Sunday, February 27, 2005

Defying Logic

The decision of the country's Home Ministry to stop athletes representing the country is, at best, a short-sighted one bereft of all ideas and at worst, smacks of authoritarianism. Of course, this blog does not wish to engage in politics of any kind. But this decision, an outlandish one if ever there was one, affects everyone regardless of their political inclinations or affliations. So far, very few people have come out in the open and questioned the decision. So, hats off to Narain Karthikeyan for coming out and expressing his disappointment The argument from the members of the political class that initiated this, is that athletes, cricketers in particular, did not give the flag the respect it was due, that it was worn below the BCCI emblem on their batting helmets. The simple solution would have been to issue guidelines spelling out do's and dont's when it comes to using the national flag. Somehow, that solution escaped the worthies at the Home Ministry and the Member of Parliament who took up the issue in the first place. Let me just say that this doesn't surprise me. Ours is a country that, till recently, did not allow the general public to proudly fly the flag on top of their houses. It is a country where people have been told how to live their lives by a few ignoramuses. But one thought the worst was over, that winds of change had blown away the cobwebs of the license-raj. Athletes at the Olympics and other international meets draping themselves in their national flag after a victory is an inspirational sight. Like millions of other Indians, I have longed to see Indian athletes being able to bask in glory in their national colours. Apparently, one may get into trouble in doing so. Last evening, as I was going through the Australian Grand Prix brochure that a customer of ours was kind enough to let me have for the weekend, I came across the Jordan team drivers' profile. It was a heartening moment to see a helment in the familiar tricolours and with the Ashoka Chakra at the top - but the irony of it wasn't lost on me. The first Formula-1 driver ever from the country will not be allowed to use the flag. After all, it belongs to him. And me. And you. - NK PS: I will be there at the Australian Grand Prix and hopefully, Karthikeyan will do well. I may carry a flag, even. The Home Ministry has since decided that athletes can use the national colours without the Ashoka Chakra. Hmmm...

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Hall of Shame

The integrity of competitive spectator sport has been facing the serious and ever growing threat of drugs of all kinds, particularly of the performance enhancement kind. And most sports bodies, not least the IOC, have been at the forefront of the battle against the drug cheats (is there a polite way to address them?), at times fighting a frustrating battle. Yet Major League Baseball chose to sweep the problem under the carpet, until it blew up in the face of Bud Selig and company (BTW, Bud Selig is the MLB commissioner). Almost every batting record established in the last decade or so is under a cloud. Barry Bonds is fast approaching baseball's holy grail, the home run record, and not many are convinced he is clean. Not in the aftermath of the BALCO scandal. Astonishingly, MLB decided to tackle the issue only after Arizona Senator and Vietnam war hero John McCain threatened to initiate US Congressional action. In a further act of stupidity, MLB announced punitive measures for offending players, which are a joke when compared to most organized, professional sports. It would take four offenses to get suspended for an entire season. Track and field athletes could be forgiven for filing discrimination suits, given the (justifiably) harsh punishments they get! Perhaps MLB hopes that identification of a player would be a stigma enough to act as a deterrent. By all accounts, that has not been the case if the history of doping in track and field and other Olympic sports like weightlifting are anything to go by. The latest episode in this sordid saga are the "revelations" by Jose Canseco. The reaction, including most of the media, has been to heap garbage on Canseco. They don't need to - he's already in piles of it. But to ignore his allegations would be a huge mistake, especially as he says owners were tacit conspirators. One of the owners he names is US President Bush - proving that baseball truly is America's pastime! - NK

Monday, February 14, 2005

Players Win, Coaches Lose?

I recently read this one-liner somewhere and instantly liked it, so there I go, can't help it. But in the case of the Minnesota Timberwolves, this seems to fit to a T! Only last year, the T-Wolves had the best record in the Western Conference and second best in the NBA, enjoying a break-out season behind KG's MVP season with Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell providing much needed depth. Just half a season later, Flip Saunders find himself "reassigned" to a front office position, with his friend Kevin McHale taking over. McHale is the vice-president of basketball operations and has been instrumental in taking this franchise to its current status and has impeccable basketball credentials, but by all accounts it is a stop gap arrangement. Going back to 'Flip', one gets a feeling that he got the rough end of the stick, since there wasn't much McHale and the front office could do about the players who haven't delivered. KG and Wally Szczerbiak have been the only consistent performers. It's also hard to see how Minnesota can get out of some of the contract situations they're in before the season is history (it's already slipping away). There're two kinds of 'untradable' players in the NBA - ones who are looked up to as franchise players (KG, Duncan, Shaq et al - Shaq was traded for reasons other than basketball) and ones whose contracts are not compatible with their on court accomplishments, making them somewhat unattractive in the market. It may sound harsh, but perhaps Michael Olowokandi falls in the second category. Unless the Kandi-man and the bench deliver, there's nothing any coach can do. - NK

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Can Sania Do It?

