March, and the meaning of life

 

march

Many moons ago, I was born in the month of March.

Many moons later, I met my wife, who too was born in the month of March.

In a March somewhere in between, I was held hostage in an exam hall, VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid batted through oppressive Kolkata heat, a stellar bowling line-up that featured the likes of Jason Gillespie, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, to script a Houdini act and give India its best test victory ever.

Somewhere along the way, I grew up, fell out of faith with God and religion and put a ridiculous amount of hope in cricket and sport, looking to find meaning that had somehow eluded me.

I would like to think that Kolkata 2001 was when I realised that cricket could fill some of that void. Cricket had the answers that academics, god and religion didn’t.

But there is one god that I pray to – the rain god. For one, I can see, touch and feel the rain. If there is a more wondrous natural coolant ever invented, I would like to know what it is. It threatened to rain on Sunday. Then it finally rained on Monday. It threatened to rain on Tuesday. But it didn’t just stop at a drizzle. It poured. The decibel levels of the thunder were higher than those of a Metallica concert.

Maybe even the clouds were relieved and cried tears of joy, so much so that I had to stop and take shelter on the way home.

On Sunday, the real threat was Australia threatening to rain down on India’s parade. It was the home side that was looking for shelter from the Australian assault. The day loomed over us like some sort of an apocalypse. It could have been the day when the unfathomable became a thing of reality. Australia are supposed to be the visiting side. They are supposed to get crushed 4-0, the Indian spinners running through their line-up, making them look like school boys. Our batting line-up is supposed to crush their very souls. Virat Kohli is supposed to continue his magnificent form and score another double century with his eyes closed.

In Pune, India were out-spun and out-batted in their own backyard on a made-to-measure turning track. In a reversal of roles, India got a taste of their own medicine and it left a very bitter taste in the mouth. It was like America helping form the Al-Qaeda only to have it come back to bite them. Remember 2001, when the first match ended in three days in Mumbai? The only difference between then and now is that Australia were expected to rail-road India. Back then, they marched to India on a record 16 match winning streak in a bid to conquer the final frontier. In 2017, India was expected to trample upon Australia mercilessly the way they trampled over England and New Zealand.

189 all out on day 1 of the Bangalore test. 84 more runs than they could manage in the first test at Pune. Australia were smelling blood and pinching themselves. A series win in India against a rampaging Indian side?

There are few sounds on a cricket ground that are near mellifluous.

The sound a straight drive makes. It is just ‘thock’, nothing more. It’s the sound of near perfection.

The sound of the ball hitting the stumps when a player from the opposition is bowled.

The sound of the crowd exploding in unison when victory has been sprung upon them.

David Warner found his off-stump in a disheveled condition when Ashwin bowled one that turned in and Warner tried to chase it and missed it. Such a beautiful sound. The first session of the match was test cricket at its best with India finally showing ‘intent’. Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav bowled with precision and aggression, not giving the Aussies any easy runs.

Yet, 189 isn’t a score to play with. All these years, the scourge of India is finding pace bowlers who could come and complement the heroics of the batsmen. Javagal Srinath tried and nearly lost his shoulders. Zaheer Khan’s fitness was always suspect and it was spin that was deemed to be the answer to all our questions.

Anil Kumble, then Harbhajan Singh and now, R Ashwin.

But if spin is the answer, Pune was the unanswered question.

While the rest of the world was sitting back in their chairs on Sunday and God himself was supposedly resting, 13 players were battling it out at the M Chinnaswamy stadium. Cubbon Park, one of Bangalore’s largest parks is just a stone’s throw away from the stadium and home to many rare species of birds, but the loudest chirps were heard from players on the cricket field.

Chirp Chirp Chirp Chirp. Wicket! Ravindra Jadeja, the man with probably the most memes to his name, came to the party. Ashwin, in a very ungainly manner, held onto a catch offered by Hanscomb. Jadeja then found himself in the middle of a hat-trick, accounting for Wade and Lyon in the same over.

As Sunday wore down and everyone was already in a funk about getting back to their wage slave selves, Australia had a 48 run lead. In life, as in sport, it is always tough to arrest a losing streak. In the two disastrous tours of England and Australia in 2011-12 when India were handed consecutive 0-4 series defeats, it felt as if the slide began in the mind. The moment they lost two test matches in a row, the remainder of the series just felt like a Monday to Friday going through the motions kind of work week. If India didn’t come back in Bangalore, there would be no real motivation to dig deep into their reserves and script a comeback.

Day 3. Monday. The day we all seemingly wake up with a hangover even if we have not drunk the night before. What will become of our lives without live commentary? What other reason to wake up on a Monday other than a test match in whose hands lie the destiny of a series? Only live sport can add meaning to a Monday. Or a Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Mitchell Starc, expected to sting with his lethal pace had also added the sting to the tail at Pune. A lead of over a 100 would mean game and series Australia. The unraveling of all the good work that Australia had put in began on Monday morning. 4 wickets fell for a mere 36 runs and the lead came to a halt at 87. On twitter, Harsha Bhogle tweeted that India needed at least a 300 run lead to ensure victory.

Abhinav Mukund and KL Rahul began sedately but Mukund’s tepid run of form continued. Rahul, whose near century in the first innings was the only spice in an otherwise bland score card again came to the rescue.

For the longest time, the BCCI used all of its might to fight the DRS saying that it wasn’t reliable. After old guard moved on and the board itself went topsy turvy, the DRS found a tiny opening and made itself comfortable. Before this series, Virat Kohli was walking on water. In Pune, he was slipping on ice. In the first innings in Bangalore, he was adjudged LBW to a Nathan Lyon delivery for 12 and asked for a review. But the result was obvious. He was desperate to score runs and Australia were even more desperate for his wicket. In the second innings, he was again adjudged lbw to Hazelwood and was supremely confident that he had nicked the ball. The third umpire, it seemed, thought he was controlling the button to a nuclear bomb instead of a decision in a test match. Again, Kohli lost to DRS. 300 lead someone was saying?

If Warner was Ashwin’s bunny, Pujara looked like he was trying to learn a new language called learning to play spin. He edged one to Smith and was dropped. He was on 4. KL Rahul faced 16 consecutive deliveries in order to give Pujara a breather and get his confidence back. After Kohli’s dismissal, Ravindra Jadeja of all people was sent in, for no discernible reason. Remember when Javagal Srinath or Irfan Pathan would be sent in as night watchmen as a bid to protect the batsmen and delay an inevitable breach? Sending in a nightwatchman or its equivalent is like not picking the phone when the moneylender calls. They will eventually find you and make you pay. He lasted a grand total of 15 deliveries before being castled by Hazelwood.

Ajinkya Rahane and Chateshwar Pujara didn’t do a Dravid and Laxman but they came within the same vicinity.

Day 4. On a day when India were expected to solidify their position, their wheels came undone like some defective toy. If Australia’s good work had been undone on the morning of Day 4, India came undone on 4th morning. Karun Nair, triple centurion and local boy saw his leg stump beheaded and doing cartwheels. Rahane, Nair, Pujara, Ashwin, Sharma and Yadav were all out in a space of 36 runs.

188 runs separated Australia and the Border Gavaskar trophy. The pitch wasn’t a minefield and when the Aussies began batting, it didn’t look a saunter to victory nor did it seem like they had a great wall that needed to be scaled.

188. 112 runs less than the desired 300. Almost two days to get there.

At what point did victory seem possible?

When David Warner’s wicket was again pocketed by Ashwin?

When Steven Smith was adjudged LBW, allegedly had a ‘brain fade’ and looked to the dressing room for an opinion before the umpires and a few Indian players pounced on him like vultures on their prey and he left before it could get uglier?

When Virat Kohli, like he always does, played symphony conductor to the crowd and orchestrated their cheers to drill nails into the Australian chase?

When R Ashwin realised that he was the No.1 spin bowler in the world and bowled like one?

When Wriddhiman Saha flew and took a blinder to send Matthew Wade back?

In the end, Nathan Lyon, who had bowled magnificently in the first innings gave an easy return catch to Ashwin and the comeback from 0-1 was complete.

Parallels were drawn to Kolkata 2001 and while it was a riveting match, there really can’t be a comparison. Back in 2001, no one expected India to win in Kolkata, Mumbai or in Chennai. In 2017, Pune was an electric shock and until day 4 in Bangalore, the match could have gone either way. It would take something very very special to come close to what a Very Very Special Laxman and Rahul Dravid accomplished.

