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.

Why do batsmen get more Man of the Match awards?

Bowlers bowl their heart out and secure many victories for their side and take wickets at crucial intervals. But many times, they are nowhere to be seen when the Man of the Match award is given out.

In India’s match against Bangladesh, their batting eventually fell short of about 20 runs. Virat Kohli who has been in good form this World Cup even though he hasn’t managed to convert his half-centuries into centuries, uncharacteristically got out in the 20s. Hardik Pandya, who has been in good nick and is counted upon to add testosterone to the scoring rate, fell for a duck. Rishab Pant played a crucial knock and MS Dhoni perished trying to add another six to his coterie before the sun went down. If not for Mustafizur Rahman’s 5 wicket haul, the score looked like it would race to 350.

In a previous  match, Bangladesh chased down 321 against the West Indies at a canter with almost 9 overs to spare.  No longer the minnows they once were and having already crushed India’s dreams in a World Cup in 2007, it was obvious that Bangladesh wouldn’t go down quietly. Although their chase was never allowed to take off, with wickets falling at crucial intervals, most Indian fans were at the edge of their seats when Mohammad Saifuddin began playing some delightful strokes and a match that was all but lost suddenly came alive. Hardik Pandya, who returned to the dressing room with a duck to his name didn’t finish the match empty handed. His 3 wicket haul included the crucial wickets of Soumya Sarkar, Liton Das and the most crucial of them all – Shakib Al Hasan.

But with Saifuddin still playing fearlessly, striking audacious shots, the match was by no means over. On air, Sourav Ganguly was saying all the Bangladeshi tail enders needed to do was give the strike to Saifuddin if they were to have any hope of wrenching out a victory from imminent defeat.

It was Jasprit Bumrah and his toe crushers, one of which also sent Vijay Shankar crashing out of the World Cup, that sealed the deal for India. The maestro of death bowling came to the fore and took out Rubel Hossain and Mustafizur Rahman in two consecutive deliveries as a Saifuddin watched helplessly at the other end.

To quickly summarize – Mustafizur Rahman’s 5 wicket haul helped restrict the Indian team score to 315, at least 20 runs short of what it could have been.

Hardik Pandya’s crucial strikes and Jasprit Bumrah’s final blows sealed the deal for India. If Bangladesh had managed to cobble a couple of partnerships, the match would have surely gone down to the wire.

Finally, who gets Man of the Match– centurion Rohit Sharma.

With all due credit to Rohit Sharma, he has been walking on water all through this World Cup. He has scored 4 centuries and doesn’t look like he is done yet. But without Bumrah and Pandya, his century might have gone in vain. In India’s match against West Indies, which they won a lot more convincingly, Mohammad Shami took a crucial 4 wicket haul, ending West Indies World Cup campaign.

Again, who was awarded the Man of the Match– Virat Kohli for his 72.

In the previous match against Afghanistan, where they got dangerously close to upsetting India, Shami became only the second Indian too take a hat-trick in a World Cup. This time, he lost the Man of the Match award to Bumrah but yet, it was felt he was more deserving of it.

What exactly qualifies for the Man of the Match award?

A performance that overshadows everything else?

A pivotal knock, or crucial wickets?

A stunning catch or run-out that changed the fortunes of a match?

Rain?

Two things that we are seeing less of in cricket with regards to Man of the Match awards are:

  1. The award being shared by two players
  2. The award going to a player from the losing side, who played exceptionally well

When seen through that lens, in the West Indies and New Zealand match, Carlos Braitwaite who played a scintillating knock to almost take West Indies over the line in one of the most thrilling matches of this World Cup, should have shared the Man of the Match award with Kane Williamson, who scored 148 and got the award. Hardik Pandya and Jasprit Bumrah could have shared the award for their crucial contributions in the match against Bangladesh.

Over the years, especially with the advent of T20, the game has skewed heavily towards the batsmen. People are okay with a switch hit but raise a hue and cry when R Ashwin Mankaded Jos Buttler. Grounds are getting smaller, pitches flatter, all in a bid to get more runs on the score board and keep the fans happy. Even when it comes to awarding the Man of the Match, a batsman’s role takes precedence of that of a bowler’s.

I think the term Man of the Match is restricting in its own right. Some matches have one stand out performer and many have more than one player making a valuable contribution. When it is restricted to one player, it suddenly becomes subjective and the pressure to name one player results in debatable decisions.

