Tuesday, May 30, 2006

It wasn't entirely unexpected

I could be accused of being wise in hindsight here, but let me say honestly that I expected India to struggle in the West Indies. Don't ask me why, but I just had a gut feeling that the team was not going to live up to expectations or rankings. Something about the side doesn't seem right. I'm being very vague here, but that sums up how I felt at the onset of the one-day series. Of course I did not expect them to be hammered 4-1. On the contrary, I expected to limp to a 3-2 win or something similar. That India finished on the wrong end of a couple of close games pretty much sealed the deal for Brian Lara's side. In the aftermath of the stunning world cup triumph in 1983, many analysts pointed to the win over the mighty West Indies led by Clive Lloyd at Berbice, where Sunny Gavaskar and Kapil Dev two of their best innings. In fact, some of the players involved themselves pointed at that game as being a real confidence booster. India were thumped overall, but given their dismal one-day record thus far, it was a seminal moment. The next world cup is still quite some time away, so this may not be as critical to the team's fortunes, but it seems ominous somehow and brings soaring expectations crashing down to earth. I didn't expect miracles here, but the win in Pakistan was quite creditable, especially the manner in which the wins were secured, often reducing the Pakistanis to despair. This after the disastrous Karachi test. It's now back to square one. It's funny how the tables can turn so quickly. The same worthies who were hyping up the Chappell-Dravid 'combo' are now singing a different. The reality is that both our batting and bowling look fragile and the bowling has looked fragile for quite some time now. Some magnificent batting performances helped paper over those cracks, and now that the batsmen didn't do the job, the team struggled mightily against a West Indies side that is easily the worst among the test nations barring the real minnows. No doubt there will be a lot said about how well the West Indians played, and I do think they have some great talent in Gayle, Sarwan and Bravo, but to me it is still a pathetic side that was roundly trashed by one and all in its own backyard. That we could win only one out of five is nothing short of catastrophic. Sachin Tendulkar still remains the one player who can single handedly win a game and can also instill real fear into the opposition. Virender Sehwag did play a couple of substantial innings, but the fact is that was a pleasant surprise considering his wishy-washy form in one-day cricket in recent times. With Sourav Ganguly having waned as a batsman and now hounded out of reckoning (why should he be made a pariah?), we seem to have a real problem of lack of solidity. The one silver lining, if that phrase can indeed be employed in the context of such a pathetic performance, was the bowling of Ajit Agarkar. I have had some uncharitable things to say about the Mumbai bowler, not entirely without justification, but he has redeemed himself in recent one-day series and bowled superbly right through the Sri Lanka and South Africa series. He harassed the out of form Sanath Jayasuriya no end, which is more than can be said of any Indian bowler with the exception of Javagal Srinath. The experiment with Rahul Dravid at the top of the order, in my opinion, is a hopeless gamble. Unlike other converted openers, Dravid is neither a natural striker nor one who can rotate the strike fluently regardless of the state of the game or the nature of the surface and can get bogged down every now and then. That he has emerged in recent times as one of the premier one-day batsmen in the world is a testament to his determination and skill, but to expect him to perform this role is going one step too far. He may yet prove us wrong, but I will be surprised if that experiment is not jettisoned before the world cup. One other question. If VVS Laxman was found to be out of tune with the requirements of the contemporary one-day game, especially given his proclivity for trouble with running between the stumps, how does the rotund Romesh Powar get into the scheme of things? Cricinfo even had an article romanticising his portly built, suggesting he was one of the last amateurs. What utter nonsense! - NK

