Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Aussie Open hangover

As I may have mentioned in these pages, I was quite upset at not being able to secure any Australian Open tickets. The closest I got to the action was being on the same pavement/sidewalk as Max Mirnyi on Collins Street, the night before his clash against Roger Federer. However, that didn't stop me from actually following and more importantly, enjoying it to the hilt. I have never been to the other slams, and knowing the traditions of Wimbledon and Roland Garros, those are probably marvellous places to be. What I do know is that the interest level among Melburnians (or is that Melbournians?) is something to be seen to be believed. The city is all abuzz with talk of the open, and everyone seems to be scurrying to the venue. I guess that certainly was the case this year, because most days set daily attendance records. Quite an achievement, considering it was pretty hot a few of the days, especially the first Sunday. Anyhow. It's all over now, and that's that. Federer in second gear was good enough most of the time. He was stretched a few times, but I do believe he was way below his best in those patches. He seemed to suffer a little bit from the lack of motivation, although his emotional outburst after receiving the trophy from Rod Laver belied it. Who, apart from a healthy Marat Safin, can mount a serious challenge to Federer? Federer himself, I would think. Staying motivated and fit for a sustained period is a challenge that some of the greatest have not been able to deal with. It'll be interesting for sure, to look at where Federer is about five years from now and look back. At the end of it all, here are a few snippets that I came across and enjoyed reading. CNN/SI's Jon Wertheim has increasingly become one of my tennis go-to guys and he's at it again with a great write-up about fifty little things that interested him. You can also find the story on Yahoo Sports, which is where I first noticed it. Fifty might seem an intimidating number, but trust me, this is a fun read. Here's the endearing story of a 'knitting granny' who was offered Australian Open tickets for her troubles. I can't help thinking - I wish this was the way our cricket officials thought. No wonder the Aussie Open is such a premier event. Lastly, this wonderfully poignant story, by Simon Hart of The Age, of the price Marcos Baghdatis and his family have had to pay so that he could get closer to realising his dreams. A word of thanks to Channel 7, The Age and The Herald Sun for their wondeful coverage of the Open. Now, only if we could have a little bit less of the ultra slow-motion replays - Vin Maskell of The Age thinks exactly that, albeit in a slightly different context. Thanks to Cricinfo Blogs for the link. - NK

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Bang, Bang - yawn, yawn

After back-to-back series that strengthened the case for test cricket as the most engrossing form of the game, now we have what is essentially a throwback to the dreary 1980s. That was when India and Pakistan were more interested in not losing, rather than winning - or so the lore went. You can't blame these contemporary sides for not wanting to win. They're after all, creatures of an age where arguments have been put forward for curtailing the duration of test matches! The blame lies squarely with the curators or whoever prompted the curators to come up with these sleeping beauties, if at all anyone did (wink, wink, nudge, nudge). If there's been one consolation, it's the pace at which the runs have been scored. That's not surprising given the times, and not least given who have been wielding the jedis. Now comes Dhoni's match-saver (in theory, things could happen between now and the end of the day), entirely in keeping with the scheme of things. Despite Dhoni's heroics, this test really has belonged to Shahid Afridi, who belongs to that not-so-exclusive club of batsmen who simply love Indian bowling. Even given the featherbed tracks, I wonder if India had any specific plans for bowling to Afridi, given his well documented problems with short balls speared into his body at a height. That's not to take away any credit from Afridi, who's a magnificient and fearless striker and always an entertainment value. The problem is, there's been too much entertainment of only one kind this series. - NK

Hail the Clown Prince!

