Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Change is everything

Virat Kohli has captained India in 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 Test matches*. The most incredible fact that I can report from this is that India has never fielded the SAME playing 11 in consecutive matches under his watch. Every match has featured a change from the previous one.

Update: Sourav Ganguly once had a 29 Test streak like this as captain. That's done and dusted with now!

India has lost only 5 Tests under Kohli. I guess there is some method to his madness. His overall record sits at - 34* Tests captained, 21 wins, 5 losses, 8 draws.

For comparison:
MS. Dhoni: 60 Tests, 27 wins, 18 losses,  15 draws
Sourav Ganguly: 49 Tests, 21 wins, 13 losses, 15 draws

P.S. Yes, I know that injuries have forced his hand on multiple occasions.

* Updated as of the start of the Johannesburg Test January 2018 against South Africa

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The razor's edge of tomorrow

Picture this: India is batting in the third inning of a Test match. It is midway through Day 4 and the team is trailing by 125 runs. One need not know too much about Indian cricketing history to know how the rest of the story plays out. In an attempt to play for a draw, some of the most elegant and exciting batsmen in the world will will eschew every risk known to batsmankind and block every delivery that comes their way. Soon, the pressure will build, a tiny mistake will be made and a feeble lead will eventually be produced before, on Day 5, the opposing team polishes away a small target with the loss of a couple of wickets, thereby giving the Indian team "something to build on".

In the most recent Kolkata Test match between Sri Lanka and India, India began the second inning staring at a 120-odd run deficit. But this Indian team, under Virat kohli's bristling, in-your-face leadership is a different beast altogether. Soon it is 166 for no loss in 37 overs...and the match transforms.

But, there is a twist in the tail. Day 5 begins with the Indians playing a subdued game and staring at difficult times with the lead just 170 runs when the 7th wicket fell.

At that point in time, Virat Kohli was batting time, still managing to be on 58 off 93 balls. The game was in the balance and, breathtakingly, the anti-Tendulkar came to the fore. Rather than retreat into a shell, and try to shield the tail, Kohli went into ODI-mode and took the attack to the Sri Lankans. Boundary after boundary followed and the Indian captain turned the match on its head with a totally-safe but very aggressive display of walking the talk. In the next 28 balls, he scored 46 of the most risk-free but dashing runs imaginable and reached 104 not out with an inside-out six over wide mid-off that was as exciting as it was inevitable. And then India declared! Setting Sri Lanka 237 runs to get off (possibly) 40 overs. Realistically, because of the deteriorating light conditions it was closer to 30 overs and the Indian bowlers came to the party with a vengeance.

Bhuvaneshwar Kumar repaid his captain's faith (11-8-8-4) and when light finally rescued the Sri Lankans, they were tottering at 75 for 7.

A stunning turnaround orchestrated by a man who is, hastily, rewriting how the rest of the cricket world is going to view Indian cricketers. In a good way.

Virat Kohli just turned 29, scored his 50th international century, captained the 30th Test of his career, and oddly, looks like he is just now getting started.

Suddenly, away tours to South Africa, Australia, England and New Zealand don't seem as daunting any more.

Monday, July 17, 2017

High on the hills was a lonely GOAT

Only one man could bring me out of blogging semi-retirement: the Rajah himself.

The story arc of Roger Federer's resurgence has been written many times over by multiple authors around the world and I will not repeat it here. A cursory Google search will suffice. Instead I want to put down some random, disjointed thoughts that float through my brain...

a) For a long time DH and I were reconciled to the fact that he'd be stuck on one prime number - 17. When he won #18 earlier this year in Australia, DH remarked that he would HAVE to win one more to get back to a prime number because that's where he should be (by himself and one). Well, what do you know? It may be time to start thinking of 23 now. Impossible? Well, many of us thought 18 was impossible.

b) Remember this commercial from 10 years ago? It was released on July 6th, 2007, just moments after Roger had won his 10th major and was narrated by Tiger Woods who ended it with the haunting words: My name is Tiger Woods. I have 12 majors and counting. So keep up, buddy.

