Sunday, May 29, 2005

Unsung Villains?

Reading Gideon Haigh's "Game for Anything", a collection of his writings over the years, brought home a point that I sometimes wondered about in the context of the match fixing scandal, but never really put much thought into. Those allegedly or self-confessedly involved have been rightly vilified and the repentant ones have mostly been forgiven. Scorn was heaped upon the players who actually did the misdeeds and the administrators of the game who were mostly mute and/or deaf spectators (no administrator was alleged to have been involved, which is a rare instance in cricket where the bureaucrats have come away with credit). But what of those among the players who chose to carry on as if nothing was amiss, even as hell was freezing over? The only exceptions being Rashid Latif, and, to a lesser extent, Basit Ali. Somehow, those who actually were almost co-conspirators by not speaking out were looked at as heroes in the aftermath. It's only fair that the game has moved on, but after the next scandal erupts, sainthood should not be granted just for being a bystander. - NK

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Toothless Tigers

I guess the debate over Bangladesh's test status has long ceased to be a debate - it is a foregone conclusion that Bangladesh does not belong at the highest level of international cricket. With all the developments over the past couple three years or so, Zimbabwe have unfortunately joined Bangladesh as the other C-graders at the test level. The problem is, there is probably little the ICC can do now; at least there are no easy answers. Cricket is not blessed with audiences in as many countries as are members of the UN - it is a game that is desperate to find newer markets. And it was the obvious financial considerations, plus one suspects the electoral politics at the ICC, that hastened Bangladesh's entry into the test level. I do think the ICC has a tough task on its hands balancing the financial considerations and ensuring that the quality of competition does not suffer. So far the globalization drive has yielded little results, the only developments happening in countries with significant expatriate populations (e.g., the USA). In the event, can cricket really afford to lose Bangladesh, where there is a genuine passion for the game on a mass scale and at the grassroots level? It is a moot point as to whether cricket really needs more countries to play the game; surely there are other sports with very limited patronage. In crashing to another abysmal defeat that was perhaps the worst performance by a team playing their first test at Lord's, Bangladesh did themselves and the ICC no favours. It is difficult to see them redeeming themselves in the next test, given their inadequacies. Bringing in Dav Whatmore as a coach hasn't helped, and other miracle workers would have almost certainly endured a similar fate. If they continue in a similar vein, the Bangladesh cricket side may want to call themselves something else. - NK

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

End of the Road?

It's ironic, to the point of being cruel, that on the same day that Andre Agassi upped the benchmark for endurance in men's tennis in the open era (by playing in his 58th slam), he was reduced to a journeyman by a nagging back injury. On a day that incredibly saw three former men's champions dumped out in the first round, Agassi's was the talking point. There have been signs all year that his body is not quite holding up, and this was just the latest episode. Add to the injury worries the fact that Agassi has come up just a little bit short against the top players more often than not, and it all points to an end of a great career. Anyone who watched Agassi survive Joachim Johansson's onslaught at the Australian Open would not feel comfortable writing him off, but then injuries must surely be taking a mental toll as well. Not long ago, Pat Rafter cited the same reason and retired with a few years still left in him. In contrast to the fading veterans, there were some young pretenders with resumes built on achievements in the junior arena, who all lost in the first round, but offer a lot of promise. The Cypriot Markos Baghdatis, and the three young Frenchmen - Richard Gasquet, Jo Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils. Baghdatis looked the best of the lot and gave David Nalbandian quite a scare, only for the Argentinean to dig deep and pull it out. Gasquet has already showcased his potential this year, particularly on clay, and was through to the round of 64 (he is likely to run into Rafael Nadal if he wins there). Monfils, the junior stand out last year, looked really raw and out of his depth, so one can't tell much based on that. Watch out, though, for Tsonga - he's a big lad with a lot of potential. - NK

