of a boyhood full of sport, of volunteers who organised fixtures and of a society that “doesn’t put people on a pedestal”.

“Most New Zealand sports teams,” he says, “know that they play bigger, better resourced countries. That’s the reality. So there’s always an understanding that you have to knuckle down, that you’re up against it.”

Sport in New Zealand, as Ben Pulham, a former Kiwi triathlete says, “is something to aspire for”. It’s as if the vast land invites play. Indeed, on the Sport New Zealand website, you can find a sport to try from a list of 106. Axe sports anyone? Shearing perhaps? Kerri-Jo Te Huia once sheared 452 strong wool ewes in nine hours. Evidently everything is competition here.

Their small population has not been a deterrence but possibly an inspiration and New Zealand has tackled the land (the All Blacks have three rugby World Cups) and commanded the waters (rowing golds and the America’s Cup). They’ve had a shot putter Valerie Adams who won two Olympic golds; a driver, Bruce McLaren, who built an F1 team; a No. 1 golfer, Lydia Ko; and a Wimbledon champion. Over a hundred summers ago, Anthony Wilding won four singles titles between 1910-13, lost in the 1914 final and was killed in 1915 during World War I. He was 31.

But tomorrow matters because this nation’s sporting cupboard has an empty space. Cricket’s Cup has eluded them and as Andrew Alderson, a sportswriter with the New Zealand Herald says: “Yes, it’s the missing piece in the jigsaw.” To lose in the final for a second successive time would feel more like curse than coincidence.

In the Cup final New Zealand collide with England, the hosts who battered them in the round-robin phase, but they will not flinch for they are hardy creatures of their geography. As Pulham says: “New Zealand is so remote, the terrain is hard, the weather can be miserable and we’re not crazy wealthy. So we have to earn everything. People are just tough.”

No kidding. Susan Devoy, eight-time British Open squash champion, worked as a builder’s labourer and Trevor Manning, goalkeeper of their 1976 Olympic gold-winning hockey team, had a novel response to his kneecap being smashed with 14 minutes left in that final. As he told The Wellingtonian News: “I just did a couple of squats to let the Aussies know there was nothing wrong with me.”

But perhaps New Zealand deserve a cheer mostly because they are led by a man of decency and distinction. Captain Kane Williamson is a warrior in the guise of a monk. Wright calls him “a very wise young man” while Alderson defines him elegantly. “I don’t think,” he says, “I’ve ever met a New Zealand sportsman, or for that matter any sportsperson, who has such an ego to ability ratio. Low ego and high ability.”

His bowlers create enough swing to impress a jazzman but there will be pressure on Williamson to bat long. Yet he has met expectation calmly all Cup. He has averaged 91.33 and it shows a man of purpose who knows his team are only slightly better than his national bird. The Kiwi, you see, has no tail.

Should these understated underdogs ascend their cricketing Everest and Williamson is lost for words, he can always borrow some from a famous countryman. As Edmund Hillary said after completing another famous quest: “We knocked the b*****d off.”

On Virat’s team – and the Australia series win.

This morning, in the Straits Times, Rohit Brijnath on India’s first series win in Australia.

 

As words go in sport, “earn” has an imposing weight. It is short, muscular and unfussy. It is a word which suggests no one is entitled to victory, that in competition there are no favours, that no bonus points are given just because you tried.

No, to earn is to acquire through merit.

There is no timeframe to “earn”, no guarantee, no deal that labour for a required number of years will bring victory. No, you keep working, keep believing, keep buying Scotch tape to bind broken dreams, keep going.

Ask Liverpool. Zero league titles in 28 years. Ask the Atlanta Hawks. Zero NBA titles for 60 seasons.

So you wait.

Fans started waiting for India to win a Test cricket series in Australia from 1947. Joe Louis was heavyweight champion. Fans got old waiting for victory, they got married and then waited with their kids as new teams wrote old stories of loss. They waited till loss became a jinx and then turned into a curse.

Years passed, decades ended, a century turned. Indians argued about Australian bounce, fear, horizontal bat shots and waited. They cursed, pleaded, tuned into Channel Nine and waited. They even moved to Australia as migrants – 291,916 between 2000 and 2016 – and filled stadiums and waited. Religion, it sometimes seems, knows less about faith than sports fans do.

Then yesterday India won their first series, 2-1, in Australia. In the game’s toughest format they subdued the sport’s toughest land. Team – and fan – had earned it.

People will say this is India’s greatest Test team and it smells like overstatement but this day was for applause not argument. A team defeated in England had cemented its cracks, kept its belief, won small skirmishes, married patience to urgency, bowled ferociously, ignored silly headlines (The Scaredy Bats, an Australian tabloid called them) and waited out tough bowling spells.

Captain Virat Kohli yesterday spoke of a nine-over spell bowled by Pat Cummins to him and Cheteshwar Pujara in Adelaide which yielded only eight runs. They were shaken but still there. Perhaps India won because they never went away.

India won the series stylishly, comprehensively and wore their intent almost always under a civil coat. This was worth the wait. The only line again crossed by Kohli – who was stupidly booed, can be overwrought and still has edges to sandpaper – was the batting crease, outside which he stands with classic contempt.

Elsewhere rival wicketkeepers discussed babysitting, Australian captain Tim Paine took a phone call on a reporter’s phone during a press conference and Kuldeep Yadav was thrilled Shane Warne was watching him take five wickets. It was cricket, fair but hard.

Kohli has built a team in his image: lean, urgent, bearded, defiant, fit, ambitious, sure, unselfish. Every time his team needed a hand, many went up. He gives his side an intensity and maybe they soften him a little. After all India’s two best players were a fast bowler, Jasprit Bumrah, whose deliveries snort even as he smiles and a devout batsman, Pujara, wrapped in contemplation.

Bumrah was something Australians had not seen and India had waited for: a genuine, 140kmh-plus, eyelash-trimming Indian fast bowler. Pujara was something we knew but considered extinct: in a Kill Bill-like IPL world he was a non-violent Test sculptor. He finished with more runs (521) than Australia’s two best put together and this was not incidental. Almost everywhere India was twice as good.

This was not the Australian team we once knew, who used to walk as if they owned the land and could score runs with a fence post. This was a hesitant side of brittle batting but even if we accept Australian cricket is rehabilitating, this does not dilute India’s win. You can only beat the rival in front of you. Roger Federer once beat Marcos Baghdatis in an Australian Open final. There are no asterisks to be attached here, only acclaim.

And yet only the unfeeling would not flinch at Australia’s cricketing slide. Everyone wants to see the bully tamed and yet cricket has always been lifted by their rugged, resolute style. Their rapid revival is necessary for if the kingdom of strong Test-cricket teams shrinks, being monarch won’t count for much.

But the game has a powerful missionary and in a time of short attention spans has come Kohli the evangelist of the long game. “I think it is important to spread that message of Test cricket”, he said and it was gently ironic. Purists might dislike him and yet he is leader of their most powerful cause.

Kohli, who was part of India’s 2011 World Cup-winning team, in India itself, saw this victory as a greater one for himself. Nothing more of its importance needs to be said. It might seem unjust that a drizzle interrupted India’s bid for another Test win yesterday, but there was no raining on this parade. When history is made, the moment glitters even in the gloom.

A letter to the Indian Cricket Media ..

Dear Media,

Greetings,

My name is Mihir. I am an Indian Cricket fan and I am not an Ugrawaadi.

I thought I’d write to you as one of those whose love for faith in our team and our captain is considered by some of you as providing unconditional, unquestioning support, as being one-eyed, as being a cheerleader. I’m just one of those at the party where you swing your bat at the Indian Cricket piñata. Not that I’m formally writing on behalf of my tribe, only as one of them.

Facts, Truth, Damned Truth

First, let’s get the basic stuff out of the way. India lost 1-4. They competed, but were outplayed by a better team. There is no hiding from that. The scoreboard, in all its indisputable and undeniable starkness, does not lie.

However, life teaches us that even a series of irrefutable facts do not necessarily add up to a complete truth.  Take, for instance, the mini-battle of the series : James Anderson vs Virat Kohli. The undisputed champion of 2014 vs the pretender. Anderson pretty much owned Virat the last time we visited England in 2014.

In the intervening series in India in 2016 (India 4 England 0), Virat scored 655 runs @ 109.16. At that time, Anderson had said that Home pitches hide Virat’s technical weaknesses.  The series in English conditions, with the Dukes ball was going to be the real test.

The record will show that Kohli (who top scored the series with 593 runs) was not dismissed once in 270 deliveries from Anderson (who in turn was in peak form as well, being the top wicket taker with 24 wickets).

From Cricviz :

Of course, a batsman as good as Kohli retains the right to claim autonomy. He has made changes to his game which have a right to be seen as reason for the Indian captain’s success. Kohli has tried to combat the issues of 2014 by batting around 40cm further out of his crease than he did in 2014, desperate to counter the lateral movement of the Lancastrian. Regardless of the crowing of Indian fans, Kohli was clearly willing to change his entire technique to combat the threat of Anderson. As a batsman, I’m not sure you can give a greater compliment.

Combining softer hands and stronger wills, Kohli has managed to make it though the series without falling to the hand of the swing king. Anderson is the only front-line bowler not to claim Kohli’s wicket, the kind of fateful flourish which one might expect from a hack scriptwriter or a cliched performer. To fall from dominance to complete ineffectiveness is a fall too extreme to be believable, but the tough truth of the numbers bears it out.

Coming on the back of Virat’s dismal 2014, and the fact that Anderson was, per his captain, bowling at his best in mostly conducive conditions, this was a victory by knockout.

But was it? Did luck play a part? Did the relentless pressure that Anderson exerted manifest itself in the rest of the innings? Does this prove that Anderson is not really up there? Does his #1 ranking tell a flattering truth? Or was it simply a competition where one rival was just not able to close the deal? Pertinently, does the one sided result make you think that if there was another battle in the same conditions tomorrow, it would have a similar result?

“When we see one (a domination), we will not have to be told what is what. We will know.”

Will we? Really? Always? What do we know?

Incisive questioning versus bombast, fabrication and braggadocio

That 27 second clip of a 15 odd minute press conference has really been circulated by you guys, hasn’t it? So I’ll leave it out here. It has been analysed threadbare. I think it has fuelled the kind of general trend in public debate which is so much the norm. (Maybe the trend owes its existence in part to the desire to slot, perhaps? But I digress.)

Best team in 15 years? It is a hard question for a captain whose team has been beaten after a long tour.

Maybe what he should have said is something like – “I don’t think I should get into those things. Perhaps it would be best if you answered that question. We haven’t changed our mindset in that we try and focus only on our cricket. I don’t want to get into these kind of comparisons. Our job is to play matches, do our best, work hard, perform and try and win every match we play. There will be enough analysis of our performance. Our motive, as a team, is singular – that we put in a 120% effort, that we practice hard, keep our mindset positive on every day of the tour, keep our preparation at the level where we can win every day. If we do that, that will give us the greatest happiness. Tags and headlines are not for us. Our job is to play cricket.

Well, as it turns out he did say that.  Fact. But in the trend of partial facts, he said that after the 5-1 win over South Africa. And the question was, “Was that the greatest overseas win?”

He also said, “Honestly, I can’t sit here and feel good about the tags and take praise, because honestly, it doesn’t matter to me. Honestly, it doesn’t. It didn’t matter when we were 2-0 down, and it doesn’t matter when we are 5-1 up. All that matters is the respect in the change room. What matters is what the management thinks about me, what I think of the players and what the players think of me. That is all that matters to me. These things do not matter. I know that the headlines change day in, day out….. As I said, it is not my job to say anything about what I do. Yes, if I make a mistake I will come here and accept it. I have never been one to make excuses and I will remain like that, but I am not one to come here and praise myself. I can never do that, because as I said, this is a job for me. I am not doing anyone a favour. I am representing my country, it is an honor for me and I am just stepping out to do my job.

So, it turns out, he wasn’t quite indulging in braggadocio. Perhaps it was not bombast and it certainly was not fabrication aimed at diverting attention.

Maybe we can consider that perhaps the question was not quite incisive?

Selective perception

Ok. So if you will admit that the question was aimed at grabbing a quote, that it was basically a jibe in the garb of a rhetorical question, I will admit that the response was testy. The coach had said that the results that this team had got in the last three years overseas were better than previous teams. Maybe some of that is factual. But as you will doubtless tell me, it is not the complete truth. In sport, thankfully, it rarely is.

As an aside, watch this fine interview. This was Ravi Shastri taking questions that were not aimed at grabbing headlines. This was before the South Africa tour.  (Quick gist – This team has the potential. At long last we have a bowling line-up that will give us a chance. But for now, it is just potential. The next 12-18 months – the tours of South Africa, England and Australia will tell us how good they are. They have the desire and now they have an opportunity. It is exciting to believe)

Maybe looking at the big picture is what the doctor ordered.

An Opportunity Lost

Yes, none of this takes away from the fact that we lost. We could have, should have won, but we lost. It must hurt. Here is a considered perspective of the loss (and of that dodgy comparison). It taught me a lot about the kind of questions and questioning which could be incisive.

Yes, one can be hurt and optimistic at the same time

What must have hurt

Here is my perspective on what must hurt. Rewind to 2012. England visited India.

Everything about it is here.

We won the first Test in Ahmedabad. Comprehensively. By 9 wickets. In that first Tet though, Alastair Cook, then their captain, got 176 in the second innings following on. It was to have a remarkable bearing on the series, despite the huge loss.  Its exemplary nature, invigorated the team, made them believe that they could bat in these conditions. In the next Test at a Wankhede dustbowl, India went in with 3 spinners and just the one quick, won the toss and should have been good for a win. Cook got another century but was joined by Pietersen who got 186. England won the match by ten wickets.

The third Test at the Eden Gardens had India winning the toss for the third time, batted first for 105 overs, and still lost. By 7 wickets. Alastair Cook got 190.

The fourth Test was drawn but Cook’s 562 runs had contributed more than just the numbers. That first innings in Ahmedabad, you could say, had infused the confidence in the side’s batting unit that the ghosts could be fought.

England won the series 2-1. In our conditions, on pitches made for us.

Virat got that 149 in the first Test loss at Edgbaston. A more ready, perhaps better cooked team, would have got into that slipstream like England had. Lords happened next, and that seemed like it was that. It must hurt.

There were some other differences too. Before the series, England did a three day training camp at the Global Cricket Academy in Dubai. Then they did 3 more three day warm up matches before the Tests started. All red ball cricket, no white ball. India’s warm up by contrast though, was a few weeks in England, sure, but all white ball cricket.

That India will do a trip to the Academy before the Australia series is now a fact. That they are also angling for more warm up games ahead of the Australia series is also true. These they have spoken of. As lessons.

What I did not hear, and I am pretty sure you didn’t either, were any excuses. Nothing about conditions, not a word about the tosses. Not a word about the fact that a big factor for  our optimism (Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar) were either partly or entirely not available. Nothing about the first choice wicket keeper being unavailable because of injury. That these factors would have led to a rework of the team balance was never proffered. Not once did we see dissent from the Indian team; no fingers were pointed at the weather conditions at Lords and the role it played (actually listen to the post Lords press conference here and see if it could have been any better).

What we did hear were lessons and admissions: That England played better; that there were multiple times in the series where the pressure was on them but that mistakes were made by India that led to England capitalising; that the team understood that it was a failing and would need improvement; that individual players had been spoken to; that the effort had been to try and understand what made them wary or weaker in those moments when the pressure was let go; that it was important to recognize that those concerns not be an assigning of blame or responsibility, but to learn about what the team and the captain needed to do to make sure it didn’t happen again; that starts to the series were important and you needed to be more confident going in and setting the tempo rather than chasing it. That without that learning and those questions, there would be no improvement.

If you listen to the rest of the post series press conference (minus those 27 seconds), you will hear the lessons.

This was Virat Kohli saying we need to understand and learn from our mistakes, and move on.

As grace and modesty go, I will take that. This isn’t about pretending to epoch-making perfection. This is about recognising that there is progress, and there are failings. And trying to get further.

Onward

Comparisons are odious. You have taught us that.

For my part, I keep my faith on a somewhat grey-er canvas. I don’t hold it against those wonderful teams that we lost overseas to Zimbabwe in 2001, or that my memories of 2007 are somewhat tainted by the World Cup. Yes, we have never really dominated and steamrolled everything in our path.

My faith is built over time. It is based on Gavaskar, who taught us that we could stand up to overseas opposition in overseas conditions. On Tendulkar’s generation which built on that confidence to understand that we could take them on. On Dhoni’s teams that could often (but not always) be good enough to be the best of their time and when we weren’t, it did not lead to rampant burnt effigies and stone pelting (though some of you guys tried to stoke that with match ka mujrim type of stories). Yes, I think we owe him that.

And now, on whether Virat’s efforts could channel his “perpetual state of smolder” into a team that is similarly ambitious and driven to overcome failures and improve enough to excel.

None of this will make any one of these teams better than the ones before. They are just proof of evolution. I get that.

Sincerely,

Just another fan.

 

My Role Model …

Great photographs tell stories and capture the enormity not just of moments, but of the sentiment around them.

This is my favorite photograph of all.

It is of Rhea holding my hand for the first time. Just born, barely awake, her entire hand smaller than that part of my finger (Distal Phalanx, says Google). Tiny, but overwhelmingly engulfing. This was infinity and eternity all at once. I will never forget it.

Rhea

She arrived in the world earlier than most kids do. And somewhere in those early days, needed to fight just that bit harder than most kids do. She did.

Now, next month, she’ll be 13. Thirteen! If you haven’t been there, or even if you have, the prospect of a teenage daughter is, let’s face it, daunting. This is when all the scary stuff about vanity and rebellion is supposed to kick in, when the conditions implicit in unconditional love become that much more stark, when you’re acutely aware of the importance of every step you take as a parent and thereby unduly nervous about it. This is when you balance independence with control. This is when you hold hands but also when you let a bit go.

My daughter is now no longer at an age where knowledge is what is presented to her and absorbed effortlessly. Now, her curiosity shapes what she learns. She has the means at her disposal just like everyone now does (did you know that there is a Wikihow page on How to be a Good Daughter? Yes, there are 14 easy steps apparently). It is a bottomless, horizon-less world out there.

This is how she’s shaping up : Her room is the color of her favorite team – the LA Lakers (no, not Team India), on the wall there is a Justin Bieber poster (no, not Eric Clapton), and for mood, One Direction sing the Story of My Life over and Over Again. It is beautifully infuriating.

On the odd day, we sit down with her and talk of the value of friendship and choices. How far you go, baby, depends on who goes with you. Choose wisely. Beware the alluring sounds of alarm bells, for that is how they sound at that age. Be careful of the examples you follow and even more cognizant of the ones you set. Read. Write. Always read and write. Express yourself. Follow the news. Compete. Be kind.  It is our own little Wikihow.

And then, on a day to day basis, we keep a watchful eye. But some of the biggest examples of character come when you hardly expect them. About a year or so ago, Rhea told us of this initiative in schools here to volunteer in various ways for Cancer cure and research. She told us of her desire to shave her head , donate her hair, show solidarity, raise money, contribute to finding a cure and help those who waited for one. It was a decision with amazing clarity.

She had read about it, spoken with friends, understood what it meant and chosen to do it. Over the past year, her resolve has been unstinting, her excitement only increasing. It is probably what she has looked forward to the most. This wasn’t a parent’s idea of virtue carefully planted or spoon-fed. It was in every way her own initiative born out of her own sense of value.

