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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It should be easy to decipher a tragic tale.

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

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

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

And then came the beginning to a very swift end. 

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

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

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

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

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

After that, his career went into free fall. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

People are still searching for the other person. 

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

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The art of losing

PVS

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

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

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

But where does that leave losing?

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

Only one runner can cross the finish line first.

Only one team can score more goals than the other.

Only one player can score more points than their opponent.

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

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

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

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

That’s what you call a winning reply.

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

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

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

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

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

If losing is tiring, try winning.

In his retirement speech, the great Andre Agassi said:

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

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

We win. That is a part of life too.

But neither have a measure.

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

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

On Sunday, the scoreboard said PV Sindhu lost.

What it didn’t say was what she won.

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

 

 

 

 

 

Crouching lions, missing dragons and the search for serendipity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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Javagal Srinath shouldered the Indian bowling attack for nearly a decade

 

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

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

Everyone knows how that game ended. 

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

But those things never come to pass.

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

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

 

One Sunday when Pakistan helped India discover sport

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Once Brothers

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

Arjuna to Lord Krishna in the Bhagvad Gita

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

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

Indian cricket is seemingly at war with Indian cricket.

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

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

Wasn’t an extension a given?

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

What the hell exactly happened?

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

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

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

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

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

Should players choose their coaches?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Bangalore’s season of thunder without the rain

 

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Yesterday, May 14th, Bangalore played their last match of IPL 2017 and eked out a consolation win against the Delhi Daredevils who lived up to their name and dared more than was required and lost. There is something to be said for how the journey ends. Not that all that came before is redundant but we all like to hold onto how it ended, however messy and torturous the middle seemed.

Yesterday, May 14th, it rained in parts of Bangalore. But what preceded the rains was thunder that was loud and unruly. The rains that followed didn’t live up to the thunder that preceded it.

The Royal Challengers Bangalore has in its ranks a few force that can wreck havoc on their day. But this has been a season in which the team has been going from disaster site to the next.

Take for example Sunday, May 7th. The side took on the Kolkata Knight Riders in their last home match of a forgettable season and put on 158 against the backdrop of memes of the team exalting after crossing 49 and father-mother jokes about getting beaten. After Umesh Yadav’s last over went for 21, the skies opened up for a short while and the pitch which has played slow this year and made batsman work for their runs, all seemed to connive to give the Royal Challengers a consolation win in front of their ever-hopeful fans.

But on that day, they ran into Sunil Narine.

For the longest time, Bangalore had a draconian deadline where everything was supposed to shut down by 11.30 pm. That is now 1 am and even though the match began at 4 pm, Sunil Narine seemed to be in an awful and tearing hurry to finish the match. He was in such a hurry that he pulverized the attack and smashed the fastest 50 in the IPL ever. His 15 ball 50 was the beginning of a very hasty end for Bangalore whose campaign only seemed to go from bad to worse to ‘wtf just happened’? His whiplash decimated any hopes the team had of their last home game ending in a modest blaze of glory.

These are snippets of RCB’s report card from this season:

Bowled out for a record 49 against the Kolkata Knight Riders chasing a paltry 131.

Ended their chase at 96/9 chasing 157 against the Rising Pune Supergiants.

Were done at dusted for 119 chasing an underwhelming 138 against the Kings X1 Punjab.

While the 49 all out was as low as they could go, there were no soaring highs to balance out the scale that had tilted hopelessly towards the despair side.

If 2016 was a season where RCB gave its fans a lot to cheer before falling short at the finish line, 2017 has been a woeful symphony of sorts. The side is yet to win an IPL trophy and it has had to meander through some strange happenings over the years.

The birth of Royal Challengers Bangalore was a bit like the big bang. Not the formation of the team but the first ever match the side played during the IPL. Rahul Dravid, in all his wisdom, made a few tactical errors in team selection by choosing players who were more adept at the longer version of the game. With names like Sunil Joshi, Wasim Jaffer and the great Rahul Dravid himself, the side sought to make sense of a format and a league that no one had a clue about. The first match ever in IPL’s history was between Bangalore and Kolkata and while it was as good a start that the newly birthed tournament required, it was an unmitigated disaster for the team. Brendon McCullum went ballistic and smashed 158 and the team amassed a massive 222. In reply, Bangalore were rounded up for 82.

Then it got worse.

The side had Martin Crowe as a Chief Creative Officer, Charu Sharma as CEO and Venkatesh Prasad as bowling coach. As the side hurtled from one defeat to the other, Mallya lost his cool and sacked Charu Sharma. It was rumored that Venkatesh Prasad was to get the boot but he made amends by apologising for the team’s performance. The late Martin Crowe left after the first season (fled was more like it). Mallya’s penchant for showmanship also led to buying players like Kevin Pietersen for 1.5 million dollars and he repaid the faith by returning to England on national duty. The captaincy again fell into the hands of warhorse Anil Kumble who engineered a turnaround and led the team to the finals in 2009 where they lost to Deccan Chargers (now SunRisers Hyderabad). In 2015, they bought Yuvraj Singh for a whopping 14 crores while Mallya claimed he didn’t have money to pay salaries of employees of his defunct airline.

