This is My Generation. The End, almost.

Leander Paes, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly are all a few months to 1 year older than me. Bhaichung Bhutia is 2 years younger. These five people have been my contemporaries literally. And their life over the last 25 odd years has, in many ways, mirrored my own. The contexts are different but the questions are the same. The similar conflicts of choice, responsibilities, ambition and aspirations. The shared pain of graduating from random teenage dabbling to becoming a contender and then becoming class, the pressure of maintaining that class and trying to evolve oneself and maintain relevance and motivation as the environment changes and age and cynicism kicks in. I have followed the careers of these five people not just because they play a sport that one has an interest in but also because they faced and struggled with and overcame the same life questions as I did, at the same time as me.

The retirement of Sachin Tendulkar from active sport (he still has to play a couple of tests) makes it 80% down for my generation. That Leander is still around winning Grand Slams is something that, in a way, does not surprise one at all, given how one has seen him over the years. Of course, he does not wince when Patrick McEnroe calls him a senior citizen. He wears that tag quite openly and is still a medal contender at the Olympics, even with a rookie who did not even have a pair of shoes.

Given these almost parallel lives that one has lived with, it would be too shallow and meaningless to call myself a fan of any of these players. To me, each one represents a model of, a way of life in a way, of what an Indian can do. We all have our talents and abilities and our respective areas of interests, aspirations and passions. These five people demonstrate a very human and ergo realistic way of bringing all of those things to life in spectacular fashion, not just for a short burst of 15 minutes but for an entire lifetime of a generation, a quarter of a century. And more. These five people are not supermen who come from a different planet and have different non-human qualities. They come from the same social milieu (barring Bhaichung Bhutia whose background is far different from the urban middle class environs of the other four) as me (heck, Sachin flunked HSc, something that I was in danger off till I managed to get some tuitions classes) and I can see and empathise with their failings as many of those failings are issues that me and most people of our times face and have faced.

Bhaichung has moved off the football field for India but continues to score goals through his wards from his football schools and the United Sikkim club he founded to give opportunities to fellow Sikkimese people like him. He is the biggest voice India have in football and given his age, his role as a coach and manager is going to be huge.

Sourav and Rahul have moved on, immediately, to some commentary duties but there would be, no doubt, some more productive activities that they are likely to turn towards in due course.

Which brings us to Sachin. What is he going to do? This is a question that he has been asking himself for the last 5 years. It is a genuine fear. Sachin took to top level competitive cricket since his age crossed double figures. Since then, he has done nothing else. Like a software programmer who spends 30 years in the trade and knows only coding (and over the years has become brilliant at it). Take away the coding job of the software programmer, what is he to do? He has not bothered to engage with anything else. He has no other skills or affinities or preferences. Without the coding problems, he has no meaning in his life. Like actors who find it difficult to adjust to life when they retire, a Norma Desmondesque schizophrenia grips such people.

Sachin knows everything there is know about playing cricket. But that’s it. From the repeated use of the phrase (and variations of it) “It’s hard to imagine a life without playing cricket because it’s all I’ve ever done since I was 11,” it is very clear, this is a very big fear in his life. (A fear all of us have).

I, for one, never understand this whole farce of asking people to retire. It is the selectors’ job to pick and drop players. A player has the full right and freedom to play till whatever age he or she wants. This is true for all professions. A journalist can continue to write even if he or she has turned senile and is in advanced stage of dementia. It is for the editor to decide whether the copy is legible and publishable. Sachin was perfectly right in continuing to play and believe that he was helping Team India.

In the last test series against Australia, while most people, the regular hecklers who measure human achievement in quantitative terms QSQT (quarter se quarter taka company is as good as the earnings announced last quarter), claim he did not score a single century, I believe he played an innings that made the series a one sided one for India. In fact, one does not have to take the full innings. Just 3 shots. 1st test match, 12/2 in the first innings, replying to the Australian score of 380, given the performance against England in the previous series, it could very well have become 20/5. James Pattinson was easily the best bowler for the Australians in the entire series. In his 2 overs and 2 deliveries, he produced a burst of speed (150kph yorker to knock out Murali Vijay, 147kph shortish ball that Sehwag couldn’t control, it rolled on to the stumps) that saw the two openers walk back. In came Tendulkar in the middle of the 3rd over from Pattinson and he smashed 3 fours in 4 deliveries, all of which were above 144kph. This had shades of the Dale Steyn – Tendulkar tussle in the South African series in the previous season. The best bowler of the team being played out by Tendulkar. Leaving the rest of the batsmen to play the lesser bowlers. Almost the same happened here. Pattinson was out of the attack and the rest of the Indian team were happy to play a docile Australian bowling attack.  The phrase “India won the test quite easily in the end” is a bit misleading. Without that show of intent in the 6th over of the innings, things could have been vastly different.

The idea of Tendulkar, for me, stays in those moments. There are countless of them and this patch of 4 deliveries was one of them. I don’t really care about his not scoring centuries. (In fact, centuries are a bit like the photographs that people take once they reach the top of Mount Everest. Only the last step, probably the easiest, is seen. Not the climb itself.) He doesn’t have to. There are 10 other people in the team who are equally obliged to play for Team India. They can score those centuries.

The model of Tendulkar has always been to enter the worst challenges possible and try to win over it. And to do so, one has to be simply world class. Nothing less will do. Sometimes you succeed, sometime you don’t. Sometimes it is brave, sometimes it is foolish. But it is an idea worth appreciating. It’s an idea worth adopting.

