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.

Sport is finished?

Football is f$%#ed.

Cycling is damned.

There is no wrestling at the Olympic Games.

Badminton players deliberately serve into the net to avoid meeting their higher ranked countrymen in the next round.

I learn via a quiz the other day of how the weightlifting system did a reboot of all records by changing the weight categories not once but twice.

So now what?

Now we go watch the Champions League.

6-7 – Krishna Poonia and Vikas Gowda

The newspaper headlines reported that both Krishna Poonia and Vikas Gowda “disappointed” by finishing 7th and 8th respectively in the women’s and men’s discus throw at the Olympics. What they missed out was that these two athletes reached the finals – the top 8 in the world in their respective event.

Krishna, who had won the gold at the Commonwealth Games in 2010 and a bronze at the Guangzhou Asian Games in 2010, had her best throw at 63.62, about 5.5 metres short of the gold winning performance of Sandra Perkovic who threw 69.11. Under all circumstances, this was a world class performance.

For Vikas Gowda, it might have been a personal disappointment. His personal best was 66.28m but in London, he finished with a best throw of 64.79, 4 metres short of the German Robert Harting’s gold winning performance of 68.27. The competition was slightly under par on a rainy, cold London evening. The top three in the event finished within 25 centimetres of each other. For Gowda, this was his first Olympics and given his age, it is not going to be his last. He is by far the best discus thrower in the country (though he is based in the United States).

Personally, the level of expectations that most people have are, in my opinion, highly unrealistic. Given that athletics is not exactly a very popular sport in India and the level of hard work, fitness training and sheer commitment to discipline, diets, etc. completely missing amongst Indians, one can’t really expect Indians to compete in this sport at the highest level. So when the exception does happen,  as happened in the case of Krishna or Vikas, instead of going overboard with expressions like “damp squib”, “crashed out”, “failed to deliver”, etc., one needs to acknowledge the effort put in despite the sports environment in the country.

The average Indian sportsperson not only has to compete against world class competitors, he or she also has to deal with a completely hostile environment – poor training, poor economic conditions, lack of support, etc.

So, these two, despite not winning any medals, get my vote for best performers in 2012.

2012 Big Performers in sport in India – 8: Gagan Narang and Vijay Kumar, Shooting

If there is one sport (including cricket) in which Indians have been doing very well, it is shooting. In the last 20 years, this sport has spawned more World, Asian and Olympic champions from India than any other sport put together. Probably cue sports come close but that deserves a separate post.

Let’s look at four examples

  1. Abhinav Bhindra, Olympic Champion, Asian Champion,
  2. Rajyavardhan Rathore, three times Commonwealth Games Champion, podium finish in the world championships
  3. Ronjan Sodhi, twice world champion in the double trap (and twice podium finisher), once Asian Games champion
  4. Anjali Bhagwat, One World Cup gold, one World Cup silver, lots of Commonwealth and Asian golds

In 2012 itself, in the Asian championships, there were a total of 28 medals won including 8 gold. In the World Cup circuit, Ronjan Sodhi picked up another silver couple of months ago.

But the Olympics is different. Bhindra in his book “A Shot at History” says that, like many other Olympic Sports, the biggest event in the sport is the Games. Tennis has its Grand Slams every year, football has its leagues, golf has its majors every year. But like gymnastics, swimming, etc. shooting has just one – the Olympic Games, once every four years. This is the tournament where everyone comes to take a shot. They are at their best. These Games were also, from a communication point of view, accessible at a shot-by-shot, minute-by-minute level across all media, devices, networks, etc. So as a shooting event got started, people could see the dance of the leaderboard as shot after shot was fired.

There was one universal insight for all who were hitherto unfamiliar with the nuances of the shooting competitions. The level of quality of the shooters was such that one slightly off target (off by a millimeter) meant a drop in the rankings by 4-5 places.