All of us tennis fans who're used to periodically bemoaning the lack of characters in the game, well, we can breathe easy now. I know John McEnroe is coming back for a bit of doubles, but that's not what I have in mind. I'm talking about Marcos Baghdatis. Funky hair, funky clothes, sense of humour, sense of theatre - well, the guy has a bit of all that. Oh, by the way, he can play tennis too - darn well. When he played Roger Federer in the third round last year, you could see the kid had talent. Plus he had the nerve not to be overwhelmed by the occasion or his opponent. Even given all that, what Baghdatis has achieved in this Australian Open is simply incredible. And he's done all that with style. He and his band of Greek-Cypriot-Lebanese entourage (although not quite his own) have infused life into on otherwise lacklustre men's draw ravaged by injuries and upsets (one of which Baghdatis was admittedly responsible for). There was a period in last night's match against Ljubicic where Baghdatis suddenly seemed to sense the enormity of the occasion and errors began creeping into his game. Now, there's no escaping for him - he knows he's playing the biggest game of his life on Australia Day, with the world in attendance. Can he perform? - NK

Swiss stars hang in

Roger Federer and Martina Hingis couldn't have had it more different the last three years, and here they are on familiar terrain, in the quarterfinals of a grand slam. Well, sort of familiar for Hingis. I'm sure she's still just taking it as it comes, and not setting herself any unreasonable goals. In fact, not even she herself would have envisioned making it this far. As someone mentioned (Jon Wertheim on CNN/SI I think), the draw has been kind to her mostly. Now she's looking at the real deal - taking on a red hot Clijsters, who may have had a niggle or two, but is still good enough to beat most women on the tour. Hingis has certainly not done her confidence any damage this past week or so, and that is great news for tennis fans. How she measures up against Clijsters will go a long way in her comeback not going the way of so many others. Make no mistake, she was beginning to be outhit by Samantha Stosur as the second set progressed, and was visibly tired. In fact, I would it put Stosur's loss down to her lack of experience in general and lack of big match experience in particular. She was a little overwhelmed by the expectations, perhaps that of her own, but certainly that of an expectant nation so desperate for some home-grown success. Hingis was only too relieved at her partner's predicament. If Hingis has been a model of calm and relaxed nerves, Federer has been increasingly weary of his burden, one suspects. Watching him in the final of the US Open having to dig deep against Agassi, it was quite clear Federer quite cherished the top spot, but the competitve fire seemed to have, of late, taken a bit of enjoyment out of the Swiss genius' game. He seems more and more conscious of the expectations around him, which is but natural. Luckily for him, he's still a bit better than all the other guys out there. The challengers are beginning to emerge from the shadows though, and are starting to believe in themselves more. Tommy Haas didn't for about two sets, and then suddenly out of nowhere mustered the spirit and strength to mount as serious a challenge as Federer is likely to come across this week. Once again, the competitive instincts took over when it mattered the most, but it will nevertheless give heart to the potential challenger. To be fair though, only Nalbandian and Ljubicic seem at all capable of pulling it off. - NK

The heat is on!

Not just metaphorically at the Australian Open this year. Consider that three consecutive days (or was it four?) the tournament officials thought it best to play under the safety of Salem steel. They better did that, because there was a very real chance that on Sunday a player or two could have collapsed on court. Even at 7pm it was oppressively hot, although very dry (thankfully), and it was almost as if someone was blowing flames in your face. I'm used to a bit of heat, but the last time I had to face anything of the kind was in the summer of 2002 in Kolkata. The heat isn't the thing, though, that has caused me grief. It's the fact that I couldn't get any tickets to the tennis itself, being late as I was. Tut, tut. There was the opportunity to pick up a ground pass and get some of the action on Margaret Court Arena or the show courts, but I'm glad I didn't. No, I'm not, but I'll use the heat excuse to console myself. Now there's only one resort, that fine online marketplace where you can get anything, although you're more likely to find Shane Warne's vomit than any finals tickets on sale at this stage of the open. Anyway. I still have a TV and it's all on free-to-air anyway. Thank goodness for that, 'cause my apt doesn't have anything but! Did I say this post was about tennis? In case you can't see, I'm sulking. - NK

Thursday, January 19, 2006

BCCI is up and running!