So tomorrow, she will do what she set out to do. And I will be there to hold her hand

My daughter is older than that girl who first held my hand and I am proud that as she enters her teenage years, my daughter’s biggest strength is implicit in this choice that she has made. That for her, the real cancer is apathy and the only cure is empathy.

To walk in my father’s shoes, to make a journey home…

Rohit Brijnath, in The Straits Times this morning.

The grandest treasures of my childish universe lay in my father’s cupboard. It was unlocked and yet forbidden, full of manly secrets not to be shared with a boy. So, of course, when he went to work, I turned burglar. In a small tray, lay a huddle of riches. A half-eaten packet of peppermints. Two quickly swallowed. A one-rupee coin. Purloined. A hankie with “R”. Pocketed. A hotel comb from his travels. Tried. Cuff-links? Now what were these?

I ran my fingers over his shirts, I felt the weight of his faded, corduroy jacket. Touching my father’s world. Discovering him through the hint of cigarette smoke that infused his things. I opened a scarf and wore it across my face like a bandit. I envied his socks – why, I do not know, for my father remains among the planet’s most unfashionably dressed men. Except on Christmas Day when waistcoat, cravat and jacket appear. For an atheist he seems to make an effort on a holy day. But don’t tell him that.

Across from my father’s cupboard in his bedroom, as I moved like a soundless boyish thief across the carpet, was his walk-in closet. In the front rested an old spool tape recorder of more promise than performance, which was taken religiously to a repairman, an angular chap who clucked and squinted and probed with a screwdriver. It wasn’t a careless era where you simply discarded a hiccuping machine and bought another. Anyway, how could these men let it go: the technician because repair was his craft; my father because this machine had once delivered to him an unforgettable music.

In the closet, hanging above the recorder were my mother’s saris, a neat row of cascading colour, but it was below that lay the real prize.

Shoes.

My father is a middle-class man, who arrived from no money and built his life with sweat and intelligence. A man not covetous, not a cheapskate, just cautious. He will proudly claim he has had four shirts stitched for the price of a single, branded ready-made one. We will not discuss the fit and cut. When he visits me in Singapore, and inspects shoes in the shops, he is more calculator than connoisseur. He will convert dollars into rupees ($1 is Rs48) and then rapidly have a series of minor coronaries. He thinks those Use-By dates on sauces are a collective conspiracy by manufacturers to seduce us into throwing away perfectly fine products. I wouldn’t use his tomato sauce if I were you.

And so, for this prudent man, his shoes were few when I was a boy. One pair of sandals. An office pair or two. And two other pairs. The first was old, brown and suede; the second was black, leather with laces. Even boys have Cinderella complexes: I wanted to try them on. Of course, they were too big, in ways I didn’t yet understand.

I asked my father if I could wear them, but he, a man big yet gentle, did not want me to. Not yet. Those shoes were too precious to him, those shoes – the suede and the black leather – were his own father’s. When he looked at them, did he see his father, long gone, standing in them?

We tidy up after the dead but never fully, as if that would erase them completely. Maybe possessions are part of memory. My father cannot explain why he kept my grandfather’s shoes then and he cannot tell me why, at 79, he still has them.

But if I could not wear those shoes, my father offered me something else in return: I could learn how to polish them with him.

No one polishes shoes like men of that age. Love bestowed on leather. It is an affection for old things, it is respect for property, it is meditation with brush. It is craft: a newspaper is laid out, a hand inserted into the shoe, the shoe held at an angle. One brush to apply black Cherry Blossom paste, worked in like a dutiful painter, another brush to shine.

Hurry is banished here. Then, from an old box, a rag, whose smears are reminders of previous labours, appears. It is held taut in two hands and pulled across the shoe in a sawing motion. It is the search for sparkle. When the shoe glimmers, it is in fact being revived. Is more than leather being given life?

The years went by, I grew up into a gangly teenager and one day I must have stutteringly asked again to wear those shoes to a party and my father, lying on his bed, stroking his beard like Gandalf in glasses, agreed.

On came my grandfather’s shoes. Later, for fun, I’d even borrow my father’s shoes.

Something happens when you walk in them, as if you’re abruptly encased in adulthood, as if you’re part of some rite of polished passage. Only later you understand that these shoes cannot quite have the same meaning for you.

These shoes belonged to men born in tougher times, when the framework of a nation was being arranged, who built a life for you from nothing, who cared for their shoes because they couldn’t afford too many. The shoes of these men may have fitted you perfectly, but you, who can buy shoes now without a second thought, can never really fill them.

My father, till two years ago, polished his own shoes. I am not my father for my shoes are grimy and unpolished, but on rare days when I spread open a newspaper and prise open a polish tin and struggle to find that old shine, I smile. There are things fathers leave you which never fade.

This week I fly to India where he waits. To live far from your parents, as many do in this city, has one blessing: the journey home. It is like riding a song; it is as if no plane can fly fast enough; it is the anticipation of the moment when you swing open a bent, clanking metal gate and feel a familiar gravel beneath your shoes; it is the knowledge, not grim but real, that as your parents age you are running out of visits and that one day this journey will end.

I will find my father probably in front of his television. He loves this box of pictures and for 55 years he’s loved my mother: the first whom he yells unprintable stuff at when politicians appear, the second in whose direction he slyly mutters when she complains the volume is too high.

He has five grandchildren, one great-granddaughter, is irritatingly deaf but mostly has his health. He has almost everything and swears he needs nothing. No Christmas present, he bellows. But perhaps from a man I took so much from, and still do, I can at least take him shopping in his cold, noisy town.

You know what for: a pair of shoes, of course

On the loss of a Sporting Life

Rohit Brijnath in The Straits Times this morning on how no sporting loss more profound than loss of a life..

Grizzled writers weep over their laptops. Strangers in Australia place cricket bats outside their homes, leaning there like a salute, as homage to a fallen boy of theirs. The Indian hockey team, from a different geography, in a different sport, lay out their sticks in an act of athletic brotherhood. A tweet of grief comes my way, written by an Australian: “Driving home. On a cricket oval to my left an old man, with a fierce moustache, crying. His son dragging a bat through the grass.”

Phil Hughes, 25, the cricketer, who most of the sporting world had never met, has gone and it has staggered us. I never knew him, yet I mourn.

Loss is not a competition. There is no measuring tool to rate tragedy. For every family, every loss, of any person, of any age, is exquisitely aching. But the death of the young athlete seems different.

Partly because he is famous. We know him as a face on a screen and a voice in interviews. He tells us of his boyish ambition, he scrambles to realise his promise, we ride on his pimpled dreams. Connected by TV and Twitter, we grow up alongside them and with few others do we forge such intimate relationships. No journey is quite like this.

For many of us, irrespective of age, the young athlete represents the defiance of our own failures. Talent and circumstance tripped our greatness, but not with him. Not yet. In a way, he plays for us. Man’s youthful ambassador to some distant, untouchable horizon.

And so he lives among us, hope in sneakers. He is the poster on our walls, the scribble in our autograph book. Of course, we overdo the veneration, ego can blossom, riches can turn a man, but in the beginning, and Hughes was only 25, this much remains true – the young athlete chasing a ball, greatness swirling within his reach, is among mankind’s most innocent images. It speaks of possibility, of the pursuit of perfection, of youth unfettered. Now it has been stolen, like a page abruptly ripped from a book. A story incomplete.

Our heroes should be scientists, teachers, firefighters, social workers. But athletes liberate us in a different way, they let us travel in our own imaginations, they supersede even the Hollywood star. The actor’s flight over buildings is fake, a clever creation of computer graphics; the athlete, soaring past gravity and rivals and history to dunk, is real. He gets no second takes at match point. For that moment, our life stops. As he leaps, we will him further.

But one part of sport is never supposed to be real. It is never real war. It is never real life and death. As Tom Fordyce, who covered this same subject eloquently on the BBC website, noted, these are just exaggerated metaphors. From these sporting conflicts, in stadiums and arenas, he wrote, “everyone walks away to fight another day”. Or are supposed to. These heroes are not supposed to die. They are bruised, then they carry on. Their cars are mangled, then they limp out. They fall, then they stand back up.

But Hughes didn’t rise. Get up, you wanted to shout at the video. Please, get up.

Twenty years ago, Julian Linden, the fine Reuters writer, covered the tragic 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. In a recollection of the day, which he wrote about this April, he described journeying back to Bologna to his hotel at the end of a long day. When he got there, the receptionist was weeping.

“I asked her,” he wrote, “what was wrong but she didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Italian so she pointed to the first edition newspaper that had arrived. The front page simply read: ‘Senna è morto’.”

How can it be, we asked then, as we do today. Invincible, we write in the newspapers about athletes. Immortal, we say. Indestructible, we chant. Of course, we know, this is not true, but the young athlete represents man at his physical zenith. He glistens with health, he can barely walk without wanting to run, he is built of ropes of muscle. In any meeting of inhabitants of this galaxy, he would be our specimen from Earth. To then see Hughes fall is to confirm what we never want to do with athletes. Dear god, he is human. No, they all are.

The athlete, as he grows, is our endless conversation. We criticise, we lament their silliness, we question their ambition. We can be cruel and they too slothful. We can over-praise and they can cheat. Later the athlete might write a book and wander with slower step among us at airports in his retirement. We never know a man fully till he has lived his life fully. And it is why the amputated story of Hughes haunts us.

Eventually, cricket will resume and writers will wipe their laptops clean. Man has to play on. New heroes will arrive, armed with new dreams. Most never make it to greatness, but it is not about gaining glory, it is about just being given a chance.

To chase potential. To make a career. To be better. To lose form, to find it again. To manage kids and captaincy. To be grey and slower. To live the athletic life.

To just play.

It’s all we wanted for Phillip Hughes. For all of them.

On the Phil Hughes moments

The eeriness of that moment somehow was that it seemed bigger than itself as soon as it happened. A moment which seemed momentous.

As a trader, sitting in office, staring at multiple screens of flashing numbers, scrolling headlines and contorting graphs, you somehow train yourself to be alert for something which could be defining – but mostly it doesn’t happen. Not for days, and even if, only for a few defining submoments before life slips back into exciting ennui.

That day, there was no headline, no sudden change in prices and no graph danced. It was a seemingly innocuous tweet by a cricket writer who was covering some state game. Phil Hughes had been hit by a short ball he said. “Real bad” he said. Or maybe it was “Doesn’t look good”.

Three days later, I’d discuss it with a colleague. We agreed that there was something distressingly, abnormally ominous about every moment since then.

These kind of things aren’t exactly rare.  Sportsmen get injured, accidents happen, injuries pause promising lives and cripple careers. Why then did I message a few people and mail a few others within moments of that happening? Why did this one cloud seem more than just tremulous? Why, at the root of my spreading the word, was this feeling of reaching out for selfish “say it isn’t so” help?

Two days later, in Phil Hughes’ death, that moment assumed an ironical life of its own. Those two days had been spent monitoring markets, stretching time with friends and family, building and meeting expectations, thinking of Thanksgiving, finding meaning in routine – but mostly in waiting for good news. Or wishing for no bad news. Those two days had been spent in hopeful prayer.

For all the two faced monster that Social Media is,  it provided in those two days  (and certainly, though differently, in the moments after), a conduit of expectations. I’d keep searching for news,  grimace at updates, cringe at obits disguised as career recap pieces and marvel at hope.

For the sportsfan, Phil Hughes’ death is bigger than just that. For a few shaping moments, it questions the value of Sports as solace.

Now, as one reads about a promise shattered, watches a captain broken, a sports’ community orphaned of brightness, one tries the most difficult thing of all – to distance oneself from that deluge of grimness.
For a few moments….

On The Inherent Courage of the Athelete

The day after the Phil Hughes tragedy, Rohit Brijnath writes in The Straits Times.

SINGAPORE’S Lim Heem Wei, barefoot, hurtles down the runway of the gymnastic vault. This is a few years ago and she is practising a routine called the Yurchenko. At the end of her sprint, she must first do a hurdle – a sort of hop – to gather speed and power required to execute her move. It is followed by a round-off (a cousin of the cartwheel) wherein she twists and lands backwards on the springboard from where she will arch and explode into her vault.

But Heem Wei can’t do it, she brakes like an over-speeding car at the edge of the springboard, crashes into the vault, hurts her arm. Like a striker pulling out of a tackle, she’s possibly lost her nerve for a second. It’s human. What is inhuman almost is that Heem Wei goes on. Digests fear. Finds composure. Starts again.

“You can’t lose focus (in gymnastics) because it has very serious consequences,” she says. To slip, to err slightly, is damaging. Canada’s Taylor Lindsay-Noel broke her neck attempting a dismount from the uneven bars. World champion Elena Mukhina lived as a quadriplegic because of a training accident. Says Heem Wei: “When I was younger and the difficulty of my moves was increasing, I had sleepless nights. Now I am more aware of the dangers. But if you want to remain in the sport you have to cope.”

Beneath the elegance of gymnastics, lingers risk. Behind the effortless skill of cricket, rests danger. Sport is inherently deceitful. What we see is never the entire truth. Even in the most gentle arenas, athletes fight and conquer the invisible tendrils of fear.

It requires guts. Heem Wei has it. So did a young cricketer, only 25, whose death yesterday morning has shaken sport. Phil Hughes, the Australian batsman, fatally struck by a ball on Tuesday, is our latest reminder of the perils confronting athletes. And of how they meet them every day with a courage that is quietly concealed.

Some athletes appear obviously brave. The boxer, his life pledged to trafficking in pain, often uses conceit to hide fear. As Chuck Wepner once said: “If I survived the Marines, I can survive Ali.” Racing, in every form, is a pushing of the human envelope till it tears. In October, three jockeys died in a single week and Julies Bianchi crashed his F1 car and now fights to live. It is tragic and yet it is their chosen life.

In cricket, courage is more unspoken. But it is there. For even as bodies don’t collide, the ball has forever been aimed at bodies. A leather ball, five-and-a-half ounces, flying across 22 yards sometimes at 150kmh; a ball that has extracted teeth, fractured skulls, broken jaws. Only those who haven’t confronted such skill at speed will laugh at tailenders who flinch.

Courage rests in sport where we don’t always acknowledge it. Everywhere you might look, fear is being confronted, worn, swallowed. Divers, those talented topplers into water from three-storeys high, are cloaked in conviction. They must attempt more complex dives, of extreme difficulty, whose failure leads to pain and often lesions on the retina.

Whether an aerial skier or surfer, the pursuit of dazzle is dangerous. High art comes at a cost. A Discovery Science programme on the ice skaters’ triple axel routine reveals that they rise roughly 23 inches – almost as high as a dunking NBA player – rotate thrice but land only on the tiny “edge of one blade”. Hard ice awaits the fallen in practice. Under glittering sequins lies solid backbone.

No one traps the athlete into performing. He is daring by choice, carrying grit in his kit bag. In an ancient time, hockey goalkeepers wore no mask, batsmen wore no helmets and boxers, absent of mouthguards, fought bare-knuckle till a man fell.

Now, wise to sports’ perils, boxing gloves are bigger and cricketers have guards for chest, arm, abdomen. It is prudent and professional but never faultless. As an athlete once noted: “To have total safety I think is absolutely impossible to call, in any part of life.” His name is Michael Schumacher.

Schumacher, like all great athletes, was a cold calculator of percentages. Skill was his protection. He managed risk with practice and chance with preparation. So did Hughes. He, helmet on, was probably not even thinking of getting hurt that day, only of pulling the ball for four which he had done so often. But there is no protection against the freakish.

In July, a ball squeezed past Craig Kieswetter’s helmet grille and bloodily rearranged his nose and eye socket. Here, the ball hit Hughes on the side of the neck, compressing an artery, in an area almost impossible to protect. To watch video of his collapse is to sink within.

Tragedy visits sport more often than we think. This year, Australian rugby league player Alex McKinnon, 22, was left in a wheelchair. Reports speak of three high school footballers in the US who recently died. So did Singapore boxer Shahril Salim yesterday, only 23. Each time we are stunned, for sport, more than anything else, celebrates the vitality of life, not a threatening of it.

Now a young cricketer has gone and only the familiar words of A.E. Housman’s poem, To An Athlete Dying Young, resonate:

The time you won your town the race

We chaired you through the market-place;

Man and boy stood cheering by,

And home we brought you shoulder-high.

Today, the road all runners come,

Shoulder-high we bring you home,

And set you at your threshold down,

Townsman of a stiller town.

Always sport will have its dangers. Athletes accept them, for it is who they are. Today another bouncer will be bowled somewhere in cricket and cyclists will dash down slick slopes on thin tyres. We cannot stop them or, alas, sometimes save them. But we can at least respect the bravery and acknowledge the gallantry of those like Hughes who strive in arenas for our pleasure.

On the Ice Bucket 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.

————————————–

My Own ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and its plea 

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.

 

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.

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.

Video

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.

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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….

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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.

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.

 

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.

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?

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

============================

A video of that ovation.

 

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

 

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.

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.

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.

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.

‘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.

 

 

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.

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.

****

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.

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.

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.

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.’”

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.

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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

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

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…

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

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.”

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.

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

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

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.

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.

. . .

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

And Miles To Go …

This is the best of times. That was the worst of times.

Indian cricket had let the nerves get the better of them. Pragmatically, winning the World Cup had been a fanciful dream – but a shock first round exit was an unjust blow. As those seniors sat looking into the distance, disconsolate and depressed, tied between the pain of shattered dreams and the fear of the reaction and that picture flashed across our eyes, the mood was a dark shade of grey.

A million theories bloomed. Money was the root of all evil. It was all those sponsors and their ads and the clauses therein. Guru Greg was the one to blame. Not enough practice. Too much practice. Change the coach. Change the captain. Change the team. Change the mindset. Drop those egotistical has-beens; for they never will be again. Bring on an effigy. (For the not so faint hearted a house was better). Committees were formed. Former captain’s opinions sought. Selection committees were slammed. Gag orders were issued. Conspiracy theories floated. All of the above.

Inspiration, it seemed,  could only come from imagination.

It was at such a time, a year ago (to the day), that this blog was born.

In hindsight, things have moved swiftly. Partly because so much has happened.

First, a coach was fired and a captain retained. Then shortlists for a replacement started floating around. Since the choices were few and the expectations (as always) high, an interim manager-cum-coach was appointed for a series against the minnows.

Even as normal breathing was restored, a couple of seniors were “rested”. Gasps resumed. We won what was partly a grudge series (this was after all, Bangladesh, that had gotten us out of the World Cup), but it was significant for many other reasons. Ravi Shastri (manager cum coach) and co decided that the frontrunner for the coach job, Dav Whatmore was not the man for the job anymore. Youngsters gained confidence and the seeds of a good season without a few seniors were sown. The country’s mood improved but this was not the real thing.

Back home, the BCCI clearly trying to slow things down and let the nerves settle had its own set of battles to wage. Subhash Chandra had floated the idea of his own parallel cricket league and a number of top flight cricketers were being linked with it. The BCCI reacted with all the grace of a monopolist. Everyone associated with the Indian Cricket League was banned and even if they had once won India a World Cup, their pensions suspended. Elsewhere, the omnipresent committee offered the coach job to Graham Ford, who having been a players choice and having been spoken with earlier and having edged out a largely symbolic John Emburey, decided to stay with Kent rather than become Superman. None of this was cricket.

