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If I can just give to the world more than I take from it, I will be a very happy man. For there is no greater joy in life than to give. Motto : Live, Laugh and Love. You can follow me on Twitter too . My handle is @Raja_Sw.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Australia - everybody's punching bag ?

I have just checked the thesaurus definition of vitriol. It goes “anger, wrath, fury, rage, temper, ire, spleen…:

Add a new one : Aussie-hate.

What I noticed today, here on this, our very own site, during the England – Australia game was nothing short of vitriolic. Calling it banter would mean stretching the meaning of that word to limits challenging elasticity. No, it was vitriol – nothing else.

It saddens me. Although Indian, I am an avid Aussie fan and I make no bones about it. I have been a huge fan since the Thommo-Lillee Ashes series of 1974-75. I was backing Australia today and their loss, unexpected for many but not for me, does sadden me. A little like India’s loss to Pakistan a couple of days ago.

But this sadness is different. It does not stem from a loss of my favoured team in a cricket game. I may be cricket-crazy but even I am not so blinded as not to realize that it is, after all, only a game. And in a game, on a given day, there are winners and losers. Just as there are supporters of winners and supporters of losers.

So why was there so much Aussie-hate to be seen today ? I can only speculate.

For one, Australia has been so far ahead of the rest of the pack, especially in one-dayers, that the price they have paid for their success seems to be goodwill amongst non-Australians. Many non-Aussies quite candidly admit that all they want is for Australia to lose – otherwise it is “so boring”.

According to me, the second reason for Aussie-hate, is that they are seen as arrogant. Players like Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Matthew Hayden, even Ricky Ponting are regular targets for this.

Sure, they make statements sometimes that may give this impression. But so did Viv Richards, Ian Botham, Tony Greig and even Imran Khan. Why single out the Aussies ?

Another reason is that they are seen as master sledgers. Glenn McGrath, in particular, has earned a huge reputation for this. This may be true – and I am not supporting sledging one bit – but, just hypothetically, if the Aussies stop sledging completely, would there be no sledging at all in the game ? Sledging happens even in matches not involving Australia – and has been around for years. Read some cricket history of pre-war county matches – you will realize what I am talking about. It is nothing but psychological warfare – players need to learn how to cope with it. Mind you, I am not supporting the practice of sledging – I just don’t see why Australia is singled out for this.

I have been trying to think of other reasons. A couple come to mind. A few Aussie players have been accused of being racist. There have been a couple of incidents involving Sri Lanka. Again, without downplaying this despicable behaviour, assuming it is true, it does not mean the entire team is racist. Let us not generalize.

Another reason I can think of – and again it seems to be Sri Lanka that is most the aggrieved party – is the Muralitharan saga. It was an Australian umpire who, years ago, called Murali first for chucking. Cricketing relations between Sri Lanka and Australia, never particularly great, hit a new low when Murali’s doosra began to be scrutinized for its legality. On being asked his opinion of it, the Australian PM, without diplomatically shouldering arms to this loaded question, had no hesitation expressing his disapproval of Murali’s action – something that a delighted media lapped up and played to its full potential. Give them an inch…

Add to this the fact that Murali and Shane Warne were in a neck-to-neck race for the honour of becoming the world’s highest wicket-taker in Tests and the story of an Aussie conspiracy against Murali gained serious credibility in non-Aussie circles. To broaden the rift, the media and some fairly eminent cricketers went on to make it a conspiracy against the subcontinent – something easily saleable to a sub-continent which loves drama.

And I have not even mentioned the Poms and the Kiwis yet. Their rivalry with the Aussies is too well-known to merit repetition here. Suffice it to say that they will gladly twist a knife in an Aussie defeat, whoever be the winners. They have been bitten too often to miss the once-in-a-blue-moon opportunity when it presents itself.

That leaves the Saffies and the Windies (not counting Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and other minnows).

The Saffies, hemispherical cousins of the Aussies have always considered themselves worthy challengers to the Aussies in every sport, be it rugby or cricket. When they consistently find themselves that bit short, can they be blamed for reveling in Aussie misery ?

Historically the Windies and the Aussies have enjoyed a healthy cricketing rivalry on the field. This is best evidenced by the Frank Worrell Trophy, set up after that amazing 1960-61 series between the two teams. However, the last couple of decades have seen some very unsavoury incidents – who can forget the Kim Hughes incident of 1983-84 and more recently the McGrath-Sarwan incident ? So even here the Aussies have been losing friends.

Add all this up and what do you have ?

An Australia, winning all the time and giving supporters of losing teams nothing to cheer about, perceived as arrogant and ill-behaved both on and off the field, with perceived racist undertones and constantly involved in some controversial incident or the other.

So what should Ponting and co. do ? Lose a few games - to win some goodwill ? Most certainly not ! I would say “Come on Punter, keep going – and continue to grind everybody to the dust !”. If they want to rise from the ashes, they will rise by themselves – you don’t have to feel guilty for winning”.

Should Australia work on its PR ? Maybe a little. It would not do any harm. Should the PM keep his mouth shut about controversial cricketing matters ? Perhaps.

But let us see the other Australia for a change.

A team that has set new standards of performance and professionalism on the field.

A team that for almost 130 years of Test cricket, has provided us with some of the most memorable moments in the game. And some of the greatest players, if not the greatest.

A team, whose captain till recently, Steve Waugh, was actively involved in supporting a children’s home in Kolkata (India) and continues to do his bit, even after retirement from top-level cricket.

Sure, they play a tough game. And yes, they hate to lose. So what's wrong with that ?

So I would say , to all those aspiring and pretentious cricketing nations, if you cannot match Australia look at yourself first instead of venting your vitriol at the Aussies. Beat them on the field and then talk.

Today England has done just that. They raised their game to a new level altogether and beat the Aussies fair and square. Even the “arrogant” Ponting admitted that he had been outplayed.

That’s the way to do it – on the field. Not in a cricket chat, showering vitriol not just on the Aussie team but also on its supporters. It says more about the frustration of non-Aussie supporters than about Australia itself.

Not that the Aussie supporters mind it – they are a cheerful lot and know that nobody kicks a dead dog.

And now here's another take.

Think of a cricket world without Australia. Without Shane Warne’s magic.

I, for one, don’t want to.

Monday, September 13, 2004

India and the GFG Index

After being at an all-time high in end-April earlier this year, the United Nations GFG (Global Feel-Good) Index has been lying low for the last two months. There was an occasional spurt on 27th July and one on 5th Sept but these have been aberrations in an otherwise consistently depressed index.

On being interviewed on the subject, the U.N spokesperson attributed this to the extremely low sense of well being currently being experienced in one of the largest and most significant populations that impact the index. India, comprising almost a sixth of the world population, and with its increased developing-country based weightage to boot, has been largely responsible for the southward trend in this index. The spokesperson however emphasized that he expected this to be a transitory state of affairs and expressed confidence that the index would bounce back soon.

All right – before somebody considers me uni-dimensional or, even worse, hastens to sue me on behalf of the United Nations, let me quickly come clean. This is obviously just a cock-and-bull story. There is no such thing as a Global Feel-Good Index (at least not one that I am aware of - although considering the various economic indices that are developed everyday, some of rather dubious origin, I would not be entirely surprised if one such index has found its way sneakily onto the statistician’s computing chart).

And, I must say, for those who consider India’s “feel-good” factor to be far more multi-dimensional than just based on its performances in the game of cricket, I must agree with them. There is much more to the country and its people than just the game of cricket. The feel-good factor is affected by, inter alia, things like the monsoon rains, price of fuel (or should this be fuelling prices), industrial production, political and communal stability, the box-office results of the latest Bollywood starrer, Olympic results and so on. But, without sounding too shallow, I think I can reasonably safely add that the performance of India in the game of cricket has a massive impact on a large section of the population and can make a rather telling impact (whether positive or negative) on the general feel-good factor in the country. It was not entirely without design that the former government in power arranged an Indian cricket tour of Pakistan just days before the national general elections.