Somethings do happen only once in a lifetime.

And some things come close to the original. The 75 run victory by India at Bangalore came close.

I could see Kolkata 2001 only in patches. I was writing the dreaded board exams, trying to make sense of life. The school canteen had a 14 inch tv, the only source of information. While Dravid and Laxman were playing their magnum opus, I was in the confines of an exam hall, the rustle of the fan and the papers my only companion. Highlights and articles can’t make up for the real thing.

Like that match and series sowed the seeds of the golden generation that would travel the world and bring glory by playing some of the finest cricket in the most dignified manner, I began to see cricket as a metaphor for life too.

Ecstasy, agony, relief, defiance, fortitude, artistry, hope, things that make a life, bind it and give it meaning. That’s what cricket is, too.

And in more ways than one for me, it all began in March.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 deliveries at the Centurion

centurion

It took three deliveries to set up one of the best counter-attacking innings of all time.

March 1, 2003. India vs Pakistan. It was a beautiful day. Any day with an India-Pakistan match is a beautiful one. India entered the World Cup on the back of a disastrous tour of New Zealand. At the helm was Sourav Ganguly. Mohammad Azharruddin, who had led India in the previous 3 world cups was a fugitive in hiding, banned for his involvement in match fixing.

In 2002, a young Mohammad Kaif and Yuvraj Singh had pulled the rug from underneath the English side in a thrilling chase. An image that would be associated with Sourav Ganguly was of him taking off his shirt on the Lord’s balcony. India traveled to the World Cup without VVS Laxman, who never got his day under the sun in limited overs cricket. His replacement? Dinesh Mongia, who was roped in as an all-rounder but did precious little to justify his place. To explain the difference between them better, VVS Laxman retired in 2012 as one of the all-time greats. Dinesh Mongia was found guilty of match fixing in the short-lived ISL and no one knows where he is now.

Not many recall the beginning of the 2003 World Cup. India began with an unconvincing win against Netherlands in which they scored 204 and had their bowlers bail them out. In their second match against Australia, they were broken, beaten and scarred. Decimated for a paltry 125, the Aussies cantered home to a nine wicket victory. Back home, the obituaries were already being written. Effigies were burnt, mock funerals held. In far away South Africa, team members appealed to the public for support.

Their next two fixtures were against Zimbabwe and Namibia and the performances were far more reassuring. Then came their second noteworthy game of the tournament. The bowling attack was spearheaded by the aging war horse Javagal Srinath who would announce his retirement after the World Cup and a young Ashish Nehra and Zaheer Khan. Nehra announced his arrival on the big stage with a six wicket haul that sent the English packing.

The nightmare run had taken a turn. It was time for a dream run. More importantly, it was time for the final before the final.

It was, and will always be, India’s batting against Pakistan’s bowling. India had Sehwag, Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly and Yuvraj. Pakistan had Wasim Akram, Waquar Younis and motor mouth Shoaib Akhtar who had made claims of having plans for Tendulkar. In the pre T20 era, a big score wasn’t 400. Saeed Anwar played the innings of a lifetime and scored a masterful century on the grandest stages of all. Remember his knock of 194 that knocked the wind out of the Indians in 1997? In the end, they ended with 273.

India had never lost to Pakistan in a World Cup. Could this be the moment when history changed course? Could India’s batsman soak up the pressure, the expectations, the cheers, the applause, the history?

In years to come, Wasim Akram would go on to say that Pakistan lost the match in the first 6 overs. Here’s how they went onto to do it:

Sachin Tendulkar never took strike. But in this match, he did. Early niggles meant the match was over. If he went, all of India would shut off their television sets and an  indefinite mourning would begin. Outside, the streets were empty. Businesses were shut, wedding halls had television sets so people would turn up for the wedding and the food wouldn’t go to waste.

Wasim Akram’s first over went for two boundaries, one from Sachin and the other from Sehwag. Shoaib Akhtar was a great fast bowler. But his attitude and temperament ensured that he would never be as great as he could have been. His first over was an unmitigated disaster. 3 wides. And then three deliveries that he will forever be entwined with, however far and fast he tries to run away from them.

Something had to give. You almost willed for something happen. A wicket. A six. A blinder of a catch. A run out. A fan running onto the field.In that second over, all the pent up anxiety was drained out in just 3 deliveries.

It should have been a wide. An over-enthusiastic Akhtar threw all he had into the delivery hoping to elicit and edge from Tendulkar. It if were left, it may even run off for four without any help from the batsman. But an India-Pakistan encounter does strange things even to the greatest of players. Tendulkar reached out and connected with the delivery. Before you could blink, the ball had passed the third man boundary for a six. We all got what we had come for. The next delivery was on target but Tendulkar used his wrists to direct it masterfully towards the square leg boundary. Yet to recover from the six, we were all on our feet again.

There is a shot. It’s called the straight drive. It’s a delight to watch, whosoever plays it.But Sachin Tendulkar’s straight drive? That too against the world’s fastest bowler, in a World Cup match, in a stadium threatening to explode? It’s like a manna from heaven. In the last delivery of the over, he merely touched the ball and it raced to the boundary.

The crowd by now was delirious. Why not? The master batsman had humbled his nemesis.

Sachin Tendulkar would go onto score 98 off 75 deliveries before being hit by cramps and having his movement restricted. Given the context of the match, it ranks as one of the best ODI innings ever played by him, if not one of the best counter attacks in the modern era. India had a few minor hiccups, losing Tendulkar and Ganguly to successive deliveries but Rahul Dravid and Yuvraj Singh would ensure the team crossed the finish line with six overs to spare.

I remember the encounter in the ’96 World Cup. Ajay Jadeja played a wonderful cameo and the Pakistanis came out all guns blazing. That was before Aamir Sohail lost his head and came down the track only to be bowled and then sent off by a very belligerent and mild mannered Karnataka player, Venkatesh Prasad. The ’99 encounter was played in the backdrop of the Kargil crisis and it wasn’t a thriller. Let’s not even talk about 2007. 2011 saw an keenly contested match but Pakistan lost their way half way through their innings.

Wasim Akram and Waquar Younis never played for Pakistan again. Sachin Tendulkar had to wait 8 more years to get his hands on a World cup.

The 2003 encounter will go down as one of the best matches to feature India and Pakistan. The ride was magical. As the tournament progressed, India vanquished Sri Lanka, New Zealand and Kenya and booked their place in the finals where they ran into an Australian juggernaut.

After the victory, there were tears. Tears of relief, ecstasy and a joy that had no adjectives to describe it.

It was a beautiful day. None of us wanted to let it get away.

 

 

 

 

 

Chasing daylight

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No one likes the end, but everyone likes a good ending.

Back in 2002, Pete Sampras beat Andre Agassi in the US Open. No one knew it then, not even Pete Sampras, but it would be his last match ever. In 2003, he announced his retirement and the epilogue for the greatest rivalry of the 90s was written.

As much as we try and wish away the vice like grip that numbers have on us, our lives, well-being and forecasts are all swathed in data. Your health is measured by your weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and sugar levels. Your wealth is measured by your bank balance and future forecasts are measured by present performance. As much as we like to free ourselves from the encumbrances that figures and numbers impose on us, they still tie us down.

In the end, the richest guy doesn’t always win. But we realise that too late. We chase numbers, figures and balance sheets, not realising that while they maybe the most important thing, they may not always be the thing you are remembered for. If that were the case, why is Bill Gates chasing some kind of distant unicorn like eradicating malaria from the world? At what point does someone go from chasing the ephemeral forms of success to chasing the intangible forms of success?

If numbers told us everything, let’s see what these numbers mean yo you:

35.

18.

6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3.

4.

Now let’s put some context to the numbers:

35. The oldest to win a Grand Slam in 43 years.

18. That is the record for the most number of Grand Slam wins.

6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3. That was the result of the Australian Open Finals between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

4. The number of years that have passed since Roger Federer won a Grand Slam title.

A 35 year old athlete and a 35 year old politician are viewed with the same contempt. The former is considered to have run out of steam and the latter is thought of as yet to gather steam. At 35, an athlete is vintage wine. They try to preserve their youth like it were something that if looked after, will never slip away from them. But while the fairness cream industry may have us believe that youth can be found, and preserved, in a bottle, reality paints a picture that is more believable. At 35, what Roger Federer accomplished what may have been statistically possible but yet, scarcely believable.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal maybe chasing a numerical but what they’re actually trying to outrun, like any athlete, is time.