For all the practice, discipline, technique, machinery, physics – it comes down to your mind. 60 shots for qualifying and 10 shots in the final – once in four years. One shot missed early and you are always catching up. Unless your opponents miss, you are out. That’s what happened to Bhindra this time round. Towards the end of his run, he knew he was out of it completely. His last ten shots were all over the place.

Therefore, to be able to take that test and stay till the end, points to Gagan Narang and Vijay Kumar for their Olympic achievements.

(This is second in this series. Read about Performer Ranked 10: Vishnu Vardhan)

2012 Big Performers in Sport for India: 10 – Vishnu Vardhan, Tennis

This list will not feature any bat-ball player. No cricket. It’s a team game and the team was pathetic throughout the year.

10. Vishnuvardhan, Tennis

When watching tennis on TV, the viewer has the benefit of the camera angle where both the players are visible in a single frame. Thus, the entire game is easily seen. For those sitting courtside, on the flanks, the strength of their neck muscles has to be steel standard. Their necks have to constantly turn from one side of the court to the other as they follow the ball getting whacked by either tennis player.

Vishnuvardhan was testing his neck muscles watching Mahesh Bhupati and Leander Paes spar over the doubles entry for London 2012 with AITA playing an incompetent chair umpire. All of a sudden, Vishnu heard his name and he found himself entered for the doubles with Leander as his partner. His first reaction “But I don’t even have good shoes!” The first reaction for most people were less flattering “Vishnu Vardhan who?

A multiple medalist at Ghuangzhou Asian Games, Vishnu has been doing the Davis Cup rounds for a couple of years. In September, with Leander out due to injury and both Mahesh and Bopanna dropped by the AITA, he was the second singles player and the senior doubles player partnering the debutant Dvij Sharan. Over 5 hours, he won two matches – the singles match, interrupted due to bad light and then a 4 hour five-setter doubles match – to give India victory over New Zealand in the Davis Cup zonal tie.

But his performance of the year was at the AELTC courts in Wimbledon. The quality of opposition was of a magnitude unimaginable to what he has been used to in the ITF circuits. They lost in the second round to the French duo of Llodra and Tsonga in three sets, the match turning away after a crucial break in the 8th game of the 3rd set.

I plug for Vishnu because of his sheer willingness to stand up and take the opportunities that came his way and that he had the stomach to fight given that Llodra and Tsonga very clearly targeted him as the weaklink. He has much to improve. He was significantly helped by Leander Paes in the one month leading up to the tournament. As Paes later saidNow we really have to nurture this talent. With a little experience, can you imagine? We’ve really rattled the No.5 singles player in the world and a multiple doubles grand slam champion today.

Sports writing picks – Women in Indian sports

Over the last couple of weeks, I came across some excellent sports writing features which I thought I should blog about.

Mary Kom: India’s Shot at Gold by Rahul Bhattacharya was published in More Intelligent Life in the July/August 2012 issue is an excellent and insightful study of arguably the best sportswoman in India today.

The portrait photograph itself tells its own story and the text quietly fills in the details. There are a couple of lines which made me pause and reflect:

When she walks the streets of Delhi with her fellow north-eastern athletes, they are sometimes mistaken for Nepali domestic help. “I tell them we are not Nepali, we are Manipuri, so don’t speak like that, this is very bad manners.” At other times they are taunted with the gibberish dispensed to those with oriental features: “Something ching ching ching ching they start speaking, I don’t know what. Even they don’t know what! We are feeling bad. We are Indian. Ya, the face is different. But heart is Indian.”

This sentiment could be attacked by the more extreme Manipuri insurgents. But if Mary retires as an Olympic gold-medallist, she knows her life will be forever changed; and with it, a little bit, her country’s standing in the world.

I will leave it to all of you to contemplate this.