The last two months have not been good for Indian cricket. After heady days in Australia and Pakistan only a few months ago, the Indian team has rather inexplicably slumped to defeat in tournaments in Sri Lanka, the Netherlands and England. Indian supporters, always a demanding crowd and even more so after the dream performance in Pakistan, suddenly find themselves hard done by and cannot quite fathom the sudden change in fortunes. Their reaction vacillates between extremes – from the extremely disillusioned and vocally angry supporter who, without the slightest hesitation, swears action on players, to the increasingly rare, die-hard supporter who still stands firmly behind his team and believes the current string of defeats to be only a passing phase in the path of more glory to come.

There is not much moderation to be found – in an atmosphere charged with emotion, moderation is the casualty.

As a long-time follower of the game, and one who has seen several such ups and downs in Indian cricket, I am making this attempt to step back from the heat of the moment and rationally assess the state of Indian cricket today. I do not expect many to agree with me but then nothing is more welcome than a healthy debate on a subject so close to the hearts of so many.

In my opinion, the current poor showing of the Indian cricket team is a culmination of several factors. Some real, some suggestive but, all in all, an extremely potent mix which could derail the best of teams.

Let us look at these in isolation.

The R-word and fitness in general
After the Indian team’s spectacular performance in Pakistan, the players enjoyed a break of almost four months from the game. Well-deserved you may say – and you would be right. With one small caveat – this is a bunch of professionals; so one would expect that even if not called to do duty for the country, they would, in their own ways, keep themselves in fit condition to do so. After all, in today’s high-performance world, there is no room for lethargy.

From the first match this season that the Indians played in Sri Lanka, it became clear that they were not in match-fit condition. While shortcomings in physical fitness have become so routine that they are almost (in my opinion entirely unjustifiably) expected, the fluency in all departments of the game seemed to have been left behind with last season’s amazing run. The poor showing in Sri Lanka, one amazing victory notwithstanding, was attributed to “rustiness”.

The Sachin factor
Whether one likes to admit it or not, the very presence of Sachin Tendulkar in the Indian team has a reassuring feel about it. He may be out of form and for many he may be nowhere near the force he was a few years ago, but his sheer impact on the Indian team and, very importantly, the opposition is something very difficult to describe.

Well, after an average showing with the bat in Sri Lanka (but surprisingly doing wonders with the ball), Sachin Tendulkar suddenly sprang the worst imaginable news on his team and the Indian cricket following public. On the eve of India’s first game in the Netherlands against Pakistan, Tendulkar pulled out, citing a “tennis elbow”. The absolutely stunned public had barely recovered from this news (which was followed by a thumping defeat for India) when worse was to follow. It became clear that this was not a one-off match that Tendulkar would be missing. He missed not only the game against Australia but also all three NatWest Trophy games against England in England. What probably will hurt many Indians most is Tendulkar’s non-availability for the ICC Champions Trophy, considered by many to be “the one that really matters”.

Many Indian supporters, already disillusioned by repeated poor performances by the Indian team, have already written off India’s chances in this tournament without Tendulkar as the driving force.

Form or, rather, the lack of it
As a consolation to a top player’s poor performance, one often hears the statement “form is temporary, class is permanent”. Just tell that to the player himself. It is not particularly comforting for a player to find that, all of a sudden, the fluency and form that he had by now almost taken for granted have suddenly forsaken him like bad companions of a man fallen on ill-times.

When that happens to a number of players en masse, it is frightening – rather like an epidemic. Suddenly top players like Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag and VVS Laxman are struggling to get bat to ball without ending up popping it to the nearest fielder as if for catching practice.

Never great at the best of times, the Indian bowling too has been similarly afflicted by the lack of form – the only difference probably being that not much was expected from it anyway, so the letdown has been less dramatic.

While the above reasons are all public and undeniable, there are some typically insidious and not entirely substantiated comments too making the rounds.

That the Indian players have suddenly lost the need to fight for their financial security, now that a new contracts system is in place to provide this to some extent to the players.

That some of the newly wed players (most notably Virendra Sehwag) have other priorities now while earlier their primary motivation in life was cricket.

That Rahul Dravid, till now the darling of Indian cricket who could do no wrong as batsman-keeper for India in one-dayers, is over-burdened by this dual responsibility and is therefore not able to handle it any more.

That some of the players have no business being selected for India in the first place, either because they have long passed their sell-by date (as in the case of Anil Kumble) or because they are being accommodated purely by virtue of being captain (Saurav Ganguly) or because of some nepotism (Rohan Gavaskar).

The cry to give a whole host of players waiting in the wings a chance to show off their plumes gets louder and louder with every poor showing by the Indian team.

This is not something I am unused to. The 1978 disastrous tour of Pakistan by India saw the end of the illustrious careers of captain Bishen Bedi and Erapalli Prasanna. Even Bhagwat Chandrasekhar lasted just a handful of Tests thereafter.

In my opinion, the Indian public needs to show a little more understanding. Form is indeed temporary. In a long career, it is not uncommon for almost every player, whatever be his quality, to go through a lean patch. Denis Compton, one of the best batsmen ever produced by England, also had one of the most shocking form losses ever when he mustered just 53 runs in 7 innings in the 1950-51 Ashes series Down Under

Rahul Dravid will do well not to let this sudden desertion of form get to him. He is a top-quality batsman, one of the very best in world cricket at the moment, and it is only a matter of time before he begins to time the ball sweetly again. You cannot keep a good man down for too long. Virendra Sehwag may have a slightly different and possibly more arduous climb back to form – but he is also too natural a player to be kept quiet for too long. All it takes for him to regain his confidence is one typically perky innings.

The public would also do well to refresh their memory with regard to Anil Kumble, Saurav Ganguly and Rohan Gavaskar. The first two have had long and successful careers and, despite a recent wretched run of form, continue to evoke respect in opposition camps. Rohan Gavaskar, a late starter in terms of international opportunities, did come good in the few chances that came his way in Australia. In my opinion, any claims that he owes his place in the side to his famous surname, do great injustice to him.

Having said that, let us also recognize the high degree of competitiveness in cricket today. There are several talented players waiting in the wings. This can only be good for India as it means the reserve bench will exert pressure on the players out there in the middle.

I would also like to make one observation. This is especially for those diehard Indian supporters amongst us who think that India has some of the best players in the world and by dint of this – and the fact that they put up an excellent show in Australia and Pakistan – can rightfully claim to be second-best in the world.

Let me tell them - you are only as good as your results. And, however much Mr. Ganguly and the Indian press may like to underplay the Asia Cup and the Videocon Cup as being “warm-up” games for the main event, the fact remains that India was thrashed fair and square in these events. As the adage goes, nothing succeeds like success. By the same token, nothing fails like failure. If Australia win, it is partly because they win. Every win makes them more unused to failure. Going to England, Mr. Ganguly and co. would have done well to have a few successes under their belt, warm-up or no warm-up. A defeat plays games with the mind and much of what happens out there on the field is a mind-game.

And this is precisely why I find the “rustiness” excuse so lame and unacceptable in a professional outfit. A professional team prepares itself for every game with one overriding objective – to win. It is an insult to the tournament organizers, the spectators and the millions of supporters worldwide to approach a game with a condition (mental or physical) suggesting anything less than a hundred per cent.

Saurav Ganguly insists that, despite the indifferent results, it is not for want of trying. The whole team, he insists, is working very hard – it is just that some players are not clicking at the moment and India is not able to deliver.

If we accept this statement at face value, perhaps we need to accept another harsh reality. That other teams are better prepared than India. After all, it is not all about talent and quality. Ask any person who has been in a competitive situation (be it an examination or a sporting event) and he will tell you that it is not how good you are that matters but how much better than the competition you are that counts. Perhaps other teams, especially Australia, England, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, have just oiled their machinery better than the hugely-talented but oh-so-erratic India. It takes a bit of humility to admit this (especially because chest-thumping is so much the norm nowadays) but I cannot help but feel humble at this moment – the Indian team has not given me cause to feel otherwise.

Coming to talent. I would like to make an assertion that talent is nothing if it does not translate to consistent results. I am rather tired of talented players (especially from the sub-continent which seems to produce them in vast numbers) who think that the odd, attractive innings showcasing their talent will wow their audiences and give them a place in posterity. To all these hugely-talented players my simple message is - you play for the team and it is your responsibility to be part of the engine that makes your team win. If you cannot do this or lose steam midway, you do not probably deserve to be part of this endeavour. The team is far bigger than the individual.

