13 vs 1,013

Social media is abuzz with videos of players who returned home from Australia. T Natarajan, who went as a net bowler and made his debut in one of the greatest test matches ever, is welcomed by a massive crowd in his village. There is no social distancing and no one is wearing masks. But Natarajan is wearing gloves and a mask, standing atop some sort of a chariot.

From a net bowler to playing in the T20s, ODIs and the test match of a lifetime. What does that do to your heart?

Ajinkya Rahane is given a hero’s welcome by the people in his apartment. He went about his job as captain without much fuss. At the presentation ceremony, the standout moment is usually the winning team in the throes of celebration. Here, it was Nathan Lyon receiving a shirt autographed by the entire Indian team in honor of his 100th test. If he hadn’t won enough hearts already, he won a few more when he refused to cut a Kangaroo shaped cake on his return home. He will now slink back to vice-captaincy without much fuss.

From vice-captain to sagely guide who leads a team to do the improbable. What does that do to your heart?

Mohammad Siraj goes straight to his departed father’s grave after landing. During one of the tests, cameras showed him tearing up during the national anthem. While fielding at the boundary, he endures racial abuse from spectators and reports it to the umpires.

From stardom to grief. What does that do to your heart?

On a beautiful Saturday at Adelaide, our hearts were crushed. Perfect moments are hard to come by and Josh Hazelwood, Mitch Starc, and Pat Cummins had one that Saturday. Edges carried. Drives were punished. Dutifully, a nationwide meltdown followed. There were calls for Rahul Dravid to be flown to Australia without any delay. Rajeev Shukla actually clarified that Dravid wouldn’t be flown. What was Dravid going to do anyway? Pad up and play?

The tryst with winning a series in Australia began in 2003-04. A mistimed declaration and a Steve Waugh special in his final match meant India had to settle for a draw. In 2007-08, factitious umpiring in an ill-tempered match at Sydney crushed all hopes of a win. Though the side came back miraculously at Perth, they lost the series 1-2. In 2011-12, a decade’s worth of work was torn apart in a 0-4 annihilation. It was the last time we would see VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid donning the whites. In 2014-15, India almost pulled off a heist in Adelaide. In the same series, MS Dhoni finished a press conference and without any fuss, called time on his test career. In 2018-19 they conquered a summit that had eluded them thus far – a series win in Australia. It was nearly 20 years in the making.

2020-21 was different, yet the same. Australia crowds have still not realized that the term code of conduct applies to them as well. Virat Kohli is set to return after the first test match for the birth of his child. India is fielding one of its best bowling attacks ever, most of whom will watch from the sidelines as the series progresses. Mohammad Siraj is told about his father’s demise at the start of the tour. He chooses to stay on. T Natarajan misses the birth of his daughter even when he isn’t a certainty in the playing XI.

At Melbourne, the side regroups under the aegis of Ajinkya Rahane. When you’re captain, it’s always time for a captain’s knock. In the first test, Rahane is involved in a mix-up that sends Kohli back to the pavilion. He has a few monkeys to get off his back. Shubman Gill makes a confident and assured debut. Rahane’s century is like the balm of Gilead. There are no over the top rub it in your face celebrations that are synonymous with Virat Kohli. Just like it happened at Perth all those years back, the side strings an improbable victory. There are no calls for Rahul Dravid to board the next flight to Australia.

At Sydney, Hanumana Vihari and R Ashwin defy Nathan Lyon, Tim Paine’s chatter and injury to steal a draw. The 36 all out is slowly receding from memory.

Brisbane is the last stop of a tumultuous tour. All of India’s frontline bowlers, Mohammad Shami, Umesh Yadav and Jasprit Bumrah, are injured. A statistic says Australia’s bowlers have 1,013 wickets between them. India’s bowlers? 13. Washington Sundar and T Natarajan are handed their test caps. Shubman Gill misses a century by 9 runs and Cheteshwar Pujara becomes a punching bag. Rishab Pant, who is coming off a lacklustre IPL and whose attitude and fitness are always in the firing line, rises like a phoenix. According to reports, no one from the dressing room told him to go for victory. He just did. Towards, the end, he commits hara-kiri by going for a big hit. The heart stops and the mind goes back to 1999 when Sachin Tendulkar’s wicket triggered a heartbreaking collapse that hurts to this day. This is 2021. But anything is possible. Once Washington Sundar departs, it’s all on Pant.

The final shot is a punch through long-off. The camera stays on the ball and no one can see if there is a fielder. When the camera finally catches up with the ball, it has crossed the boundary.

Even though Rahul Dravid didn’t take the flight to Australia, he was all over Twitter, garnering praise. Two of his proteges, Pujara and Rahane were critical pivots around which the team revolved. He played an important part in Australia after all.

The series was a lesson in storytelling

David vs Goliath

A sagely guide who helps them make the treacherous journey

Overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles

Winning against all odds

We live vicariously through sport. We wish we can be a part of closely knit team that defies the odds. And when we don’t find it in life, sport delivers us from the humdrum of the everyday.

To be invested in sport is to subject yourself to heart surgery every time the team takes the field. Apart from actual heart surgery, sport is the only other thing that can rip our hearts and put it back together.

Diego Maradona – More God than saint

In a piece written a few years back, commentator Harsha Bhogle said this about Vinod Kambli:

“If there is a God, he drove a hard bargain with him; gave him the kind of talent others crave for but took away a lot of the skills you need to make the most of the talent.”

The difference between Kambli and Maradona is that Kambli didn’t scale the heights that he could have. He succumbed to the ravages of fame before that. Maradona touched the peak before he plunged into new depths of despair. But what Harsha Bhogle wrote about Vinod Kambli applies to Maradona as well.