Yesterday, Roger did what Tiger always dreamed of - overtaking Jack Nicklaus' major count (18). For the record, Tiger has stalled at 14 for over eight years and it does not appear he is going to add to that total.

c) The Federer of 2017 is winning because he is better than the Federer of a few years ago. He is winning because he has improved. His backhand, especially, is a lot flatter and more potent. the elegant top-spin laden one has been beefed up by another version - a flattened, whiplash of a shot that singes across the court with power that is approaching Wawrinka territory.

d) The 2017 Wimbledon final was, finally, lacking in excitement or prolonged tension for Federer. But I am not complaining one bit. I'll take that any day over the 5 set gut-wrencher from earlier this year at the Australian Open where he was (gasp!) trailing 1-3 in the fifth set. Even today I sometimes break into a cold sweat thinking about what might have happened had Roger not raised his game.

Imagine this - Nadal wins the Australian Open. Suddenly the major head-to-head is 17-15 in Roger's favor with the French Open coming up where Nadal would make it 17-16. Oh dear...the GOAT narrative would have taken a drastic turn for the worse for us FedFans. Phew! Thank heavens for that atomic backhand (and Robin Soderling).

e) The loss to Juan Martin del Potro at the 2009 US Open stung for a long, long time. Then came the capitulation to Marin Cilic in 2014 when all Roger had to do was take out Cilic and then Kei Nishikori (neither of whom he had ever lost to at that point in time). For years, I've wondered what those two missed US Opens would have done for his legacy. Suddenly, after what has transpired this year, the pain has eased tremendously.

f) Roger is the only man to have played at least 5 finals at each major. At the French, he has one win (in 2009, thank heavens for Soderling) and 4 losses to the clay GOAT - Rafael Nadal. One wonders what the actual count might have been if the gods had not sent Nadal to mess with us FedFans.

g) But seriously, just watch these 5 games from the 5th set of the 2017 Australia Open again and marvel at how close it was to being a completely different narrative. A matter of inches...literally, on multiple occasions.

h) In 2012 after the Olympics in London, in spite of winning a silver medal, it seemed quite inconceivable that Federer would last as long as Rio in 2016. Verily, it came to pass - Federer did not play in Rio while recovering from his myriad injuries. But if you had told me in 2012 that he would not play in Rio but would win multiple majors in 2017, I would not have believed it possible. I am still having a tough time believing it.

i) Hailing from a nation where we revere the Krishnans and Amritraj for simply making it to the quarter-final at Wimbledon, it is astonishing to think that Federer has played 70 Grand Slam events (tied for first all-time with Fabrice Santoro) and has reached the quarter-final or better in 50 of them. Yes, 50 of them!

j) For a man known for the beauty of his groundstrokes and the fluidity and grace of his foot movement, it is mind-boggling to think that he is third all-time in the list of aces hit on the ATP tour. And, if he plays the rest of the year, he's definitely going to be #2 behind Ivo Karlovic.

k) The final word has to, definitely, belong to the late, great David Foster Wallace from his famous essay: Federer as a religious experience. Mind you, this was published on August 20, 2006, almost 11 years ago, but it still resonates just as loudly today:

... Roger Federer is showing that the speed and strength of today’s pro game are merely its skeleton, not its flesh. He has, figuratively and literally, re-embodied men’s tennis, and for the first time in years the game’s future is unpredictable. (...) Genius is not replicable. Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform — and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled.

(Credit: SI.com)

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Born again

Gautam Gambhir was jettisoned from the Indian Test team after a series of failures. In true Gambhir fashion, the man worked on his game, changed his stance, put in the hours and fought his way back to the Indian squad, only to keep failing in the same fashion as he used to before his comeback. His days seem to be numbered with the (injured) incumbent KL Rahul about to make a comeback.

Many years ago, Virender Sehwag was at a crossroads - staring at an Indian middle order that read Dravid, SRT, Ganguly, Laxman. At which point he re-invented himself as an opener and set the world afire.

I think it is time for Gambhir to do the same, but in reverse. He is as fine a player of spin bowling as an opener has ever been and I think he would be better served coming in at #6 in the line-up. This way he would not be facing the new ball but could ease into his inning while the spinners were operating. And when the second new ball is due after the 80th over, he would be perfectly placed to combat its threat.

Going down the order will only make Gambhir's chances of a prolonged career go up.

For the want of a nail - part 2??

On June 17, 2015 I wrote something that I am scared may repeat itself....here it is with some modifications:

In an alternate universe somewhere Ajinkya Rahane Ravindra Jadeja does not drop Alistair Cook, Umesh Yadav Pankaj Singh gets the first (of many) wickets, India gains ascendancy and wins the Test series against England, Alistair Cook is sacked as captain, India hosts goes to Australia buoyed by their away win,.....

