AB de Villiers – the superhero that cricket needed, but didn’t necessarily deserve

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After another dismal outing at this year’s IPL, the fans of Royal Challengers Bangalore were disappointed that they wouldn’t see AB de Villiers in action anymore for this year’s edition.

Little did they know that a bigger disappointment lay in store.

AB de Villiers announced that he was retiring from all forms of cricket via a video that he posted on his social media platforms. Very little has gone right for Bangalore this season. They dropped a misfiring Chris Gayle who used the rejection to spur him on in his new team, the Kings XI Punjab. KL Rahul was inexplicably not retained in favour of Sarfaraz Khan, who did little to repay the team management’s faith in him. Though the Kings XI didn’t make it to the playoffs, KL Rahul is one of the top scorers of the tournament. Though RCB added Brendon McCullum to their arsenal this season, he was nowhere near the player who struck 158 off 73 deliveries in the first ever IPL match ever played. Bangalore was at the receiving end then.

What didn’t start too well didn’t end too well.

And now, Ab de Villiers too won’t be a part of the Royal Challengers line up come the next edition of the IPL. The team, which till last season boasted of one of the most fearsome batting line-ups in IPL history has a lot of rebuilding to do.

When Sachin Tendulkar was going through a very lean patch, he got booed off at the Wankhede Stadim, the place he called his second home. Javed Miandad played his last ever international match against Indian in the famous 1996 World Cup quarterfinal that Pakistan lost after Aamir Sohail’s wicket put brakes on their hurried chase. But what happens when Ab de Villiers came to bat in Bangalore during South Africa’s tour of India? The crowd chants his name.

When some players come to the crease, there is a rush of blood to the head. Anything is possible.

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Will AB de Villiers run to the offside just before the bowler is about to release the ball and transport the ball over the fine leg boundary?

Will AB de Villiers go on bended knee and loft it over the keeper? If he misses, it will ram his neck or worse, his face.

Will AB de Villiers almost topple over in his quest to deposit a yorker that is sliding down the offside over the square leg boundary for an audacious six.

Will AB de Villiers come down the pitch and deposit the rising ball to the midwicket boundary?

Will AB de Villiers conjure a catch out of thin air and land within what looks like centimetres from the boundary line?

Will AB de Villiers turn left handed and smash a six over third man?

Will AB de Villiers score the world’s fastest double century, triple century, today?

Indian cricket fans got to see de Villers mostly in the Royal Challengers Bangalore jersey. Though his heroics couldn’t propel them to an IPL title, he found a second home for himself. Fans may have hoped to see him stay on till the 2019 World Cup and help South Africa break their never ending 7 year curse that has been thrust upon them when it comes to World Cups and international tournaments. But not everyone’s desire for glory can be stretched to near infinity like Sachin Tendulkar’s, who faced disappointment 4 times before finding glory in his fifth and final World Cup. Fans will recall the epic 2015 World Cup semi-final between New Zealand and South Africa that was won by New Zealand, courtesy a Grant Elliot six in the last over. One of the most enduring images of that match is of de Villiers hunched down on the pitch with Grant Elliot and Daniel Vettori sharing a hug in the background.  Most of the South African side were in tears after the match and it would be safe to say that most cricket lovers shared their sorrow.amazing fielding

The great Imran Khan retired in 1987 and was requested by President General Zia-Ul-Haq to return. He ended his career by leading Pakistan to their only World Cup victory to date in 1992.

After losing more tournament finals than he could take, Lionel Messi shook the sports world by announcing his retirement from international football in 2016. Thankfully, he went back on his decision and will again look to work his magic in the upcoming FIFA World Cup.

Frustrated by injuries and lack of motivation, Javagal Srinath announced his retirement in 2002 before being coaxed out of it by Sourav Ganguly. He returned to lead the bowling unit in the 2003 World Cup, taking no less than 16 wickets himself before the side ran into Australia in the finals.

Will de Villiers do a comeback act in the coming months?

As Stepehen King writes in The Shawshank Redemption, Hope Springs Eternal. 

 

AB de Villiers could defy gravity, logic and geometry even. He could twist and twirl and play shots that boggled the mind. Just weeks before his retirement, he pulled off one of the most audacious of catches in IPL history. Unlike his good friend Virat Kohli, whose excellence is tempered with large quantities of swagger and emotion, de Villiers went about reinventing batting without any aid of boorishness or truant machoism.

Cricket isn’t football. It’s a small game that is still decades away from becoming a world sport. Next year’s edition of the World Cup will feature only 10 teams, down from 4 compared to the last edition. This year’s FIFA World Cup will feature 32 teams. This means for the game of cricket to make more money and be profitable, the top teams will have to play each other constantly.

Virat Kohli’s quest to get a measure of the English conditions prior to the much awaited tour of England has already run into rough weather. Incessant playing has meant he has been carrying injuries that he needs to recover from, making his conquest of English conditions even more difficult. The in-demand modern cricketer has to straddle 3 formats, playing for his country and playing for leagues around the world to secure his future financially. Burn out, mental and physical, is a price they have to pay for this year round roller coaster ride that they are put through.

De Villiers could have been lost to golf, rugby or football, other games that he excelled in. That he chose cricket was a small miracle in its own right. But an International Cricket Council that has always danced to the tune of the BCCI, its biggest revenue generator, shows no signs of addressing this thorny issue. Work-life balance isn’t the prerogative of only the lab rat in a maze corporate executive.

Richard Bach, for all purposes, is a corny author. One of his most famous books is Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a story about a seagull who wanted to fly high above from the rest of the flock who were content to eat and merely exist. His quest to test barriers takes him on a journey that sees him break limitations and pre-conceived notions of what a seagull could accomplish. It is strewn with quotes such as:

“He was not bone and feather but a perfect idea of freedom and flight, limited by nothing at all”

“Don’t believe what your eyes are telling you. All they show is limitation. Look with your understanding. Find out what you already know and you will see the way to fly”

It has become a cult book and a self-help classic over the years.

In a strange way, Ab de Villiers is a lot like Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

The term used to describe him is 360 player. That is as dreary a management term as there can be.

360 presentation.

360 feedback.

Have you ever sat through any of them and come out feeling like a million bucks?

Why would use the same term to describe a player so magical?

In Michael Jordan’s hall of fame induction, Magic Johnson said of him – ‘he made you wish that for just one day, you could fly in the air.’

When you saw AB de Villiers in his element, he made you believe that you could walk on water. That you could fly. That all the limitations that you had were just illusions.

While excellence and greatness are measured in terms of infinity, things like time, motivation and desire are measured in finite terms.

Like earth seems a lot smaller when you look at it from above, cricket seems a lot smaller without AB de Villiers in it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Too much winning can kill you

The unenviable situation that Australia find themselves in isn’t that three of their players have been suspended; it is that people were waiting for them to fail. That’s what happens when disrespect and entitlement become a paradigm – people begrudge your success and victories and when the fall comes, the pile-up of anger and discontent is massive.

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The Australians leaving Capetown was eerily reminiscent of Ben Johnson leaving Seoul after he was stripped of his medal. There weren’t as many cameras and the frenzy over doping in an Olympics cannot be compared to ball-tampering in a test match but the cameras and press were all over coach Darren Lehmann, vice-captain David Warner and captain Steven Smith.

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One day Steve Smith was one of the world’s most celebrated captains and batsman.

Next day he was a national villain, with people calling for his ban from the sport itself.

He even stepped down from the role of captain of the Rajasthan Royals, who were making a come back into the team after 2 years, being banished from the league after their owner was found guilty of betting against his own team, a crime far worse than ball tampering. The face of their team couldn’t be a cheat.

Steve Smith now finds himself in a place where no sportsperson dares to tread – cheating the sport itself.

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When we grew up, Australia were the benchmark. They were merciless and went about their game with a regimented approach that consisted of flat lining opponents, leaving them gasping for air. The rendered the 2003, 2007 and 2015 World Cup finals virtual no contests. A victory against them was worth its weight in gold. They set the standards in fielding, bowling and batting and had in Adam Gilchrist the most destructive wicket-keeper batsman of all time. Pakistan had the world’s most feared bowlers but their team’s performance, much like their team personnel, was a Russian roulette. Captains and coaches changed by the hour and the team was playing against itself most of the time. South Africa somehow always managed to lose the plot when they came to the finish line. Sri Lanka lacked consistency and West Indies were already in decline. Australia, they were complete. They had players Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, the Waugh brothers, Adam Gilchrist, Damien Fleming and Brett Lee.

In test cricket, they were unbeatable for the longest time. They have hounded England into oblivion more often than they can count in the Ashes and though their record has been patchy overseas, no team in the modern era can boast of winning consistently outside home.

But why is Australia suddenly incurring so much wrath for ball tampering, a crime that even the most decent of all men, Rahul Dravid, had been fined for in 2004?

Why are parallels being drawn between fixing and tampering, which truth be told, are are two ends of the totem pole when it comes to cheating? Players have tampered with the ball to get more swing for ages. It isn’t legal but it hasn’t drawn this much attention and calls for axing and life bans.

The truth is this – as much as we look down upon losing, winning too much, and more importantly, how you win, counts for a lot.

Australia have never given an inch in battle. But in sport, there are bad losers as well as bad winners.