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Return of the prodigals

That Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen have had a large part to play in England's resurgence as a cricket force is stating the obvious. They have brought not only their array of skills, especially the supremely gifted Flintoff, to the cricket field, but also enlivened proceedings with their energy, enthusiasm and a seeming love of life. Other contemporary cricketers of whom the same could be said, apart from the incorrigible Shane Warne, are probably Andrew Symonds, Brett Lee, Yuvraj Singh and perhaps Mahendra Singh Dhoni. One might have been tempted to add Andre Nel to that list only if he weren't so infuriatingly irritating with his childish antics. The Flintoff-Pietersen/Warne-Lee confrontations in the Ashes were some of the best contests cricket fans have seen for a while - intense and skillful with no quarter conceded to the other. To top it all, the battles were fought in the best of spirits, something that cannot be taken for granted, to be savoured while they last. To be sure, apart from Warne - and Pietersen to a lesser extent - none of those gentlemen are larger than life in the Richards/Botham mould. Legend has it that the great all-rounder once broke a bed while making love to a mistress on a tour of the Caribbean. King Richards admitted fathering a child with an Indian actress, apparently another of his dalliances. Those stories seem somewhat jarring in today's context of professional cricketers and cricket boards that would love to have their cricketers be well behaved dogs. Not that uncouth on-field sledging is ever desirable - despite many protestations from the Aussies, one fails to see how it does not sully the game. As Sunny Gavaskar has pointed out repeatedly, banter is okay, sledging not. A typical example would be that legendary banter between Rod Marsh and Ian Botham, who was queried by the Aussie keeper "How's your wife and my kids?". I am yet to find anyone who has taken offence at that joke. Of course, diverse cultural contexts mean that the manner of banter has to stay within acceptable boundaries - not those of the larger society, but of the sporting subculture. That brings up the question of what should be considered acceptable. Do we like our sporting icons to be Zen Masters a la Sachin Tendulkar or Pete Sampras or Michael Schumacher? Apart from Tendulkar, none of the other two have touched the hearts of the public in the same way that say an Agassi, McEnroe, Botham, Becker or Maradona has. We need the full milieu of characters - the good mama's boy in the Rahul David mould, uttering all the right things into the microphone even when it sounds somewhat like a corporate press release and the seemingly arrogant Shane Warne when he says John Bracewell "has no idea". History is witness to the fact that much like matinee idols, we like our sporting icons the most when they display even a trace of vulnerability, basically showing their humane side. Which is probably why towards the end of his illustrious career, people did warm up to Sampras and offered him the respect that he so justly deserved. Ivan Lendl, on the other hand, was never taken to heart. It is, of course, a personal choice for athletes - who in the end are entertainers if nothing else - as to whether they should wear their hearts on their sleeves or retreat into a zone that enables them to solely concentrate on 'the job'. But Lendl never did try. In the current context of intense media scrutiny and seemingly puritanical (needless to say hypocritical) attitudes as to how athletes should conduct their life, is there any room for maneouvre for larger than life characters? The way Shane Warne has been hounded and called sundry derogatory things is a pointer to such attitudes. What business is it of ours to find out who he indulged in debauchery with, or even if he did indulge? The easy thing to do is to dismiss it all and say there is a price to be paid in public life, in fact I have held that view myself. But it looks as if the rest of the world is the one that is the voyeur. Another example was when people went so far as to say Andrew Symonds did not have any national pride when he had a night out and broke the team curfew. He transgressed, he was punished in cricketing terms. Should have been the end of the story. Closer home, there have been the odd slanderous stories about Azharuddin (pre match fixing) and Ganguly involving their love life, but thankfully the media did not go too far. But who needs a hounding media when an omnipotent cricket board lays down rules that dictate every single aspect of a cricketer's career? Thankfully, they have desisted from moral preaching thus far. One can only hope they stay that way, or else we may as well have a game with androids. - NK

Friday, May 12, 2006

Beyond Boundaries

Reading "Fever Pitch" has been one of the most pleasurable experiences I have had. Anyone who's read the book knows it is not your average sports book. It captures the entire life of Nick Hornby with football and Arsenal just being the perfectly weird backdrop. In the end, however, I had to ask myself if I could ever be an obsessed fan of a team or a club the same way Hornby was before he found enlightenment, as many sports fans are today (I'm not sure if it was ever different). Why would I hate Manchester United or Liverpool (them scouses!) forever? Surely, it is the football that matters? I guess one of the defining characters of sport are the fans. To an extent, sport would lose some of the passion, the 'human angle' if people were just satisfied with a peach of a goal, a la Maradona, even when it hurts their team. But then, years later, who remembers Terry Butcher or Ray Wilkins? What we all remember is the Hand of God and the feet of Maradona. So in essence, that is what it was all about, all along. Which brings us to why we love sport, any sport, in the first place. Personally, I love cricket because it reminds me of some of the better moments in my life, both as a player (at whatever level) and as an observer. Without a doubt, the first of the two is the dominant factor. The smell of the leather, the winter mornings in India with the dew still fresh, the feel of grass, the sweet touch of a well oiled bat (in the good old days), a beefy clout, the ball lodging nicely in the palms at slip or the rattle of the stumps, sometimes even when I was the victim. That's what it's all about, for me. Growing up, I never wanted the West Indies to lose, even when they were playing India. The brand of cricket the West Indians played was pure nirvana, and in my judgement, they deserved to win it for that reason alone. Never mind that most of the time there was never a predicament. That is also why my idol was Kapil Dev, who at the best of times was not a calculating individual. In a way, I tried to find bits of myself in the players and the cricket they played, which is why I could never bring myself to admire Graham Gooch or Kepler Wessels, for instance. Why then, do I wonder, are people obsessed with 'their' team? When I lived in Manchester at the turn of the century, I hated the club and was generally thrilled when they lost, which was a moment to savour considering they hardly ever did. But I like the club now, and admire their achievements over the years. I am not particularly enamoured of their style, and I may never like them as much as I love Brazil. But that's how it is; your love or lack of it for a team should be a consequence of the way they play the sport, rather than just parochial considerations. It also means that my support for the Indian cricket team is not a granted thing - they have to play particularly well to win it (the thing is, you win most of the time if you play with a certain skill level). May be the good baron Pierre de Coubertin saw it through all. The olympic ideal is the one to imbibe. - NK