At the risk of becoming persona non grata for most Indians, I want to make a suggestion that many Indians will find very unpalatable. According to me, the current loss of form may be only temporary and is not half as worrying as possibly a more dire thought – that India is just not as good as everybody makes it out to be. Yes, it sounds ridiculous, especially when we are talking about one of the finalists in the World Cup of just a little over seventeen months ago. But I am afraid my yardstick for measuring success is consistency – and not the odd sporadic win, be it against even Australia. And India, even its most diehard supporter will admit, is notoriously inconsistent.

If India has to return to winning ways, it has to first be humble enough to take a leaf from other teams, especially the tremendously consistent Australia. It is all very well to call yourself a world-beater (it is good for your ego) but you have to deliver on this, this time, next time, every time. Until you do that, you are no better than any of those other teams out there.

And, loyal as your country folks are, until you do that, odd fluctuations notwithstanding, the GFG index will continue to hover in the long-term at a level no higher than its current level – whether the U.N likes it or not!

Friday, August 13, 2004

Sunil Gavaskar - India's cricketing Olympian

So I return to my PC, typing furiously.

The Italian contingent has just gone by - amidst huge cheers - but I am not really interested.

I feel cheated - after almost an hour of waiting, THIS is what I get ?

"Anju Bobby George" the BBC commentator labours to pronounce - as if it does not sit easy on his tongue. I wonder why. To me, it is as British-sounding as any other British name. In an obvious attempt at humour, he adds "If you have heard that name, tell me !" He then goes on in a tone that I consider suspiciously patronising "Well, she did come third in the World Championships last year so I suppose you've got to say she's got a chance". That was it - India gone, next country please.

I did not count - but it was probably 5 seconds.

What am I talking about ? The opening ceremony of the Athens Olympics, of course. Where every country has its turn walking down the track, waving to the crowd. Like possibly millions of Indians worldwide, I have been waiting impatiently for the Indian flag but Athens has already started its Olympics with its own unique flavour - the roll of honour is, as is traditional, alphabetical - but this time it is according to the Greek alphabet. I try to think frantically beyond "alpha, beta, gamma, delta, epsilon..." and, after some straining, give up. On a Friday evening, after a tough week, the Greek alphabet is not exactly a challenge my already considerably battered brain cells are looking forward to. I rationalise - after all this is only the opening ceremony - India will have its moment of glory, it will not miss out.

And then what I have described above, happens.

Come on, Anju - for my sake - and for the sake of a billion others – DO SOMETHING!

You probably think I have lost it. What has all this got to do with Sunil Gavaskar?

Be patient - I will come to that in a moment. Staying with Athens, if India got five seconds, compared to the massive cheering for Australia, it is not entirely unexpected. India may pick up the odd medal but it is hardly likely to set Athens ablaze. Ever since I can remember, India has more or less just made up the numbers at the Olympics. Every time I have hoped and cheered, every time I have been let down.

Over the last thirty years, I cannot remember many truly spectacular Indian sports personalities. People for whom one could, with some exaggeration (and borrowing from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar), quote "He doth bestride us like a colossus".

On the plus side, we can say the situation has definitely improved in recent years. Today Indian cricketers have thrust India in the limelight. Leander Paes and Bhupathi have done India proud in tennis. Gopichand has won an All-England title in badminton. And, of course, we have, possibly THE star attraction of most world chess tournaments, Vishwanathan Anand.

But this is all recent. Back in the seventies, there was a world snooker title for Michael Ferreira, there was an All-England title for Prakash Padukone and of course there was that unforgettable hockey World Cup of Kuala Lumpur in 1975. The country went crazy with Ajitpal Singh, Govinda, Aslam Sher Khan, Mohinder, Varinder, Surjit, Harcharan, Ashok Kumar, Michael Kindo and all the other heroes. Sportsweek magazine featured one player on its cover every week - this went on for several weeks (I suspect they sneaked in repeats - in a country starved of sporting success and at a time when hockey still had its pride of place in the national sports hierarchy, who cared?).

But, achievements in other sports notwithstanding, most of India was (as it still is) obsessed with cricket. And here, India had, like water, found its own level. The heady days of 1971 - with series wins in the West Indies and England, had given way to the harsher realities of 1974 (cynically known as "summer of 42". The more knowledgeable among you will understand this, the others must excuse me for not attempting to explain. Thirty years after the event, it still pains).

And this is where Sunil Gavaskar comes in (not here exactly but I thought I better mention him otherwise you may lose your patience – like I did with the Athens roll of call).

For all the talk about India having the world's best spinners, the fact is that throughout the 70s and for a part of the 80s, India, in cricket, was considered one of the weakest teams in the world. (This was in the days before Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Only New Zealand was considered possibly weaker). Which is why, when India sprung the odd surprise - like successfully chasing the 400-plus to beat the West Indies at Port of Spain, it did not sit very well with the opposition. Clive Lloyd could take a 1-5 hammering from the Aussies in the mid-seventies but losing to India a few months later? - a big no-no.

Throughout the seventies, if one analyses India’s poor performances, on the face of it, it would appear that the batsmen and bowlers were probably equally to blame. Often the bowlers lacked the killer instinct to finish off the game. But, having lived through each game of that period, I can remember far more instances where batsmen just did not give the bowlers enough to bowl at. Or worse still, they could not even chase a very ordinary total or survive just the last day of the Test. Navjot Singh Sidhu would have had a field day, commentating on Indian batting of that era – his "bicycles in the cycle shed" metaphor would have been aptly over-used.

And this is where Sunil Gavaskar comes in. No, this time he really does.

There were two batsmen of that era who stood out for India. Sunil Manohar Gavaskar (a.k.a Sunny) and Gundappa Ranganatha Vishwanath (a.k.a Vishy).
Both little masters. Sunny was 5 ft 4 inches, Vishy 5 ft 2 inches or so. In the mid-seventies they even got related when Vishy married Sunny’s sister.

One of the favourite pastimes of Indian cricket-lovers in those days was comparing Sunny and Vishy. They were different in style – Vishy’s strokes were often square of the wicket – on off- and onside. His favourite was the square cut although he had an absolutely delectable flick shot (and a glance shot to match) that would be the despair of the fielding captain who would typically have packed the field on the offside.

Sunny, opening batsman that he was, had to play a much straighter bat – he would often play in the arch of midoff and mid-on. His favourite was the straight drive past the bowler – he played it with absolute authority.

I can go on and on about both these players but for the rest of this article, I will talk only about Sunny. (He is the opener – it is his turn to bat. Vishy, at No. 4, will have to wait - although I can assure him that, in keeping with those times, it will be a short wait).

Much has been written about Sunny. By writers with far more credentials than me. They often tout his statistics to prove their point. Although these are very impressive, I will not dwell too much on this – those interested in knowing more about Sunny’s records can “google-search” them anywhere.

I will also not compare Sunny with any other players – not of his generation, not of any generation. It may make this article less interesting – but it would be unfair on him and on the ones he is compared with. All I will say is that in 1976, Sportsweek came out with a cover story on the three best batsmen in the world – Gavaskar, Richards and Greg Chappell. Although it did make a case for each of these to be the best, I think it did not conclude on any one – a wise decision. Choosing any one of these would be grave injustice to the other two.

My narrative on Sunny is personal – it is my tribute to a man who made me in my younger days , and millions others, proud to be Indian. On the field, he was a proud Indian himself – he would never give up the struggle, however hopeless it looked. Even today, he is a proud Indian – some of his criticism of the current Indian side has not gone down very well with them (like his comment about their being “chokers” , but anybody who knows Sunny from his stubborn playing days would realize where he is coming from). He is a perfect ambassador for not just the game of cricket but for sport in general.

For me, he has been in my life for as long as I can remember. In my childhood, he was every Indian cricket lover’s most treasured possession. We would be at school and try to get score updates. Everytime we would hear the score and learn that a wicket had fallen, we would pray that it was not Sunny’s. Most of the times, it was not. Much like Ken Barrington for England, Sunny wore India on his chest when he went out to bat. He was too respectful of the task he had and the responsibility he bore, to let India down.

