Thursday, September 27, 2007

Fantastic Federer - A good read

As I entered a 35 year old Air India aircraft headed for Kolkata, it felt like stepping back into the 18th century. All other things excluded, I soon realized that without that modern and very essential amenity;the personal TV Panel;it was going to be a big challenge for an inflight-insomniac like me to spend all of 9 hrs aboard that pre-historic ship. Thanks to Chris Bowers' book, things turned out to be better! The book, as the title suggests is a biography of Roger Federer; updated till 2006. It is not - by any stretch of imagination - a classic, but without any input from Federer himself, Bowers, a tennis journalist, has compiled an interesting piece of sports literature. Things are probably made easier by the fact that his subject is Roger Federer, but then again, it could have ended up being as matter of fact as some of Federer's victories! Instead we get interesting insight and anecdotes from people close to him; friends Yves Allegro and Marco Chiudinelli, his first coach Seppli Kacovsky and many other people who were witness to the moulding of this great champion.It also gives a poignant account of his relationship with Peter Carter, the Australian coach, who had the most influence on Federer during his budding years. Federer's eventful association with the Swiss Davis Cup team is also well documented. Bowers has presented a reasonably researched acccount of Federer's childhood and adolescence, and has throughout the book, maintained a fine balance between Federer the boy (man) and Federer the prodigy (champion). Setting the narrative against the backdrop of Swiss tennis as a whole, adds to the flavour of the book. A few pictures - especially one in which Federer dyed his hair blonde for the Orange Bowl - speak louder than words about the evolution of Federer as we see him on court now. I would prefer to leave the negatives to the reader because it totally depends on what you expect from an unofficial biography such as this.As for me, I got more than I bargained for. My dwindling reading habit meant that I took more time to finish the book than I would have, say 10 years back. And interspersed with meals and short naps, it saved me the travails of sitting through the seemingly endless flight.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