On Gambling and Manipulation of Outcomes

For whatever reason, I have had very minimal consumption of IPL for last few seasons (perhaps after Sourav Ganguly got dropped by all the franchises). Of course it is difficult to avoid it completely. Every coffee shop, pub, quiz or anybody’s house you go to, the matches are going on in the wide flatscreens on the wall. Twitter and Facebook have nothing else on the time line.

When the news of the arrests of Sreesanth, Ankit Chavan and Ajit Chandila broke,  I suppose, there were a billion people who were betrayed (trust TOI to come with such a pompous headline).

(On the other hand, there were those self-righteous equally pompous folk who tried to shout they should be excluded from the billion people betrayed. Hey, the population of India is 1.21 billion as per the 2011 census. So consider yourself to be part of the 0.21 billion people whom TOI left out in the headline)

Anyway, to get back to the case of spot fixing. there has been a continuous feed of comments, views and recommendations on the issue. One such theme that is going around is the idea that legalising betting will reduce spot fixing. Nitin Pai explains this here. The logic used is that legitimising betting coupled with tougher enforcement reduces the incentive to cheat.

There is a fundamental flaw in this argument. Betting or gambling is one activity. Spot fixing (or match fixing or any related activities) is an act of manipulation. These are two separate acts and deal with different facets of human nature.

Gambling involves taking a chance on the likelihood of an event happening the way you want. In gambling, you are away from the actual event, an independent observer who cannot in anyway influence the outcome of the events. There are horses running and you bet which one will win, come second, etc. The outcomes are dependent on the horses and how they perform, you as a bettor have no influence on it. In a way, it does not matter whether it is called a game of skill or game of chance. As a gambler, your lack of control is the same. What separates a game of chance from a game of skill is the ability to make some informed guesses about the outcomes. Knowledge of the skills involved in a particular activity can at least give you an idea as to which one is more likely to win. If you are betting on a match between Roger Federer versus Rohan Bopanna, for example, a little knowledge about the abilities and previous records of either person as well as a general understanding of tennis as a sport will give you the insight that it might be a good idea to bet on Roger Federer to win.

(Of course, there is the other form of gambling – risk taking. People take risks with their careers, businesses, sporting performances, etc but here they directly influence their performance and success. We are not talking of that kind of gambling – where you gamble on yourself)

For the gambler, there is a basic expectation – that the events are made to happen within their existing known environments. Apart from force majeure, there is no out-of-the-ordinary actions which can influence the events. Whether the outcomes turn out the way the gambler wanted or not, as long as they happened within their internal logic, the gambler can live with it. In sport, the gambler expects that the contestants will apply their best skills / play their regular game and whatever happens in the end is a result of the fair contest.

Spot fixing / match fixing is different from gambling or betting. This is a case of manipulation. In order to achieve specific outcomes, external entities try to influence the events.

In the stock markets, investors can take a chance on a company and invest in it. They expect the company to operate in a fair manner in the market place and based on its performance, issue out appropriate returns. Now, if the someone decides to tamper with some aspects of the company to artificially boost the stock price, then that becomes a case of manipulation (the stock market version of fixing). The phenomenon of insider trading is a known evil in business. There are have been many cases of media publications (and journalists specifically) who have stakes in specific companies and publish unverified / false news reports that can drive up the stock prices. The media publication might issue a correction in the next issue but in the interim has already made the profits.

In cricket, what has happened has been specific individuals (bookmakers) influencing the game by paying cricketers to not play as per their best skills or natural game. This is an act of manipulation aimed at getting the desired outcomes.

In the IPL itself, this may be one of the many types (i.e. driven by betting) of manipulation that occurs. Since teams are run by businesses and many of these businesses use the teams to build their brand equity, often one sees players included in teams when cricketing logic would suggest that they should be dropped. Sachin Tendulkar, for example, according to cricket experts, should not be in the team. But he is a big draw – he pulls in people to the stadium in Mumbai, his numbered T-shirt sells more at all the outlets, its his face leading everyone on all the group photos used in the various endorsements. So he needs to be in the team, not for cricketing outcomes, but for more mundane business outcomes.

In the football fixing scandal, there was an out and out deliberate program to influence sporting encounters. An international operation spanning China, Philippines, Singapore betting on matches in Finland and Sudan does not come up randomly. There was tremendous planning and creative thinking in actually executing the whole operation. In fact, special football matches including international friendlies were organised simply for the purposes of betting (and the syndicate making money from the fixed outcomes).

So why are these bookmakers / syndicates manipulating the game? For the same reason that journalists manipulate news to promote the stocks that they own. They have a lot to lose / and a lot to win. And when you have a lot to lose, you want to control the events and make it go your way. You are uncomfortable and helpless otherwise. (According to some reports, Gurunath Meiyappan seems to have lost over Rs 1 crore in bets. That is a lot of money to lose. He needs to recover that money.)

There is also the thrill of being in control, having the power (money, position, authority) to drive things your way. Why would the head of an IPL franchise (the India Cements folks are desperately trying to wipe out all mention of Gurunath M on their site) try to go beyond his immediate functions and try to manipulate games? Because he can. He can order the captain to pick a particular player irrespective of cricketing logic. He can insist on certain formations. There’s a thrill to it.