Among the reasons I hold Sunny in very high esteem, is the fact that he achieved what he did, opening the batting for India. Everybody knows that an opener’s job is a very tough one – the wicket is usually green, you do not know how the ball will behave in the first over of the day and it takes one ball to behave strangely to see you back in the pavilion. A middle-order batsman has the slight advantage of judging by the fate of those before him. Added to this is the responsibility an opener carries – he knows that if he gets out, he immediately hands over psychological advantage to the bowling side. There is no bigger boost for a bowling side than to get an early breakthrough.

Now to something else – Sunny's critics.

Let’s face it – if you are famous, you tend to attract criticism. It is difficult for people to accept somebody wholeheartedly – it is almost against human nature. Like they say, “nobody kicks a dead dog”. But, when your playing days are over, often this criticism sticks even harder with your image. With the passage of time, with less and less of you to go by, there is a high chance that future generations see this image as you and all your exploits on the field – however laudable at that time – could fade into the background.

I am not suggesting that Sunny’s performances are ever going to fade into the background. They are far too many to suffer this fate. But his records will be broken. As batting averages continue to swell like the Ganges in monsoon, his once stupendous average of 51 may well be overtaken by many.

Not that Sunny would care. He knows what he has achieved for India. He is not answerable to any of his critics. But there are many images of him that are constantly portrayed to today’s cricket loving public – and some of them are definitely not positive.

As somebody who has followed his entire career closely, let me give you my take on him.

First I need to clarify that I am not a blind worshipper of Sunny. For all my huge admiration for him, I think he may have had his failings. At the zenith of his power, he had tremendous influence in selectorial matters. Some decisions of that period did strongly suggest a not-entirely-kosher selection process (especially since some of the beneficiaries were from Sunny’s zonal team, West Zone). Having said that, many selection decisions of those days raised eyebrows - speculating about Sunny’s role in this would be akin to vindicating the selectors themselves – and that would be wrong. It was their call – and they need to be answerable for their decisions.

Now, onto some mud on Sunny’s face that needs clearing. There have been a few stories – from his playing days – that have gained momentum after his retirement. I will challenge each one of them.

First, that Sunny was a selfish player – playing only for records. I have never heard such nonsense in my life. First of all, to play for records, you have to be in the luxurious position of being able to do so. Let’s not forget that most of the times Sunny was fighting with his back to the wall – trying to save the game for India. On the odd occasion that India indeed had this luxury, Sunny still played for India’s interests. Those who claim he was selfish need only to look at Calcutta, 1978-79 against West Indies. Sunny was captain – he had got a century in the first innings and , together with Dilip Vengsarkar was cruising along with a massive 344-run partnership in the second innings. He was batting 182 – a few overs and he would have got his double hundred – second century in the match. (He would have become the only player to have got a century and a double century in the same match on two occasions).

But since it was nearing the end of the fourth day, and he was pressing for a win, he chose to declare – and get a bowl at the Windies that evening. As things turned out on a nail-biting fifth day, the Windies just about managed to save the game by the skin of their teeth ending at 197/9. It was very disappointing for most Indians as they felt Sunny could as well have gone for his double hundred the previous evening. However, Sunny had absolutely no regrets about his decision – he said it was the right thing to do. It was just a pity India could not finish off the job. Selfish? I should think not!

Second, that Sunny was a very defensive captain – he never took risks. Come on – Sunny did not exactly have the Indian side that Ganguly has today. He opened the innings – when you see wickets falling like ninepins at the other end, you can be forgiven if your first instinct is to save the game. All his career, right down to his very last game, he was fighting to save India. Often he did not succeed – but never for want of trying. Sure, he may have taken a defensive position at times – but his teammates had not exactly vindicated his confidence in them, had they?

Third, that he was a slow batsman. Some even call him boring. They immediately cite his 36 not out as the example.

Sunny will be the first person to admit that the 36 not out innings was “horrible” in the context of limited-overs cricket. Perhaps in the context of any cricket. It was one of those innings which he himself jokes about nowadays – instead of avoiding the subject. At that time, much was made of it – as if India lost the match because of this innings. I myself listened to the commentary of that innings and, while his batting made no sense at all, in my opinion, India had long lost the game when England ran way with a huge 330-0dd runs with Amiss hammering Ghavri all over the place. No excuse for that slow innings but let us not make a big deal of it.

This can definitely not be taken to make a statement that Sunny was a “slow batsman”. He was a very responsible batsman, always aware of the expectations from him. He played one loose shot early in his career, hooking carelessly and getting out. For the rest of his career, he cut the hook out of his repertoire of strokes. And, for those who think he had a limited range of strokes, think again. He was technically brilliant, he had a wide variety of strokes, both on the offside and the legside. He chose to play in the arch between mid-off and mid-on most of the times, offering the full face of the bat. All the strokes he did not play were those he chose not to because of his sense of responsibility. And, he was definitely not a slow scorer. He would not play rash strokes but he would punish any ball slightly loose – but you don’t get many loose balls when the bowlers are on top. And why are they on top ? Because they have taken a few wickets. In those days, run-rates were anyway much less than today and, if you exclude marauders like Richards, Greenidge and Lloyd, Gavaskar’s run rate would not compare too unfavourably with many others of that time, considering his opening role and team position.

And lastly, one of the biggest criticisms about him. That much of his success came against weak bowling attacks. Much is made of the fact that against the relatively weak Windies attacks of 1971 and 1978-79, Sunny made hay while in 1982-83, facing Marshall, Holding and co, he was suddenly exposed to genuine high-quality fast bowling and his average was suddenly not-so-impressive. Similarly in the 1980-81 series against Lillee, Sunny had a poor showing while he bullied a B-grade Aussie team in 1977-78.

I really wish Sunny had played Marshall and Lillee much more in his career than he did. I feel he would have silenced many of his critics. I believe Marshall was the most dangerous bowler in the world in the 80s – to be facing him (with or without helmet) would be any batsman’s worst nightmare since Marshall, without the advantage of height that Garner had, still had the ability to get the ball to rise off the pitch and come straight at the batsman’s throat. Yes, by his own lofty standards Sunny did not have the most successful of series against Marshall in 1983. But in the early and mid-80s, Sunny’s form did dip a bit compared to his form in the 70s. This happens to any batsman. It had nothing to do with facing Marshall. That most top players chose to go to World Series Cricket in the late seventies for huge sums of money thus impoverishing Test cricket, is not Sunny’s fault. He chose not to go – he preferred to play Test cricket for India (note this aspect to his character too). The bottom line is he played whichever bowlers were bowling to him at that time and if they were not the best of that country, he could not be blamed for it. And what people conveniently forget, is that Gavaskar did play Imran very well in what was Imran’s dream series in 1982 in Pakistan against India. Imran himself admitted as much.

So, I will not accept the line of reasoning that since Gavaskar did not play top-quality fast bowling all his career, he could not play top-quality fast bowling.

Now to something completely different. Throughout his career, Sunny played a number of memorable innings. He has often quoted his 57 at Manchester in 1971 as his favourite. A bit ironic considering he has 34 hundreds. It is very difficult for me to pick one of his innings – there are so many gems. But, purely for quality, magic, pitch condition, match situation and the drama of the dismissal, I would choose his very last innings – an absolutely magnificent 96 against Pakistan at Bangalore in 1986-87 – a match that India lost by 16 runs and where Sunny was controversially given out. Apparently the next day the umpire admitted that his decision may not have been the right one. This in an India-Pakistan game. Rubber-deciding game. Gavaskar on 96. Last Test innings. They don’t come much more critical than that.

If after this long blog, you are still skeptical about Sunny, fine. Don’t take my word for it. Here is what some illustrious players had to say about him. They cannot all be wrong.

Sir Don Bradman : “I would have been proud to have played cricket with him."

Viv Richards : “I personally would like to say that Sunny Gavaskar is the best. His record speaks for itself."

Ian Botham : “The Indian combines Boycott's steadiness and Greenidge's ability to keep the runs flowing."

Mike Proctor : "If I have to bet on someone making a hundred in a match he is the one most likely to achieve it."