An ode to the media

I was pondering upon a friendly argument I once had with a couple of my colleagues during our 40 minute drive from Cardiff to the Welsh Water office in Nelson. The moot point of the discussion was that the Indian sports media was throwing the entire limelight upon the game of cricket and giving a cold shoulder to all the other sporting disciplines. While each of the ten million one-dayers that India plays in a year manages to get prime coverage, Anju George's world cup feats are a mere footnote. If a Tendulkar hundred is full page material, Anup Sridhar defeating Taufiq Hidayat is lesser than a paragraph! So far so good. However, the argument was actually on a corollary;that this media bias is the reason why other sports were not doing well in India. And another that cricket is undeserving of all the attention it gets. I will take up my case from these statements. There are no two ways about the fact that cricket, and cricketers, are the most hyped commodities in India today. But you just cannot ignore the fact that it is the only team sport right now where India can compete with the best in the world. Never mind that cricket is played by a handful of nations. As a matter of fact, so is field hockey. So is Rugby. And Basketball. And many others. Does that fact prevent any of these sports from being big? Soccer is probably the only sport which enjoys universal appeal. All other team sports are played in geographical or cultural pockets.Hence, there is no harm in backing your only national team which can lock horns with the best in the world. Naturally, the Indian sports media has no options other than cricket to boost their economics. So they dish out generous helpings; and we lap it up. Of course, by no means does it justify the utter disdain shown to other sports by the media on some ocassions. The media, across the universe, is married to success. And money is a spin-off of this union. However, the media cannot make or break a sport in a country. It is the system which is always responsible for the same. Look at the West Indies, for example. Could anyone, even in their wildest dreams, have seen Caribbean cricket reach the nadir that it is going through? Fact is, when they dominated cricket in the eighties, they just sat back and enjoyed, failing to see the simple fact that the greats would not go on forever.There had to be a second line, in order to sustain their success. The same could be said of hockey in India. And about Squash in Pakistan.In sports, you simply cannot survive on heritage and tradition.Not for too long, that is! For years now Indian soccer and field hockey have been one man circus shows. While hockey shows ocassional flashes of our past glory, soccer continues to flounder in the abysmal trough of Mohun Bagan-East Bengal games. Other than some recent symptoms of sanity shown by our hockey chief, the game has been generally toyed around with during the last few years. Players have been dropped for reasons other than the game; coaches have been replaced at the drop of a hat; winning combinations have been disturbed and so on. In spite of all these, whenever the hockey team did well, the media has been positive and overwhelming in their support. Even the PHL is extremely well covered; so what are we complaining about? Hockey has to take the next step to reap better rewards from sponsors and the media - which is consistent success at the world level. Backed up by consistent initiatives from the governing body. Cricket took these massive steps in the eighties; the team by winning the world cup in 1983; the BCCI by hosting the world cup in 1987 and subsequently effecting a shift of power to Asia. That's when the sponsors (led by Reliance) started coming in and cricket exploded into its current form. Notably, even before that, India had superstars like Sunny Gavaskar and Kapil Dev and yet, the game was never as big. Which only proves that for one sport to become a media obsession, performance by the team and promotion by the organization are the only two factors. The rest merely follow. Indian soccer is a whole different story. With the absolute lack of any serious or thoughtful initiatives to raise the level of the game, the players should count their lucky stars that there are a few loyalists, who out of sheer love for the game, still throng the galleries. And for the fact that the league is still covered by both the print and television media. In reality, going by the level of the game, it is no better than the Indian basketball league; ever heard of that? Sometimes even media attention cannot give enough fillip to a game. So While Bjorn Borg was able to usher in a generation of Swedish tennis players, the same cannot be said about India where Mahesh and Leander got enough success and limelight in the late nineties. Vijay Amritraj and Ramesh Krishnan were darlings of the media in the seventies and eighties. So is Sania Mirza,although for her, it is more of the limelight (and sometimes undue). Still, tennis contuinues to be an elitist sport in India."A", because of practical reasons, as the sport is a very expensive proposition. And "B" because tennis, not being a traditional Indian sport, it may take a couple of generations to bridge that psychological gap. Another empirical truth we all have to accept is the glamour quotient in sports. Some sports are high in it and some are low. The reasons are fuzzy and cannot always be exactly pointed out. It could be because of the viewer-friendliness of the sport. It could be about the reach of the sport. It could be a whole gamut of reasons.Badminton can never draw as much media attention as Lawn Tennis. Similarly, Volleyball can never be as popular as Basketball.Wrestling can never match Boxing.So Lin Dan, however many All Englands he may win, will never be Roger Federer. The Brazilian Volleyball team, with as many championships as it wins, will never be as popular as their footballers.Its funny but its a fact. All said and done, media polarization towards one sport or a group of sports happens in every country. Yet, in genuine sporting nations, it does not hinder the growth of any other game.Take Australia as a sporting nation. Do you think Field hockey gets as much coverage in that country as Cricket? Or does Soccer get as much attention as Rugby? Yet, in the former they are the world champions. And in the latter, they play in the World Cup. Consider the USA. The country crazy about NBA, NHL, MLB and NFL;which still needs a David Beckham to stir up media interest in soccer. And yet, it plays in the FIFA World Cup! It is, in fact a pity and an embarassment that in India today, it takes an uninspiring, run-of-the-mill movie like Chak De India to stir up interest in hockey. That it needs a shallow character of Kabir Khan and not the genius of Dhyan Chand or Md. Shahid to inspire this generation to pick up hockey sticks.Our hockey federation should be hanging their heads in shame as it only reflects their total failure to keep the rich tradition alive. And the media can take a bow - at least they tried! -BBS

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Cricket da saaga

About a week ago, Rahul Dravid, much to everybody's surprise, quietly stepped down from the Indian captaincy. Going by precedent, the Indian media should have been having a field time by now; gorging on whatever the rumour mill provided them with. Fortunately (and thankfully), things are different this time. So much so that it borders on the uncomfortable! I mean I would rate Dravid's resignation as one of the biggest shocks to have come in the last few years of Indian cricket. Add the fact that it came without any foreboding, speculation or spectacle. And all you get as reactions are civilized talk shows (like the one Sonali Chander does on NDTV)? No mudslinging. No leaked e-mails. No disowned quotes. No blamegame. No passing the buck. Not many anonymous opinions. Whats the matter guys? Wake up and smell the spices. Without them, the cury doesn't taste half as good! I am a novice at how the Indian cricket-media machinery operates. Whom it feeds. And who it feeds off. And It only makes me wonder whether the protagonists of this "K-Serial-like" Indian cricket opera and the media are more often than not, hand in glove. But it looks like a done deal. The latter keeps the former in the news. And the former keeps the latter in the business. Finally a word for the main act of this episode - Dravid himself. Hats off to him for cutting the crap. And going about the whole issue in his characteristic dignified way. I admittedly am not the greatest fan of his game; and he may not be the greatest of captains, but his character and integrity are things which not many of our "great" captains and cricketers can match.Way to go, Rahul! -BBS