Come the second half of the year, things were to get busy on the field. For a triseries in Ireland and the ensuing England tour, India had a new vice captain (its nth) and somewhat surprisingly his name was Mahendra Singh Dhoni. With a Twenty/20 World Cup to follow, it seemed like the selectors were in the mood to experiment.

India won the tri-series beating South Africa and Ireland and headed to England where they had not won since 1986. It was somewhere here that Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Saurav Ganguly announced that they would not be available for the Twenty/20 World Cup. It would prove to be an important development.

The rain helped India through a tricky situation at Lords but after that it was an Indian Summer in England. A first Test series win in over twenty years was followed by a 7 match ODI series. 3 all and one to the umpires, in our opinion. We should have won that but the mood was improving and the confidence growing and a far cry from the World Cup barely 5 months ago.

A young bunch under MS Dhoni went to South Africa to represent India at the ICC Twenty/20 World Cup. India had played one T20 game before this. The team had a number of “yoohoo, who-you’s”. Two cricket superpowers that had been humiliated and brought to their knees at the One Day World Cup met in the finals. India had already beaten Pakistan once (with a bowler shootout) in the early rounds. The format itself was new to audiences in the subcontinent and much skepticism was countered the best way possible. India beat England, South Africa and Australia on the way to the finals. En route Yuvraj Singh got Stuart Broad for six sixes in an over. And a 12 ball fifty. In the finals, the old neighbours met again in a match that would ensure that Twenty20 was the next big money making machine. 3 hours after it all began, India cradled cricket’s latest child. MS Dhoni was king. For many, what that win represented to India and the dreams it ignited would prove to be a life changing event a few months down the road.

Meanwhile in India, having led India to amongst its greatest Test victories in England, Rahul Dravid resigned captaincy. He did not offer any public reasons. The BCCI unveiled the Indian Premier League with the approval of most cricket boards (or most of the important ones anyway).

India wrestled with the captaincy conundrum. Sachin Tendulkar, the only logical choice for both forms of the game turned it down and that opened the door for India’s first venture into split captaincy. It was too early for Dhoni to be captain for the Test series (particularly when the upcoming ones were Pakistan at home and Australia away). Anil Kumble had retired from the one day form of the game after the World Cup and (considered then largely a no-choice compromise candidate) was chosen as Test captain.

Australia visited for a short series. But the events on and off the field were to have far reaching consequences. The younger, brasher fringe of the team chose to be raucously aggressive. And announce it. Andrew Symonds and the racism saga blew up even as he expressed distaste at the country’s T20 World Cup celebrations. Equally importantly though, Australia won and won convincingly. And though some of the seniors performed, it was clear, to Dhoni anyway, that to be competitive India needed to improve at least two areas significantly. Running between the wickets and fielding.

Pakistan visited but there was none of the brouhaha that surrounds a Indo-Pak series. Too much of a good thing ?  India won and the series finished just in time for India to squeeze into Australia before the crowds gathered for the Boxing Day Test at the MCG. All this while, (since the Bangladesh series) India had been playing without a fulltime coach. Lalchand Rajput had been the caretaker for the most part and Robin Singh and Venky Prasad had cabinet rank positions. Just before the departure to Australia, India appointed Gary Kirsten. But he wouldnt be part of the Australian epic. (Guest appearance notwithstanding).

India were creamed in Melbourne but it was Sydney that would shape things. India lost their way when they should not have to go 0-2 down but the game had it all. Cricketing brilliance from a few , umpiring controversies, an (lets be polite) inefficient match referee, racism charges, dubious appeals, short fused post match conferences and Australia had won 16 Tests in a row. The enormity of it all was only dwarfed by the jingoism that ensued. Tour pullouts, BCCI appeals, ICC interference, an Umpire dropping being dropped and with lots of things shoved under the carpet,  somehow the tour went on.

On we went to Perth and the Australian stronghold for Ricky Ponting’s men to grab their 17th victory in a row and history along with it. Anil Kumble’s men though, had other ideas and for the second time Australia were stopped in their tracks at 16. Given the background of events, it would rank as amongst India’s greatest Test wins. And though India lost the series after the drawn Adelaide test, Sydney and Perth represented a possible momentum shift in matters cricketing. 

On the evening after the Perth victory, the selectors announced the team for the CB series. Absent were Rahul Dravid and Saurav Ganguly. The decisions, we were told, had been as much acceding to Dhoni’s request as purely selectorial. Dada’s 1200+ runs in the year gone by were not enough for him to negate the premium Dhoni placed on young legs.  Sachin Tendulkar was the only one from the “senior” brigade. The last man standing. India was to contest the last triseries in Australia with a bunch of young upstarts with nothing to lose.

Dhoni’s men boys won – guided to the finish line by youth, exuberance, fearlessness and Sachin Tendulkar. A straight sets victory was, for many, vindication of the summer’s torment. For Dhoni and Tendulkar , it was simply vindication.

And so here we stand today. One year on.  The cause of the gloom a year back is considered addressed. India have beaten the World Champions and the Runners Up in ODIs. And won the Twenty20 World Cup. They’ve changed the coach. They have new captains and a new mindset. They’ve won the Under19 World Cup (under Dav Whatmore – now a NCA coach as Guru Greg sets up a state-of-the-art academy to nurture youth) and a Test series in frontiers long considered unassailable. There is a power shift thats sending tremors across the cricket world as the BCCI goes from strength to strength. Money is hardly the root of evil anymore. In fact, with the IPL and with Ricky Ponting at bargain prices and Sachin, Dada, Dravid and Dhoni with iconic millions, nothing could be more virtuous.

Thats been the year that we invested in a year ago. To the day. It would probably suffice to say that for a supporter, its been a truly gratifying return. Results have, after all, defied imagination. The darkness following the World Cup has reinforced what we believed in. Much of what we see today would probably not have happened if the World Cup had not been a flushout. Its always ok in the end. If its not ok, its not the end.

Most importantly its been enormously satisfying because of the number of friends that have been made. Along the way we have “met” a few idols who are not idols anymore. Just more believeable heroes. 

And while we’ve diversified into occassionally writing about other sport- most importantly we’ve learnt to appreciate sport more than ever.

What could be better.

Cheers and Thank you all.

The “cocking a snook” thing ….

This is an excerpt from Geet Sethi’s wonderful book Success vs Joy. An unassuming book with lots of depth  – much like the man.

 On being highly strung.

There are certain sportspersons who hype themselves up with gestures, punching the air with fists and other such gesticulations, which they think will induce a rush of adrenaline. This may prove to be beneficial in highly physical and contact sports such as rugby and wrestling – but in most sports I find that this becomes a distraction rather than a means to help you focus.

What is important at the crucial stage of any activity is to be calm and composed; to be able to enjoy the moment; to be able to concentrate on the stroke, not the deal that one is negotiating or any other task. Instead of being hyped up oneself, it is imperative to remain calm, on an emotional, even keel. For that you need to focus on your breathing and be zoned-in on the present.

There are some who develop a connived hatred for their opponents, believing this will enhance their performance. They are merely fooling themselves. The whole game is about finding harmony and that elusive alignment of body, mind, and soul. This alignment cannot be discovered with a road map of hate. It can only be found with peace within and peace with the world outside.

For a performer there is no competitor. In the book of success there is, but not in the book of excellence. Competition exists only in your mind. Talent and practice can hone your skill but the discovery of excellence will come from the discovery of the self. So you have to forget the opponent and delve deep within to master your own frailties and insecurities.

In an individual sport such as golf or billiards it is easier to relate to this, but even in team sport one has to look within. Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid are two sportspersons who exemplify this introspection. I have never heard either talk about their opponents. Of course there will be exceptional, solid, and ordinary bowlers, but they don’t care who the bowlers are. For them, the bat is in their hands alone and what they do with the ball depends only on them.

Remind you of anything ?

Posted by Rahul

Black & White

Childhood was a wide eyed concept of reality. Every thing was 70 mm. Every thing was magic, everything was fantasy.

By the time one entered ones teens, one was still starry eyed about love, longing and life in general. Being a 17 year old was a challenge in itself. Being realistic itself was beyond imagination.That was a long time back. Decades back. It was an entirely forgettable decade ‘personally’. Not playing any professional sport, loving sport at the same point in time and being from a middle class back ground was an impotent mixture. It could never work. It never did. But one knew of 3 guys, who also came from a middle class back ground, were doing very well as sportsmen even at that age and were being tipped to be destined for glory.

Every one had read of the SRT – VK partnership and one felt that these guys were achieving what one had dreamt of, but never had the talent to really target. Somehow one couldn’t feel connected to the duo as Shivaji Park seemed an elitist joint, wrinkling its nose at people from the northern suburbs. The fact, that SRT lived in Bandra and Kambli in Kanjurmarg (if memory serves one well) was overlooked. They played at Shivaji Park. End of argument. The 3rd guy on the other hand, stayed in the same suburb. One would see him on his scooter once in a while and what would one give to be on his scooter (just like being in his shoes). He was one of the most famous guys in town and he knew it. He was touted as THE future cricketer of the sleepy suburb who would make the country proud. He would be our answer to that high brow Shivaji Park cricketer. He was Abhijit Kale. One never managed to talk with him but was always aware of his presence on that one main road in the small suburb. That was the only road guys would walk on, trying to impress some girl who was more beautiful than Aishwarya Rai and more intelligent than a Judith Polgar (there’s this saying in Sanskrit – prapte tu shodashe varshe … –  meaning that once you reach the age of 16, even a donkey looks beautiful).

We moved on in life. Luck favoured self. He kept on playing cricket. And he was doing well. One hoped he would still make it in the big league because of his talent. He had the talent, one believed. SRT had already achieved icon status then. (Well before anyone had heard or imagined an IPL.)

But somewhere down the line, frustration started building up. Being on the same pedestal with SRT at the age of fifteen wasn’t helping him secure an assured place in the Mumbai Ranji team for 3 years. He shifted to Maharashtra where he found a permanent place. The overwhelming ambition of playing for the country fuelled intense competitive spirit. But he always remained on the fringes. He was good but he was no good. The selectors were not willing to hear his side of the story. A first class average of 50+ wasn’t getting him in a test team which boasted of the Big 4 in the middle order. Maybe at that point in time, regional loyalties of selectors also played a role in denying him his chance. The more he was overlooked, the harder he tried, the more bitter a person he turned into. As normally happens in cricket, the harder a batsman tries to hit a ball, the more awry goes his timing and the more the chances of him getting out.

Cricket, being a team sport, makes an individual player subservient. As in any team sport. A player has to first be in the team to showcase his talent. A player’s team has to win consistently for the player to be noticed. In a rare instance, one might find an individual shining in defeat and making it big despite his side’s poor showing. Especially rare in cricket where one reaches the big stage only when one plays for his country. (voices may be raised about IPL but there’s some time to go for that to be irrevocably proved.). To be in a team one is at the mercy of the selectors. Team sport vis-à-vis individual sport makes a fascinating study. One’s dependence, or lack of it, on others, being a substantial difference. As a Tennis player, one might feel hard done some times with a draw (at the start of one’s career, say on the junior circuit). But all the Tennis prodigy has to do is to go and win every single match in a tournament there is to win. And lo behold, (s)/he has arrived. Success in a team sport has too many external variables. Individual success of a player and his team’s success may be interlinked but not necessarily so (Ask SRT’s many detractors). The external variables were not favouring Kale and time was running out. He was getting close to 30, still not considered for an India cap. Still not financially secure.

In April 2003 he was selected to play an ODI against Bangladesh. Gathering from the reports one has come across, some time then he was offered a contract by Percept D’Mark with a clause which specified that if he did not play within a year for India or India ‘A’, the company would not be bound to pay him his money. This information came from a statement by Kamal Morarka, the then vice president of BCCI.

In November 2003, two selectors – Kiran More and Pranab Roy – brought two charges against Kale, who they claimed tried to pressurise them and offered bribes to get selected into the team, The evidence offered was a few phone calls made to More, Kale’s mother’s visit to More’s house where she pleaded for his inclusion in the team, and Kale’s meeting with Roy at an airport. There was no witness to confirm any verbal offer to bribe. Whether it was a question of his being pressurised by the system or being naïve in dealing with the case, one doesn’t know. It was two men’s word against another. A country was stirred into action when similar accusations were termed ‘baseless’ using the same rationale. But Kale wasn’t Bhajji and the selectors were not ‘Australians’.

In June 2004, he was banned from cricket up to Dec 2004. He obviously hadn’t played between Nov 2003 and June 2004. Now how does a ban affect a player? And how does one respond to career threatening events? He didn’t take it too kindly. With a few years of cricket left in him, almost no chance of making it to the national team because of the taint and shattered dreams, he tried picking up the broken pieces. There was too much going through his mind. Extreme focus can some times easily turn into complete disinterest from a shock. To add to his woes, he shifted teams from Maharashtra to Tripura on an impulse for being left out of the team. What followed was a barren period. Dec 2006 was the most recent Ranji trophy appearance for Tripura. Since then it’s been a walk through wilderness again.

This article was a culmination of a lot of issues that one has come across. It was about a journey of a person one felt close to. It was about a journey that went wrong somewhere. History always likes winners. Most of us do as well. But it may be just one small incident that can change one’s claim on history.

The other issue has been a fresh approach by the current selectors and the news of a Rs 1 crore bonus paid to the selectors after the CB victory. Maybe this will reduce the chances of more Kales suffering from the system.

The Percept D’Mark contract clause in the AK saga and the current mad rush to sign up u19, fringe players – hoping for a gold mine some where at the end of the rainbow, might see such incidents revisited.

Kiran More left the BCCI and has now joined the ICL.

Kale in marathi means ‘black’, hence the title ‘Black n White’

Last heard, Abhijit Kale will be player/coach at the Linden Park Cricket Club playing Division 3 in the Kent League for the 2008 season.

Posted by Rahul.

Right Choice, Baby !

With all the IPL auction dust settling down, the per ball income for Ishant Sharma calculated, the anguished cries of non Indian socialists the world over (How can a nation with so much poverty, display such obscene wealth) heard politely, reasons for the success / failure of the league analysed to bare bones, Ricky Ponting’s self targeting jokes laughed at (Though the best joke might still be out there – Saurav Ganguly captaining Ponting and Akhtar – now that has the potential to be a winner. The only competition to this one maybe the top order of the Bengaluru team viz.,  Jaffer, Chanderpaul, Dravid and Kallis – that’s a separate topic for discussion), Mike Hussey’s SMS to his brother relayed the world over, Bhajji’s post auction shopping spree well documented, SRK’s touching gesture of ‘giving back something to the people of India’ by buying the Kolkata team members well appreciated, Mrs. (!!!!) Preity Zinta (that’s Lalit Modi, not me) overcoming the shock by buying Irfan Pathan for a shocking USD 925K. One can go on and on but guess the reader has got a crash course of the notable headlines during/ after the auctions. If this was the trailer for the league, one hopes that the actual movie lives up to the trailer.

In all this glittering glamour (or is it glamorous glitter), there were a few stories that stood out. The underlying theme of many of these stories was – “Sacrifice”. Maybe it’s a strong word to use. Maybe modern day human beings are unused to such strong actions. Maybe one can call it “compromise”. One just wants to draw the public attention to the men and their stories. One is not trying to pass judgments here in terms of who is better ‘morally’. Nor is one trying to portray the participating players as petty money minded individuals. They are professionals and have as much a right to secure their financial future as, say you and I. But what drove the exceptions to renounce the lure of instant riches. Was it their own internal voice or was it circumstances that drove them? The 3 men that most attracted one’s attention were Justin Langer, Michael Clarke and VVS Laxman.

The first two have been adequately covered and hailed by the Australian media. Justin Langer will honour his commitment to play for Somerset instead of joining the Jaipur team. “When you go to your grave, people will remember what you did with your life rather than how much money you made…” he said. Noble thoughts indeed! One wonders what he felt when he initially signed up for the IPL. Because a person with such philosophical bent of mind would have not signed up for such money making soulless machine. One may give him the benefit of doubt for having second thoughts. But was that related in any way to the fact that he was not bought in the first round of the auction? One wouldn’t want to question his ‘integrity’ (its become a buzz word now days in Australia. It seems one has to take a spelling test before being signed up by CA. Current test players are exempt. That explains Symonds.), so one leaves it at that.

Michael (Pup) Clarke is an interesting contrast. He decided against joining the IPL to spend time with his ailing father. One of the biggest sacrifices made by a player! He also pointed out to the fact that he had a hectic international career which needed him to rest and recuperate. Fair enough. Now let’s read the entire text of the letter sent to Mr. Lalit Modi.  “With no disrespect to the IPL, I feel my body and mind needs a break and with the hectic international schedule over the next 18 months, I feel I need to freshen up and a break will do me good. By trying to continue to advance my profile and reputation with the Australian team, I hope to one day become an asset to your tournament. The Australian newspapers have gone overboard in praising Clarke who stood his ground after being caught in the first slip at the Sydney test. He hasn’t rejected IPL totally has he? But yet, one respects his family commitments and his personal ethos to reject IPL as of TODAY…  

One Hyderabadi has been at the forefront of this ‘sacrifice’ business.

VVS Laxman downgraded himself from an “icon” status to a normal citizen status. He went ahead and told the owners of the Deccan Chronicle team that he wanted to buy the best team that money could buy. He didn’t care about what he was paid. Today VVS is paid less than a fourth of what Andrew Symonds gets. He reminds me of Laxman from the great Indian epic ‘Ramayana’, where Laxman threw away his kingdom and went to the forest with Ram. He was the supposed KING but went on to become Ram’s right hand man. Even Hanuman the “monkey” competed with him for Ram’s affection. So what were the modern Laxman’s compulsions? VVS has never been an integral part of the Indian ODI team? He never could make it to an Indian T20 team in his wildest dreams. He chose the next best option (Did he have any another option?). He was named the captain of the team. And paid LESS! MUCH LESS!

So which Hyderabadi is one talking about? It HAS to be Pullela Gopichand. Being an All England Champion in 2001, he won money which isn’t actually even going to get some pocket money for most of these kids. And YET he refused to endorse a soft drink because he thought that no youngster should drink a cola because it’s not ‘healthy’. AND he sacrificed a lot of money for that. To me ‘he’ has been the biggest ‘sacrificer’ that I’ve ever seen. People forget so easily. And not getting the money is easily forgotten than getting that money. So can we please stand up and salute the guy..

Maybe Hyderabad still has some Nawabs left. Hopefully I know at least one. But maybe he doesn’t play cricket …

Posted by Rahul

So Where The Bloody Hell Are You …

The finals of the CB series had to be between these two teams. There was a fatalistic predictability that it would be. Anything else would have been inadequate. Thats where the predictability ended.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s side is the new India. When they were chosen and others sidestepped, the justifiable feeling among many was that the move was too drastic. You don’t really throw nobodys newbies into the deep end. Not that MSD seems to think in that kind of manner at all. The nobody-upstart-contender-winner-champion transition seemed ingrained somewhere As each passing gamble started coming off, you had to admire the man for his leadership and his troops for their guts and gumption. Battles don’t come tougher than this.

And much as India looked starved for action, Ricky Ponting’s demeanour (inspite of a series of wins) suggested that they’d rather this ended real quick. Dogged by controversy, he’s called it the most frustrating experience of his 12 year career. Hardly the best way to motivate troops.