If you were born in the 80s, you probably didn’t get to witness Maradona in his prime. You heard about from your dad, read about him, and with the proliferation of the internet, saw clips of his genius.

Through clips, we saw what is one of football’s most flagrant foul ever – the hand of God. A few minutes later, he went onto score the greatest goals ever in the history of the game after dribbling past 5 players. While he almost led Argentina to a second world cup win in 1990, he was ousted from the 1994 World Cup when he tested positive for a banned substance.

His post-playing career resulted in him trying to recreate the highs of the game by abusing substances. That seldom ends well. More than cheating and scoring a goal with his hand, what is remarkable is the number of times he cheated death. He suffered a cocaine overdose and came back from the brink of death in 2000. Gone was the lithe figure who could glide through the field and score goals with impunity. In that place was a morbidly obese figure who didn’t know how to live a normal life outside of football.

Coping with fame is a skill in its own right. And for sports icons, their post-playing days outnumber their playing ones. While they can live off their playing days fame forever, they still have to navigate them keeping their wealth and dignity intact.

For someone like Maradona, a lot of the normal rules don’t apply. This can be fatal when you don’t know where to draw the line and your fans can’t get enough of you.

In 2008, Maradona was appointed coach of the Argentinian football team. It was a match people were waiting for – Lionel Messi, one of the greatest footballers ever, coached by the greatest ever. It ended in ignominy. Argentina lost to Germany 0-4 in the quarterfinals and his international coach days came to a grinding halt. He coached and managed teams in Argentina, Mexico and UAE. Most of them didn’t do much to boost his coaching credentials.

The last the world at large saw Maradona was at the 2018 World Cup. He was his usual ebullient self, cheering wildly when Argentina scored and even collapsed after watching a match.

There are very few people who can get away with what Maradona did and still be revered. Wherever he went, he was the center of attraction, a man who never quite knew how to go quietly into the sunset.

Diego Maradona’s life veers more towards a cautionary tale than an inspiring one. His all too real struggles played out in front of the whole world and this endeared people to him. He might have been a god to millions, but he was more sinner than saint.

I see Maradona through his numerous videos on youtube, through documentaries, and all that has been written about him. And what I see is this:

Diego Maradona – the man who could conjure magic with his feet on the field but struggled to find his footing away from it.

Rahul Tewatia vs Netflix

Picture courtesy – Espncricinfo

“I’ll watch the first 5 overs and then switch to Netflix.” That’s what I told my wife. She isn’t a big fan of cricket and I don’t like ridiculously high-scoring games where the scales are tilted unfavourably towards one side.

If Rajasthan Royals had to have any chance of making a contest out of the game, the first few overs would set the tone, if not for a victory, at least for a contest.

When Steve Smith fell, everyone braced for Robin Uthappa to enter the fray. Victory was still a distant dream, as distant as they come. In walks Rahul Tewatia. Remember the 90s, when Javagal Srinath used to walk in at the fall of a wicket and used to throw his bat at everything? The experiment rarely paid off. In a batting line-up that was used to imploding after Tendulkar got out, that was a move to delay the inevitable. I thought the concept of the pinch-hitter was done and dusted in the 90s. You know when you’re not getting anything right? When everyone wants you to get out. The job of a bowler is to take wickets. But when someone like a Tewatia is like a deer caught in the headlights, the ploy is to keep him on strike. At least that’s what it looked like Ravi Bishnoi was attempting. He wasn’t blowing at the stumps or pads. Just keep him on strike and let him waste deliveries. Dot balls are gold dust when you’re chasing 225 in a T20 match.

Do you know when you’re having a bad day? When you can’t even get out. Everyone from the commentators to Sanju Samson at the other end was imploring Tewatia to hit out or get out. And to be fair, that’s what he was trying. Coming down the pitch and missing.

The Skip Intro function on Netflix enables you to bypass the intro and begin watching the show without wasting time. While the highlights will only show you Tewatia’s six blitzkrieg, they won’t show you the initial struggle. They will skip the intro and go the good part. But that misses the entire point of the innings. Without the initial torturous struggle, there is no story to tell.

There is something about not being able to take your eyes off someone having a bad day at the office. If you’ve ever had a work experience where nothing seemed to be going right for you and everyone around was feeding off your misery, you understood what Rahul Tewatia was going through. Netflix beckoned. “Just one more over” I told myself.

The Kings XI Punjab didn’t just do everything right, they went beyond that. They were like the student who is over-prepared for an exam. Mayank Agarwal had played a blinder to set up his team for what seemed like imminent victory. Nicholas Pooran’s incredible save at the boundary was rated as one of the best ever by Tendulkar on twitter. That one moment was enough for Punjab to win the match.

One of the trending movies on Netflix is the Social Dilemma. It’s about how social media companies work over time to keep you hooked onto their services. Rahul Tewatia did more or less the same thing. His struggle followed by redemption kept you hooked and on tenterhooks at the same time.

There are some moments you never forget. Yuvraj’s six sixes in the T20 World Cup against England in 2007. Carlos Brathwaite hitting three consecutive sixes against Ben Stokes in the 2016 T20 World Cup final. And now, Rahul Tewatia’s five sixes off Sheldon Cottrell in one over to erase the deficit. There were two things he did – overcome his fruitless start and bring distant victory within sight. In the final moments of the game, the impossible had been reduced to a canter.

The beauty about such a moment in sport is that everyone has their own interpretation of the innings. To some, it’s about not giving up. To others, it’s a classic never underestimate the small guy story.