Imran Khan : "His perfect technique makes him the most difficult batsman alive to dismiss."

Sir Len Hutton : "If I were to recommend a schoolboy to copy a modern master, I would go for Gavaskar."

Sir Colin Cowdrey : “A pocket-sized battleship armed with an impenetrable defence and astonishing gunpowder. The bigger the battle, the better the performance."

Mohinder Amarnath : "You cannot compare Sunny with anyone. For him batting was everything. He didn't want to fail or throw away his wicket. He had perfect technique, perfect temperament”.

Andy Roberts : "He had scored tons of runs against all countries but not one against India,which has the weakest attack.It speaks volumes about his greatness."

If all these great players feel this way, who am I to argue?

So let’s end this criticism now and appreciate and respect what we have.

This article has suddenly lifted my spirits. Just discussing Sunny tends to do that to me.

I hope Anju is reading this article – or any of the Indian participating contingent currently in Athens.

It is a matter of pride to represent your country.

If you feel that way, you give your best.

Now if only Anju or any of the others can pull off something fantastic, wouldn’t it be great for Indian sport?

Sunny would wholeheartedly approve.

Monday, August 02, 2004

Cricket Memories : 1971 - India in the West Indies

One of the very first series that I have any memories of at all is, coincidentally, one of India’s most memorable series. It had to be – after all, it was India’s first overseas series win. I must admit rightaway I have very faint memories of this series. I was a little over seven at that time and, much as I would like to pretend that I remember a lot of that series, the truth is, I do not. My clearest memory of that series is in fact my eldest sister throwing down the newspaper – the Statesman (we were in Eastern India) - muttering something like “this Gavaskar is just too much”. Only later I realized that by “much” she meant “good” and this was more an expression of approval from her than tiredness (an emotion that I more readily associated with her in those days as she desperately tried – often quite unsuccessfully - to keep her younger brother under control). Knowing her interests better as the years went by, I realized that cricket did not rank among them and it must definitely have been an achievement of considerable magnitude by Mr. Gavaskar to have evoked any sort of reaction from her.

And some achievement it was. This series that I am talking about was not only memorable for India’s first overseas series win – it will be remembered as the series when a young Gavaskar, making his debut, rocked the world with a performance so solid that even my sister just had to notice. In just four Tests (he did not play the first), he scored 774 runs at an average of 154 – with four hundreds and two fifties. One of these hundreds was a double hundred (and, for good measure, this was in the second innings of a Test in which he had already got a hundred in the first outing). Gavaskar had announced himself boldly to the world – and for the next 17 years, the world would see the broadest of bats in defence and the firmest of straight drives in attack from a man no taller than 5 ft 4 inches but with the determination and concentration that would be the despair of many a fast bowler.

But I am getting ahead of myself. In this series of blogs, as I discuss India’s fortunes through the 70s and 80s, there will be many occasions to discuss Gavaskar – in fact there will hardly be a series where he did not have an impact. So let me take it one series at a time.

The Indian side that went to the West Indies on this 1970-71 tour can be forgiven if, before the tour, they had dared to dream of winning a game or so. True, the last Indian side to the West Indies – in 1962 – had been so comprehensively beaten, losing all five Tests, that it was clear that history was against the Indians. But, in all fairness to the West Indies, by 1970-71, they were a shadow of the side of the mid-60s. Not only had the three Ws long since left the scene, more worryingly for them, their fast bowling powerhouse – once so safe in the hands of Wes Hall and Griffith – was a shadow of its former self. Both these bowlers had left the scene and the West Indies were in a stage of rebuilding their fast bowling attack. Their batting was still fairly formidable - no batting with Sobers, Kanhai and Lloyd can be considered anything less – but Butcher had left the scene and this was definitely not a side that you would consider anywhere near the best of West Indian cricket. Having said that, you still have to go out there and win – and I will not take anything away from India’s achievement in this series by talking any less of the West Indies side of that era.

The rest of the description of this series will be largely based on what I have read in books and articles. This was a well-documented series in the 70s, as you can imagine, and I will borrow liberally from my memory of those readings. There may be the odd factual error – I hope the reader will bear with me. None of those sources is available with me now so I must depend largely on memory and on statistics of those matches from the Internet.

The Indian side that visited the West Indies then had a couple of surprises. For one, there was no Farokh Engineer. The first wicketkeeper was a P. Krishnamurthy from Hyderabad who had yet to play a Test for India when selected for the tour. The reserve wicketkeeper (who got many chances in the first-class games on the tour but never played a test) was R. Jeejeebhoy. Similar fate lay in store for one of the main fast bowlers, D. Govindraj, who did play rather creditably in the first-class games but never made it to the Test side. The Indian bowling was invariably opened by Syed Abid Ali and Eknath Solkar.

Another surprise was the absence of Chandrasekhar. This was not so much a surprise as a disappointment – Chandra had been out of action for more than three years after sustaining an injury in a scooter accident. Although it was hoped he would recover in time for this series, it was not to happen. He was not fit in time and had to sit this one out. Maybe he was saving his best for the series to follow (but that is another story).

The team had a mix of experience and youth. While on one hand, there was the youthful exuberance of Ashok Mankad, Eknath Solkar and Gundappa Vishwanath (who had just made their Test debuts about a year ago) and Gavaskar (still only a first-class player - first-class in every sense), there was the experience of a Dilip Sardesai, M.L. Jaisimha, Salim Durani, Erapalli Prasanna and Srinivas Venkataraghavan to balance this youth. And India had that eternal trier – Syed Abid Ali – I used to marvel at his tremendous energy and never-say-die attitude.

The team was being led for the first time by Ajit Wadekar – he had just been made India captain when Vijay Merchant, casting the deciding vote as chairman of selectors, voted in his favour. Wadekar thus took over the reins from Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi.

The rival captain was Gary Sobers, easily one of the all-time greats of the game. He was leading a side still in the process of finding itself after a series defeat in England and the loss of some key players like Basil Butcher and Wesley Hall.

Now, let us look at the series itself.

First Test, Sabina Park, Kingston, Jamaica
In keeping with India’s traditional performance in inaugural tests of series, India could have been excused a first Test disaster. The first day’s play was totally lost to rain but when the match resumed on the second day, the way India batted, one could have easily mistaken this to be a warm-up match. Had it not been for that veteran Dilip Sardesai and his fighting stand with Eknath Solkar, India would not have batted out that day. As it turned out, these two stayed put, taking India from 75./5 to 212/6 – Sardesai was eventually ninth out with the score on 382 (his own score being 212). India finished on 387.

When the West Indies batted, they were probably not expecting the type of collapse they had. Riding pretty at 201 for 4, they suddenly found the Indian spinners in a dream spell – and crashed to 217 all out. Suddenly India were very much on top. Since the first day had been washed out, a lead of l50 would have been enough for India to impose the follow-on – which it did. But any visions India had of victory (especially with West Indies on 32/2, following on) were quickly disposed of. They ran into their old tormentor, Rohan Kanhai , who with Lloyd and Sobers for company, played out the rest of the game and ensured India got no more than a draw from this one. Many were left to rue what might have happened if a day had not been lost but, after the first Test, it was clear that India had drawn first blood. Foreboding of things to come.

Second Test, Queen’s Park Oval, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad
For the second Test, India made two changes. Two of the four Hyderabadis in the side, the dour Jayantilal and the flamboyant Jaisimha were replaced by two young batsmen from Bombay, Ashok Mankad and Sunil Gavaskar. Gavaskar had just scored a century and a half-century in the tour game against Trinidad and had virtually forced himself into the side on the merit of this performance. These two batsmen were to open the innings, with Abid Ali batting lower down.

The crowd had not even settled down in their seats when Abid Ali, as if as a precursor of things to come, clean bowled Roy Fredericks with the first ball of the match. Thanks to a fighting, unbeaten 71 from local boy Charlie Davis, West Indies managed to reach a somewhat respectable but not entirely adequate 214. Throughout this series, Charlie Davis would prove to be a thorn for the Indians.