To bring back Nitin’s point about the legality of gambling or betting, whether the bets were done through legal or illegal channels does not make a difference. People had too much going for them to remain silent spectators. They needed to influence the conduct of the matches. Even if betting was legalised and there were legitimate businesses running betting shops, the law still can’t do anything to stop the gambler / bettor from approaching the players and making attempts to get events happen their way.

The presence of the underworld is not so worrying. In fact, because it was the underworld who are under constant observation by the police (through phone taps), this whole saga was exposed. It is the explicitly legitimate personalities and organisations that one is more worried about.

Most cricket fans remember Dennis Lillee and Rodney Marsh betting against their own team in the Headingley test of 1981. England were in an impossible position and the bets were going at 500-1 for an England win. After England won, powered by Ian Botham and Bob Willis, there was a huge furore when it was revealed what Lillee and Marsh did. Did they manipulate their performances so that they could win the bet? Probably not. But you never know.

Manipulation of events cannot be reduced. As long as there are people who have a huge stake in the events, there will be attempts to control or make things go in their favour. But there can be a way out for the public to protect themselves. And the way out is transparency.

In the stock markets, one of the key roles of institutions like SEBI or SEC is to ensure there is transparency in the workings of all publicly listed companies. Every bit of news from personnel changes to purchases of new offices to mergers and acquisitions have to be made public. Specific advisories and guidance reports have to be given by the company management on what they are planning to do, their strategies, their thinking, etc. There are mandatory disclosures that have to be done. Investors benefit from this transparency. They can decide for themselves which companies are operating in a fair manner. They can pick companies where they can predict correctly. It also makes it difficult for individuals within companies to get away with rampant manipulation. A newspaper making a claim about a company has to be backed by a corresponding disclosure / public statement. Without the later, the SEBI can pull up the company for falsification and fraud.  They may not get caught immediately but whether it is Satyam or the LIBOR scandal, it comes a full circle in the end.

Sport, whether in India or abroad, is mired with opacity and obfuscation. Organisations like FIFA, IOC, IAAF, etc are known for all the stuff that is left unsaid. The selection of a host city for the Olympic Games (and what happens behind the scenes) is the subject of many investigative journalistic efforts including a book. The shenanigans of Indian sporting organisations are just a drop in the larger ocean.

What the public needs is more visibility. Even WWE publicly declared the nature of its wrestling contests (as part of some regulatory tax filing). In spite of the scripted contests (or maybe because of it), WWE still has its own cult and audiences. Sport will also have its audiences but the people who run it need to be (or forced to be) open about what they do.

For a team that is representing the country and carrying the India flag, it is expected that the nation knows how or on what basis the specific 11 individuals were selected. (In the case of Olympic sports, Indian athletes’ travel and allowances are paid for by the government, i.e. tax payers money. The case for right to information is stronger here.) It is expected that the selection committee select the team that can best deliver results. If there is any other motive to selecting a player leading to a sub-optimal team, then that is a break in the expectation of the nation.There are enough instances of people trying to figure out strange team selections. But selection committee meetings are never made public. And in the press conferences, the selectors are instructed by the BCCI to not say anything. By forcing the BCCI (and all other sports organisations) to be transparent and make public disclosures of what happens in every meeting, it makes it difficult for individuals within the BCCI to get away with many things.

Prem Panicker has spent most of his life writing about cricket and has regularly written about the need for BCCI to be more transparent. As of now, Prem has given up on the sport.

On ticker tape parades, open bus rides and city celebrations of sport

My first sighter of a ticker-tape parade was in a comic book. Tintin rides on an American car (possible Ford) and waves out to people as he slowly moves down a street in an American city. He had just helped the police round up a whole lot of gangs including Al Capone and his rival Bobby Smiles.

Sourced from Comicattack.net (http://comicattack.net/2011/08/ffgtrtintinpart3/)

Winning a major tournament is often treated on par with rounding up criminals. New York City was out cheering the Giants after their Superbowl triumph. Manchester celebrated their City team winning the Premiership this year. The last time Liverpool did the same was after the Miracle at Istanbul in 2005.

In many cases, the victories of the national team also triggers such parades. Spain’s World Cup win in 2010 was their second major win after Euro 2008 and Madrid was out on the streets cheering them. India had its moment twice – after the 1983 World Cup win and the 2007 T20 World Cup win.

Perhaps the most poignant of such victory parades, at the national level, was Iraq winning the AFC Cup in 2007. Its football team was the top ranked Asian team in the ’80s but a combination of Uday Hussain and the war saw their team disintegrated, football virtually shut and a few players who survived the war getting involved in sectarian violence. After defeating Saudi Arabia 1-0 in the final, there was firing on the streets of Baghdad – this time in the air, the traditional sign of celebration.

So why do cities come out to celebrate their sportsmen? It’s not as if they have won a war, conquered another country (like the triumphs that were given to Roman generals when they returned to Rome after securing another corner of a foreign field in the name of the republic, or later, the empire) or like Tintin captured criminals. These are sportsmen who have just won a sports competition and in most cases, especially in professional competition like NFL, EPl, etc, are paid millions to do so.

There were many people asking this question last week when Kolkata celebrated their IPL team winning the tournament. Kolkata Police, taking poetic licence from William Blake, launched a Road Safety awareness campaign “Knight, Knight, Burning Bright / Drive Safe, Day and Night.” The Hindu called it the Mamta show.