The IPL is a breeding ground for one hit wonders. Kamran Khan was touted as the next big thing by none other than Shane Warne. After being reported for a suspect action, he returned to his village and went back to farming. Paul Valthathy played a blinder of an innings against Chennai in the 2011 edition of the IPL and then went AWOL. It remains to be seen if Rahul Tewatia can build on his scarcely believable innings. It’s also a near statistical impossibility for someone to pull off such a heist again. Even if he doesn’t do either, the innings will linger in our memories for sometime at least.

The skip intro function on Netflix enables you to bypass the intro and begin watching without wasting time. While the highlights will only show you Tewatia’s six blitzkrieg, they won’t show you the struggle. They will skip the intro and go the good part. But that misses the entire point of the innings. Without the initial torturous struggle, there is no drama, no story to relive.

At the end of a record chase, the score read:

Rahul Tewatia – 53

Netflix – 0.

MS Dhoni – The Keeper of Dreams

In 1993, after the Chicago Bulls won their third consecutive NBA title, Michael Jordan announced his retirement. It would be the first of his three retirements. After a couple of years playing baseball in the minor league for the Chicago Sox, Jordan decided to return to basketball. The documentary ‘The Last Dance’ on Netflix describes plans to announce his comeback. Drafts were written and re-written and Jordan wasn’t satisfied with any of them. Finally, he took him upon himself to tell the world about his return to basketball. He said it with two words:

“I’m Back”

Nearly 3 decades later, MS Dhoni announced his retirement using 16 words. “Thanks – Thanks a lot for ur love and support throughout. From 19:29 hrs consider me as Retired.”  More than two words but short nonetheless. Just the day before, images of Dhoni landing in Chennai for the IPL preparatory camp were everywhere. It was the first glimpse people of him in months.

There are few ways to retire:

a) Retiring when you’re on the top of you’re game

b) Fading away from memory

c) Being forced to retire

d) MS Dhoni’s way to retire

Dhoni has been out of the public eye since India’s heart-breaking semi-final loss to New Zealand in the 2019 World Cup. In early 2020, he was dropped from the BCCI’s list of contracted players. But the man himself was silent. Everyone speculated that the IPL would be his launchpad for his return to international cricket. Then a pandemic brought the world to its knees.

MS Dhoni’s ascent to the stratosphere has been recounted countless times. A lad from Ranchi who moonlighted as a ticket collector and then went onto become one of the most successful captains in the history of Indian cricket. In his 5th ODI, he smashed 148 against Sri Lanka. It can be said that in a single swoop, he cut short the wicket-keeping dreams of Dinesh Karthik, Deep Dasgupta and Parthiv Patel. His 183 against Pakistan a year later sealed the deal. Dhoni was the Adam Gilchrist like figure India had been looking for all along.

Then 2007 happened. India suffered an ignominious first round exit in the 50 over World Cup and mobs in the guise of fans took out their life’s frustrations on the players. Dhoni’s house in Ranchi, which was still under construction was attacked by mobs. A tired Rahul Dravid announced he was quitting captaincy and Dhoni was appointed captain for the limited overs formats. The BCCI, which didn’t even want to send a squad to the inaugural T20 World Cup, finally relented. Those two weeks in September would go on to redefine cricket as we know it. India won the first T20 World Cup and cricket changed forever. Dhoni was now the toast of the town. A few months back, he had to stay back in Delhi until they found a safe passage for him home. Now, he couldn’t go home because everyone wanted a piece of him.

In their book ‘The Power of Moments’, the Heath Brothers write about a phenomenon called ‘The Reminiscence Bump’. According to this theory, some of the most memorable moments in our lives happen during the ages of 15-30. This is only an estimation and doesn’t apply to everyone. The reason is simple – most of our firsts happen during this time period. Leaving home. First job. Falling in love. Getting married. Having children. “Novelty changes our perception of time” they say. It’s true. While everyone remembers him finishing off with a six to give India its first World Cup win, here are some Dhoni ‘reminiscence bumps’:

a) Dhoni smashing 148 against Pakistan and 183 against Sri Lanka

b) Dhoni handing the ball to an untried Joginder Sharma in the final over of the 2007 T20 World Cup

c) Dhoni leading India to victory against Australia in the CB series in 2008

d) Dhoni rushing to the stumps to run out Mustafizur Rahman in the 2016 T20 World Cup

e) Dhoni exalting after India won the 2013 Champions Trophy

f) Dhoni walking into bat for CSK and the crowd losing it

g) Dhoni stealing another single

i) Dhoni falling short of the finish line in the 2019 World Cup semi-final against New Zealand

Just as our most memorable moments occur relatively early in life, Dhoni’s greatest highs came in the first six years of his captaincy. He led India to wins in T20 and 50 over World Cups in 2007 and 2011 respectively. India reached No.1 in the test rankings in 2009. In 2013, he led India to victory in the Champions Trophy. He was captain when India lost the T20 final to Sri Lanka in 2014 and the Champions Trophy finals to Pakistan in 2017. In 2015, India lost to Australia in the 50 over World Cup semi-finals after being unbeaten throughout the tournament. In 2016, they were hot favourites to win the T20 World Cup at home but lost to West Indies in the semi-finals.

For the longest time, one of the preconditions for greatness was being a test great. While Dhoni played 90 tests, it wasn’t his preferred format. It is a known fact that then BCCI head honcho N Srinivasan stepped in to stop him from being axed as captain after disastrous overseas tours against England and Australia in 2011-12. In many ways, 2011 was 2007 for Dhoni all over again. In 2007, an incredible low was followed by an exalting high. In 2011, an incredible high was followed by forgettable lows. While he didn’t let in on why he quit test cricket, the multiple overseas losses must have bogged him down.

It can be said that after Sachin Tendulkar, MS Dhoni is the most popular cricketer that India has produced. How else can someone from Ranchi find a second home in Chennai? And after Kapil Dev, he was the next person from small town India who gave an entire generation the license to dream.