Months later, I still relive that dropped catch.

Because Ajinkya Rahane Ravindra Jadeja did not take a simple catch at point, a kingdom was lost.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

For the want of a nail

In an alternate universe somewhere Ravindra Jadeja does not drop Alistair Cook, Pankaj Singh gets the first (of many) wickets, India gains ascendancy and wins the Test series against England, Alistair Cook is sacked as captain, India goes to Australia buoyed by their away win, Saha does not suffer a brain fade at Adelaide and Kohli is able to pull off a monstrously incredible Test victory and gives the perfect speech in Hughes' memory, India gains further confidence, wins the Test series, steamrolls through the World Cup semi (where Kohli does not drop Johnson), pulverizes New Zealand in the final.....

Months later, I still relive that dropped catch.

Because Ravindra Jadeja did not take a simple catch at point, a kingdom was lost.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Giving thanks - part 1

For the past few days I have been reflecting on everyone I have to be thankful to for shaping me and my life. Apart from the usual suspects (family and close friends) there are a few I need to remember while I can for the little things they showed me or did for me.

In no particular order:

BPJ: He did a lot of things for me and I cannot thank him enough for them. But the biggest thing he probably did was insisting that my PhD funding was tied directly to being able to drive the departmental truck to our field site. If I did not get the license to do so, he said my funding would be revoked. As simple as that. And it worked. And he insisted that I take official driving lessons to do so. It changed the direction my life was to take.

EP: My driving instructor. Even now when I change lanes, take an exit, brake for a traffic light, take a curve or parallel park, I apply the little tips and rules he told me during our hour-long night sessions so many years ago. All our sessions were in the dark and it rained during every one of them (which maybe one reason why I am more comfortable driving at night than in the day time, relatively speaking).

GM: I would not have taken his course if a researcher at ISU had not taken back his offer of a fully-funded PhD program. But, in hindsight, I am glad the offer was rescinded. The way I teach today is based almost entirely off the GM playbook. He had the incredible gift of being able to take a complex issue and simplify it so the students could learn it piecemeal without losing sight of the bigger picture. Someday, I hope to be half as good as he is.

RP: Bored me to death with his long-winded, one-sided conversations but he did teach me one important thing before he left for Atlanta - how to iron my clothes. Don't scoff...it is not as simple as he made it look.

SM: When the temperature drops and the house gets cold I remember his tip - take a hot shower and then you'll be fine, And the bathroom also becomes the warmest room in the house in the winter.

RT: His simple policy for office hours - if the door is open, come right in - is one that I practice. Nothing gives me more joy at work than having a student walk into my office, sit down, and chat about life in general.

KDK - One week after I received my driver's license I was convinced to be the sole driver on a road trip to Alabama. A lifelong love for the open road and spending weekends in different places was born. The confidence I gained from that trip was immense and life-changing.

SKP: The most generous and giving person I have ever met. Never said no to any request for help without compromising on his ideals. I am not as good as he is but at times I have my moments.

JM: The first person in the US who took me aside and talked to me about my anxieties. He was my professor (and adviser) but I never felt a gap between us. When I wasn't sure if I was good enough to do a PhD, he took me to CEM's office and the two of them convinced me I was capable of it in just two sentences. More than half the labs I teach in my Ecology course are ones I learned from him. He passed away recently and has been in my thoughts a lot since then.

KM: Taught me how to cook dinner for two in 20 minutes or less. And also gave me his warmest winter coat when he moved back to Japan so I did not freeze as much when I walked to my classes.

CR Jr: Ice-fishing? Check. Canoeing? Check. Rafting through rapids? Check. Playing croquet? Check. Golfing? Check.  Indoor soccer? Check. Trapping coyotes for research? Check.How to throw a football in a perfect spiral? Check. Spelunking? Check. Bowling? Check. There are more "firsts" that C was able to check off my bucket list but you get the picture. He even drove me to WV and back from Illinois just so I could visit with BPJ and see the PhD program there.

JM: For teaching Biometry. The best statistics course I have ever taken and even today I can teach basic stats without referring to notes because of him.

Reading the tea leaves

When the draw for the men's singles event of the 2015 French Open tennis tournament was announced, all eyes were focused on the quarterfinal where two titans were slated to clash against each other. Learned reporters nodded their collective heads and the phrase de facto final was bandied about.