In a few hours from now, the final of the WTA Hyderabad Open would have been played and there could be history in the making. That is, if Sania Mirza can hold her nerve and put it past her Ukrainian opponent Alyona Bondarenko. I must admit I never even dreamed of an Indian winner of a WTA event, even a small event such as the one in Hyderabad. Coming on the heels of Narain Karthikeyan securing a position as one of two drivers for Jordan in the coming Formula-1 season, a win for Sania would cap quite a week for Indian sport. God knows there haven't been many such. Having followed Sania's results over the last year, I have a gut feeling she will take this. Needless to say, she'll have more than a bit of support. Dare I say, that regardless of the result of the final, her progress will be watched more keenly than that of anyone else in Indian sport since Sachin Tendulkar started making his mark in the world arena. Her telegenic appeal will ensure constant media attention - she will not only have an impact on young girls aspiring to play tennis, but young boys around the country as well, many of whose walls she would no doubt adorn! As Harsha Bhogle rightly points out, she and her family will have to be on guard. Fame attracts many characters, some of them potentially unsavoury. Ask Mohammed Azharuddin, another Hyderabad sports idol, who was among the crowd at the Open. I've never seen the world of sport from up close, but I can imagine the pressures Mirza and Karthikeyan would have to deal with (hey, most of us just struggle with our routine jobs!). After all, they carry the burden of expectations of an entire nation. Thankfully though, the pressure on them will be much lesser than it would be if they were cricketers. Their failures would be more easily forgiven, more quickly forgotten. I salute the efforts of Krishan and Mahesh Bhupathi, who run Globosport (which, not coincidentally also manages Sania), in making this tournament happen. Mahesh was also instrumental in roping in Martina Navratilova and the legend's presence would have no doubt lifted the profile of this fledgling event. I had goosebumps when I saw Martina just behind me in the Channel 7 commentary box at the Rod Laver Arena. It was a shame she couldn't team up with Leander this year because of Leander's illness. There are also the Chinese doubles pair of Ting Li and Tiantian Sun, one of the world's best, and shock winners of the Olympic gold. A word of praise for the Andhra Pradesh government, and in particular the former Chief Minister, Chandrababu Naidu, would not be out of order. Happily, the new dispensation did not decide this was one of the Naidu initiatives they had to undo. For the moment, though, let's just cheer Sania on. - NK

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Stars and Hypes...

Come February 20th, the NBA's fast and furious will all be in Denver which hosts that sacred NBA ritual - the "All-Star" game. Over the years, the all star weekend has been a showcase for spectacular individual skills, ranging from astonishing three point accuracy to monster dunks. MJ doing "air-time" in the mid eighties and Larry Bird winning an amazing three consecutive 3-point contests is a part of NBA folklore. Ironically, what is considered to be the piece de resistance of the weekend - the all star game - is, over the years, turning out to be the dampest squib. And it all probably starts from the selection of the all-star roster, the equations behind which (at least this year), apparently have little or nothing to do with basketball played in the regular season. This year, it is more of a "most-popular" lineup, with all the usual suspects - T-Mac, Yao et al - thrown in for good measure. For those who do not read between the lines, the names I cited were to emphasise that a team which is struggling to even make the play-offs, has two players in the western conference starting line up. T-Mac, (with all due respect), is having one of his worst shooting seasons in recent times, although the PPG stats would suggest otherwise. Take one look at the number of shots he takes per game and you know what I am talking about. And moreover, his presence has not - as was expected - taken the Rockets anywhere. Yao, of course, has become like chinese food (pun not intended) - he has to be a part of the menu. So he starts as center - while Amare Stoudemire, who is having an "exclamation" year sits out. Amare, for the record, scores at almost 9 PPG more than Yao, has a 57% FG percentage (just behind Shaq), which is 12% more than T-Mac and matches or outdoes Yao in all other statistical categories the NBA can think of. Over and above that, his role in the Sun's stellar season cannot be overstated. But, as I said, those are just for the record and not good enough to be an all star. Neither are Ray Allen or Dirk Nowitzki, who, besides their individual heroics, are leading their teams with aplomb, day after day, game after game. Back east, it's Vince Carter who benefits from this "most popular" ballot. There's been no "vinsanity" about his season so far, notwithstanding two recent 40 point performances. Dwayne Wade, anyone? Which brings us to something I have been saving up for the last. Where on earth is Steve Nash? (Well, don't you know? He's in the reserves!) What if he scores 15.8 points and has 11 assists per game? And forget about the stats man, what if he has single-handedly turned around a 50 game losing team to a potentially 60 game winning team? What if he is already an MVP front-runner? Well, let me think - he is not 7 feet tall, doesn't excel at post game one-liners, is not Chinese and is not named after a Japanese steak! I couldn't find any better reasons. Let me know if you have one. BBS