The Indian reply began solidly. Gavaskar , in his debut innings, was sedate while Mankad was the more aggressive partner. With Mankad’s 44, Gavaskar’s 65 and yet another excellent partnership from Sardesai-Solkar, India managed 352 – a lead of 138. Sardesai got his second successive century of the series, Solkar his second successive half –century. A remarkable achievement for West Indies in this innings was the nine-wicket haul of spinner Jack Noreiga. He claimed all the wickets except the first one to fall – that of Ashok Mankad.

The West Indies second innings began equally solidly. Kanhai got out with the score on 73 but by the end of the third day they had wiped out the deficit and had got themselves comfortably to 150 for 1.

Nobody could have been prepared for the drama on the morning of the fourth day. First Charlie Davis got himself injured and had to retire hurt. Then Roy Fredericks, never the best of runners, got into a mix-up with Clive Lloyd (himself run out in both innings of the first test) , and got himself run out for 80. West Indies had not added a run to their overnight score.

More drama was to follow. In fact, much more. Salim Durani, who had until then had a quiet match and series, came up with the ball of the series to clean bowl Sobers for a duck (152/3) and a short while later, got rid of Lloyd (169/4). When Venkat clean bowled Camacho at the same score 169/5), the injured Davis returned to the field to salvage the game. But Venkat would not be denied. Durani having opened up the innings, it was Venkat now who ripped through the batting, finishing with 5/95 as West Indies were dismissed for 295, Davis with a fighting unbeaten 74, watching on helplessly.

India now needed just 124 to win. Mankad and Gavaskar, with a handful of tests between them, went about their job very confidently and though Mankad fell before the end, triggering a mini-collapse, it was perhaps only fitting that Gavaskar was there at the end to see India to a memorable win – its first ever in the West Indies.

Third Test, Bourda, Georgetown, Guyana
West Indies, one-down, were keen to come back into the series. They replaced Camacho with Carew, Holder with Boyce and keeper Findlay with Desmond Lewis who had done very well in the tour game against the Indians.
India made one change – Gundappa Vishwanath finally got a chance to play while Prasanna missed this game.

Without any spectacular performance, the West Indies still managed a workmanlike 363, Lloyd getting run out yet again for a useful 60 while newcomer Desmond Lewis continued his good form, topscoring with an unbeaten 81.
In reply, India once again began solidly and eventually went on to 376, Gavaskar continuing his fine form – this time getting his first century in Tests. There would be 33 more to follow. Vishwanath managed a 50.
The West Indies second innings was equally solid – (that man) Davis and Sobers hitting unbeaten centuries as West Indies set India a target of 295 to get. This being unreasonable in the time available, India preferred to get some batting practice with both Mankad and Gavaskar helping themselves to half-centuries. Test drawn – India still one-up with two to go.

Fourth Test, Kensington Oval, Bridgetown, Barbados
India had just suffered their first defeat of the tour – to a strong Barbados side, containing players like Sobers, David Holford, Vanburn Holder and Keith Boyce. It was not good for their confidence, within hardly a day of this defeat, to be playing a hungry West Indian side, now very keen to get back on level terms. For this Test, the West Indians made many changes to their side, dropping Gibbs, Noreiga, Shillingford and Boyce. Instead they gave Test debuts to Trinidadian spinner Inshan Ali and, as this was Bridgetown, a raw fast bowler Uton Dowe. Besides, local fast bowlers, Vanburn Holder and John Shepherd got a chance to play in front of their home crowd. India made just one change – Jaisimha coming back in the side in place of Durani.

The West Indies batted like they meant business. Sobers blasted his way to an unbeaten 178, (that man) Davis, Kanhai and new man Lewis all chipped in and they had 501 on the board when Sobers declared. He must have thought it would be enough to force India to follow-on.

It very nearly was. The Indian top order crumbled. Mankad went for six. Unable to resist the temptation to hook, Gavaskar was caught by Holder off Dowe for just one. (In his memoirs, Gavaskar recalls this innings, saying he learnt his lesson from this one shot – he never again threw his wicket away trying to hook). Soon India was 70/6 and it was once again upto that pair – Sardesai and Solkar – to put on a marvelous rescue act – this time all of 186 runs – to see India out of the woods. They got their third century and half-century of the series respectively and , while in the analysis of this series, Gavaskar’s contribution will far outshine others, spare a thought for these two men who were as instrumental in securing India’s series win as probably Gavaskar. A fighting last wicket partnership of 61 between Sardesai and Bedi ensured that India avoided the follow-on and India finished on 347.

Having been forced to bat a second time, the West Indies must have looked for some quick runs but they had not reckoned with some fine bowling from, this time, Abid Ali who put the brakes on their ambitions and managed to restrict them to 180/6 declared. India were set a score of 335 in a little over a hundred overs.

At another ground, in another time and in another situation, India may well have attempted this target. But this was Bridgetown, Barbados - they were still not one-day cricket days – and India was not going to take any risks and let go its precious series lead. As it turned out, it lost Mankad cheaply and wickets continued to fall but Gavaskar had no intentions of repeating his first innings mistake. He would stay till the very end – and deny the West Indians, in the process getting another Test century. The lead was still intact – and there was just one more Test to go.

Fifth Test, Queen’s Park Oval, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad
The Indians went into this Test knowing they had only to save it to win the series. They were back at the very ground in Port-of-Spain where they had just a few weeks ago pulled off a remarkable victory. But if they thought this would work in their favour, they had not reckoned with the resolve of their rival captain, Gary Sobers. This match would be as hard-fought as the previous one with no quarters given or taken.

The West Indians had recalled Noreiga, dropping Inshan Ali who had had a largely uneventful game in Barbados. They had also brought in David Holford (famous cousin of Sobers and famous for their stand against England in 1966) in place of Roy Fredericks.
For India, Prasanna was back in the side for Ashok Mankad. Abid Alid would open with Gavaskar.

India batted first and lost Abid Ali early to Sobers. But Gavaskar was “in a zone” by this stage of the series. He, together with Sardesai (who at this late stage in his career suddenly seemed to have finally answered his many critics), shored the Indian innings and , thanks to a useful half-century from Venkataraghavan, India managed a score of 360.

In itself, not a bad score. But the way the West Indians went about their batting, it began looking very inadequate. First Lewis (for a wicketkeeper he was amazingly prolific) got 70-odd, then (that man) Charlie Davis decided to have one last go at the Indians with his first hundred of the series and captain Sobers hit what was becoming rather routine – another century. Maurice Foster was very unlucky to be bowled by Abid Ali for 99 (many West Indians in the stands are reported to have lost their bets on this one) and West Indies managed an imposing 526 – a lead of 166.

It was the afternoon on the fourth day now but when Abid Ali fell cheaply to Sobers yet again, India could not have been very comfortable. Having come so far and with just another day and a half to go, this would be a really cruel anti-climax, were India to give it all away now.

But that little master Gavaskar was going to have none of it. This time he even surpassed himself – playing serenely and taking on everything that Sobers, Dowe, Shepherd and Noreiga could throw at him. By the time he was out, with the Indian score on 377, his own share a magnificent 220, he had seen India to relative safety. India finally managed to get 427, thus setting West Indies a target of 262 to win.

Any ambitions the West Indians would have had of chasing this were quickly snuffed by Abid Ali, especially when he bowled Kanhai and Sobers off successive deliveries – the latter to an absolute snorter. A middle-order collapse from the West Indians ensured that in the end they were fighting for survival and had lost all appetite for the chase. Most importantly, India had managed to hang on to that precious lead and on the 19th of April, 1971 India completed its first ever overseas series win.

Ajit Wadekar and his men returned home, heroes. Deservedly so. It was a proud moment for Indian cricket. It had taken all of 39 years for this to happen.

I was just 7 or 8 years old then. Too young to really understand what was going on. In later years I would be much more part of the Gavaskar juggernaut. But maybe it was this series that not only started off Gavaskar on his route to fame but started me off too on my love for the game. I wonder !

Friday, July 30, 2004

Cricket Passion and a trip down Memory Lane

I must be really crazy. I am pushing forty - no, let me be honest, I am already forty - and here I am - jumping and screaming and typing furiously into a cricket chat box to broadcast my views on this India - Sri Lanka one-dayer that is becoming a thriller with every passing moment. The left side of my brain tells me - come on, relax - you are forty now - behave your age. And, at exactly the same moment - as if to ensure it does not lose control of me - the right side of my brain drags me right back into the game - to hell with age. Be yourself - you don't want to miss this, do you ?

