Saturday, February 28, 2009

Hell and beyond

Being an India cricketer is hell in many ways, because of the intense scrutiny you are subjected to by a billion people. But not being an India player is even worse. The same people who feted you one day suddenly behave as if you are the bane of their existence.
- Aakash Chopra
Earlier this week I finally received my much-awaited copy of Aakash Chopra's debut book, "Beyond the Blues". A few weeks ago, when the book was released, Aakash shared with us some of the reasons and inspirations behind the book.
A lot of things also conspired to keep me on my toes: the central contract, Delhi's dream run, my personal form and chances of playing for the country. In any case, I couldn't have written the script better. It was a landmark season with Delhi winning the Ranji Trophy after 16 years, North Zone clinching the Duleep Trophy, and me ending up being the highest run-scorer. We also had the first edition of the IPL in the same season to top it all.
It is a diary of the 2007 cricket season but is much, much more than that. I will write a proper review when I am done reading it, but I am sure that this is the first of many books from him.

I am still hoping that he will write one about the tours to Pakistan and Australia that he was such an integral part of.

Pillow talk

Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make proud.

From the time the Indian cricket team landed in New Zealand they have been treated as kings. The hosts have even gone to the extent of having an advertisement campaign that calls them the "rockstars" of cricket. Unlike the Australians, the Kiwis have been going around praising each and every Indian player to the skies. This is mental disintegration of a different kind. The Indian team under MS Dhoni has fed off adversity, circling the wagons so to speak, in bucking historical trends. In the absence of malice, many of the Indian players seem to have been caught up in the hype. Two losses in the T20 matches have had the media scrambling to find a plausible explanation for the team's failures. I haven't seen the matches, but from the excellent descriptions of CricInfo it just sounds as if many of the batsmen are underestimating the opposition bowlers and throwing their wickets away.

Steve Waugh and the Australians did not get into the Indian team's head as easily as Vettori and co. have. And all it took was some sweet talking. Whodathunk it?!

Chain mail

Here are some of the other cricket-related links that have caught my eye in the recent past:

a) Sharda Ugra profiles the resurgent Zaheer Khan, India's premier pace spearhead. The article is two pages long and is quite a good read.
Away from Indian cricket’s fractious atmosphere of the time, he bowled more than 600 overs in long spells for his 78 wickets, perfecting his art, understanding his options and what to do when.
The county game, says VVS Laxman, “transformed” Zaheer. “He had always looked to bowl quick and take wickets. But county cricket taught him to bowl within himself, when to attack and when to contain.” It is an art that the fast bowler understands as he gets older. When he finds that groove, he goes from struggling apprentice to master, a stage many believe Zaheer is entering now. His best is yet to be
b) David Leggat describes the preposterous extent to which the BCCI will go to crush the ICL, even extending its tentacles into New Zealand's domestic exhibition games.
You might think that NZC could feel entitled to tell the BCCI that they've done their bit and found a first-class game for their six test players. If the BCCI want to get toey that's their business.

But that won't happen. Spaniels don't tell rottweilers their business
c) Suresh Menon writes a more generalized piece on the same issue. The BCCI is soon going to reach a point where it antagonizes everyone with its attitude towards the ICL. But the Board officials don't seem to care one bit about it as long as they can crush the aspirations of the ICL.
The board never misses an opportunity to stick it into its counterparts around the world. This is a strange mixture of arrogance and uncertainty; of egotism and diffidence. How much longer before it insists India will not tour a country unless a certain number of Indian victories are written into the contract? Or - the more likely scenario - the rest of the world gets together, tells the Indian board to stuff itself and gives up on the money (India’s trump card) in exchange for self-respect? India argues the rest cannot exist without them, but the reverse is also true: India cannot exist without the rest.
It would be a pity if, just as the players work themselves into the top position in the world rankings, the board implodes with its own self-importance and India become the pariahs of world cricket
d) And finally, what does Michael Slater have to do with the success of Slumdog Millionaire? Not much, but he does play a small role...sort of!

Unbuttered bread

It is no secret that the BCCI is not on my list of favorite organizations. But they make it so easy for me to justify my disdain and disregard.

Right now, in grounds all over India the Vijay Hazare Trophy, the BCCI's premier ODI trophy for Ranji teams is being held. But look at the BCCI website. For the life of me I cannot find even a piddly link to it. Except for the 15 or so members of the Indian team slugging it out with New Zealand, the rest of the best cricketers are playing and there's no mention of it on the official website of the organization that is, ahem, organizing it! But you will find a prominent video of Lalit Modi plumping the IPL's second season. Priorities, priorities.

If a tree falls in a forest and there's no one to hear it, does it make any noise?

Well, luckily for cricket fans, the BEST sports website in the world (in my jaundiced opinion) is CricInfo. Check out how detailed CricInfo's coverage of the tournament is.

While on this topic, BRB/AV points out something strange about the tournament itself. Look at the points table at the end of the "league" phase. Here are the top teams in each group with their win-loss record:
  • Uttar Pradesh (4-1)
  • Bengal (4-0)
  • Delhi (4-1)
  • Tamil Nadu (5-0)
  • Mumbai (2-2)
Now look at the schedule for the "knockout" stage of the tournament.