Glory Days

When Liverpool upset Chelsea a couple of weeks or so ago, a lot of Chelsea fans in India may have been a little disappointed, but my brother was pretty happy about it. To him, once upon a time, Liverpool was the ultimate English football club and in fact one of the very best anywhere. Obviously, it's a reflection of the times when he grew up, a time when Liverpool dominated England and was a force in Europe. I remember some of the earliest issues of sports magazines I bought (The Sportstar, to be specific) - the celebrations of Liverpool's FA cup triumph over Everton (who had Lineker) and other such with men like Kenny Dalglish, Ian Rush, Steve Nicol and Jan Molby still around. Then came Heysel. Liverpool has never been the same. Being ostracized from European competition obviously hurt all English clubs, but Liverpool also declined at home. They did have the odd success, but that was about it. The UEFA win over Alaves in 2001, for one (hell of an entertaining game that was). The last six years or so have seen a gradual revival, starting in the days under Gerard Houllier and not surprisingly, coinciding with emergence of Michael Owen, among others. Somehow, amid the sporadic success, Liverpool have not managed to challenge powerhouses Man United and Arsenal. Now they have the opportunity to relive the glory days of the '80s by bringing home the Champions League trophy. That would make the old faithful more than happy, even given the disappointing domestic season. - NK

How about hustlin' up, ya hoser?

As if to reaffirm his MVP status and silence any skeptics still around, Steve Nash put in perhaps the best performance in a playoff series since a man named Jordan hung up his boots (the second time) to carry the Phoenix Suns into the Western conference finals. Apparently, there were a lot of people who felt the perennial candidate, Shaq O'Neal, should have got the honours. In the end, I think the jury got it about right, with O'Neal finishing second. With his seemingly unkempt mop of hair (definitely 'un-styled'), Nash does look an odd out on. But what lacks in style off the court, he more than makes up for on it. His point guard play has ignited the Suns' offense this season, which scored more points than any team in the last ten years! Against Dallas, he took over on the scoring front as well, including a monster scoring night when he poured in 48 points, shooting 20-29! It was ironic that the Suns completed the job at the American Airlines arena, where Nash grew up in basketball terms. By all accounts though, Nash didn't go overboard celebrating it. Just the kind of character needed in a league that has its share of the enfant terrible. - NK

Kuznetsova's Nemesis!

In further damning evidence of garbage in the disguise of 'news reporting' (yawn, yawn!), there were some reports in the media (in India) before the French Open started, of Sania Mirza's rematch against US Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova. My initial reaction was that she had drawn a tough first round match, only to find out that it was only a 'potential' rematch in the third round. But what really irks is a suggestion of Mirza's dominance of the Russian! Unsurprisingly, this was a PTI report (and was so carried in most of the English press). It turns out that Mirza has beaten her opponent exactly once. Even as I write this, I know Sania has been beaten in the first round by Gisela Dulko, a more experienced player, with a lot of clay court skills. This was always going to be a tough one, but then, saying that wouldn't have been news, would it? - NK

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Predictable Outcome, Uncertain Future

One of the two front-runners for the post, Greg Chappell has got the Indian coaching job. Good. Now that we got that sorted out, we can focus on actually doing something on the ground. Playing cricket and winning, namely. Of course, the board still has to sort out the thornier issue of captaincy, even though in the minds of many it's a no-brainer. I don't think that's necessarily the case and Ganguly could be back after the suspension, but I could be wrong. One of the notable aspects of the whole coaching position affair was that being Indian actually seemed to be a handicap. This is something unique to the sub-continent - all the coaches are from overseas, even though Dave Whatmore has Asian lineage. This does have a lot to do with a shortage of qualified coaches. However, Farrokh Engineer was quoted on BBC as saying that somehow he felt the players would better respond to an overseas coach better. This also seems to be prevailing view among fans, both lay and knowledgeable, and of course, among media people. I think it says something about the character of our part of the world. And being able to use a laptop was made out to be an important criterion for the position. I'm not sure whether the selection panel actually agreed with that assessment, but let's think about this, is Alex Ferguson an expert on the latest cool app from Apple? Or is Felipe Scolari? Does anyone even ask the question? The laptop, I think rather fancifully, has become sort of emblematic for modern coaching methods. Frankly, most of us are talking through our hats when we talk about these modern methods. What are they, exactly? And how does one establish if Mohinder Amarnath actually knows about these? Going by his sound bites, as unimpressive as they sounded? It was also amusing to see the (Indian and other) media talk up the prospects of Tom Moody, in particular citing his being a part of two World Cup winning teams. He hardly got off the bench in 1987 when he was quite young, and was an important utility member of the side in '99. Compare that with Amarnath who was the player of the tournament in '83. The point is not that it makes Amarnath better qualified; it's just about the garbage that gets printed as if it were the gospel. There can no doubt of course about the cricketing credentials of Chappell, even though enough people are skeptical about his coaching resume. My take on that is, coaching in international cricket is still in infancy, and so if we look for a proven international coach, we'll end up with a pool of about five people. There is already a great deal of speculation about whether he will gel with Ganguly or Dravid etc. It is just speculation (more garbage). Well, he is the coach now, period. If someone in the team has an issue with that, he can either put aside his personal preferences, or find out an alternative means of living. - NK

