Wednesday 30 January, 2008

Experiments with Truth

It is indeed ironical that a day before Mahatma Gandhi’s 60th death anniversary, the racism case against Harbhajan Singh was veered towards it's most convenient conclusion, with Truth being the biggest casualty.

The Sardar is a free man now. In a well orchestrated hearing, Justice John Hansen has cleared Harbhajan Singh of the ‘Racism’ charge, not because of his presumed innocence, but because of extraneous factors that included BCCI’s money power; the pull out threat and ambiguity on the part of ICC to call a spade a spade.

Even accounting for the fact that modern sports is loath to the virtues that the ‘Mahatma’ stood for, I am all for reducing racism and abuse - that goes around in the name of mental disintegration - to a level as practical as possible. I am also of the opinion that Australian players, more than anyone, have gotten away with their abusive language, more times than one. That is why I believed, Harbhajan case provided a perfect opportunity, both for the ICC and the BCCI, to act tough, weed out these unsavory elements, and claim a high moral ground, something Anil Kumble did after the second test.

But the writing was clearly on the wall once BCCI asked its players to stay put in Sydney. Even the Australians could not challenge the Indian board’s might, let alone the pusillanimous ICC.

So Bhajji is no more a racist - officially that is. Instead, he is someone who abuses downright in the name of else's mother, if reports of India’s flimsy defence are to be believed. Who would you like to be? Take your pick. Better don’t, because neither has anything to with cricket.

But it makes Harbhajan’s mother happy. I wonder why?

It takes a lot of courage and even more conviction to stand up to, and own your remarks, howsoever wrong they might have been. Harbhajan has failed miserably in that. Much like Michael Clarke, whose image stands tarnished in the eyes of cricket fans, Harbhajan will be looked upon as one whose integrity will remain forever suspect.

BCCI on the other hand is gaining a notorious reputation as a board that throws its weight around to maneuver things in its favour. Be it the ‘Denness’gate, the ‘Bucknor’gate or the ‘Bhajji’gate, they are overlooking the fact that each of their ‘victory’ is more pyrrhic than the one before. I am not even mentioning the vulgar display of ‘so called national pride’ that they put up in this case.

The game meanwhile goes on. ACB is happy that their coffers will be soaring full after the ODI tournament, Sri Lankans are now more willing participants in the tri series, and BCCI is reveling in it’s false victory.

The Truth, sadly, remains hidden firmly behind the closet.

Thursday 24 January, 2008

Touch the Sky

Does it really matter how a batsman chooses to reach the coveted three figure mark, whether with a whacky six or an elegant boundary or a simple nudge for a single? Ideally, it should not. But when the batsman in question answers by the name Sachin Tendulkar, it certainly does, for, his nervous nineties - even if he succeeded in converting a few of them into hundreds - have been a topic of national debate for some time now.

It also provides an insight into the mind of this great batsman. When was the last time before Adelaide that Sachin reached his century with a boundary?

Rewind, as I often do, to the third test of the 2002 series against England. Venue: Headingley. Conditions: Hostile for batting. Dravid and Bangar had weathered the early seam and swing conditions to steady the Indian ship. The stage was ideally set for Tendulkar to score a big hundred. He eventually did and in style too. When he flicked the first ball of an Ashley Giles’ 23rd over through mid wicket for a boundary, he also passed Sir Don’s record of 29 hundreds.

But between that innings at Leeds and the one in home town of Sir Don, today, Sachin treated bowlers with same respect that Sunil Gavaskar accorded to the likes of M/s Marshall, Roberts, Imran, Lillee and co. Nothing wrong, except that those bowling to Sachin in his nervous nineties included Shakib Al Hasan, Shabbir Ahmad, Simon Katich, Tapash Baisya amongst others!

They say, batsmen are at the peak of their prowess, between the age 28 and 32. By this time the youthful exuberance has given way to maturity and renunciation of a seemingly tempting delivery is stronger than before. The legs are still young enough to hold out more than an entire day on the field.

