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.

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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.

 

Did you just see what AB de Villiers did?

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The night belonged to young Sarfaraz Khan who struck 45 off 21 balls. All of 17 years, he took the attack head-on after the dismissals of the other big names – Virat Kohli, Chris Gayle and AB de Villiers. Then the rain gods rained on his parade. He watched from the pavilion as his 21 ball blitzkrieg  would remain just a statistic and not a possible match-winning innings. But before all of that, did you see what AB de Villiers did? He walked in after the fall of Gayle’s wicket to the chants of ‘ABD… ABD’. Hey AB, how did a city a Southern India lose its heart to you? It isn’t hard to figure out the answer. Any city, country or person can lose their heart to ABD. He barely frowns. He’s only 31, but he’s already balding. But it’s pardonable to lose your hair if you’re the world’s best ODI batsman.

Have you seen what AB de Villiers does? He arcs his back and guides the ball to a boundary toward third man. He goes down on his knees to pacers and sweeps the ball toward fine leg for six. Did you know that balls could be swept for six? Not till de Villiers came and showed us how. In RCB’s match against Mumbai, Bangalore were chasing a mammoth 210. And on that very day, Chris Gayle decided not to turn up. Actually no one turned up. No one except ABD. After Chris Gayle’s painful stay at the crease yielded 10 runs off 28 balls, a travesty in t20 cricket and if you’re Chris Gayle, worthy of a life sentence, the chase needed a bolt of lightning. As long as ABD is around, hope springs eternal. Harsha Bhogle in commentary cautioned us about how much even he could accomplish. “He is a human being, not superman” he said of de Villiers. But of course, no one listened.

When de Villiers is at the crease, logic doesn’t take a backseat, it is stuffed into a gunny bag and buried in a shallow grave beneath the ground. It’s a crime not to believe that he can do it. The first three deliveries went for 4,6 and then a 4. 14 runs off 3 balls. So what if the required run rate was almost 15 runs an over, ABD can move mountains. His bat, a magic wand and he, a magician. Even the best bowlers lose their bearings when when he is on song. He stands at the crease, never still, always scheming. He moves across when the delivery has just been bowled. He arcs his back when the bowler thinks he is going to go across. Every shot has multiple options and sadly for the bowler, he gets just one delivery. There is no telling how many shots ABD has in his arsenal. He could charge down the pitch and hit the ball out of the ground even before the bowler has completed his follow through. Or he could reverse sweep a delivery for a six behind the wicket keeper. He is a man of multiple options.

De Villiers could have been any of the following – a fine rugby player, golfer or tennis player. If you were to test his DNA, will we find a new strand, one that shows an unusual propensity toward any sport that involves a ball? What if he chose golf and enthralled only a privileged few who had the patience and money to follow it? What if he chose rugby and we in India never knew that a person called AB de Villiers ever walked the face of the earth? A frightening thought. But he chose cricket and in doing so, cast a spell on all of us. Coming back to his wizardry against Mumbai. In the 13th over, Lasith Malinga got a taste of the ABD tonic. He tonked him for a six over cover. Then he whacked a six over midwicket. The crowd’s date with adrenaline had materialized. Then he ran two runs. Then he struck Malinga for two more fours, one behind the keeper and one to the cover boundary. 24 runs off the over. ABD’s score – 41 0ff 10 balls.

He should be the founder of Optimists Anonymous. You know the difference between an optimist and a pessimist? A pessimist looks at a required run rate of 1o.5 and says ‘good god, 10.5’! AB de Villiers looks at the required run rate at says ‘10.5? God must be kind’! Then Harsha Bhogle’s words of caution came to fruition. He tried to go for another mighty heave and holed out to Bumrah at long on. Optimism, hope, joy and adrenaline, all left the building along with him. In the match against Rajasthan Royals at the Chinnaswamy stadium, he struck James Faulkner for 3 consecutive boundaries in the fourth over to stir the cauldron of expectation. The chants of ABD again began to reverberate in the stadium. Bangalore’s honorary son had made himself feel at home. He reached his 50 and looked good to go all the way. The night is always young when he’s at the crease. Then came a moment where I witnessed first hand how great he really was. On 54, his partner at the other end was the fidgety Dinesh Karthik. If only you could insure yourself against a run out, something that is needed when Karthik is your partner, a lot of things will be fine with the world. But you can’t. And when he called for a suicidal single, de Villiers was initially hesitant. By that time, Karthik had covered more than half his ground. It would have been the easiest thing for de Villiers to run back and get Karthik run out. No one would have begrudged him that decision for in the toss up between him and Karthik, there is no question as to who is the better batsman. But he went for the run and even a valiant dive couldn’t save him the fate of a run-out. At the other end, Dinesh Karthik, who would himself be run-out a few overs later, threw his bat in frustration. On the way back to the dugout, de Villiers patted Karthik’s head. There were no no sour faces or heated exchanges. It happens, he seemed to be saying to Karthik. Forget about it, it’s not your fault. The greatest batsman of the modern era sacrificed his wicket for a player who last donned national colours nearly 2 years back. One of the costlier buys in this year’s season of the IPL at 10.5 cr, Dinesh Karthik has scarcely done justice to his price. And then he went and ran out AB de Villiers. That Sarfaraz lit up the night and the match got rained out was secondary. That one moment made me realize what champions are made of. A sense of selflessness, the knowledge that they aren’t bigger than the team or the game.

