Category Archives: Cricket

Hey Indians, how about strapping some balls on?

In the last three overs of the Indian innings in the final, I knew a storm was brewing.

We logged on to Facebook to check out Yuvraj Singh’s Facebook page, and we found people trolling him. Some of the posts were really funny. We scrolled down some more, and then there were few that weren’t very funny, some that were poor attempts, and finally, some that really lacked in taste.

Which is why I wasn’t surprised the next day when I read the news of Yuvraj Singh’s house getting stoned. People wished that he had died of cancer, than to come back and play in the final.

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Whenever such an incident comes up, there are two common explanations.

The first explanation for it is that we are an emotional people. That we love cricket as a sport, and it is the frustration of a people whose only bright spot in life and popular culture is films and cricket.

Which is an absurd explanation. If we were really passionate about the sport, we would know that a team sport is dependent on the entire team. If they scratched a little more, they’d also know that a team sport is dependent on a variety of external things – luck, strategy, playing conditions. And if they really had an IQ of 80+, they’d know that it is really difficult to hit yorkers outside the off stump.

The second is that it comes with being a sporting icon. When people love you, you enjoy the success, the grandeur, the fame and the wealth. If you go through the Ups, you also have to grin and bear the Downs.

Ahem, no?

Because we are not fucking Taliban??

Because we are a supposed civilised democracy in 2014?

Come to think of it, what really did he do? Did he fix a match? Did he pursue and hack someone to death? He had a bad day at work. In the way that you and I do. Now when your boss asks you to come meet him, do you stone his house and blacken his face?

Na. He has power over you.

'Kya gaandu log ho yaar, tum log?'

‘Kya gaandu log ho yaar, tum log?’

*

That is the second thing about the mob frenzy.

Have you ever seen anybody stone the house of politicians? What about N.Srinivasan – the guy who has been accused of running a betting racket? Or A.Raja? Or Suresh Kalmadi – that other Indian who was really passionate about sport?

Or the police officers who roam the streets like modern day Razakars? Or the builder who built that shitty road outside your house? Na. No, sir.

You know why? Because they are powerful. Because if you try to get near their house, their bodyguards will punch you till your small intestine becomes your large intestine and your liver becomes a dier.

*

And so we always choose the easy preys. Actors, authors, cricketers, social workers, and women in pubs. Those not powerful enough to defend themselves.

If somebody was watching from Uranus, they’d shake their heads and laugh. Ek toh all the 100 crores of us follow only one goddamn sport. A sport that only eight other countries play. Bangladesh toh simply does timepass.

It’s sad in a pathetic way.

Thoughts on the T20 World Cup

In a few hours, a two month tumultuous relationship between Cricket and Bangladesh will come to an end.

Once again, India will play Sri Lanka. It is probably a testimony to how much the two play each other, that I have more knowledge on Sri Lanka’s bowlers than our own. One assumes the two teams play each other so much that they barely consider each other opponents anymore. Probably warring cousins of the same family.

Also, as a picky, disgruntled, judgemental viewer, I have many a bone to pick with the tournament.

Firstly, why another tournament in Bangladesh? The crowds are sparse, and the ones that are there wave Bangladeshi flags in a New Zealand vs. Netherlands match. And their government goes ahead and bans its citizens from waving flags of the opponent team. Which is a regressive step many would argue. But let me subtly remind the reader that India pressed sedition charges against a few students who supported Pakistan in a match. And after all this, Irony came into the picture when they started playing K’naan’s Waving Flag on the loudspeaker.

Which brings me to the music. What is with Bangladeshi music? Blood is fighting to burst out of my ears when their songs play on the PA System. Not only are they loud and tacky, they completely drown the voice of the commentators. And to add to the terrible songs, there is an announcer in the stadium?

Who is that guy, really?

You’re watching a match, ignoring the people who’ve painted themselves as yellow tigers, and then you ignore the songs, and think fondly of Ravi Shastri and his cliches, when the guy with the mike starts off –

AAAAAASHAKALAKASHAKALAKABOOMDHADAKASHAKALAKAKIKORCHHEEEEEEE- and the entire stadium goes ‘Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy’.

If Tony Greig was alive, he’d walk up to the guy, tap on his shoulder, and deliver a resounding slap on his face.

And if the noise and the songs isn’t too much, there are the unwanted statistics. If you look at the coverage of this tournament, you’ll find that as a viewer, you’re bombarded with statistics.

Let’s assume Virat Kohli has come on to the pitch.