Brian Lara, Mathew Hayden and to an extent Inzamam have however shown a definite upward swing in the form in their mid thirties, and even past it. Hopefully Sachin Tendulkar is entering a similar phase in his career. He has already blasted away the cobwebs that seemed to clutter both his mind and his batting. Now is the ideal time for a ‘liberated’ Sachin to fly and touch the sky.

It would be great if he does it tomorrow, the second day at Adelaide. Despite winning the crucial toss and putting 300 runs on the board, I believe, India is in a spot of bother. Past records have shown that no total is big enough to defend on this ground. Pathan’s promotion as an opener and his subsequent failure has only complicated the matters. I pray they do not put up a different opening combination in the second innings.

Sachin needs to play a Dravidesque innings, not in intent, but in the number of runs scored and one of the bowlers need to bowl an Agarkarish spell if India has to overcome its less than satisfying performance on day one.

The second day could well decide the fate of India’s march towards leveling this series.

Wednesday 23 January, 2008

A New Order?

“Indian captain and his team will always be able to derive comfort and satisfaction in the knowledge that they played cricket in a manner and spirit envisaged by our forbears and they will retain a warm and cherished place in the hearts and minds of Australians.”

Sir Don Bradman was speaking about the Indian cricket team that traveled to Australia in 1977/78. In many ways that tour came as a welcome relief to the Australian Cricket Board, beleaguered by desertions from the frontline Australian players. Such was the popularity of the Indian team that more people watched the test against India than the ‘WSC Super Test’ at the Melbourne Waverley Football Park.

I have no idea if the current Indian team has captured the imagination of Australian fans. Even if they haven’t, they have certainly played the game that would have made the ‘Big B’ proud.

As Indians approach the final test at Adelaide, there is one uncanny similarity with the series played three decades ago. Back then, Indian team came back from a two match deficit to level the scores at the end of fourth test at Sydney. They have reached half way stage this time around. Adelaide could well see them attain ‘Moksha’ once again!

There are hurdles in this path, none bigger than the hosts themselves. It has been ages since the time Australia last lost two consecutive tests at home. And we don’t need a Andrew Flintoff or a Duncan Fletcher to vouch for their tenacity in face of defeat.

An even larger stumbling block for the Indians would be manifested in their team selection. Conventional wisdom would suggest a 7/4 combination. But India is playing to level the series. Going by the pitch report so far, Jaffer is sure to make way for Harbhajan Singh. That leaves a big question mark over the opening slot. These are times to let convention go for a toss. I would suggest dropping MS Dhoni and letting Dinesh Karthick keep the wickets and open the innings too. Not sure if that will happen, because it takes either a brave heart or an Aussie mindset to effect such decisions. And Indian team is not ready for it, as yet. To me, it is better to lose the series 3-1 in quest of a victory at Adelaide, than take an oft trodden path. After all, a 2-1 scoreline will tell the same story as a 3-1, won’t it?

If Sir Don spoke of Indian team’s sporting spirit, here is what Keith Miller, his teammate and one of my favourite Australian cricketers, wrote of the Indian team in 1971:

“After their win over the West Indies earlier this year, India are also conquerors of England, who trounced my own Australians. So India, once looked upon as in the ‘little league of cricket’ are in the big league. And strong contenders for the best in the world.”

Irrespective of the result at Adelaide, India is guaranteed a second place in the ICC test rankings. But they would badly want to win the final test of this series, not only to stay clear of the third ranked test team, Sri Lanka, but also take the first few steps in what could be a long drawn battle for the best team in the world.

Over to you, Team India.

Monday 21 January, 2008

'Stupendous' Win

Cricketers are we, intrepid and bold
Out in the field, amongst the wonders untold
Equipped with our talent, a spirit and a knack
Searching for a win on the Perth track

The world gasps in horror as Spaceman Spiff's crew is immobilized at Sydney. A thousand miles away from their home, they must fix it themselves. Spiff clings tightly to his spaceship. One more loss will send them hurling into the horrors of the infinite beyond.

The heroes captured by the vicious Aussie knights are about to be transported to the labour camp at Perth. The Aussie knights are charged up as usual, daring the fools to come after them.