And that has been the difference.

So we’ve lasted the summer. And proved the critics wrong. We’ve taken the abuse and (in some regrettable cases) given back as well as we have received. And we’ve adjusted to alien conditions. And converted inexperience to an advantage of fearlessness. We have drawn strength from the controversy. And we have been the better behaved team on and off the field. And when some have not had a good day, others have shouldered the burden. Importantly, we’ve played better cricket.

And much of this, we’ve probably learnt from you.

wherethebloodyhellareyou.jpg

P.S. The original (quite brilliant) Aussie tourism campaign.

Superman Redux …

A Dialogue from the Kill Bill : Vol 2 script.

It’s Bill speaking – the one who’s supposed to get killed as the title suggests. z

I find the whole mythology surrounding superheroes fascinating. Take my favorite superhero, Superman.
Not a great comic book.
Not particularly well-drawn
.”

“Mmmmm”

But the mythology…
The mythology is not only great, it’s unique.
Now, a staple of the superhero mythology is, there’s the superhero and there’s the alter ego.

Batman is actually Bruce Wayne,
Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker.

When that character wakes up in the morning, he’s Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man.

And it is in that characteristic Superman stands alone. Superman didn’t become Superman.
Superman was born Superman.
When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent.

His outfit with the big red “S”, that’s the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes.

What Kent wears – the glasses, the business suit – that’s the costume.

That’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us.

Clark Kent is how Superman views us.

And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent.
He’s weak… he’s unsure of himself… he’s a coward.

Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.”

Hearing the whole dialogue makes my nerves tingle. Reminds me of a certain Sachin Tendulkar. This is not going to be a post on how great he is, or how humble he is, or his genius or even what a model human being he is. Neither is this about how the Don compared ST to himself.

One talks about his failure in the second innings’, one talks about his failure to perform under pressure, one talks about him not winning enough matches for India. One also talks about looking at mirrors.

To answer all those ‘ones’ I don’t intend to reinvent the wheel. So borrowing the well written dialogue, I rest my case.

With apologies (and gratitude) to Mr Quentin Tarantino.

Posted by Rahul.

The colour of money …

October 14, 2007 – About 4 months ago – This was Andrew Symonds.

The feeling has come from the carry-on that surrounded India’s Twenty20 World Cup win. When we got here, it was just everywhere.

Our blokes thought it was over the top. Some of the things their players have been given and the way they are treated, it’s like they are rock stars and princes.

The Indian government gave them a heap of money. Yuvraj Singh got a Porsche. Blokes are getting houses and blocks of land.

Two days before our first game, the Indian players didn’t train because their guys were shooting commercials.

It’s been irritating because it’s been in our face. We see them on television every day.

PLAYING over here is so hostile. This is my fifth time here and the key is you can’t let the language barrier and the conditions get on top of you. The day-to-day stuff can wear you down and cricket can suddenly become a chore.

A few weeks before that, his views on Twenty20 :

It’s a frustrating game because you can be beaten by the lesser sides and they have to be good for a shorter period of time to beat you.

At least in one-day cricket you get the chance to work your way back into the game if you get into trouble, the same as in Test cricket over a much longer period

There is a little bit of the whore in all of us, gentlemen. What is your price?”
Kerry Packer’s words to the Australian Cricket Board in 1976 rang in my memory bank again yesterday.

And a few other words did too. Like – Lucky Bastard !

But then one needs to think and put this in perspective. One thing that the markets have taught me is this. They may be a lot of things – irrational , over-exuberant, over the top and even absurd – but they are never wrong. Because they exist and money guides them there. It may not be things you like, but the market is the one that shapes the reality that we must adjust to.

And yesterday, the new vision that is the Indian Premier League took a big step towards becoming a reality that we must soon accept. Clearly though, thats no easy task. For like is the case with accepting any new paradigm, there are two schools of thought. One that is willing to give it a chance (often because there are things in it in their favour) and the other bunch that crucify themselves between regret of the past and fear of the future.

The first lot is easy. It includes the money spinning BCCI, the channels that have bid for telecast rights, the owners of the franchises and most of all the professional sportsmen who will get a far larger pay cheque than they usually do and an access to the still throbbing Indian consumer market. Take the case of Andrew Symonds for instance. A few weeks after the diatribe against the crowds and frenzy in the country and just after the racism charges against Bhajji, he’s been picked as the second most valuable player. The US$1.35 million fee for what is essentially a 44 day tournament (59 matches across 8 teams) is a fantastic reward for a guy who has made some hard choices (England or Australia) and then made his mark. Despite his run-ins with many things Indian, the market has paid a price for his performance (including that man-of-the-series in October). Its probably hardly a coincidence that he’s announced hours after his bid was finalised that he would not tour Pakistan (and hence accept a pro-rata fee) even if Cricket Australia finds the security good enough for the team. For someone whose best attribute outside a cricket field was a rhyme 20 years ago at the Alliance Francaise, the offer is probably poetic justice for a career constructed without shortcuts. An opportunity too good to miss.

There are others as well. The Pathan brothers with $1.40 million between them are secure with Irfan’s rediscovery as an all-rounder of merit helping him with a large purse while Yusuf Pathan, with one international game and $ 475,000 (against $400,000 for Ricky Ponting) probably typifies the power of the brand in India.

From the player point of view, is it lopsided ? Sure it is. Yusuf Pathan being paid a bigger fee than VVS Laxman, and between him and Mohd Kaif (not even a ODI contender at the moment in team India) making the Jaipur franchise US$1.15 million lighter is one of many signs that there were teething problems aplenty with the format of an auction. But from here things enter a transfer market two years down the line. And thats when the prices will find their new and probably progressively more correct levels. Thats just the way it is. What it has done though is that its allowed “market forces” into the game. Its a toe-hold but its probably the most important development of all. Players are graded by their respective boards and were graded as they came up for the auction yesterday, but what followed has been an independent assessment of relative merits that has finally been the arbiter. Whether or not its been correct is immaterial, in my opinion. The fact is that given the format and the availability of the players in question, a price has been decided in an open market. Its a big step forward.

As far as the doubters go – and there are many – the most basic root problem is the format of the game itself. Twenty20 skeptics view it as a major corruption of the game. Call it cricket snobbery if you will or simply a case of a classical musician scorning at a rap artist. Where’s the room for strategy and perseverence, say the Test lovers. Why corrupt chess into a game of snakes and ladders, they scream. But why should you not have entertainment every delivery, claim the T20 believers. Why should the ability to score off every delivery and bowl six different deliveries be prized any less, they ask. Any side of the fence you choose, the fact remains that there is a growing new audience for the game. It includes, but is not limited to, people who like reality shows and are willing to go for a three hour game complete with entertainment and sport. Thats the untapped market that the BCCI targets. If they don’t (fat chance), somebody else will.

As far as corruption of the game goes, thats open to debate. The same doubters probably existed when the ODI was born as well. Of course, it does not naturally follow that one can constantly keep abridging the game using that excuse. But its also true that a number of skills which were considered sacrilege produce of the ODI format are now virtually indispensable in Test sides. With that evolution has come a more result-prone Test arena. The number of high quality Tests, the rate of scoring , the crowds at venues are all higher than they were a couple of decades ago.

The other argument that has been put forward has been about the lack of class in yesterday’s proceedings and the contrast against india’s poverty. Greg Baum even goes far as to call the feeling “bilious”. Really ? As opposed to what though? Kerry Packer’s question to the Australian Cricket Board? And this poverty argument is, to use his words, the “usual, tired” one. Why does everyone turn socialist when India displays wealth ? Can we not pay Ronaldo and Ronaldinho and Barrichello a few million because of the poverty in Brazil. Should we just scrap the NBA and the World Series Baseball since the US of A is running the kind of deficits which are crippling world economies ?

The BCCI are taking the cricketer’s pay packet to the next level. And they are taking local talent and youngsters along. And they have promised the ICC that they will not interfere with the (ill conceived) FTP but will request that the IPL be fitted in. In April and May when it interferes with as little as possible. If possible. In any case, national duty takes precedence and cannot be compromised since no cricketer can participate (till 2 years after retirement) without a clearance from their respective Boards.

Of course, a lot remains to be seen and these are early days as far as the success of the tournament and the format goes. But its a beginning. And deserves support.

Time will tell if its just revolutionary, or evolutionary as well.

The Sanity of being Sania …

At the Hopman Cup , Sania Mirza ran into more trouble. This time it was a lawsuit trigger-happy gent who thought that a 2D photo was reason enough to question her commitment to the nation – this while she was playing for the country just ahead of the Australian Open.

And then, a 3rd-Round-exit-in-straight-sets at the Aussie Open later – she was out. She didnt cause any upset but she was upset. Or so she says. And back after the Open , she’s refused to play at the Bangalore Open and says she would rather not play in India for a while anyway.

Reactions are diverse. But basically any of those worth listening to are saying exactly the same thing – that Sania Mirza needs to buckle up and play.

This is from a dear friend Rahul Namjoshi and are his views on the subject.

What has she done in her life? Number 29? 4th round of the US open in 2005? So what are we talking about? At the age of 21, the world has recently seen some 6 women Tennis grand slam champions aged below 21. Maybe many more than 5. I can count Steffi, Gabriella, Monica, Martina Hingis, Venus, Serena, Maria.  So can anybody reach the peak post 23? I think not. Are we talking about some great victories in a grand slam? Or are we talking about Tim Henman at the Wimbledon? He never won Wimbledon.  

Are we talking about some great upsets? I believe not. I have never played Tennis in my life. My father-in-law has. He avers about Sania. He actually called me up to say how great a fight she gave Venus in the 3rd round of the Australian open 2008. She lost in 2 straight sets? So? Whatever the girl says, we don’t expect too many things from her. Do we? Quarter finals is good enough. Are we even thinking of a brighter future? Say winning the US open finals? We are not. We aren’t even thinking of a semi final berth here. And yet, we as Indians, hero worship her. We think she can deliver great things in life because others say so. What is the down side in being a Mirza. If you don’t perform, you are not hauled over the coals like the cricketers, if you do, you will be termed a teen sensation.

The problem here is that everybody says how a step motherly treatment is given to every sport other than cricket. Take a MSD, take a Kaif, remember the vandalism that they suffered in the wake of the World cup. The day they modelled for an advertisement, they were condemned. Every one thought they were taking too much money and that they didn’t deserve to be so well off. Sania has been the youth icon here. She has done some 10 ads over the last 2 months ( I might be wrong in the number).
Nike said ‘You don’t win silver, you lose gold’. I want to make my daughter a tennis player. Do I want her to emulate Sania? A vehement NO is the answer. Because I want to make my daughter the best in the world.  Not number 29.

A P T Usha was the best athelete that was ever was produced by this country. Maybe a Shiney Abraham as well, or maybe an Anju Bobby George. But these ladies never wore a short skirt. Nor were they good looking. So the fundamental question is, do we actually behave like normal citizens? When it comes to cricket, everyone has an opinion. Everyone  talks of a SRT’s Tiranga cake, everyone talks of a Kaif’s burnt house. How did these guys take it? How did SRT take it when his house was attacked by some cricket vandals. And how does a Buddha take it? When Buddha smiles, it drives one to a nuclear armistice.

And then, a wonderful piece with well meant advice asking her to manage her own world, in this morning’s Hindu comes from Rohit Brijnath. Reproduced here in full.

A girl sweats. Cramps. Sits. Puts up tired feet that have been running for India. A flag is close by, as flags often are at sports events, and this one is Indian.

A photographer takes a picture seemingly from a clever angle that juxtaposes feet and flag. A case is filed in court. Someone, dutifully, alerts the media. And this non-issue becomes a story. Welcome to Sania Mirza’s world.

As this story crosses oceans, and questions come like a storm, and that sly picture winks from front pages, it’s worth wondering: what sort of mental state did Sania take into the Australian Open? How do you function as an athlete when you’re accused of disrespecting a flag you play for? Is it possible that tennis can be fun when the discussion about you concerns not serves but short skirts, not lobs but leg showing, not footspeed but flag kicking.

That Sania has managed to get to No.29 in the midst of all seems pretty good, wouldn’t you think?

It’s sad that a competitor, who recently hauled her injured, bandaged self onto court to help win a key Fed Cup match, has to keep saying “I’m a proud Indian.” It’s unfortunate that in India’s small tennis fraternity, older men who have no idea what it means to be seen as young, female, gifted, glamorous, a top 30 player and role model, felt the need to criticise her decision to skip the Bangalore tournament. Even if part of the reason was some appearance fee dust-up, Sania is saying the pressure is throttling and she deserves listening to.

It’s not that Sania doesn’t receive support, or appreciation, or sponsors in India; if anything, she is lucky. When she performs in foreign lands, sometimes it sounds as if she is at home, embraced as she is by Indians, local and vocal. The media has celebrated her, but in a new world there seems a fascination not so much with Mirza the player but Sania the celebrity.

The sweaty girl and her daily struggle is a nice story; the short-skirted woman who annoys some is better news. The real story has been overtaken by the superficial one.

Consequently Sania plays under a pressure that is occasionally obscene, yet not unique. Her world is exaggerated, full of over-praise and rude distractions, yet her world will not alter: those media that are salacious will remain; and controversies will arrive from nowhere. She is allowed to feel sorry for herself, yet must arm herself with the knowledge that others have walked harder roads to glory.

History is blessed with tales of athletes who have defied adversity. The hardy Algerian, Hassiba Boulmerka, was hit with rocks when she trained, denounced for wearing shorts, and had a special security team shadow her during the Barcelona Games. But she ran, all the way to Olympic gold.

Black athletes growing up in America once faced a hardship that challenges the imagination. Jesse Owens could not eat with white team-mates in restaurants, but won four gold medals. Boxer Joe Louis was instructed by his handlers, when you beat a white opponent, don’t ever smile. Men spat on Jackie Robinson’s shoes and sent him death threats when he broke the colour barrier in baseball, but he prevailed.

Athletes swallow pressure, channel their rage, shrug off insults, hold onto their pride, enjoy whatever they have. It is what Sania, who has had it easier than these athletes, has done so far, and will have to keep doing.

She has played for India (and proudly), and will continue to do so, but on the tour she should remember what Tiger Woods said last week: “You don’t win for anyone else. You do it for yourself and your family. That’s who you play for. You don’t play for pleasing the media, the sponsors, the fans or anything like that.”

Sania’s career is going to be testing, she must speak out about it boldly, but then she must soldier on. Already she is armed with a mean forehand. Now all she requires is a coat of stoicism.

The idea here is not to compare reactions (although thats important) but to remind Sania Mirza that there are miles to go. Hardly anyone with her limited achievements has been as financially secure as early as she has. Being a Kournikova is not what this is about. The inspiration lies in stories such as Monica Seles’. And that of Jennifer Capriati who was a Semifinalist at the French, US Open and Wimbledon and won an Olympic Gold by the time she was 16. Lost it all (and then some) at 18 but came back to be World number 1 and thrice Grand Slam winner at 26.

Sania Mirza has always had the support. The question is does she have it in her to lift her game and ignore distractions like all those that support her do.

The eerie sound of silence…

The silence on the blog has not been because one has been divorced from sport. Or too busy. Or too indifferent.

Truth is that the events surrounding the cricket in Australia have been numbing. And tiresome. Its not what one watches sport for and altho have spent a huge amount of time discussing the events and their ramifications, the feeling has usually been one of “running on empty”.

Sport isnt meant to be like that. One watches because it inspires. And though there have been enough and more uplifting moments in the cricket and elsewhere in sport , for some reason it was the controversy that remained top of mind.

That said, a great big thanks to the number of people that kept visiting. And those that prompted a post. 

I’ve started so I’ll finish … and continue.

The MCG and its history (and Geography) – and – All good things to those who bait.

The day one had spent weeks and months waiting for finally arrived this morning.

Boxing Day at the MCG. You can click on the link to study its rich history but the more obvious parts are that the first ever Test match was held here in 1877 when Australia beat England by 45 runs. And then it was here that the Centenary Test was held where Australia beat England again. By 45 runs. The MCG is also the place where the first ever one day international was held. And the 1992 World Cup Finals. Oh and yes, the 1956 Olympics.

Besides which, it has a long history. Its a grand kinda ground. The locals call it “The G”. I’ve never been there myself but people who have say that its a great experience. Madonna performed at the ground in 1993. She dubbed it “the G spot”…

miller-mcg.jpg

This here is a first hand picture of the Keith Miller statue at the G. Its taken by David McMahon, who is a Melbourne based journalist (and was part of that special crew that used to be Sportsworld when I was growing up), is justifiably one of the better read bloggers out there and certainly the most prolific, an internationally published photographer and author of the bestselling Vegemite Vindaloo. (Thanks, David !)

Anyway, it was at the G that the real Test series started today. And so back to regular blogging it is.

First things first, India’s squad for the tour includes Sehwag. One can only assume that the rationale was of bringing guns rather than knives to the gunfight. The fact that Sehwag’s not playing (and will probably only play if someone has injury or serious loss of form) implies that there is inherent doubt of whether the gun’s loaded in the first place. So Rahul Dravid, (yeah that guy who won us the last Test series – our first victory over England in England since 1986) will now open (“he doesnt have a choice” said his skipper only half joking) with Wasim Jaffer.

And so, India bat deep with the top 8 with Test 100s (it could have been 9 had they taken the safer route with Irfan Pathan). The safer option would have been forgiven if one looked at the lack of preparation, the washed out game against Victoria, the fact that Australia had won all 14 of their last Test matches and all 8 of the last games played at the G.

India lost the toss, and the first session even though they probably bowled as well as they bowled at any time of the day in the first hour. But for a while now, the Indian bowling attack’s been underrated in Tests and winning two sessions on Day one of a series is a great start.
One series and a day after he became captain, I’m still unclear in my head about Anil Kumble’s captaincy and more often than not his first statement on getting the job comes to mind. “Better Late Than Never”. Waiting for the opponent to commit mistakes, getting into defensive mindsets early if opposition partnerships develop and such. And maybe thats just harsh, because as a bowler he’s decidedly more aggressive. Also, today – the opening partnership apart – the Aussies hardly got any partnerships going but that’s going to be the key in this series. How relentlessly we apply pressure.

Nevertheless, day one belonged to India. Even if the reason is that it did not belong to Australia. Or that we clawed it back from 135 for no loss.

Going ahead, India’s massive in-form batting lineup understands that 337 for 9 needs to be upped a bit because of runs conceded in the field and by the fact that we will bat last on this pitch.

Yes, Its been busy …

The markets have been kinda active and the year draws to a close and vacation starts and there’s the usual pressure and .. you know the drill ….But its not like I haven’t been watching, you know !

If you don’t believe me, read this blog.

And before you ask, the answer is “don’t ask”.

Regular blogging resumes soon.

Does anybody remember laughter …

The Million Dollar Question – Is it just me getting old fashioned or is sports really changing too fast ?

Is the modern day sportsperson chasing that dream so hard that its becoming difficult to make him the role model ? At some stage we are inherently uncomfortable with the concept of watching a sportsperson competing for just money. Or at least we like to fool ourselves into believing that there is more to it.

From a Gideon Haigh article

On December 2, 1977 to be precise, Australian cricket lovers turning on their television sets had for the first time a choice in their bill of fare. Live from the Gabba on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation came the soothing sights and sounds of a traditional Test, the first of a series against India. Live from Melbourne’s VFL Park on Channel 9, meanwhile, came the unfamiliar images of what purported to be a revolutionary new variant on the game: a Supertest, brought to you by World Series Cricket.

