Friday 25 May 2007

Legacy

Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar both started as quintessential middle class Maharashtrians. Gavaskar played his early cricket in Chikalwadi and Tendulkar grew up playing at Sahitya Sahawas, the abode of Marathi Saraswats (intelligentsia).

Their cricketing exploits are well documented. But beyond the cricketing field, they have pioneered and abetted in their own way, a process of frenzied commercialization of the game. A legacy which subjects these players to alternate deification and vilification.

When Gavaskar started his career, team India had achieved little noteworthy in the preceding 40 years of international cricket. His advent coincided with two of India’s most famous overseas wins in West Indies and England. Gavaskar, in fact, played a huge part in the former. He was catapulted to stardom overnight. Not that there weren’t many stars before him, but Gavaskar challenged and demolished the stereotypical image of an Indian cricket star. He used his fame to commercially venture into areas that were never tapped by an Indian cricketer before. For some Indians entrenched in a socialist mindset, it was akin to desecration of the sacred game of cricket. After all, was cricket not played for the love of it?

Mihir Bose in his book ‘A Maidan View – The Magic of Indian Cricket’, devotes an entire chapter titled ‘The Besieged Hero’ to Gavaskar. He writes:

Indians respect Gavaskar but they also fear him. He is not for instance, able to invoke the sort of warmth that was accorded to Kapil Dev or his own brother in law, Vishwanath.

Bose quotes MAK Pataudi from the article ‘The decline of Indian cricket’. Writes MAK,

Gavaskar opened up entire new vistas of making money. He had noticed how quickly cricketers once out of the limelight were actually shunned by the same people who had fussed over them, fought for the pleasure of inviting them home and queued to have photographs taken with them. In Bombay only money seemed to matter, and there was more than one way to make it. Gavaskar found them all. Advertising, film producing, writing articles (on the same match, but for different publications), taking fee for organizing matches, writing instant books which were spiced to sell better, appearance money and signing contracts with manufacturers of sports equipment. He became the first millionaire through cricket, rich enough to buy a flat in the centre of Bombay. In a capitalist cricketing country, he would have been considered a genius. In India they began to call him a mercenary, and within the team he became the envy of some of who felt that their contribution to Indian cricket was not much appreciated. Why should Gavaskar hog all the publicity as well as the money? The answer was simple: he had reached those dizzy heights to which no Indian cricketer in his right mind would even dream of aspiring. As importantly, he was articulate where others were dumb, he was controversial where other dared not to be, he could even be witty and this made him ideal material for the media and advertiser.

What Gavaskar started, Tendulkar took to another level. Sachin was fortunate that within two years of making his international debut, India had shed its socialist mindset to become a free economy. Economy, that celebrated entrepreneurial spirit. Sachin was shrewd enough to capitalize on it. He wowed the Indian public, first with his Rs 200 million deal with World Tel in 1995 and then followed up with a mind boggling Rs one billion deal in the year 2000. It helped him no less that in the intervening period, Mark Mascaranhas had made BCCI aware of the gold mine they were sitting on, by successfully bagging the TV rights of 1996 world cup. Ofcourse, Sachin was also riding the crest of his batting form.

And so long as Sachin performed, his money matters remained a part of largely private domain. Tongues started wagging when there was a perceptible decline in his batting post 2002. Initial murmurs gave way to noisy talk. Fans who were previously dazzled by his multi-crore contracts, raised questions on Tendulkar’s attitude, something unthinkable five years ago.

Whereas other Indian sport icons like Sania Mirza, Leander Paes could afford to be erratic - they played an individual sport and largely controlled their own destiny – Sachin could not, for he not only played a team game but was also responsible for India’s fluctuating fortunes.

It seems remarkable therefore that, despite his recent failures, Sachin has managed to bag Rs two billion contract from Iconix, earlier this year. Harsha Bhogle dismisses questions on Tendulkar’s worth as typical ‘middle class’ ish. According to him Sachin still earns only a fraction of what the top international sportsmen and sportswomen do!

Two great cricketers, one huge legacy. Whether it bodes well or otherwise for Indian cricket, only time will tell. You can take your pick too.

Wednesday 23 May 2007

Did Vengsarkar and co miss a trick?