Some of the BCCI's recent moves sound suspiciously like they are part of the undoing of the Dalmiya legacy. I hope they are more than just that, and are well thought out long term policy decisions. As long term as they could be, given the BCCI's constitution. Securing the mega endorsement deals with Sahara Airlines and Nike is obviously beneficial to the team and the board (and by implication, the larger interests of the game in country, at least in theory), but the game in India hardly suffers from a lack of moolah. There are several things that need fixing - the selection fiascos could be a good area to start with, although, going by the way Mr.Pawar has kicked off, it will be more of the same we have seen in the past. So much for change. The real news is what the BCCI has been doing with the ICC mandated schedule. Or threatening to do, which is to make it totally irrelevant. On the face of it, there's logic behind some of what BCCI wants to do. Like not having the team tour overseas during the Oct-Mar months, which is basically the whole season in India. In a recent post, I made the case for a cricket calendar with fixtures that become the basis for a tradition a la the Boxing Day test. But I'm somewhat skeptical of the motives of the board when they are ready to tour Australia during the said period (agreed that our seasons more or less coinicide). It seems as if the whole rescheduling is an exercise in re-evaluating the revenue stream. I'm sure the board doesn't mind the team touring Pakistan either during the sacred months. All in all, I'm not comfortable with the way the BCCI is seeking to achieve what it says it wants to. However, I wouldn't be surprised if the ICC and BCCI sit down together to try and hammer out a compromise. No prizes for guessing who would be dictating terms there. - NK PS: I loved the logic of the unnamed board official who was articulating the real reasons for the cancellation of the NZ tour before the World Cup.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Sania out!

I was looking at Sania Mirza's draw, saw the potential second round opponent - Michaela Krajicek - and thought, there's danger! And lo and behold - Sania is out of the Australian Open. I was hoping to get to watch Sania, but the match was played during the working hours here Down Under. Darn! The Krajicek girl has been in fine form recently, and did very well in the Hopman Cup as well, playing a major role in the Netherlands making the final. Nevertheless, I expected Sania to pull through. Well, that's that. My favourite player on the women's tour - Venus Williams - is already out, dumped in the very first round, but there's still a lot to look forward to. Davenport, Sharapova and Mauresmo all look in fine form. Serena looked strange in the first round but seems to have found her groove somewhat - to be fair, Li Na (or is it Na Li?) is a pretty good player whose ranking doesn't do justice to her ability. Last year I watched Li Na take on Sharapova, perhaps in the second round, and she was clearly overwhelmed at the prospect and kept hitting it just long. But her groundstrokes looked well honed, as is so often the case with fringe players. The player that will be followed with most interest, though, is Martina Hingis. If she does half as well as she did before taking that long sabbatical, it will be a great accomplishment. There are whispers, some quite loud, that her comeback is doomed, not unlike so many others. I sincerely hope not, for Hingis brings to the tour a different dimension with her touch and clever use of the court. Her two main challenges remain the same - countering the massive power of the new generation of hitters (it's so easy to forget she herself is so young) and fitness. Hopefully, her extended holiday has solved the other problem - that of motivation. Venus was quite right in saying Hingis should be doing what she loves and does best - go out there and play as long as her body would allow it. - NK

Saturday, January 14, 2006

How do you do, Ms.Carillo?