Notice something strange? The only team to go 5-0 (Tamil Nadu) is playing a pre-quarterfinal game, while a team with a 2-2 record (Mumbai) gets a bye and goes directly into the quarterfinals! I have looked all over for the rules for deciding which teams get a bye and which do not, but I could not find them anywhere. If someone out there can, please help us out!

(Luckily, Tamil Nadu's pre-quarterfinal match was washed out and they got through to the quarter-finals without breaking a sweat, but why did that even have to happen?).

Finally, at the quarter-final stage, check out the batsman at the #2 spot on the run-scorers list. Why isn't he in the Test squad, at least?

The fickle fingers of Fate

If you have played 43 Tests and 114 ODI's for your country and partnered a world record-setting fast bowler like Richard Hadlee, you'd expect to be feted for the rest of your life. Unfortunately for Ewen Chatfield he wasn't given to loud demonstrations and did not live in the modern age of 24-hour TV channels.

Sidharth Monga of CricInfo catches up with Chatfield and is shocked (as I am, too) to find out what he does to make ends meet.
From a farm boy, to a Wellington player - Wellington, where he knew only five people when he first arrived - to a New Zealand Test player, alongside superstars like Richard Hadlee and Martin Crowe, to a taxi driver, Chatfield is living an extraordinary life in a normal manner. Still being his own idiosyncratic self. Maybe he still is a farm boy. "I wasn't interested in farming," he says.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Test cricket has taken a couple of body blows in the recent past with some absolutely shoddy pitch preparation. In a quest to make a Test match last 5 days, thereby ensuring that TV revenue is not impacted, curators around the world have been preparing the flattest of pitches. It has been raining runs and a century no longer seems to be a big enough score for a batsman. But the ICC does not care for the viewer's interests, it appears. Sambit Bal takes up this train of thought on his editor's blog on CricInfo.
Of course, lessons are unlikely to be learnt from cricket's latest debacles. That's simply because it is unlikely there will be any repercussions. Unlike players, cricket administrators are rarely held to account. Giles Clarke, who was confirmed the ECB's chairman amidst calls for his resignation over his board's dalliance with Allen Stanford, claimed blithely to have received 9000 emails urging him to stay on and save English cricket. Twelve days after a Test was abandoned in Antigua because the custodians of a cricket stadium could not tell a beach from a playing field, the executive committee of the ICC came to the perceptive conclusion that "the responsibility for ensuring the delivery of a venue fit for the purpose of international cricket rested with the host Member board".
Move over, Roebuck and Bhogle, I think I have found a cricket writer whose style I like even more than yours! And, luckily, he has started his own blog on CricInfo. About time, I say.

Ground beauty

Aakash Chopra talks about playing cricket in one of the most beautiful grounds in the world. How can you not want to play with such a backdrop? I'd do it in less than a heartbeat.

On the prowl again

Years ago, Michael Jordan famously announced his return to basketball with a two word fax that said, "I'm back!". Today, Tiger Woods takes a more sedate approach in this ad.

He is humming "Eye of the Tiger", by Survivor, from the Rocky movies (Rocky III).

Editorial license

For years Amitabh Bachchan has been ranting that he is always being misquoted or quoted out of context by the media. But ever since he started blogging he has found a medium to show people how it has been happening.

One example will suffice. On his blog, on Day 308, he talks about how answers are creatively edited so it sounds like someone is saying something controversial.
I am putting for your benefit some of the press articles that came out in this and other regard. They are all written by very senior and respected journalists and written in the editorial column. Read them carefully and in depth and assuage yourselves whether what has been expressed by us is in any way worthy of being termed negative or disrespectful either to the event or to the winners.

My interview to DNA, the way I gave it. Compare it to the way it has been presented
{Here's Amitabh's undited response, presented in full on his blog.}
5. A few technicians from India (for example Rasool Kutty ) have managed to get the attention of the Oscars, while the actors from India are still to make a mark…What do you attribute this to?

Yes true. The reason that Rasool has received attention is because he has worked in a foreign ( English ) film that has received Oscar nomination. When their system of judging feels actors from India deserve an Award we shall respectfully acknowledge it. There have been very few instances when an actor not speaking English in a non English film has been recognised for his acting capabilities. We make films in Indian languages and speak Indian languages
{Here's the edited response (with the deleted text marked in red font), presented in DNA.}
A few technicians from India (for example Rasool Kutty ) have managed to get the attention of the Oscars, while the actors from India are still to make a mark…What do you attribute this to?

Yes true. The reason that Rasool has received attention is because he has worked in a foreign ( English ) film that has received Oscar nomination. When their system of judging feels actors from India deserve an Award we shall respectfully acknowledge it. There have been very few instances when an actor not speaking English in a non English film has been recognised for his acting capabilities. We make films in Indian languages and speak Indian languages.
But, what more can one expect from today's "soundbite" media?

At the forefront of memories

During the recent Oscar telecast there were many changes, one of which was the way in which those that passed away in the last year were honored. This year, Queen Latifah sang a song while a video played in the background. While that was a nice touch, on television it was not a great spectacle and we could hardly make out who was being honored. There was too much emphasis on showing Latifah singing rather than staying focused on those that had passed away (I'd link to that but it has been removed from Youtube by the MPAA, here's a TV capture of it).