Spaceman Spiff's mind races furiously. The situation is desperate. This could be the end! What can we do?

He sees two aliens approaching, but in the blinding light he can hardly make it out. Are they friendly or hostile?

Our heroes hatch a bold plan, led by spaceman Spiff himself.

Impossible say some. Impossible? Nothing is impossible for the Spiff and his stupendous men.

With stupendous powers of team spirit, gaining stupendous momentum, stupendous men strike the ground with stupendous force. The Aussie knights are shaken.

Spiff and his stupendous men now have the strength of a billion mortal men. With muscles of magnitude, they fight with heroic resolve.

A blinding bolt of blazing crimson careens across the sky. Seconds later the amazing marvel alights upon and with stupendous strength, stupendous men target the Aussie knights with stupendous ease.

The knights are finally fried to a crunchy crisp. Their armour fused into a solid piece.

It's another daring escape for the intrepid Spaceman Spiff and his stupendous crew. No walls can hold our stupendous men.

The knights have been foiled again. Ha ha ha!

Secure in their fortress, Spiff and his stupendous men now plan their strategy for another day and another mind boggling adventure, at Adelaide.........

(Very much like the 'Ishaan Awasthi' of Taare Zameen Par, there is a bit of 'Calvin' inside each one of us. Indian team too found its own at Perth.)

Friday 18 January, 2008

348 to go, again!

The heat at Madras was as energy sapping as it was on the first two days at Perth. If umpires were forced to call for drinks break after every 40 minutes at Perth, it was no different at Madras, the coastal humidity probably making it even worse. Indians were on a winning streak, having handed England a resounding defeat just two months ago. Against this background, Dean Jones battled bouts of cramps, dehydration and Indian spinners to score a courageous double century in the first test of 1986 series. When Kapil Dev’s scored a scintillating century, the match was headed to only one conclusion – a draw. But Alan Border’s sporting declaration in the second innings ensured that the match went into the record books as only the second ‘Tie’ in history of cricket. The target – 348 runs.

More than a decade later, Chennai was once again the stage for another outstanding match. It was India versus Australia again. Coincidentally, the first test of that series too! Sachin Tendulkar was caught Mark Taylor bowled Shane Warne after making just 4 runs in the first innings. Prior to the series, he had taken extra care to handle Warne’s leg spinners, even summoning leggie L Sivaramakrishnan to bowl at him in the nets. He wasn’t willing to let that effort go waste. What followed in the second innings was a brilliant counter attack, seldom seen on Indian soil. When Azharuddin declared the Indian innings close, there was only one result possible, unlike the 1986 test on the same ground. The target for Australians, once again 348 runs!

If the 1998 test at Chennai set the tone for long and hard fought battles between India and Australia, the Perth test has certainly lived up to that reputation, weaving its way through the numerous twists and turns. If the first day saw India demolishing the Australian top order, it also saw a terrific fight back from Symmonds and Gilchrist. If the second day belonged to Indian bowlers, then the Australian pace attack threatened briefly to make the third day their own, only to be thwarted by gutsy batting from VVS Laxman.

I am simply amazed by the number of times VVS Laxman has rescued India from a precarious position. We know how good a batsman he is, but often, some of his valuable innings like the one today, get eclipsed by his more dazzling ones. His cameo in the second innings of Adelaide test in 2003/04 series, his strokeful 69 in the farcical Mumbai test against Australia, when everyone else, save Sachin Tendulkar were struggling even to put bat on to the ball, the vital 73 runs against South Africa at Johannesburg have all been match winning efforts without quite grabbing the attention that they deserve. Even though he can rightfully claim a number 3 spot in Indian batting, to me he is more a joker in the pack. Shuffle him the way you want. He won’t disappoint.

As Ponting and Hussey resume their battle on day four, both teams know that history is in making, whatever the outcome. But having chopped 65 runs off their target, isn’t it another twist of fate that Australia needs exactly the same number of runs, 348, that made previous two contests so memorable?