A bad loser is the Detroit Pistons walking off the court with defeat inevitable in the 1991 NBA finals in closing moments of play without even shaking hands with the Chicago Bulls. It is one of the most unsportsmanlike moments in the history of basketball. The Detroit Pistons were given the moniker ‘the bad boys’ for their rough and tumble style of play that didn’t endear them to many people barring their fans. In the clip, sports writer Mitch Albom says ‘those who looked at the Pistons as villains, saw it as a correct end for a villain. The villain goes down. We never liked them and when they don’t win, look how they behave.’

Lance Armstrong will go down in history as one the biggest cheats in sport ever. But here are a few facts that not everyone may know;

a) His team mates who confessed to doping were given two year bans and could cycle again. Armstrong was given a life ban.

b) The UCI, the governing body for cycling, declared all results of the Tour de France null and void from 1999-2005, the years in which Armstrong won the title. Essentially, it admitted that doping was so rampant that it would be impossible to figure out who the clean riders were.

So why was Armstrong handed the severest punishment of all and sent into cycling purgatory?

That’s because he was an asshole who had managed to piss everyone off and rile people up so much that when the fall came, people couldn’t wait to crush him into oblivion.

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He sued journalists, bullied friends who spoke the truth about him, and lied to people about his doping for years. He used his battle against cancer and his cancer foundation as defense every time accusations were thrown at him. But before his story turned from non-fiction to fiction, he was one of the most popular athletes in the world. He was and still is and inspiration to cancer patients and he won the Tour de France a record six times. The problem was he had very few supporters and when it was revealed that he coerced and bullied his own team mates into doping and threatened them with dire consequences if they spoke up, the public’s anger knew no bounds.

When Maria Sharapova was suspended of doping, she got very little support from the tennis community. Reports suggested that she was haughty and had very few friends on the circuit.

Australia weren’t just sore losers. They were also bad winners.

In the 2015 world Cup final, they were taking on New Zealand, one of the most lovable teams in cricket who stood for everything that’s right in the game and were the epitome of spirit of the game. The Aussies mocked the New Zealand batsman when they were dismissed and generally behaved like boors, against a team that was playing in the right spirit.

Like how children of high ranking officials behave, Australia have always thought that the term spirit of the game didn’t apply to them. They have crossed the line far too many times and like entitled kids, don’t know how to react when people give it back.

That’s why in 2001, Michael Slater had the gall to walk up to Rahul Dravid and berate him for staying his ground, when replays clearly showed that the ball had pitched before he caught it.

That’s why Glenn McGrath had the audacity to ask Ramnaresh Sarwan what Brian Lara’s c**k tasted like and when he didn’t like the reply he got, almost threatened to rip Sarwan’s fucking throat out. Of course McGrath’s wife was suffering from cancer and Sarwan didn’t know it. Nonetheless, it was Glenn McGrath who instigated it.

That’s why Darren Lehmann got away with a warning when he shouted ‘black c**k’ in the direction of the Sri Lankan dressing room in 2003 and the Australians didn’t think twice before bawling their eyes out when Harbhajan Singh called Andrew Symmonds a monkey in 2008.

That’s why in the ill-tempered match in 2007 at Sydney was such a watershed moment, one where Michael Clarke claimed a catch when replays showed that the ball had pitched. How did the umpire make his decision? He took Ricky Ponting’s word. And in the press conference, Ponting got livid, questioning a journalist who accused him of cheating.

Here’s the secret to winning, something that most people, teams and organisations don’t get – you can win even when you lose. And it is seldom measured on a scoreboard.

In the animated movie Cars, Lightning McQueen, after a series of misadventures, learns what winning really means. It’s an animated movie but its lessons apply to all of us.

The unenviable situation that Australia find themselves in isn’t that three of their players have been suspended; it is that people were waiting for them to fail. That’s what happens when disrespect and entitlement become a paradigm – people begrudge your success and victories and when the fall comes, the pile-up of anger and discontent is massive.

Roger Federer is perhaps one of the most intensely competitive tennis players but that hasn’t dimmed his popularity. His gargantuan fame hasn’t gotten to his head. He is a Goliath that people still root for.

When Sachin Tendulkar walked onto the field in the ill-fated 2011-2012 series (India lost 4-0), the crowds gave him standing ovations wherever he went. That’s winning.

When Rahul Dravid was out of form and thinking of throwing in the towel, it was Ricky Ponting who encouraged him to continue, assuring him that his patchy form was only temporary. That’s winning.

You don’t just love sportspersons’ when they win. You love them for who they are and how they win. In a results driven, win at all costs atmosphere, scant regard is paid to these invisible aspects.

After all the shouting, the punishment has been passed. Steve Smith and David Warner have been banned for a year, Cameron Bancroft for 9 months. A year is an eternity in sports and there has been a lot of discussion on the quantum of punishments and why ball-tampering was suddenly the worst thing that happened to cricket. Well, it was a planned move, something stupid in the age of a million cameras. They then brushed aside rumors of tampering. Of course, multiple wrongs don’t make a right. When Steve Smith turned to the dressing room during the India series, it was termed a ‘brain fade’ and quickly put to rest. Now all misdemeanors are coming out, like some Pandora’s box being opened.

Steve Smith, along with Virat Kohli, is one of the finest batsmen in the modern era. David Warner, no stranger to fights and needless exchanges, is like some criminal who finally got caught red handed. A few days earlier, he was in the news for punching Quentin de Kock when the sides were walking back to the dressing room. Cameron Bancroft is like the deer in the headlights, at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The world is waiting to see if Australia use this as a catalyst for change. Actually, the sense of entitlement is prevalent in a lot of cricketers in the T-20/IPL era, where money is put over legacies and impact. I hope Steve Smith uses his second act to carve out a truly rich legacy. A player of his caliber deserves it.

Too much of a good thing can turn against you. In one of my favourite Queen songs, Freddy Mercury sings

‘Oh, how would it be if you were standing in my shoes
Can’t you see that it’s impossible to choose
No there’s no making sense of it
Every way I go I’m bound to lose’
Winning is important. It gets you the trophies, fame and the money.

But knowing how to win is worth its true weight in gold.

Catching up with the Shadow

 

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Very rarely is a coach more celebrated than the players and in this case, even paid more than them for winning. But for the large part, Rahul Dravid played in the shadows. That’s why we still feel we owe him something. 

In 2013, Prithvi Shaw first hit the headlines when he made the highest score by an individual in the Harris shield, scoring 541 runs. His record was overtaken by Pranav Dhanawade 3 years later. The Harris Shield has given the world a glimpse into the making of future champions. It was here that the world first sat up and took notice of Sachin Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli when they ran amok and built what was then a record – a gargantuan 664 run partnership.

When Kambli and Tendulkar were playing, there was no social media to instantly relay their exploits to the world. By the time it was Prithvi Shaw’s turn, his exploits were relayed to the world in an instant. But when his hour of crowning glory came to pass, the winning captain at an U-19 World Cup, a  moment that only a privileged few are fortunate enough to live through, he had competition – his coach.

Social media erupted in its effusive praise for Rahul Dravid, the coach of the U-19 team who, for all of his towering achievements, never won a World Cup in his playing days. The BCCI, which usually lavishes its players with jaw dropping rewards whenever they win a trophy that matters, surprised everyone by rewarding the coach the highest sum of money – 50 lakhs, while the players were awarded 30 lakhs each. But no one demurred.

I know it’s Rahul Dravid, but I have bone of contention here. Of course, they were playing to stature – when India won the T20 World Cup in 2007, the coaching staff comprised of Venkatesh Prasad and Robin Singh, both former players both not as celebrated and they didn’t get more money than the players. No coach in recent memory, including Gary Kirsten who coached India to a World Cup win, was rewarded more than the players for shepherding them to victory.

Maybe I expected Dravid to make a magnanimous statement, something on the lines of – ‘no I can’t accept it, it’s all because of the hard work of the boys that we won, I was just a catalyst. I request the BCCI to revoke this reward that they have awarded me and distribute in among the players.’ This is someone who refused an honorary degree because he felt he didn’t earn it. Of course, expecting him to apologize for something that isn’t even something of his doing is ludicrous and uncalled for. Unfailingly, as always, he credited the support staff for their support their work in the background. This is Rahul Dravid we’re talking about. Not some self-obsessed millennial. But to even think of it as a possibility tells me that I probably hold him to a higher standard than almost anyone.

The BCCI’s obsession with stardom is a double-edged sword. They didn’t battle an eyelid when it came to showing Greg Chappell the door after he publicly clashed with senior players and had a first round exit at the World Cup to show for it. When it came to the Kohli-Kumble showdown, they just let it simmer until they took sides with the larger- -than-life captain. Even then, voices of protest howled at a captain being given undue powers to choose a coach. As Dravid himself recently said, the players are always greater than the coach and even his time at the helm will one day come to an end.

Victory in the U-19 doesn’t guarantee future success. Mohammad Kaif captained the U-19 side in 2000 but his career never took off like Yuvraj Singh’s. Unmukt Chand captained the U-19 side to a victory in 2012 but his career hasn’t taken off like Virat Kohli’s. Whether Prithvi Shaw, Shubman Gill, Manjot Kalra and the rest will go onto use this as a stepping stone is yet to be seen. Their magnificent run in the World Cup, one in which they didn’t lose a single match and dominated it single-handedly was a sight to behold. As much as we celebrate our stars, cricket is also littered with many tales of might have beens. After the victory, coach Dravid said that he wishes the boys go on to win even bigger titles. It would seem futile to expect that all the 11 players who starred in this win will go on to make it to the senior team and make it larger than life in their careers.