How do you define vintage? The old? the tried and tested? When it comes to an athlete, it means that for a moment in time, they have turned back the clock and snatched a moment in time from their prime when their eyesight was better and their knees weren’t wobbly.

If 35 is old, what about 30? By comparison, it’s young. Rafael Nadal maybe younger but his body isn’t. His knees and wrists have been held together by surgeries and will.

If the first set was vintage Federer, the second set was vintage Nadal. Even those who took sides (I was rooting for Nadal), didn’t want the match to end so soon. 3 sets? Can’t this match just go on and on without end?

In the third set, Federer handed Nadal a 6-1 drubbing. It was surely the end. 6-1? That’s like being hit for 5 sixes in an over and being asked to bowl again.

When Nadal won the 4th set 6-3, a sense of normalcy was restored. Nice try Federer, thanks for all the memories but it’s time for Nadal to do the honours. You’re 35, what are you thinking?

5th set. In the last 3 games, Federer beat reality it its own game. He beat numbers, predictions, history, the odds.

Eugene Kelly was the CEO of KPMG when he was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and given 100 days to live. He wrote a book, Chasing Daylight, about how the diagnosis made him realise that a lot of things he had put a premium on – figures, accomplishments; all paled in comparison to what was truly important – things that couldn’t necessarily be touched or have a figure stamped on them to measure how valuable they were. What if he could have just a few more days in the sun to redo some things? Now that sunset had arrived so rapidly, could he reach for daylight again?

Daylight. That’s what we will all ultimately chase. Another chance, opportunity, the opening of a new door.

When Roger Federer crossed the court and hit a forehand so perfect that it seemed that all the tennis angels were singing hallelulaj, he wasn’t chasing another grand slam win.

Or immortality, riches, fame or recognition.

He was chasing daylight.

 

 

MS Dhoni, the president who can be a citizen again

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In a few days, a transition of power will occur in another part of the world from a President with class to an egoist. In Indian cricket, the transition that occurred from one captain to the other was seamless and graceful. 

A brief history of how the last few Indian ODI captains ended their tenures:

Mohammad Azharuddin – After leading India for the 3rd consecutive time in a World Cup in 1999, his name was dragged into the match fixing scandal and was sent into cricketing exile, never to return to the cricketing field again.

Sourav Ganguly – Resisted the ways of Greg Chappell and was stripped of captaincy and ejected from the side. Returned to the side as player but tensions simmered until Chappell was sacked in 2007.

Rahul Dravid – Suffered the ignominy of a first round exit in the 2007 World Cup. Led the side to a reasonably successful England series a few months later but returned and abruptly quit captaincy. Lost his side in the ODI squad a few months later.

MS Dhoni – Led India to two World Cups. Shocked the world by giving up test captaincy half-way through a series. Calmly announced that he would no longer captain the side in limited overs before the start of an ODI series against England.

By far one of the most peaceful resignations and transitions we have witnessed in Indian cricket.

Have you ever worked under two bosses? One says one thing, the other walks in and changes everything? Or have had to adjust to two different working styles? Or had a boss return after a vacation? With MS Dhoni stepping down from limited overs captaincy, it will now wholly be Virat Kohli’s team. The long home season that saw the board finally going beyond paying mere lip service to test cricket saw Dhoni being away from playing international cricket for months on end and getting back into the fray as player, leave alone captain, every time a limited overs series came up wouldn’t have been easy.

While his retirement from tests still remains some sort of a mystery and came without any warning, his stepping down from captaincy wasn’t greeted with as much shock and awe. His successor was ready, hungry and waiting in the wings.

Not many realise that 9 years is a long time to stay on top at the highest level as a captain. Sourav Ganguly had once commented on how the job of Indian captain was as tough, if not tougher, than that of the Prime Minister’s. While that maybe bit of a stretch, it underlines the fact that being captain in a country where everyone plays the role of selector, judge and jury has its breaking point.

MSD was handed the captaincy just before the inaugural World T20, a format and tournament the all powerful BCCI had sniggered about and sought to play down. He was made captain amidst the rumblings of a few other seniors. A father of one of them still goes off on childish rants about how his Southpaw son’s career was compromised by his ascension to captaincy. In two giddy weeks in September 2007, the team played a new brand of cricket and in the finals, pulled the rug from under the Pakistanis. T20 had become legitimate currency.

People consider MS Dhoni captain cool, the iceman who never thawed under pressure, but his batting is the exact opposite – explosive and at times belligerent. His ability to explode without getting carried away may have something to do with the year 2007. In March, the national team crashed out of the World Cup in the first round and a few people behaved like their life savings had evaporated with the loss and damaged the house that he was building in Ranchi.

Some six months later, after India edged Pakistan out in a last ball thriller to clinch the inaugural T20 World Cup, he was the man who could do no wrong. Someone whose house was attacked a mere six months back was hailed as the savior, the man who could do no wrong. In six months, he had seen from close quarters both ends of the totem pole of Indian cricket – stupidity and delirium.

How the tide had changed.

Modern day cricket calendars and pay checks mean it’s easy for cricketers to lose their hunger and motivation. Dhoni’s rise as captain coincided with the T20 oil rush that saw players from all corners of India becoming overnight stars under the IPL spotlight. Many faded away after their 15 seconds of fame. Why, Sreesanth gambled away his career like it were some sort of chip that he could win back in the next round. Keeping a good head on   one’s shoulders is no easy task and Dhoni did just that. Unlike Virat Kohli who wears his emotions, his heart and heart break on his sleeve like a badge of honour, MS Dhoni was the stoic who seemed emotionless on the field at most times.

When Rahul Dravid unburdened himself of captaincy, he lost his side in the ODI squad a few months later. Being brought back into the limited overs scheme of things in the ill- fated 2011 tour of England was an act of desperation. Captaincy is an armour, something that nullifies a lot of other weak spots, which is why players are so reluctant to give it up. Dhoni’s captaincy was no bed of roses and another stern test rose in the aftermath of the ecstatic high of the 2011 World Cup. A jaded team got railroaded in England and repeated the feat in Australia a few months later. There were cries for Dhoni’s head and a selector even alleged that he was being protected by N Srinivasan, then the most powerful man in World Cricket.

Dhoni’s successors are already being groomed – Rishabh Pant and KL Rahul can both strike the ball a long way apart from performing their day job as keepers. No one can accuse him of having any protection from any of the powers that be anymore. Kohli wants him to bat up the order so that he can settle in and play with abandon again. His first day as citizen ended in a spectacular victory orchestrated by another Kohli masterclass, ably supported by Kedar Jadav who made his parents proud as they watched in the stands. Dhoni fell for six runs off six balls.

In all of their interviews, the Obamas speak about how no one really understands the weight of being the first family, the pressures, the adherence to protocol and being watched every minute of every day. They speak of how freeing it will be to wake up and not be burdened by the world’s problems. Few have paused to wonder what it would have been like for Dhoni, raised in small town Ranchi to climb to the dizzying heights that he did. Knowing Dhoni, we will probably never know. But unlike Obama, whose legacy stands at a precipice with his successor threatening to raze a lot of what he has done to the ground, Dhoni won’t suffer from the same fate. If anything, his successor will only take his legacy forward and hopefully cover more ground. That’s what successors are for, to build things up, not tear things down.

Legacy. That’s a  word that is being bandied about with elan these days. What will MS Dhoni’s legacy be? How do you measure a captain, their personal records or what they helped a team do? Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar were great batsmen, but were they great captains? Dhoni led the team to two World Cup victories in a span of 4 years and a Champions Trophy victory in 2013. But beyond the cold comfort of numbers, he taught us that winning doesn’t mean that you had to lose your head and make a spectacle out of it. He opened the doors for a million other Dhonis in small towns who felt they were too far away to make it big.