The play itself, between an Australian team led by Ian Chappell and a West Indian outfit captained by Clive Lloyd, did not actually look all that different. The ball was red. The players wore white and sported caps. The Australian headgear, though, was gold not green and it was such distinctions of detail that mattered. There were no traditions here. The ground, usually the preserve of Australian rules, had been converted by the installation of a pitch grown in a greenhouse. The television coverage, rather than relying on the usual two cameras, used eight, with extensive reliance on video replays. Microphones embedded in the ground near the stumps captured the players’ grunts and the wickets’ rattle; a boundary interviewer even solicited their post-dismissal musings. Critics were already calling this a pirate enterprise: its symbol, a stylised set of black stumps partially enclosing an outsized red cricket ball, would become the game’s equivalent of the skull and crossbones.

Cricket had been cleft in twain almost six months. The first plans for WSC and the first international cricketers recruited by the agents of its impresario Kerry Packer, had been revealed in April 1977. The principles seemingly at stake – love of country versus love of money, a century of tradition versus spontaneous spectacle – had been endlessly debated. But until that December morn, the rivalry’s implications had been obscure. Packer’s original objective, indeed, had not been to introduce an alternative brand of cricket at all. His eyes were on the prize of exclusive Test match broadcasting rights in Australia; WSC was merely a roundabout way of bending the Australian Cricket Board to his will. Now it was a twin-match, twin-tour, twin-channel reality. “The public will decide,” pronounced the editor of Wisden, Norman Preston.

The public issued what looked like a decision that very day. Where there were no traditions, there were also no spectators. While about 12,000 attended the Brisbane Test, fewer than 500 were scattered round the concrete tiers of VFL Park where space could be found for 80,000. Packer had more stars than Broadway: the Chappells, Dennis Lillee, Rod Marsh, Doug Walters, David Hookes versus Lloyd, Viv Richards, Joel Garner, Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, with Tony Greig, Barry Richards, Mike Procter, Imran Khan and Asif Iqbal to come. But for what, punters pondered, were they playing? It clearly was not for their country. It looked, uncomfortably, as though they might be playing for money.

The concept of the professional sportsperson in itself, is not that bad at all, of course. Its the accompanying symptoms that its developed and continues to move towards that are worrying. Over the past few weeks various sports have been beset with allegations of match-fixing & tanking of matches by a top 5 player, poisoning charges during a Davis Cup match, cocaine charges , spy scandals in motorsport, violence, institutionalized cheating, bribery, steroid use and we’re only just skimming the surface. When one starts getting into things which are considered “part and parcel” of modern sport – sledging, gamesmanship and the like – thats a whole different ball game.

Demonstrative of the problem is this. Etymologically, the word Amateur has its roots in love. But generally in sports now, anything amateurish is something lacking mastery of essentials – usually crude and with lots of blunders. Thats how far we have come from it all.

Professionalism is good. Amateurism is bad. So much that it almost gets depressing.

And then, when all seems lost, a couple of beacons shine through.

Sachin Tendulkar. 18 years after the age of 16 when he first appeared (and surely now its not about the money) is yet playing cricket that is prodigious and still takes your breath away. For the love of it he says.

Roger Federer – and the numbers don’t lie – had his worst year since 2003 and his best. Try and figure that out. But as the year ended, this much remained undisputed – as of now his only serious opponent is history. And when he’d won the Masters in Shanghai yesterday he said, he hoped his performance had helped people believe in the sport like he did.

Just two champions who do it their way. Amateurs !

How’s A Rest like an Emergency …

The good news is that we have some cricket again ! And by that I mean international cricket – the kind that seems to keep our hyperactive minds occupied. Because no matter how much domestic cricket we play (and there has been and continues to be a fair share), it does not seem to stop conspiracy theories and other notions flying around blogosphere and the press. (As someone once said, the popularity of conspiracy theories is explained by people’s desire to believe that there is someone out there that knows what they are doing.)

So we’re hopefully done with the racism thing. And this blog does not think those crowds were racist. Yes, they probably taunted Andrew Symonds and crowd behaviour in India is something that we have written about in the past but as far as race and colour go, India’s largely been very tolerant and I don’t think this time was time was any different. Most people I know remember the 1985 World Championship of Cricket final at the MCG against Pakistan and a huge banner which said “BUS DRIVERS vs TRAM CONDUCTORS” and most people shrugged it off as humour which tried to racially stereotype then and will do the same now. That said, its purely an opinion and anybody that intends it otherwise needs to be shown the door and a lot else. As an example, Dean Jones, after whats passed off as an indiscrete remark on television, was brought back on Indian television as a guest for the World Cup while a bunch of kids who made monkey faces in the crowd were booked for jail. Does that make sense ?

Anyway, like I was saying , the good news is that we had some international cricket again.

India vs Pakistan is always unique no matter how much recently increased frequency has reduced the drama. The intensity (and profitability) of this unique sporting rivalry derives as much from the common cricket culture that unites the two countries as from the history that divides them. And each time it finds some new aura to add to the spectacle. The last time they had met was in the final of the Twenty20 Worldcup which in turn had the ignominy of the first round exit of the ODI Worldcup as its backdrop.

Yesterday, with a number of selection issues hogging the limelight, MS Dhoni walked in for the toss. A long overdue haircut was probably not the only reason that his head probably still felt lighter than his younger counterpart. Shoaib Malik, a year younger, captain of a Pakistan team with people a lot senior and some, probably a lot less willing to toe the line is likely facing an emergency every time he chairs a team meeting. It comes with the job.

Pakistan won the toss, batted. For the first time that I can remember, Dhoni expressed doubt. ‘I have no idea how it’ll play in the second half of the day , besides which , the light fails really fast from about 4 pm in Gauhati so we’ll just have to see’ he said.

Pakistan’s start was swift but that was partly because of Zaheer Khan. This might be down to overwork, but given the importance we seem to be paying to form, its important that everybody be judged by the same standards. Zaheer Khan’s last 20 ODI games have got India 20 wickets at 43.15 with a best of 2/32 against Bangladesh. In the series against Australia, he had 8 wickets in 7 games at 44 and an economy of 5.81. I bring up this point because those that are calling for “rest” are using the Zaheer Khan example to illustrate that it works. Well, does it ?

Harbhajan Singh and Murali Karthik (Dhoni’s choice, like he keeps reminding us) pulled in another great spell in tandem and what looked like it could be a big score ended up being a 240 to win for India inspite of a 80 from Mohd Yousoof. The key though was that apart from the times when Zaheer Khan was bowling at one end, India never looked out of control – 23 overs in the middle without a boundary tells its own story.

The Indian squad of 15 has 6 specialist bowlers, 1 all rounder, 1 wicketkeeper-batsman and of the 7 remaining batsmen – 5 are openers. So much for having professionally paid selectors. And its not like there is a dearth of middle order talent out there thats not perfoming either. Even as the match was being played, Manoj Tiwary and Suresh Raina were getting double hundreds on the stage they were performing on. Badrinath had been dropped without reason and was waiting for his turn to bat for Tamil Nadu and Rahul Dravid – well, thats a different story and worth a whole series of posts but for now, he’d gotten 40 in Karnataka’s first innings 195 and was batting at 77 unbeaten after being rested / asked to prove his form and fitness / having nothing to contribute besides batting –  depending on what time of day or day of week you managed to get Dilip Vengsarkar in front of a microphone.

And so India opened with that part of the lineup which has been most stable for the most part over the last two series (leave aside Ganguly’s injury). Sachin Tendulkar came and went and it was Gautam Gambhir’s turn at 3. MS Dhoni likes the guy – and he should because Gambhir’s done really well in the Twenty20 version of the game. But Dhoni’s wrong when he says Gambhir’s in great nick and thats why he preferred him over Sehwag (who in turn was preferred over Dravid) because the one day results don’t show that. In 4 ODI games in England, Gambhir scored 113 runs at 28.5.  And in the 3 games he got against the Aussies, 17 runs at 8.50. Those numbers don’t lie just as age does not.

Both Dhoni and Malik believed that Gambhir’s innings was important for the game – he got 44. And although the innings itself was wonderfully paced and full of strokes, what Malik meant was that Pakistan should have held on to the catches that Gautham Gambhir offered off succcessive balls to Shoaib Akhtar between the ‘keeper & first slip.

The idea here is not really to run down Gautam Gambhir – but to highlight that the selection policies are lopsided. He has now played 33 ODI games for India and has an average of just above 31 (sub 30 if you eliminate Scotland and Ireland and worse if you elimininate Banglandesh). So fitting him into a side with 5 opening batsmen does not make sense on the basis of ‘potential’. More maybe in the comments section of this post or another post altogether.

Dhoni came in at 4 after another Saurav Ganguly run out. This is how he explained it. “I’ve said in the past that I need someone to fit in my place at No. 6 or 7. Today we needed a left and right-hand combination. Afridi was bowling offbreaks to left-handers, and legbreaks to the right-handers. That encouraged me to promote myself.” Considering that Afridi had not bowled to right handers yet, I wonder how Dhoni knew. Hmmm.

Nevertheless, it worked and India never looked in any danger of losing. I guess its easier on the nerves losing to Australia at home than it is to South Africa.

One up. Four to Play.

You can be my wingman anytime …

And so, the chequered flag on a largely checkered F1 season.

But if its a page turner that you were looking for, if you had any doubts about F1’s viewership after Michael Schumacher drove away into the sunset, if box-office was Bernie Ecclestone’s mantra, then it really could not have gotten much better than this.

It all started even as the last season ended. Michael Schumacher’s retirement, his getting pipped at the post by Fernando Alonso (then with Renault), Juan Pablo Montoya moving to the Nascar were all events to have a bearing on this season. These were all contributory factors to the drama that followed in 2007.

Fernando Alonso, now a two time World Champion with Renault was wooed by and succumbed to the charms of Ron Dennis at Mclaren Mercedes. He wanted to show that it was not the car, but him. Champions are like that. That ego was to assert itself all season long. To be fair to Mclaren and Ron Dennis, their move was also prompted by the fact that their number one driver Kimi Raikonnen was snapped up by Ferrari as the replacement to Michael Schumacher. Not really though. Nobody replaces Schumi at Ferrari. Not yet anyway. Kimi did not arrive at Ferrari as the undisputed “number one” driver like Michael was. After all, Kimi had never won a world championship. Fernando Alonso though, double world champion arrived at Mclaren with a former test driver, in his rookie season, for a teammate.

Formula One is a largely British Sport. The commercial rights are held by the British, the President of the FIA is British, the race director and his assistant and the sport’s commissioner are all British as well. And Mclaren, of course are a British team and so when Lewis Hamilton, British, Afro-Carribean origin, all of 22 years old there was an Henman-esque aura of hope to it. But Alonso was of course, the reigning World Champion…..

The season started off quite well, but by the third race, Lewis Hamilton with three podium finishes in his first three races and with the leaderboard reading Kimi 22, Alonso 22, Lewis 22 – was already inviting comparisons with some golfer called Woods. That was Bahrain and the next race was in Spain and the heat was on the champion. Massa won his second race in a row but Lewis Hamilton stood to his right on the podium. Alonso was third and had lost the lead on his home grand prix.

Monaco was next. Alonso wins and Lewis is 2nd but under what seems like team orders, is not allowed to mount a challenge and the young kid lets it be known that he’s not happy, that he’d like to keep his chances of a title alive. A title !? The teammates are leaders and level on points.

To prove he’s not joking, and five podiums after he started racing F1, Lewis wins his first race in Canada. Alonso manages a seventh and that gives the rookie a 8 point lead into Indianapolis. In the USA, Pole position and another win sees Hamilton extend his advantage to 10 points over Alonso, who crosses the line second. Raikkonen’s fourth place sees him fall 26 points off the lead. Thats as far as he’ll ever fall back.

It was somewhere here that the whole Stepneygate saga first erupted. It turned out that there had been a whole load of espionage going on, ostensibly fuelled by Nigel Stepney’s dented ambitions at Ferrari. It was a massive saga but the gist of it suggested that Mclaren had been 780 pages of Ferrari documents including designs, fuel information etc . Even as this occupied centrestage, the races continued.

On the return to Europe from America, Ferrari regained some superiority and managed to claw back some points and after France, Britain and the Nurburgring, it stood at Lewis 70, Alonso 68 and Kimi 52. Importantly though, Mclaren had been absolved of all charges.

Maverick, Its not your flying. Its your attitude. The enemy’s dangerous but right now you are worse than the enemy. You are dangerous and foolish. You may not like the guys flying with you, they may not like you. But whose side are you on ?

Hungary was probably the turning point of the season. Fernando Alonso got pole position but during the last qualifying session , he parked just those few extra seconds ahead of Lewis Hamilton at the final pit stop. Incredibly, Hamilton complained to the stewards, and Alonso was stripped of pole position. Moved down 5 places in the grid, he finished 4th later in the race. It would prove more costly than Mclaren imagined. The next morning, Alonso went up to Ron Dennis. Alonso won’t say what was discussed but as per Ron Dennis, at some stage Fernando issued a threat to go to the FIA (subsequently retracted the same day) with evidence in the form of emails of exactly the things that Mclaren had been absolved of just a few days ago.

It left Ron no option but to call up Max Mosely at the FIA with the information. The case was reopened. A few days later, Mclaren were found guilty of espionage primarily on the basis of 300 emails and sms’ between Mclaren’s Mike Coughlan and Ferrari’s Nigel Stepney and Fernando Alonso and Pedro de la Rosa. That led to an unprecedented penalty. Apart from the biggest fine in any sport of US$ 100 million, Mclaren were docked all their constructors points in the championships. Incredibly, they were allowed to keep all their driver’s points though. A part of that was because the FIA President Max Moseley had given them a “gentleman’s word”, a sort of immunity for every word they spoke and every piece of evidence they provided – presumably against Mclaren. However, as he himself admits,

When McLaren was stripped of their constructor’s points it would have had a certain logic to also slash the drivers’ championship points. But the majority of the World Council was of different opinion.It was a decision of logic versus emotion. Logic would have demanded to slash all points, but emotion was not willing to wreck such an incredible championship with an armchair judgment.

Ultimately, box office won and the championship continued.

Turkey
Massa beats Raikkonen for a Ferrari one-two, with Alonso third. A puncture forces a damage-limitation exercise from Hamilton, who trails home in fifth.
Standings: Hamilton 84, Alonso 79, Raikkonen 68

Italy
Alonso has the edge over Hamilton as McLaren route Ferrari on the Italians’ home turf. It puts them just three points apart with four rounds remaining. Raikkonen finishes a distant third.
Standings: Hamilton 92, Alonso 89, Raikkonen 74

Belgium
Raikkonen wins in commanding fashion from Massa, with Alonso third and Hamilton fourth. The gap shrinks to just two points.
Standings: Hamilton 97, Alonso 95, Raikkonen 84

Japan
Hamilton weathers the Fuji storm to win, extending his championship lead to 12 points after Alonso crashes out. Raikkonen’s third place keeps him in the hunt – just.
Standings: Hamilton 107, Alonso 95, Raikkonen 90

Lewis Hamilton was now one race away from racing immortality. 12 points ahead of his nearest rival. and 17 points ahead of Kimi Raikonnen.

The penultimate race was in Shanghai. Typhoon Krosa was exerting its influence on the fringes of the track. The hurricane of emotion within an eager mind though is different. For a long time, Lewis Hamilton led on track. Then as the weather started playing tricks and the sun and rain made dry lines in some parts of the circuit, ripples of doubt began to form in puddles of Mclaren’s strategy. To make matters worse, Ron Dennis blurted out that they were not racing Kimi, but Alonso. It was something that Fernando had been drumming all along. Ultimately bringing the car in for his first pitstop, still running wet tyres in drying conditions, just a few metres shy of the pit garage and well into the pit lane, Lewis Hamilton overdid it. He overran it all and ended up in the gravel. Experience is a brutal teacher is probably a chinese saying in Lewis’ mind. Raikonnen first, Alonso second.
Standings: Hamilton 107, Alonso 103, Raikkonen 100

Across the world they traveled. To Brazil. And it was all to play for. Could anyone possibly have scripted this?
Oh and did I mention Felipe Massa ? This was his home grand prix. And he had won last year. And he’d love to win again. And he was on pole.

The rest is history. And even today, three days later , a bit of a blur.

Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton have ended up tied at 109 points. Both losing as much as they have won. Fernando’s dream of proving his mettle in a new place wrecked as much by his own ego as by his employers inability to accommodate him. Lewis Hamilton’s falling away in the second half as expectations and pressure of performance caught up with him is something that is likely to only go higher from here on. Wayne Rooney was Pele in 2004. Henman didn’t win Wimbledon. Beware the weight of expectations.

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And finally to Kimi Raikonnen. Its a tribute to the man that he’s called the Iceman so often. Consider this though. As he warmed up to the scarlet Ferrari, he’s just gotten hotter. Its not that the pressure of making up points is any less. But in the last 9 races, Kimi had 4 wins, 2 second places and 2 thirds.

Ultimately tho, the difference was that one team had two guys who were willing to respect each other and allow for the other’s ambition. And therein lies a lesson.

Sportswriting & all that …

Every once in a while, one comes across pieces of sports writing that defy time & remain with you. Strong stories of champions like the one below. Will try and bring some of those here in a random series.

This one is by S L Price and was first published in the Sports Illustrated issue of Sep 18, 1995. The article was called Ace of Hearts.

You never heard so many New Yorkers so quiet. Money and power and sweet connections brought them all here, 19,883 bodies stuffed into the seats of Louis Armstrong Stadium, and for the first time in 13 typically noisy days at the U.S. Open there is absolute stillness in the air. No one speaks for five seconds, six, and then it becomes impossible to sustain: A lone girl’s voice trills down to the tennis court:

“Steffi!” And Steffi Graf, lean and troubled and in a place no one, most of all herself, thought she would be, throws the ball high. Her serve tags the net cord and lands deep. A gasp ripples through the place, relief piled upon tension piled upon disbelief. It is just too intense, all of it — Monica Seles and her astonishing comeback, Graf and her astounding life, this Open that had, finally, presented the drama that tennis often promises and rarely delivers.

Double match point for Graf. She serves a second time, and Seles crushes the ball, simply steps in and drives it crosscourt with that lethal two-handed backhand — and in that moment the past and future merge, 2 1/2 years fade, and both the crowd and the women’s game roar back to life. Could it have been more perfect? Here it was, the dead center of the sport’s biggest Saturday ever, featuring six players with a combined 43 Grand Slam titles among them, six players who had all known the rarefied perch of No. 1. And yet, even with Pete Sampras and Jim Courier, and Andre Agassi and Boris Becker threatening to crush the women’s final between their big-name semifinals and their men’s-game arrogance, it was Graf and Seles who carried this Open, who held off the memories of the men who hurt them, who transformed a painful year into a future rich with promise.

It is match point again, and Graf serves, and so quickly it is over: Seles dumps a forehand low, making it 7-6, 0-6, 6-4 for Graf, and Seles rushes the net, waiting there with open arms. The two women, connected for so long by the blade of a lunatic’s knife, hug and then kiss each other’s cheeks. It is just short of unreal. For until this moment, the guilt of this had weighed on Graf: Gunther Parche stabbed Seles in Hamburg in April 1993 because he was a Graf fan. To meet Seles in the final — to know that she had blasted through the first 11 matches of her comeback without losing even a set — was pure relief. “Absolutely,” Graf says. “And it’s even more important to see her play that well and obviously enjoy herself and be…so at peace with herself. It’s so great to see that.”