“Bengal is proud that our Knight Riders team has been victorious. We believe that it has conquered the world,” said Ms. Banerjee, attired in her usual white sari but this time around one with a purple border, resembling the Kolkata Knight Riders colours.

On Twitter and Facebook, there were the usual cynical and snide remarks about Kolkata. There may have been some eloquent writings on these lines as well but one excellent piece I found was that of Swapan Dasgupta who says it is a battle of the city against its own schizophrenia.

I have a slightly ambivalent take on this. Sitting in Bombay, one is exposed to the events in Kolkata only through the eyes of the press and over the last one year, the press coverage of Mamata Bannerjee’s 1st year of governance has been none too complementary. However, the people from Kolkata when I have met them usually display a sense of optimism which was distinctly missing in the last ten years of the Communist regime. True, there is an overdone attention on the cultural side of things with Robindra Sangeet playing at traffic signals, metro stations renamed after poets, the city getting a facewash in celebration of some literary events, etc. Cold rational political and economic thinkers dismiss all this as a Crazy State. Which may be true.

But like in Iraq, at the height of hopelessness, a victory, even on the sports field, can be a huge social event. More significantly, when the sports team is made up of players who are primarily not from Kolkata, the social event is not just a mere touch of optimism but also an event where the knowledgeable Kolkata bhadrolok, a usually very proud person and dismissive of anything west of the Hooghly, starts including non Bengalis into their universe. Sourav Ganguly is no longer the Do-or-die hero to fall back on. It is now a Delhi lad by the name Gautam Gambhir.

Kolkata has done celebratory parades before. When South Africa were invited to play a series of 3 ODI matches in 1991, 20 years after being banned for apartheid, Kolkata was on the streets to welcome them. This was not a team that had won anything. Nor was this team ever connected with Kolkata. And yet they were there.

There is a quirk that runs amongst the Kolkatans and indeed Bengalis that goes beyond the rational. There is no need to celebrate.You just celebrate. The hell with political theory, the economy, the rationality of doing the right things as recommended by experts.

On Jubilees of champions

In April 2003, Sachin Tendulkar turned 30. In a manner that immediately equaled the event to Hilary and Tenzing on Everest, Roger Bannister breaking the 4 minute mile, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon and US Space Ship Enterprise which went where no man has ever been, the media in India celebrated it as if it was impossible to imagine any cricketer crossing 30.  In the past week, we had another important jubilee but barring a few pieces here and there, there was no buzz, no excitement, no feeling that said “it’s all happening”. No I am not talking about the Queen’s Jubilee, a national event in the UK but the 50th birthday of a very important person in Indian cricket.

In the October 1985 India-Australia test series, the 3rd test match was at the Wankhede Stadium, Mumbai. It was also the first test that I saw in a stadium. I went on two days – Day 2 and Day 4. I was 11 years old then and not a boy with a good memory. I don’t remember too many details except for two things.  On Day 2, I remember an excellent return catch taken by Maninder Singh as Australia, overnight 200 odd for 2 lost their remaining 8 wickets for just another 100 odd runs. That was Day 2.

Excited by seeing test cricket live at the venue, I pushed my folks to go again. So we went on Day 4. We reached around lunch time. There was a huge roar as we climbed the railway foot overbridge that leads from Queen’s Road, over the railway tracks, to the entrance of the East Stand and the North Stand. The roar kept going on and on. From watching the match on television the previous day, we knew that Dilip Vengsarkar and Ravi Shastri were the overnight batsmen. But what this specific roar, lunch time Day 4, was as yet unknown to us. As we climbed up the stairs, the North Stand resembled a Bombay local train in peak hour. People were squatting on every imaginable ledge, niche or anything that looked closely flat. As I caught the first sight of the cricket pitch, I recognised Vengsarkar and Shastri. I looked up at the score, theywere nearing their respective centuries. Dilip Vengsarkar was creaming boundaries and everyone was screaming their throats out. Then Shastri started carting the ball over the boundary. As he hit a six, there were yells and screams and cheers and then as the noise was lowering, there was a chant echoing around “Shastri Hai Hai“. This happened six times (he hit 6 sixes and 9 fours in his unbeaten innings of 121).

The test match ended in a draw with nothing of any significance happening. But the memory of the Bombay crowd cheering their own boy hitting sixes and accompanying the cheers with “Shastri Hai Hai” remains with me till date. I have heard this chant (no doubt many of my contemporaries can vouch me on this) on television as well when Shastri played in other Indian venues. But this was Bombay where they always steadfastly stand by their maanoos. Many years later Bombay would do the same thing to Sachin Tendulkar.

There is another Shastri story I remember. This was the North Star Quiz in 1992 in Bombay. The quiz master was Derek O’Brien, Rajya Sabha MP. He asked (and I am paraphrasing the question as much as I can remember) what did the sports journalists / wags expand the licence plate MFA-1 which was given to Ravi Shastri’s Audi. One team answered “Made For Amrita” (Amrita Singh for those who came late. You can search for Ravi Shastri + Amrita Singh and get all the details). The entire audience burst out laughing and Derek promised to take the team out for beer for this. The answer in the end was “Maha Faltoo Aaadmi no 1“.