There is one moment in time for which Dhoni will be remembered forever and ever. It was a cross section of everything that he stood for – finisher, the helicopter shot, big hitter, ability to soak up pressure and breaking new ground. It happened on April 2nd, 2011, when he pushed himself up the order after having a very ordinary tournament and played the innings of a lifetime.When the end was near, India required 4 0ff 11 balls to break a 28 year old curse. He smashed Nuwan Kulasekara for a six over long on with his customary helicopter shot and sent a country into raptures and gave a generation of millennials their first World Cup victory.

When a helicopter takes off, it slowly climbs and before long, it is seemingly kissing the sky.

When Dhoni played that shot, it felt like we were all kissing the sky.

 

 

 

When Chennai loved Pakistan and other stories

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Like its films and politics, even matches played at the MA Chidambaram stadium in Chennai have never been short of drama.

It began in Chennai all those years ago.

To be more precise, it began on March 22, 2001. India had come from so far behind to pull the rug out from the mighty Australians and it was only fitting that the series decider would be a humdinger. A young tyro who went by the name Harbhajan Singh laid siege to a marauding Australian side looking to conquer the final frontier. But even the victory wasn’t bereft of drama, near-misses, absurdity and near calamity.

Actually, the MA Chidambaram Stadium is in some way an extension of the state of Tamil Nadu, its politics and its movies. There is never a paucity of drama.

But first, a little time travel.

Turn back time to January 1999. India vs Pakistan in the days when the sides still played tests against each other, Pakistan still toured India and the Kargil war was still a few months away. It was Sachin Tendulkar at his prime vs Waquar Younis, Wasim Akram and Saqlain Mushtaq in their prime. Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly had announced their arrivals and VVS Laxman was yet to hit his magical note.

In the second innings, India, chasing 271, were reduced to  near rubble at 82/5. Like most India-Pakistan encounters, the match had already see-sawed beyond normal pulse rates. Then came a familiar figure, all of 5’5” in height who began to put things back into order. For most of his career, an unfair criticism about Sachin Tendulkar was that he didn’t win enough matches for India, that he wasn’t a second innings kind of a guy, that he only cared about his own personal milestones. From 82/5, he soldiered on with Nayan Mongia for company as they began to slowly chip into the deficit. Tendulkar played brilliantly, all the while battling a severe back strain. With India 53 runs away from an amazing victory, Nayan Mongia played what was undoubtedly the most stupid shot of his career, one I hope still gives him nightmares, leaving Tendulkar and the tailenders to cross the finish line.

By now, Tendulkar had near run of out all strength and began going for shots with aplomb. In hindsight, if India had crashed and burned without going so close, it may have been better. Everyone loves a fight, a close fight, one that goes down to the wire, to the last ball of the last over. Everyone loves a fight as long as their team wins. If their team loses, the heart break can take years to get over. India were just 17 runs short and victory seemed imminent. Sunil Joshi, Venkatesh Prasad, Anil Kumble and Javagal Srinath didn’t inspire confidence but they could surely help their team score 17 runs? Is that too much to ask?

Sachin Tendulkar obviously didn’t hold the tailenders batting capabilities in very high esteem and tried to finish it off on his own. After hitting two consecutive boundaries off Saqlain Mushtaq, he again attempted to hoik him out of the ground and get third time lucky. The shot was mistimed and Wasim Akram held on to the most important catch of the match. In an instant, giddy excitement turned into sheer panic. All wasn’t lost. 3 wickets and 17 runs. Who would you have picked?

The next few moments are something we all wished never happened. Pakistan turned into sniffer dogs and drew in closer. Anil Kumble was no match for Wasim Akram’s guile and swing and was caught like a deer in the headlights in front of the stumps. Sunil Joshi was castled by Saqlain, bringing Javagal Srinath to the crease. Srinath and Prasad got a dose of their own medicine and the Pakistani hounds got closer. Srinath was bowled by Saqlain Mushtaq and it was all over. 4 wickets for 4 runs. Sachin Tendulkar reportedly never forgave Nayan Mongia for the shot he played. During the prize distribution ceremony, a beaten and bruised Tendulkar was reportedly crying in the dressing room.

While many people may want to forget the match, no one will forget what happened thereafter.

A precursor to the match – it wasn’t even supposed to be played in Chennai. It was scheduled to be played at the Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi before Hindu activists with misplaced priorities dug up the pitch to protest the series. Delhi would later go onto host the second test, the one in which Anil Kumble recorded his perfect 10.

The Chennai crowd was at first stunned into silence. They had witnessed a meltdown of epic proportions and that too to the arch rivals. As the victorious Pakistani team began their victory lap, the crowd stood up and began clapping. It was at first, faint, then it gradually grew in volume. It didn’t bring the stadium down but it was warm and appreciative. By the time the Pakistanis were done, the whole stadium was on its feet, applauding a well-fought match.

I wonder if we will ever witness such a sight again. In a day and age where anything Pakistani is treated like a sin, it will remain one of the most heartwarming moments between the two sides.

India lost, but Chennai won.

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Coming back to 2001.

India had just won the test match of a lifetime at Kolkata and were chasing 155 for an improbable series win against Australia, who were still recovering from the smarting they received in the previous match, were looking to avenge the defeat and clinch the series.

But what is a match in Chennai if things go according to script?

Sachin, Ganguly and Dravid were dismissed without harming the scoreboard much. VVS Laxman continued his sublime form but left before India reached a point of safety. Before long, it was left to Harbhajan Singh and Sameer Dighe to pull India out of a rut and into the pages of history. Alongside VVS Laxman, Harbhajan Singh too announced his arrival in that series. His monumental 32 wickets made him the preferred spinner in the Sourav Ganguly era. It was only fitting that the winning shot came from his bat.

sachin-chennai

Years later, Chennai again played host to a monumental encounter between India and England. It was monumental for two reasons – the result and the circumstances under which it was played. With the country still reeling from the 26/11 attacks, a cricket match was the last thing on people’s minds but it was cricket that provided the country some respite from the despair it was engulfed in. The touring English team came back after the BCCI assured them of utmost safety and helicopters were kept outside the stadium to evacuate players if anything unsavory transpired and snipers were positioned on all corners of the ground. Needing an improbable 387 for victory in the second innings, Virender Sehwag gave the team a super bike start and Sachin Tendulkar played another masterful knock to help India accomplish an improbable victory.

An enduring image from the match is that of a groundsman who somehow gathered up the courage to go up to Tendulkar and shake his hand. He must have spent the rest of the day walking on water.

Chennai is recovering from back to back calamities, one a natural one and the other an emotional one. The state lost its beloved a beloved leader, matriarch to many and a figure that transcended politics itself.  When the end came, the state didn’t explode in fury as many people expected it to.

A week later, Cyclone Vardah unleashed its wrath, taking with it trees, the power supply and normal life. The level of preparedness was a marked difference from last year when unprecedented rains caused the city to flood and threw life into disarray.

It’s December now and the numerous sabhas  in the city are playing host to the month long Marghazi masam. People do sabha hopping, going from one mellifluous Carnatic concert to the other and partaking in the sumptuous feasts that each sabha has to offer. It’s when Raga Hamsadhwani isn’t just accompanied by mridangams and kanjirams but also by more miligai, keerai puli kuzhambu, mango thokku and numerous other mouth watering delicacies. Add to that a test victory that capped of a series win against England to place India at the top of the ICC test rankings and the recipe is complete.

It began in Chennai in 2001 against the Australians. The series victory spawned off what many consider the golden era of Indian cricket. Under Sourav Ganguly and later Rahul Dravid, the team won series in Pakistan, West Indies and England, drew level with Australia in their back yard and won their first test in South Africa.

India England Cricket

England’s dramatic collapse in the fifth test brought back a lot of memories. Virat Kohli’s test captaincy has hit the right notes thus far but the true test will begin only when they tour abroad and win. That will be the ultimate litmus test of his captaincy and the team.

Is this the next golden generation of India cricket?

Like in 2001, we can only hope history repeats itself.

 

 

 

The great healing at Perth that followed the great divide at Sydney

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South Africa’s win over Australia at the WACA, once the bastion of the Australians, brings back memories of a factitious Australian summer where India bounced back at the same ground after nearly threatening to walk out of the series. The well-fought match was a much needed panacea after the tempestuous Sydney encounter that divided the cricket world with accusations of racism and poor umpiring. 

The WACA at Perth is closing down. Major matches will soon be shifted to the newly minted Perth stadium in a couple of years. In this scintillating piece by Gideon Haigh, one of the best writers the game has seen, writes about how the loss will form a hole in the soul of Australian cricket, one that cannot be easily filled.