Maybe every match should have the leeway for the award to be awarded to more than one player if each of them played a pivotal role in the match. And it can be renamed ‘Valuable Contributions’ instead of merely ‘Man of the Match’. Or, have an online poll and allow fans to decide. There is no one stop solution, but one thing is for sure – bowlers need a lot more recognition for the role they play in their teams.

Yuvraj Singh and the story of the slayed dragons

As the sun rises on India’s World Cup campaign, another World Cup hero is walking away into the sunset

The thing with fairytale endings is that they are mostly a myth.

And so are these mythical creatures called dragons.

Yuvraj Singh would have loved to walk into the sunset in front of his home crowd, hoisted on the shoulders of his team-mates, to the chorus of his name being shouted.

By the time he announced his retirement, that day had long since passed.

No longer will he have to try to recapture his youthful self and manufacture another moment of glory. No longer will he face the ignominy of being benched and watching matches from the dugout. No longer will he be hidden in the field, forced to confront his ageing self.

In the 2019 IPL, for the briefest of moments, Yuvraj Singh of 2019 metamorphed into the Yuvraj Singh of 2007. The Mumbai Indians were playing against the Royal Challengers Bangalore and Yuvraj Singh was facing Yuzvendra Chahal, one of the most formidable leg spinners in world cricket today. It what could only be described as a surreal passage of play, he smashed Chahal for three consecutive sixes. Everyone were on the edge of their seats. Would this be a repeat of 2007 when made us finally believe in T20 cricket by hammering Stuart Broad for six sixes in an over? Just as we thought he had struck some elusive elixir that had made him young again, he holed out in the 4th delivery.

The Mumbai Indians reposed a lot of faith in his abilities when they bought him for 1 crore. But unlike MS Dhoni, who is enjoying a career renaissance of sorts in the twilight of his career, Yuvraj Singh didn’t enjoy the same final flourish. Gone was the towering presence at point when he magically converted boundaries into dot balls. After the first few matches in the IPL, he was benched, forced to watch from the dug out.

Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif scripted a memorable victory in the Natwest Trophy finals in 2002 causing Sourav Ganguly to take off his shirt in celebration. Mohammad Kaif wouldn’t go on to achieve the success of Yuvraj in the ensuing years.

The 2002 Natwest trophy was when Yuvraj Singh showed us a glimpse of what he was capable of. Chasing an improbable 326 to win, India were 146/5. Most television sets had been switched off after Sachin Tendulkar exposed his stumps to Ashley Giles and was clean bowled.

Slowly and steadily, Yuvi and Kaif reduced the deficit, until an improbable reality slowly became all too real. That innings was a stepping stone for Yuvraj, who only went on to accomplish greater things in the ensuing years. On the other hand, it would prove to be one of Kaif’s most defining moments in his career which slowly faded into oblivion.

In 2007, Yuvraj Singh drank from the cup of immortality when he smashed six sixes in an over off Stuart Broad in reply to Andrew Flintoff’s taunt. In the matches against England and Australia, he was like Moses walking on water, a man who connected bat with ball with ridiculous effortlessness and could do no wrong. The inaugural T20 World Cup changed the dynamics of world cricket and that one over where Yuvraj smashed six sixes has a lot do to with it.

Yuvraj Singh watches from the non-striker’s end as MS Dhoni hits the six that gave India a historic World Cup win after 28 years

In 2011, battling indifferent form (a known devil) and cancer (an unknown devil at that point), he won 4 man-of-the-match awards, took 15 wickets and came good in crucial encounters. The entire team was united in their efforts to win the cup for Sachin Tendulkar and Yuvraj’s efforts garnered him the man-of-the-match award in a historic World Cup campaign.

One day he was the toast of the nation.

The next day he was fighting for his life.

What was supposed to be a bright summer suddenly turned into a harsh cold winter. Diagnosed with a rare form of lung cancer, he battled it out and lived to tell the tale.

Most players have two phases to their careers. The first is them being carefree, finding their feet and making their name. The second is when they are a little more mature, having seen dips in form, highs and lows, their reflexes slowing and their place being threatened by the next generation.

For Yuvraj Singh, the two phases were before cancer and after cancer.

After his return, he was never the same. There were glimpses of his old self but he just wasn’t the same.