On the screen, you’ll find numbers describing his total career stats – like any other tournament would. But then, the goodies start to flow out.

kohli against pace-spinkohli off side-on sidekohli overs 1-10kohli strike rate in 1st inningskohli choice of abuse                                                           (Since October 2012)

 

I understand statistics give a context to the game, but seriously, all these statistics? They rob the match of any meaning whatsoever. And yet, one fears these are things that will stay. Because information is power. And India has all the power in cricket. And with great power comes great electricity bill. When will the goddamn match start, damn it, I’m going nuts!

 

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The other thing about this tournament is that Dhoni is back.

During the Asia Cup, the team felt hollow. What Dhoni brings into the team might be contested by his haters today, but you can see the large gaping hole when he isn’t in the team.

The guy is probably among the Top 3 finishers in the game, has a calm head, has improved leaps and bounds in his wicketkeeping, and yet people will find something to crib about all the time:

‘Saale ka daadhi pak gaya, behenchod. Kyun khel raha hai woh?’

And yet, nothing seems to affect the guy. Being the Captain of the Indian Cricket Team is a very stressful position. Just a little less stressful than being RahulG’s speechwriter. But it is very stressful.

And Dhoni has mastered the Art of Not Giving a Fuck.

Indian skipper MS Dhoni shown not giving a fuck in a Press Conference

Indian skipper MS Dhoni shown not giving a fuck in a Press Conference

He has the World Cup and the Champions Trophy with him. In a few hours, he’ll be vying for the T20 World Cup. If he fails, people will bay for his blood. If he wins, they’ll share selfies on Facebook with a cute cat and get 150 likes.

*****

 

Wish He Was Here…

India – Pakistan matches, for some reason, do not carry the intensity that they used to in the older days.

In an age where every movement, every expression, every word is captured, there seems to a be a blanket of civility over the proceedings. I doubt we will ever witness an Aamir Sohail vs Venkatest Prasad ever again.

I don’t know if it is a good thing or not. For one, the Pakistani side in general seems a lot weaker on most days (I know I am writing this after a loss, but you get the point). Secondly, the losses don’t hurt much these days.

In earlier days, every aspect of an India – Pakistan match was dissected, deconstructed, replayed, review, relived. Now, you simply walk up to the other room and roll a joint. It’s simply not the same.

And so all through the match today, with one eye over the proceedings of the match, my thought drifted away in another direction.

Openers.

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If you’ve watched Indian cricket for about a decade, you’ll notice that the beginnings of Indian innings are a lot more tense these days. Now rewind to a few years ago, and you’ll remember that the beginning of an Indian innings was met not with anxiety, but anticipation.

Sehwag’s entry into the team was the last piece of a gigantic puzzle. We had a side stocked with seasoned campaigners – people who had honed their skills for years, winning accolades, gaining in experience, till our Middle Order was pregnant with batting greats. But yet, one felt that something was missing. The army needed a vanguard.

Somebody who could be at the front, someone who could cock a snook at the opposition. A person who could terrorise the opponent right from the start. A Mel Gibson in our Braveheart. 

And that man was Virender Sehwag.

For the cricketing world, caught up in its little traditions and customs, Sehwag was an alien thing. More often that not, one sensed the discomfort the commentators felt while he was at the crease. For, if there was one man who could make the wisest of commentators look foolish, it was Sehwag.

He would poke at deliveries on bouncy pitches, slash hard at deliveries that left his body. The commentator would launch into a long extempore about the importance of footwork and technique on foreign pitches.

And right then, he would slap the bowler through the off side. A whiplash that made such a clear ‘TOK’ sound that you knew would end with the ball crashing into the stands. And then he would do it again, reducing the renowned commentator into a bumbling, embarrassed fool.

Yes, we had the genius of Sachin Tendulkar, and the bludgeoning power of Dhoni, and all the class and style of Dravid and Laxman, but ask anybody in India, and they’ll tell you that there wasn’t anybody as entertaining as Sehwag.

When Sehwag came into the picture, Sachin was already a God. But Sehwag posed no threat to the legacy of Sachin. Admittedly having modeled himself on Tendulkar, Sehwag was soft-spoken and rarely said anything. (Apart from the now legendary quote – “All played well, except the Sreesanth.”) When he features in ads, he seemed shy and reserved.

And very soon, he took over the show from Sachin. For the first time in years, Sachin had someone who could shift to fifth gear at ease, and he could work his way to another century.

Sehwag, inadvertently, was also responsible for the ‘Sachin is a selfish player’ accusation that Sachin haters make against the man. Having grown up with cricketers who slowed down their innings when they neared the 90’s, it was an acceptable habit. Till Sehwag happened.

Sehwag would slash and cut and punch and butcher his way to the 90’s. And then when at 94, while you were expecting him to slow down and take a few singles, he would step out, whack the bowler over Long On, and then raise his bat to the Dressing Room and smile. We as a nation had never seen something like this.