Indian team is only one test away from the all-important England tour, yet we are no where close to finding answers to the problems that besieged Indian cricket after the World Cup debacle.

Bangladesh tour has gone horribly wrong so far, both in the timing and manner of cricket. While we can reluctantly give BCCI some benefit of doubt on the timing of the series, the same can't be said of the selectors. Indian cricket stands exactly on the same ground where it began before the Bangladesh series, perhaps with few more questions.

Vengsarkar and co should have treaded the unknown waters with some bold and imaginative selections. World cup debacle presented them a perfect opportunity to do so. After all, it was only a series against Bangladesh, where few more risks would not have been out of order.

But as Ian Chappell said, "You can intimidate teams that allow themselves to be intimidated". India allowed themselves to be intimidated by a world cup defeat against Bangladesh and it reflected in the team selections.

One of the major worries for India is its opening pair. Sehwag has been a good performer in tests – infact, he has been one of the best players in tests for India in last two years, save the recent SA series - but his pathetic ODI form has completely overshadowed the test performances. Not surprising at all, considering the obscenely high number of ODIs that India has played during this period. But it was expected that the ‘wise men’ looked through the maze of ODI figures and retain him for tests. Instead, we find Sehwag playing the ODIs and flying home when the tests began. With Jaffer getting a pair in first test, we are left with a situation where the opening configuration in England is a secret, which selectors themselves may not know. Gambhir and Jaffer have shown themselves to be too ‘flashy’ to succeed in English conditions. A player like Akash Chopra, with all the right ingredients for an opener, would have made a better choice.

The middle order though has a fairly settled look, at least for the moment. It is here that I feel selectors should have looked for the unknowns. It was a given fact that the big three – Sachin, Saurav and VVS would be back in the team for England tour, no matter what. Why not try the likes of Rohit Sharma and Cheteshwar Pujara to go along with Dravid and Yuvraj for lesser series against Bangladesh? But sometimes, the fear of losing can be worse than losing itself and I suspect it played heavily in the minds of selectors.

One of the myths that is being perpetuated along the cricketing corridors is about the strength of Indian bowling. The ambling Munaf Patel is an Indian equivalent of Michael Vaughn, the inconsistent Zaheer Khan, an Indian Harmison. VRV Singh and RP Singh are yet to make any meaningful impact in their short careers. Only exceptions are Shreesanth and the old workhorse Anil Kumble, both of whom are currently injured. Admittedly, conditions in England favour the fast bowling and some of them could still make an impact. But I would have expected selectors to be proactive and rope in Bengal's Ranadeb Bose, Hyderabad’s Absolem or Delhi’s Ishant Sharma (who is now likely to make debut in the second test), only to give them a feel of what test class is all about.

Vengsarkar and co may have lost a golden opportunity to blood in youngsters at the very start of a busy season for Indian cricket. But then, planning for long term was never an Indian selector’s forte, was it?

Monday 21 May 2007

It was not to be

In India, cricket and films form an essential part of one’s upbringing. It was no different for me, although I was bitten more by the bug called cricket, than films.

It had nothing to do with the cricketing skills but everything with the looks – rather the lack of them. I was more likely to pass as a cricketer, than a film actor.

Being short and stocky, a euphemism for fat, they called me Gundappa. I was elated to be nick named after Vishwanath and soon ‘square cut’ became my preferred stroke. My cousin - never to miss an opportunity to bully me - called me Erapally, for the same reasons that my friends called me Gundappa. I tried bowling off spinners, but soon found that it was not my cup of tea.

But the player I adored most was the one and only Sunil Gavaskar. I opened the batting for my local team and modeled my play on the lines of little master. I even prayed that I never grow tall, for in my books only short players made great batsmen. It was a prayer I regret till date.

We played cricket everywhere. In the long verandah, on a badminton court, on roads and of course the maidans. In summer vacation, when the rising mercury forced an unwelcome embargo from the elders, we converted a small room at my cousin’s place into our own playground. This room was actually rented out to a professional, who stayed there as a paying guest. The unsuspecting soul had little idea that no sooner did he leave for his work, than the room metamorphosed itself into what we proudly called ‘The Lords Cricket Club’.