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Journeyman Jim

It was a pleasant surprise to see Jim Jackson put in a crunch performance for the Phoenix Suns against the Dallas Mavericks in game six of their semi-final playoff series. Jackson is one of several players in the NBA who cannot seem to find a team that sticks with them or one that they can belong to. In the three seasons that I have seriously followed the NBA, Jackson is already with his fourth team. He was quite an important bench player with the Kings in the 2002-03 season, then got traded to Houston, where again he was quite a useful contributor. Much to his chagrin however, he was traded to the then worst in the league Hornets in the David Wesley deal and he was so dejected he did not even report. Apparently, the Hornets were quite happy to just suspend him and save on his salary, and were never really serious about his services. When the Suns acquired him (after reports of a deal with the Nets), he was finally put out of his misery. Well, at least till the summer! Incidentally, the Ohio swing man was drafted by Dallas in 1992 and never really became the star that he was expected to, even though he had a season when he averaged around 25ppg. But after playing for eleven teams in 13 seasons (not considering stop overs such as New Orleans), I seriously doubt if Jackson savours getting revenge at the moment. - NK

A Real Roller Coaster

Following the NBA play-offs from the distant land of Oz this season has been quite a different and at times frustrating experience. This is the time when you catch the best basketball action of the season, the most dramatic moments, that is if you don't count the odd brawl featuring Ron Artest during the regular season (Artest has been surprisingly contrite of late)! The frustration has been multiplied many times over because the hotels that I have stayed in over the last few months do not have ESPN. Sometimes you wonder how much do you really have to pay to get what you want! I did miss one of the best play-off series in recent times, the first round between the Rockets and the Mavericks. It was almost cruel that one of these teams had to go, considering how good they are. But then, that is the kind of competition there is out West. But it has to be said, the Rockets let go of a golden opportunity after taking both games at Dallas; only for the Mavs to return the favour. Even as I write this, the Mavs are still in the hunt despite their game six loss to the Suns. It has been tougher than expected for the Suns against the Mavs - not that Dallas was being taken lightly, but then the Suns had a lot of rest having swept Memphis while their opponents had to come through an emotionally and physically draining series. Steve Nash continues to be the story of the season, with the icing in the form of the MVP award, a richly deserved recognition. And with his performances he also continues to haunt Dallas owner Mark Cuban, who decided he wasn't about to part with $65 million over six years for Nash. It's easy to criticize Cuban in hindsight, but then no one could have seen such a season ahead for Nash (and Cuban has mostly spent money wisely). Who knows if he would have had the same season at Dallas? After all, with the Suns, Nash has an almost perfect chemistry going. Talking about the MVP award, there was no surprise that everyone was talking about Shaquille O'Neal being the other leading contender, but I was surprised to see not many take up the case of Dwayne 'Flash' Wade. Shaq's influence on Miami's season is stating the obvious, but what about Wade? Time and again when Shaq wasn't around, Wade more than just picked up the slack. If Shaq was the spiritual leader of the side, Wade was the engine that kept it going on bumpy roads. It does seem that there is an unspoken code when it comes to young players like Wade getting or even being considered for, the MVP award. If the Suns think they have drawn tough opponents in Dallas - I learnt from Marty Burns' column on Yahoo that (Sir) Charles Barkley and Grant Hill have tipped the Mavs to move on to the conference finals - what must Greg Popovich be going through? After all, weren't the Spurs with their stifling half-court defense expected to roll over Seattle? The surprises keep coming. - NK

