Thursday, September 21, 2006

Elimination by alteration of definition

It appears that it is not just human beings who are being targeted for downsizing. Hard-working bodies of aggregated matter are being relegated to secondary status, too.

As most of you are probably aware of by now, instead of increasing the number of planets in our solar system as I had written about in an earlier blog entry, the total number has been reduced to 8, with Pluto ending its 76 year run with the big boys this year.

But the decision is not set in stone, as only a small proportion of astronomers actually voted on it. Pluto has its followers and they do not intend to go down without a fight.

So don't rewrite your high school astronomy notes just yet. As far as I know, Pluto is still merrily spinning away in the outer reaches of the solar system, oblivious to all the discussion ocurring on a planet far, far away.

For better or verse

Running, jumping, sprinting
Shuffling, walking, striding
Trotting, cantering, galloping
Slipping, sliding, falling.
Is this
Poetry in motion?

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Why Irfan Pathan has lost pace

Swing bowling has come under intense scrutiny in the recent past due to the expertise of the Pakistani bowlers. Rabindra Mehta, a NASA scientist and former club fast bowler, has done a fair bit of research over the years to understand what it is that affects the movement of the cricket ball.

His findings are presented in a simplified manner in this very engrossing article, in which everything you wanted to know about swing bowling is explained. For instance, I found out that there are three types of swing bowling - conventional, reverse and contrast!

To me, the most interesting aspect of his findings is presented in the following paragraph, quoted verbatim from the article, which may help explain why Irfan Pathan has "lost" pace, and Mohammad Sami is only able to reverse-swing the ball and has to rely on seam movement when the ball is new!! (The emphasis on some phrases using bold type below is all mine).
So what happens at speeds above 70 mph? The boundary layer on the bottom side....begins towards transition, the asymmetry is reduced and so is the swing such that at around 80 mph there is no swing. So if you are unfortunate enough to bowl at around this critical speed, the ball will not swing, no matter how perfectly the ball is released. In a recent conversation with Mike Hendrick, the former England fast bowler, he revealed to me that he always found it very difficult to swing the ball and after all these years, he finally figured out why when he saw our data. Of course one solution is to slow down a bit.

I bet you did not know..

I have followed Andre Agassi for years. When he retired, a long-forgotten nugget surfaced in my brain when people started talking about his career. It took me some time, and lots of digging around, but my memory did not fail me.

In his first tournament, Agassi lost to Mats Wilander, then ranked #3 in the world. However, in his very next tournament in Schenectady (New York), he reached the finals where he lost to the #33rd ranked player in the world.

The person who defeated Agassi in his very first tournament final was none other than Ramesh Krishnan! If you do not believe me, check out this link!

So long, farewell...

At the US Open, minutes after losing the final professional tennis match of his career, Andre Agassi spoke to the crowd. For a man who never completed high school, the guy is pretty articulate. Journalists around the world came to appreciate him because he responded with more than just the generic soundbyte when he was asked a question. In the wake of his retirement, many people wrote articles of the times when they crossed paths with Double A, one of the best ones I read was written by his former roommate.

Here is the full text of his final speech, which brought a lump to my throat, and a tear (or two) to my eye when I heard it during a highlights show.

The scoreboard said I lost today, but what the scoreboard doesn't say is what it is I have found. And over the last 21 years, I have found loyalty.

You have pulled for me on the court and also in life. I've found inspiration. You have willed me to succeed sometimes even in my lowest moments. And I've found generosity.

You have given me your shoulders to stand on to reach for my dreams, dreams I could have never reached without you. Over the last 21 years, I have found you. And I will take you and the memory of you with me for the rest of my life.
Thank you.

Dying on the job

Steve Irwin, more famously known as the Crocodile Hunter, was an energetic pursuer of exotic animals and interesting organisms, both on land and in water. He died a few days ago, aged 44, while filming in the Great Barrier Reef.

The highly energetic Aussie, with a penchant for chasing after dangerous animals, perished while doing what he did best. In a way, I guess, if he had to choose a way to go, this would have been it.