So that’s how one of India’s greats pulls down the curtains. With an instagram post in the midst of a pandemic. This means he is in a bio-secure bubble somewhere, away from the media hounds and die-hard fans. Even a glittering ceremony, if it ever should be conducted, is some time away. So all we will have to live with are the memories.

In Michael Jordan’s eulogy to the late great Kobe Bryant, he said “when someone dies, a part of you dies.” Something similar happens when a sporting hero retires – a part of you goes with them. It’s an inexplicable feeling. In some strange way, your life and their deeds on the field are intertwined.

I keep thinking – why is it that when some players retire, it hits us hard? I think it’s because we trust them with our dreams. We hinge our happiness, peace of mind and a good night’s sleep on how they play on the field. It’s a huge responsibility and our dreams and wishes don’t always come to fruition. That’s life. But we wake up the next day and put our dreams in their hands again. That’s why we watched as long was Dhoni was at the crease. That’s why the rising run rate didn’t matter. As long as Dhoni was there, there was reason to keep dreaming.

Dhoni will go down in history as a great captain, fantastic finisher and astute keeper.

But more importantly, he was the keeper of dreams.

Sachin Tendulkar’s Thani Avartanam

Encores are hard, in sport, and in life.

How ever hard we try to manufacture happiness, seldom are two moments alike.

When you think of it, most of our lives are spent searching for perfect moments and then recreating them.

But what is an encore, really?

Is it repeating the same thing again?

The same shot, the same feeling, the same taste?

When the band walks away from the stage, you beg for an encore because no show is complete without an encore.

But can you repeat last quarter’s glory this year?

What about trying to recreate the feeling of a rookie who has nothing to lose, after climbing the corporate ladder has left you looking at a hollow version of yourself in the mirror?

Isn’t almost everything we do trying to recreate a happy memory?

We know this, but don’t want to believe it.

How do you do perform an encore in sport where no two days are alike?

An encore isn’t about consistency.

It’s about replicating a magical feeling to the t.

In the summer of 1998, Sachin Tendulkar played the near perfect encore.

He scored 143 to help India qualify for the final.

In the final, he scored 134. Even the scores were identical.

This was 1998. There was Sachin Tendulkar who walked on water, and the rest who struggled who struggled to find their feet.

In 1998, in another corner of the world, another God disguised as a basketball player led a team to a famous second three peat. Michael Jordan was the fulcrum around which the Chicago Bulls revolved. After that famous Bulls dynasty was eviscerated after the 1998 NBA finals, the Chicago Bulls haven’t won a single title. 6 titles in 8 years. 0 titles in 22.

Geniuses have too much of a burden to bear. They need to rise to their own unrelenting standards and carry their teams along with them. Many geniuses are mired in mediocrity, waging lonely battles that never end. Think Brian Lara and the West Indies.

But it’s tough, even for a genius, to do an encore on two different days.

Sachin Tendulkar coming down the pitch and hitting Shane Warne for six. Warne swatting off a fly and trying to come to his senses at the same time.

Everyone feels what Shane Warne is feeling – “did I just see that?”

You can’t see Tony Greig but you can imagine him standing up from his seat and trying to follow the ball. Did he fall off his seat like you?

“Whaddaplaya!”

“They’re dancing in aisles.”

Damn, we were all dancing in our living rooms.

Out of nowhere, an actual desert storm stopped play and India’s target was revised. But Tendulkar was going for the jugular. Seeking to merely qualify is for mere mortals.

In the first match of the Desert Storm limited series edition , a familiar tale played self out. Tendulkar perished and along with him, so did the chances of an improbable victory.

But there’s an encore. The finals against the same opposition.

April 24, 1998. Sachin Tendulkar turned 25 and he’s already a bonafide legend. And he’s about to play another innings that will forever define his career.

Australia set India a steep target of 273. Think of it in terms of money. If someone owned a house that was valued at 10 lakhs in 1998, how much will it be worth today? Now think of it in terms of runs. What is a score of 272 in 1998 worth today? 400?

At the start of the chase, Tendulkar almost played on. If that had happened, a lot of electricity would have been saved that night.

Michael Kasprowitz, Damien Fleming, Shane Warne, Steve Waugh, all deer in the headlights, being taken to the cleaners.

There was one part where the similarities ended. India won the final. Sachin took the team closer to victory, leaving the finishing to Ajay Jadeja and Hrishikesh Kanitkar.

If you look at those two knocks, so much is the same.

The raucous crowd.

The garrish yellow worn by Australia.

Tony Greig’s commentary that still rings in our ears after all these years.

In a Carnatic music concert, there is a part where only the percussionists play and take centre stage. It’s called TANI AVARTANAM. Tani loosely translates to rhythm and Avartanam means repetition. The kanjira, mridangam and ghatam, all come together in near perfect unison. Sadly, in many concerts, the audience get up when this begins. As the Tani Avartanam comes to a close, the main performer jumps back into the fray and the concert nears its end.

Over those two nights Sharjah, in Carnatic music terms, Sachin Tendulkar played his version of a Tani Avartanam.

Rhythm + repetition.

And unlike in a Carnatic Music concert, no one dared leave their seats.

Hype is good but test cricket needs gasoline

In November 2013, Sachin Tendulkar played his final test match in front of his home crowd in the Wankhede. There were tributes galore and everyone wanted one of cricket’s biggest stars, a touchstone for an entire generation, to be given the farewell he deserved. A few questions were posed on how a player, even if he belonged to an elite club like Tendulkar, got the farewell he wanted. The BCCI truncated a tour to South Africa to accommodate a hastily arranged farewell series for the great man. The West Indies, a depleted force in test cricket for ages, ensured the competition was a no-contest. Winning in front of your home crowd in your last test match is what any player dreams of.