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Getting a grip on reality

It's unusually cold for this time of the year in Melbourne tonight, and somehow I was reminded of India's loss to New Zealand in the 1992 World Cup. That game was played in the southern most cricket ground in the world, the Carisbrook Park in Dunedin, and was a miserably cold day. Compounding matters was the dismal Indian top order throughout the tournament, but it was when we bowled that the situation became somewhat farcical. Both Kapil Dev and Manoj Prabhakar, who were splendid throughout the Australian tour and the World Cup itself, struggled to hold the ball firmly and get a grip, such was the cold. The ball was wiped every now and then, and saw dust was used, I think, to help matters (I have a vague remembrance of the game). Kapil and Prabhakar both went for runs, and if it wasn't for Javagal Srinath's heartening performance, it would have been a humiliation instead of a simple rout. It hammered home, for the first time, how conditions overseas could affect our team. One had got used to visitors to the subcontinent complaining of the heat, among other things, and how it was sometime the one factor that decided the fate of the game. Thanks to the organisation/structure of the global media establishment, and our English connections, we always got that perspective drilled into our minds. It was only much later when Sunny Gavaskar, bless his polemic soul, attempted to educate the cricketing public in India on the matter through his columns, that I could relate to the Dunedin game fully. Gavaskar has often written about the unsatisfactory accommodation and hospitality that could at best be described as lukewarm on tours of England, to the point where he seems to have been stuck in the past. It is nevertheless important to understand that context to appreciate his recent comments regarding complaints about the amount of cricket from the cricketing as well as media circles. In conditions that render that much abused term, acclimatisation, meaningless, the one thing that motivates a player is pride - personal and national. Needless to say, Gavaskar had oodles of both - perhaps to a fault on the first count - and the results have been recorded for posterity. It is common knowledge, and common sense, that there is too much and needless cricket at the moment and that has to change. But it is important to realise where Gavaskar (or Javed Miandad, for that matter) is coming from, before making any snide remarks about the past masters being romantics of a bygone era. By the way, I have never understood why anyone would want to play a 2-match or a 4-match series. The cricket board of India and Pakistan, of course, are better equipped to handle the question in their infinite wisdom, but it sure beats me. I'm sure it hasn't escaped anyone that India plays a disproportionate number of series with an even number of games. - NK

Can the brother get some love?

We all know the old Indian fable about something becoming the truth by repeated assertion. This phenomenon seems to have manifested itself subtly in the NBA, where regardless of whatever he does, Kobe Bryant remains a grudgingly admired superstar. Someone with skills that even the most elite of players in the league can only envy, and have to acknowledge that they're just a gift that only he has, among his contemporaries at least. Living in Melbourne and not being hooked up to cable television has meant that I have had only very fleeting glimpses of NBA action this season, but have managed to be somewhat tuned in. And the one thing that has stood out for me is Bryant's performance. To be fair, I wasn't exactly enamoured of Bryant in the whole Shaquille O'Neal-Phil Jackson drama following their humiliation against Detroit in the 2004 final, not to mention the ugly sexual assault scandal. In hindsight, it seems the media and public at large were happy to see their image of Bryant as an arrogant, self-centred brat reinforced and he was swiftly and unfairly judged. In the end, it turned out to be one of those encounters gone wrong, possibly one of many such episodes in contemporary American society. In fact, I was somewhat gleeful at the Lakers' plight last season and rejoiced when Miami clinched that unforgettable game on Christman eve (or was it on Christmas Day?). I knew all along, however, that Bryant was a special player, regardless of whatever he was as a person, which frankly is irrelevant unless it has a direct bearing on the sport or fans. But just like Shane Warne, his supposed character flaws will possibly haunt him till the very end of his career. Or at least that is how I read it. And then there is this whole idea of being a team man, which is quite often taken to ridiculous extents in American sport. So what better way to nail Bryant than to expose him as a selfish, ball-hungry guard who only cares about his PPG? Never mind that the PPG is a small matter of 35, and that without Bryant, the Lakers would have disappeared without a trace this season. Given the compelling arguments, there is another trick that comes in handy for pundits - prop up someone else, especially if someone as good as Lamar Odom is around, someone who's happy to be the number two and is apparently not obsessed with stardom. Now eulogise his contributions, if only to make a little dent in Bryant's own. Combine all that with a mediocre team record, and Bryant is well and truly out of the MVP race. I have the utmost admiration for Steve Nash and he was well and truly the MVP last season, and definitely a contender this season, but why does Bryant get sidelined so ruthlessly (to be honest, my vote is for Nowitzki)? One just has to read between the lines. It's all one big organised circus, the NBA. - NK