Agassi Unplugged

Gary Smith, of Sports Illustrated, recently wrote an in-depth, revealing article on Andre Agassi, touching upon the various forces that drove the man and, in turn, were driven by him.

It is a long article, at times rambling, but in the end it is a touching portrait of the man. A must-read, especially for those that want to know more about how he pursued and wooed one of the most dominating tennis players of all-time - Steffi Graf.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A night to remember

On Monday, the 4th of September, I took the subway (#7) to Flushing Meadows. The subway was on a local schedule, meaning it stopped at every station, and it kept getting fuller at each stop. People of all ages and sizes - some in tennis gear, some just carrying tennis paraphernalia, others carrying just cameras (like me) - rubbed shoulders with baseball fans (the NY Mets were also playing a night game at Shea Stadium which is located by the same station as the USTA National Tennis Center…I mean …the newly re-named United States Tennis Association Billie Jean King National Tennis Center (try saying that rapidly three times in a row!)).

The excitement in the air was palpable and as my friends and I got off the train station onto an elevated walkway we could clearly see in the distance the entire tennis facility. As we approached the center the crowd seemed to be in no particular hurry to get anywhere.

The reason is that while about 20-odd thousand get to see the games inside Arthur Ashe Stadium (the biggest tennis arena in the world) the rest of the folks just hand around the sprawling complex taking in the sights, having an extended picnic and catching all the show-court games on big screens located at strategic points. We did not get a chance to see the famous globe, up close and personal, but we did get a good look at it while taking the escalator to the upper-deck. (Those of you that watched "Men In Black" will remember these structures from the fight sequence at the end of the movie).

Having paid big bucks for our tickets we ventured into the arena and climbed all the way to the top – our seats were in Row Z in the upper-most tier of the stadium! The view from there was quite awe-inspiring.

While you can easily follow the progress of the ball and the players themselves can be seen clearly, you cannot discern their faces all too well. Not to worry, two giant screens located at opposite ends let you follow the action as it unfolds, and also shows replays of the exciting points.

The first match, at 7pm, was between Serena Williams and Amelie Mauresmo. With fake French accents, my friends and I lustily cheered on Amelie as she shrugged off a 6-0 shellacking in the second set to prevail over the visibly out-of-breath younger Williams sister. Around this point in time the stadium was filled to the brim and sometimes the view could get obstructed (but with so many lovely ladies to look at instead, it did not matter one bit!).

The second match of the day featured Lleyton Hewitt and Richard Gasquet, the 19 year-old Frenchman (Frenchboy does not roll off the tongue as easily). For the first two sets Hewitt’s quickness was just too much for Gasquet and he easily won 6-4, 6-4. Anticipating a quick finish, many members of the crowd began to leave and something magical happened. The noise level increased as the audience that was left behind was interested in watching more tennis.

Gasquet looked a different man with the crowd thoroughly behind him and began to display some of the magic that have people talking about him as the next big thing to hit tennis. The USTA prides itself on being “fan-friendly”, a phrase that gets thrown around a lot, but I think in this case they actually mean it. As the crowd dwindled with each passing set, the officials started letting people in the upper reaches of the stadium move down and occupy the lower levels (more likely to ensure that the television coverage did not show too many empty seats in the crowd). So we bid adieu to our lofty perch, and moved down to the second tier of seats and got more engrossed in the match.

Gasquet continued his resurgence and forced a fifth-set. More people left probably as it was approaching midnight, and they had to go to work the next day. We moved further down and sat really close to the action. The intensity in the player’s faces was clear and sitting this close to the action one thing stood out more than anything else – the speed. I have watched tennis on TV for years, played off and on for decades, but none of that prepared me for the pace at which the ball goes back and forth and the speed with which the players cover the court.

Hewitt glides across the court, retrieving balls that would have been winners with most other players. I have read reports that talk about his counterpunching prowess, alluding to a lack of attacking ability. Those reports do not do justice to the guy. He hits winners just as frequently as the other players. It is just that in his case he has to play a long point to set it up, as he does not have the variety some of the other players do. When he sees an opening he is quick to pounce on it and pound a winner.