Sachin’s last series was all about him. The opposition was incidental, almost forgotten in the melee.

Six years later, the Eden Gardens is playing host to the first day and night test match to be played in India. Again, there is a lot of excitement about the match – but the opposition is not up to the mark. India steamrolled Bangladesh in the first test match and barring a miracle, no one expects a shock or surprise in the second match, even if it is the first day/night test being played by all the players.

Cricket is the only game that has constantly made itself shorter to stay relevant. From 5 days to 50 overs to 20 over and now, to T10, a format that is being experimented with.

The problem in test cricket is this – there are only three quality test cricket sides in international cricket – India, Australia and England. West Indies, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, South Africa, all of them have inefficient boards that haven’t invested in test cricket. The shorter formats are more of an even playing field (remember West Indies are the reigning T20 champs). MS Dhoni retired from test cricket in 2014 to extend his limited overs career. Though no one knows what the future holds for him, the fact that he chose the shorter formats over test cricket says something about what some players really feel about the format.

The first day and night test match was played in Adelaide in 2015. It was a success, but it hasn’t moved beyond the novelty stage. The BCCI, the world’s most powerful cricketing body, has always been late to the party. Indian Standard Time applies here too. They kept T20 at bay until India won the first T20 World Cup and then dived headlong into the format with the IPL. They didn’t agree to the World Anti-Doping Authority testing players during off-season as they said it was an infringement on privacy, not understanding that out of competition testing is more important than testing during competition. Only recently did they cede to be a part of WADA. They rejected day/night tests because they felt the pink ball was hard to spot.

It was only after Sourav Ganguly took over as BCCI President that he pushed for the Day/Night test match.

The litmus test of a cricketer’s ability has always been test cricket. That’s what the greats of the game dreamed of – earning a test cap, winning a test match abroad, getting your name up on the Lord’s honour board. It is the format that lays threadbare a player’s ability. While its relevance, especially after the ascent of T20 cricket, has constantly been questioned, it is still around. There is no greater joy than watching batsmen navigate the first 15 overs on a fast pitch with the pacers steaming in and the slips in position.

Some see Day/Night tests as the last roll of the dice to preserve test cricket and get the crowds to come in and make it viable for sponsors. While it will not replace regular test cricket, tours might have one Day/Night test match in their itinerary.

For test cricket to flourish, boards must make it a priority. The recently concluded test series against South Africa was a no-contest and such tours only reveal the yawning gap between sides, all of which make for boring viewing. Weak and inefficient boards mean fewer quality test sides – something day/night cricket can’t solve.

The first Day/Night test match in Eden Gardens has a lot of razzmatazz to back it up. Former greats will be in attendance to discuss some of the most epic matches played there – Kolkata 2001 against the invincible Aussies.

In his brilliant daily blog, musician Gabe Anderson wrote this amazing post titled ‘Hype and Gasoline’:

Hype is really fun when you have the stuff.

Because when you have the stuff it isn’t hype, it’s gasoline.

So it’s important to remember: you’re in the business of fire not gasoline.

Keep building it.

What test cricket needs now is a little hype and a lot of gasoline.

Hero worship

We don’t worship our heroes as much as we do the images we have of them in our heads.

That’s why, for me, and for many others, it was easier to consider people like Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman, Anil Kumble and Javagal Srinath as our heroes. They were all far from perfect, but when you look up to anyone, the tendency is to turn a blind eye to the not so savoury stuff.

Virat Kohli is different. And back in the day, in his prime, so was Sourav Ganguly. Unlike many of their peers, they also polarize opinion. You might like or dislike Tendulkar, but calling him a polarizing figure is a bit of a stretch.

Virat Kohli polarized opinion from the moment he made his debut. He made things worse for himself and fell several notches down my list of the ‘invincibles’ when he jostled my hero Anil Kumble from his position as coach and turned it into a powergame that only he could win.

You wanted a Tendulkar, or a Dravid, or a Laxman to succeed and I’ve seen people celebrate when Kohli loses his wicket because they deem it as one way for him to come back to earth from the orbit he inhabits. Even my mother says “asshole, serves him right (just to be sure, her thoughts, my interpretation).

These days, data is the new buzzword, though I am quite sure most people have no clue what it means. They praise data to high heavens but don’t do anything of use with it (exit interview forms anyone?).

According to the data, Virat Kohli is a modern great. You can’t dispute fact. Sure, he is yet to lead his IPL side, the Royal Challengers Bangalore to a victory and yet to win a major tournament as captain. But he’s good. Really bloody good.

He has transformed from a pudgy party boy who always seemed a step away from going off into the deep end to a lean, mean machine who scores runs like an ATM that never runs out of money. When you look at a young Prithvi Shaw who is apparently sitting on the sidelines because fame got to his head too quickly, you can imagine how difficult it is for a player to put the game before madness.

I always had a wrong notion about heroes. That they had to be perfect in every which way, that they had to cede to the ten commandments in my head to earn my respect. I now realize how flawed that thinking was.

Tomorrow, I will still tell my children to model a Dravid or Laxman when it comes to balancing greatness with humility.

Is Virat Kohli my hero? I’m not sure. But it will be foolish of me not to acknowledge his greatness and incredible prowess.

I may not worship him but I respect him. He is one of the greatest players to ever grace the game of cricket.

More importantly, he taught me to distinguish between worship and respect.

You don’t worship your heroes, just the image you have of them in your head.

Happy Birthday, Virat Kohli.

Sourav Ganguly’s second resurrection act

Sourav Ganguly announcing his arrival in the test arena with a century at Lord’s. Incidentally, Rahul Dravid also stamped his authority as a test player in that innings.