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Ascent of Sport

It is with a degree of amusement that I took in comments from the mandarins representing the ICL which they presented as a genuine alternative to the oppressive BCCI umbrella that takes practically every Indian cricketer under its wing whether one likes it or not. Now we have the IPL - I haven't quite been tuned in and so I'm not sure if this was a response to ICL or if it's been on the drawing board. More likely, it's the latter. In the recent past, the prevailing wisdom has been that international cricketers play too much cricket - a view echoed by national team regulars and pundits alike. Now there is an additional format, which probably means more, not less, cricket. Not unlike many questions about sport, the answer to whether too much cricket is good or bad is not as clear cut as some would like to believe, if one were to put aside personal biases. Anyhow. The emergence of Twenty20 and the seeming eagerness to take the format to audiences seems to be part of a larger trend in sport. Sport today is nothing if not mass entertainment, fueled as it is by the same agency - pervasive mass media and so has opened itself up to the same forces of industrialisation / commoditisation. This is of course commonly and intuitively understood by most. However, sport and entertainment both suffer from the same predicament, to varying degrees. Both sport and other forms of entertainment have or have had pretensions of rising above mediocrity and striving for excellence. The glamorous lifestyles, celebrity and wealth were but a by product of the artistic or athletic endeavour, or so we were told. And still are. This view is prevalent not so much among the target audiences (the masses), but among the artistic or intellectual elites within the establishment (former players, commentators, critics etc.) and connoisseurs in the general population. Simply put, the utopian fantasies nurtured about sport are incompatible with the processes that have been set in motion and the force that drives sport and other mass entertainment - television audiences (at the moment). Critics complaining about the establishment pandering to the lowest common denominator are missing the point - this approach alone can sustain the establishment, given its goals - the 'good of the game' etc. has nothing to do with these, contrary to their assertions and lip service from every athlete who knows where the cheques come from. That brings us to the question of what is really 'good for the game/sport', which is in itself a moot point depending on who you ask. There is a presumption here - the institutionalised form of the game has become synonymous with the game itself. It is as if cricket will cease to exist if there are no ICC promoted jamborees in a dozen countries and countless other leagues etc. This is the leap that sport has made in the popular consciousness, from a personal or communal recreation tool to that of an industry, one that promises to deliver a seemingly endless stream of thrills. One is tempted to say cheap thrills, but I guess that is self-evident, as with most commercial cinema or chart busting music. Whether Twenty20 is a 'push' or 'pull' product is immaterial (I'm not sure either way) - it is an opportunity for enterprising investors if it does indeed succeed. Hopefully there are some positive outcomes - instead of seven hours of mindless entertainment, perhaps we will only have three. - NK

Monday, September 10, 2007

India wins Asia Cup...What now?

Roger Federer was not the only one to win 7 back-to-back matches during the last fortnight. Indian men did the same in winning the Asia Cup Hockey tournament; beating South Korea 7-2 in the final. Although - as is obvious from the name of the tournament - the top hockey teams were not competing and Pakistan had sent an experimental second string side, it is definitely a positive for Indian hockey. More than the trophy, it is the string of 7 victories that should encourage the optimists. We have often found Indian teams from the recent past messing up against lesser opponents. Also impressive was the relentless goal scoring against the minnows because as much as you are expected to win there, its very easy to lapse into indifference in these games;it is a test of a teams' hunger for goals. I sincerely hope that this victory is an indication of things to come. However, I would not be surprised if it isn't - just like so many other times in the recent past when Indian hockey has looked to be on an upswing;only to subsequently fall by the wayside. The teams were played around with, clutch players were mysteriously "rested" and all these resulted in the entire momentum being destroyed in a matter of months.The IHF could do better by being a bit transparent about its policies and procedures. So that we wouldn't have to speculate about the answers to some obvious questions. Why is Gagan Ajit Singh out of the Indian team? That too despite being the highest scorer in the PHL and having scored 8 goals in 5 matches in the Dutch league. How come players like Deepak Thakur are higly in demand in the German League (he has been signed up by the Stutgaart Kickers along with Viren Rasquinha and VS Vinaya) but do not find a place in the Indian National team? How is Sandeep Singh making news in Germany while the Indian team plays the Asia Cup? What has the IHF done for Jugraj Singh's full recovery? These and many questions bother the Indian hockey follower. Only when these questions are answered and other such issues addressed, is the game going to re-emerge from the muck that it is in, right now. Indian Hockey needs to come out of murky waters and breathe in some fresh air. For that we need lungs. Gills wont do. -BBS

