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.

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The Federer Nadal Dispatch

So neither the no 1 nor the no 2 are in the finals.  Correct me if I am wrong but I think since 2003, the only time this happened was 2008 Aus Open which was won by Djoker when he beat Tsonga in the final.

It’s fun to read what all the commentators and journos have to say on this. Federer losing a match is like Sachin Tendulkar getting out cheaply. Immediately,” the end is nigh” voices begin chirping.

Richard Hinds of the SMH says Fed was clumsy on court. It may be a new order as well, according to Robert Smith.

With world number one Nadal out of the tournament amid fresh doubts over his fitness, and now Federer vanquished, Djokovic’s triumph may have signalled a changing of the guard at the top of men’s tennis.

For Nadal, it was about hating retirements. Everyone saw the hamstring go pop but he played on, a formality yes, but pride intact.

”Why don’t you forfeit?,” Nadal was asked in Majorcan, a language quite distinct from Spanish.

”No way I’m going to quit in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open,” Nadal replied to his camp.

For Djoker, he has now beaten Federer in two successive Grand Slam semi-finals  but still rates himself way behind Federer and Nadal.

“We are still behind them and you can’t say there is a new era coming up, but there are more players who are able to win majors which is good.”

In my mind, there is no doubting the supremacy of Nadal and Federer. I don’t even bother distinguishing between the two. Yes, there seems to be a decline in Federer at least if not Nadal. Or is it really? Federer actually had a winning spree between his semi-final loss in New York and the Aus Open semis, both to Djoker. In this period he won all the ATP Masters stuff in London and Doha.

But he hasn’t won a Grand Slam in a year! Well he already has 16 of them and if he couldn’t win one in the last 365 days means he is not a “champion”, then one is being extremely blind to the growth of Nadal, Djoker, Murray et al (the last two within their limits have been trying to raise their game as much as they can).

Just like people would diss SRT for being out of form only to realise that in the last couple of years he has scored 1000+ runs per annum, it would seem that one loss, albeit a Grand Slam one, is enough to press the “end is nigh” button.

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?

Nadal loses… but still wins

Some excerpts from Nadal’s last post on his blog on TimesOnline. For the record, Nadal lost to Andy Murray in a match that was interrupted by rain and was played over two days in different courts.

Andy played better than me both yesterday and today and he deserved to win. No excuses, no complaints.

Keeping it straight and simple. 

[…]

Tomorrow it will be his first Grand Slam final and I am happy for him. it will be difficult for him since Roger is still Roger. I remember when lots of people were saying he was finished. I always said that Roger deserved more respect, and that he is still there, the favourite always.

Note what he says about Roger Federer. When was the last time you heard something like this – a current world no. 1 on the previous one. 

[…]

Finally holidays. I left home on July 18th and played Toronto, Cincinnati, Olympics in Beijing and here in New York since then. I will play some golf, be with friends, family maybe fish a bit and not much more. Don’t have time for more. Then start practicing again to be ready for the Davis Cup.

This guy is the top tennis player in the world and all he gets is three days for himself.