Then came the night he would like to ban forever from the recesses of his memory forever. His 11 runs in 21 balls in the 2014 T20 World Cup final undeniably altered the equation in Sri Lanka’s favour and handed them their maiden T20 world cup triumph. Hoodlums in the garb of fans hurled stones at his home.

He was a World Cup winner who heroically fought cancer and came back, only to play villain.

If there is one arena that Yuvraj Singh couldn’t put his stamp on, it was test cricket. But he also played in an era where many batman’s test hopes were dashed with VVS Laxman, Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar gridlocking the middle order. Much like how Pete Sampras could never conquer Roland Garros during his playing career, Yuvraj, for the limited chances he got, never quite found his footing in the test side. Test match prowess is always considered to be the litmus test for all-time greatness. In the same vein, even Dhoni can’t be considered a test match great. But that doesn’t make him less great. The same applies to Yuvraj Singh.

History will remember Yuvraj Singh for many things – his classy batting, sublime fielding, occasional heroics with the ball and one who never shied away from a fight.

The Indian team is on a quest to make it an English summer to remember. 8 summers back, Yuvraj Singh made it an Indian summer to remember. 

Dragons are mythical creatures. In his press conference, Yuvraj Singh referred to the tumultuous relationship he has had with his father Yograj Singh, terming him a dragon who imposed himself on his son’s choices and hurled childish allegations against his team mates to the media. He has finally made peace with his father after 20 years he said. Another legend in another sport, Andre Agassi too shared a tumultuous relationship with an overbearing father who would yell at him if he hit the ball into the net. Coincidentally, in his fantastic autobiography ‘Open’, we got to know that Agassi called the ball machine that his father used against him ‘the dragon’.

There will be no more dragons to slay for Yuvraj Singh, at least for the time being. The dragon of age, fading form, life-threatening illness, fading prowess, all have been laid to rest.

We will never know what a dragon looks like.

But Yuvraj Singh showed us what a dragon slayer looks like.

Chennai Super Kings, and the twilight of a dynasty

The Chennai Super Kings built their franchise around one player. But has the MS Dhoni dynasty run its course?


In Any given Sunday, one of the most iconic sports dramas of all time, Al Pacino tells his beleaguered team ‘You find out that life is just a game of inches’.

Chennai found that out that life indeed is a game of inches on one of the biggest stages of all – the IPL finals.

The Chennai Super Kings lost the finals by inches. By one run when Lasith Malinga got a wicket off the last ball and by an inch when Dhoni ran himself out by going for a second run on an overthrow.

Of all the teams in the history of the IPL, the Chennai Super Kings have been the most consistent, accumulated the most rabid fan base and been captained by MS Dhoni, one of the most popular cricketers in the country after the god-like Sachin Tendulkar. In some way, the franchise is an extension of the drama that the state of Tamil Nadu sees in its politics and cinema.

To understand why Chennai has been so successful as a franchise, one must realize that it is one of the few teams that is run by owners who have been instrumental in setting up a cricket culture in Tamil Nadu. While owners like Vijay Mallya, Priety Zinta and Shah Rukh Khan bought teams to probably inflate their already inflated egos and few owners ran their teams like their personal property, N Srininivasan, the MD of India Cements, the conglomerate that owns Chennai Super Kings and once the most powerful man in world cricket, gave the reins of the team to the talismanic MS Dhoni and didn’t interfere much.

Once the most powerful man in world cricket, N Srinivasan is seemingly plotting his comeback to cricket administration behind the scenes.

N Srinivasan or Srini mama as he is fondly called might go down in history as one of the few sports administrators who genuinely kept the players’ interests in mind. It was under his stewardship that the BCCI gave past cricketers’ a generous one-time payment and also instituted a pension scheme that included widows of cricketers’.

But Srinivasan is no saint.

At the peak of his powers, he ran the BCCI with an iron fist. He amended the rules that allowed a board member to also own a franchise, being one of the original culprits of the conflict of interest problem that has come to haunt cricket ever since. He was accused of tweaking the auction to buy Andrew Flintoff in the third season of the IPL and when the selectors wanted Dhoni to step down as test captain in 2012 after consecutive whitewashes against England and Australia, N Srinivasan allegedly stonewalled any such efforts. His lowest moment came when his son-in-law was accused of betting and the franchise was banned for two years from the league along with the Rajasthan Royals. Srinivasan’s reign as cricket’s overlord also ended in controversial circumstances when he was removed as ICC Chairman in 2015.