South Africa’s fight back and victory at the WACA came on the back of a Dale Steyn injury and being reduced to 32/4 in the first innings. A run out effected by Temba Bavuma to send David Warner back was the stand-out moment of the match

WACA at Perth.The name conjures up many images but two of them are enduring; a 19 year old Sachin Tendulkar scored one of his finest centuries at the ground as the rest of the side fell like nine pins around him (this was the 90s, just to be sure). Many rate it as one of his best test innings ever.

Then came a match that many Indian fans still hold dear to their hearts, in part for the result and in part for the negativity that it helped negate.

No one likes a good scrap like the Australians but what had transpired before the Perth test wasn’t a scrap, it was an ugly brawl. Most of didn’t even take place on the ground but in a hearing conducted by Mike Procter.

If the Perth test is one that we all like to remember and reminiscence about, the Sydney test that preceded it is one we all like to forget and confine to the depths of our selective amnesia. You don’t hold close to your heart victories that were ceded without a fight. Whitewashes and innings defeats are celebrated but not revered and recalled with the same fervor nor do they evoke teary-eyed nostalgia as the the years go by.  A test-match is made of numerous parts that are woven together and when you look at the tapestry, it isn’t always easy to say which part clinched victory. Was it the innings of a lifetime, or the spell of a lifetime, or the run out of a lifetime? Or was it a pot-pourri of all of the above?

To recall the Sydney match, the favourite hunting ground of many a cricketer (Brian Lara named his daughter Sydney after the ground), will be to unearth wounds that are better kept under wraps. It means recalling the Indian side losing 3 wickets in two overs and Anil Kumble casting a forlorn figure after he had batted valiantly for 2 hours to help draw the match, only to see his side capitulate as the end came near. It would mean recalling the amateurish umpiring that hung over the match like a heavy cloud. It would mean recalling Michael Clarke claim a catch that Ricky Ponting vouched was a clean take, though the replays were far from conclusive. It would mean recalling Rahul Dravid’s dismissal and him walking away with a smile that had ‘did this just happen’ written all over it. In the post match conference, Anil Kumble said “only one team played in the spirit of the game” and received unanimous applause from the press corp present there. Ricky Ponting got into a tiff with a reporter who questioned his integrity.

Remembering Sydney would also mean revisiting one of the darkest chapters of India-Australia cricket that threatened to tear apart the very seams that bound the laws and decencies of the game. The rancor from the match was made to look like child’s play with what followed. Andrew Symmonds accused Harbhajan Singh of a racial slur. Players, umpires and captains from both sides were called for a hearing and Sachin Tendulkar, honorary saint to a billion, was accused of changing his testimony in order to defend what many thought was a guilty Harbhajan Singh. Mike Procter sided with the Australian version of events, even though neither umpire heard anything and handed Harbhajan Singh a 3 match ban. The BCCI chose the opportune moment to show its clout and threatened to pull out of the series, going so far as to have a plane on stand by at the tarmac to ferry the team back home if Harbhajan’s ban wasn’t revoked and Steve Bucknor not removed. In the end, power talked and cricket listened. Steve Bucknor was removed from officiating and Harbhajan Singh played the next match. His ban would later be revoked. The ugly turn of events was cloistered into the phrase  ‘Monkeygate’.

Then the team went to Perth.

Some things aren’t meant to happen, but they do. Some surprises are good, some not so good. Donald Trump winning the presidency is a not so good surprise. India winning at Perth, one of the fastest pitches in the world, on the backdrop of mistrust and anger and a tour that almost went off the rails, is good.

Virender Sehwag had been off-colour and out-of-favour with the selectors  but Anil Kumble pushed hard for his inclusion in the squad for the series. He played his first match of the series at Perth. India scored a gritty 330 on the backs of some good sensible cricket from Rahul Dravid (93) and Sachin Tendulkar (71). Australia’s reply saw them fall short by 112 runs, giving a decent lead to work with.

In their second innings, they looked like they would squander a good chance when they lost 5 quick wickets. An old nemesis, VVS Laxman, returned to resist them again and was helped by MS Dhoni and RP Singh. Australia were set 413 to win.

The passage of play that is most fondly remembered and reminisced about is the magical spell that Ishant Sharma bowled on the 4th day. He had Ricky Ponting prodding, jumping, swinging and missing. It was a tantalizing exhibition of bowling by a 19 year old yet finding his feet in international cricket. For over an hour, a man who ranks in the same league as Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar was made to look like a rookie who was facing a seasoned campaigner when it was the other way round. After his first spell, Kumble called RP Singh to take over when Virender Sehwag ran up to the middle and persuaded Kumble to persist with Ishant Sharma for a little while longer. He turned to Ishant to ask him if he was up for a couple more overs. There was no hint of hesitancy from Ishant. He accounted for Ponting in the first delivery of that over when he reached out and was edged a delivery to Rahul Dravid at slips.

The chase for an improbable victory watered down into a chase for a draw. Michael Clarke and Adam Gilchrist threw caution to the wind in a bid to raise the spirits of the Australian fans and they nearly succeeded before Virender Sehwag and Irfan Pathan returned to settle raw nerves with their cameos. Sehwag repaid his debt partially to Anil Kumble by taking two wickets, one of them being that of Adam Gilchrist. The Aussies, not known to give up, went for the last yard dash with much gung-ho and Clarke and Mitchell Johnson held on to their forts before the inevitable final breach.

The sight of RP Singh castling Shaun Tait is one of the most memorable images of Indian cricket. After the match, there were no harsh words or heated press conferences. It had two sides shaking hands and respecting each other for a well-fought match. Both sides went back to what they did best, play good, hard cricket instead of wasting all their energies on casting aspersions and accusations at one another.

Till date, India hasn’t won another test match on Australian soil.

The 2011-2012 series was a forgettable whitewash that saw Laxman and Dravid playing in whites for the final time.

The 2014-2015 series was played on the back drop of the tragic death of Phil Hughes and saw some fighting cricket, but still stopped short of offering a victory for India.

The difference between sport and life is that sometimes, sport offers you a chance at redemption and healing quickly. It can be the next ball, the next quarter, the next half, the next match, the next series or the next moment.

In these fractious times, that’s something to look forward to.

Six sixes and a new dawn

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In an interview for Rolling Stone, Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich said “we were just kids” when reflecting on the 30 year anniversary of their seminal album Master of Puppets. The innocence and primitive of youth is very freeing, before the lead weight of expectation and stardom take over.

That’s what they were, just kids, when they took on the world in 2007. We were all younger, if not young. That’s what we all were, naive and optimistic, not knowing whether to take the format seriously. But when has a little optimism ever hurt?

The scars of the first round exit in the 2007 50 over World Cup were still fresh and everyone tempered their their expectation levels accordingly. The side won a thriller in a bowl out against Pakistan in their first match and then lost to New Zealand in the second.

Then came the encounter against England. At the end of the 18th over, India had already galloped to 171. In the final stretch they did a Usain Bolt.

Yuvraj Singh was doing a Moses act and walking on water. He struck Andrew Flintoff for a couple of boundaries. After the over, he made the effort to walk up to him and have a few words. Yuvraj and Dhoni exchanged a punch with their gloves and Yuvraj walked towards Flintoff who was beating a hasty retreat. Dhoni made no effort to stop him and it looked like Yuvraj was ready for a duel then and there. The umpire ran behind Yuvraj, trying to reason with him not to go forth with whatever he was thinking about.

Stuart Broad came on to bowl.

Yuvraj smashed the first delivery in the cow corner region. It felt like it touched a star and careened back towards earth. 111 metres the ticker said. Who cared? How did it even matter?

Second delivery Yuvraj got down on his knees and casually flicked the ball over mid-wicket. Six.

The camera panned to Flintoff who may have as well been looking for a crater to materialise so that he could disappear into it. If he had a crystal ball, he may have as well fled the field feigning injury.

Third delivery, Yuvraj against went for a big one and till the camera stuck with the ball, you thought it would be caught. It sailed over the boundary rope, into safety. And another six.

Stuart Broad came around the wicket and bowled what seemed like a wide full toss. Yuvraj Singh didn’t spare even that, smashing it over point for another six.