Sunday, February 06, 2005

A Let Down

May be it’s just the high price I paid for my ticket. At the end of the day, I couldn’t help but feel a bit let down the way Pakistan lost somewhat tamely in the first final at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Watching a game at the MCG, from a deluxe seat, was a dream come true. Only, the game did not live up to the occasion! Record rainfall on the previous night and likely showers forecast for the game day added to the lackluster VB series performances and only about 27,000 turned up for the game. Even with some of the stands being reconstructed, more than half the stadium was empty. Despite all those negative factors, Pakistan made a match of it and actually threatened to end Australia’s dominance in these finals by restricting them to a modest total in the context of modern one-day cricket. But of course, at the MCG, there’s always something for the bowlers, especially the faster ones, and so 237 was going to be a competitive one. Pakistan’s fragile top order made it look like a formidable one. Of course, Yusuf Youhana and Salman Butt were done in by brutish beauties from Lee and in very quick time, Pakistan was staring down the barrel. Youhana’s wicket was the prized one, considering the good player he is and the good form he has enjoyed in Australia. Balls like that decide matches. Amazingly, the depth of this new look Pakistan batting line-up and the smallish target meant they were still in the hunt, especially as Inzamam played himself in and got strong support from the talented Shoaib Malik. They gradually opened up and played some handsome strokes, showing a liking for Darren Lehmann’s gentle left armers. For Lehmann, it would have no doubt been instructive, having got out trying to reverse sweep the first delivery he played earlier in the afternoon. Not that the Pakistanis were a model of sanity – Inzy chose to hook Lee. Pakistan was still in the hunt. Then Symonds conjured up a bit of magic in the field, as is his wont. Pakistan was still in the hunt. Malik decided that he had to hit a flurry of boundaries to win the game. And that was that. The late pyrotechnics from Afridi were not meant to pose a serious challenge. Fireworks are never meant to last, but they can dazzle you for a while and that’s what Afridi managed to do. That was the most exciting bit of cricket all night, and says something about the way he plays. Whatever his limitations may be, he’s fun to watch. The same could not be said about the Pakistan team at the moment. - NK PS: Pakistan committed hara-kiri again, in the second final at Sydney, their batsmen once again negating the good work of their bowlers.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

How To Lose A Game

Of cricket, that is. And the West Indies showed how indeed, on a perfect pitch on a perfect day at the WACA. They could not have chosen a worse setting to do it. It is understandable, if not always acceptable, that a side chasing a big total in conditions that offer a bit to the bowlers buckles under pressure. But this was an absolute belter, and West Indies should have cantered home. Yet, they flattered to deceive. They say winning is a habit. Watching this West Indian side lose its way this evening, I couldn’t agree more. Ramnaresh Sarwan is one of the finest talents in the game; there has been little doubt in that regard over the last few years. Today he seemed determined to showcase his talents on an important occasion. But he chose to throw it all away just when he had the Pakistan bowling and the fate of the VB series firmly by the scruff. After the Prince of Trinidad had played an extravagant shot even the blue-blooded could ill afford, Shivnarine Chanderpaul had, along with Sarwan, threatened to make light of the imposing target. Yet one had a distinct feeling of unease even when the going was so smooth. It was only a matter of time. Eventually, the house of cards disintegrated, brought down not so much by a gale force as by a shaky foundation. Déjà vu. - NK PS: On a personal note, I would have liked to watch Australia play West Indies in the final. But as it is likely to be the last game of the season at the MCG, I have to watch it, no matter what. This could be my only chance. Well, Pakistan it is.