But why is it that we are all okay with the coach being paid more than the players?

Because, deep down, we feel it’s impossible to repay any sort of debt that we feel we owe Rahul Dravid in full. If there ever was anyone who deserved a World Cup to his name, it was him. And we always feel we owe him some more acknowledgement, praise and gratitude.

He played three world cups in his career and came close to winning it only once.  In the 1999 edition, one in which the side, apart from a victory against Pakistan, gave us little to cheer about, he was the highest scorer of the tournament with 461 runs to his name. In the 2003 edition, he donned the wicket-keeper’s gloves so that the side could accommodate an extra bastman. The side went on a dream run until the final, which ended in a nightmare against a marauding Australian side.

2007 could have been his crowning moment of glory. Instead the defining moment of his captaincy was of him standing in the dressing room, wiping off a tear as India crashed to a scarcely believable first round exit. There is a scene in the movie Dhoni where he asks for the axe to come down on a few senior players who he felt were slow on the field. It’s no secret that Dravid was one of them. The flexibility afforded to Sachin Tendulkar to extend his career, pick and choose which tournaments to play in and also decide on his retirement, wasn’t extended to anyone else.

For most of his career, Dravid played in the shadows. He was always under the shadow of the towering figure of Sachin Tendulkar and once quipped that people were happy to see his wicket fall as that meant the arrival of the master. He began his career a good six years after Sachin and yet managed to end his career as the second highest scorer in tests. His magnificent 148 in Kolkata, when he wasn’t in the best of form, was overshadowed by a historic 281 by VVS Laxman in the same match. His captaincy was shadowed by the megalomaniacal Greg Chappell and Dravid was blamed for not having the conviction to stand up to him. In the penultimate series of his career, he scored 3 brilliant centuries but it was overshadowed by a 4-0 thrashing that the side suffered.

While he did have his moments in the sun, they always seemed, well, muted.

It always felt that we never truly celebrated him in his playing days. Like we took him for granted. He was the Wall, he would always show up, play a stellar role and let others walk away with the credit.

Then he retired and we all cried for the praise we never lavished on him.

That doesn’t excuse the board exercising double standards when it comes to rewarding people. Of course, he didn’t clamor for it. It was the board, as usual, over reaching when it wasn’t required.

For once in his celebrated career, Rahul Dravid inadvertently did something that went contrary to everything he has done thus far in his career.

He cast a shadow on others.

 

 

 

All those who wander are not lost

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When touring overseas, the Indians always seem to get lost in a maze. The victory at the Wanderers was a welcome exception after a long drought of wins away from home.

After the second test match at the Centurion which India lost by 135 runs, Virat Kohli was breathing fire. In the post-match press conference, he got himself into a wrangle over the term ‘best XI’. Should Rahane have been picked instead of Rohit Sharma? Why did they lose on a pitch which was very sub-continental in nature? In the heated exchange that ensued, no logical answer seemed forthcoming. What made that day even more bittersweet was that he was anointed ODI player of the year that same evening. By then, all the good feelings from his star-studded wedding to Anushka Sharma at the eve of the series had evaporated. All the talk of ‘intent’ and a ‘legacy defining series’ had been quickly shelved and in its place was a lot of ire and defensiveness.

If home felt far away, even the victories at home over the past season were just a distant memory.

Here’s what has happened from time immemorial – Indian batsman fill their coffers with runs at home, only to have their technique and averages demonetized on foreign shores. They came to South Africa and didn’t bother playing a preparatory match. Their preparation consisted of an inconsequential series against a below par Sri Lanka. When history repeated itself, everyone went up in arms.

Indians have always been bad tourists. On and off the field.

We are accused of being rude, untidy, bargaining at 5 star hotels and talking too loudly. We stand out and create a nuisance, almost like it is some sort of a default setting.

Before India became the financial hub of World Cricket, it was a place where a few dared to tread. The weather was prohibitive, the hygiene suspect and the food, undecipherable. When Australia toured India in 2001, Shane Warne carried with him an entourage of baked beans to see him through the final frontier.

Back in the 90s, before online streaming and live commentary, alarms would be set to rise at ungodly hours to watch India do battle in foreign shores. The disappointments of those times are still fresh. Not raw, but fresh.

You woke up in the morning and India were all out for 66 against the merciless pace of Allan Donald.

You woke up in the morning to see Sachin Tendulkar or Rahul Dravid fighting a lone battle, warding off Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee.

You woke up to see VVS Laxman come into his own, scoring a fluent 167 when the rest of the side capitulated around him.

You woke up to see Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad toiling, their shoulders spent, looking for the non-existent third bowler. Sourav Ganguly steps in to try his hand at pace bowling and the results are there for all to see.

Capitulate. Abject surrender. Whitewash. That’s how it all ended. But we never gave up hope, an entire generation trudging to work and college and school bleary eyed, disappointed, yet hopeful that one day their heroes would turn in all around.

Kolkata 2001 will always be the watershed moment in Indian cricket, the moment when David beat Goliath. Though it was played at home, the series assumed epochal proportions due to the near invincibility of the Australians. Hadn’t VVS Laxman played that Haley’s comet like innings, no one knows the course Indian cricket would have taken. What would the future edifices on?

The decade would give fans what they had woken up to see, but had never came to pass thus far.

It all came it bits and pieces, like water seeping through a crack.

In 2002, the side beat England at Headingley. Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dravid and Sanjay Bangar contributed with the bat, and Kumble and Harbhajan completed the formalities with the ball. It was Ganguly’s first victory away from home. The test series ended in a draw. Prior to that tour, India had toured England in 1996. On their return, Mohammad Azharuddin was sacked as captain for their abysmal show.

How the times had changed.

As 2003 wound down, Steve Waugh announced that the series against India would be his last. During the first test at Brisbane, Sourav Ganguly dug into his reserves and struck a gritty 144. At Adelaide, history was made Rahul Dravid carried his bat in both the innings, scoring a masterful 233 in the first and a celebratory 72 in the second.

We got what we had woken up to at last – victory in Australia, against Australia.

Steve Waugh, a man whom Dravid modeled himself after, personally picked the ball after it had crossed the boundary and handed it over to Rahul Dravid, the man who would later write the foreword for his autobiography. Though India would go onto lose the next test and then wait too long to enforce a declaration before putting Australia into bat in the 4th and final test, Waugh’s final international appearance, a tour that was written off as a predictable 4-0 whitewash, ended in 1-1 draw.

The bad travelers cloak was beginning to slip away.

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India toured Pakistan in 1989, the series that introduced the world to a curly haired tyro called Sachin Tendulkar. When India toured Pakistan next, it was 2004. Since 1989, India had gone from a closed economy and embraced liberalisation, televisions had gone from 2 channels to infinity and its cricket board had gone from peasant to king. Many termed the series as an election ploy and then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee personally met the players before they departed. Rahul Bhattacharya’s Pundits from Pakistan is one my favourite sports books ever and it brings back some wonderful memories about that tour.

Virender Sehwag brought up his triple century with a six.

Sachin Tendulkar was left stranded on 194 and made a big deal out of it.

Rahul Dravid chalked up one of his many career defining knocks at Rawalpindi.

India won the series 2-1, beating the fearsome Pakistanis in their own backyard.

Imran Khan reportedly stormed into the office of the president of the Pakistan Cricket Board and gave him a piece of his mind on the ‘humiliating’ loss. On their return, the team couldn’t get out of the airport as it was teeming with crowds. Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s gamble of the conducting the series had paid off. His government, the Bharatiya Janata Party coined the now immortalised slogan ‘India Shining’, a call to the upward trajectory that they felt the country was on. So confident were they of winning that they went in for an early election, thinking they were riding on a wave of optimism. Much to everyone’s shock, they lost.

But at least the Indian cricket team, now slowly leaving its mark even on foreign shores, was shining.

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Unlike the 100 pipers commercials, Greg Chappell won’t be remembered for good in the hearts of Indian fans but in his tenure, the side won a series in West Indies after 35 years, again owing to another grittier than gritty knock from Rahul Dravid. A few months later, Sreesanth, in one of his rare moments of lucidity, cast a spell on the great Jacques Kallis, his spell considered on of the best by an Indian bowler overseas. No less than a legend like Allan Donald was in awe of his ability to swing the ball. The side went on to lose the next two matches, throwing away a great start to the series.

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In his last series as captain, Rahul Dravid finished off with a flourish, something that was rarely afforded to him in his celebrated career. Zaheer Khan, back after fitness worries and being blindsided by Chappell, took 18 wickets and staked his claim to being the ringleader of the pace attack. The side went up 1-0 and in the third test, they sat on a lead, playing tamely for a draw. Even if losing was a mathematical improbability, it wasn’t an option. After that historic test series victory, Rahul Dravid would abruptly quit captaincy, bruised by its demands, exhausted by its lead weight.