Not all business owners make the best team owners as Harsh Goenka has proved this season. In a disastrous combination of stupidity, immaturity and tactlessness, he tweeted about how replacing Dhoni as captain was one of the best decisions made by the franchise. The hiding he received on twitter was perhaps not enough and when the former captain himself put up a couple of stellar performances that had Goenka attempt to retract his statements and come out with his dignity reasonably intact. The Pune team will cease to exist after the IPL and people are still hoping that Dhoni will end his IPL career with the refurbished and hopefully cleaner Chennai Super Kings. Dhoni will retire a legend and Goenka’s presence on the planet will register in the minds of people only when he tweets something buffoonery.

Dhoni 1, Goneka -10.

On the topic of business owners, Bangalore’s, sadly is the worst. When Vijay Mallya bought the team in 2008, he was still the King of Good times who loved to throw a party at the drop of a hat. Now he is a fugitive from justice, hiding in England, evading the law. The person who couldn’t seem to get enough attention or eyeballs is now hiding from all cameras and tweeting cryptic messages about his life as a free bird.

As Bangalore’s challenge has come to an end, the next year will hold numerous possibilities. Have we seen the last of the Gayle, De Viliers and Kohli trio? Will Chris Gayle regale us again in Bangalore colours? After a tumultuous season such as this and the 10 year contract of teams being able to retain 4 players coming to an end after this season, we may witness a new look Bangalore team come 2018.

At the beginning of the IPL, there was a lot of excitement in the country when news of Mallya’s arrest percolated over the media waves. It then emerged that he had gotten bail a few minutes later. If only his team could find their way out of jail so easily.

It’s that time of the year when Bangalore is waiting for rain. Half the roads in the city are being dug up and the rains will send everything into a tailspin. But still, it is waiting for rain. Every summer, you think it cannot get worse and then it does. For all these years, we have been staving off getting air conditioning at home, all with the hope that it will get better the next year. But it doesn’t.

In the mean time, there has been a lot of thunder.

On their day, the Royal Challengers batting line-up can bring thunder, lightning and Gayle forces to the fore and wipe aside all opposition. But that was not to be this season.

A few days ago, my wife sent me a message that said it was thundering all afternoon but there was no rain.

She inadvertently surmised the Royal Challengers run in 2017.

 

Tendulkar, and life after the moon landing

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A few weeks before he turned ex-president, Barack Obama sat down with television host Bill Maher for an interview. The first question posed to him was how he would spend the rest of his life, knowing that he would never have a job as exhilarating as the one he was leaving behind. 3 months into his post-presidency, Barack Obama made his first official public appearance yesterday, when he addressed students at the University of Chicago. Like most others who have traversed the road reserved for a chosen few , he is still trying to find an answer that some seem to have found, and which seems to have eluded many – where do you go after you go to the moon?

When astronauts who went to the moon returned to earth and normalcy, a few of them battled depression. For once you’ve gone to the moon, what else is there to aspire for? For the rest of us, our bucket lists are dotted with exotic locales, but the moon? If returning from a vacation is reason enough to go into a funk, imagine what it is like to return from the moon and go back to work.

Sachin Tendulkar’s moon landing lasted for 24 years. Through near career-ending injuries, self-doubt, heart-wrenching defeats, failed stints at captaincy, for 24 years, all the world was a stage for Tendulkar. No cricketer will ever be able to command the blind adulation that he has.

So how has life been for Tendulkar after his moon landing in November 2013?

Well, he turned 44 yesterday and he celebrated it at the Wankhede stadium with fans cheering him on. His team didn’t give him a victory as a birthday present, losing narrowly by 3 runs to the Rising Pune Super giants, who are staging a resurgence of sorts. He has been here and there, still trying to find an identity for himself, one that doesn’t involve him holding a bat and playing God so that an entire country can sleep better.

He has adopted a villages in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra and according to reports, has helped change the lives of residents.

Of course, there have been missteps. Like this terrible effort at being a singer and ostensibly trying to reach out to a younger audience.

There have been murmurs of dissent over his no-shows at Parliament but at the same time, he has used most of the funds allocated to him as a part of MPLAD funds.