Indoors, the rules were different. One bounce catch was ‘Out’, and so was a direct hit on the sidewalls. A straight hit to the opposite wall, along the ground, oops floor, was a four. Sometimes, each player represented a whole team, which in effect meant that we had to get him out 10 times to constitute an ‘all out’. And so, we played as West Indies, India, Australia, England and in the process donned the garbs of some of the great players of the time. Not surprisingly, no one wanted to be ‘Pakistan’, because a win for you meant a win for Pakistan too - a strict no those days. But we were always ‘Pakistan’ in an inconsequential match which we ‘wanted’ to lose.

My tryst with serious cricket ended on a fine sunny morning, during the selection trials for BCA (Bombay Cricket Association) camp. We were asked to write down our preferred batting positions. I promptly wrote - Right hand opening batsman - all in capitals. The coach smiled and remarked, "Ah, like Sunil Gavaskar". I could not have been more pleased. With puffed chest, I was raring to have a go at the bowlers, padding up a good fifteen minutes before my allotted turn.

The first ball I faced was defended down the pitch in Gavaskar esque manner. Second one was cut to point. The third one missed and on the fourth I was well and truly bowled, trying to flick an over-pitched delivery.

Till today, I hold a grudge against the cricket authorities for not looking at the larger picture. That fateful day, India lost out on a potentially great cricketer – Gavaskar and a Vishwanath, rolled into one!

Saturday 19 May 2007

Standing ovation and all that

Fittingly, it was Arun Lal on the microphone when Sachin Tendulkar pushed for a single on his way to 36th test hundred. Despite his trademark staid and drab voice, Arun Lal tried best to conjure up some excitement.

“WITH THIS SINGLE TENDULKAR COMPLETES HIS 36TH CENTURY, HIS SECOND AGAINST BANGLADESH. IT WAS AN INNINGS OF GREAT…. patience.”

When was the last time they used “Superlatives” to describe a Sachin Tendulkar test hundred? Don’t try; it will set you back by atleast three years, even more.

Tendulkar returned the compliment. He did an Arun Lal, by playing his first and the only attacking shot of an otherwise sedate, but now customary, innings. What a shame, that the very shot he was once a master playing at, and which he seldom plays these days, brought about his downfall.

I had the fortune of watching live, two of Sachin’s most memorable knocks - both first class hundreds - and both path breaking ones. First was when Sachin scored his debut century in Ranji Trophy against Gujarat. I have faint memories of this Ranji knock, but more vivid ones of the next century, nay a double century, he scored ten years later, against Mark Taylor’s Australian side at the Brabourne stadium in 1998. I remember Bombay opener Amit Pagnis - on Tendulkar’s advice - playing lofted shots against Australian bowlers, only to be followed by the master tearing apart the Aussie bowling. (I left the stadium immediately after Bombay declared their innings and rushed to Shivaji Park to attend the Sena supremo Bal Thackeray’s public meeting).

In ten years between these two knocks and further four years after the double ton, every test hundred from Sachin elicited a standing ovation from yours truly. Over the last few years though, the response has been more muted, sometimes even of disappointment. Blame it on the lofty standards set by the man himself.

I know Sachin’s centuries are coming few and far in between. We need to cherish each one of them. In next few months, India will be touring England followed by Australia later this year. I hope Sachin gives us a glimpse of some of the knocks he played at Old Trafford and Perth in his hey days.

Knocks that made him special, knocks that made us stand in appreciation of the Little Champion.

Friday 18 May 2007

Coach or Man Manager?

Last month and a half saw exit of as many as six coaches, all from test playing nations, for varying reasons. With the changing face of cricket, the role of coach has come into focus like never before.

The question is, should we have an omnipresent coach as in football, who runs the show almost by himself, allowing the players to concentrate on the field? Or a traditional cricketing coach to help the players correct their technical flaws? Or a good man manager to compliment a strong leader on the field?

Whatever the combination, it is amply clear by now that coaching requires special skill sets and past reputation as a player hardly matters. In fact, most of the "great players" have been proven failures in their coaching assignments. Bishen Singh Bedi, Javed Miandad, Kapil Dev, Viv Richards -all distinguished players - have tried their hand at coaching with little or no success. Of the lot, Greg Chappell, I thought was best equipped to succeed because of his innovative approach to coaching. Sadly, it wasn’t to be.