Since 1981 when he made his debut, an emergency replacement for Dilip Doshi (according to his mother, Ravi learnt about it from a security guard in Kanpur while she heard got to know from a telegram sent by her daughter)  Ravi Shastri has been in your face, to a quote a line from SidVee’s tribute piece on his 50th birthday (the jubilee I was talking about earlier). The crowd reaction over the years has always been binary – the ecstatic, groupie type falling all over him at one end and the cynical, skeptical jeers and Shastri Hai Hai Maha Faltoo Aadmi types at the other end.In the 1992 World Cup, there were effigies of Shastri which were burnt and these effigies had Shastri’s scores and the number of balls he faced written over them. The protesters were complaining about his extremely low scoring rate.

There has been very few middle of the road views of Shastri. SidVee’s piece is the first I have seen that in a long time.

It’s the 13th over. Chennai Super Kings are 111 for 1. Suresh Raina is pasting Yusuf Pathan’s offbreaks. You can hear the joy in Shastri’s voice as he watches Raina tonk Yusuf to long-on for four and over deep midwicket for six. “Baaaaang” is shrieks after Raina’s six. The next ball is darted down the pads and Raina falls over as he sweeps for four past short fine leg. Shastri tells us “this could well be the big over Chennai have been waiting for” before commenting on Raina’s falling sweep: “We used to see that from Rohan Kanhai.” The final ball of the over is sneaked through. Shastri reads the score before the screen rushes to an advert.

It’s moments like these when you wish for more of Shastri, a wonderful raconteur when the mood catches him. Journalists and fellow cricketers will testify to Shastri’s precise observations and biting wit. Anyone who has spoken to Shastri for even a few minutes would have encountered a man with a bagful of stories, a man who takes no prisoners, a man capable of skewering you with an unexpected mot juste. When Shastri talks of Kanhai’s falling sweep you want to hear more. Does one practice such a shot? How does one retain balance while falling away? How did Kanhai play it so gracefully? Has he spoken to Kanhai about the shot? We want to hear Shastri talk of footwork, of anticipation, of improvisation. An anecdote will be a bonus.

Since his retirement in 1994, after winning the Ranji Trophy as captain for the first and only time, Shaz has become the voice of Indian cricket the way. There are critics of his commentary including yours truly. For the guys who watch every possible cricket and therefore get to listen to him every time, his cliches, bellowing, etc often gets to you. Like  the playlist at your favourite bar, you know exactly what song is going to play next and even though it is Hotel California, the sheer overkill of it has killed all the magic out of the song.

But, in his defence, for once, I must say that Shastri in his commentary is following a golden rule which Richie Benaud himself laid down. Most critics (again, at the cost of repetition, me included) of Shastri’s commentary mention silence, the one thing lacking in Shastri’s commentary. It’s on television and people can see what’s going on. But these critics forget that only the aficianados of the game (1% in any sporting and artistic activity) can enjoy that. When cricket telecasts first started in the 1920’s, people compared it with watching a chess match and laughed the whole idea off. It took some lively commentators (the ball-by-ball guy and the “colour” commentator – meant to add colour to an otherwise boring and dull viewing experience). In fact the BBC felt ball-by-ball coverage with lively commentators made for a compelling radio broadcast than television. Test Match Special is an evidence of that.If one strips of the colour provided by the commentary on television, then there’s a big issue for the 99% who are not so familiar with the nuances of Chanderpaul’s batting style, the need for Zaheer Khan to cover the ball with both hands before delivering, etc. Richie Benaud had said (I read this in a Book of Cricket Lists which I picked up from a footpath book stall in Flora Fountain, Mumbai back in the early ’90s) that every second, a person new or unfamiliar with cricket is switching on the channel. (Benaud always commentated on free-to-air public broadcast services which catered to the universal audience much like Doordarshan. He stopped broadcasting from England in the summer because the TV rights were taken by Sky Sports and refused to join them). Shastri’s detailed explanations cater to those many people unfamiliar with the game. And who can argue against the fact that he has been a big factor responsible for cricket becoming so universal and mass.

The other aspect of his commentary is his frequent use of cliches. Once again an irritant for the 1%. Again let me attempt a defence. Let’s face it, he is not a stand up comedian. It is not expected of him to invent new turn of phrases to describe the similar situations. If the match is going to be a close one, then let it “go down to the wire”. It’s a synonym, almost. Everyone who has watched cricket over the last 18 years knows what it means. So instead of confusing people with new terms and phrases, Shastri continues to use the same phrase. Remember the 99% who are not fluent in English, not well versed in the nuances of the game, are watching with family and are not bothered about the poetry of the commentary. If the audience wants poetry, they will read Ghalib or if they want comedy, they will watch a Govinda film. They are listening to Shastri to learn about the game and he is giving to them in simple, clear lines whose meanings are unequivocal.

This is becoming my longest blog post till date. I shall thus end it here as I have run out of what else I want to say. I shall close with this line from an interview taken on his 50th birthday.

Q: Finally, how do you describe yourself?
A:
I am the last person to describe myself, it’s up to others to describe me.

So we have described you.

 

The Rise and Fall of Circumspect Batting with observations on a one-off revival

The last few years there have been many players coming in and out of the Pakistani cricket team. Two years back, Azhar Ali was one of them, part of a possible plan to transition the middle order from the aged warriors like Mohammad Yousuf, Younis Khan and Misbal-ul-Haq. He made his debut in 2010 in the “home” series versus Australia (Home here meant the Lord’s). He made 16 and 42 with Australia winning by 150 runs. That was the test series after which Shahid Afridi was sacked as captain. Also the experiment with leaving out the three old men was over. His next captain was Salman Butt. And Mohammad Yousuf was brought in for the next series against England.