Yes, it was in one sense, as Stefan Edberg put it, a “Seles Open.” And, with mighty Monica back and Sampras blasting Agassi away 6-4, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5 in the men’s final, it was also the Circus Maximus for one 800-pound gorilla of a sneaker company, whose poster children and slogans were ubiquitous. “It’s Nike’s world; we’re just living in it,” says Davis Cup captain Tom Gullikson, who like Seles, Sampras and Agassi is a Nike Guy. But it was the Adidas-sponsored Graf’s unexpected endurance that made this Open a precious thing. Graf has now won 18 major titles, an Olympic gold medal and the sport’s last Grand Slam. None of that meant more to her than last Saturday. “This is the biggest win I have ever achieved,” Graf says. “There is nothing that even comes close to this one.”

Why? Because even as Steffi wept and smiled oncourt, even as the flashbulbs flickered over her face and her trophy, her father — and manager — Peter sat in a jail cell in Mannheim, suspected of failing to pay German income taxes on a reported $1.5 million of his daughter’s earnings — a figure that could rise to $7 million. According to the German news magazine Der Spiegel, Peter’s arrest in August was the result of evidence in a suit brought against Peter by a tournament in Essen, Germany, run by manager-promoter Ion Tiriac. Peter, long known for his cash-only demands for Steffi’s appearances, has not been allowed to speak to his daughter since his incarceration. She has not been implicated, but German authorities presumably do not want the two to coordinate their stories. At the time of Peter’s arrest, Steffi was in the U.S. The German press went into a frenzy, staking out her apartment in New York, following her with a shopping cart as she picked up groceries in Boca Raton, Fla. She decided to stay in the U.S. and play the Open, and before it began, she sent Peter — the man who had drilled her into a championship talent, and the man, too, who had mortified her with a much-publicized dalliance with a model during Wimbledon in 1990 — a copy of the drawsheet. Last Thursday, two days after she had avenged her one loss of the year, to Amanda Coetzer, with a three-set win, Steffi sat near her mother, Heidi, and listened while her parents talked. She wasn’t allowed to say a word. “Ahh,” Steffi said later, “but I did hear him.” Her parents talked on the speakerphone. Steffi, silent, listened to her father’s voice crackle across the ocean.Throughout her Open, through her wins over Nathalie Tauziat and rising star Chanda Rubin and surprising Amy Frazier and a resurgent Gabriela Sabatini, Graf battled the chronic bone spur in her back, and a new bone spur that had sprouted in her left foot. Worse, she is the 26-year-old hub of a $125 million empire, which puts her at the center of this case involving her father. So even as Seles coasted through her first six Open matches without losing a set, and a collision between the two loomed closer with each passing match, Graf kept getting bombarded with news and gossip and worries about the case. “Some people now think they can take advantage of the situation and put pressure on you about different things,” Graf says.

Steffi plans to return to Germany soon — where she may face interrogation — to rein in the operation Peter let run afoul of the law. She says she has no regrets about leaving her money matters to her father; how else could she concentrate on tennis? “But I do have to look after more things now,” she says. Take a little more control? “A lot more control,” she says. “And basically I don’t know how.”

After her first six wins at the Open, Graf spoke of how shocked she was by her performance. Yes, she had won the 1995 French Open with little preparation and Wimbledon with her back giving her fits, but she fully believed her concentration would buckle under the strain in New York. Yet, in the U.S. Open’s oddest twist of all, it was Graf — not the iron-willed Seles — who proved mentally stronger. Serving at set point in the first-set tiebreak, Seles fired what she thought was an ace and began running toward her chair when the ball was called wide. Seles couldn’t believe the call — replays seemed to show it was wide — and she could not get over it. Graf blasted a forehand to win the point, and then Seles looped two forehands long. “Two-and-a-half years ago, if I have that call, I would say, ‘O.K., Monica, it’s gone,'” Seles said after the match. “This year, it was bugging me through the whole match. That’s what I have to get back.”

When Graf suddenly realized she could beat Seles — and win her third Grand Slam of the year — she was nearly frozen by nervousness. She wasted the second set 0-6, and the momentum appeared to belong to Seles. Graf herself figured it was time to lose. But as suddenly as it had dissolved, Graf’s serve took shape again, and Seles crumbled. Graf broke Seles in the fourth game of the third set, and that was enough. The question mark that hung over all six Grand Slam events Graf had won in Seles’s absence was gone; Graf served out to win one of the great women’s matches ever.

Off the court, however, life promises to be more difficult. “I have to think I will be tough enough,” Graf says of the months ahead. “I know at some stage I’ll be able to deal with everything, to look everyone in the face…and we’ll just move on.”

But not yet. For just as Graf was winding up her postmatch press conference, just as she was about to finish off two weeks of remarkable composure, one face in the packed room asked whether she would be able to see her father when she went home. “No,” Graf said. She said she would talk to her lawyers. She was very calm. Someone asked if she would be able to talk to her father about her time in Flushing Meadow, about being stronger than she ever thought possible. “I don’t think so,” Graf said. “Doesn’t seem like it.”

Then, without warning, Graf crashed. Her face reddened, her hand flew to her eyes and she spun out of her chair. She ran out of the room and ducked into the only refuge available — a cinder-block bathroom where, amid a sink, two toilets, a mirror and four echoing walls, the 1995 U.S. Open champion took her father, her fear and her strangely cursed talent and tried to be alone.

For Pete Sampras this year has had its tears, too. In the quarterfinal match at the 1995 Australian Open, Sampras, sure that his coach Tim Gullikson would not live six more months, broke down sobbing on court. He won the match but, at 23, faced a year unlike any he had known. Gullikson, who had collapsed during the tournament and learned he had cancer, flew home. Sampras lost in the final to Agassi and found that people suddenly treated him differently. He couldn’t believe what they were saying. “What pissed me off was everyone thinking, He’s finally human. It took me crying on a tennis court for people to understand that I do give a crap and I do have a heart and I want to win,” Sampras says. “I’m a human being. It’s always been there.”

Now, eight months later, Sampras is sitting on a training table icing his right knee. He has just waxed Byron Black in straight sets. He feels good. A man points a video camera at him, the light is on; this will be a birthday greeting for Tim, who is very much alive. The next day, Nike chairman Phil Knight will fly Tom Gullikson to Chicago to surprise his twin brother. Sampras won’t be going. He has to dismantle Courier and Agassi en route to his seventh Grand Slam title.

“Timmy!” Sampras says to the camera. “Pistol here, just coming off the court — kicked a little ass. Wishing you a happy 44th birthday. Just hanging here with the boys, we’re all thinking about you and praying for you. We’d love to get you back on the tour, but…uh, enjoy your birthday. I don’t know when you’re going to see this, but all the boys are going to be checking you out. We’re all thinking about you. I hope I can win my third Open for you. See ya, Timmy. Happy Birthday.”

Three days later, Sampras, who usually sleeps until 10 a.m., woke up at 7:30. It’s today. This is it. This is the final. “To be part of walking on that court, it’s a great feeling — it really is — to walk out with him,” Sampras says. “It’s different. Andre’s game … I have a lot of respect for it. He stands on the baseline and looks at you and says, I have no respect for your serve. He doesn’t back up at all.”

Just as he had the night before, Sampras phoned Gullikson in Wheaton, Ill. He talked with his traveling coach, Paul Annacone. He couldn’t wait; he knew what was coming. Everyone hoped for a classic, but it turned out to be one-sided: For three of four sets, Sampras simply outclassed Agassi, made the world’s No. 1 player seem solvable and weak. For the tournament he served up 142 aces and at times seemed to be competing against no one but himself. “The game of the future,” Agassi calls it, and meanwhile, frustration gathers below: Becker and Agassi bickered over “respect,” and Courier went toe-to-toe with Michael Chang and his brother, Carl, in a 20-minute locker room argument after Courier commented on Chang’s “gamesmanship” in their quarterfinal. It all came off like so much hissing from the snake pit. Nobody likes the prospect of spending the next five years attacking a castle that can’t be taken.

The only man who seems capable of mounting an assault is Agassi, and one incredible point in the final showed why. With Agassi serving at 5-4 in the first set — and Sampras trying to convert his second break-point opportunity — the two engaged in a breathtaking, net-cord-kissing, 22-stroke rally that for sheer power and athleticism surpassed anything seen in men’s tennis for a very long time. That Sampras prevailed on a backhand, crosscourt winner was irrelevant. As he threw up his hands and tried to catch his breath, as the crowd rose for its only spontaneous standing ovation of the day, it was as if a lifetime’s competition (Sampras leads their series 9-8) had been boiled to its essence. “The best point I ever played,” Sampras says. Says Agassi, “That point really sucked.”

In Wheaton, the Gullikson living room shook with shouting. “I’ve never played a point like that,” Tim says. “I’ve never seen a rally like that.”

Sampras has said often that the way to help Gullikson get well is to win. Still, watching it at home, Tim was surprised when the camera cut to Sampras as he sat in his chair just after Sunday’s final point, and he looked at it out of the corner of his eye and said, “That’s for you, Timmy.” Twenty minutes later, the phone rang in Wheaton.

“Did you hear that?” Sampras asked.

“Oh, yeah,” Tim said. “We heard it.”

It is late, 5:05 p.m. on Friday, and Monica Seles has long since disposed of Conchita Martinez in the semis. She is being led to a room under the stands when she notices light coming from up the tunnel; suddenly she bolts from the group, out to the stadium court. Storm clouds scud overhead, and the place is empty and huge, and the seats escalate to the sky. She stands for 10 seconds, staring. “I just wanted to see it with the lights,” she says softly. “It’s beautiful.”

This, Seles says later, was her mission for the Open. She wanted to gather every smell and sound and feeling into a package and take it with her. So there was a trip to Barney’s to buy hats and the presenting of an MTV award and the night she painted her fingernails five different colors and standing on the sidelines at a Monday Night Football game. There was the moment just after her first match back at a Grand Slam event ended and she went over to a crowd of kids in the stands and turned her back to a crowd of strangers and flung a towel high over her head.

“I just wanted to do that, to feel that,” Seles says. “I wanted to take some memories back. Like in 10 years from now, I can say, This is what I felt. I don’t have that from ’91 or ’92.”

No, when she won the Open those years, Seles went away full of tennis and nothing else. She spoke often of this year’s Open as something “fun” and giggled through every press conference. But it is easy to mistake Seles’s laughter for joy, rather than the nervous tic that it is, and there were moments, even in New York, even during matches, where memories of the stabbing flashed through her mind. “A few times they come,” Seles says. “But I know I have the next point, and I know if I miss that next point, I get mad at myself. I tell myself, O.K., O.K., just forget it. The tennis helps.”

But only when you’re ready for it. Later that Friday night, Seles’s closest friend from her old days on the tour, Jennifer Capriati, ends a long absence from tennis by appearing at a dinner for the International Tennis Hall of Fame. She looks thinner, happier than in the aftermath of that infamous night in May 1994 when she was arrested for possession of marijuana, and doesn’t blanch when Chris Evert, onstage, says into a microphone, “Jennifer…I just want you to know. We miss you, and we want to see you back, babe. It’s great for the game.” Applause fills the room. A spotlight falls on Capriati.

Seles and Capriati have tried reaching each other but haven’t connected. Seles thinks she could help ease Capriati’s return. But “Jennifer has to feel that for her own self,” Seles says. “Otherwise she’s coming back for somebody else, and that’s doing the same thing she tried to escape from.”

Strange, in this game, how one misery tracks another. For just as Graf steeled herself to composure in that bathroom — and the pack of photographers set up outside — a small, oblivious parade passed by just outside. First came Monica, a bouquet of flowers in hand, chattering, then her father, Karolj, and mother, Esther. They were leaving the U.S. Open now, all giggling at once. It was impossible, at that instant, to read the scene and know anything. Who was the loser? Who won?

Battles of the Mind …OR … Postcard from the Sledge.

When in 1991 Vishy Anand played his first Linares event he met a Spanish couple Maurice and Nieves. They were the reason Anand moved to Collado Mediano. They travelled with Vishy to many events over the years. Still when Vishy wins, Maurice is the first person he thinks of. He is by far Anand’s biggest fan. Nieves is no more and when Vishy won Linares in 2006, he dedicated it to her.

Maurice still remembers meeting Vishy in 1991. “ He has the way of walking you know . His hand in his pocket and talking fast . He played with Beliyavsky and had barely used 10 minutes on his clock .So I said ‘tomorrow Karpov – think a little more’ and he said ‘how about 11?’.”

Glenn McGrath, with a grand Test batting average of 7.36 (51 not outs) – a total of 641 Test runs, as opposed to 543 Test wickets. McGrath’s autobiography devotes to his batting an entire, typically earnest, chapter. “You see, the way I look at cricket is there are eleven batsmen in a cricket side,” he insisted. “We all have a job to do, and we’re expected to do it with a certain aplomb.”

Seldom has the doctrine of mental disintegration been so methodically enforced as at Brisbane in the November of 2004-05, when McGrath joined Jason Gillespie with their team 118 in the lead on first innings just after tea on the third day. The teams seemed close to parity as the New Zealanders contemplated their second dig in advance. But, with nothing other than orthodox strokeplay, the last Australian pair made increasingly merry. They had added 93 by the close, and a record 114 by their separation, their partnership lasting longer than the eventual response of the visitors – a demoralised 76.

The interlude, nonetheless, was not merely about Australian strength. The New Zealanders were complicit in their own downfall, slack bowling and outcricket allowing the partnership to establish itself. Advantages in cricket are not always taken; sometimes they are ceded.

As  India and Australia jostle in this series, this Brijnath piece in the Hindu the other day. The idea of mental disintegration is not to sledge. It was not to coin a new term. It is (and must be) to get the best out of yourself. And cast doubt  in the mind of the opposition. Anything else, is missing the point.

Lalchand Rajput says “We’re at home and we’ll give it to them strong. Just as we expect them to give it to us strong when we go over”. I am not so sure thats all correct either. Or maybe it is but only partly so because on the field, Australia don’t play it any different home or away. Off the field is where the difference lies. Mitch Johnson’s been familiarising himself  with conditions  at the MRF pace academy. Brett Lee’s recording songs and wooing girls (Asha Bhosale qualifies). Adam Gilchrist is mixing with street children between games and visiting charities that he’s associated with. Matthew Hayden’s taking his fishing buddy Andrew Symonds along in Cochin to the children’s home he’s a patron of and once he’s done with that he’s visiting places to learn cuisine as part of the Matthew Hayden cookbooks. Its part of their efforts at trying to “feel at home”.

After yesterday’s  9 wicket victory which ensures they can’t lose, Ricky Ponting said  they came with the idea of winning every match, but now that they’d lost at Chandigarh, they’ll try and settle for next best. 

What one must realise- and hopefully learn is that the Aussies want to beat you, hammer you and grind you to dust, even humiliate you – but its nothing personal.

Halfway there – or are we ? ; Dhoni’s opening gambits…

Lets get this off to the realistic start it deserves. 4 matches into this series, we’re 1-2 behind and although we’ve won 1, it was our first win since 2004. Of the last 25 matches that we’ve played Australia, we’ve lost 17 (3 were No Results). Yesterday’s loss was Australia’s first in 15 games.

Now for the stats which are a bit more quirky, India has not beaten Australia while chasing a target since that game in Sharjah in 1997-98. Its not like we’ve won a lot either. In the 10 years since, in 34 matches played we’ve won 7 times but all the victories have been batting first.

Small wonder then that Dhoni won the toss and did the dew – he chose to bat. It was the best chance we had as the history books and recent matches had shown us. Without the experience and class upfront though, it could have been a damp squib. A lot is being made of the seniors in the Indian side none of whom are that much older than Mathew Hayden, Adam Gilchrist or Ricky Ponting. They’re just under more pressure because selectors and board officials remind them about it. (How’s a Niranjan Shah shooting his mouth off in Hyderabad about Ganguly not “worthy” of a censure? How is it any better than Vengsarkar talking about the seniors? How is either useful ?). And yet, the experience of the opening pair stood firm. Every dot ball must have spelt doubt. But the resolve won. And the platform was set. 291-4 was a result of that. And Ricky Ponting’s mistakes with his bowling changes. And the other things that fall in place when wickets are in hand. Thats what experience brings.

The chase was off to a flier. We’ve bowled patchily all series and it was no different yesterday. But its amazing how the afternoon sun makes good patches seem purple when there are 291 runs on the board. From 190-3 in the 34th, India won Australia lost. Another Dhoni gamble – three left arm medium pacers and two spinners – paid off. A brave call-up for Murali Karthik paid off. Most importantly, India held on to what looked for a large part of the afternoon like a lost cause.

So, does this mean much at all ? The answer of course is, I don’t know and neither do you.

What we do know is that in two of the three result games, Australia have been comprehensively the better side while we have squeaked home in the game that we have won. And thats boiled down to a consistency in the aussie performance. However, as the series gets longer, the tests for the less experienced Aussie campaigners is going to get tougher.

India, on the other hand is playing under a new captain – not afraid to chop and change the dynamics and willing to experiment – much like Dravid was in his first series as skipper. Consistency is not the strong suit but a willingness to fight sure is. For the series to go down to the wire though, we’ll need a bit more of the first along with large doses of the second.

The Gold Rush …

They say that pictures are worth a thousand words. When one looks back at these, one wonders what the doubt was all about.

This is Marion Jones. And yes, the photograph is the end of the 100m finals at the Sydney Olympics.
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And this, ahead of the haze (and Carl Lewis) is Ben Johnson at the 1988 Seoul Olympics 100m sprint.ben.jpg

More often than not though, sport is about that special someone who is far ahead of the pack. Or the game trier. Just a celebration of the spirit. Uncompromising and unaided.

There. 100 words already.

Enough said.

What the Deuce …?

I happened to be a proud recipient of a complimentary pass to the Kingfisher open Men’s singles final match conducted in Mumbai last Sunday. Now, I have always been a Tennis fan but never had the opportunity to watch a ‘live’ tennis match. Oliver Rochus v/s Richard Gasquet (I hope I got the spellings right), seemed a decent contest frankly. Not a Federer – Sampras exhibition match, but then I wasn’t charged SGD 200 either.

Once the match started, one could figure out that there were 2 camps within the spectators. Those who supported Rochus and those who were opposed to the ‘Rochus supporters’. Now the Rochus supporters were those perennial animal lovers whose love of the underdog can take them to any length. Show us Indians an underdog and we will show you our hero. The atmosphere was carnival like. The only thing missing was a Ferris wheel.

The Rochus supporters were misguided by the learned commentator that their hero was pronounced as Rock – us instead of the actual Roh-kews. So every time he won a point, there was a deafening chanting of “Rockus Rockus”. The Gasquet faction would take this as a personal slight and start their own chanting. Chak de Rock -us was another crowd favourite. Every point was cheered, so what if it were a double fault or an unforced error. The average time between 2 points was double the normal point as each party wanted to have the last word.

The poor players would look up a couple of times for the crowd to stop the chants. The chair umpire would say ‘thank you’ which would spur the spectators to greater heights in their chants. The off court events were much more attractive than the on court game, so I won’t waste my time describing the match.