Here is how it should have been shown, with Latifah only being heard in the background.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

And the peasants rejoiced

After a long career (note I did not say glittering) Steve Bucknor has announced that he will be retiring from international umpiring. Long regarded by the ICC as one of the best umpires in the world, he stood in 5 consecutive World Cup finals, partly because Australia's presence in them robbed the vastly superior Simon Taufel of a chance to be on the biggest stage.

I do not hold Bucknor in such a high esteem. I have NEVER felt he was completely fair or competent. Some of his mistakes were glaring and reeked of favoritism. He bugged me because he would not go to the third umpire even when there was an element of doubt. The last time he officiated in a Test match involving India was in Sydney in 2008. (When you think of the fact that Australia won the match in the 71st over, with just 7 balls left in the dying moments on the fifth day en route to a very tight 2-1 series win, and there were so many blunders against the Indians, it is no surprise that Anil Kumble evoked the ghosts of Bodyline in his post-match conference. But I digress).

However, Sydney 2008 was not the first time Bucknor blundered on the field.
Bucknor first rubbed India the wrong way back in 1992-93 when he refused to refer a Jonty Rhodes run out when the third umpire was introduced for the first time in cricket’s history.

Sachin Tendulkar has twice found himself at the receiving end of Bucknor’s blunders in 1999 and 2005 and the Jamaican also angered the Indians in the 2003-04 series in Australia with his series of judgemental errors.

After replays often exposed his lack of consistency in making the decisions, Bucknor in 2006 alleged that the broadcasters were doctoring images to make the umpires look bad in public eye.

The West Indian was also one of the umpires, who were responsible for the farcical end to the 2007 World Cup final where Ricky Ponting’s men beat Sri Lanka in semi-darkness and amid utter confusion
It is not considered good taste to speak ill of the departing, but in this case I yelped with joy when I read the news that he was hanging up his fingers. I just hope that the replacements are better.

Slippery slope

A few weeks ago, the baseball world was shaken with the news that the poster child of the league, the man most likely to break several hallowed batting records, was guilty of taking steroids in the years before a drug testing policy was officially in place for Major League Baseball. Alex Rodriguez is on a slippery slope, and he is digging a bigger hole with every interview he has given since that news broke. To me it appears that he is clearly lying about the extent of his "dabbling" with steroids. As time goes by, I expect the hole to get deeper and deeper and totally consume his legacy. Too bad, because he was one of the most talented player to ever play baseball.

Jayson Stark of ESPN raises some very valid points about A-Rod's mea culpa and comes away unsatisfied with what he has heard so far.

The bigger you are, the harder you fall. Shame on you, Alex. You should have come completely clean when you had the chance.

On the money

The glory boys are the ones that steal the headlines, while the grunt work is done by the drones. Most people aim to be the scene-stealers, but end up being dissatisfied drones. Very few people are able to accept their deficiencies (and strengths) and settle on simply being the drone.

It is these people that deserve most of the applause. In the NBA these days, content to fly under the radar, is one such player - Shane Battier. I followed his career when he was at Duke University but then lost track of him (and the NBA) because I just followed the headlines from time to time and he wasn't one of the featured players.

But Shane has not been totally forgotten, least of all by discerning fans of the NBA, such as DSC/BD. Recently, DSC/BD directed my attention towards Michael Lewis of The New York Times, who wrote a fantastic piece on Battier. Read it in its entirety and you will also appreciate all the hard work that Battier has put in. This man knows how to play the game. Oddly, I hope he continues to not get the share of the spotlight that he deserves. Read the article and you will understand why.
Battier’s game is a weird combination of obvious weaknesses and nearly invisible strengths. When he is on the court, his teammates get better, often a lot better, and his opponents get worse — often a lot worse. He may not grab huge numbers of rebounds, but he has an uncanny ability to improve his teammates’ rebounding. He doesn’t shoot much, but when he does, he takes only the most efficient shots. He also has a knack for getting the ball to teammates who are in a position to do the same, and he commits few turnovers. On defense, although he routinely guards the N.B.A.’s most prolific scorers, he significantly reduces their shooting percentages.

The real Little Master

In 1981, I was at school when India was playing Australia at Melbourne. India was batting and it was not going well. While batsmen came and went, one man held on, gracefully stroking runs even as Lillee and Pascoe ran amok. I did not hear a single word of this innings (this was in the pre-TV broadcast days of cricket in India) and as soon as I walked in the gate my brother excitedly yelled out the score. By the time I ran upstairs, Gundappa Rangnath Viswanath was out, 9th out for 114 in a total score of 237. To this date, my brother holds me responsible for that dismissal, but my love for Vishy's game was cemented from his vivid description of the entire innings.

Over the years I had heard tales of this diminutive Indian's batting from my grandfather, father and brother, but until I saw his 222 at Madras the next year I was not entirely convinced. Since then, I have watched a lot of cricket but I have not seen a batsman who gave me more pleasure, and whose tales give me more goosebumps, than Vishy, the original Little Master.

Vishy's career was brought to an abrupt halt by Imran Khan a year later. I've mentioned this before, but it bears repeating that I have never seen a bowler who put more fear in me than Imran Khan (and Malcolm Marshall a year later) in that '83 series. (Click on this link to watch some of his bowling here). There was very little outcry when Vishy was dropped, and though he harbored hopes of a recall for the next couple of years, he quietly faded away, much like his personality. He resurfaced later as a mild-mannered (big surprise there!) Match Referee and these days is hardly heard from, unlike his more visible brother-in-law.