What about the "great skippers" - a rare breed in test cricket? Frank Worrell, Richie Benaud, Ian Chappell, Clive Lloyd, Imran Khan, Mike Brearley, Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh all have preferred to stay away from the rigors of coaching for varying reasons. We can only speculate, but going by their track record, each of these players would have made a good coach.

Finally, those cricketers - who were neither great players, nor great skippers - but have shown themselves as good managers. Most of current coaches fall under this category.

Today’s management gurus make a clear distinction between Managers and Leaders. A layman like me often wondered how these two could co exist exclusive of each other. But try to draw a cricketing analogy and the picture becomes clear.

Men like Imran Khan, Clive Lloyd and Ian Chappell were good leaders who rallied their teammates by their own performance and charisma on the filed. Tom Moody, Bob Woolmer, Mike Brearley were good managers who were able to turn players’ talent into performance. And blessed were Frank Worrell and Richie Benaud, good leaders as well as managers.

It is pertinent that today’s coach should be a good man manager. Better, if he has a "Degree in People" like Mike Brearley. Great, if he is also a good leader.

It is no coincidence that the best team for last decade and a half has had a potent combination of good leaders in Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting and good managers in Bobby Simpson, Geoff Marsh and John Buchanan.

Thursday 17 May 2007

Prayer on the lips for West Indies


West Indies take on England in the first test at Lords starting today and Paul Collingwood has urged his teammates to respect, not underestimate their opponents.

For some Rip Van Winkle waking after 20 years of deep slumber, Collingwood’s words would come as a big shock, or a bad joke, for the WI team of late 70s and 80s instantly commanded respect and inspired awe, from its fans and opponents alike.

But things change and how!

It’s not difficult to put a finger on the exact year when WI domination began, a majority consensus would point to 1976 ‘Grovel’ series against England.

In my books though, the seeds of WI dominance were sown about a year and a half before that. On a six test tour to Australia, West Indies were mauled, and badly too, to one of their worst defeats in test cricket. The margin, 5-1 in favour of Australia, with the pace trio of Lillee, Thomson and Gilmour wrecking havoc with the West Indian batting.

And when Indians comfortably and successfully chased a world record score of 404 against the likes of Albert Padmore (off spinner) and Jumadeen (the left arm orthodox spinner) at Port of Spain the following year, it was too much of an ignominy for Clive Lloyd to bear. His captaincy already under threat, Lloyd virtually discarded the spin option in the very next test at Sabina ‘Bloodbath’ Park and went in with a four pronged pace attack that included Holding, Julien, Holder and Daniel. Needless to add, Indians wilted under the ‘bodyline’ tactics and lost the match and with it, the series.

It was at Sabina Park that the seeds of four pace attack started germinating.

There was no looking back for the West Indies from there on. Tony Greig’s miscalculated verbal tirade - that he intended to make the West Indies ‘grovel’ - only added fuel to the already raging fire. The rest ofcourse is history. Viv Richards ‘announced’ his arrival and Holding earned the sobriquet of ‘The Whispering Death’ from a certain Dickie Bird. West Indies team clicked like never before.

It was the beginning of more than a decade of Caribbean dominance, never seen in cricket before. A decade, during which it produced astonishing number of fast bowlers and equal number of talented stroke makers, who gave immense joy to millions of cricket fans around the world.

Unfortunately, all that is past. And the present, in mess. WI has now lost three consecutive series against England, an indication of how bad things have turned for them.

As WI cricket gets ready for life after Brian Charles Lara, the players could do well to turn the pages of history and look up to exploits of Clive Lloyd’s men against England.

I dearly hope WI cricket regains its lost glory. Cricket is a dull game without the Caribbean flair.

Wednesday 16 May 2007

Can Ravi Shastri keep his slate clean?

Two matches of contrasting importance ended in an identical fashion, within a day of each other.

The first one played in England was between Somerset and the visiting West Indies team. Rains robbed WI of much needed match practice ahead of the first test at Lords, starting Thursday. How much it hurt WI, only time will tell.

Closer home, weather gods prevented India from making a 3-0 sweep of the ODI series in Bangladesh. I suspect there would be couple of gloomy faces in the Indian dressing room, for this was the last chance to redeem themselves, ahead of the all-important England tour in July/August 2007.

But this post isn’t about gloomy faces and near misses. Its about the Indian coach Ravi Shastri, who, as the trivia goes, is the only Indian captain to have a 100% win record in test matches.