I choose to go with the right side - and am glad I do. I scream my guts out - I type my fingers numb - India, as only India can, come up with something absolutely out of this world to drag themselves back from certain defeat and elimination to a cool, thoroughly well-orchestrated triumph. Boy, am I glad I listened to that right side !

I may be forty - but nobody will ever be able to convince me that I should be letting go of my cricket madness. Quite simply - it has been with me for as long as I can remember and will be with me for as long as I live. Only those really passionate about the game will probably understand what this madness is all about - it defies any rational explanation (but then, isn't that anyway the definition of madness ?) Whether my body has any other enzyme or not, I am sure of an abundantly adequate adrenalin level whenever my country's players walk on to the cricket field.

Over the years, cricket has given me some of the best moments of my life. Through school, through college and beyond, it has been something I have been able to hold on to. In good times and in bad, it has been the one constant that I know I can depend on to take me to a different zone altogether. Some may call it escapism - I would prefer to call it pursuit of a passion that transcends all things material. Things material come and go - a passion is with you as long as you want it to be. Some have it with painting, some with cooking - I have it with cricket. It is not that I do not follow other sports - I do- and some very , if not equally, passionately. But having been born in India, it is rather difficult not to have a cricket bat or ball in your hand sometime in your life - and then it is only a matter of time !

I have been fortunate to have experienced , looking back now over 30 years, the most delightful cricket one can hope for. I could not have asked for more (except for more Indian wins, probably !). They have been the wonder years for me - from my early days when I used to staunchly defend the stylish Gundappa Vishwanath in every Vishwanath-Gavaskar debate (usually I lost this one - but then I was always a right-side-of-the-brain guy) to today when, 30 years later, a frighteningly similar debate rages about another Karnataka-Mumbai pair - Dravid-Tendulkar - and I am as passionate as ever. 30 years on, I feel young - and it is all due to this game called cricket. So let nobody tell me that I am too old for it.

What has changed is the game itself. In every sense. Where should I start ? Batsmen used to play without helmets (very difficult to even imagine now), there used to be a rest day after 3 days of play (it was torture), Test cricket was virtually the only form of international cricket, players used to be paid like they were lucky to get any money at all for playing for their country, sponsorships were virtually unheard of, television (in India) was either not present at all or almost inaccessible to most of the country (making radio commentary absolutely the voice of the game), there were only two umpires and if the decision was wrong - well too bad , countries like Bangladesh and Zimbabwe were nowhere on the cricketing map - and yes, one more thing - India used to lose a lot ! Well, a lot has changed indeed !

Most of this is for the better. To those who say "those were the glorious days - today cricket is all crass commercialism", I can only lend my sympathy for their living in the past. The run-rates achieved today in Test cricket are a delight compared to the drudgery of many a game in those days, far more games end conclusively today than did in those days. And technology has done wonders - that I am able to chat with friends, following a game, ball by ball, on the Internet - need I say more !

Yes, there was a different type of magic then - and there is a different type now. Let us not glorify or vilify any era !

In my childhood I used to enjoy reading about and listening to stories of players of a bygone era. Vijay Hazare, Vijay Merchant, Lala Amarnath, Mushtaq Ali, Vijay Manjrekar, Vinoo Mankad, Subhash Gupte - to name just a few Indian greats. I used to devour any article or book on cricket. Partab Ramchand's tribute to Indian cricketers of the past, autobiographies of many famous cricketers like the Don, Sir Garfield Sobers, Conrad Hunte, Ian Chappell. I distinctly remember a series on English pre-war cricket legends that a popular children's magazine of that time , Children's World, came out with. I was totally lost in the world of Jack Hobbs, Herbert Sutcliffe, Maurice Leyland, Lesley Ames, Hedley Verity, Archie Maclaren, Tom Hayward, Walter Hammond, Patsy Hendren and many others.

In end-1975, David Frith - one of the most notable of cricket journalists - came out with a beautiful, hardcover collage of every single Ashes Test ever played - from 1877 upto and including the 1975 Ashes series in England. It was in commemoration of 100 years of Test cricket. This book easily became my Bible and I lived every Test match in my mind - from Charles Bannerman in the first-ever Test at Melbourne in 1877 to the last Test of that 1975 series at the Oval when Bob Woolmer played a magnificent, match-saving knock of 149.

I used to build my own statistics from various sources. There was no Internet then - so I used to depend on bits and pieces of information. Thus, in my school library, I found an old copy of Sportweek (1973 or 1974 it was) which had a list of players with averages of over 50. There were just a handful then - and I was thus introduced to players like Tyldesley and Dempster - not exactly household names but, if you look at averages, they most certainly had their place in this Hall of Fame. These statistics promptly went into my own "statistics notebook". The magazine "World of Cricket" - very popular in those days - was my source for statistics of every current series. They had an excellent summary page of statistical highlights. Thus I remember John Edrich and Ian Chappell getting their 5000 runs - a very highly regarded milestone in those days. They also had a very interesting article section - "Down Memory Lane" where, in each issue, they would talk in great detail of one amazing Test match of the past. This is where I learnt about the Tied Test at Brisbane in 1960-61, I read about the amazing Manchester Test of 1961 where Peter May was bowled round his legs by Richie Benaud and that turned the game Australia's way, I read about Gary Sobers' amazing declaration in the 1968 series against England and many, many other games.

None of this will ever be erased from my memory. For the true cricket lover, these are priceless stories and moments - and need to be treasured. And, more importantly, shared. For, what value is a cricket memory - if it is only in the mind of he who has had the delight of experiencing it ?

This is a site where I have had the pleasure of meeting a vast number of extremely likeable, very knowledgeable and considerably passionate cricket fans. If they have interest in listening to a 40-year old babbling about his memories, I would be glad to share some of these with them.
I hope to be able to write more about these in the coming weeks and would love to receive comments, questions from my friends.

I think, as I close this blog now, it is only appropriate to pause for a moment and think not only about what has brought us together but who and how. Had it not been for the wonderful brains of a few enthusiasts, we would have been in our own worlds, enjoying the game in our own ways. These few friends have built for us an opportunity to discuss the game together - an infinitely more enjoyable experience than being on one's own. Personally, they have given me an opportunity to indulge my passion. We owe them a lot. We owe it to them to make their efforts worthwhile - by making the most of this opportunity.

I am sure we will have a wonderful, hugely fun-filled experience doing what we all love most - following and discussing the game of cricket. I look forward, smacking my lips in anticipation, to many heated, divergent (and therefore probably even more interesting) points of view. Bring them on.

Friday, June 04, 2004

Politics, Cricket and Cricket Politics

It has been a quiet month for Indian cricket and the public and media focus in India has shifted to another favourite pre-occupation of many Indians – politics. While it is probably true that politics no longer holds the same passionate appeal in the minds of the masses as it did in the days of the original Madam Gandhi, nothing non-cricketing rakes up a frenzy in Indian minds as much as a general election drama to decide the country’s leadership for the next five years. The media does its bit, the psephologists and astrologers play demi-Gods, celebrities jump onto whatever political bandwagon stops at their doorstep - and the cricket-starved public laps up this fare wholeheartedly with little else to compete for attention.

Mind you, I am not complaining about or belittling the process – India is the largest democracy in the world and, despite glitches in the election process, on balance the process works. It is no mean task to conduct elections in a country like India with its billion-plus population and tremendous geographic and socio-political complexity. Despite these practical difficulties, the process rolls on. Indians should be proud of the fact that their country allows them a mechanism to decide their fate for themselves – whether they choose to exercise this right or not. Many countries in the world do not have this option.

But what has all this got to do with cricket ? Quite frankly, nothing.I just could not resist a comment on the hottest topic in India at the moment – the elections. Having followed the political fortunes of many leaders and parties over the last thirty years (yes, from pre-Emergency days to the current day), it has always been fascinating for me to follow the evolution of the political process, more than just the results of elections – which in themselves have sometimes been quite remarkable. I have followed closely the forming of parties and alliances, the splitting of parties, the rise of “upstarts” and the making and breaking of issues on the political agenda of many a party. Politics may have gone high-tech over the last decade or so but the underlying Machiavellian methods to political survival remain as strong as ever.