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Roland Garros Beckons

The months from March to May are a special season on the international tennis circuit - the season when all kinds of 'Latino' names start to dominate the headlines on the back pages - the clay court season, of course. Some of these names really have a seasonal pattern on them, never again making the headlines until the same season next year, except for a few summer weeks, may be. However, there is more to the clay court season than just the Spanish, Argentinean and Brazilian domination. I discovered as much in the recent weeks, when I was forced to watch long drawn battles on mud because I had nothing better to do. In the men's game so enamoured with and dominated by power, subtlety and patience are the name of the game when it comes to clay. That is in part the reason it is such a great leveller. No wonder the French Open sees an exodus of top seeds quite early on, more so than any major. It is also a more prominent trend in recent times that most of the top players in the world have struggled on the surface save the odd one. Not even Agassi has been remotely consistent despite his obvious strengths on clay. On the other hand, there are those players who I referred to somewhat sarcastically, who struggle to make the top eight at any other slam but seem to have a gala time on clay. There have always been specialists, but this era truly seems to belong to them. Refreshingly, Rafael Nadal is one player who may be able to buck the trend and make it as an all-court player whose main strength is clay - now that would be a rarity. Moya, Ferrero and Coria have all shown it is not beyond them, but somehow none of them have been able to put it all together on faster surfaces. Coria may yet have his chance, as might David Nalbandian, a stunning under-achiever. Certainly Nadal won't be found wanting for spirit - he's about as plucky as they come, and with the ammunition to back it up. Though completely baseline oriented, he's not averse to trying to mix things up and with a very decent serve, his game has a solid foundation. His confidence is no doubt soaring as the French Open approaches, but the only worry is that he may have played a little bit more than he should have. Speaking about subtleties, one of the obvious variations used on clay is the drop shot and most of the hardened specialists have a fair degree of mastery of the shot. But I have seldom (in fact, may be never) seen anyone used it to such devastating effect as Christophe Rochus did in the German Open. He destroyed Gaston Gaudio first and then Juan Ignacio Chela with some of the cleverest tennis I have seen in a while. But being clever is one thing, being able to exhibit a near-total command of the shot is quite another (my friend Biswa once mentioned Fabrice Santoro does it well). Rochus was outplayed though, by the other young pretender Richard Gasquet, in the semis. The Rochus brothers, Christophe and Olivier, standing at just 5'7" and 5'5", are certainly one of the stories of contemporary tennis. They may have journeyman records, particularly Christophe, but they are certainly not short on talent and fight. They cannot ask for a better venue (one named after a World War I pilot) to display their wares at the end of the month. - NK