After the first four rounds, the mega-clash came to be and so it came to pass - the winner of this particular quarterfinal DID win the French Open. While most people thought it would be the Djokovic-Nadal clash, any true tennis fan knew - the de facto final was the all-Swiss clash between Wawrinka and Federer. When Federer lost, my good friend DH and I knew that the GOAT had missed a golden opportunity to pad his resume.

Either way, watching Stan Wawrinka's blistering one-handed backhand made me smile, albeit with a tinge of sadness that it wasn't the other Swiss one-handed backhand player mesmerizing the audience.

चलो कोई बात नहीं, Federer नहीं तो Wawrinka ही सही!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

They speak...I learn...or not

I have watched a few of the matches in the World Cup; bits and pieces of about 50% of them; major bits of about 25% and all the India matches except the second inning of the most recent game against Ireland.

From listening to the commentators this is what I have learned or realized:

Shane Warne: According to him - the best way to win a game at any point in time is to bowl a spinner, preferably a leg-spinner. Leg-spinners, no matter how filthy their bowling, are the best wicket-taking options in the world. Bar none. A pitch is magnificent no matter how many runs it leads to. Awwww.....is a new word that we should all learn to use in our daily lives.

Sunil Gavaskar: If a batsman is near a milestone, our man will sniff it out in a heartbeat. You can tell a lot about his mentality from the way he appreciates milestones, game situation be damned. Also, he has a curious habit of making a joke, explaining it, and then repeating the joke again for emphasis just in case we had forgotten it.

Harsha Bhogle: He has become infuriating to listen to as he conducts each commentary session as if he is moderating a discussion. He will bring up a question and annoyingly will not offer his point of view. More annoyingly, he will straddle the fence if pushed to say something. This has crept into his writing to and only on rare occasions does he take a stand. Sad. Very sad, since he is an established journalist and will always have a column as long as he writes.

Here's something he tweeted today which is typical of the man these days (reproduced verbatim):

I say this with some hesitation, but is Dale Steyn,,,,,,you know......a little.......not quite.......

(See image below)
I say this with some hesitation, but is Dale Steyn,,,,,,you know......a little.......not quite.......

What...Does...That...Mean? A little not quite - what? Say it!! And without any follow up it is simply out there as clickbait, at worst, and a fraidy-cat statement, at best. Finish a thought and take a stand, Harsha. Please.

Sanjay Manjrekar: I actually like the guy and the insight he brings in each of his stints. He picks up a hatke point of view. Unfortunately, he will then spend the next 15 minutes beating it into the ground by repeatedly pointing it out. Glenn Maxwell was at the crease in a recent match en route to his first ODI century. Manjrekar stated early on that Maxwell is an atypical batsman in that he does not play the ball or the bowler but instead frames his batting based on the type of field being set. Brilliant point. And then, for the rest of the session this lesson was drummed into our senses with each Maxwell hit. I was hoping for further insight into how captains could counter that strategy or bowlers could plan and make Maxwell hit into areas he is less comfortable (or would take more risks) hitting to. I am still waiting for that.

Kiwi commentators:All the Kiwi commentators have been excellent so far. Treating the game with respect, discussing strategy, pointing out the good (and bad) things players are doing, and staying quiet when needed and letting the crowd shots tell the story at times. (Luckily I have not heard Danny Morrison so far).

Channel 9 commentators:Back-slapping, inside-joke telling, laughing out loud once-every-minute, Aussie propaganda stumping.  All of these are what I have (unfortunately) come to expect from them. They are rah-rah boys of the worst kind. They often don't even know who the opposing players are and sometimes will (shockingly) admit it. How can they not research the 22 players on the field before beginning their stint? How can the producers of the show let them get away with displaying such ignorance?

Mark Taylor: Special mention - he hasn't met a non-Aussie name that he hasn't mangled. I cannot fathom how he neither cares nor tries to pronounce players names correctly. That is just rude and inconsiderate and unbecoming of someone who, at times, has insightful things to say, especially related to strategy and game plans.

Rameez Raja: Like Ravi Shastri, he has about 10 stock phrases that he uses in varying patterns. Has not done much research for years and it feels as if the only cricket he watches or follows is the little bit he sees when he is commentating.

There are others, plenty of them. If you are interested shoot me their names and I will tell you what I think of them.