Thursday, September 06, 2007

So Long Jimbo!

This is what I expect to hear from Andy Roddick in the next few days; after he ruminates over his most recent loss to Roger Federer. If he doesn't, he seriously needs some perspective. Roddick's game yesterday - though highly praised by the American (and maybe other) media - was a huge disappontment. I mean, how do I differentiate this supposedly marquee match-up with the ones that Roger played against Lopez or even Isner? Truth is, I cannot. Because, for Federer, it was Business as Usual. And Just like he had observed before the match, Andy had no new cards up his sleeve; absolutely nothing on the table to match Roger's hand. And that's what surprises me, because with Jimbo around to coach him, you expect better. Jimmy Connors was no genius with the tennis racket, but he was and is still considered to be one of the best returners that the game has ever seen. And coincidentally, that's exactly what Roddick needed yesterday to create any chances for himself. He was serving big; in fact very big. But without a returning game it simply wasn't enough to get him the V. There was absolutely no game plan on how to attack Federer's second serve. Returning, to a large extent, is instinctive;in fact Federer's massive return in the second set breaker at 4 all was an example of that; but there has to be a hint of an effort. Sadly, there was none. Instead what Jimbo has passed on is his crowd-hustling antics; the fist-pumping, the glare, the vocality and other such paraphernalia. Jimbo should know better. In his time, with the same theatrics, Connors lost 11 of his last 12 matches against McEnroe, despite the latter being psychologically vulnerable. Simply because he did not have the game to match McEnroe's; it's another matter that Jimbo never wanted to admit that. Federer is mentally much stronger than McEnroe. It is probably the only thing that separates the two geniuses and the reason why Federer will end up winning plenty more than McEnroe did. And its also why Roddick cannot beat him with sheer chutzpah. Rodick should be looking incessantly for that elusive Federer chink or a weapon which can back up his big serving. Bring an X-factor into his game; something which Rafa has. Connors has not been able to help him with that. In fact, there's nothing new in Roddicks game that Connors has brought about. Nothing that he has made better. The partnership is a total failure. Probably Roddick needs someone like McEnroe to coach him, someone who can think like a genius and tell him a few hitherto unknown secrets on how to unravel Roger Federer. -BBS

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Chronicles of Roddick

Its the same story again. Minus the Hype. Federer vs. Roddick. US Open Quarter Finals, 2007. Patrick McEnroe commented that this time "Andy has a shot!". I can excuse him for trying to pep up his Davis Cup spearhead.However he has to be really naive to start thinking "upset" or anything remotely close to that. All my reasons for predicting a Roger Federer win remain the same (as I wrote in my last post on the same subject). But yes here are a few tips for Roddick which he can only draw strength from.Roger is definitely not focussed like he was, a year back. He is definitely low on motivation (probably because of the lack of competition?). And he does not emanate the same hunger anymore. I am sure even Andy has noticed these. Question is, are these psychological aspects enough to close the gap between the two? My prediction is Federer in 3 sets. -BBS

Inaam Das Hazaar

To anyone who solves this mystery... Agarkars figures in this series: 1st One day – 0/65 off 10 2nd one day – 1/67 off 9 4th One day – 4/60 off 10 5th one day – 2/58 off 7 6th one day – 0/63 off 8 so far A frontline bowler with an economy rate of 7.11. Why is he in the team? I am pretty sure I wont lose my money on this one! -BBS