In between all the no balls and other spot fixes, that series had its share of some good performances. Notably Azhar Ali’s 92* in the first innings of the 3rd Test at the Oval which Pakistan won by 4 wickets. Ironically the player of the match was Mohammad Amir. I remember seeing that match and what I can recall was Azhar’s composure as he played the English bowlers in their home conditions. When you contrast with the way the Indians played in the last series in England, the appreciation for Azhar Ali really goes up. In the previous two tests, he was struggling to score. However, this innings truly unveiled the talent especially the calm powerful but elegant hitting during the last wicket partnership with Asif.

Then we come to the third test v Eng at Dubai. Pakistan all out for 99. The bowlers bring the game back by dismissing England for 141. What was now required was for Pakistan to bat for at least two days and put up a score which would take the game completely out of reach for England. Given that the Englishmen were in no state to take one more shot at the spinners, even a 4th innings target of 300 was an unbeatable target to set. Azhar Ali came in the 11th over with the score at 28/2. He was finally out in the 150th over with the score at 363/9. In between, in almost 9 hours and having consumed 442 balls, he had scored 157.

It was slow batting but not boring.

At times during Azhar Ali’s match-winning, second-innings 157 for Pakistan against England in Dubai there was a distinct whiff of the past. Over eight hours and 53 minutes he was a model of diligent restraint, each patiently eked-out run taking the sap out of the opposition players’ legs and painstakingly laying the foundations to set an unattainable victory target. On the third morning, after losing Younis Khan, Azhar’s stonewalling majesty became quite hypnotic, described by my colleague Rob Smyth as a knock of “deviant beauty”, but one’s appreciation was rarely blunted by the monotony of his watchful defence.

The art of risk-averse, slow batting has recently been called into service most during defiant rearguard actions to stave off defeat. Yet here was a batsman prepared to mobilise its virtues to lay a siege rather than repel one. [the guardian]

In the last one year, those of us who have been following test cricket would have noticed a) test matches finishing in 3-4 days b) Teams collapsing for less than 100 c) Teams folding up in 3 sessions or less d) Batsmen not staying in the crease for more than 20 overs. (Okay the last one is an exaggeration).

In a single innings, Azhar faced more deliveries than Alistair Cook faced in the entire series. More importantly, he batted 533 minutes, almost 9 hours, one and half days, more than the full Indian team in each of the eight innings in England and in Australia.

Azhar’s innings was another triumph of character, resilience and technique and, above all, and a satisfying reminder in the era of dizzying run rates that dead bat does not have to equal deadbeat. [the guardian]

To see such an innings given the context of the game and to see a young man just 2 years into test cricket pull it off is itself a reason to reinforce one’s belief in test cricket as the most evocative format of the game. The game needs more of such innings not just from senior pros like Younis Khan or Ricky Ponting but from the younger batsmen who have grown up playing multiple forms of the game and can be at times quite muddled about their batting approach.

 

 

 

Shaz dazzles on the blog

Sometime back during the 2009 IPL, I was following Shastri’s commentary with the objective of listing out all his cliches. Given Shastri’s success as a world level commentator, his book of cliches would be useful for any budding commentators. So I had posted this in 2009.

In the 30 days since the start of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, this post has scored more hits than the runs scored by VVS Laxman in this series. So it would appear that this listing of his cliches is generally very helpful to the public.

My lack of TV (forgot to renew the DTH subscription) and heavy work schedule makes it difficult to sit through a full day of live cricket and make a new list of cliches (including those spoken by Wasim Akram, Sanjay Manjrekar, etc). I shall probably do something on the lines in due course.

And thanks for coming to the blog.

Home and Away

The former no 1 and present no 1 teams are struggling while on tour

“It’s always nice when you turn up to a ground where history suggest you can score runs. But that doesn’t really count for anything. We’ve got to go out and put our poor performance behind us.”

This could be by someone from the Indian team or someone from the English team. As it stands, this is Alistair Cook previewing the second test versus Pakistan in Abu Dhabi.

With regard to the Adelaide test which starts tomorrow, India has not lost at this venue since the 1991-92 season.

However, if draw is India’s top priority, than that’s difficult to achieve at this venue. Despite the batter-friendly reputation, in the last 13 Tests spread over 14 years, there has been only two drawn games.

And Australia have decided to not respect Sehwag’s claim that theirs is the best bowling attack he has ever seen and are dropping Starc for Lyon.

The move came after India’s Virender Sehwag described Australia’s pace bowlers – including Starc – as “the best bowling attack I’ve ever seen”. “They are bowling in good areas, they are not giving up easy balls to hit boundaries. They are playing with your patience and all,” Sehwag said. “I think that’s the best bowling attack I’ve ever seen, especially against Australia. Generally, when I played the fast men … I’d get a couple of balls I could hit for boundaries. But in this attack I hardly get any balls. So, I think, one of the best bowling attacks.”

And just for perspective, Rajasthan are the best cricket team in the country. Rajasthan could have pushed for an outright victory. With a first innings lead of 326, they had enough buffer to enforce the follow on and bowl out TN second time over. But they didn’t because they wanted Saxena and Bist to complete 1000 runs for the season. Saxena failed, Bist did. That’s how the best cricket teams in India play at the highest levels of the competition.