This Jekyll and Hyde personality, taking care of cricketers’ on one hand and abusing his power on the other, may have been one reason why many voices, usually upright and outspoken, did not speak out against him when controversies got the better of him. Past greats like Kapil Dev, Sunil Gavaskar, Rahul Dravid, and Anil Kumble have openly come out in their support of Srinivasan and the contribution he has made to the game, ignoring his numerous other ill-fated moves. Now, in any CSK match, whenever the camera pans toward the stands, there is no sign of team owners. Just the players’ wives and rabid fans. The ownership has made a cosmetic change with the team now being owned by Chennai Super Kings ltd., a subsidiary of India Cements.

N Srinivasan, much to the dismay of his detractors, has not left the building.

The Chennai Super Kings have enjoyed unrivaled fan support over the years

Franchise loyalty is a fickle mistress. Very few players have journeyed through their IPL careers without changing their franchises over the course of time. Virat Kohli might have played all seasons for the Royal Challengers Bangalore but he hasn’t tasted the success nor built a fan base like Dhoni.

For a format that puts youth on a pedestal, CSK’s stars are on their last legs.

MS Dhoni is 38.

Harbhajan Singh is 38.

Shane Watson is 37.

Imran Tahir is 40.

Dwayne Bravo is 36.

Suresh Raina, the second highest scorer in IPL history, is no longer a regular on the international side and his fitness levels leave a lot to be desired. Once one of the best fielders in the side, he dropped catches and looked sluggish. While Dhoni was in the form of his life, it also meant he carried the team on his shoulder’s and his performance ironed out numerous flaws and gaps that the team had.

In hindsight, CSK actually pulled off quite a feat by reaching the finals. By Dhoni’s own admission, it wasn’t their best season and the fact that changes need to be made are apparent.

If there is one wish for IPL 2020, it is that it should see a new winner. Only 3 teams have never won the IPL thus far.

The Kings XI Punjab seem to lose steam midway through the tournament and need to learn to sustain the momentum.

The Royal Challengers Bangalore need to overhaul their mindset and culture if they are to shed their underperformer’s tag.

The Delhi Capitals look the most promising. From being at the bottom of the table last year, new ownership, a new name, and Ricky Ponting and Sourav Ganguly at the helm, seem to have revived the team’s fortunes. They have a young squad, a young captain and if they can build on this year’s inspiring run, they have a good chance at breaking on through to the other side next season. The IPL could do with some new title holders.

Dhoni’s future as a player with the franchise looks uncertain. It’s hard to imagine him play or mentor any other franchise, his less than memorable stint with the Rising Pune Super Giants being seen as a mere filler before he returned to his beloved CSK. No one sees him playing beyond the World Cup, especially with a rampaging Rishab Pant waiting in the wings. Whether he will pull on for a season or two to set the transition rolling for CSK is yet to be seen. Either way, we need to start thinking of the Chennai Super Kings without MS Dhoni.

When Sanjay Manjrekar asked him if he would return next year, he said ‘hopefully’.

The Chennai Super Kings saga reads like a Tollywood script.

IPL Champions who are banned for two years and then return to lift the trophy and almost pull off consecutive title wins.

Even if this is curtains down for the Dhoni era of Chennai Super Kings, let’s just say thank you for all the whistles.

The comeback story of a lifetime

Tiger Woods hits on the 12th hole during the final round for the Masters golf tournament, Sunday, April 14, 2019, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

I have never watched a game of golf my entire life. I don’t know the rules or the finer nuances of the sport. But Tiger Woods’s comeback isn’t just a golf story. It’s a comeback story for the ages.

At the heart of any inspiring story, any comeback, is redemption.

The wronged person sets things right.

The loser becomes the winner.

David becomes Goliath.

The ordinary man becomes the superhero.

The sinner becomes the saint.

The lost soul becomes the savior.

While all super-hero movies follow this tried and tested formula, every once in a while, real-life allows us to witness it for real.

After a 12 year long wait, Tiger Woods won a major championship and made one of the greatest ever comebacks in the history of sport, not just golf.

12  years is a lifetime. In most sports, it’s a career itself. But in golf, particularly in Tiger Woods’s career, it’s a lost decade from which one can return.

It’s one thing to watch a sportsperson at the peak of their powers, the world at their feet and everything they touch seemingly turning to gold. It’s another to watch a sportsperson whose powers are waning, struggling against the dying light to conjure up one last feat for posterity.