Even in retirement, he hasn’t spoken against the functioning of the BCCI, the Supreme Court’s intervention in how cricket is run in the country, the unceremonious manner in which the board was dismantled and the shamelessness of his one time boss N Srinivasan, who after being banned by the BCCI still sees himself as the President of the ICC. Actually, no ex-cricketer of stature has spoken about how cricket is being run in the country. At the same time, he has come out in support of other athletes like boxer Sarita Devi who was suspended by the boxing association for not accepting a medal. He has made it clear that politics is not his forte and has stayed away from administrative roles, lest his near-perfect image gets sullied. While Kapil Dev burnt his hands with a coaching stint, Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri have played it safe by toeing the BCCI’s line. Now, we can add VVS Laxman to the list. Rahul Dravid, whose diction and clarity of thought are tailor-made for a never-ending commentary stint has chosen to mold the future by actually nurturing the next generation through coaching and mentorship roles in various capacities. Anil Kumble is currently the head coach of the Indian team and Sourav Ganguly has set his sights high in cricket administration.

Actually, where do you go after you go to the moon, after you’ve played God and then come back to earth?

Diego Maradona nearly snorted and drank himself to death before he was saved by gastric bypass surgery. His personal life is in constant upheaval mode as this recent piece articulates.

Pete Sampras retreated into private life to regain his sense of normalcy.

Back home, Tendulkar has molded himself to the demands of the social media generation where every mundane event is broadcast to the world. A largely private person who lived his life with the cameras thrust at him at every step of the journey, is now letting his followers into his world via facebook and instagram. The current crop of cricket stars sport tattoos and weird hair cuts, date film stars and live for the moment. They prefer to burn out rather than to fade away and whether we will see careers that stretch beyond a decade is yet to be seen.

The biggest problem faced by sportspersons who retire as icons is how to protect their hard earned legacy. Politicians have no sense of shame and can make comebacks scandal after scandal but a sportsperson’s equity lies in the feats they perform and the memories they leave behind. Have you ever noticed how hard it is to witness your sporting heroes grow old, sport a paunch, grey at the sides and appear in commercials selling retirement plans? Creating a career worth idolising without losing one’s way is only half the battle. Securing with it with a dignified retirement is another. After living a tunnel vision life where sporting excellence is the sole pursuit, normal life possesses a smidgen of that heady rush.

To a generation of die-hard fans, Tendulkar isn’t 44, he is forever 14 with a flock of curly hair and an impish grin, the boy who became a man who became a legend who became a God, all under the harsh glare of the unforgiving spotlight. When he began his career, we had one channel and homes had one television, mostly black and white sets that were the only source of  news and entertainment. When his career ended amidst an outpouring of tributes and tears, the television was competing with social media and live streaming of matches on mobiles.

His image maybe a little too squeaky clean for our liking, his transgressions, however minor, unable to hold their own in the face of blind faith and worship. His utterances are mostly politically correct and his every move revolves around preserving an image that we have of him – that of a middle glass boy who is grounded and hasn’t lost his head or himself to fame.

If there is only wish, it is this – that we are slowly given a glimpse of not just Tendulkar the legend but also Tendulkar the man. He will never be able to lead a normal life in the country of his birth but maybe the second half of his life will have him still bringing a smile to people’s faces, sans cricket. Maybe he will let his guard down a bit, speak up more and not resort to singing songs to reach out to his fans.

For someone who was always asked for the moon when he had a bat in his hand, life after the moon landing has just begun.

 

Misbah Ul Haq, and the Cellist of Sarajevo

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Vedran Smailovic used to play the cello when a war was raging around him. In war torn Sarajevo, where snipers didn’t hesitate to target even those that attended funerals, he would play to honour the departed. He played even in the midst of gunfire and shelling. He played because that’s what he did best.

In cricketing terms, Misbah ul Haq is somewhat of a Vedran Smailovic. He kept his cool and played to a tune that only he seemed to hear. In Pakistani cricket, which is in a constant state of chaos and turmoil, Misbah was like breath of calm, a cool breeze that wafts across an unforgiving desertscape.

He’s 43. MS Dhoni played his last test when he was 34 years and he didn’t have to deal with 3 team mates being busted for match fixing and a country that hasn’t hosted a major cricket playing nation since 2009 when terrorists attacked a bus carrying the Sri Lankan team.

The 2011 World Cup semi-final between India and Pakistan got more eyeballs than the finals. Heads of State from both countries, celebrities and the fortunate few who didn’t have to be someone to get a ticket, all swarmed like bees to the beehive – the Mohali stadium in Punjab. If the excitement wasn’t palpable enough, Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag added to the melee; Sehwag by swinging his bat wildly and Tendulkar by almost getting out at least a half a dozen times in one of his least confident innings. The player of the tournament, Yuvraj Singh, saw his stumps uprooted by Wahab Riaz and it was Suresh Raina who played a calm innings that took India to a respectable 260.

Pakistan’s spirited reply began to totter but as long as Shahid Afridi was in the hunt, the match was still on Buddha’s middle path. That was until Shahid Afridi walked in, swung his bat like some impatient kid who didn’t get the chocolate that he asked for and holed out before Pakistan could even come within sniffing distance of what would have been an extraordinary victory.