I bought Rahul Bhattacharya’s debut novel “Sly Company of People Who Care” which is based in Guyana. Those who have read Rahul’s cricket writing are aware of his talent as a wordsmith. The novel itself, while I have not read it fully, had me convinced enough in the first few pages which I flipped through in the bookstore to immediately put it into my shopping basket. It is lying on my bookcase waiting to be read, which I will once I finish this set of National Geographic back issues which I found tucked away in some cupboard while renovating my house.

Pinki Pramanik is the woman accused of being a man. In this piece in Open, Anirban Bandhopadhyay does not try to investigate and solve the mystery. In fact, that part of the story is dealt with quite matter-of-factly in the article. Rather, it opens more questions – about the definition of gender both from a biological point of view and a cultural point of view; about the Indian legal system; about life of athletes once they fade away from the spotlight; about lifestyle preferences of people and the social reaction to them. Questions which serve two purposes – first it puts away all the morons who try to rationalise and come up with linear cause-and-effect answers which instead of simplifying the issue only make it trivial and simplistic. Second, it takes a seemingly small local crime beat news item and puts it up as a trigger for discussing and engaging with deeper social constructs that govern us (including human rights). Here is an example:

“I don’t understand why everyone is so caught up with doctors and tests,” says Sanjib Guchhait, the partner’s lawyer, “You define a man by his uninhibited sexual life with a woman, isn’t it? This girl says Pinki had all the sexual features and capabilities of a man, and that alone seems to be strong enough evidence.”

The implication, it would seem, is this: anyone who drives motorcycles, drinks beer, displays aggression, swears freely, wears T-shirts and trousers, has sex with a woman and assaults a sexual partner must be a man.

+++

Is an individual’s gender then a function of how her actions are experienced and perceived by those around her? “No,” says Dr Partha Datta, a senior psychiatrist and specialist in psycho-sexual disorders. “There are clear medical parameters to determine an individual’s gender.”

A medically proven woman behaving like a man – will Pinki Pramanik face greater flak if she is proven to be a “he” or if she is proven to be a “she”? In the first case there are legal implications including the Asian Games gold medal at Doha and other events. But in the second case, there is the question of “character”, that classic quality of which Indian women are expected to exhibit at all times. Questions.

In India to Build you have to Destroy

When the news filtered through from Santiago in March 2008, it was a shock to every one. It was like a football world cup without Brazil. For the first time in 80 years, an Olympic hockey tournament would not have India as one of the competitors. To make a mockery of it, Narendra Batra, former vice-president of IHF, commented:

“Is anyone really concerned?” he asked. “The sports ministry has already demoted hockey as a priority sport although it remains our national sport. Gill and the others will lie low for a few days and the debacle will be forgotten soon. We will be back to square one.”

Both Batra and the coach Joaquim Carvalho resigned. Since 2008, there has been a steady stream of farcical events – the federation was derecognised by the IOA, a new federation Hockey India set up, then KPS Gill hit back with a court ruling re-establishing IHF,a near strike by the hockey players just before the World Cup in 2010, three different coaches …

Now, Michael Nobbs is the man tasked with responsibility of guiding the fortunes of the country. Handheld by FIH, India got themselves into a qualification tournament where the best team was France whom India beat 8-1 in the finals.

But there is a reason to keep that cynicism aside (at least bring it down a bit). The team has been purged of anyone and everyone who had any baggage of the past. Nobbs, who has always been an admirer of the Asian skills, brought back Indian stickwork as the central weapon for the team. Instead of pushing Indian hockey players to play like Europeans, he is now telling them to play the way they want to – like the way India played when winning all those gold medals. The change he is bringing is in two areas – fitness and mental character. There is still much to do. For starters, the team needs to understand the value of discipline, to restrain themselves from the temptation of lapsing into old habits.