Of all the shots I have seen him play over the years, two will remain firmly entrenched in my mind. One is the murderous cut on the off side. Sehwag would shuffle and scuffle outside the Off Stump, and the bowler would give width on the Off Side, and WHACK! the ball would race the fielder to the ropes. The second would be his backfoot punches, modeled no doubt after the man at the other end.

Watching a Sehwag innings was like going on a date with an attractive serial murderer. There was an edginess to it, a nervous excitement.

All through his golden years, there were the technical problems. Numerous commentators pointed out the flaws in his batting, remarking that he had to change his game over the years. Every ball he missed made him look obsolete, confused. And yet, at the back of our minds, we never thought it was a serious threat. For he would pull one across the ropes and all would be well with the world again.

Perhaps, like Sehwag, we as a nation took his talent for granted. Took it for an akshaya-patra that would keep spilling over with riches. And then, it happened. His shots were either too late, or too early. His batting, built on the foundation of an impeccable Hand – Eye coordination, had Merv Hughes sized holes in it. 

I don’t know if history will remember Sehwag as a good player or a great player. I remember Gavaskar talking about the difference between the two. Both of them have good starts to their careers – records, success, fame. But as the body starts to age, the great ones tweak their game, making small changes that keep them going, in spite of their bodies slowing down.

Perhaps Sehwag gave as much respect to such theories, as he gave to the bowlers at the other end. Till his last tournament, he maintained that he would play his natural game. He didn’t say it with arrogance, he didn’t seem stubborn about it. He seemed like he knew no other way to play.

 

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There are a few things I have against statistics and numbers in sport. While revealing a lot, they conceal quite a bit as well. No amount of statistics and averages can truly demonstrate the impact that Sehwag brought to the team.

There are no numbers that measure fear. Fear in the eyes of the bowlers the world over. The utter bafflement they faced as they saw this man lift his bat and strike the ball like it was the climax of a revenge saga.

Numbers will never reveal how he mutilated the opposition. That even a 30 from Sehwag would demoralise the best attacks of the world. There are some things that even Mathematics cannot quantify. Sehwag’s batting was one of those.

By the last few innings, Sehwag was a changed man. In his earlier days, he was never the most aggressive or outspoken. He could be found talking to the keeper and laughing at Slips during his heydays.

But in the last few days, he seemed distraught. His shoulders drooped, his stance shaky. It was like he was asked an Out of Syllabus question in the Board Exam. I remember him coming to Cuttack for a Ranji match. In an interview with a local channel, he seemed bored. He spoke about the game, about Sachin retiring, and then rambled on about a school he had started, where children are encouraged to pursue sports along with their studies. It was hard to see him like that.

And now, when I watch Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan, it is like being in an arranged marriage with a person who has already suffered three heart attacks. There is no excitement, just fear.

I know Sports doesn’t work on emotions. I understand that physical and mental toughness matter more than anything else. I also understand that the same sport that elevates mortals into Gods, brings them crashing back down to earth.

But for reasons very personal to me, I wish Sehwag is somehow able to stage a comeback. And for one last time, I see his bat slice through the opposition. And hear that ‘Tok’ sound.

Just once.

 

 

 

Din Dhal Jaaye…

 

If I were to turn into a psychotic, cold-blooded, serial murderer, while I am being carried off by the police, let them say of me –

“He was wronged. When the only thing good about his childhood was Sachin Tendulkar, they robbed him of it. Society has hardened his heart to a stone.”

 

*

 

So it has happened.

He has retired, and we have to move on with our lives.

I wanted to write a flowing tribute to the man. A tribute that would explain in detail how he peppered my life with its most beautiful moments. Of how he made my life in an otherwise shitty decade – memorable. Of how my childhood was Sachin Tendulkar.

I would be lying.

 

Because when Sachin was being Sachin, I was caught up at different places, doing everything but watching the match. It’s a long story, and to keep things short, please refer to the chart below.

 

Stellar Sachin Moment What was happening What I was doing
1991, Sydney century A young Sachin was belting fiery Australian bowlers in the fastest pitch in the world. Had just been admitted in my boarding school. Was five years old, so knew nothing about anything.
1996 Wills World Cup The World Cup was happening in India. Day light matches, a terrific costume, and a plundering of Pakistan in the quarter final. Sachin had begun opening the innings in One Days. 4th standard. Our class teacher would come tell us if India won the match. She also added some details of her own. At other times, she told us stories of her childhood, and how she would bathe in a tub full of bubbles in her childhood.
1999 Chepauk century India is chasing down Pakistan’s score in the second innings. While wickets fall left, right, and centre, Sachin keep butchering the bowling, going on to score 136. India lose by 12 runs. Sachin has tears in his eyes, and the legend of ‘When Sachin scores a century…’ is born. Since we weren’t shown any cricket, the only option was to read the newspaper from the staff room – in the fifteen minute gap we had after lunch.