On February 12th, Vishy turned 60, and the tributes flowed in, as they tend to do when some momentous occasion is upon us. I present below some of the more interesting (and heart-felt) ones:

To open proceedings: Rahul Dravid took over the mantle of the talisman of the Indian team from Vishy. India NEVER lost a Test match when Viswanath made a century, such was his influence on the proceedings. Rahul Dravid was at the batting forefront of every major Indian Test victory for more than a decade, until a recent fallow run that has rubbed some of the sheen off of that reputation. He has many memories of the man.
It was Vishy, as chairman of selectors, who picked me to play the Ranji Trophy from the under-19s and presented me my cap in Pune. At that time he was also travelling with the team as manager and this resulted in some of my fondest memories. We used to take a lot of long train journeys and as the night wore down Vishy would be enjoying his favourite tipple and the hours flew by as he and the likes of Kirmani talked cricket.

Rubbing shoulders with them and listening to those conversations left a lasting impression. It's no coincidence that a batch of us who grew up under Vishy's tutelage went on to play regularly for Karnataka, win the Ranji Trophy and then some onto higher honours as well
The other Karnataka giant who conjured up almost as many important wins for India with his bowling, Anil Kumble, is no less effusive in his praise.
Vishy was a legend that every young cricketer looked up to, particularly those who grew up in Karnataka. I first met him when he was a Karnataka selector, and he used to frequently visit the nets, offering valuable advice to youngsters. One moment that I will never forget was when I had the opportunity to bowl to Vishy in the nets, which I cherish till this very day.
KC Vijaya Kumar of The Hindu provides some more specific details about Vishy.
The man, diminutive in physical traits but a giant in his batting stature, has donned several hats in a life’s journey that commenced on February 12, 1949. Ask him which was his favourite role and the reply is quick. “Among all the roles I have played — player, selector, administrator, coach — I enjoyed my playing days the most and all other roles were a spin-off from my cricketing days,” said Viswanath.
Finally, and fittingly, here is Vishy on himself, in a very revealing interview with Suresh Menon in CricInfo. Some nuggets:
My personal favourite century is the 139 I made in the 1974-75 Calcutta Test against West Indies. Their bowling overall in that innings was superior to that in the next Test, in which I made 97 not out - which most people regard as my best innings.

Polly Umrigar advised me to roll my eyeballs when I was preparing to go in to bat. These are small things, but they make a great difference.

Let there be no confusion about this: I worked for my innings. Nothing came easily.

I wouldn't change anything if I had to live my life over again. Except for one-day cricket; I would have tried harder there
To round it off, he has advice that any player (of any sport, for that matter) will be better off heeding.
Experience is not just about playing 40 Tests but about learning from each of them.

Inmates, prisons, and all that jazz

Mohammad Asif, the bowler I thought was best fit to replace the void left by Glenn McGrath, has been in all sorts of trouble - steroid-related trouble, that is. A few days ago his career hit another road bump when he was "banned" by the IPL from “participating in the sport of cricket for a period of one year after finding the player guilty of a doping violation.”

What hubris! How can the IPL ban him from anything except from playing in the IPL. The IPL is NOT the International Cricket Council? To top it, the ICC has taken a head-in-the-sand approach to this.
The ICC further says, in a release, “the ICC has yet to consider the written reasons for the decision in the matter and will make no further comment at this stage other than to confirm its expectation that all Member Boards will adopt the ban and as such the player will not be available for official cricket until the ban has been completed.

The question is, has the IPL got the authority to ban a player from the sport for any length of time?

The ICC anti-doping code, relevant to the year 2008, when the Asif doping offence occurred, does not extend to anything other than ICC events. Even if one were to take into account the clause relating to “mutual enforcement and assistance”, the ICC would be duty bound to enforce only a member unit’s regulations and not that of a tournament
More on this in the article here. Even as Season 2 of the IPL approaches, my distaste for the organization deepens.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Penny wise, pound foolish

How did the BCCI become the richest cricketing Board in the history of cricket?
  • By shrewd investments in the ad-friendly versions of the game
  • By cutting corners
  • By caring for the paying public
In the words of Meat Loaf, two out of three ain't bad.

We already know how the BCCI has tapped into (and plundered beyond recognition) the Twenty20 cash cow. They came late to the party - incredibly, India had played just ONE T20 game before the World Cup in South Africa - but when they did come, they came hard and fast.

Left behind in the wake has been the paying public, as catering to the television is of paramount importance. However, you'd think that a Board so rich would not worry about cutting corners. But it does and it is shocking how callous it all seems.

Aakash Chopra talks about the state of the game on his blog on CricInfo. In a recent post he mentions the paucity of balls in the first-class matches conducted by the cash-rich entity. Either they are making money by cutting corners...or someone, somewhere, is making a lot of money selling cricket balls.
We are told that the balls are too expensive, and hence we must make do with some other local brand that is white in colour, to get the feel of the white ball. We would be given an odd Kookaburra or two every now and then in the interim. I am struggling to get my head around this decision. Yes the balls are expensive, and must therefore be used sparingly, but definitely not as scarcely. If money is such an issue with the association then how the same association managed (if a newspaper article is to be believed) to spend Rs 40 lakh on buying tracksuits for the cops and another obscene amount (nearly Rs 28 lakh) for an AGM totally stumps me.
Sadly, for all of us concerned, the entity which endorses the product by buying into it - the paying public - is the one being shortchanged.