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Man For The Job

This has been one of the longest gaps between posts since we started this blog...anyway, let's get on with it! Well, things are heating up on the coaching front, and the BCCI has announced an 'initial short list' of four worthy individuals who would be interviewed for a chance to try their hand at guiding the Indian team. A team that has been going downhill of late. I think John Wright's departure may have been in the planning for a while considering he is a meticulous man, nevertheless it was also good timing since the team under Ganguly and Wright was unable to arrest the downward slide. That gives at least two years to a new team management, with or without Ganguly, to build for the next World Cup. I do hope Ganguly gets one last opportunity (I'm ready to cop it on this one!), but I will move on pretty easily even if he doesn't. I do hope he comes back as a batsman, because he is a match winner in the one-day game. There has been the predictable Indian vs. Foreign coach debate once again and frankly, it is silly. It should be simple, really (in principle at least) - just find the best man for the job. That obviously involves factors such as experience, cricketing credentials (not necessarily as a player) and man management skills. And of course, there is money (I'm sure the BCCI is glad none of the candidates are represented by Pini Zahavi!). Understandably, some people can't be bothered about all this hoopla surrounding coach. Ultimately, they insist (like Harsha Bhogle, for instance), it is the players who win games. Well, yes. However, even though it's important not to portray the coach as a sort of a messiah, looking at results over the last two decades or so, it's hard to underplay the role of a good coach. Bob Simpson, for example, was as instrumental as Allan Border in the revival of Australia's fortunes in the late 1980's. And what about the success the Woolmer/Cronje or the Hussain/Fletcher partnerships enjoyed? All coincidences? Unlikely. Apparently, John Buchanan thinks the role of a coach could/should become redundant. When I read that, it instantly reminded me of the comment a soccer journalist made (as told by Brian Glanville in The Sportstar) about Sepp Blatter when he was Joao Havelange's right hand man at FIFA - that he had 50 ideas everyday, of which 51 were bad! Now, I'm not going to be as uncharitable about Buchanan, but he does have a habit of pontificating on just about everything. But to be fair, I like his idea of ambidextrous players, something quite common in baseball. I have been amazed by switch hitters like Chipper Jones of the Atlanta Braves or Reuben Sierra of the Yankees. These guys are in the same league as the best hitters in the business. Switch hitting is part of the baseball culture, and if it is encouraged in cricket, a new dimension may open up. Getting back to the main theme though, it's good to see Jimmy Amarnath and Sandip Patil in the fray. I hope they haven't been short listed just to appease certain quarters, because both are capable men. Patil, of course, has coaching experience aplenty. Back in the days when I followed domestic cricket, pros like Patil and Chandrakant Pandit helped transform the fortunes of lesser teams, being not just captain of the team, but a sort of a father figure. If I remember right, it was during Patil's captaincy that Madhya Pradesh, never really a contender, went all the way to the Ranji finals. Such commitment and professionalism in the domestic wilderness speaks volumes. - NK

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Roman's Army Conquers England

May be money can make a great team out of a decent team, even if it may not make 'Galacticos' of mortals. While Real Madrid have bought one player after another in a somewhat pompous display of financial muscle and have virtually got nothing to show for it, Chelsea are now on the verge of a triple crown after following a similar path. With one critical difference perhaps - Chelsea under Roman Abramovic have been trying to become the best in the business, while Real have seemed more focus on being the most high profile club. While the likes of Damien Duff, Joe Cole and Didier Drogba, all acquired at considerable expense, have made stellar contributions to the Chelsea cause, Michael Owen has spent most of his time trying to keep his electric feet warm. Perhaps therein lies the secret, although there is no fairy tale here. The odd small club will have sporadic success, the big clubs continue to rule the roost. The salary cap system is still alien to European football. Not all of Chelsea's money has been prudently spent. Hernan Crespo and Juan Veron are out on loan. Claudio Ranieri, who couldn't take the club to the next level that the aggressive new ownership aspired for, had to be paid a hefty severance fee. Chelsea fans could care less. Their team has played magnificently all season and there has been no end of the season stumble that the odd skeptic may have expected. They are favourites away against Liverpool, which says volumes for their form and squad strength. Fittingly, the 'league-winning' goals were scored by their talismanic mid-fielder Frank Lampard, who has played an amazing number of games this year (56, I think of which Chelsea won 40) at the top level. John Terry was a tremendous presence in the defence - he is outstanding in the air and has become one of the most authoritative figures in defence anywhere. With him around, I'm not sure why Chelsea are desperate (apparently) for Rio Ferdinand's services. More than any of the players though, this was all about Jose Mourinho. To win the league in his very first season in the Premiership (and seemingly back up his arrogant prophecy) is nothing less than extra-ordinary. After all, Roman needed an able general to command his crack troops. - NK