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In late 2007, India toured Australia and gave the cricketing world a new scandal to chew on – Monkeygate. The Sydney match was a disgrace no doubt but what followed was even more disgraceful – the high handedness of the Indian cricket board, a flight waiting to fly the players back to India if the ICC didn’t withdraw the ban on Harbhajan Singh for an alleged racial slur. What followed at Perth was magnificent, the balm the team needed. Playing on one of the most feared and hostile pitches, Tendulkar, Dravid, Pathan, Laxman and Sehwag, all played their part in a historic win. The series was lost, but pride was restored.

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In 2010, India toured South Africa and VVS Laxman played what would be one of his last defining knocks in test cricket, giving India a victory. In the third test, Sachin Tendulkar also played one of the last of his defining knocks in test cricket, staving off a marauding Dale Steyn in his prime.

The end of an era came swiftly.

From June 2011 to January 2012, India lost 8 test matches on the trot, signalling the end of the Golden Era. Dravid and Laxman would retire in 2012 and Sachin Tendulkar in 2013.

Free from the shackles of the past, a younger Indian side toured England in 2014 in a bid to make some amends for the 4-0 drubbing they received a few years back. And they almost succeeded. They created history at Lord’s, Ishant Sharma coming up with a spell for the ages. After that, it went downhill, faster than even an avalanche. The side capitulated in the next 3 matches, each loss worse than the previous one and Virat Kohli’s off stump weakness was exposed to the whole world.

2014 ended with MS Dhoni abruptly resigning test captaincy, the accumulation of overseas losses probably too much of a cross to bear. In the first test of that series, Virat Kohli nearly pulled off an impossible heist. Requiring 363 to win, the side pushed for a victory and nearly got there. After years of resorting to defensive tactics and sitting on massive leads, it was a sight for sore eyes. Of course, the twist in the tale was waiting round the corner with a collapse that led to 8 wickets falling for 73 runs. I personally rate that as one of Kohli’s best knocks ever, even though there was no victory rainbow at the end of the effort.

The overseas test series victory against Sri Lanka in 2017 , though welcome, doesn’t compare to a win against Australia or South Africa. Sri Lanka are a side in search of new talent and stability, a far cry from the crouching tigers that they once were. Every time the board needs to squeeze in a series, the have Sri Lanka on speed dial. The preparation for the South Africa tour was a dead rubber series against a depleted Sri Lanka. It’s like looking for facebook likes to boost your self-esteem. Winning against a side down on its morale isn’t adequate preparation.

That’s why, when the side won the test at the Wanderers, that too with 5 pacers steaming in on a pitch on which play was thought to be impossible on day 3 when Dean Elgar received a blow on his forehead, it showed tremendous character. The sides could have called it quits, shook hands and walked away. The series wasn’t in the balance, the criticism over the India team selection was unabating.

The blueprint for the survival of test cricket has many loopholes. The advent of T20 cricket has ensured more results, but they are also one-sided. India clean-swept New Zealand and England at home. Australia put up a commendable fight while the Ashes, one of test’s greatest rivalries ended in a 4-0 annihilation for England. Getting a result is one thing, the result being a foregone conclusion is another.

Everyone likes a good scrap, a fight to the finish, a match hanging in the balance over night, waking up to possibility, not resignation, and a scoreboard that doesn’t tell the entire story. After the match at the Wanderers, the press conference didn’t feature landmines for Kohli to walk through.

Anger had given way to possibility, retribution and a smile.

Kohli and his team will embark on tours of England and Australia later in the year. There will be the legacy defining jingoism that will be thrown in every time they set foot overseas, there will be recriminations and calls for people’s heads when the script doesn’t go according to plan. It is said that a player, captain or side can truly call themselves great only when they begin to win overseas. But no side has been doing that consistently in international cricket for a while now. If that is the benchmark, it may as well be a flawed one in the modern era.

We all root for a side.

But deep down, we all root for a contest; between bat and ball, between tactics, between captains, between sworn enemies.

If all of your favourite test wins were to pass you by in a flash, what would you remember?

I’m not sure. But I’ll bet it will be the matches where both sides put up one hell of a fight.

And in the end, isn’t that what we seek?

So when you wake up at some ungodly hour to root for your team doing battle in a land far, far away, it will all be worth it.

Building a wall like Rahul Dravid

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For all that he accomplished, there are three pivotal moments from Rahul Dravid’s career when everything was falling apart around him.

In the 2007 World Cup, the side careened to an ignominious first round exit under his captaincy. As the end neared, the cameras panned to the dressing room where it looked as if he was wiping away a tear and Anil Kumble, standing behind him, put a hand on his shoulder to console him.

Two months later, after securing a historic test series victory against England on their home turf, he abruptly quit captaincy. Much later, he revealed that he had run out of steam and began to dread the job and that caused him to walk away.

When India toured Australia in 2011-2012, he entered the series on the back of a fantastic tour of England where he scored three centuries, opened the batting and was surprisingly roped in for the ODI series. He didn’t demur, but at the same time, he announced his retirement from the shorter format after that surprise recall.

The tour of Australia would be his last, and it was also one of his most forgettable. He was bowled six out of the eight times he batted and the side was whitewashed 4-0.

On his return, he announced his retirement from international cricket.

In 2013, under his captaincy, the Rajasthan Royals were caught in the unsavoury sport fixing scandal that rocked the IPL. One of the players, the temperamental and ungrateful Sreesanth, who flourished under Dravid’s captaincy in the national side, repaid him by getting arrested for his involvement. And that was his final IPL, one in which his side reached the finals but lost to the Mumbai Indians.

So let’s just summarize:

A player who at different points in his career kept wickets, opened the batting, all for the team’s cause, had to endure the humiliation of a first round exit at cricket’s biggest event.

A player who was the backbone of the side for over a decade and played a role in many historic victories overseas, especially in tests, ended his test career by getting bowled six times in eight innings and a 4-0 drubbing.

A player who backed someone in spite of all his stupidity, was back stabbed by that very person.

He didn’t win cricket’s most coveted prize, didn’t finish his career with a guard of honour or a fairy tale ending, and was thrown into a situation where he had to lift a team out of despair, for no fault of his.

Yet, he only grows in stature as time passes for he is measured with a different yardstick.

We sometimes put a premium on the big ticket moments in life, thinking we will be measured by them, or that one big failure will spell catastrophe.

If the U-19 team that he is coaching learns just one thing from him, let it be this – that you won’t be defined by your failures, but by your reaction to them.

Happy Birthday, Rahul Dravid, the person who took all the bricks thrown at him and built a wall.

Vinod Kambli, and the one who flew over Shivaji Park’s nest

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Once touted as a future great, Vinod Kambli took all of his prodigious talents and laid them to waste. 

November 16th, 2013. That was Sachin Tendulkar’s last day as a cricketer. The whole of India it seemed had come to a standstill to pay their respects to the god of Indian cricket who had straddled different generations in his career. His overblown farewell included a heartwarming speech that paid tribute to almost everyone who helped in his 24 year magnum opus. The test match was supposed to last 5 days but playing a West Indies side years removed from their prime, the match, like the first one in Kolkata, was done and dusted in 3 days.

Tendulkar’s speech was the longest he probably ever spoke in front of his fans and just like his career, didn’t seek to raise a hornet’s nest with his words. 

A couple of days later, a voice synonymous with idiocy and one that came into public consciousness only when it made mindless statements, spoke.

Vinod Kambli, one of Indian cricket’s lost causes wept about how he was never acknowledged in the speech. He claimed he was integral to Tendulkar’s rise and everything that he accomplished began with that part-of-cricketing-folklore 664 run partnership in a Harris Shield match back in 1988. By now, his crocodile tears were part and parcel of media fodder, a cricketer who had passed his blink-and-miss prime years and believed that the only way to wiggle back into public consciousness was by making some statement that if dissected, was usually bereft of any logic. He wasn’t on the invitee list in the star studded dinner that Sachin Tendulkar threw and one forgot that when Tendulkar threw a party after crossing Sunil Gavaskar’s record of 34 centuries a few years back, Vinod Kambli came with 34 vada pavs to the party. It was what they gobbled after they finished practice in the years before they became the wonder boys of Indian cricket. Obviously, the intervening years had driven some sort of a wedge between them.

A week later, he pulled up while driving and suffered a heart attack. A quick thinking policewoman spotted him in distress and rushed him to a hospital, giving him a second lease of life.

Just look at the contrast – his estranged best friend retired a legend in front of an adoring crowd who had come to see him from all over the world in his manicured farewell series and he was fighting for life in a hospital bed, saved by a surgery at the age of 41.

The thing with Vinod Kambli is that he has been in the news for mainly two reasons – making a controversial statement or getting into some kind of trouble.

For someone who shot to fame with a double century in the third test match that he played, his test career met with a premature end in 1994. A naturally flamboyant batsman unafraid to play shots and who incurred his captain’s wrath when he struck the first ever ball he faced in the Ranji Trophy for a six, he played his last ODI in 2000, the his last of 9 comebacks ending in all too familiar disappointment.

It should be easy to decipher a tragic tale.

What isn’t always easy is deciphering a tragic tale that lacks the ominous signs. Sreesanth was temperamental beyond control but he crossed the sacred line when he accepted money in exchange for information, making analysis of his dysfunctional career that much more easy. 