Every time AB de Villiers comes to bat, the floodgates of possibility are thrown wide open. Every unbelievable shot is followed by gaping mouths and faces that have awe scribbled all over them. And you say to anyone you can find “Did you just see what AB de Villiers did?”

Just one more time

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Virender Sehwag and Yuvraj Singh are seemingly at the twilight of their careers. The IPL gave them a chance to relive their glory days, just one more time.

It was just like the old days.

The reactions in the stands were hyperbolic, a time and place where words were hard to find and you had to read expressions on faces to read between the lines. The older ones said ‘he’s back.’ The younger ones found a new hero to emulate in front of the dressing room mirror, plastic ball and bat in hand.

It was like the old days, when his arrival at the crease sparked off feverish anticipation. But it wasn’t the old days. It wasn’t a highlights package that excavated the glory days of bygone years from dusty VHS tapes. It was live television.

All of the above can apply to Virender Sehwag and Yuvraj Singh, power hitters who can pummel the opposition into submission on their day. But of late, their days have made fleeting appearances. Virender Sehwag last made an appearance in Indian whites in England’s tour of India in 2011 – 2012, which India lost 2-1. Yuvraj Singh is still somewhat in the scheme of things but got a taste of what it is to be the pariah of a nation after the T20 world cup finals.

In three years, Yuvraj Singh has lived many lives. On a wondrous April night in 2011, he played king to a billion delirious citizens. On a heavy April night in 2014, he played traitor to a billion angry souls. In between, he conquered death.

He changed his twitter handle to @yuvstrong, wanting to emulate Lance Armstrong, who hadn’t yet torpedoed from God to Lucifer. He then receded to do battle with his demons and emerged victor. On his return, he looked a little lost, almost as if asking himself ‘beat cancer and run up and down 22 yards?’ And when a few rowdy elements in the garb of cricket lovers hurled stones at his house, he surely must have asked himself ‘beat cancer and be condemned to hell – all for a bad day at the office?’

When Yuvraj plays king, he walks in with a swagger. On the field he is like rain, seemingly everywhere, all at once. He’s at point, pulling off a stunning dive to stop a near-certain boundary. He’s running up to the crease from his position, hurling the choicest of abuses at the batsman. He’s got the ball in his hand, expecting to take a wicket with every delivery. And when he succeeds, he appears nonchalant, almost as if expecting anything less is travesty.

When Yuvraj plays commoner, it isn’t a pretty sight. He’s looks like someone who has been air-dropped into an unfamiliar place. He’s struggling to read the line. His coming down the pitch is not fraught with intention but rather, desperation. He’s standing at the boundary, dropping sitters. His face is a mixture of listlessness and despair, almost as if he’s looking for a hole to disappear into. Post his return, it seems as if there are two Yuvraj’s. So whenever he comes out to the middle, everyone seems to be asking – is it the old Yuvraj or the not-so-young Yuvraj that is coming to the party? Similar reactions were elicited whenever Tendulkar came down the crease to smack one over the bowler’s head. That’s the old Sachin they all concurred. But Yuvraj isn’t old, he’s 32. Definitely older and wiser, but not old.

Virender Sehwag is one of the numerous brand ambassadors of a hair restoration clinic. Desperately trying to stop time in its tracks, his glasses unfortunately lay siege to his anti-ageing efforts. Great players always speak of the zone, a time and place where everything else seems to fall away and you are truly in the moment. Not Sehwag. He claims to have never been in the zone, something many find hard to comprehend. For Sehwag is the Papa Wallenda of cricket. He walks on a tightrope whenever he comes to bat. He inhabits a world where caution is relegated to the side lines and doesn’t seem to have a sense of occasion. What else explains the fact that he got to the first triple century ever scored by an Indian – with a six? And that he is the only Indian batsman to have scored two triple tons – a feat one would have expected any of India’s great middle order batsman in their prime to stake claim to, and holds the record for the highest ever ODI score.

The word most commonly associated with Sehwag is redemption. He simplifies batting to the very core – if it is there to be hit, hit it. His approach has had everyone befuddled – everyone except him. It’s as if he skipped all of the theory classes and got right down to practicals. He doesn’t bat as if the match depended on him, or to silence the critics, or add to his tally. He bats to silence the restless urges from within. With an India recall highly unlikely, nothing much has changed in his world. Not one to ever consciously play to the galleries, he looks to have finally made peace with his place in the annals of Indian cricket.

Sehwag may never play another match in India colours and Yuvraj Singh’s future is grainy at best. So when they launched into their respective fusillades in the IPL, they turned back time for everyone. Yuvraj, with his impeccable timing and Sehwag with his unapologetic brutality, brought back images of their halcyon days; like memories that protest being labelled memories.

In the 2003 world-cup face-off against Pakistan, Sachin Tendulkar played one of his best ODI innings ever. He welcomed Shoaib Akthar with a six that has now gained cult status. In the very next over, Virender Sehwag played almost an identical shot off the bowling of Waquar Younis. It was almost like the student telling the teacher – “I was just seeing, seeing if I could do it just one more time.”