But it wasn’t over until Misbah Ul Haq sang.

He played a strangely indifferent innings that he was criticised heavily for when it appeared to take-off, it was too late and Pakistan hurtled to their 5th consecutive World Cup defeat to India. When everything seemed lost, he batted as if none of it mattered and as if he had all the time in the world to cross the finish line.

In the decades since India and Pakistan went their separate ways, it is safe to say that Indian cricket has made great strides while Pakistan cricket somewhere lost its way. While Indian cricketers have gotten richer and the IPL has made most of them financially secure, Pakistani cricketers have been in and out of scandals that reflect on the country’s cricket inability to provide its players a financially secure future. Even the recently concluded Pakistan Super League (PSL), the country’s poor cousin to the cash rich IPL, had players suspended for fixing.

To understand how much chaos plays a role in Pakistani cricket, look at how Misbah ul Haq earned his test cap. He was 34 and at the cusp of quitting the game as he had fallen out of favour with the selectors. The side then traveled to England and a few players proceeded to cross the point of no return. Their captain, Salman Butt, pacer Mohammad Asif and young tyro Mohammad Amir, who was all of 18 when he lost his cricketing innocence and got caught in the nightmare of his life before he could even find his feet in the sport, all fell prey to the cricket mafia. The last statement is a bit cruel as what he did was literally, and figuratively, lost his footing when he landed his foot some few hundred feet over the line and was later found to have been talked into taking money to bowl that ball.  That series added to our cricketing lexicon the words ‘spot fixing’. Misbah Ul Haq was then made captain and went from almost retired to head in one swoop.

But the moment Misbah ul Haq came into our collective consciousness was on September 24, 2007. Six months prior, India and Pakistan had both crashed out the 50 overs World Cup in the league stages and returned home to angry backlashes. Now, they found themselves on a grand stage, a new one nonetheless – the first ever World T20 final. India scored 157 and no one knew whether it was good enough to win a final. As soon as Shahid Afridi, in one of his countless moments of madness was caught for a golden duck, the match was all but over at 107/7.

But Misbah Ul haq wasn’t done.

He smashed two sixes off Harbhajan Singh. He didn’t slog. His shots were clean hits and he maintained a monk like focus when a volcano was about to erupt around him. There was no hint of nerves, no sense of undue urgency in what was possibly one of the biggest matches of his life. In the end, he was the only one who stood between India and a T20 World Cup title.

Final over. 13 required. Dhoni handed the ball to the unheralded Joginder Sharma who bowled a wide to begin with. The next ball was a full toss that would have been a wide had it been left. But Misbah made contact and it sailed over the bowler for a six.

Who was this guy?

Maybe he didn’t trust Mohammad Asif at the non-striker’s end to take a single if he were to come on strike and proceeded to finish it all by himself.

Even after all these years, the next few moments are a blur.

Joginder Sharma bowls on the stumps. Misbah goes down and plays the scoop. Ravi Shastri is hollering in the commentary box. The ball sails high. It’s over. Then, suddenly, it parachutes down and a fielder is running towards it. As much as we try to erase Sreesanth from our collective consciousness, he will always be there with that one moment, one of the few times he did something right in a wasted career. He holds onto the ball and gets up with his arms outstretched.

On the pitch, Misbah Ul Haq is desolate and inconsolable. His side had again managed to snatch defeat from victory. As Indian fans, we are never trained to feel pity for Pakistan, but that day, we all felt something for Misbah ul Haq.

He says that one of his major regrets is not captaining the side against India in a test series. That looks like a distant dream for any Pakistan captain now.

It isn’t easy being a captain. Being a captain of Pakistan means returning from a tour and having your captaincy rescinded for no good reason. The thing with Misbah ul Haq is that he is so un-Pakistani in his approach. In a country that is always on the boil politically and has one of its greatest players in Imran Khan go from playboy to a politician with seemingly hardliner views, its cricket is equally factitious. Players announce their retirements and take it back on a whim. Former players take up coaching only to burn their fingers. Many a foreign coach have tried to make sense of how they play their cricket but have emerged from their stints in a daze. The murder of Bob Woolmer on the ill-fated 2007 World Cup has still not been solved. Barring Zimbabwe, no country has traveled to Pakistan after the tragic 2009 attacks. Sport is usually considered to be outside the ambit of terrorists and their delusional thinking, but the terrorists who attacked the bus carry Sri Lankan players succeeded in killing international cricket in Pakistan too.

In his career, Misbah ul Haq showed us that it was possible to be a Vedran Smailovic.

And continue playing with a sense of calm even when the word it seems is coming apart at the seams.

 

 

March, and the meaning of life

 

march

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At what point did victory seem possible?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somethings do happen only once in a lifetime.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 deliveries at the Centurion

centurion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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