Cricket commentators often talk about the game being a great leveller - add airline baggage services to the list. How else could I end up in the same queue as Mary Carillo? If that name doesn't ring a bell, well, suffice to say that Mary Carillo is one of the most recognisable voices in tennis, this side of Bud Collins. In the event, I reined myself in and saved Ms.Carillo the irritation of a fawning fan even as she was exasperated with her missing bags, but by then the damage was done, as I kept staring and thinking to myself, I know that face! She was extremely casually attired, a denim jacket and an orange something (slacks?) and looked suitably tired at the end of a 14-1/2 hour flight (mind you, she might have not flown what call 'cattle-class'). By the way, last year at the open, I ran into Bud Collins at a hotel near the tennis centre, so at this rate, my chances of running into John McEnroe in the year 2009 look very bright indeed. I just might need to extend my visa. Mary Carillo, for the uninitiated, was quite a good player herself in the '70s and reached a high ranking of 33 in singles. She had an illustrious partner in mixed-doubles who she won the French Open in '77 with. In turns out that she was also romantically involved with the said gentleman (I'll leave it to the visitors of this blog to have a go and guess that name - we are incredibly fond of quizzing on this blog, you see!). She has worked with basically every TV network in the USA on tennis and other sports and has covered pretty much everything in tennis. Plus, she is good - as good as they come. In any case, Mary Carillo's presence served to announce the impending Australian Open starting tomorrow, if I needed a reminder. Last year was the first time I watched a Grand Slam in person, and it was a memorable experience. It should be fun again this time, and I'll definitely be looking forward to supporting Sania, Mahesh and Leander. Ironically, now that Sania is seeded, she won't be running into the top guns early, so she'll mostly feature on the outside courts. Hopefully she'll at least get the Margaret Court Arena or one of the two show courts, considering her (desi) crowd pulling potential. The promo punch line for this year's championship says it right - Bring It On! - NK

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Home and Away

Mukul Kesavan always manages to get the point, and then puts it oh-so-well. Check out this piece from Cricinfo Magazine, where he tears apart the myths surrounding the sub-continental teams' home records. Ted Dexter's cries of 'it was the smog' still have a jarring echo to this day, ignoring of course the fact that his team were in fact a bunch of pussies who couldn't beat a club team. And then of course, there was the 'I gotta have baked beans and spaghetti' Shane Warne, although to his credit he never used such irritants as excuses (which is why he's the champion cricketer he is). In recent times men like Nasser Hussein and Steve Waugh, especially the latter, have done much to change the attitudes for the better, but old habits die hard. The English side displayed remarkable insensitivity and ignorance when complaining about being locked up in hotels or lack of 'nightlife' in reference to the upcoming Indian tour or their recent Pakistan tour. I'm all for objective assessments of team records, and the away records of India and Sri Lanka need much betterment (and that is an understatement), about that there is little doubt. But every time some English or Australian journalist talks about a Indian or Sri Lankan win as the outcome of a dustbowl, it's hard to digest. Thankfully, technology is changing the game, as it is elsewhere. There is no more talk of 'biased' umpiring, only bad umpiring. The sub-continent is no longer a mythical place where people get mysterious diseases. And that means the Kumbles will get their due as much as the Warnes or McGraths. A point to ponder, though: why isn't a Pakistan win viewed similarly? Let's not forget the umpiring bogey that they had to contend with, for a long time, though. Something which prompted Imran Khan to argue for neutral umpires. - NK

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Smith out-Punted

Graeme Smith's bold declaration has been, predictably so, hailed as courageous and as a positive step for South African cricket and the game in general. Justifiably so too, in my view. Though one suspects the same pundits, particularly Aussie writers/reporters/former players would have had a chuckle about the backfiring over a beer. Some newspapers went ahead and expressed their glee in fact, while others tried hard to suppress the smirk. Nevertheless, it was the only way South Africa could have won the game - considering they made it hard for themselves all series by not clinging on to chances as you would expect them to, and that the umpiring didn't go their way in this game. Kallis' apparent diffidence didn't help. No one would care if the team lost 1-0 or 2-0 anyway, a series loss is a series loss. Smith would have no doubt expected a much better effort (quality-wise) from his bowlers, but they faltered when it mattered the most. He wouldn't have counted on a lifetime performance from the Australian captain, though, and it was Ponting's brilliance as much as the blunt attack that felled the Proteas. Makhaya Ntini's absence had something to do with the bowling being somewhat lifeless, but Andre Nel was collared and that may have been when the Aussies started to look at the scoreboard. That young Botha was collared was much less surprising, and to add insult, he found himself on the dreaded list of bowlers with suspect actions. Ho hum. A trip to Perth beckons! The whole business has an air of a doosra to it, to be honest, but let's leave it to the honourable experts to come up with their certificates. As for the real Punter, he has been on the fringes of being bestowed greatness, but he hasn't quite seemed to belong to the elite echelons of the game. There has never been any doubt about his strokeplay, and his horizontal bat shots are some of the best one has ever seen. The blot has been the early-innings weakness outside the off-stump, and he didn't do himself great favours on the tour of India in 2001 with a nightmarish run. As recently as the Ashes where he was the one Aussie batsman who retained his reputation, he was regularly troubled and dismissed with the slightly-outside-off line. It would be picky in the extreme to deny Ponting the label of a great batsman, however, with his range of strokes, refreshing attacking play (I can only remember the Old Trafford innings where he curbed his instincts) and match-winning ability. Certainly in the context of the modern era, Ponting is not inferior to very many. - NK