The story of his travails is a deja vu of sorts. The same pig-headedness of the federation, the egos of “star” players, the availability of resources, the constant questioning of his decisions, etc. That he has been able to push himself through is itself a cause for raising of one’s hopes. (In a way the article reads like a template of sorts – hostile / indifferent organisation, confused players, shame and humiliation of the team, enter the new coach facing mission impossible – search for similar stories in Sports Illustrated, you will see what I mean)

One is of course quite clear here (and Nobbs himself sets the expectations). This team has potential but as yet unready. Besides the ticket to London, there were two good things that came out of the Delhi qualifiers – the consistent thrashing of lower ranked teams (something that Indians have not seen for decades) and the foundation of a young team with strong nucleus of Ignace Singh, Sardar Singh (selected in a World All Star XI), Raghunath, Bharat Chhetri and Sandeep Singh, considered one of the best drag flick exponents in the world.  But they need atleast another year or so to really get into a strong rhythm and understanding. To expect this team to storm the tournament at London will be unfair on them, their youthful enthusiastic vows notwithstanding.

“Under Michael Nobbs (coach), the team’s performance has gone up. If you have seen the Olympic qualifiers, you must have noticed it. We are playing attacking hockey, the old Indian style. I am sure we will do well in London and win a medal for the country,” Sandeep, the star drag—flicker, said.

Nobbs has put a gold medal at 2016 Rio de Janeiro as the target. At London we should expect to be in the top 6 and be treated as a contender from here on.

 

Messi v Rest of the World

Richard Williams in the Guardian writes:

It is the measure of Messi’s greatness that no one ever talks about how much he is paid, or about the women he goes out with. Any conversation on the 24-year-old maestro will be so occupied with his feats on the pitch that there is no room for gossip. For the past half-dozen seasons the entire world of football has been beguiled by the way this little man skips, dances, wriggles and scuttles between defenders, scoring beautiful goals from all angles and any range. And when he celebrates, it is with the same modesty that he appears to conduct his life off the pitch.

And watch the greatest goal of all time (~ 1.00 minute mark)

 

Boxing as a mirror of American history

Paul Beston does a long piece on the history of boxing in America and suggests that the sport has become a sideshow. The one who could possibly rescue the sport is, unfortunately, not an American but Filipino.

Tyson’s behavior sullied boxing’s always precarious reputation, making the sport synonymous with freakishness. He would be the last in a long line of heavyweights to bear a symbolic connection to American social trends. For just as the blustery John L. Sullivan represented a growing nation coming into its strength, and the magnetic Dempsey the birth of mass-media celebrity and commercial culture, and the stoic Louis the hard years of depression and war, and the mercurial Ali the age of rebellion and change, so Tyson embodied the postmodern hoodlum—the gangsta from an urban landscape pulverized by fatherlessness and anomie. Remarkably, a middle-aged Tyson is now trying to remake his life, a feat that, given the obstacles, would outstrip anything that his illustrious predecessors achieved, in the ring or out.

But about Pacquiao, he writes:

Pacquiao is the kind of figure who could restore boxing to its former glory, if such a thing were possible. Boxing devotees yearn for him to participate in a “super fight” like those in which Sugar Ray Leonard fought in the 1980s. The opponent for such a battle is standing in plain sight: Floyd Mayweather, Jr., a brilliant defensive boxer who has never lost.

For the moment, Mayweather Jr is busy blocking head butts.

Sex, drugs and fixes in sport

All of a sudden, there seems to be a deluge of news reports on match fixing in sports across the world. A Singaporean bookie laundering money in a small league in Finland, there’s a sting in South Africa, Australians planning to send match fixers to the slammer for 10 years, Bryan Robson’s fight against cancer gets mired in the FIFA scandal in Thailand. And the public finds the true face of Blatter. Then Hashan Tillakaratne continued on his rant with questions on why Sri Lanka changed their team for the WC2011 final.

Mexican footballers have doped out as has Sri Lanka’s opener.

And footballers in England are scoring less on the field and more off it. There’s enough on that so I won’t bother with the links.

That leaves the only fix that was legit and funny – KP fixing the ‘rubber‘ strip on his bat as described by Johnathon Agnew on TMS.