Thursday 17 January, 2008

Perth swinging India's way

To appreciate RP Singh’s efforts on a seam friendly Perth wicket, one needs to look back at his debut in Faisalabad, couple of years ago. That test was played on the back of one of the dullest games in recent times, where only 8 wickets fell against over 1100 runs scored, over 5 days. In keeping with the legacy of most Indo-Pak encounters, the Faisalabad test too ended in a dreary draw, but what stood in a contest that saw six hundreds being scored on either side, was the Man of the Match awarded to RP Singh for his 4/89! If it was a damning indictment of the docile Faisalabad pitch, it was also a tribute to the effort that the debutante put in. His comeback effort today, against a rampaging Adam Gilchrist, was never a surprise, although to the Aussie keeper, the ball that got him was indeed one.

For Anil Kumble, last three years have been incredible. For him to reach the 600 wicket mark at Perth was most ironical of it all. As Mukul Kesavan has rightly put in his blog, we carry an enduring image of what the player has achieved in his final years at the crease. By that account, Anil Kumble has managed to dispel many misgivings on his overseas record. But more than his bowling, I was mighty impressed with some of the decisions that he has taken, whether it was sending a strong message to the Aussie camp on how to (and how not to) play the game, withdrawing charges against Brad Hogg, dropping Harbhajan Singh at Perth or electing to bat first upon winning the toss. Take a bow, Anil. Sometimes I wonder if captaincy arrived a tad late for you.

It is interesting (and also a lesson in itself) that every Indian player on a comeback trail has performed exceedingly well in last two years. Be it Saurav Ganguly or Zaheer Khan. We can safely add Irfan Pathan’s name to that list now. There are couple of ‘out of form’ players like Yuvraj Singh and Wasim Jaffer in the team and it would do no harm to have more players pushing them for a place in this side.

When was the last time Indian bowlers put up that kind of bowling display, over three successive tests, second innings at Sydney notwithstanding? The only instance I can remember is the 1986 series against England, which India won 2-0, with consummate ease. If India is staring at a 2-0 deficit in Australia inspite the bowling performance, the blame squarely lies with their batsmen.

Fortunately, Sehwag has ensured that the team got off to a great start, maintaining a run rate in excess of 4/over, in both innings. It is an ideal platform for the ‘Big Four’ to build their innings upon. A true paced Perth wicket, a healthy first innings lead, Sehwag looking good and an inform Sachin, Rahul, Sourav and VVS to follow. It can’t get more ominous for the Australians.

India has not lost a test at Perth in last 16 years. They are now perfectly placed to keep their slate clean for a few more!

Wednesday 9 January, 2008

Tomorrow is another day

10th January 2008 could well prove to be a Red Letter Day for India in more ways than one.

Mr Ratan Tata, a businessman par excellence, would have his long cherished dream fulfilled, when Tata Motors unveils the most eagerly awaited and hotly debated car in recent times, at the Auto Expo 2008 in Pragati Maidan, New Delhi. Now if you consider the Indian captain Anil Kumble, as someone who can talk about the spirit of the game with full conviction, look no further than Mr Ratan Tata when it comes to playing the corporate game, both in letter and the spirit of it. One Lakh Rupees (USD 2600) car was his brainchild and if successful, could change the face of auto industry for ever. The world is watching you with bated breath, Mr Tata.

Some few thousand miles to the west of Delhi, the birthplace of cricket brings more good news for the Tatas. The iconic brands of Jaguar and Land Rover, put on the block by Ford Motors, would have a new owner. And as with cricket, their new home will be India. For years, the Indian automobile industry has been accused of playing well on the home turf alone. Come tomorrow, this perception is all set to undergo a major change.

Down under, India also begins the tour match against ACT Invitational XI. Perhaps no other practice match in recent times has attracted so much attention. For cricket fans though, it would be something of a welcome change. After days of 'courtroom drama' and backroom lobbying, the spotlight returns where it should have always been in first place. The Indian team gets a chance to redeem themselves, for, inspite of all the jingoism that the players, the board and the fans have displayed so far, the fact remains that Indian batsmen were unable to defend the fort, even for couple of sessions on the final day at SCG. I hope while gloating in their false sense of victory, this fact is not lost upon them.