Kingsmead exploded. Could Yuvraj pull off a heist of epic proportions? A few months back, Yuvraj Singh himself had been carted for 5 sixes in an over by Dmitri Mascahrenas. It was payback time.

Fifth delivery and Yuvraj Singh again went down on bended knee and smashed it over mid wicket region. Ravi Shastri announced the result and then waited to confirm it. Lucky for him, he was right.

Kingsmead was coming apart at the seams.

Final ball of the over and Yuvraj went down on his knees one last time and heaved towards the long on region. Ravi Shastri again jumped to a conclusion and had to wait for the ball to cross over to heave a sigh of relief.

It wasn’t just Yuvraj Singh who exploded on the magical, never-before, never-again kind of night.

T20, which had been viewed with a certain amount of skepticism and kept at an arm’s distance, was suddenly held in a tight embrace. No one wanted to let go.

No one will forget that night. The night t20 went from long distance relationship to a head over heels kind of love.

It was a night of reckless optimism, one we have all been searching for ever since.

It was the night Yuvraj Singh heralded a new dawn.

 

Not all victories have a medal waiting at the finish line

Sindhu

Back in school, as we progressed to complex equations and marks cards that seemingly determined our destiny, sport was always forsaken for the humdrum of academics. After reaching a certain class, the sports class (or PT as we call it) was given scant regard. It was relegated to a 40 minute window, once a week. Any pursuit that had no bearing on our marks card, one of life’s most overrated documents, was viewed as a hindrance. Sport was treated as something to be gotten over with as quickly as possible before we dived headlong into the pursuit of academic excellence. Barring a persistent few, even the star athletes were told to put away their shoes, spikes, hockey sticks and cricket bats and mug equations and theory that will eventually have very little bearing on how our lives turn out.

 I couldn’t play any sport to save my life. Which is why I took to running, an activity that requires you have hands and legs and doesn’t put undue demands on your hand-eye co-ordination abilities.

But I used to envy people who could play a sport.

What is the excuse for most people to face myriad health issues, be overweight and resort to dubious procedures to look young when they’re not too old? “I haven’t exercised after school. The last time I ran was in school, the last time I played a sport was in college. After that, life got to me and now I find myself in a place where the doctor tells me I need to lose weight if I have to live to see my 50th birthday.”

As the nation with the largest armchair activist population, we pass judgement on how our athletes aren’t able to win a medal when we ourselves are huffing and puffing to climb a flight of stairs.

This is a microcosm of an athlete’s journey in our country:

They study in schools, just like us. At some point, they are enrolled in a sport by someone who cares. They are told by everyone that sport doesn’t have much of a future and that they have to balance their pursuit of excellence with academics as a back up. Their parents will be forced to contend with other parents who tell them that pursuing sport in our country is expensive and fraught with risk. Why not just enroll them into tuitions so that they can study and pretend to aspire to get into the IITs like the rest of us?

On ignoring the advice of such well-meaning people, their parents will use their own finances and resources so that their children can get the best training there is. There they will realise the abysmal infrastructure and lack of support from the government that has plagued and plunged sport in the country into an abyss of indeterminate proportions.

But pursue they will.

Waking up before the crack of dawn to practice, attending school whenever possible, fighting sleep in classes that work more effectively than any sleeping pill, the aspiring athlete will soldier on. They will stay away from family and friends and experience first hand how sport is administered in the country, the number of hands that need to be greased and sporting bodies that are mere pawns in the hands of power hungry politicians.

They will wonder if they have made the right choice. Should we have studied, like the rest of them? Should we chosen cricket, a game where you can become a star and have a chance at more financial security? A game where you can be in the spotlight, just for one day? A game where the whole country knows their name and chants it, just once?

By then, there is no turning back. They look at how other countries treat their athletes and wish they were born there. They then silence that voice. I am a proud Indian and I will give all that I have to make my country proud they say to themselves. Even if no one knows my name and recognises me on the street and I see a cricketer who has played just one IPL be hounded for autographs, I will not lose sight of the finish line.

People blame cricket and India for being a one sport country, but that really serves no purpose. I am a cricket romantic and the game has provided me with untold joy. Somehow, it lucked out in terms of administration in the country and in spite of the Lodha committee’s scathing review of the BCCI, it must be admitted that our cricketers are a well taken care of lot. The powers that be have ensured that serious cricketers are afforded decent training facilities, stay in good hotels and get decent food. One of India’s worst governed states, Jharkhand, gave us MS Dhoni, one of the the best captains the country has had. The game, which was once the bastion of the big states now sees players coming from all corners of the country.

Till sometime back, N Srinivasan was the most powerful man in world cricket. That was until his son-in-law’s involvement in a betting scandal was unearthed. He clung onto his throne like a modern day Duryodhana and the walls of his glass palace were bulldozed by other power hungry administrators. He was the unlucky one. There are countless Duryodhanas’ in Indian sport whose misrules will never go beyond the walls of their fiefdoms.Just one more thing; N Srinivsana has a brother, N Ramachandran, who happens to be the president of the Indian Olympic Association.

But even cricket isn’t a bed of roses. Test matches are played to empty stadiums. We aren’t outright champions like the Australians were when they were on top of the cricket world.

India isn’t cricket crazy. We’re just crazy. When the team wins, there are traffic jams. When the team starts losing, there are traffic jams because people have stopped watching the match and stepped out of the house.

Try pursuing a sport recreationally in our country and you will realise how tough it is to pursue a sport professionally.

If you want to swim in a pool that isn’t populated by a hundred others and get hit by someone’s arm every second stroke, you better find a fancy club and pay through your nose (once you get the water out of it).

If you want to play badminton, try finding a decent indoor court near your home.

The same applies to most sports in India.

Gully cricket has its own charm but it also reflects a certain lack.

No one stones a hockey player’s or an athlete’s house if they lose. Heck, they wouldn’t even be recognised if they walked on the streets.

Back in the day, India ruled the roost in hockey. At some point, KPS Gill, who headed operation Blue Star in 1984 and flushed out terrorists from the Golden Temple, was given charge of Indian hockey. He continued where he left off in his police career and proceeded to kill hockey too. It is only apt that Dhanraj Pillay’s autobiography was titled ‘Forgive me amma’. But I wonder why he is the one asking for forgiveness. It should be the other way round. The administrators, ministers and bureaucrats who have single-handedly brought sport to its knees should be asking for forgiveness. But they won’t. They’ll fly first class with their families while the athletes fly economy class.

Meanwhile, the athletes will toil, out of the spotlight, without any cheers and only the support of their near and dear ones to egg them on. They will travel far and wide to participate in competitions and their exploits will be relegated to a 5cm by 5 cm column in the newspapers.

In spite of everything, they will qualify.

Then when the Olympics comes around once in four years, the whole country will sit up and watch in anticipation. It’s when the country will hear about sports they never knew existed and sports persons they never knew existed. Having chosen a life of relative security, boring jobs and conniving bosses, they will pass judgement on people whose back stories they have no idea of.

Come the Olympics and the athletes will wonder why the flight has more officials than athletes. Officials they have never seen or heard of will try and cozy up to them to get their 15 seconds of fame. They will go on sight-seeing expeditions with their families and entourages and leave the athletes to fend for themselves.

If the athlete, who after having given up any semblance of a normal life, manages to win a medal, the whole country will stake claim to their success. Ministers who made them wait outside their offices for months and years on end without even acknowledging their existence, will have their own competition to see who can confer the victorious Olympians with more land and money. All that is if they win. The people who clamor to have their photos taken with them and garland them don’t realise that they succeeded because in spite of them, not because of them.

The athlete who does doesn’t win will be vilified by authors who did their bit for the country by taking the standards of writing to new lows and fooling people into thinking that what they wrote could be passed off as writing. They will return home with nothing to show for their efforts. All of their toil will go unrecorded, not shared for posterity. Some will get so disgruntled that they will convince others not to tread their path and settle for an option where their efforts and hearts aren’t dealt with crushing blows. They will be asked why they returned without medals in the same way that someone is asked why they didn’t return with sweets when they go abroad.

If every athlete who has represented the country has looked back and wondered whether it was all worth it, this is the only thing I have to say to them:

There came a time in your life when you had to choose. You could have taken the safe path and lead a life less ordinary like the rest of us. But you didn’t. You chose to strive against odds that none of us will be able to fully comprehend. You fought self-doubt, apathy and toiled without being assured of success, recognition, fame or monetary gain.