In between these two is the comeback against all odds – the sportsperson who had obituaries written about their careers, who fell out of the spotlight, who suffered career threatening injuries, whose personal problems were overwhelming – and who then came back to claim what was rightfully theirs.

The journey of a fan and their favourite sportsperson occurs in three parts – worship, disillusionment and redemption. Think of your favourite sportsperson. At first you are over-awed by them. At some point, their failings and frailties cause them to fall from the pedestal that you have built for them. Just when all hope seems lost, they resurrect themselves, guilting you about not having placed enough faith in their super-human abilities.

Turn the clock back to 2009, when Tiger Woods was still at the top of the world, seemingly on course to over-take Jack Nicklaus’s record 18 titles. He then crashed his car into a fire hydrant and just like the water than came gushing out, his personal life gushed out into the open for the whole world to witness.

His dalliances with porn stars, his risqué escapades with more women than he could count, all of which caused him to lose his carefully constructed image, his marriage, numerous endorsement deals and in the years that followed, his greatness itself. One of the world’s most bullet-proof stars was the most reviled. In this lovely 2016 piece by sportswriter Wright Thompson, he speaks to one of Tiger’s closest friends basketball great Michael Jordan. In that piece, Jordan says something that seemed like a foregone conclusion . He said  “I love him (Tiger Woods) so much that I can’t tell him, ‘You’re not gonna be great again.'”

In the ensuing years, it seemed that all his efforts to reclaim lost glory were hitting a dead end. It could be argued that a lot of his challenges were self-inflicted and that he had no one to blame for his terrifying fall from grace. He endured numerous surgeries in a bid to keep his body together and if there were any doubts about the pain he was enduring, even that happened under the harsh glare of the public eye. In 2017, he was found hunched over the steering wheel of his car. Blood tests revealed a slew of painkillers in his system and his mug shot showed him with bleary eyes, a swollen face, disheveled hair and a stubble. He looked broken, beaten and scarred.

One of the greatest golfer’s of all time who made millions putting a golf ball into a hole, found himself in hole he couldn’t get out of.

Redemption is a rare entity. That’s the same reason why Tiger’s epochal victory in the Master’s will be remembered for a long time. The world’s greatest golfer turned the world’s most reviled golfer turned the world’s most loved golfer.

Does a better redemption story exist?

April 14, 2019 will go down as a red letter day in sporting history. Tiger Woods’s victory isn’t just a golf story, it’s a redemption story, the story of a sportsman who defied seemingly insurmountable odds and found greatness again. Woods has said that wanted his children to see him win a cup. The last time he won, they were too young to understand how great their father was.

We live precariously through our sporting heroes. In some way, they’re like our second mothers – they aren’t allowed to have an off day, they’re always there to lift us up and the thought of them being fallible is hard to digest.

Through all of his travails, Tiger Woods showed the world how infallible he is, just like the rest of us.

But then after his victory at the Master’s, he showed us just how great he was, unlike the rest of us.

Bangalore can wait. India can’t.

The 2019 cricket World Cup is just over 45 days away and it requires Virat Kohli to be at his best mentally and physically.

Virat Kohli should consider resigning from the captaincy of the Royal Challengers Bangalore. He should also consider taking a break from cricket for a while and return to the World Cup in a better state of mind. This isn’t to take moral responsibility for the team’s abysmal showing in this year’s IPL so far but it’s because team India needs him more than his franchise. The IPL comes along every year. The World Cup comes along once in 4 years.

Of course, there is a lot at stake in the IPL and Kohli, even though the franchise he captains is in doldrums, can’t just step down without some sort of an outcry.

It might seem like a life time away but a younger Kohli has seen worse in the same franchise.

The Royal Challengers Bangalore has had a chequered run at the IPL. Their beginning was anything but auspicious and their first season an abject disaster. In the first ever match of the IPL in 2008, Brendon McCullum, donning the Kolkata Knight Riders uniform, tore the Bangalore attack to shreds and the  Kolkata Knight Riders amassed 222 runs. Bangalore crumbled for 82, losing the match by a massive 140 runs. The team, which was fondly dubbed as a ‘test team’ as it featured a surfeit of test players like Wasim Jaffer, Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble  got a sense of what it was like to be owned by a business conglomerate who wanted to win at any cost. The flamboyant Vijay Mallya, who is today a fugitive from justice and fighting extradition in UK, sacked Charu Sharma who was the team CEO halfway through the tournament, threatened to sack Venkatesh Prasad who was the bowling coach and fumed about how Rahul Dravid didn’t allow him to pick the squad of his choice. All of this played out in the public eye.