Now, onto some cricketing matters. If I had to pick the two hottest subjects in the cricketing world at the moment, they would undoubtedly be the Murali chucking issue and the Zimbabwe drama. Since there is not much cricket going on, these two items occupy centrestage in virtually every cricketing discussion on at the moment.

I am not a cricket expert but as a follower, I will share with you my humble views on these.

First on Murali. His getting to the world record has obviously drawn increased attention to his bowling action but I wonder what the ICC has been doing all this while. Now it says he must stop with the doosra but why did it not come up with this statement when he started bowling it a while ago ? Heath Streak says that all Murali’s “doosra” wickets should be disallowed and while he may well be right, it is not a practical suggestion. What has happened, has happened and you cannot go back to changing the record books. Murali was cleared years ago on his bowling action by the ICC, he has taken tons of wickets thereafter, now his doosra has come up for review and has been disallowed. Fine, he stops bowling the doosra and gets on with the rest of his arsenal – unless the ICC finds anything else irregular in his bowling. In that case, it is upto the ICC to step in IMMEDIATELY and prevent further damage – to the game and to the individual. It is not my place to make a judgment call on the legitimacy of Murali’s action, it is that of the ICC to make this call. While it dilly-dallies, many notable current and former players, from Bishen Bedi to Dion Ebrahim, have freely lambasted him – with due respect to all of them, it is not their call either. In my opinion, the most sensible comment on this whole story has come from one of my favourite cricketers, Anil Kumble. He is quoted as having said "Whatever needed to be done should have been done much earlier. You can't keep pointing fingers at Murali every time he takes a wicket." I couldn’t agree more.

Now, onto Zimbabwe. The politics of the Mugabe government have been a matter of discussion for a few years already in many an international forum. It was inevitable that this would spill over to sport and to cricket in particular, where Zimbabwe has an international presence. Already the cricket world cup last year saw a lot of tension and some very unpleasant incidents, what with England refusing to play in Zimbabwe, Nasser Hussain baring his disgust (at the ECB) in public, Henry Olonga considering himself as a “marked” man after refusing to take the field. For what was an otherwise very well-organised World Cup, this was clearly something that should have been prevented in the first place from happening. We are now more than a year down the road, Zimbabwe continues to be an enigma and the ICC continues to twiddle its thumbs on the matter, claiming it to be an internal Zimbabwe problem. True, it began as a Zimbabwe problem but it has now become a cricketing problem in general, what with the game being reduced to farcical proportions with Australia being virtually “forced” to play a second-string Zimbabwe side due to ICC regulations. It is the ICC which sets the rules for international cricket and it is upto the ICC to review its rules and modify them, from time to time, in keeping with changed circumstances. They claim to be the caretakers of the game – if they indeed have this role, in my opinion, they are not doing a very good job of it. Unlike the Murali controversy, the Zimbabwe controversy could not probably have been prevented by the ICC entirely but the embarrassment and impact could have been drastically reduced if the ICC had taken some firm steps and decisions when the controversy started instead of letting it escalate.

That’s it for now. I would welcome any feedback to the views expressed in this article.

Saturday, May 01, 2004

Thank You, Pakistan !

And to think it almost did not happen.

The security fears before the series had made this almost a non-starter. It took some initiative and courage – on both sides – to finally ensure this series happened – and how! Barring one incident involving an Indian journalist (for which immediate action was taken), the entire tour has only received positive comment from every player, official, journalist or even Indian visitor. The ground support (and I do not mean support from the players, although some may agree there too) from Pakistanis to Indians has been overwhelming.

Some die-hard critics (and there are still plenty on both sides) may say this is all “hogwash”. They will argue that the countries remain hostile to each other. They will argue that one cricket series, showcased for the international community and in election-year, as a “friendship series” does not mean a thing. The core issues remain conveniently un-addressed and this feel-good factor, so carefully nurtured by the incumbent Indian government as part of its “India shining” campaign, is going to evaporate as soon as the elections are over or with the first signs of internal pressure on Musharraf.

I can fully understand where they are coming from. Two months of bonhomie cannot undo fifty-five years of mistrust. It would be naïve to think so. Generations have grown up on a diet of suspicion and history books have only fomented this hatred.

But – call me a dreamer – I would like to take the small positives from the last two months and weave my own fabric of hope around this. Pakistanis and Indians sitting next to each other in Karachi, waving flags of both countries, without fear or concern for any backlash. Was this “stage-managed”?

Pakistanis falling all over Ganguly, Dravid and even Balaji. Was this “stage-managed”?

Just to see the Pakistani angle, I have been ardently following the Pakistani media over the last two months. I was most pleasantly surprised by the total lack of rancour about India. Was this “stage-managed”? (Critics will jump on this one, saying Musharraf controls the press. I will not comment on this).

This cricket site where Indians and Pakistanis have made friends over the last month – was this friendship “stage-managed”?

Sure, one swallow does not make a summer. But I can see a horde on the horizon – if only we, the people, allow this.

In a previous article, I had talked about cricket being in good hands – in the hands of the people. Now, with this series over, is a much, much more difficult task on hand for these very people. Building on this platform and working on this tenuous relationship.

Friends, let’s be clear: the future of this relationship lies in OUR hands, not in the hands of our governments.

To my Indian friends I would like to say: “Pakistan has been the perfect host. We need to reciprocate with full warmth and respect”.

To my Pakistani friends, I would like to say “ A BIG BIG THANK YOU! I cannot speak for other Indians, but you have definitely found a place in my heart!”

Sunday, April 25, 2004

Rawalpindi - and all that's right with it

The critics will dismiss it as hype but to the millions of Indian and Pakistani fans who now inhabit virtually every part of the globe the build-up to this Rawalpindi Test has been a drama in itself. Everything that a drama seeks to play out is on display – there is suspense (not so much a whodunit as a who’s in it), there is emotion (tons of it – one would expect nothing less in an India-Pak outing), there is relief (for those who believe they were “done in” at Lahore and are glad to have different men-in-white this time) and above all – there is the sense of “sitting on the edge of your seats” – something that you only get when the result is potentially so close.

Move over Ashes, with all your history you cannot come close to the drama that India and Pakistan provide – time and again, match after match. Drama, at its purest, cannot be contrived – it is, simply, of the people, by the people, for the people. Every ball in an India-Pak game is accompanied by “oohs” and “aahs”, every shot by “ohhs” and “waahs” – it is as if each ball has a responsibility to create a story in itself. However much the world may like to deny it, in cricket today, India and Pakistan lead the pack in terms of characters, mass following and, most importantly, intensity. The Ashes may have history but if I may be spared a term of today’s generation “India – Pakistan rock!”

Make no mistake – despite talk of matches being “fixed” and this being a “goodwill” series, there is still everything to play for. As Indian captain Ganguly made very clear before the first day of the series, he is not here for politics but for cricket. In short, he is here to win. The “goodwill” aspect will and, I daresay, has taken care of itself. Friends have been made – hopefully for a lifetime – but the simple mission that Ganguly and co. had set out for themselves almost exactly a month ago is now reaching its finale at Rawalpindi.

The growing popularity of one-dayers notwithstanding, many still believe that Test Matches are the true determinants of superiority of a team. They test a team over two innings and potentially five days and tend to cancel out any imbalance from a flash-in-the pan performance, so likely to cause a one-day upset. I for one, believe both variants of the game have their place – and while spectator value is probably higher in the one-dayers the very thought of the twists that a Test can potentially deliver is a lip-smacking one.

There is less than a day to go now for this last Test. Speculation will continue till the very last moment. Selections on both sides will be analysed and criticized (some may be applauded but I fear this will be drowned in the wave of criticism – decades of selector suspicion have honed the critical skills of us Asians and we have no qualms about being very vocal about them either). The pitch will be discussed to death. The “match fixing” subject (something that I suppose we will have to live with) will rear its head from time to time.

But one thing is for sure – the future of cricket is safe and in good hands. The hands of the people.