It will never be known whether Oliver Rochus lost to a superior opponent or to the continued pillorying of his name by his supporters. But in the end it was the Tennis spectator who was the winner. Amen..

Not just anywhere, this was in Mumbai, at the CCI. The moot point is that its not only teams / players who need coaches. Our country needs training in the basic etiquettes of sport watching. A policeman walking across the sight screen is one of the common sights in Indian cricket. Clapping in the middle of a point is considered encouragement – be it Tennis, table tennis, Badminton.. You name it. We as as a nation are acting like the nouveau rich in the sport arena. We might have the money power to organise a tournament, run a full sport but maybe we should outsource the spectators.

I agree that we as a society suffer from this boorishness across all spectrum of life. Be it sport, be it public conduct. But to imbibe a sports culture, we need to be sporting. To be champions, we need to learn to act as one. Else we will end up seeing the Sreesanths of the world being idolised for their aggressiveness, not accepting defeats to a better side, clapping on an opponents double fault..

I have always been a die hard Indian fan and have complained at unfair treatment meted out to us by umpires/ referees / foreign media. But we have to be fair before asking for neutrality from others. Anyway, think that’s a separate topic..

P.S. One of the songs playing in the background that day was – ‘We will, we will Rock you‘.. Anyone for poetic injustice?

Posted by Rahul

Check De, India !

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There’s no point in getting into arguments about who India’s greatest Sportsman is. Those kind are just interesting talking points and blog posts. But Vishwanathan Anand’s sponsors’ NIIT call him India’s Mind Champion. Anyone feel like arguing ?

Many years ago , Anand recalls … “once I was on this train in India . One elderly gentleman sat next to me and started talking . He asked what i did . I said I am a chess player. The man was not convinced , He said yes but what do you do. Does your father own a business ? I said no I play chess . After 10 minutes the man looked me staright in the face and said “ All this chess is very nice if you can be Viswanathan Anand but you I am not sure .” After this I couldn’t get myself to tell this gentleman who I was but I realised that maybe I was on to something“…

Yesterday, Vishy Anand became World Chess Champion for the second time. This one though was a bit more special than the first in that it was undisputed. No wranglings within the FIDE about recognising various bodies , no parallel tournaments being run, no politics. A mere 70 ELO points seperating the top 8 players. And no notable absentees – yes Kramnik was there. And Anand came out of it all undefeated.

The undisputed Champion of the World.

 

p.s. Many years ago, a Brijnath piece on Vishy Anand. Note the part about the autobiography (“Only when I win the World Championships”) – Thats a book to have !

Warne’s 50 – and Australia’s XI

A few weeks ago, Shane Warne writing a column for The Times in the UK, started unleashing a list of 50 greatest cricketers he had played with or against. As with all things Warne, it was not without its share of the controversial.

The list opened and in its first ten i.e. 50-41 itself there were surprises. At numbers 50 and 49 were two people who had never played a Test. Those who were going to miss the cut had already been sledged.

40-31 was a middle of the road kind of part of the list. Just that Stuart Macgill (40 matches – 198 wickets at 27.20) came in at 39. Tim May (24 matches- 75 wickets at 34.74) came in at 31.

Then the fun really started. As we moved into the 30-21, Shane prefaced it by saying that this part seems to ruffle a few feathers here and there. Steve Waugh came in at 26. Not just any other number, but the top of the bottom half of the list. Warne’s explanation was ” This may raise a few eyebrows. Yes, he scored a lot of runs, but to me he was a match-saver rather than a match-winner. That is why he is not higher. There were also times when he struggled against the short ball. But he had good all-round capabilities and was always reliable in the gully. Mark Taylor handed him a wonderful team.” At 25, one notch above was Warne’s buddy Darren Lehmann (1,798 Test runs to Waugh’s 10,927). Stephen Fleming made it to 23. A Kiwi Skipper ranked higher by a guy you led – wonder how an Aussie feels about that.

20-11 came around and right down at 20 was Adam Gilchrist – a guy who would probably make most teams chosen for the time period we are talking about. Merv Hughes was a surprise entrant at 18 and Mark Waugh showed up well above Steve Waugh at 12.

The Top Ten is , well, his top ten. Its hard to argue and so long as it has Sachin at One, I won’t. Take a look at it and actually, the top 11 are a pretty handy team (batting order mine).

Mark Taylor
Sachin Tendulkar
Ricky Ponting
Brian Lara
Allan Border
Ian Healy
Wasim Akram
Curtly Ambrose
Glenn Mcgrath
Courtney Walsh
Mutthiah Muralitharan.

At the end of the day, its Shane Warne’s team and he’s entitled to stir the pot all he likes. There are notable exceptions – VVS probably the most glaring for me.

 Looked in its entirety though, the list is very “Shane Warne” and by that I mean, it has a lot of talking points in itself without going into the subtleties – Merv Hughes higher than Waqar ? No Damien Martyn ? No Dean Jones ? Inzamam ?

But when we do let that dust settle, comes the real stuff. And thats when the vanity and ambition show. The on-field heroism of the author apart, if you look at it in an unbiased manner, there is a lot of washing of dirty linen in public here.

Stuart Macgill has the best strike rate, for instance and there’s very little doubt that he’d have got a far longer run if had played in any era apart from one which was inhabited by Warne’s awesome presence.  That 39, is hardly encouraging.

In 1999, Steve Waugh and Shane Warne were contenders for taking over captaincy from Mark Waugh. Steve Waugh got the job. If that was not reason enough for a bit of trouble, in Waugh’s first series as Skipper, this happened. By the time of those drug allegations at the World Cup and the great Steve Waugh – John Buchanan  partnership, the relationship was probably symbiotic in a selfish kind of way. The rationale for the Steve Waugh position is the one that makes it so dodgy. Steve Waugh’s average in Tests that Australia won was 69 as opposed to 35 in drawn games. 25 of his 32 centuries led to Australia victories. And while its true that he inherited a very good outfit from Mark Taylor its also true that he transformed it into a  great one by –  ironically – removing draws from the equation to a large extent.

Adam Gilchrist, all of ten slots behind Ian Healy is one thing. One imagines the part that would hurt a little bit is this : “He is still a batsman-keeper rather than the other way round” … and the part that must really sting, at the age of 36, “but his keeping is improving.

What the list does is tell a fascinating , if largely untold story about a essential component of the Australian success story. These are larger than life superstars, pillars of the game who were willing to put the personal differences aside each time they put on the baggy green.

That apart, the list is Shane Warne’s. Its as personal as a text message.

That Top of the World Feeling ….

Knock Knock

Who’s There ?

Misba

Misba Who ?

Misba 5 runs .

Just for a brief while yesterday, surely, an old nightmare came back to haunt a few people. A young man named Sharma ran in to bowl to a determined, possessed Pakistan batsman . Thats when the comparisons ended. That was 21 years ago. I was older then. I feel younger now .

Joginder Sharma ran in to bowl after a brief chat with his skipper (“a slower one”, presumably?) and Sreesanth settled in at 45 …

A few moments later, India was cradling cricket’s latest child. World Champions of the 1st Twenty20 World Cup.

They say that there is nothing you should fear more than people who are scared. Or wary.
Put it down to the format or the exuberance of youth or a combination of both but fear was never the main emotion on display. Right from the time of the bowl-out, to the victories over England, South Africa, Australia and back to the finals, the Unchained Melody has been the theme.

Twenty20 with an India-Pakistan final has captured a vast market. That part is unarguable. Its also true though, that the format itself leaves itself open to the cynics. Justifiably. Sixes and fours rain. Bowlers feel good with 7ish economy rates. Batsmen don’t value wickets. Building an innings is almost a sin. 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.

In such a scenario, how tough is it being fearless ? And yet, M S Dhoni has been outstanding. Whether it be the simplicity of choosing the bowlers in a high pressure bowl-out (lets not talk about what thats doing in a cricket match!), or his selections or the batting orders or the belief he has shown in his men, he has barely put a foot wrong. Applauding (even miffed, though sincere) efforts in the field, keeping interaction with bowlers during overs to the minimum, having the courage with field placements in tight games, he has shown the ability to multi-task in clearly high pressure games. Remember this : prior to the World Cup India had played only one International Twenty20 game. MS Dhoni had been keeping for two and a half months of the English tour incessantly. Its been an outstanding beginning.

But, and this part is important – its only a beginning. Twenty20 is NOT the real deal. In all of Dhoni’s success are a number of gambles. And as he’ll find out, fortune does not always favour the brave. Nor does the media. We’ll leave that for later though. For now, to him and his team , a huge Well Done !

Earlier post on Dhoni here

The Circle of Life …

Six months ago – to the day – India, played its last game at the World Cup. Two days before that and a few hours after finding out about the death of their coach, Pakistan had played its last match at the World cup as well. Two great cricket superpowers brought to their sporting knees.

All seemed lost. A generation of greats had their dreams of a World cup win gone forever and they were photographed, those photographs that captured their broken dreams and somewhere a fear that we would now put them to trial for losing.

Tomorrow, India will play Pakistan in the finals of the Twenty20 World Cup. So much has changed in six months. So much has happened this past week. A new generation of cricketers have come to the fore. A new form of the game has caught the World’s imagination. The superpowers have turned to youth and at various times have looked unbeatable and tomorrow, they meet again.

Someone will lose a sporting contest. It will not change the fact that yesterday’s gone. Like it always does.

Winning is everything …

Considering that this is now the 176th post on this blog, I am amazed that I have managed to keep away from my favourite sport. Not one post in almost six months on Formula 1.

The reason’s quite simple. A first post would simply have to be on Michael Schumacher. That it would then unleash a long, possibly unending series was immaterial. But I was (and am) sure I would never be able to do justice to a guy whose performance was exemplified by this :

“Race driving is not a test of courage or a feat of strength. You have to be able to tell whether the car can take a particular corner at a particular speed or not. It is up to you to know how you take this corner but if you need courage to do it, you have a problem. It’s about knowing where the limits lie”

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7 World Championships. 91 wins of 249 races. 154 finishes on podium (61.85% of the time). 190 finishes in the points (76.3%). 5.5 points on an average each time he started a race – think about it.

Then think about this.

Schumacher is a special ambassador to UNESCO and has donated 1.5 million Euros to them. Additionally, he paid for the construction of a school for poor children and for area improvements in Senegal. He supports a hospital for child victims of war in Sarajevo, which specialises in caring for amputees. In Peru he funded the “Palace for the Poor”, a centre for helping homeless street children obtain an education, clothing, food, medical attention, and shelter. He stated his interest in these various efforts was piqued both by his love for children and the fact that these causes had received little attention. While an exact figure for the amount of money he has donated throughout his life is unknown, it is known that in his last four years as a driver, he donated at least $50 million. And yes, he did donate $ 10 million to the Tsunami Relief Fund. More than any other sports person, most sports leagues, many worldwide corporations and even some countries.

Perhaps the biggest quality associated with Schumi was the ruthless efficiency on the circuit. The must-win. The anything-goes and nothing-is-wrong approach. What should be remembered is the wins. The sheer consistency of performance. The crescendo that perfection achieved each time he climbed into a F1 machine. And the stark contrast when he stepped out. No off circuit controversies. Just a quiet, dignified champion.

Hidden in the Schumacher story are a number of questions about modern sport. But none of the answers deny him excellence.

Uplifting interest …

Last night, fast asleep at 0130, I got a phone call.

It had been a stressful couple of days at work. Sleep was desirable if not essential. There was no way it would be anything but toss and turn though. The caller knew it.

But I wish you could have heard the excitement in the voice. It did not wait for me to complete a “Hello”.

Did you see that Yuvraj over?!“, he barked.
Huh?” I probably mumbled.
“SIX SIXES IN AN OVER, YAAAR !In Broad’s last over. In STUART BROAD’s last over.”
Who hit them?” I asked, still groggy and confused. Dimitri Mascarenhas nightmares clouding my already cluttered mind.
Yuvi, Yaar !
In one over?” Signs of life …
Yes, dude !
We batted first?” Interest started surfacing . I was sitting up now. The wife was awake. A bit worried.
Yaar, I know its late and all that but we batted first and we’ve scored 218 but thats not whats important. Whats important is that Yuvi scored six sixes in an over off Stuart Broad !! In an international game !!!!!! I just thought that was special enough to wake you up yaar” The pal who had called to spread cheer was beginning to lose patience…
Thanks, Rahul. Speak with you in the morning.” I was trying to convey gratitude that i sincerely meant and combine that with how this was going to get explained to the wife….
Everything ok at work?” she asked.
Yup
What was that
err ..Yuvi got six sixes in an overIt was against Stuart Broad

——————————————————————————————-

Considering that 9 is the minimum it would take, Yuvraj’s 12 ball fifty is going to take some beating. That it did not come against minnow opposition only adds to it. And many Youtube viewings later, I struggle to find where his fifth six was mistimed. They all seem like wonderful , clean hitting.

That innings is probably enough for a giant leap in the popularity of the form of the game for television in India. I’d guess that further success in this tournament would be the litmus test but that innings might have been enough.

Where’s this relationship going ….?

So today I have a scary question like that one above.

If Tests are the real thing, (and the Ashes will be the only 5 Test series ),
and
there is just too much one day cricket already
and
Twenty20 is Barbie Doll And Bobby Deol and yet there is so much of it mushrooming all over –
AND
we reckon that there is tonnes of player stress and burnout,
then my question is :

Where is the scope for Cricket to get any more popular worldwide than it already is?

If new frontiers embrace the sport, when will they play?

Plans that either come to naught or …

Today Rahul Dravid resigned as captain of Team India. Or offered to.
Typically I’d wait till the dust settled and things got clarified about what that means before I wrote a post on something like this but I feel strongly about Rahul Dravid. I even thought he was deserving of the highest compliment at the recent Test series. So here goes.

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I think Rahul started off as captain quite brilliantly. Thought out-of-the-box. Cocked snooks and took daring gambles which paid off (that helps!). And so a declaration with Sachin at 194 in a Test match still got us a victory and lots of juggling in batting orders still got us 6-1 in an ODI series against Sri Lanka. And then somewhere down the line he lost his way in a maze of processes.

We won some Test series along the way but particularly in the shorter form of the game, we’ve had a series of poor performances. Some outstanding players  have lost their way even as some others have been brought to life. Some back to life.

For a guy who is so much a perfectionist and able to stand back and see things in perspective, he’ll realise this : On his watch, the one-day team has not gotten better. Truth is a bitter pill.

I, for one, hope that this “offer for resignation” is treated with the respect it deserves. We should appoint a new one day captain. Rahul Dravid should stay as skipper for the Tests.

When, not if. Roger that…

When you join the growing list of Novak Jokovic’s fans and search Youtube for his many videos, you will find that he does a few brilliantly funny ones of Maria Sharapova (“just friends”), Andy Roddick, Goran Ivanisevic, Lleyton Hewitt and Rafael Nadal. They’re complete with mannerisms and all. He does not even stop at Rafa’s tugging at his shorts from butt-crack bit.
Then he does a Roger Federer. Its unique. No mockery or imitation of serve here. He impersonates Roger’s victory ritual. There is a certain piety in performance that somehow bars even humour from crossing a line of reverence.

Roger Federer’s career records are already beginning to sound like the Guinness Book. In 2004, he became the first player since 1988 to win three Grand Slam titles the same year. In 2006, he became the only player in the Open era to repeat it and this year he’s done it yet again. In 2007, by winning his third Australian Open title, he became the only male player to have won three separate Grand Slam tournaments at least three times. By winning Wimbledon in ’07, Federer tied Bjorn Borg’s open-era record of five consecutive Wimbledon championships. By reaching the 2007 U.S. Open final, he became the only player to have reached the finals of all four Grand Slam tournaments for two consecutive years. By winning the US Open, Federer became the only player in the Open Era to win four consecutive U.S. Open titles. He is the only male player to have won three Grand Slam singles titles in a calendar year three times and the only player ever to have won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open back-to-back for four consecutive years. At the US Open, Federer reached his tenth consecutive Grand Slam singles final – an all-time record in men’s tennis.

Must be getting boring, Roger?

“It’s important for me in my stage in my career to prove myself,” he says “And this was a perfect opportunity against Djokovic, also against Andy. I was coming into the U.S. Open after Nadal played so well at Wimbledon. It was time for me to prove myself again and I achieved it, so it was kind of a good feeling inside.”

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He’s now won 12 of his 14 Grand Slam finals. And that now puts him ahead of Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg. I’ll repeat that. Ahead of Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg. So what makes a guy who’s been number 1 for 189 weeks (longest ever for any player – male or female) win the last three rounds of a Grand Slam in straight sets, when he’s by all accounts not playing at his best ?

There is this one target. Pete Sampras’ 14.

After the US Open…

Q. Today Tiger Woods shot a 63 and had a come‑from‑behind victory in a tournament. He has said that you are the most dominant athlete in sports. What do you make of what he said on the day that you’ve just won your 12th slam?

ROGER FEDERER: Well, it’s very kind, you know. Of course, you know, I love getting compliments from Tiger because they do mean something to me. It’s great to see him winning, as well. It’s always the best if we win at the same time, you know.

I hope he can keep his great run up, beat Jack Nicklaus’ record. I’m chasing down Sampras. For me it’s a lot of fun, being compared with Tiger, who is the greatest. I’ll leave that up to the audience. But my last few years have been incredible.

Q. You passed Borg and Laver today with your 12th. How much do you think about the Sampras record? How badly do you want it?

ROGER FEDERER: I think about it a lot now, honestly. In the beginning I was ‑‑ I felt pushed a little bit in the corner, put under pressure about the situation because you don’t win slams like that, it’s just too tough.

I feel these two and a half weeks, it’s so draining. I’m exhausted in the end. It’s a great relief, you know, just to finally maybe have a good night’s sleep without thinking about the upcoming five‑setter I have to play. So I know how tough it is.

So to come so close already at my age is fantastic, and I really hope to break it.

Q. When you’re done, how many do you think you’ll have?

ROGER FEDERER: Don’t know. I really don’t know. I mean, I hope more than Pete (smiling).

How must Pete Sampras feel? These were imprints on tennis courts. Not footprints on sands to be washed away by the next wave.

“I did all I could do in the ’90s, and I really thought the 14 would be tough to beat. Little did I know Roger would come along and dominate the way he has — and that could last a while longer,” says Pete , “If there’s a player and a person that I’d like to see break this, it would be Roger. He’s a great guy. Lets his racket do the talking. One of those humble champions I like.”

They’ve played competitive tennis once. At Wimbledon in 2001. Federer won 7-6(7), 5-7, 6-4, 6-7(2), 7-5. Pete Sampras had never lost a 5 set match at Wimbledon before. They’ve since played at the courts at Pete’s LA home. Roger says he’s not saying who won but that it was competitive in the tie breaks….

Roger Federer and Pete Sampras are to play a three game exhibition series in Asia in the third week of November and then a big exhibition game at Madison Square garden on March 10. By which time Roger Federer would have had a chance to win his fourth Australian Open and 13th slam. And he’ll be knocking on the door. Pete Sampras is keen. “I still serve well. Roger’s Roger. It’s going to hopefully be competitive tennis,” Sampras said. “We both wanted to do it because our names have been linked and will be linked for the next couple of years.”

Meanwhile, for the craft of writing, research, ideas, execution and the sheer guts to try it, here’s an old piece by Rohit Brijnath. Its dated 2005 and its a fictional match between Pete Sampras and Roger Federer.