The elephant in the room

On February 7th, I had briefly talked about the mystique of Andrew Flintoff. A man whose legend far exceeds his actual deeds on the field.

It turns out that I am not the only one who feels this way. A few days later, I came across this article by Lawrence Booth of The Guardian. He uses some numbers that are nitpicky (With him, England win less than 39% of their matches and lose 33%. Without him, they win 45% and lose 32%.) but the overall message is the same.
The question is whether anyone has the cojones to challenge him about what he brings to the team. Or indeed the inclination. It may suit everyone to buy into the myth that without him England are a lesser side. But it would suit England better in the long term if they realise that it is nearly four years since they got the best out of Flintoff.

Holding court

When you are the first person from your country to score a 50 in a Test match (i.e. in the first ever Test match for the country) and then go on to eventually lead it to a mind-boggling World Cup title, you are entitled to feel special. Arjuna run-a-minute Ranatunga definitely enjoys such a royal status in Sri Lanka.

Unafraid to thumb his nose at the establishment, home-grown or foreign, Arjuna was (and still is) his own man, molding a team from the depths of the ratings to the pinnacle of ODI cricket. Today, he has retired from the game but still talks up a storm.

In a free-wheeling interview, that feels more like a king holding court, Ranatunga reminisces about the past. It is refreshing to find out that there still are people who can talk in more than just PC-speak.
Ranatunga has featured in only three advertisements so far. The first was to raise funds for the General Hospital, the second for a polio drive and the third for a garbage disposal campaign. All were done for free. "I got 250 rupees for my first Test and traveled by train to the game. After that Lipton Tea came in and said they would offer me 250,000 rupees to feature in an advertisement. I asked them to meet my mother. And she told them, 'My son is not for sale'. I was lying in my bed that night when she came and sat next to me and explained her decision. I still remember what she said: 'Son, remember, never ever sell your talent and face for anything.'"

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Linking up

1) The half-time entertainment at the Super Bowl was Bruce Springsteen. Sitting at home, I could barely make out his lyrics and only a die-hard fan would guess what he was singing. I was marveling at the "fans" who were on the field at the "concert". Rick Reilly was one of the "fans" and he tells you that it wasn't sweet music to his ears!
Most answered an online ad from the halftime show's producers that read, in part: "We're looking for enthusiastic volunteers to be part of the on-field audience."


What the 2,000 found out is: The "on-field audience" doesn't get "paid." They don't get a ticket to watch the game. They don't even get a T-shirt. They can't bring cameras or cell phones—unless they're a group leader. They'll be bussed in and bussed out. They will be on the field for 12 minutes and have to sign a release that they won't sue in case they're flattened by a forklift.
2) Harsha Bhogle is a member of the IPL in his role as a "consultant" for the Mumbai Indians. So, it is not surprising that he has been talking up the good points of the league, and he almost always makes relevant points. His latest column is no different and has some interesting takes on the whole phenomenon. It will still take a little more than that to get me to endorse the league - especially as it (through the BCCI) continues to treat the ICL like a pariah. (To his credit, Harsha has spoken up against the BCCI's attitude in the past.)
It baffles me that in some places the IPL is still being seen as a financial rather than as a cricketing phenomenon. As recent events in the world have taught us financial products with little to back them deliver a lot of promise, a lot of pain and eventually go bust. The IPL is about cricket and as it settles down and acquires a learning curve of its own, will reward cricketers who deliver returns on their investment. This is not a large moneypot into which you dip your hands and run away with the booty. This is serious stuff and some observers around the world are in denial about it. This is not a poor little rich kid seeking its place in the world by throwing money at anyone who knocks at its doors.
3) I had decided not to watch "The Reader" as I thought it was yet another movie about the holocaust. I am still not convinced I want to watch it, but Roger Ebert makes a long-winded but passionate argument for why the real theme of that movie is something totally different. I am intrigued enough to think about it, though.
I was watching Tony Scott on the Charlie Rose program, and he said, in connection with "The Reader," that he was getting tired of so many movies about the Holocaust. I didn't agree or disagree. What I thought was, "The Reader" isn't about the Holocaust. It's about not speaking when you know you should.
Is "The Reader" a "Holocaust movie?" No. In terms of its two central characters, it is a movie about lacking the courage to speak when we should. That's something I think we can all identify with
We are all guilty of lacking the courage to speak when we should. I know I most definitely am.


Recently, the English Test team came to India talking about challenging the Indians for the second rank in world cricket. Two Test matches later, they are in shambles - their captain and coach were both fired, the new captain is struggling to score a run, and their team just lost by an innings after trailing by just 74 runs after the first innings. Shocking!

The English team relies too heavily on two players - Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff. Pietersen has delivered for them across the globe but Flintoff has not. Yes, he has been a menace to teams every time he plays and, in some cases (as Ponting in an Ashes Test and Kallis remember with horror) to the odd individual, but he has not had a match-dominating performance with the bat or ball. England has ridden him as hard as it can, and he has held the opposition in check without threatening to run through them. A similar argument can be made about Brett Lee, too. Lee has taken 310 wickets in Tests, and yet has never taken more than 5 wickets in an innings, and never 10 in a match, like Flintoff.