The team also need to address some concerns, which are primarily a result of their own making. There are more than couple of spots in the team, up for grabs. If the umpires, who are normally the more 'protected of species' when it comes to appraisals, have been booted out, there is no reason why Jaffer and Yuvraj should continue to be in the team. Although I am no fan of having a makeshift opener, time has come for Dinesh Karthik to open the innings along with Sehwag. Considering the bouncy nature of Perth wicket, it won't do any harm to have a look in at Pankaj Singh and Irfan Pathan in the two day match.

These are difficult times for team India. They have arm twisted BCCI and eventually the ICC in having their way. They need to back it with some serious performance on the field now, more than ever before.

For inspiration, they have one person to look up to - Ratan Tata, who was ridiculed and scoffed at, when he first spoke of the 'One Lakh' car few years ago.

Tomorrow, he will be in a different league of his own!

Monday 7 January, 2008

Audacity of Hope

The last day of Sydney test saw two moments of sheer brilliance that got eclipsed in face of unfortunate events of Sunday.

The first one was a purely cricketing one -Tendulkar's dismissal - result of a plan brilliantly conceived and equally well executed by the duo of Adam Gilchrist and Stuart Clark.

The second one may sound trivial to many, but was hugely significant in the context of acrimonious events that had marred the test that far. Anil Kumble flicked the fourth ball of a Clark over, only to hit the forward shortleg fielder, Phil Jaques, where it hurts the most. Given the match situation, Kumble could have been excused had he turned a blind eye to the man in pain. Instead, the Indian captain walked across and with a friendly tap on Jaques' shoulders confirmed if he was indeed ok. It was a gesture, perhaps alien to most Australian cricketers, but it found an echo in Anil Kumble's post match remark on only one team playing in the true spirit of the game.

On a day when Kangaroos erased the already thin line between playing tough cricket, as is their wont, and showing gross contempt for the spirit of the game, I was also reminded of a Colin Cowdrey lecture delivered at the MCC by Sunil Gavaskar, four years ago. Said Sunny:

The MCC is the custodian of the Laws of the game, and thanks to the initiative of men like Colin Cowdrey, Ted Dexter and Tony Lewis, to name just three, they have now put down in writing the Spirit of Cricket, which for more than a hundred years was only spoken about and observed, too, until the late 1980s, and now has been put down in print so that not only Test and international cricketers know what it means, but also youngsters who are taking up the game.

But what does it tell us to have to put the Spirit of Cricket in black and white? It tells us that the old adage: "It's not cricket", which applied to just about everything in life, is no longer valid - and that's a real pity. In the modern world of commercialization of the game and the advent of satellite television and the motto of winning at all costs, sportsmanship has gone for a six.
At Sydney, the Aussies indeed tossed it for a huge six!

Amongst the many reasons that made the Australian team my favourite over the years was that they played a 'give no inch' brand of cricket. They also brought fresh ideas to the game, whether playing on the field or coaching off it. So when Ricky Ponting used a carbon graphite reinforced bat or when Adam Gilchrist stuffed a squash ball beneath his glove during the recent 2007 WC final, I thought, it was cricketing innovation at its very best. No wonder they dominated the game for well over a decade.

But being a champion team for this long also made them forget to deal with situations when chips are down. While the Australians intimidate the opposing teams with their aggressive brand of cricket, it is when the opposing team refuses to get intimidated that the Australians show their true colours, Sydney test just being the case in point. It is cricket's misfortune that not many teams have succeeded in doing so in recent past.

I won't be surprised if this Australian team under Ricky Ponting extends the current winning streak to few more matches. Even less surprising would be if they plumb lower depths in this quest.

Unlike the Democrat's Presidential nominations race, that lost its 'sense of inevitability' following Barack Obama's victory in Iowa, this series retains very much of it, going into the third test at Perth. And for the first time, I wish, this Australian team under Ricky Ponting is cut down to size in next two tests. For the sake of good of cricket, if not for India.