The thing with Vinod Kambli is that no one really knows how he lost his way as everything that we have been privy to is hearsay. Stories abound of how he got drafted by the wrong company, lost his head to fame, fell of out favour with the administrators for his flamboyant lifestyle. In today’s team, half the side sports tattoos and are coached by the unapologetic lover of the life in the fast lane, Ravi Shastri. In Kambli’s time, earrings were frowned upon, let alone tattoos. While key members were probably involved in match-fixing, a crime far worse than being plastered with tattoos, the 90s weren’t a time of extravagance. Vinod Kambli probably chose the wrong decade to throw caution to the wind with his lifestyle, but irresponsible choices are only a part of the story.

Someone once told me that he used 9 grips for his bat. If I recall correctly, his bat was sponsored by a cigarette brand Four Square and for a brief time, he made playing left handed cool. Life is replete with one-hit wonders and in sports terms, Kambli was a one-hit wonder. Remember Vanilla Ice who shot to fame with his single Ice Ice Baby and then fell off a precipice? Kambli was like that. He scored a double century against England in his third test, the icing on the cake being that it was scored in front of his adoring home crowd. Sachin Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli walking back to the dressing room was a picture straight out of album of nostalgia. He then went onto score another double century against Zimbabwe and two centuries against Sri Lanka.

And then came the beginning to a very swift end. 

The short ball. Even the greatest of them have been confounded and brought to their knees by it. Sourav Ganguly and Steve Waugh were like deer in the headlight when the short stuff was hurled at them. Michael Clarke too was never comfortable with the short ball in his playing days, Suresh Raina never mastered it and his test career is a mirror of that shortcoming. But Steve Waugh, Sourav Ganguly and Michale Clarke didn’t lack in tenacity and weren’t overawed by the flaw. In his speech at IIM years back, Harsha Bhogle, one of the most astute commentators on the game, gave us some clue as to what ailed Vinod Kambli. No doubt he was one of the most gifted batsmen the world had ever seen he said. But he was largely fueled on the natural talent that he had been bestowed with. In other words, he depended on talent to solve all his problems for him. At that point, most of his runs came on flat tracks that were made for batting records to fall like nine pins. When the chink in his armour became apparent, he came across the worst opponent to destroy his self-belief.

It was 1994 and the great West Indies era was drawing to a close but they still possessed in their armour Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh and Kenneth Benjamin. In their tour to India, they ruthlessly bounced Vinod Kambli and in the three test matches that he played, he barely troubled the scorers, a far cry from his storied initial burst. To learn grit and facing up to the short ball even when it doesn’t come naturally to you, he should have studied Steve Waugh and how he faced up to the menacing Curtly Ambrose when it looked like they would get into a street brawl. Waugh just stood his ground in the face of one of the world’s most intimidating pace bowlers breathing fire and brimstone on him. It isn’t as if Steve Waugh ever mastered the short ball. What he mastered was standing his ground in the face of adversity, not letting it define him and dent his self-confidence. Not all great players iron out their flaws in the course of the career.

The 1995 series between Australia and West Indies signalled the end of the West Indies era in world cricket. At around the same time, Kambli’s star too was on a rapid decline. 

For someone with a happy disposition, it is sad that Kambli’s name is now synonymous with one of Indian cricket’s most heartbreaking moments – Kolkata 1996 when the crowd at Eden Gardens roared and raged and made play impossible in the World Cup semi-final against eventual champions, Sri Lanka. The side was in embers at 120/8. If they had continued, the other two wickets would have fallen quickly anyway. 

Did Vinod Kambli run off the field,  thinking he could save the match for his country? Or was he just crying like the rest of us?

After that, his career went into free fall. 

With the ascent of Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly in 1996, the blueprint for one of the greatest batting line ups in modern cricket was being drawn. He played his last test match when he was 24 and by 2000, his ODI career, plagued by injury and missed chances, came to a grinding halt. It’s tough to recall his innings because there were hardly any significant ones. He was accused of being able to make that many comebacks because his best buddy Sachin Tendulkar was at the captain. Even if it were true, he didn’t make those chances count. 

There were murmurs of indiscipline and developing a too close to comfort relationship with the bottle. He accused the board of targeting him because of his caste, but his off field behaviour made him an easy target.

The advent of reality television opened up the gate for gullible people looking for their 15 seconds of fame. Kambli was a willing candidate for such morbidity. In one such cheap show, he was asked if Tendulkar could have done more to help him. He replied in the affirmative. He grew up in a chawl with some 20 people in a room and used his hard upbringing as a reason for his unrestrained lifestyle. Come to think of it, what could Tendulkar or anyone else have done to help him? Chained him to his room so that the temptations of the world couldn’t reach him?  No doubt his struggles were far greater than many others and his story would have been an aspirational one if only he had learned to keep his head on his shoulders. Though Tendulkar has never publicly spoken about Kambli and his unfulfilled potential, he has made a few comments that give us an insight as to why he was able to accomplish what he did and why Kambli lost his way. In an interview to The Telegraph he said “I wouldn’t want to talk about talent, because that’s not for me to judge. But if we have to talk about differences, then I would say that his lifestyle was different. We were both individuals with different natures, and we responded differently to various situations. In my case, my family was always there to keep an eye and keep me grounded at all times. I can’t speak for Vinod.” 

Cricket writers have said that Kambli’s unfulfilled potential was one of Tendulkar’s biggest regrets. I managed to read a few pages of Rajdeep Sardesai’s new book ‘Democracy XI’ which traces the journeys of 11 of India’s greatest cricketers. In his piece on Tendulkar, he writes about going to meet Vinod Kambli as a part of the piece and says that when he went to meet him, he smelled alcohol on his breath. So many years, so many demons yet unconquered. He claims to have changed his ways but with Kambli, everything has to be taken with a pinch of salt.

While cricket had moved beyond Vinod Kambli, the need for the spotlight has never quite left him. He acted in a movie but never took off as an actor. He stood as a candidate in the local assembly elections and lost. He made the startling revelation that the ’96 World Cup semi-final was fixed. Former players quashed his claims and even if there was an outside chance that he was telling the truth, his non-existent credibility belied any chance of his claim being investigated. He converted to Christianity, hoping that a different god could provide him salvation and lift his numerous burdens. By the time he announced his retirement in 2011, years after wearing an India cap, he was a mere footnote.

A couple of years back, I made my maiden visit to Shivaji Park. In my mind’s eye, I saw a young Sachin Tendulkar, a young Vinod Kambli, a young Sunil Gavaskar, who were once like any of the boys playing on that ground. I began to ponder about a parallel universe, one in which Kambli actually fulfilled his potential. If he had, would there have been place for another left-handed batsman in the side? Would Sourav Ganguly have been picked, made his chances count and go onto become one of the greatest capatains of all time? Would Kambli have crafted many more memorable partnerships with Tendulkar and retired a great? He would never have been as great as a Sachin Tendulkar but he surely wouldn’t have fallen to the depths that he did. While Tendulkar tailored his image to that of a middle-class boy untouched by the ravages of incomprehensible success, Kambli tailored his to that of an unrepentant sinner. Just as he couldn’t navigate the short ball, he struggled to navigate the blind alleys of fame as well. 

In modern cricket, many things are no longer anathema. Why, the BCCI even blessed the lifestyle that Kambli once espoused with the after parties at the IPL that were banned after the spot-fixing fiasco of 2013. 

Why Vinod Kambli lost his way and could anything have been done to help him is a discussion that every fan will have till the cows come home. That does little to buttress the reality. 

Lorenzo Carcaterra’s book Sleepers is a story about friendships that are thicker than bloos. It ends thus:

The night and the streets were ours and the future lay sparkling ahead.
And we thought we would know each other forever.”

That’s how Kambli and Tendulkar would have felt back in the day. 

This much we know; in 1988, two boys from Sharadashram Vidya Mandir conjured up a record 664 run partnership and announced their arrival on the big stage. 

One went onto become a god to his fans, an impenetrable colollus of runs, fame and blind devotion, whose legend will forever be told and retold till the end of time. 

People are still searching for the other person. 

What is even sadder is, he is still searching for himself. 

The art of losing

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If there ever is a sore loser, that would be me. I never learned to lose well, even though I lost a lot when I attempted to play any game. When I played badminton I would throw the racket on the ground when I was losing and generally act like a dweeb.

Sport, it is said, goes beyond winning and losing, and the scoreboard. It isn’t a litany of scorecards and records and trophies. When tennis great Bjorn Borg hit on hard times, he wanted to sell his trophies away. Down on luck athletes give away their hard earned silverware and auction their memorabilia when times get tough. A few unfortunate ones sell their souls for a few bucks more. If everything comes at a price, what is it that transcends the limited measures of success?

In life, and in sport, the very definition of winning changes over time.

But where does that leave losing?

By sporting standards, it isn’t very tough to define at all. There can, after all, be just one winner.

Only one runner can cross the finish line first.

Only one team can score more goals than the other.

Only one player can score more points than their opponent.

Only one team can overhaul a score or rout out the opposition.

It was just about a year back when PV Sindhu suddenly stamped her arrival on the limited smorgasbord that is Indian sport. Like hockey usurped cricket’s throne a couple of month’s back on a day when India and Pakistan squared off against each other in a tepid Champions Trophy Final, PV Sindhu pulled off a coup of her own on Sunday when people weren’t even aware that an India-Sri Lanka match was taking place. The setting was perfect. The skies were in no mood to relent, forcing people to stay indoors.