If the world were a fair place, someone would have put a medal around your neck then and there when you made that choice.

There are many medals to glorify you when you beat an opponent, but alas, there is no medal for beating the odds.

The fault in our stars

 

ronaldo

I fell asleep after watching a rather tepid Wimbledon final where Andy Murray made up for his country’s premature exit from Euro 2016 and the impending gloom that Brexit has wrought over their already gloomy weather. It is another matter that the citizenry that didn’t know what it voted for and are now bracing for a long ride through even more rough financial and political weather. The plan was to grab some shut eye and wake up for the finals at 1 a.m. Didn’t happen, and I cussed myself even more when I woke up and saw what had transpired.

France would win 2-0. That was the bold prediction I made and no doubt the prediction that most bookies made, give or take a goal. France had everything on their side; the crowd, the odds and history. Portugal had never won a major tournament and Cristiano Ronaldo, like any icon, knows that the final stamp on a career, however great, is a major trophy in the cabinet. The Ballon D’Or doesn’t send an entire country headlong into night long revelry like victory in a major tournament does.

A few weeks ago, Lionel Messi announced his shock retirement after missing a penalty in the finals of the Copa America. Though everyone hopes it is a decision made in haste and such decisions can be salvaged when reason enters the door through a small opening, it was a telling statement. Messi, it seems, has lost the heart to thrown his heart and soul into the ring once more. Fighting with Diego Maradona for the status of Argentinian football icon, the dream of winning a major trophy for his country seems to be eluding him by the tournament. Diego Maradona will always have the summer of 1986 to call his own, the year in which he delivered a World Cup victory for his country, scored the goal of the century and played devil with the infamous hand of god goal. Lionel Messi came within touching distance of  immortality in the 2014 World Cup finals when a well-oiled Germany swept the dream away from below his feet.

Lionel Messi is 29 and Christiano Ronaldo is 31. They are football’s current reigning stars by some distance at the moment. For all their insane talents, they are currently on opposite ends of the totem pole. One is currently on top of the galaxies and the other is trying to find a hole to dig and bury himself in.

Remember a 17 year old Cristiano Ronaldo crying when Portugal were handed a shock defeat in the 2004 Euro finals? It looked like things weren’t going to be any different last night. He didn’t even have to wait for the final whistle for the tears to flow. His match ended 24 minutes into the first half and the stretcher he was carried on seemed to be the heaviest in the whole world as it carried on it the thread that bound a country with its unfulfilled hopes and dreams.

You’ve seen it in sport and in life; the star player is expected to carry the burden, the expectations and the team to safety and glory. Everyone else can be excused from scrutiny but not the talisman. Come the big day and the player who is supposed to make the big stage their own and stand under the arc lights with the trophy doesn’t live up to their billing. Injury, bad decision, bad shot, bad luck, one or all of them come in the way to douse the unreal expectations that have been building up like a volcano about to explode. Teams then run for cover and plunge headlong into a sea of hopelessness. If Portugal had lost, Cristiano Ronaldo’s premature exit from the game would have been the biggest reason that would have been touted for their loss. Investing all hopes on one player to rise to the occasion and save the day is like putting all your money on a stock and seeing the stock go bust.

How can you expect a team to win when their talisman and captain is on a stretcher instead of on the field?

Eder’s goal was reminiscent of Ronaldinho’s stunner against England in the 2002 World Cup. Portugal’s least likely hero seemingly appeared from thin air to etch his name in the history books. On this fateful night, Portugal’s most likely hero watched from the benches as his team made history. Portugal lost to Greece on home soil 12 years ago and won against France on their home soil. Portugal, meet salvation.

Will Lionel Messi, the star of stars, ever experience what Eder, football’s unlikeliest hero experienced? That of winning and bringing your country to near rapture?

Maybe the stars aren’t aligned in his favour.

Maybe for those 120 odd minutes, the stars suddenly changed positions and aligned in Eder’s favour.

Nonsense. There is no such thing as the stars aligning in your favour.

On the night Portugal celebrated their greatest nights ever, I was in dreamland (considering it was Monday morning, nightmare land seems more plausible) instead of witnessing history first hand.

The stars were shining for Portugal but sadly, they weren’t aligned in my favour.

 

 

Jumbo, and one giant leap for Indian cricket

kumble

If you have ever decided to switch careers and attended an interview out of the comfort zone of your industry, this is what you will invariably be told – your past experience doesn’t really count for much in this new role and everything you have painstakingly built up to that point has no bearing on your future. All the accolades that you have earned, the lost weekends, late hours and countless sacrifices that have gone in to making you who you are is all fine but they belong in a vault called the past. Are you willing to throw it all away for something new?

Anil Kumble isn’t doing the equivalent of switching industries but nonetheless, he finds himself in a similar predicament. Consider all the things that will henceforth have no bearing on his career as a coach:

a) Bowling with a broken jaw in Antigua and taking the wicket of Brian Lara

b) Taking all 10 wickets in an innings against Pakistan

c) Being the highest wicket taker for India in tests

d) Being the third bowler in the world to cross 600 wickets

e) His stint as captain at the twilight of his career in which he shepherded the team through one of Indian cricket’s lowest moments during the Monkeygate scandal

f) Leading the spin attack single-handedly in the 90s before he got support from Harbhajan Singh

g) Having a circle named after him in the heart of Bangalore City

It isn’t easy to forsake a glorious past in favour of an unpredictable future, to throw a glittering CV into the waste bin and start afresh.

Anil Kumble isn’t on alien territory. He isn’t a cricket legend who is seeking to take Indian hockey to new heights. He is a legendary cricketer trying to inculcate the same values with which he played the game into a generation raised on IPL, t20 and instant riches. His 3 year stint as the chairman of the Karnataka State Cricket Association after he retired along with his state mates  Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad was a mixed bag. They lost the re-election and even stormed out of a meeting that was chaired by Brijesh Patel and his cohorts when they felt disrespected.

In their playing days, the greatest of the great are feted and put up on pedestals that are very often not of their making. Once the sand clock runs out on their careers, they are left with two choices – live off the fame and riches forever and ever, or throw their hat in the ring and test themselves again.

Many have come up short in this regard. A few cases in point:

Much was made of Greg Chappell’s appointment as the Indian national coach in 2005. His candidature was pushed forward by none other than Sourav Ganguly, then the reigning prince of Indian cricket. In a very short span of time, the prince was made the pauper and Greg Chappell was made the villain. His two year tenure had a few highs like 17 ODI wins on the trot, a maiden test victory in South Africa and a test series win in the Caribbean. India’s 2007 World Cup disaster is entrenched in the minds of people with one image; in the do or die match against Sri Lanka, India’s final wicket fell and with it their hopes of progressing in the World Cup, one which they entered as favorites. The camera pans to the Indian dressing room after the last wicket of Munaf Patel and we see Rahul Dravid standing up and wiping something from across his face. From behind, Anil Kumble pats him in a bid to console the inconsolable. They knew what a first round exit in a World Cup would mean back at home.

The bad blood that flowed through Indian cricket’s veins in his tenure still makes blood boil when Chappell or that era is brought up (see video). When asked about Chappell being sacked as a selector a few years ago by the Australian board, this is what Ganguly had to say “I think we’ve gone one step further. Just leave him as a great player.”

In hindsight, many of the changes that Chappell sought to bring about in the team weren’t off target. Sourav Ganguly’s form was on the wane when he was asked to step down, and Zaheer Khan and Virender Sehwag had fitness issues. After being dropped, Zaheer Khan isolated himself from the jamboree of Indian cricket, spent a season in the Worcestershire County Cricket Club and came back a changed man in the test series against England in 2007. But as Chappell himself later admitted, his methods may not have been the best. The morale of the team had touched a new low with senior players questioning Chappell’s tactics. In the movie Any Given Sunday, the coach of the Miami Sharks, played by Al Pacino, gives a rousing speech in which he says “You either win as a team or you lose as individuals.” That phrase best describes the Greg Chappell era. Everyone – players, fans and stake holders lost.