Dada always seems to find himself redeeming a hopeless situation in Indian cricket.

Many don’t know this fact – Sourav Ganguly made his debut in 1992. He played a match against the West Indies and was then dropped. He was thought of to be arrogant as he refused to carry drinks for his teammates. He went back to domestic cricket and was again picked for India’s tour of England in 1996.

There are many turning points in Indian cricket, pivotal moments that serve as springboards for the future. The 1996 tour of England was one of them. It introduced us to Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly. In his first tour of England, Ganguly scored a century at Lord’s and got his name on the Honors Board. Rahul Dravid got out at 95 but came back in 2011 during the penultimate series of his career to score a century and get his name on the Honours Board too. In 1999, VVS Laxman joined Tendulkar, Dravid and Ganguly and they went on to form one of the best batting line-ups ever in the history of cricket.

Indian cricket in the 90s could best be described as a muddle. Ganguly was recalled to the national side on the back of massive scores in domestic cricket but his re-entry was ascribed to an informal ‘quota’ reserved for players from the East zone which wasn’t known to produce cricketers for the national side. His rise also coincided with Indian cricket becoming a financial powerhouse under the wily late Jagmohan Dalmiya, who also happened to be from Kolkata.

Nonetheless, Sourav Ganguly performed one of the greatest resurrection acts of Indian cricket after it was engulfed by the match-fixing controversy in the late 90s. Sachin Tendulkar had burnt his hands with multiple failed stints at captaincy and it fell to Sourav Ganguly to resurrect Indian cricket. That he did with a little help from one of the greatest test match innings ever played by VVS Laxman and surrounded by men of honour like Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Anil Kumble and Javagal Srinath.

After the mumbling Mohammad Azharuddin, who we later learned was selling his performances to the highest bidder, we got a captain who stood up for players.

Who incensed Steve Waugh by keeping him waiting for the toss.

Who took off his shirt on the Lord’s balcony, giving purists palpitations.

A moment no Ganguly fan will forget. Dada taking off his shirt on the hallowed Lord’s balcony

Who led Indian to a World Cup final after 20 years in 2003.

Who instilled the belief that winning abroad was no longer a pipe dream.

Of course, his fall-out with Greg Chappell and ouster from the team is still media fodder till date.

Now, a little over a decade after he hung up his boots from international cricket, he is taking up what is possibly the most powerful position in world cricket – the head of the BCCI. India brings in over 70% of revenues into world cricket and uses its clout to get its way. But here’s a small question – who exactly is Sourav Ganguly taking over from?

Since 2013, the BCCI has been in a flux. In the 90s, Jagmohan Dalmiya ruled the roost. In the 2000s, Sharad Pawar controlled Indian cricket and later N Srinivasan bossed and bullied, using the BCCI’s clout to get more share of cricketing revenue.

Of the three, Jagmohan Dalmiya and N Srinivasan were ousted on corruption charges.

To say cricket administration is a double-edged sword is a bit of an understatement. That is why so few former cricketers get into it, preferring the cozy confines of the commentary box. In 2010, Anil Kumble, Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad ran Karnataka cricket for a few years and lost their bid for re-election. By the looks of it, they don’t look like they’re missing it.

After spot-fixing charges were leveled against N Srinivasan’s son-in-law in 2013, the Supreme Court appointed the Lodha commission to set the BCCI’s house in order. On ground, nothing has even remotely changed when it comes to cricket administration. While Indian cricket has been flourishing, largely on the quality of its players and the huge sums of money that the cricket attracts, the BCCI has been a crumbling house, rife with power struggles and the old guard safeguarding status quo. While Srinivasan is credited to have done a lot for Indian cricketers, his rough shod administrative ways and refusal to abdicate his post even after spot-fixing charges were leveled against his son-in-law Gurunath Meiyappan, showed his power-hungry side. The irony isn’t lost on anyone – a captain who rescued a side from the ravages of match fixing needs the support of a corrupt chief who used all his powers to defend his son-in-law from accusations of spot fixing.

A lot has changed in Indian cricket overt the last two decades. Player salaries have skyrocketed and facilities have vastly improved. This doesn’t mean there isn’t work to be done, but it can be said that an international player is better off today when compared to when Sourav Ganguly and his peers began their careers.

The role of an administrator is multi-faceted – taking care of the players’ needs, getting money into the sport and growing the game. While Afghanistan’s slow and steady rise is gratifying, cricket is nowhere near football when it comes to popularity and reach. It was only recently that the BCCI agreed to come under the ambit of the World Anti-Doping Agency that tests athletes for doping.

Sourav Ganguly also takes over at a time when MS Dhoni’s future is uncertain and no one seems to know the way forward.

Recently, Mohammad Azharuddin, Ganguly’s disgraced predecessor made news after being elected the President of the Hyderabad cricket Association. Ostracized by the BCCI after his life ban for match fixing, he is now being welcomed back with open arms. In September, Rupa Gurunath, N Srinivasan’s daughter was elected president of the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association. All of this just goes to show that a lot in Indian cricket is status quo. Multiple clean –up acts have failed and administration still attracts politicians (home minister’s son Jay Shah is the secretary of the BCCI) who want a part of the cash cow. While he is no stranger to administration, this just tells us how much a former player, even if they are an icon, have to compromise if they are to get into administration.

Best of all, Sourav Ganguly has just 10 months to govern as he has been the president of the Cricket Association of Bengal for 5 years and the Lodha commission recommends a mandatory cooling off period for 3 years if a person has completed six consecutive years at a state association.