Dulling the pain

As the days go by, Arizona Cardinal's loss in the Super Bowl may be expected to diminish in intensity but that has not been the case for me. It still rankles, so I can only imagine how hard it must be for one of the central pieces in the drama, Kurt Warner. Warner is 1-2 in Super Bowls and could well have been 3-0, if his teammates on defense had just made one stop each in the two losses, but it was not to be.

Bill Simmons, the self-proclaimed Sports Guy on ESPN, has been off his game for quite some time now (as long as the Boston teams were losing, he was in his elements, but now that winning is a regular occurrence, his writing has degenerated pretty badly). He gives some glimpses of his former self in this semi-diary of the last minutes of the Super Bowl.

Aye, aye, captain

MS Dhoni is still riding high and a true test of character is when things are not going your way, as Ponting is finding out (and failing at miserably). That test of character is yet to come for Dhoni, but when it does I get the sense he will be better at it than most.

For a fellow who never captained at any level after high school, he has many ideas of what needs to be done and the Indian team is buying into his philosophy.
"If you are running from the bowling mark, you need to have the thought that this is the ball you are going to bowl," Dhoni said. "Accordingly you place your fielders. If you are in two minds, you are really confused about what you are doing. If you have just one thought, you can execute it better."
"If you are bowling a bouncer, you don't need a long on and a long-off," Dhoni said. "If you are bowling a slower one, you don't really need a third man, you can have a deep midwicket. At the same time you can confuse the batsmen also have this field and bowl a yorker. But if the ball is completely different than what the field is, then at times, you have a greater chance to give away a boundary."

It's clarity of thought that Dhoni is seeking from the bowlers. In Dhoni speak, "It's better to have a plan - may be a bad plan - in mind than be confused
Sriram Veera has some more of the same in his latest article.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Running diary

In the (now) immortal words of the Joker:!

2:38am: Brad Gilbert says that it is hard to call Federer the GOAT (Greatest Of All-Time) if he cannot beat Nadal on clay. Well, nobody casts aspersions against Pete Sampras in the GOAT discussion because he could never get past Sergi Bruguera. So does that make Bruguera a greater player than Pete Sampras? My opinion: I have never seen a better all-round player than Federer, Nadal included.

2:42am: This just occurred to me. Nadal is 4-2 in Grand Slam finals, and those two losses are to Federer. Federer's record in Grand Slam finals is 13-4, and those 4 losses have been to Nadal. Either way, their streaks continue today!

2:45am: How hard is it for Dick Enberg to say RafA-EL? Why does he keep saying RafE-AL? Seriously!? Am I missing something here?

2:50am: In their last 4 major finals, Roger is just 6 of 42 in break point chances. Wow! Darren Cahill favors Federer in 4 sets, Brad Gilbert predicts Nadal in 4, more specifically 7-5 in the 4th.

2:55am: Patrick McEnroe says that there is more pressure on Federer to win this, and I agree.

2:56am: 4 errors from Federer and Nadal draws first blood easily. Wow!

3:03am: Ah! To be able to hit ONE flat backhand like Roger does. Beauty.

3:07am: Federer breaks back. 1-1. Four rallies in the game went to double-digits - Federer won ALL of them. Whodathunk that?! Also, Federer has stopped slicing the backhand and is hitting them back. Good sign for him as Nadal just eats up those sliced backhands.

3:10am: Federer needs 13 aces today to lead the tournament in that category (Andy Roddick has 87). Make that 12 aces now. 2-1 Federer.

3:12am: The Australian cricket team dominated cricket for the better part of the last two decades, but not any longer. Federer has dominated tennis for about the last half-decade but not any more. In the case of the Aussie team, their standards have fallen, allowing the others to catch up. It is to Federer's (and his opponent's) credit that his game has stayed at the highest level while the rest have raised theirs. No wonder, watching tennis is so much more fun than cricket-watching these days. Well, almost as much fun!

3:20am: On serve now, 3-2, Federer has won all but one of the rallies of over 10 shots in the match so far. Does not augur well for Nadal. The level of play is of the highest caliber. They have just picked up from where the 5th set ended at Wimbledon in 2008.

3:26am: Federer finally runs around his backhand on Nadal's second serve to attack on break point and gets it. 4-2.

3:29am: Nadal hits two ridiculous winners in the game. Simply outstanding court coverage. And it gets into Federer's head. Roger serves a double fault on break point to lose serve. Back on serve, 4-3. Nadal's ability to conjure winners where anyone else would simply be happy to get to a ball is incredible. Simply incredible.

3:37am: Roger struggles but manages to hold to make it 5-4. Nadal won and lost almost all the points, with one blistering forehand for Federer in there. Nadal looks sharp and is beginning to get his forehand to start dipping at the sharp angle that he is so uniquely capable of.

3:40: 47 minutes into the match, and 72 minutes into the coverage comes the story of how Nadal is actually right-handed but chose to be left-handed when he was 12 years old. Amazing story and one that I had never heard before...right.

3:45am: Nadal breaks for a 6-5 lead. Federer is having to go for more on his shots than usual (which is the norm during matches against Nadal) and paid the price with some egregious unforced errors. Big advantage to Nadal now. But Federer has got to realize that he can take on Nadal as he has already broken his serve twice today.

3:52am: The first set is in the book! Nadal wins 7-5. Federer was broken 3 out of 5 service games. Nadal is definitely in his head. The key is whether Nadal can finish this in 3 sets. I still feel that if it goes longer, Nadal loses.