Country v Club and who wants to play for the West Indies

The IPL which kicked off within a week of the ICC World Cup has once again triggered off the standard country v club debate. Sri Lanka has issued a firman to all its players to report for training camps on the 5th of May. Duleep Mendis says:

“The first half of the English summer is not going to be easy and we want the players to report for training and to concentrate on getting used to the change of playing white balls to red.”

I suppose Murali would be the only Lankan staying back but we may just see Lasith Malinga get injured around the 3rd/4th May and then recover just in time for the last few games for MI.

Moving across the world to the Caribbean, Sir Viv Richards in a BBC interview once spoke of the pride of playing for the West Indies.

When we first started, it was just the fact and pride of wearing that maroon cap and blazer. All of the older players wanted to simply achieve those goals.

To me, that was of vital importance. If you can deliver the goods while dressed in that gear, then whatever monetary gains you achieve are due to you – but at least you will have done the crawling stage before you can walk.

A couple of days back, WI announced their team for the home series against Pakistan.

Kieron Pollard will miss the five-match series to play for Mumbai Indians in the IPL, while Bravo, who, like Pollard, had opted out of a retainer contract with the West Indies Cricket Board, will skip the two-match Test series that follows the ODIs to join Chennai Super Kings.

[…]

“It was mutually determined that Pollard would be best served by being allowed to hone his T20 skills in the Indian Premier League, which will bring future benefit to West Indies cricket,” the release stated. “He will not play in the series against Pakistan, but remains committed to West Indies cricket and will be available for future selection to the West Indies team in all formats.”

About Bravo, the release said: “Dwayne Bravo, who is also contracted to an IPL franchise, will play in the one-day series against Pakistan but will miss the two Tests in order to participate in the IPL. Like Pollard, Bravo also remains committed to West Indies cricket and will be available for future selection to the West Indies team in all formats.”

It is no shame to choose club over country. Well, West Indies is not strictly “a country”.  And there is much more money to be made outside the Caribbean. But I wonder whether the last line “committed to West Indies cricket” needs to be taken with any degree of seriousness.

When we first started, it was just the fact and pride of wearing that maroon cap and blazer. All of the older players wanted to simply achieve those goals.

To me, that was of vital importance. If you can deliver the goods while dressed in that gear, then whatever monetary gains you achieve are due to you – but at least you will have done the crawling stage before you can walk.

Sports Writing – Clips

Three great pieces of sports writing that I came across in the last couple of days do what I think in the media lingo is called the “human interest” angle. But there are millions of such pieces all over the world. But what I liked about these pieces is the exploration of how sport and society become one – beyond the commerce and factory-like environments of professional sport.

Following Green Bay Packers’ 13th NFL title win, this piece by Dave Anderson in NYT profiles how a small town in the Midwest (with a population that might well be lower than some of the suburbs of NYC or LA)  is also the most successful NFL besides being one of the oldest.

To appreciate the Packers’ still being in the N.F.L. nearly a century after their birth, it’s as if Louisville and Hartford were still in baseball’s National League, as they were in its original 1876 season; as if Providence were still in the N.B.A., as it was in the original 1946-47 season, when the N.B.A. was called the Basketball Association of America.

Also in NYT, there is an exploration as to who will be the captain of Pakistan in the ODI World Cup. While calling it a rotating door, this piece ends with a quote of Younis Khan which I think is probably is the answer to anything that you want to know about Pakistani cricket.

In 2009, Khan, speaking in his moment of triumph at Lord’s in London after winning the World Twenty20 trophy, said Pakistan’s cricket problems were symptomatic of issues way beyond the game. As he asked rhetorically, “How can cricket be stable in Pakistan, when nothing else is ?”

The last piece is about Jhonattan Vegas, the 26 year old Venezuelan golfer who became the first person from his country to win a tournament in the PGA tour. It profiles the rise of the young man even as Hugo Chavez closed down golf courses to convert them into public service infrastructure. Well, now he seems to have a change of heart.

Although Vegas may not have made a convert of Chávez, he certainly had him bobbing and weaving. After Vegas won the Hope Classic, Chávez, who has not, it is believed, put buildings on any of the courses, proclaimed that he was not “an enemy of golf, or any other sport.” He said he would call to congratulate Vegas. “He beat all of the gringos,” he said.

In the meantime, we learn that BCCI is not alone in the cricket (mis)management business. Cricket Australia is getting a hiding from all parts of country – the 6-1 drubbing of the Poms in the ODI was significant for two things : Micheal Clarke got some runs and Crazy Kreja got a ticket. CA had a post Ashes review and were tinkering with the Sheffield Shield format besides considering the longevity of coach Nielson and selector Hilditch’s jobs. The Australian calls it the long road back.

While most members of CA’s lopsided and antiquated 14-man board are not keen to sack themselves for a commission, their reviewers were instrumental in making the AFL this country’s sporting super power. Crawford produced the report which was responsible for the then VFL commission, which morphed into the all-conquering AFL, while Carter is the president of Geelong and a former AFL commissioner.

Adelaide Now believes that it is the moment of truth.

Some, including the Australian Cricketers’ Association, believe the first move by the board, chaired by Jack Clarke, should be to sack itself.