There has always been a yawning gap between those who play the game and those that run it. And Ganguly has never been one to shy away from a fight or getting into muddy waters. His former vice-captain Rahul Dravid was recently appointed the head of the National Cricket Academy, another decision that drew many cheers. But coaching and administration, both perilous in their own ways, are vastly different beasts.

From being the most powerful cricket board without a face, the BCCI now has as its president one of India’s most revered captains. From stalling all efforts for a complete clean-up, it now has found a face that cricket lovers respect and admire.

But changing administration is a vast cry from turning a team around.

Just like he steered cricket from a precipice all those years back, it remains to be seen what Sourav Ganguly’s second resurrection act will look like.

P.S – Shekhar Gupta explains this dilemma wonderfully

The never ending twilight of MS Dhoni

Dhoni getting run-out in the World Cup semi-final. We don’t know yet if this will be the last time we see him in Indian colours

When Malaysian Airlines 370 went missing in 2014, the question on everyone’s minds was – how can a flight go missing in today’s day and age when it is seemingly impossible to miss even your annoying colleague’s anniversary pictures on social media. In an age when everyone is seemingly hyper-connected all the time, how is it possible for an aircraft to go missing in thin air?

MS Dhoni’s case is somewhat similar. No, he hasn’t disappeared into thin air but no one seems to know where he is. More importantly, no one knows when or where we see him again. No one, including the captain, the coach or any other player knows what his future plans are. One of India’s most popular cricketers ever has gone AWOL.

When VVS Laxman announced his retirement just before the start of a home series in 2012, he was asked if he had informed Dhoni. He famously replied that he couldn’t get through his phone. 

That Dhoni has and will always remain an enigma is something everyone has come to terms with. As much as we believe cricketers are public property, they’re not. Unlike a few other cricketers including Virat Kohli, who are active on social media, Dhoni’s twitter seems to have gone into hibernation since May, when the IPL was still being played.

Last week, when Virat Kohli tweeted a picture of himself with Dhoni, everyone went into a collective rapture. Kohli, realizing that in a cricket mad country, his harmless tweet could be dissected in thousand unwanted ways, quickly dispelled any wrong notions people might have had. Not knowing what to do with the up swell of emotion, someone realized that it was 12 years to the day that Dhoni first played for the country and began a hashtag #12yearsofdhoni.

Since his last tweet, he has led the Chennai Super Kings to a consecutive IPL final where they suffered heartbreak in a heart stopper of a match and then had a somewhat indifferent World Cup. In a match against England, India’s first and only loss in the tournament before the semi-final, Dhoni didn’t make any effort to chase down a high total, preferring to take singles much to the bafflement of everyone. Would the younger Dhoni have attempted to pull of a heist one wondered?

In the 2011 World Cup final, Dhoni famously pushed himself up the order in a tense chase. Throwing caution to the indifferent form that had plagued him through the tournament, he helped the side script a historical win. Fast forward 8 years later and in another tense chase where the top order was blown to smithereens in the first five overs, Dhoni was pushed down the order. Unlike in the past, he played a supporting role to an unlikely hero in Ravindra Jadeja. While
the move took everyone by surprise, it was ostensibly done keeping in mind that Dhoni wasn’t the finisher that he once was. It was also a move that drove a wedge between former batting coach Sanjay Bangar and those entrusted with renewing his contract. As it turns out, his contract wasn’t renewed, another contentious decision not based on much cricketing logic, especially when all the other coaches retained their jobs.

Dhoni hasn’t played a single international match after the ill-fated
semi-final game against New Zealand at the World Cup.

The surprising thing about Dhoni’s neither here nor there situation is that he always seemed to be someone who never hesitated to take a decision.

In the 2007 T20 World Cup final, he handed the ball to rookie Joginder
Sharma, superseding an experienced Harbhajan Singh.

When he took over the side in all formats, he was very clear that he wanted younger legs on the field and drew the finish line for Sourav Ganguly’s and Rahul Dravid’s limited overs careers.

He announced his retirement from test cricket with absolutely no prior
warning and walked away from it with no fuss.

In 2016, he stepped down as captain in ODIs and T20s, again without much fuss, handing over the reins to Virat Kohli.

He never seemed to be someone desperate to hold on to his place, seeking one last shot at glory.

Had India won the World Cup, would Dhoni have been hoisted on his shoulders and then announced his retirement in a blaze of glory?

As India begin a new series that culminates with the T20 World Cup, Dhoni seems to be contemplating a last shot at glory in a format that made him an immortal when he led the side to a World Cup victory in 2007.

Rishab Pant has flattered and deceived in equal measure and has been given the diktat to grow up faster than he would have liked.

With Dhoni, no one knows. He can wake up one fine day and announce his retirement. Maybe he will just send a note to the board secretary and media and take off to an undisclosed location, everyone unsuccessfully chasing his shadow. 

It was Dhoni who laid waste to the careers of many wicket keepers – Deep Dasgupta, Parthiv Patel, Dinesh Karthik. If not for the IPL, Karthik and Patel would have faded away like generations of cricketers who didn’t have the blinding arc lights to save them from oblivion.

Dhoni playing in the 2020 T20 World Cup is a longshot. He is fit but not
young and no longer the match defining force he once was.

If at all he is waiting or has been told to wait till Rishab Pant proves his
consistency, it’s hard to miss the irony.

For someone who kept many keeper aspirants perennially waiting in the wings, Dhoni is now waiting to see if Rishab Pant lives up to his insane potential.

Twilight is last vestige of daylight before it gets engulfed by the night.
It usually doesn’t last very long. Blink and you can miss it.

But Dhoni is no ordinary cricketer and his twilight is no ordinary twilight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ravindra Jadeja – the hero India needed but didn’t deserve

Everyone thought hope well and truly died with MS Dhoni’s wicket. But it was Ravindra Jadeja who actually held more aces up his sleeve.