In a year’s time, Sindhu has gone from introducing herself to the world to becoming the face of badminton in India. Saina Nehwal, who fell out of with Pullela Gopichand has some catching up to do even though she began the race before. The loss in the Olympic finals ensured a silver medal but for Sindhu’s followers, silver is now old school.

A few weeks back, just like Sindhu, the Indian Women’s cricket team fell short at the finish line. Sometimes even heartbreak can  win many hearts. The most heartening sign was the confidence exhibited by the players in spite of being relative unknowns and always being under the giant shadow that men’s cricket team casts over them. When asked who her favourite male cricketer was, Mithali Raj retorted and asked if the journalist had ever asked a male cricketer who their favorite female cricketer was.

That’s what you call a winning reply.

Okuhara and Sindhu, both 22 years of age, didn’t begin the first set as equals. Sindhu stole the march and at 11-5, the tide was on her side. Okuhara’s deftness on the court and powerful net game forced Sindhu’s hand and the errors began to show. The first set went to Okuhara but Sindhu came back in the second. At different points, each player was trying to slow down the game, gasp for air and regain their control of the game. Just when you thought Sindhu had a firm grasp, she would smash and somehow find the net. As the players began to tire, the rallies got longer. The chair umpire seemed to have a flight to catch, admonishing the players every time they halted the game in the bid to retrieve themselves.

Watching them was fascinating and tiring at the same time. At its best, sport makes even the viewer sweat bullets.

At 19-18 in the third set, it looked like Sindhu would finally slay the demons that had come in the way of her winning gold in Rio 2016. In that match, she was clearly outclassed and towards the end, Carolina Marin stole the march on her. A year later, there was no such let up in intensity. In its own way, badminton is a kind of gymnastics. Players contort their bodies to smash, drop and return. In their hands, the speed at which the shuttlecock travels can put a bullet to shame.

19 points. That’s where Sindhu would be stranded, the promised land of a gold just two points, two strokes, two smashes, two drops, two anythings, away. Those are the moments when you begin to make deals with a god you don’t even believe in. Or make a promise you will forget once the match is over. When the end came, Okuhara found that extra reserve of energy that all winners have after they have climbed a steep mountain like no other. An epic battle that had lasted almost 2 hours was given a fitting finale. The victor could scarcely believe she had won. Her opponent could scarcely believe she had lost. People who were watching the match from their seats could now take off their imaginary seat belts and breathe.

Sindhu took a few minutes to regain from the physical battle and then the realization of the result sunk in. She would have to save her winner’s speech for another day. The most honest statement of the day came from Okuhara, who when asked how she felt, simply said ‘tired.’

If losing is tiring, try winning.

In his retirement speech, the great Andre Agassi said:

“The scoreboard said I lost today. But what the scoreboard doesn’t say is what it is I have found. Over the last 21 years, I have found loyalty. You have pulled for me on the court and also in life. I found inspiration. You have willed me to succeed, sometimes even in my lowest moments.”

We lose. It’s a part of life. When we lose perspective, hope, dreams, enthusiasm,there is no scoreboard to help us find our way back. We climb the imaginary ladder of success and nearly kill ourselves by trying to reach the finish line.

We win. That is a part of life too.

But neither have a measure.

How do you know whether you’re winning or losing? Or, at the end, how do you know if you’ve won or lost?

At 22, Sindhu has already come within a whisker of winning an Olympic gold and a World Championship. If only she could count the number of young girls waking up wanting to be like her.

On Sunday, the scoreboard said PV Sindhu lost.

What it didn’t say was what she won.

And even if you go looking for it, the scoreboard is the last place you will find it.

 

 

 

 

 

Crouching lions, missing dragons and the search for serendipity

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Sri Lankan cricketer Dimuth Karunaratne (2R) watches as Indian cricketer Ajinkya Rahane (2L) takes a catch to dismiss him as wicketkeeper Wriddhiman Saha (R) looks on during the third day of the third and final Test match between Sri Lanka and India at the Pallekele International Cricket Stadium in Pallekele on August 14, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI (Photo credit should read LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP/Getty Images)

Yes, there is an India-Sri Lanka test series that has just concluded. It came and went like some sort of whatsapp forward whose lifetime is measured in milliseconds. It was a series that got over in ten-and-a-half days, leaving  almost 5 free days, enough to fit in another test match itself. But by the looks of it, broadcasters would be least interested in putting their money on a test series that features Sri Lanka.

The last couple of months have been tumultuous for Indian cricket. The saga between Virat Kohli and Anil Kumble came to a head during the Champions Trophy and by the looks of the post match press conference where Kohli said a new culture in the dressing room was emerging, one where players didn’t feel judged and their every move wasn’t subject to scrutiny, seemed to be a dig at the former coach’s supposed overbearing methods. Kohli, it seems, has learned the art of diplomacy. In a world where the world’s most powerful buffoon goes about threatening nuclear war on twitter and everyone looks to their twitter feeds for opinions and breaking news, if one cared to look, there was no congratulatory message from former coach Kumble on the series win.

When India’s descent in tests began in 2011 at the start of the tour of England, legendary careers were on the wane. But that fall from the perch of the No.1 test side began in a away series. Sri Lanka were whitewashed at home. If Arnab Goswami and his cohorts were present on Sri Lankan television, no doubt the high decibel shows would be calling for everyone’s head in a frenzied out of control manner.

The question everyone seems to be asking is – how did Sri Lanka get here? And is their place in World Cricket as a formidable opponent in tests in jeopardy? India doesn’t play tests with Pakistan; Bangladesh has some way to go before being a formidable test side. That leaves only Sri lanka, who are a side in transition. If India is to go looking for a contest in tests, it has to look beyond its neighbours.

The last test series that India lost at home was to England in 2012-13 when Monty Panesar turned the tables on them. Ever since, their dominance at home has been unchallenged, a niggle against Australia in Pune notwithstanding. The previous season, which saw a record number of tests being played saw the side beat New Zealand, England and Australia.  Barring Sri Lanka, India haven’t won a test series outside of home in a long time. In 2014, they won a test magnificently at Lord’s before spectacularly imploding in the next three matches. When former coach Kumble was given only a one year term to begin with, it was largely because it was a season where all the tests where being played at home. Once Kumble found his groove as a national coach and understood the players, the time would be right to move onto bigger challenges – that was the rationale. Again, that plan blew up in everyone’s faces and it is safe to say that this test side will be truly tested when they play in England, Australia and South Africa.

But the truth is that test cricket has only a handful of nations that can compete at the highest level. Even Ab de Villiers, one of the greatest batsmen that the game has ever seen, is contemplating retiring from test cricket to extend his limited over career.

 

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Chief selector and Sri Lankan great Sanath Jayasuria with the Sri Lankan team

 

Sri Lanka’s journey to the top of the rung has been strewn with stories of disbelief, despair and astonishment – most of which have nothing to do with the long drawn civil war that the country had to endure. There is a brilliant book called This Divided Island by Samanth Subramaniam. It’s about the effects that the civil strife has had on the country, scars of which will take decades and generations to erase.  In the Spirit of Cricket speech given by Kumar Sangakkara a few years back, he spoke about how years of strife had shaped him and the country’s cricketers. He spoke of how his father housed families from different ethnicities in their home at the risk of being found by the Tigers and of the sight of charred bodies on streets. And he also spoke of Sri Lanka’s emergence as a cricketing power. Another must read is a brilliant book by Snehan Karunatilaka, based on a fictional Sri Lankan spinner who has seemingly fallen away from the face of the planet.

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In the 90s, Sri Lanka were nobodies in the world cricket. India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan had not yet jointly hosted the 1996 world Cup,. The late Jagmohan Dalmiya changed the world order in his own way by making India the treasure chest of world cricket, much to the chagrin of others. Australia even refused to play matches in Sri Lanka, calling out on the never-ending civil war and concerns about their own safety.

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Arjuna Ranatunga crossing swords with umpire Darrell Hair when he called Muralitharan for chucking

 

While the country was plagued by civil war, the cricket team was waging numerous battles on the field of play. In 1995, umpire Darrel Hair no-balled Muttiah Muralitharan for chucking. Captained by the pudgy Arjuna Ranatunga who would not have met any of the current fitness standards of world cricket, the side stood by Murli in his hour of need and the team walked-off the field in protest and in commiseration to their accused team mate. The sight of Ranatunga wagging his finger furiously at the umpire wasn’t one of senseless bravado; it was one of a leader standing up to a wrongly accused comrade. It was of of cricket’s unfortunate moments, but one that had to have happened if they had to break free from the shackles that were binding them.

In Ranatunga, the side had found a leader who as willing to take bullets for his players. At around the same time, Sri Lanka went about rewriting the rules of how the game was played in the limited overs format. Romesh Kaluwitharana and Sanath Jayasuria formed a fearsome duo who decapitated sides in the first 15 overs with their hell for leather approach. They cemented their place in pantheon of great sides when they lifted in World Cup in 1996 by stunning Australia in Lahore. But the venue would be bittersweet for them. Nearly 13 years later, in their tour to Pakistan, terrorists rained bullets on their bus and they were saved by an alert bus driver. Barring Zimbabwe, no international team has toured Pakistan since.

In the 2008 series against India, they unleashed their secret weapon Ajantha Mendis, who spun a web around the likes of Dravid, Tendulkar, Ganguly and Laxman. Virender Sehwag cracked another perilous double century but Sri Lanka, captained by Mahela Jayawardane, came out on top, beating India 2-1. In 2010, the test series against India was drawn 1-1. It was also the last well-fought test series between the two sides.