Read. Enjoy. Bookmark. Celebrate.

Outrunning the ghost …

Two weeks ago, it was supposed to be the big showdown at Osaka.

Tyson Gay vs Asaka Powell at the 100m sprint.

As it turned out, though – despite having run a world record 9.77 secs thrice, Powell had never won a world title and he didn’t then.

“When I saw I wasn’t in gold medal contention, I gave up. I just stopped running, I said to myself there was no coming back from this.” He said “I felt very free, very relaxed before the race. But when Tyson came on and gave me a little pressure, I just panicked.”

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Two weeks, to the day, later, at Reiti in Italy, he broke smashed his previous world record in a (legal) wind aided, but pressure-free 9.74 secs.

Hidden there is probably a question that will forever haunt us. Who is better? Who is the real winner? Pure talent or sheer tenacity? Does pure talent, even if its in a superb, untainted athlete such as Asafa Powell, who has failed to rise to the occasion lose any value if its outdone at the big event by a marginally slower performer? Is talent that wilts under the scanner of pressure really any less?

Posted by Rahul

3 All and 1 to “them” …

Ok, I’ll be the first to admit it. I struggled with the hangover all weekend. And tried to regain the positive frame of mind and all that. But nope. I didn’t manage it. I could not identify with everyone else’s “the better side won” and “our weaknesses finally showed up” bit. I can’t understand the difference that one game made to six. Call me a bad loser if you will but I know that I’d probably have said the same thing if the result had been the other way around but been marred by the same thing.

Given the standards of umpiring right through the series and the way the whole technology-in-umpiring debate has resurfaced / been shoved under the carpet , my verdict is this :

We were the overwhelming favourites going into the one day series. The fact that we reached Lords 3 all is a huge victory to England and shows that they are a vastly improved side. Credit to Collingwood and the guys.

4-3 is the official result. I’m going with 3 all and 1 to the umpires. They influenced the series enough to get at least that much credit.

Ready or Not, Here I come …

There was a particular beauty to yesterday’s contest which underscores the times we live in. Everything is lightning quick. Everything is under the scanner and must be right. Every mistake is analysed. The run fest at the Oval showed that not all of that is bad.

A number of mistakes were made by a host of people yesterday. With England looking for a long awaited one day series win and India fighting to stay in it, there was so much at stake that frailties which characterise humans were bound to surface. So an umpire made an error – then saw a giant screen and changed his mind, Kevin Pietersen ran out Paul Collingwood, then ran himself out with Owais Shah at the other end, Rahul Dravid ran out of bowlers, Yuvraj Singh ran out of ideas and after a wonderful summer, James Anderson looks like he’s probably running out of steam.

But yesterday will be remembered not for the mistakes but for the achievers.
Owais Shah had stood rooted to his crease in the one game when the superstar KP had got his first ODI 50 of the summer. Surely, he could have sacrificed his wicket. He should have. But he didn’t and he stuck on. And how.
Luke Wright making his one day debut. (Wonder how many in history have a 4 and six as their first international scoring shots?) To my mind, Luke Wright set up the move from 137-5 to 316-6. If that was the nervous beginning, watch out once he settles in.
Dimitri Mascarenhas is not in England’s Twenty/20 squad. Go figure.
Zaheer Khan, Piyush Chawla and Romesh Powar . Irrespective of the result of the series , they have been terrific. 29 overs between them for 131 between them tells its own story.
Sachin Tendulkar – if anything batted better than he did in the match before. The joy is not so much that he’s playing with the fluency of old but that he’s rediscovered the concept of inspiring. Yesterday was the second consecutive century partnership. (When Ganguly fell in the 23rd over , we were 150 and Ganguly was all of 53). Sachin plays and India wins, is back. Man of the match.

And finally to Robin Uthapa. He’s been in the sidelines all summer as a makeshift opener has done brilliantly in the Tests and another has been given a number of chances till he’s finally begun to come good. Yesterday, Uthapa got his chance at no 7. He’s never batted there before. He came in to bat at 234-5 in the 41st. There was no batting to come. The composure and cool of it all in a never-before-but-must-now was the impressive part. The buildup to the finale. The fact that he got 24 of the final 27 runs. That audacious shot over fine leg for a boundary with 4 balls to go and 8 to get which prompted Collingwood to bring long off in and move fine leg back. And then the confidence to take a couple of steps forward to get to the pitch of the next delivery and drive it past that mid off for the winning boundary. Outstanding.

Unlike the lyric in the song, a number of performances yesterday that were keen on taking the lead role in the war….

And so 3 all and to Lords we go for the decider. Thats where it all began.

Wish I was there …

Savour these moments …

“At a dinner in Leeds on Friday night, Sachin Tendulkar talked about playing under pressure. Nobody is better qualified to do so. He said the only way to cope with the extraordinary expectation that has followed his career was to see pressure as a subjective rather than objective force. He was happy if he satisfied himself and happier still if he retained the respect and support of his team.” Mark Nicholas in the Telegraph.

“Sachin sent back a message saying that it is a really good batting wicket and we should be looking to get a score near 300 or just over 300.” Rahul Dravid after the game.

The scenario was clear. We were down 1-3 with 3 to play. The repercussions of a loss were obvious and yet far reaching enough to cloud perspective. But 18 years since it all started at the age of 16, those shoulders have not hunched under the weight of that pressure. And although age has punctuated the brilliance, as it always does, yesterday in the cold grey of Headingley, it shone brightly. Once the eye was in, the target set, it was not about that 42nd hundred which had earlier been elbowed away by an umpiring error but about getting the team to where it needed to be. There were no half measures. Jon Lewis will probably never forget that over – try as he might. And Stuart Broad will realise quickly why the game is a huge leveler. Platform set, bowlers’ confidence dented, batsmen shown the way – the weather could only get better.

Shane Warne called him the best cricketer he had played against. Warne said that it was the ability to withstand pressure and his mental toughness that put him a notch higher. Anyone who questions the guys ability to perform under pressure probably misses the whole point.

Bob Dylan : “Basically you need to suppress your own ambitions to be who you really need to be“. These are moments when we should be getting ready for a standing ovation on a career built in the relentless pursuit of a craft to the point of selflessness. Shame on those that chose to boo.

p.s. India won. 2-3 with two to go.

The World on Time – Fedex

Now, thats not even a headline I thought of. Its an ad slogan for FedEx and since this is a post about Roger Federer, it just seemed kinda apt.

The US Open is about to enter its second week and as is becoming common (as opposed to boring), the guy to beat is this gent here.
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Its not surprising actually. Considering that Roger Federer has not lost at Flushing Meadows since 2003. At the finals last year, he had 69 winners (52 not including aces) to Andy Roddick’s 33. Leave out the aces and in the tournament he had 254 winners. Ninety more than the guy he beat in the finals. I’m not asking you to get on to the tennis court and try to hit a winner against Andy Roddick. I’m asking you to get on to a couch and watch somebody hit an impossible to reach, impeccably designed, piece-of-art shot that makes you gasp while you struggle to stay horizontal. Such is the awe. And then multiply that awe 90 times over. That many winners MORE than the next best guy at a slam.

Enough of me. I’ll leave it to somebody who knows a thing or two.

The most impressive aspect of Roger Federer’s ascendancy to the top of the tennis world is the way he carries himself as a champion. It’s quite unusual. He just lets his racquet do the talking. There’s no entourage at his beck and call. He doesn’t have a bunch of coaches and trainers micromanaging everything he does. Roger has so much natural talent, they would just disrupt it if they muddled his mind. He exudes energy, and you just know he enjoys the camaraderie of all his competitors. Tennis had lost that positive vibe over the years. His game is so spectacular and graceful—I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked friends, “Did you see Roger’s shot last week, the crosscourt winner he hit a zillion miles per hour?” He has this amazing knack for raising his game just a notch more than an opponent. He never gets rattled if he’s down. You can only marvel.

Every time I speak to Roger, I sense no ego on his part. He asks me questions about how I prepared for big matches—Roger has a clear appreciation for the history of tennis. (Plus, these days, I should be the one peppering him with questions. He’s the big star!) When you’re talking to Roger, he makes you feel important—whether you’re a fan, an opposing player or an old geezer like me. People often ask me if Roger, 25, is the greatest player of all time. Let’s wait until the end of his career before making the “best ever” judgment. He should definitely be in every conversation. One thing is for sure: he’s the best player of his time and one of the most admirable champions on the planet. That’s certainly something worth crowing over. The beauty is, Roger Federer won’t.

Thats Rod Laver in Time magazine earlier this year.

Which reminds me, Time recently carried an article on a global issue. Five ways to beat Federer.
Not to be outdone, the New York Times has its own version. Beat Federer? a) Be Serious. b) You Cannot Be Serious..

Maybe I should have called this post, the Time(s) on Fedex

We didn’t lose. They won.

Sometimes it isn’t meant to be. The eventual winners just find that something special that nothing you can do is good enough. Last night, Stuart Broad and Ravi Bopara got England from 114-7 to their 213 target in difficult conditions. They have a combined age of 43.

We’ve had similar moments. Yuvraj and Kaif getting India from 120 odd for 5 to 320 odd against England in that Natwest final for instance. And we celebrate those as outstanding achievements. As two young men showcasing their brilliance under extreme pressure while facing seemingly impossible tasks.

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Yesterday was the Bopara-Broad day.

Cheers !

Short handed …

Walking into the third ODI at Edgbaston of what was effectively now a best of 5 ODI series, India should really have had the upper hand psychologically. As it turns out, England have won what ultimately seemed like such an easy victory that India seem one batsman, a couple of bowlers and a team of fielders short.

6 batsmen + 5 bowlers is a strategy thats worked in the past for India but clearly what Rahul Dravid wants (who doesn’t) is an all rounder. The problem with going in with the 6+5 is that it has people in the team who are good at only one discipline. Such are always likely to be liabilities in one day sides unless they are exceptionally talented and committed and fit and consistent. Munaf Patel’s talent has given India the courage to ignore the rest of his weaknesses and give him the opportunities. His 5 overs for 37 yesterday (coming on the heals of 8 overs for 73 the match before) and India needing to win 3 of the next 4 to win the series probably mean that Munaf has played his last game of the tour. His being a liability on the field and a batsman having to bowl his quota to keep the run rate down defeats the purpose.

England got 281. It was not about partnerships as you would expect a score like that to be but about momentum. Just two partnerships of fifty plus (76 for the opening wicket the best of the lot), and Bell’s 79 the only fifty in the innings. Ian Bell’s ringing himself into form at #3 has been a big factor in the series so far as he’s held every innings together. India got the wickets at regular intervals but England had seen those cards before and carried on regardless. Collingwood said after the game that they felt at the break that maybe they were a few short.

India’s reply required a highest ever run chase. Sachin’s fifth tour dismissal to Anderson was soft and India’s #3 was somewhat predictable. At Bristol in the previous game, Dinesh Karthik was listed at 3 but on Ganguly’s dismissal, Yuvraj came out to bat. This time, Karthik got his chance to keep the left-right combination going. It didn’t last long though. Dravid’s found his touch in the Natwest series in the manner Bell has (probably a few notches higher) but with Ganguly dropping anchor (we could talk about rotating the strike but Dravid at the other end isn’t exactly the master of the sharp single) and the run rate climbing through 7, it was always uphill .

When the pressure told on the batsmen, the lack of skill sets of the lower order came through.

This 6+5 <11.

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So One All with 5 to play in the one day circus.

One suspects though that even if its coloured by hindsight, the Bristol game was decided as much at the team compositions stage as by the fantastic batting displays that were put on later.

India chose to drop Gambhir. His performances at this stage have asked for it. Definitely that he should not bat at 3. So while that part of the decision itself was not the surprise – the replacement was what made it a pleasant one. Romesh Powar. The logic offered was forthright and positive – at the Rosebowl we lost because struggled to get wickets in the middle overs. Thats the part we hope to address if we want to win. The batsmen will have to deliver. What made the decision even more remarkable was Zaheer Khan sitting the match out with a flu. This was positive intent. The small ground, the fact that we were trailing the series and that it was a day-night game in alien conditions was immaterial. As important as that it was five bowlers, India was playing two spinners for overs 20-45.

England on the other hand made one change to the winning combination. Tremlett came in and out went Monty Panesar. This morning Mike Atherton writes a piece in The Telegraph on why England have struggled to embrace the spin option in ODIs. Thats not what it was though – had it been most other opposition England would probably have played Monty – even at the small straight boundaries at Bristol. The problem, in my opinion, was that instead of playing their best XI, England was trying to counter India’s strength. As it turns out, the Indian batter’s plan of going for the 4th and 5th bowler’s twenty overs has now put Paul Collingwood in a bind. Tremlett went for 73 in his 9 and even if Monty comes back (surely !), the Flintoff and Sidebottom injuries make the composition of England’s 50 overs a worry.

To my mind, that initial difference in mindset showed right through the rest of the game. It could be the series’ psychological endgame unless England have the wherewithal to come back from it.

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p.s. (Dear Chappelli, That was not dissent. Passive disappointment at best. And if I let my emotions colour it, and put the background of the guy’s illness ahead of the game, his innings within the game, his 90s on the tour so far, the dodgy decisions he’s got in the series before – then maybe it was passive disappointment at its best. Cheers.)

About Influences …

Growing up, all kinds of things shape you. In different doses. People do it without realizing the impact.

Sportswriters were obviously an important part of the ones that shaped me and I consider myself fortunate that a large period of when I was most impressionable coincided with when Indian sports writers were at their most celebratory.

This morning many of those memories came rushing back when I discovered an extraordinary blog and with it some fantastic inspirational moments. Like mesmerisms.

David McMahon used to be part of the Sportworld then and with Mudar Patherya, Barry O’Brien and Co, they used to bring out some fantastic sports stories.

An example of that & what I mean is what I discovered this morning – here.

Earlier in school, we had a lesson which was an article by Dr Christian Barnaard. Its details were poignant and important but far more important was its message.

“The business of living is the celebration of being alive.”

Cheers.

Rosebowl-ed … An unseen view.

9.30 pm to 5 am.

Those are the timings of the day night games in Singapore. So yes – with a 5 am start to work everyday, I was dozing off just as Matt Prior was walking back to the pavilion. I woke up to India 8 for- and that was pretty much that. The markets have a lot to offer these days ….

I had seen the toss though and from the bits I have read of the reports and scorecards, here are my impressions. Random, Derived and Unseen.

– Statsguru tells me that in the last 50 odd games, India’s only conceded 300 twice (and we won one of those two). We did not concede 300 yesterday either. When I see 210/1 after 40, that seems like a good effort. It could be argued that the problem was the score at over 40 but with this squad we can’t do any better than 4 bowlers, so there is no point quibbling about the runs that the fifth bowling combo conceded. Was 289 chase-able? You tell me.

– Gautam Gambhir may have done really well in all the tour games but his stats in ODIs ex Bangladesh, Ireland and Scotland just about give him an average of 20 in international cricket. If he must play and get another chance, does it have to be at 3 ? Should that not go to the best bat in the team?

– I think yesterday’s game was a bit about misplaced expectations. Our expectations from the conditions when we bowled, our impressions of England’s readiness as a one day unit, the absence of a plan b while chasing a 5.5+ run rate in conditions so alien told fast when we lost Ganguly to that run out and then Gambhir pottered around and the pressure multiplied fast. Its a part of our ODI play that has been an off and on scenario over the last year or so. We seemed to have overcome it in Ireland against South Africa so hopefully this was as much a tribute to England’s above par performance as our below average showing.

– Chasing 289, how does one realistically recover from 35/4 in 12? A 68 run partnership at 3.75ish taking you to the 3oth over (building a platform for a later assault presumably) is one way but if one of the twosome is Dhoni, wouldn’t it be more prudent that the target be kept within reach with a bit of aggression? Again, I didn’t see it but a 60 ball 19? In the process, that comeback hero, Fred Flintoff gets a 7 over spell for 12. Hmmm ….

Like the skipper said, India didn’t get to the party at all yesterday. I’m glad I slept through it.

What India needs though is to wake up. Else, another couple of such games and I suspect we’ll start hearing sounds of different captains for different forms of the game…..

An August Performance …

Well done India. For all the BCCI baiters and slow-on-the-coach-bandwagon red rag wavers, this was a truly independent Indian performance. It does not matter that it was 1-0 and could have been 2-0 and it does not matter either that we got out of jail at Lords. All that matters is that we won. Fair and square.

For all those that remind us that it was our first victory in England since 1986, I say this – England last won in India in 1984-85. (Actually, do look at how many teams have beaten India at home the next time they play that overseas series record rap. The last time West Indies managed it was in 1983-84 for instance. New Zealand never have. It does not change the fact that to be the best we must strive to constantly improve, but it puts a few things in perspective.)

At the start of this series, India walked in with more questions than answers. They had left out a bunch of familiar match winners. Sehwag, Irfan Pathan & Harbhajan Singh did not make the cut while promising names like Munaf Patel were sidelined by injury. In their place were a few new faces, some comeback names and a mix of superstars battling a multifaceted attack of age, criticism and doubt. The victory in Bangladesh had done nothing to heal the scars of the World Cup. And they were without a coach. The expectations though, were still sky high. They always are.

At the start of the series, Rahul Dravid said “if we don’t do well, I’m not going to say, ‘Oh, we did not have a coach’. In the end, talk is cheap. People themselves have to also realise what they have to give to the team, what their responsibilities are.”

Whats probably been the biggest success story for India in this victory has been that there has not been any single success story. Everybody, bar none, has contributed.

Dinesh Karthik who got his place at the expense of Viru Sehwag in the side, has scored a fifty in every Test he’s played and at no stage has he looked like the stage is too big for him. With Wasim Jaffer, they’re now India’s opening pair for the year and its hard to see someone challenging them for positions into the Australia tour. If someone does, it’ll be a nice embarrassment of riches to have.

Sachin Tendulkar, Saurav Ganguly, VVS and Dhoni all got between 205-249 runs between them (Karthik, the top scorer got 263). If it was consistency we were looking for, this was it. If everyone was supposed to play their part, this was almost like an assembly line.

India played the same XI for all the Tests. The same bowling attack went after the second ranked team in the World. These were supposedly conditions they were familiar with and we were inexperienced in. And yet, India managed 56 of the 60 English wickets on offer. (Between the RP, Zak and Sreesanth none gave outside of 338-366 runs in the series.) Also there was the lone century maker who chipped in with 14 wickets.

And then the few things that go unsung. The little bits like consistently exploiting Alistair Cook’s tendency to plonk his front foot too far across while facing the ball coming in and finding little variations of the same weakness to get him out each of the six times. Including the one time when leg slip could have got him.The ability to keep bouncing back each time it looked like the other guys had a foothold. When luck or weather lent a hand. Or the opposition stumbled. That special knack of latching on to opportunity.

There was no shortage of controversy either. Umpiring howlers, jelly beans and errant players.

And yet, holding it all together was a skipper. Struggling with form which will surely bother him for he was the lowest scorer of the series amongst the batters (and surely the knives will underline that in blood when we lose next). But this was supposed to be his big test. In response to some ridiculous criticism, he said yesterday that he knew the pulse of his team well and he backed his judgement because thats what he earns his corn for.

In my view, for the pressure of it all – Rahul Dravid was no less the Man of the Series than anyone else was.