A tall order? Yes. Wishful thinking? Very much.

But what's hope, if not audacious?

Friday 4 January, 2008

Sublime Genius and the Master Class

There was a time in late eighties, when Boris Becker likened the centre court at Wimbledon to his own backyard. Anyone would, given his fantastic record there. Dilip Vengsarkar spoke of rolling the Lords pitch and carrying it back to his hometown, Mumbai, after notching his third consecutive century in the Mecca of cricket. Sunil Gavaskar was so enamored of Port of Spain, that he dedicated a whole chapter – Trinidad, I Love You – in his autobiographical account, Sunny Days.

Sydney Cricket Ground would certainly hold a similar place in the hearts of VVS Laxman and Sachin Tendulkar.

Sublime genius
There have been very few 'Stylists' in Indian cricket over the past 75 years like ML Jaisimha, GR Vishwanath, Mohammad Azharuddin, to name a few. Outside India, I can think of only handful of players in last three decades or so, who could be called thus. David Gower, Roy Dias (Sri Lanka) and Mark Waugh spring to the mind immediately. All these players batted with such grace and finesse that they transcended the clich├ęs used to describe their stay on the batting crease.

Even by their majestic standards, VVS Laxman stands tall, a cut above the rest and in a class of his own.

On the second day at SCG, he showed why he is the most elegant player and an impeccable timer of cricket ball. Every ball that he caressed with his magical willow, seem to suggest that there is much more to batting than just proper technique and diligence. How else could one play a ball, wide outside the offstump, to the mid wicket fence with a simple flick of wrist? Or the one pitched up, anywhere behind the bowler to the cover region? He makes batting look so ridiculously easy that lesser mortals could be excused for thinking it as all about padding up and walking to the crease, with a bat in hand.

To talk about the match situation and analyse his innings in this post would be doing a disservice to his genius. We will leave it for some other time.

But I would like to quote the Moghul Emperor Jahangir, who when so enchanted by the beauty of Kashmir valley, exclaimed:

Gar firdaus, Ruhe zamin ast, Hamin asto, Hamin asto, Hamin asto.
(If there is heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here).

In cricketing parlance, if there was a great exhibition of batsmanship; it was on the second day at SCG.

Then again, one can say that for most of 'VVS Laxman special' innings!

The Master Class
Welcome back, Sachin Tendulkar. You could not have chosen a more appropriate venue to signal the return of the 'original' little master.

It was the same venue, where you hit a patient double century, four years ago. (Such woeful was your form prior to the 'Steve Waugh farewell' test, that captain Saurav Ganguly took an unprecedented step of batting at number 4 in the second innings of Melbourne test, ostensibly to shield you!) That double ton certainly helped in ending the unusually long drought of runs you were going through, but it also left behind a trail of defensive mindset, which you carried over for next four long years.

The sight of Sachin Tendulkar playing a Dravidesque innings was something, many of your fans, including yours truly, could never digest.

Whether it was your injury, or the larger team plan, or something else, we would never know, but you were stubborn in refusing to let your old avtaar take over. Although we had an occassional glimpse of aggression, like in the second test against South Africa at Durban, it was never quite same as in the series opener against same oponents, six years ago.

Still, much against our hopes, we were hoping that you would come good in Australia, the ultimate place for a cricketer to succeed. It was also to be your last hurrah in the land of World Champions. Your form in England was a good indicator to that. Even more heartening was the intent you showed in the practice match, preceeding the Boxing Day test. MCG kept the hope flickering. And Sidney Cricket Ground finally saw your reincarnation.

Gone was the tentative plodding and poking, replaced instead, with a full authoritative face of the bat, both in attack and defence. The lofted shot, which you so effectively used against the great Shane Warne in 1998, was back and so was the upper cut, way over the third man. More importantly, out went the paddle sweep, which had forced you into holding back those glorious drives and square cuts, under the false pretext of safety.

This is the Sachin Tendulkar we know, we love and have grown watching with.

Thank you for these memorable moments, Sachin. It has been a previledge watching you bat at the SCG.