By 2015, the decline had begun. After being in a commanding position, India fell like nine pins in their second innings in their first match at Galle but went onto win the remaining matches and sealed the series 2-1. The series was also Kumar Sangakkara’s last test outing and there would be no fairy tale ending.

The word serendipity has its roots in the word Serendip, which was the old name for Sri Lanka. It translates to a pleasant surprise or a happy accident, a sequence of events that usually lead to a desirable ending.

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Javagal Srinath shouldered the Indian bowling attack for nearly a decade

 

A couple of weeks back, I experienced one such moment. One my way to work, at the busy Kempegowda Metro station, I spotted a familiar face. At first I wasn’t sure but when I got close I realised it was none other than bowling great Javagal Srinath, carrying his own bag and stepping on the elevator to take a metro. People around him were equally surprised but he went about his business as if he were just another person, not one of India’s best pacemen who played 4 world cups and clocked 150 km/h in his heyday.

It reminded me of another cricketing moment that featured Javagal Srinath and Sri Lanka. It was the ill-fated semi-final of the 1996 World Cup between India and Sri Lanka. India opted to bowl first and going by the first over, it was the finest decision ever. Kaluwitharana and Jayasuria, who had both been in thunderous form in the tournament, were out in the very first over. We were in class and a teacher let her guard down for once and told an excited classroom the news of the wickets falling. Students in every class were shouting their lungs out. In that match, serendipity arrived in the form of Aravinda De Silva for Sri Lanka, who rescued his side and helped them post a challenging total.

Everyone knows how that game ended. 

Sometimes, when things aren’t going our way, we wish for something magical to come by and lift us out. We wish a magic genie would arrive on a Monday morning and transport us to a land far away from our dreary day jobs. We wish for a lottery to absolve us of our EMIs and wage slavery.

But those things never come to pass.

The last major tournament that the Sri Lankans won was the T20 World Cup in 2014. Since then, they have seen the retirements of greats and a new generation has been ushered in. They don’t necessarily lack in talent but what they lack now is self-belief. Finding their way back may take some time.

Till then, like the rest of us, all they need now is a little bit of serendipity.

 

One Sunday when Pakistan helped India discover sport

June 18th, 2017, will always be a red letter day for Indian sport.

Jasprit Bumrah hasn’t played a lot of cricket but he is known enough face in the scheme of things of Indian cricket. When all eyes were on him, he realised what it is to feel like the loneliest man in the word. One moment, he was saviour, the other moment he was a sinner condemned to the depths of hell.

There are so many stories that were crammed into a 7 hour time period on the day of the Champions Trophy final that it is still a bit hard to connect the dots.

What made the much awaited turned dysfunctional turned eye opening Sunday for you ?

Bumrah’s no-ball that gave Fakhar Ali the license to punish and condemn him to a life of ‘what might have been’?

The Indian hockey team that suddenly managed to grab eyeballs  on a day when the Indian cricket team was playing Pakistan in a final?

Pakistan’s miracle comeback from behind after receiving a hiding in the first match they played against their arch rivals will no doubt be a story for the ages. India has beaten Pakistan comprehensively in the last few big tournament clashes and most of them have been one-sided affairs that barely lived up to the hype.

But on Sunday, June 18th, 2017, Pakistan decided it was 1992 all over again. Back then, Imran Khan’s cornered tigers took on the world’s best and showed everyone what they could do if only they cared to put aside bickering and personal differences. All teams have them but with Pakistan, they don’t stay inside the dressing room. Over the years, their performances have veered from utterly bewildering to jaw dropping. What the Pakistani team succeeded in doing on that Sunday was actually a lot more remarkable. It wasn’t just that they humbled their arch rivals and beat them by a margin that will surely keep them up a few more nights. I recall India losing by 125 runs in the World Cup final of 2003 and thinking that was a massive margin. But that was Australia. For a while, it looked like we could never cross the great Australian wall. Getting beaten by them was more or less a norm. This was Pakistan, a side India had beaten by over 120 runs a week before the final.

Somewhere, India just ran out of luck. And history too deserted them. When an opposition batsman scores a century, the side chasing is already at a psychological disadvantage as the batsmen know that one of them has to step up if the chasing side are to have any hopes of a victory.

In the epochal 2003 encounter at the Centurion between the two sides, Saeed Anwar scored a brilliant century and Pakistan posted what was more than a formidable title in pre-T20 times. It took no less than a Sachin Tendulkar to launch a blistering counter attack, one of the best of modern times, for India to canter home.

In the 2011 World Cup final, Mahela Jayawardane scored a fluent century and posted a challenging score in a World Cup final. It took a masterclass from an out of form Dhoni and considerable contributions from a few others for India to lift the cup.

Alas, Fakhar Zaman’s century had no such challenges. The one challenge he was posed turned out to be a hoax. India hasn’t learned from its lessons after the T20 semi-finals where no-balls succeeded in giving the West Indies a couple of reprieves before they blasted India out of contention. It was a day of excess, none of which flowed in India’s direction. There were too many extras given by the bowlers, bastsmen were given extra lives and none of the extras on offer went India’s way. It’s like watching it rain here in another area from your terrace but not a drop falls where you are standing.

But the Pakistan cricket team succeeded in doing something else too.  For a few hours, they made India look outward  and realise that there was more to life than cricket.

When Sunday, June 18th dawned, no one knew Kidambi Srikanth was playing a super series final against Kasumasa Sakai. No one knew India were taking on Pakistan in a hockey encounter. I remember a joke a friend had sent after an Indian  loss; he said you know India is losing when you see kids playing on the street and you can hear the sounds of traffic.

Everyone loves a tale of redemption, a tale where the underdog overthrows the Goliath. Seven years ago, an 18 year old Mohammad Amir left England in shame and nearly set his career on a path of no return. 

He is lucky to have survived the near fatal mistake he made. Jasprit Bumrah’s no-ball may or may not have cost India a victory in a final. Mohammad Amir’s no-ball could have cost him greatness, immortality and his livelihood.

There is another thing about redemption – it’s always sweeter when the person or side you are rooting for wins. If Mohammad Amir came looking for redemption, he returned with a canonization. He made a comeback to cricket over a year back but June 18th, 2017 was his moment of crowning glory. The sinner had returned from near death to become a saint.

If someone with no inclination towards sport had peeked into a facebook or twitter feed when the match was going on, they would have been mistaken. People were tweeting about hockey. And an unknown entity, Kidambi Srikanth was trending. My love for cricket has been written about eloquently in these pages but a one-sided contest makes for tepid viewing. The hottest dish on offer on that Sunday, India vs Pakistan in a Champions Trophy final, turned to a cold dish no one was interested in partaking in.

Hockey, the country’s forgotten national sport, rose from the ashes to inject some life into proceedings.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. And couldn’t recall the last time I watched a hockey match.

Penalty corner, drag flick, goal. Penalty corner, drag flick goal.

When Pakistan tried to score, goalkeeper Sreejesh made some beautiful saves. It was like one of those moments when you realised that was billed as the party of a lifetime was a damp squib and the fun was happening, as always, at a place where you least expect it.

At that moment, there where only two things that people wanted – for India’s torture to end in cricket and for the hockey match to go on forever and ever. In the end, the Indian hockey team thrashed Paksitan 7-1. The Indian cricket team lost by a massive 180 runs.

Two weeks is a long time in sport. Since that fateful Sunday, Kidambi Srikanth won back to back Superseries titles in Australia and Indonesia.

Anil Kumble was unceremoniously ejected from the post of head coach after differences with the captain became ‘untenable’. Indian Cricket, it seems, has been going from one crisis to the other, each making the people and the board look small and amateurish. India is playing West Indies in an inconsequential ODI tournament. Soon, life will be back to normal and cricket will swallow all the eyeballs, the writer of this piece included.

On May 26th, 2017, KPS Gill, the former Director General Police of Punjab, passed way. Credited with quelling the insurgency in Punjab, there is another thing that many obituaries failed to mentioned – the fact that he also systematically killed off Indian Hockey as the head of the Indian Hockey Federation. Like most officials who function like monarchs and have to be dragged out from their thrones or overthrown, KPS Gill was no different. It is safe to say that he probably scuttled a couple of generations of Indian hockey at least. Viren Rasquinha, a talented midfielder, retired at the age of 27 to pursue an MBA. Can you imagine Ravindra Jadeja retiring to pursue an alternative career?

To see how poles apart hockey and cricket are in our country, look no further than the titles of these autobiographies.

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Sachin Tendulkar’s bedtime story in the guise of an autobiography is titled ‘Playing it My Way’. On the cover is an image of Sachin playing in his final test, his head looking up at the heavens, thanking them for everything he has been given. Contrast that with the autobiography of another legend, Dhanraj Pillai, who was arguably one of the greatest hockey players after Dhyanchand. It is titled ‘Forgive me Amma’ and the picture is of a desolate Pillai looking down, perhaps ruing his fate and the cards that he had been dealt. Two champions whose journeys were vastly different because of the sport that they chose.

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It maybe sedition to say this, but I will say it nonetheless – thank you Pakistani cricket team. Thank you for giving hockey its day in the sun, even if it was just for an hour. For laying waste to our best laid plans on a Sunday

In India, if hockey, badminton or any sport needs to get its day in the sun, it looks like cricket has to lose. Such a long journey to traverse before we call ourselves a sporting nation.