The 14 CA directors arguably remain beholden to parochial interests of an unwieldy state-based voting system devised at the turn of the century.

Peter Roebuck is amused at the new Big Bash formats – calls it a quiet revolution.

— Self-Plug alert—

If you dig sports and are in Mumbai on 5th March, drop in at the BQC-IITB Quizzes. There are three quizzes and one of them is a sports quiz conducted by me along with Atul Mathew and Anand Sivashankar.

 

 

Sport and the rebuilding of a nation

Two countries in the last one week made news in the sports pages – Afghanistan and Serbia.

I had blogged about the Afghan cricket team earlier – 1, 2, 3 – and I need to blog again. My friend Sanjeev , a fellow Afghan cricket fan, sent me a mail after Afghanistan beat Scotland in the Intercontinental Cup final. He says and I quote:

War-ridden Afghanistan, newbies to the game of cricket, won the Finals of the ICC Intercontinental Cup beating Scotland by 7 wickets! (I don’t remember the last time a cricket team had been this inspiring and for whom I had genuinely rejoiced like this!)

TOTAL domination..won every single match (including big wins against Kenya and Scotland) other than the first one which they drew! Chasing 370 to win, they were 211/4 in that match…so could ahve won that one too if it was a 5 day match and not a 4-day match!

The record is impressive.

Match 1: v Zimbabwe at Mutare (Zim) – match drawn

Match 2: v Netherlands at Amstelveen (Ned) – won by 1 wicket. A low scoring game, chased 209 in the fourth innings

Match 3: v Ireland at Dambulla (Sri Lanka) – won by 7 wickets.  Scored 474 in the first innings in response to the Irish first innings of 405. Bowled out the Irish for 202 in the second innings leaving them an easy target of 137.

Match 4: v Canada at Sharjah (UAE) – won by 6 wickets. Canada scored 566 in the first innings and Afghanistan scored just 264. Canada did not enforce the follow on and batted till 191/4 before declaring. Set a mammoth fourth innings target of 494, the Afghans achieved that losing just 4 wickets.

Match 5: v Scotland at Ayr (Scot) – won by 229 runs. The Afghans batted first this time scoring 435. They bowled out Scotland for 139. No follow on, Afghans piled on the pressure with 249/5 declared setting a fourth innings target of 545. Scotland were bowled out for 316.

Match 6: v Kenya at Nairobi (Ken) – won by 167 runs. The scoreline was very similar to the match against Scotland. The Afghans scoring 464 in the first innings. The Kenyans had a fourth innings target of 511 but were bowled out for 344.

6 matches, 5 wins, 1 draw. That’s their record. And all the six teams have featured in the ODI world cups before. They have players who play in the English county circuit or in South Africa. The two “home” matches were played in UAE and Sri Lanka. But, unlike their neighbour who continues to whine about why teams do not come there, the Afghans made no noise about not being able to play at home i.e. Afghanistan. In fact, it turns out to be a better deal because they get access to high class training facilities in UAE or Sri Lanka. Afghanistan may be a security nightmare but even infrastructure wise, they do not have the capability to host world standard international matches.

The final was against Scotland and obviously they were the favourites. It was a tough match at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium. The Scots scored 212 thanks largely to a century by McCallum (there were just two other batsmen who reached double figures). Hamid Hassan, easily the best bowler among the Associate countries, took 5 wickets. The Afghan batting could not hold up and were dismissed for 171. Scotland could have taken the match here but in the second innings, the Afghan bowling was unplayable with Hassan, Ashraf and Shenwari taking 3 wickets each and the Scots were bundled out for 82. Chasing 137, the Afghan second innings was more comfortable and they won by 7 wickets.

Not surprisingly, Afghans top the batting and bowling charts – Mohd Shahzad and Nowroze Mangal (the captain) top the batsmen with 802 and 593 runs respectively while Hamid Hassan with 43 wickets tops the bowlers.

After all this, one must truly stand up and applaud this team. As Hassan writes in his blog before the final started:

What a year it has been for Afghanistan cricket! Winning the ICC World Twenty20 Qualifier in Dubai in February was a moment I will never forget; having the chance to play India and South Africa at the ICC World Twenty20 in the Caribbean was amazing and beating Pakistan at the Asian Games and securing a silver medal was one of the greatest moments of my career.

On to Serbia and the Davis Cup. The Davis Cup has always been looked upon as a poor cousin to the professional tennis tour. But for many countries, it is as big as it can get. The brand of tennis that is displayed here is definitely different from the Grand Slams but not in terms of quality. The different flavour that Davis Cup tennis gives is expressed in Djokovic’s words below:

“I would put everything behind me that I have achieved in 2010 just for this win. Definitely the best feeling that we have experienced on a tennis court, ever.”

The complex Balkan politics, war, civil strife etc meant a lot of new nations like Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, etc enter the sports arena with the task of building new teams even as their fledgling nations grow. Serbia had one big champion – Novak Djokovic. World No 3 who is one of the few tennis players to have won a Grand Slam in the Federer – Nadal era.

What does this mean to a nation? One had to see the matches played at the Beograzia Arena in Belgrade. The French captain Guy Forget called them “imbeciles”.

People may diss about the Davis Cup and probably justified too but the tournament like all inter-nation tournaments like the football World Cup has a different meaning – else why would people who never follow any sport chase their countrymen when they participate in the Asian Games or the Olympic Games?