According to rumors, executives from Vijay Mallya’s company sat in on team meetings and gave their two cents worth of advice. By the end of the season, the great Rahul Dravid was removed as captain and Kevin Pietersen was roped in. That move didn’t help and the team’s performances didn’t see an improvement. It was after Anil Kumble took over the captaincy halfway through the 2009 edition that the team went on winning run, reaching the finals, only to lose to the Deccan Chargers (today known as Sunrisers Hyderabad).

Mallya’s ill-fated moves weren’t just limited to his disastrous airline. In 2014, RCB bought Yuvraj Singh for a whopping 14 crores and employees of his airline staged protests as they hadn’t received a salary in months.

They again reached the finals in 2016 and lost to the Sunrisers in the final.

It’s the 12th year of the IPL and by the looks of it, Bangalore has to wait for the next season to raise its hopes again. After last year’s lackadaisical show, the team made a change to its support staff by removing head coach Daniel Vettori and bringing in Gary Kirsten. Ashish Nehra seems to have retained his job because of the Delhi connection, the same way Rahul Dravid stepped in to stop then bowling coach of the franchise Venkatesh Prasad from being sacked by an irate and loony Vijay Mallya. Kohli, who has been accused of being stubborn and having his way, as it was in the case of the Anil Kumble fiasco, will have a lot to answer for. He must thank his stars that he is not going through what Rahul Dravid did in the first season when dirty laundry was aired in public and legends were treated with impunity. He is probably one of the most powerful men in Indian cricket but franchise cricket plays by a different set of rules. For someone who wears his heart on his sleeve, whose face is a barometer of his emotions, a losing streak isn’t the ideal scenario.

MS Dhoni, on the other hand, is the face of calm. Even when the team was getting routed and whitewashed in England and Australia and his name cropped up in the IPL spot fixing scandal, he didn’t give excuses or leak stuff to the media. He was accused of being indifferent. On the other hand, Kohli is accused of never being able to contain his emotions.

Virat Kohli isn’t one to step back from a fight. Some of his most audacious and breat- taking innings have come when the team’s back is against the wall. In the same vein, he probably regards giving up captaincy as a cop out, like admitting failure. Again, he doesn’t have to go too far back in time to see that captaincy is a double-edged sword.

Sachin Tendulkar’s stints at captaincy were not very memorable.

Rahul Dravid was beaten and bruised by the shocking first round exit in the 2007 World Cup and after leading India to a victory in a test series in England after 21 years, returned and abruptly resigned from captaincy.

No one said they were quitters. Captaincy is just not everyone’s cup of tea.

The IPL has always had an uneasy relationship with international cricket. Players have been accused of putting club over country, been picked on IPL form only to flounder in international cricket and stretched themselves too thin because their franchises demanded that they play even when they were not fully fit.

Great players don’t necessarily become great captains and great captains aren’t always the best players in the team.

Virat Kohli, even though he fell a few notches down in my books after he displaced my childhood hero Anil Kumble from his position, is no doubt one the greatest players to have ever played the game.

Bangalore can wait another season. It has already gone 12 years without an IPL title. Cleveland went 53 years without winning a single sports title and it took Le Bron James to lift the curse. Bangalore isn’t that unlucky. Bangalore FC is among the best football teams in the country and won the most recent ISL.

Having the IPL just before the World Cup lends itself to the high probability of players injuring themselves. But no one thinks about what a poor showing in the tournament does to a player’s state of mind before he enters the World Cup.

Whether Virat Kohli can sustain his intensity as player and captain without burning out is left to be seen. Whatever he does, he must be rest assured that he is one of the greatest players to play the game and given his extraordinary fitness, he has a few more good years to further fortify his legend.

No doubt questions will again be asked at the end of this IPL season about the franchise. It’s inevitable. Why haven’t RCB failed to win the IPL even once and what is the reason for their poor showing is a Chinese puzzle that can’t be solved easily. This time, Kohli himself may find it hard to escape scrutiny.

But for now, Kohli should consider giving up captaincy, taking a few matches off and getting ready for the World Cup.

India needs him. Bangalore can wait.