In the movie Any Given Sunday, Al Pacino motivates his team to dig deep into their reserves if they are to turn their team’s fortunes around.

He says the difference between victory and defeat is measured in inches.

When India were 5/3, a place in the finals looked a thousand miles away.

Dhoni and Jadeja bought that deficit down to inches.

MS Dhoni tried to pull of one final heist and fell short by inches when he tried to go for a suicidal second run in  a bid to get back on strike.

Indian fans got just what they wanted – a match up against New Zealand, a side that hasn’t been very convincing in the last few matches they played against India, a marauding Goliath that had won most of their matches in a convincing manner.

They hoped that it would rain all of Tuesday so it wouldn’t result in a curtailed match, making it tougher for India. Again, their wish was answered.

That’s as far as answered prayers went.

India came into the tournament with their top order in good nick and until the semi-finals, they did all the heavy lifting. The bowling effort was spectacular with Jasprit Bumrah standing tall and Mohammad Shami and Bhuvaneshwar Kumar playing pivotal roles.

But this World Cup was always about just one man – MS Dhoni.

Dhoni the captain cool who led India into the T20 era.

Dhoni the iceman who finished off matches with his cold blooded big hitting.

Dhoni who carried the weight of finishing matches on his shoulders all these years and was now waiting for a fitting end to a once-in-a-lifetime career.

8 years back, in the World Cup final, Dhoni promoted himself up the order after enduring a lukewarm tournament up to that point and played the innings of a lifetime to help India lift the trophy after 28 years. He is now 8 years older and as much as we wanted to believe that he could still pull it off, the reality was that the odds were always against him. His batting has been criticized in this World Cup, especially in the match against England. In his pomp, Sachin Tendulkar tore bowlers to shreds. In the latter half of his career, he watched from the other end as Virender Sehwag took over the baton of annihilating bowling attacks from him. Dhoni was in the side as a specialist keeper and his role in the middle order was to lend support to the big hitters like Pandya, Pant and to some extent, Jadeja. Expecting him to orchestrate a T20 like chase on his own was asking for the moon.

The mere fact that Hardik Pandya and Rishab Pant were promoted before Dhoni lent cadence to the argument that the team management had more trust in them to get the scoreboard ticking after the initial massacre.

In life, no one plans for disaster. No team has a handbook for what to do if you’re 5/3 in a World Cup semi-final. In all this talk about Dhoni’s run out being the turning point, if one watched the match, most of us would agree that it was Ravindra Jadeja who held more aces up his sleeve.

For all the years that he has played, we haven’t been able to decipher Ravindra Jadeja. He has been an afterthought in Indian cricket’s scheme of things. Back in 2009, he was lambasted for his inability to score during an important match against England in the T20 World Cup. In 2014, he played a pivotal knock in a test against England at Lord’s, helping the team secure a historic victory. It was a knock that lost its luster after the team careened and crashed to a miserable 1-3 series loss by losing the remaining three matches.

Commentator Sanjay Manjrekar, who has succeeded in making the mute button popular again and will shy away from any sort of ‘most popular commentator’ poll, called him a ‘bits and pieces player’. Come the semi-finals and Ravindra Jadeja had a point to prove. Not a part of the squad in the initial matches, he finally got the opportunity of a lifetime – just that it came after a calamitous start and the team’s hopes were hinging on a miracle.

The ‘bits and pieces’ player began putting the pieces back together, bit by bit, inch by inch.

Putting behind all the criticism that has been hurled towards him in his career, he almost did a Dhoni– orchestrate a miracle and taking the team over the finish line. His celebration after he reached his half-century seemed to suggest that he was searching for Sanjay Manjrekar, who had gone into hiding.

The truth is, between Jadeja and Dhoni, it was Jadeja who looked like he could take the team over the finish line. He took a great catch, inflicted a run out, bowled economically and played an innings that would have made history had he taken India over the finish line.

The bits and pieces player had become a complete one.

Since 2014, India have fallen short in pivotal matches.

The T20 finals in 2014.

The World Cup semi-finals in 2015.

The T20 semi-finals in 2016.

The Champions Trophy finals in 2017.

And now, the semi-finals in the 2019 World Cup.

Going forward, holding their nerves in a big match is an area they need to take a very hard look at.

As for New Zealand, they get another chance to create history. In 1992, their dream run came crashing down after they lost to eventual winners Pakistan in the semi-finals. In 2015, they fell apart during the finals. Cricket could do with a new winner and no sensible fan would begrudge New Zealand, always the under dogs, the victory of a lifetime.

Thank you Dhoni for everything that you have done for Indian cricket.

Thank you Ravindra Jadeja for looking fear in the eye and playing a special knock. You truly are the hero we needed but one we didn’t deserve.

Thank you Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammad Shami and Bhuvaneshwar Kumar for giving us a chance to see a three pronged pace attack in action.

Thank you Rohit Sharma for all the entertainment.

Thank you Virat Kohli for being a statesman of the game by asking fans to back off from Steve Smith. It was a heartening sight and a far cry from the raging cricketer that you once were.

When India loses a critical match, everything feel surreal. The government in Karnataka is on the verge of collapse but it didn’t matter. At another corner of the world, sprinter Dutee Chand became the first Indian woman athlete to win a gold at the World Universiade. After going through a harrowing time on the personal front, she emerged victorious.

There are always bits and pieces of joy strewn around. You just have to look for them.

There wasn’t much traffic on the road, but that didn’t bring a smile on anyone’s face. And there will be tons of crackers in homes across the country that were waiting to be burst.

Now they too have to wait.

Unfortunately, on a day on which they should have exploded, India’s top order imploded.