Until next time

I was expecting to be in Melbourne for the traditional Boxing Day Test this season, but it wasn't to be. I got here the day the Sydney test started off, so my Boxing Day Test pictures will have to wait another year. The rate at which 2005 disappeared from the sight, thanks to a lot of work (and VB and good Belgian beer, may be) indicates that may not seem a long time. But then, after almost three months in the homeland, I was an almost reluctant passenger; I couldn't have it both ways, could I? Which brings me to the question of why the Boxing Day test holds such an attraction for me? Answer: we don't have a Boxing Day Test or Diwali Day or for that matter, any traditional fixture on the calendar in India. Which brings us to another dreaded question - do we have any cricketing tradition worth the name? Neither do we have any spectator facilities worth the term, so even genuine lovers of the game who love the atmosphere (I was mesmerized by the Eden Gardens the first time I was there in 1996-97) lose interest in going to games pretty quickly. That hardly constitutes a problem at the turnstiles because of the endless interest in the game, so the administrators do nothing more than install floodlights (with an eye on fixtures, one suspects). In the context, the spruced up Kotla in Delhi was a pleasant surprise, especially given the DDCA's poor record and/or image. May be we'll, after all, have our own Diwali Test or Republic Day Test, which will command a place on sports fans' calendars. And make us hanker less for a trip to Melbourne or Lord's. - NK

Monday, January 02, 2006

Styris has a point

When I read in the papers (actually, it was Cricinfo, I think) what Scott Styris had to say about batting technique, my first and overwhelming reaction was that of relief. Finally, someone had the courage to go ahead and say what a lot of us may have thought in private. No doubt some of the experts would have too, but they were always a little cagey about it, not wanting to be seen as cricketing-ly incorrect. Is footwork, or the importance of getting it absolutely right (per the traditional schools of thought) overrated? Styris thinks so, and I couldn't agree with him more. Even as we see the Sehwags, and the Jayasuriyas shred bowling attacks to smithereens, in a fashion not very unlike that of the village bully, we are told by the pundits of the game time and again about the still head, high elbow and so on and so forth. It is clear to anyone who has watched the game keenly enough that for many of the modern players, getting footwork right in the conservative manner isn't all that important. Now, there still are players who keep their head still, get their foot to the pitch of the ball and have a high-elbow follow through (yawn, yawn), and mostly they are successful (though not all), but the unorthodox batsmen seem to have had an equal share of success of late. So much so that the notion of what constitutes orthodox or otherwise is a bit confusing. It is also a noticeable trend that when batsmen do get away with it, and score an attractive looking boundary, no one seems to notice deficiencies in footwork. When Ganguly gets out playing away from the body, which is how he also gets most of his boundaries on the off-side, his technique is scrutinised to the core. When he pulls it off, of course, he's the offside God. Some of the greatest cricketers have actually been quite unorthodox. For all Viv Richards' greatness, no one can say with any conviction that he followed any coaching manual. Lala Amarnath's example is another that comes to mind, bowled as he did off the wrong foot. It worked for him, and that's what it's all about, everyone has his own little things which do the trick for him. But pundits will be pundits, so we shall just sit back and watch Sehwag throw his wicket away to wide deliveries outside the off-stump. - NK