For all the greats that have come after him, Michael Jordan can still stake claim to the title of the greatest ever NBA player ever. After he ended his career with a second three peat with the Chicago Bulls in 1998, he managed the Washington Wizards for a couple of years before deciding to make a third comeback as a player. He quickly realized that greatness is a limited resource and that he had run out of it. After 2 unsuccessful seasons, he announced his third and final retirement and hoped to return to the front office for the Wizards only to be shown the door. He is currently the owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, a team that has one of the worst winning percentages in NBA history, a stark contrast to the records that Michael Jordan has in his possession. Though Jordan isn’t the coach, the fact that his presence hasn’t automatically lifted a side shows that stature and greatness as a player don’t necessarily translate into a great coach or manager.

Diego Maradona, one of football’s most colourful figures, revered and reviled in equal measure, has had numerous failed stints as a coach with various clubs. His tenure as coach for the Argentinian side ended with a 4-0 drubbing against Germany in the 2010 World Cup.

Ask anyone to name a coach of the Indian team in the 90s and the odds of people coming up blank are high. There were a mish-mash of former players with no coaching experience that were given the task of coaching a side run by an unprofessional board. Before Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman found their feet and forged their own paths to greatness, the team comprised of one curly haired genius in Sachin Tendulkar, an overworked pacer in Javagal Srinath, a bespectacled spinner who wasn’t considered a spinner in Anil Kumble and a captain who was neck deep with the mafia in Mohammad Azharuddin. They were the pivot around whom the team revolved and it wasn’t surprising that they lacked self-belief or even possessed the methods to compete at the highest level. In a selection meeting, Sachin Tendulkar apparently expressed his surprise at the inclusion of David Johnson from Karnataka in the team. He is said to have retorted “David who?” on hearing his name.

Indian cricket has come a long way since then.

To understand how India has come full circle by formally appointing an Indian as a head coach is to understand why at the turn of the century, India first began to look beyond its shores for a coach.

Under Jagmohan Dalmiya, the BCCI struck oil and turned the tables on World Cricket. If the match-fixing scandal hadn’t landed cricket in the mess it did at the turn of the century, professionalism may have still have been some years away. Even Kapil Dev, one of the country’s most iconic players, failed to inspire the team as a coach. One of Indian cricket’s sadder sights was seeing Kapil Dev breaking down on camera when questioned about his role in match fixing. Something had to give. Mohammad Azharuddin left the game in a dark cloud that hasn’t really gone away, a badly made biopic notwithstanding.

Enter John Wright, India’s first experiment with a foreign coach.

He took the reigns of Indian cricket in 2000 and began rescuing it from the depths of hell. With him came new methods and there could have been no allegations of favoritism and nepotism that had dogged the previous coaches. He was the perfect foil to Sourav Ganguly’s aggressive captaincy. It helped that he had what is widely considered India’s golden generation to work with and rebuilt the side after the dark nights of cricket’s soul at the turn of the century. Coaching assumed a sense of professionalism and India won a historic test series against Australia in 2001 (which included what some consider the greatest test match ever played in Kolkata) and reached the finals of the 2003 World Cup. They drew a test series in Australia and beat Pakistan in Pakistan. The latter half of his tenure wasn’t as successful and his stint ended with a series loss against Pakistan.

John Wright set the precedent for what was expected of a foreign coach in India. Greg Chappell was to take Indian cricket even further and his arrival was met with much fanfare and expectation. How it turned out and ended is a well-documented story. The ensuing years have seen many players from that era speak out openly against his methods and madness. A few months after he tendered in his resignation, Rahul Dravid unburdened himself of captaincy and MS Dhoni was catapulted from wicket keeper to statesman. It was Ravi Shastri who again stepped in to guide the team after the World Cup fiasco in their short tour to Bangladesh. It also must be noted that India won their only t20 World Cup with a temporary coaching staff. Venkatesh Prasad wore the badge of bowling coach, Robin Singh was the fielding coach and Lachand Rajput was the designated head coach.

Gary Kirsten took over in late 2007 and under his astute guidance, the side reaped a rich harvest. They were numero uno in the test rankings and though they faltered in two t20 World Cups under him, they drew a series in South Africa and the crowning glory was the World Cup win in 2011. Duncan Fletcher’s appointment was a quiet one and it was unfortunate that his tenure began when the powers of the famed trio of Laxman, Dravid and Tendulkar were on the wane. The wheels began to come undone after the World Cup win. The side lost 8 test matches on the trot and there were cries for heads to roll. Rahul Dravid retired in March 2012, Laxman in June 2012 and Tendulkar soldiered on till November 2013.

In the 5 test match series against England in 2014, India pulled off a fantastic victory at Lord’s. What followed  was abject capitulation and they lost the series 3-1 after leading.
Faith in Duncan Fletcher’s abilities was tested when Ravi Shastri was again parachuted into the dressing room as team director to boost the morale of the Indian side. Though the team lost the 4 test match series 0-2 to Australia in 2014-15, the side put up a respectable performance and had to contend with MS Dhoni’s sudden retirement halfway through the series that saw Virat Kohli take up the mantle of test captain. The 2015 World Cup saw the team put up commendable performances until they ran into a familiar foe in Australia in the semi-finals. Their exit also ended Duncan Fletcher’s tenure, who went out as quietly as he came. It was then left to team director Ravi Shastri and his support staff of Bharati Arun, Sanjay Bangar and R Sridhar to take the team forward. A test series win outside home against a Sri Lankan side that is rebuilding was followed by a semi-final spot in the t20 World Cup which ended in heartbreak with India crashing out to West Indies in the semi-finals at home.

There was little that Ravi Shastri did wrong. The coach-captain relationship plays a role in how a team is run and the success it experiences. The good relationship between Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri stems from the fact that both are aggressive and unafraid to speak their mind. Anil Kumble isn’t someone to hog the limelight and will prefer to work in the back drop and hopefully soothe Kohli’s nerves when tempers flare or things reach boiling point. In the end, it was a choice between two very able men amidst reports that there is no love lost between Ravi Shastri and Sourav Ganguly, one of the divisive personalities that make up the cricket advisory committee. When Anil Kumble, Sourav Ganguly, VVS Laxman and Sachin Tendulkar come together, it is deja vu. It was these few good men along with the likes of Rahul Dravid and Javagal Srinath who lifted cricket from the deep abyss it had fallen into at the turn of the century. It also shows that after more than a decade and a half of looking around the world for an able coach, India has finally decided to look inward for someone to guide the team. The giant step then is not that they have appointed an unquestioned legend who left behind shoes too big to fill, it is the fact that Indian cricket has come a long way from the 90s when it was felt that a home grown coach didn’t possess the methods to take the team forward.

A few months back, speculation was rife that Rahul Dravid was approached for the job of coaching the Indian side. Citing a young family, he politely declined and settled for working with the U-19 team. No doubt the years to come will see him emerge as a top contender for the post. The board was veering towards an Indian coach and specified that a person who has previous coaching experience was preferred and until Kumble sent in his surprise application, Ravi Shastri was the front runner by a mile. A one year tenure shows that the board has been able to distinguish between Anil Kumble’s stellar achievements as a player and what he can bring to the table as a coach. As a player, his credentials are beyond reproach, as a coach, it is a blank slate waiting to be filled. A season that involves 18 test matches, most of them at home, will give him the cushioning required to settle into the new role.

As much as Anil Kumble would like to roll up his sleeves when the side is searching for a wicket on an unresponsive track and bowl his heart out like he did in his playing days, he will now have to watch from the side lines. He doesn’t need glory, money or recognition. He has all that and more in abundance. The rigours of the modern game has meant that coaching too has evolved. With players getting lesser time to recover from injuries and the concept of off season being thrown out of the window, a coach’s job has become that much more challenging. Increased financial resources have allowed teams to employ a roster of support staff but come match day, the support staff don’t go out and play the game. Being a bowler, Anil Kumble also knows that without a bowling attack that can get 20 wickets, winning abroad consistently will remain a pipe dream. He is inheriting a young side and while MS Dhoni’s place in the scheme of things is still murky, he isn’t saddled with a overbearing legacy that Duncan Fletcher was handed.

When Anil Kumble retired in 2008 on his favourite ground Feroz Shah Kotla, it was thought that there was nothing more he could given Indian cricket. He took his limited abilities and multiplied them with tons of hard work and grit. His legacy as a player will remain untouched and the memories he left behind are still fresh.

The only question to be asked then is can he give Indian fans even more memories to savour as coach.