3:57am: Federer comes back from 0-30 down in the opening game with four winners. Very important for him to have held his serve to open the game. Game on.

4:03am: Four good shots for Federer to hold serve after Nadal hits a ridiculous backhand to hold his own. 2-1 on serve. By the way, we now also know about Nadal's grand-father who conducted some symphony orchestra and his uncle who played futbol for Spain. Wait until Federer begins to win a few and we can hear about Federer's temper while growing up, which he has now brought under check.

4:16am: Nadal is now 4-4 on break points. He is really taking it to Federer, hitting harder than he normally does, taking the ball earlier than usual on the backhand and pounding winners. Dangerous times for Federer.

4:21am: Federer breaks back as Nadal makes 3 unforced errors. I can't believe that I just typed that considering how well Nadal has been playing.

4:24am: Federer holds in a tough game to make it 4-3. Nadal looked a little weary on a couple of shots there. Or I may just be clutching at straws...after all I am the same person who said that Nadal was 22 and would not feel the effects of that semi-final match. Hmmm.

4:37am: After Nadal powers his way out of 4 break points, Federer finally manages to break Nadal. Serving for the set. He HAS to get some first serves in.

4:40am: Federer wins the last 4 games of the set to even the match at one set apiece. Now, my theory can be tested. I think Federer thinks he has a chance and Nadal may be in trouble. Either way, the quality of tennis is stupendously high. And as I type that, Chris Fowler says that the quality of tennis is not as high as Wimbledon '08. Come one, that match is the subject of an L. Jon Wertheim book, often referred to as MOAT (Match Of All-Time, to go with GOAT!).

4:47am: Nadal holds to start the third set, but it was not an easy one for him. Let's see if I am searching for signs or whether it is indeed the turning of the tide. Easy enough test coming up - Federer to serve.

4:50am: Federer holds but is made to sweat by Nadal from 40-0. Interesting hold. Gives both players more confidence!

4:57am: Two deuces in Nadal's game and he holds it t make it 2-1 in the third set. Things are starting to get tight for both players on their service games.

5:02am: Federer-Nadal play "the point of the championship", according to Enberg, and Nadal wins it on a fantastic drop volley. But Federer holds at 30. 2-2.

5:07am: Nadal holds for 3-2, but throws in another sorry double fault while at it. By the way, Nadal's shorts have glitter on them. I don't know why it matters, but it has got to, right? And I am officially sick of Enberg's RaEAl pronunciation. Why can't he simply call him Nadal? Between that and his "Oh, my!" repetitions I wonder whether they simply have some tapes of Enberg playing in the background, while Dick suns himself at a nearby beach.

5:14am: Federer saves break point against his serve for the first time all match and holds after playing some superb befensive tennis. Shakespeare and his "There is a tide in the affairs of men," etc. comes to mind!

5:17am: Nadal holds to get to 4-3, but calls for a trainer! Fatigue? Gamesmanship? Naah, just looks like he is getting a rubdown. Maybe he is combating an early onset of cramps. Just a thought: if Nadal starts to come in to the net more often and tries to finish points quicker than he has, then it means that something is really bothering him.

5:21am: Federer holds easily (4-4), and Nadal does not even try to run down a couple of the shots. Looks like there is something wrong with Nadal right now.

5:29am: From 0-40 down, Nadal plays like a man possessed and gets the game back. He also serves an ace to Federer's forhand on the deuce court. The first time all match (2hours and 36 minutes into it, as Enberg helpfully informs) that he serves to Federer's forehand from that side of the court. What composure for a guy so young!

5:42am: Another incredible hold by Nadal, pounding winner after winner on break point, saving 3 of them in another pulse-pounding game. 6-5. How much longer can he keep pulling out these games? Conversely, how much is all of this affecting Federer?

5:58am: As soon as Enberg said that Federer had won his last 5 tie-breaks against Nadal, you knew the writing was on the wall! Roger double faults on Nadal's set point to hand him the tie-break. Two sets to one for Nadal.

6:11am: Nadal loses his serve and then proceeds to play out of his skin and break right back. How long can Federer survive these blows? I still think that if he gets a nose ahead in the game, he (Federer) will be home.

6:15am: Incredible resolve from Nadal, down 0-30, to cooly pound away and get to 2-2 in the set.

6:27am: Twelve minutes of absolutely great tennis. Federer saves 5 break points and eventually wins on the 20th point of the game. If you get a chance to watch the replay of this match, don't miss this game. For some people, a whole career would go by without hitting some of the shots this duo has been producing. Nadal had an incredible forehand winner on the run that was just mind-boggling. Phew! 3-2 in the 4th.

6:34am: Federer breaks Nadal to go up 4-2. Nadal finally makes an error on break point, very uncharacteristically. Here's Federer's chance to make it harder for Nadal. If he does, the match is over. At least in my mind.

6:35am: Federer wins the easiest game of the whole match in less than a minute, at love. 5-2 up in the 4th. We may be nearing the end of the Nadal run. I just do not see how he will be able to gut it out for another set after this one.

I do feel that, to secure it totally, Federer needs to break Nadal now to win the set. That way he will be serving first in the 5th set.