But this day Hewitt had his hands full. If Gasquet can have a long career he will definitely win majors, and if he has an upper-echelon career graph, his backhand will be admired for decades. His backhand, for want of a better word is exquisite. He has three variations – the traditional slice when the ball keeps low, a top-spin thrust when the ball bounces above the waist and a flat slap-like hit when the ball is at waist-height, reminiscent of the fierce square-cuts that Sehwag likes to hit. At one point I was involuntarily yelled, “C’est magnifique” after a stunning on-the-run top spin backhand winner from off the court. The Aussie fans in the row ahead of me turned around and agreed, saying, “Oui”!

In the end, as would be expected, the superior conditioning of Hewitt won over. Gasquet started cramping and his mobility was severely hampered. He gamely fought on but the writing was on the wall. He still found the reserves to pull off some desperate winners but in the end Hewitt prevailed, closing out the match after losing some match points.

It was close to 1am in the morning when we trudged out of the stadium, but on our way out we stopped to soak in the sights, taking pictures of past champions, paying tribute to the Center. By the time I reached my friend’s house the sun was beginning to rise but it was worth the lack of sleep.

I shall return to the US Open next year and spend at least a whole day at the complex, not just a few hours. I look forward to that experience.

The long goodbye

At Wimbledon this year Andre Agassi announced that he would retire from professional tennis at the US Open. Soon after I heard this I booked tickets to watch the US Open on September 4th, the second Monday of the tournament. If Agassi survived 3 rounds he would be playing a fourth-round match that day. Agassi survived just two but gave enough glimpses of his skills to keep his admirers happy and hopeful. In then end, his back could not hold up much longer and he lost to an unranked German named B Becker. It was an oddly fitting way for him to go.

I missed seeing him in person by a day, but that did not stop me from paying tribute when I came across a life-size photo of his!

Flying high

Televised sporting events and live webstreams have allowed me to watch some of the greatest players to have ever played in sports arenas – people who do not need full names to be identified. People like Gretsky, Montana, Tendulkar, Woods, and Federer. But the very first person to capture my imagination after I crossed the proverbial seven seas, is simply known as MJ – a man whose silhouette is just as famous as his face.

When I moved to Chicago, one of the primary motivating factors was that I would be able to watch Michael Jordan weave his magic on the basketball court. Two months after I arrived, he announced his retirement from the NBA at the young age of 31. A few weeks later, Michael was honoured by his organization by having his number retired and a life-size statue placed in front of the United Center (a building that was made affordable by the money that had poured into the city because of Jordan’s influence).

Seventeen months later, the Chicago Tribune received a two-word fax – “I’m back” and NBA was back to being Jordan’s turf. Three glorious seasons followed and the man actually played in an arena that had his life-size statue right outside it!!

He no longer plays in the NBA but his statue is still there, along with a listing of some of the stellar accomplishments of his glittering career. This time, during my Chicago visit, I took some time out to pay homage.

The City of Big Shoulders

Of the cities I have visited around the globe, the one I like most is Chicago. It has its share of everything (as most cities do) – tall buildings, famous landmarks, historical sites, museums, shopping districts, theatre, playing fields, zoos, parks - and an awesome lakefront setting (not common fare in most other cities). The best part is the fact that the metropolis is not squeezed into a tight spot (say, like Manhattan Island) but is spread out. When you walk between the buildings, the space between them allows you to appreciate how majestic and tall these structures really are; imposing feats of architecture as dreamed of by their designers.

The views from the upper floors of these tall buildings are just as spectacular to behold.

Ironically, the best view of the entire city is not from Sears Tower, the tallest building, but from the observation deck of the John Hancock Building on the north-side of the city. Not only do you get to see the cityscape but you also get some nice views over Lake Michigan. I was fortunate to go there on a gloriously sunny day as the pictures will attest.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

In his footsteps

I thought my days of watching a willowy Hyderabadi elegantly flick bowlers to the fence were in the past. But, as a profile by my namesake reveals, there is still hope for me as a son steps into the huge void left behind by his father. I hope the boy succeeds where so many other famous sons have failed.