Rewind to 1987-88 home series against WI led by Viv Richards. As in 1983, West Indies team was on a full tour to India immediately after the World Cup. The only difference being, unlike the 1983, this was by no means a ‘Revenge Series’. West Indies had crashed out of the 1987 WC in the group stage for the first time ever, courtesy Courtney Walsh’s sporting refusal to ‘Mankad out’ Abdul Qadir. Indians on the other hand were ‘swept’ away by Graham Gooch at Bombay, in what was to be Sunil Gavaskar’s last ODI match.

Kapil Dev was stripped off his captaincy in the aftermath of India’s defeat in the World Cup semi final and Ravi Shastri was widely expected to replace the Haryana hurricane. But those were the days, when India placed a rather heavy premium on seniority, over expertise and ability. A fortunate and glaring exception to this rule was the 21-year-old MAK ‘Tiger’ Pataudi’s promotion ahead of stalwarts like Polly Umrigar and Vijay Manjrekar, after Indian skipper Nariman Contractor was felled by a nasty bouncer from Charlie ‘Chucker’ Griffith in Barbados in middle of 1961/62 series. That story though is for another day, another time. Stranger things have happened to Indian cricket.

So, in came Dilip ‘Colonel’ Vengsarkar and out went Ravi Shastri’s golden chance to lead India. Well almost, because as fate would have it, Vengsarkar got injured during the Calcutta test of this (1987-88) series and it was Ravi Shastri, who guided a young Indian team, comprising of three debutantes – Narendra Hirwani, Ajay Sharma and WV Raman, to a famous 255 run win on a minefield of Chepauk wicket. Narendra Hirwani emulated Australian Bob Massie, both, in taking 16 wickets on debut, as also in ending the career with little to show, after a glorious debut.

This was the first and the only time that Shastri captained India in tests.

With two test series against Bangladesh due to start soon, Shastri would be praying for rains to subside. Not only will it give him a fair chance to assess the Indian players in the longer version, it will also help keep his slate clean, both as a captain and as a coach.

Let’s all join him in the prayers.

Postscript:
You may find this absurd, but I can’t help comparing Ravi Shastri to Atal Behari Vajpayee, who was India’s PM - first as a caretaker for 13 days, then 13 months before completing his full tenure of 5 years.

So far, Shastri has been at the helm for one test (as a caretaker captain) and one series (as a coach). Hopefully, he will agree to a full term, after he is done with his current commitments.

And don’t forget to pray that unlike Vajpayee, Ravi Shastri ends his tenure on a high note!

Tuesday 15 May 2007

Cricket, Lovely Cricket


We see the Boundary, That’s where we aim
Fours and Sixes, That’s the name of our game
The stands are full, The ground is packed
Here comes the ball, Ah, Howzzat!

This 1983 calypso from 'Here come the Windies', not only captures the true spirit of cricket, but also makes it look alarmingly simple. Batsmen score runs, bowlers take wickets and the spectators enjoy the game. A far cry from today’s game, which is played as much off the field, as it is on it.

There’s another reason for choosing this 1983 calypso. My earliest cricketing memories revolve around India’s twin tours of Pakistan and West Indies in 1982/83. The World Cup win in 1983 did help in cementing my love affair with this game. And like all good wines, it got better with age.

‘Cricket and All That’ is about celebrating the simple joys of cricket - a stroke well played, ball well bowled and a catch well taken.

The title is also a rip off from "10 for 66 and All That" – an autobiographical account of Arthur Mailey – Australian great of 1920s.

In addition to being a good leg spinner and an even better writer, the genial Arthur Mailey also had another endearing quality - of poking fun at self. Once, playing for New South Wales against Victoria, Mailey remarked at the fall of last wicket, ""A pity that last wicket fell; I was just striking my length." That, after conceding 362 runs for his 4 wickets in Victorian score of 1107!

Equally good was the placard atop the meat shop he started in Sydney. It read - Arthur Mailey, used to bowl tripe; used to write tripe; now he sells tripe.

While I have no intention of retiring any soon, and certainly none, of venturing into meat business, I consider myself a worthy contender for other two attributes Arthur Mailey spoke of - bowls tripe and writes tripe.
Happy Reading!