 

 

 

 

Once Brothers

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‘How can I ever bring myself to fight against Bhishma and Drona, who are worthy of reverence? How can I, Krishna? Surely it would be better to spend my life begging than to kill these great and worthy souls!’

Arjuna to Lord Krishna in the Bhagvad Gita

In the epic the Mahabharata, Arjuna is forced to go to war against his own family and gets wise counsel from Lord Krishna to do his duty. It is sad that Indian cricket seems to be embroiled in a Mahabharata of its own. There is dissent in the board about how they are now being forced to take a smaller share of the cricket pie. There is dissent against the ICC and Shashank Manohar, who is accused of not standing up for Indian cricket. A few weeks back, there were talks of India not participating in the Champions Trophy as sign of proetest against the ICC. Those fears were quickly assuaged as it would have looked immature and silly if cricket’s biggest money spinner didn’t participate in ICC’s second biggest event after the 50 over and T20 World Cups.

And then, a week or so ago, a new and unexpected firestorm has been raging and if all the half baked information and reports could form liquid rock, a volcano is bound to erupt. After the victorious Australia series, Indian cricket went from its longest home test season to the razzmatazz of the IPL. There were no murmurs of dissent, an unhappy dressing room, or a rift between the coach and the team.

Indian cricket is seemingly at war with Indian cricket.

The first wave hit when the BCCI announced that it is inviting applications for a coach.

Wait, don’t we already have a coach who has had a very successful first year even though it was a home season?

Wasn’t an extension a given?

Why advertise the search for a coach a week before the team is playing the Champion’s Trophy?

What the hell exactly happened?

There is at least one positive – if a point of no-return has been reached between Virat Kohli and Anil Kumble, at least the wheels didn’t fall off when the team was in the middle of a high profile series and didn’t lead to a series defeat. Barring an unexpected result and tawdry performance in Pune against Australia and couple of minor scares against England, the Indian team has had a dream run. It appeared to be the perfect setting to take things to the next level with a season of high profile international series in the offing. Though a series win against Sri Lanka in 2016 came after a long drought, the new look Indian team are yet to win convincingly in Australia or England. A victory at Lord’s in 2014 was followed by a meltdown of epic proportions where the side crashed and burned in matches that were lucky to last 3 days.

The rift has gained significance because after a long time, the players are odds with one of their own. When Greg Chappell and the team had travelled to the World Cup in 2007, the wheels had well and truly gone off. Had India not had such a disastrous showing, it’s anyone’s guess what might have transpired. If Chappell was well and truly the devil that he was made out to be, he may not have kept his job but he may not have exited the country in so much ignominy. All blame was cast on the coach then, that he created a dressing room where no one was secure and this led to a team that was low on motivation. The World Cup fiasco was the point of no return.

Luckily, and if reports are to be believed that the rift between Kumble and Kohli has a nadir, it didn’t result in a series loss where all dirty linen was aired in public.

Few remember Kapil Dev’s stint as coach in the late 90s mostly because Indian cricket and professionalism kept an arm’s length from each other those days. When the match fixing scandal hit, he was forced to resign and his tenure is barely a blimp in the short history of the long list of Indian coaches. But with Anil Kumble, things are very different.

For someone who once refused to share space in a newsroom with a former cricketer tainted by match-fixing, that he was going to have a no-nonsense approach was a given. Someone who bowls with a broken jaw isn’t the one to nurse bruised egos. With Virat Kohli’s own work ethic being beyond reproach, it didn’t seem to be a perfect mismatch like the way it is being reported now.

Should players choose their coaches?

Should employees choose their bosses? What an ideal world that would be. Or would it?

At the risk of  flogging a dead horse, let’s recap Greg Chappell’s appointment as the Indian coach back in 2005 amid much fanfare. It was none other than his soon to be arch nemesis, Sourav Ganguly, who pushed from Chappell’s appointment. The honeymoon, if there ever was one, spiralled and snowballed into a controversy when Ganguly was made to step down as captain. Even though India won a test series in
West Indies after 35 years under Rahul Dravid’s captaincy, Chappell’s legacy will always be tied down to the tumultuous meltdown off the team in the 2007 World Cup. Accusations were bandied and Sachin Tendulkar himself spoke to the media on how he was personally hurt by the accusations of the coach on the perceived lack of commitment of some senior players.

After his fall from grace and exile from the corridors of Indian cricket, a behind the scenes Gary Kirsten worked quietly behind the scenes and his run ended with the greatest prize of all – the World Cup victory in 2011 after a 27 year drought. No one knew when Duncan Fletcher came or left and Ravi Shastri met with some success as Team Director.

There are a few uncomfortable questions here – if Virat Kohli is making such a hue and cry about not wanting Anil Kumble and supposedly prefers Ravi Shastri, why didn’t he get what he wanted last year instead of letting a year go by and then playing truant?

If a legend like Anil Kumble is treated so shabbily, why will any of the former greats try their hand at coaching?

Last year, when the board asked people to apply for the coaching position, there were 57 applicants. This year, there are 9. Looks like no one is willing to be a moth that is burned by the flame. And the 9 that have applied aren’t even enviable. If reports are to be believed, Virender Sehwag is one of the applicants. In his playing days, his cavalier approach once led to John Wright catching him by his collar and admonishing him. His playing career was surely compromised as he didn’t really put a premium on his fitness. At his peak, his was breath-taking, audacious and could change the fate of the game in matter of minutes. But can he be the coach of a national team?

In all of this, Ramachandra Guha’s resignation letter has created a storm in a teacup about the helplessness of the COA and the vested interests in Indian cricket that keep it from moving forward and making whole scale changes. He may have seemed a misfit in the ethic less world of cricket administration but the fact that he has nothing to lose must make us take some of what he is saying seriously.

Does a team need to be happy and cheerful to win?

It’s a question that has plagued many people who study motivation and though many have claimed to have found answers, reality poses a very different scenario.

If the Indian team was so unhappy, could they have had the season that they had?

 

The role of a coach at the highest level is very different from the role of a coach at the lower levels. If the only job of a coach is to create a happy dressing room, it is very difficult to measure success. If a team doesn’t perform, the coach is the first to get the boot. And going by what we have heard, the Indian team was a bunch of not so happy campers who had an outstanding home season, in spite of a ‘headmasterly’ coach.

Some thing just doesn’t add up, or we need to admit that there can never be one criteria for judging success. And that happiness and satisfaction don’t necessarily lead to victory, nor does dissatisfaction and unhappiness necessarily lead to catastrophe.

Can a bunch of unhappy people cobble together and still create something? Sure, it happens in workplaces all the time.

In 1998, the Chicago Bulls won the last of their six NBA titles. After that, one of the greatest sporting legacies broke up as there were conflicts between the coach Phil Jackson, the team and the manger Jerry Krause. Even in his hall of fame speech made a little over 10 years after he wore a Bulls jersey, Jordan spared no barbs when it came to Jerry Krause. All of which go to show that everything wasn’t hunky dory behind the scenes.

Whatever the reality, this fracas has surely altered a few things that will haunt Indian cricket in years to come.

Former cricketers of stature will surely hesitate to come forward and take up the coaching mantle. Rahul Dravid’s name has been doing the rounds as national coach for years but after seeing the treatment meted out to Kumble, he would like to keep more than an arm’s length from the job. Virat Kohli maybe a great player but the truth is there are no ‘no men’ around him. With the COA turning the Supreme Court at every step and the old guard still trying to restore old order, his say in things seem to be overwhelming. But everything that goes up must come down. He can do well if just saw how the generation that preceded him conducted themselves.

After his retirement, Anil Kumble was the president of the Karnataka State Cricket Association for 3 years before deciding not to run again. He has been very involved with Indian cricket but this will surely shake him up and make him rethink of his role and contribution to the national team.

If Indian cricket just wants Yes Men, then that’s what they will get. Sunil Gavaskar, however great he is, is an unapologetic yes man. So is Ravi Shastri, which is why the board seems to be reluctant to look beyond him. Which is why he was sure he would be appointed coach before Kumble threw a googly and pulled the carpet under him. The trio of VVS Laxman, Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly would have surely not foreseen such a twist in the plot when they appointed one of their comrades and one of the country’s most tireless warriors on the field as coach.

Anil Kumble’s engineering past was evident in his cricket. He always seemed methodical and after his playing days, didn’t seem uncomfortable with power point and making presentations. A few weeks back, he had championed an increase in the fees for players by making a presentation to the COA.

It’s a tragedy that a man of method is caught up in all this madness.

Whether Indian cricket is on the cusp of another golden age is yet to be seen. But after the match fixing imbroglio, it was a bunch of well-intentioned gentlemen who came together and made of fall in love with cricket again. Srinath, Dravid, Kumble, Tendular, Laxman, Ganguly and later Zaheer Khan and Virender Sehwag, all made us hold our heads up high again. No doubt, there was some emotion involved when they appointed Anil Kumble as coach. They were all a band of brothers who traveled the world and changed the face of Indian cricket.

Now, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly have to take a call on the future of one of their own.

For all the battles that they have fought together, like Arjuna in the Mahabharata, this is one battle that they wish they would never have had to fight.