6:43am: Nadal holds and then, on his own serve, Federer wins a line call challenge on second serve (that was called out) at 15-15, and goes on to serve his way to a 5th set. Incredible tennis. The fact that the two of them can keep playing such a high level is a tribute to both men's skill and resolve.

6:49am: One set for it all. Major advantage Federer. Nadal to serve first, however, and that is always a big thing in a 5 set match. And he holds easily to go up 1-0

6:55am: Nadal holds ridiculously easily to make it 2-1 now. Hmmm, its almost as if he has found his second wind and is appearing the fresher of the two. Just incredible how he is able to keep going 4 hours into the match. Dangerous times for Federer now. The longer he keeps Nadal in the match, the stronger Nadal's chances start to get.

6:59am: Nadal breaks Federer, who looks very nervous now. Nadal is in the driver's seat. I did not see that coming.

7:06am: Nadal holds serve easily as Federer's error totals begin to mount. Just 1 winner for Nadal in the 5th set and he is up 4-1!

7:07am: Boom-boom-boom-boom, and an easy service game for Federer. 4-2 in the 5th. Two chances for Federer to break Nadal.

7:09am: And just like that it is 5-2 as Nadal holds at love. He has still not added to his winners total for the set. Federer's backhand has just deserted him. Wow.

7:16am: And I was wrong!!! Federer saves two match points but is unable to save the third and Nadal wins 6-2 in the fifth set. I seriously did not think Nadal could pull it out in the 5th and Federer is going to feel this for a long, long time.

4 hours and 23 minutes.

If the Wimbledon final hurt Federer, then this one will be even harder for him to take. Rafael Nadal is showing that he is incredibly talented and mentally much, much stronger than Federer. What a player. I am not sure how he can be defeated on clay, so going into Wimbledon, he ought to be halfway to a calendar Slam.

Now, let me go and eat some of the words I have been harping on all morning!

The Grand finale

A long time ago, I likened Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal to a matador and a bull. Today, in a few minutes, they shall meet for the 19th time (Nadal holds a 12-6 edge, so far) in the final of the Australian Open. I shall keep a running diary of thoughts as they flash through my mind during the match.

Before the match starts, here's my prediction. Federer is going to win this one. The only way Nadal wins is if this is a 3-setter. And it has nothing to do with fatigue. Nadal is 22 years old and has had a full day to recover. He can easily play a 5-setter today and not feel physically tired. It has been more than a year since Federer last beat Nadal, and if Nadal lets Federer win a set or two, the Swiss-meister's self-belief will kick in and he will finish off Nadal. I am going against conventional wisdom with this statement, but there you have it. The next few hours will be highly entertaining.

Note, the time now is 2:30am in the US and my prediction was made before the match started...

Little bits of cricket

1) In 2008, while the rest of the Test-playing nations had many a match to ponder over, the Pakistani team sat at home twiddling thumbs. 2009 does not promise to be much better either. David Furrows has an interesting option for the PCB to explore - play at a neutral venue as a "home team". It is not as far-fetched an idea as it first seems...
The third option is far more compelling because it offers potential entry to the Big Four club. It involves long-term planning to host series in other Test-playing countries, both during the remaining 58 months of Pakistan's existing TV-rights contract and beyond that time. Pakistan could play most of its "home" series in England, scheduling Test matches on days in summer when England is not playing home Tests. There is little cricket overseas at that time of year, and so the boards of the opposing countries are likely to see this as a potential revenue earner. Headingley, Old Trafford and The Oval would offer substantial gate receipts due to the local Pakistani diaspora.

(...) There are now eight Test grounds in the UK, but with Lord's usually hosting two Tests per summer, inevitably two or three counties miss out on hosting an England Test every year. Pakistan's home Tests could be a lucrative consolation for those venues.
2) Peter Roebuck chimes in on Hashim Amla, a key member of South Africa's fast-surging team.
Hashim Amla counts amongst the most serene of cricketers. Nothing seems to ruffle him. Along the way both life and cricket have tried to disturb his tranquility, only to be met with a mild smile and a broad bat. Fast bowlers have pounded him with bumpers. Nothing personal, you understand, just that he was a new kid on the block and his back-foot game was regarded as suspect; mistakenly as it turned out. Refusing to hook, he simply parried the bouncers as he has everything else, and waited for the storm to abate, whereupon he resumed collecting runs in his unflustered way.
3) Sriram Veera watches Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar at a nets session in Sri Lanka and comes away impressed by the maverick. I really wish I could have his job!
And he (Sehwag) constantly teases the bowlers. "Patha nahi chal raha hai na, kidhar daaloon, kya karoon? (Struggling to find where to bowl, eh?), he asks one of the spinners. Both the bowler and the batsman laugh. Sehwag keeps watching Tendulkar bat, passing comments, “Shot Master! Wah ji Wah! (bravo).” He also pulls Tendulkar's leg now and then by praising the bowler who has got the better of him. Tendulkar simply laughs.
4) The ICL has been trying to get the ICC's attention as a legitimate enterprise. The ICC, kowtowing to the needs of the BCCI, has been putting things off. A January 31st meeting of the ICC was supposed to have discussed the issue. Not surprisingly they have, in the manner of most obtuse committees around the world, simply put off the decision-making till a later date. I think it is time the ICL called their bluff and took them to court.
The status of the ICL is still in limbo, with the ICC board having deferred considering the Indian Twenty20 league's application for approval pending further discussions between the BCCI, ICL and the ICC.