 

The punishment for eating slowly was to be made to sit on the Girls’ side. I never rushed through my lunch.

1998 Coca-Cola Tournament, Sharjah After robbing Shane Warne of any respect he had for himself in a test series, India beat Australia in the semi final and final, and Sachin scored blazing centuries in both the matches. My family had decided that cricket was an unwanted evil. The TV was packed up, and I had to crouch my head against an old Philips radio till I felt like the hunchback of Bhubaneswar. Couldn’t listen to the climax of both the matches.

 

Now, let us have a look at some of the matches that I’ve watched.

 

Stellar Sachin Moment What I was doing What was happening
2003 World Cup Had watched the entire World Cup. On the day of the final, I had stayed back from school. In the PCO I was working in, there were at least 50 people huddled up to watch the match. I sat in front of the TV, right from the Toss, to the end of the match. Zaheer Khan sledged the Australian batsmen, and they launched into an assault that made the Indian bowlers seem like members of the Vaanar Sena.

 

In the chase, Sachin holed out after pulling McGrath for a boundary. Next day, there was school.

2009 India vs Australia India were chasing 351, on a pitch that was providing swing and assistance to the bowlers. I was working as a copywriter, and since my boss hadn’t come to work, I had safely parked my ass in front of the television for the entire match. Sachin scored a blitzkrieg 175. He played the lofted straight drive – in the way only he can, and punched the bowlers in gaps. At 36, he was making a comeback. And everyone watched in silence.

 

India, however lost the match by 3 runs, thanks to Ravinder Jadeja, who had worn his helmet, but forgotten to carry his brain inside it.

2011 World Cup I have moved into Hyderabad, and am studying again. I have no work to do, and have devoted myself to the World Cup in body, mind, and soul. It is the final at Wankhede, Sachin’s motherground. Sachin starts off with two boundaries, and edges Malinga to the keeper.

 

I am taken back to the feeling after the last world cup, a pall of gloom descends.

So there you have it. Everytime he did well, I wasn’t watching the match. And everytime I was watching, he didn’t do well. While he’s playing his last innings, I am in the villages of Ganjam, where electricity hasn’t returned to the houses after cyclone. I grow restless, wrapping up my work to watch him bat. He’s in the 70’s, I finally find a television, and settle down in front of it.

And he edges to First Slip.

I can’t really say with conviction that watching Tendulkar bat was one of the high points of my childhood. I didn’t see too many of his innings – at least not the great ones.

But that is not to say that I grew up without his presence in my life.

 

It was impossible to grow up without Tendulkar in the 90’s. He was India’s first brand – the first person who held sway over people across the country – something no politician, or film star can boast of. Amitabh Bachchan has no relevance down south, Rajini Kanth is more of a pop figure up north. Gandhi is irrelevant for most people these days. But Sachin Tendulkar.

I saw him on hoardings, on the covers of Pepsi bottles, in magazines, and in the stories that my friends told me about him. And I had read tons and tons of articles on him.

Since television was out of bounds, cricket came to me through a different source. From the pens of S. Dinakar and Bobilli Vijay Kumar of The Hindu. While I did not have the colourful, heart-wrenching action in front of my eyes, I had the lyrical fantasies that the two gentlemen wove out in the papers the next day. I read about the drives through the covers, and of lofted drives that flew into the stands.

I read about how Sachin miffed McGrath when he stopped him in his run up, to adjust the sight screen. I read about how a sandstorm forced the cricket to stop, but when it started, a bigger storm was to strike that night in Sharjah.

And I would recreate those scenes in my head. In my mind, Sachin was always a reticent mercenary. A hard-working gritty professional.

 

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In the later years, I was a little embarrassed by the image that was made of Sachin.

Whenever a cricketer flew down to India, we would ask him whether he thought Sachin was the greatest. It was like there was a need for validation.

This deifying of Tendulkar, probably because of how Indian it is, always pissed me off.

 

I have always wondered what it would be like if Tendulkar was not this cherubic, soft-spoken youngster, but a muscular, brash person? What if he talked back to the bowlers, had affairs with actresses as was the norm back then?

Would Tendulkar still have been the hero that he is made to be? I doubt it.

While we talk about the glories on the field, and the 24 years on the ground, the real reason I think Tendulkar is what he is, is because he successfully managed his career without putting a foot wrong. Because he lived up to the pedestal that he was put on – of being a humble, hard working, son of the soil.

That’s how we like our Gods – clean.

 

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While there will always be debates about the Bharat Ratna, I wish it wasn’t conferred on him immediately.

Before you order your gang of friends to find my address, kindly hear my reason out.

All his life, Sachin was scrutinised by the entire country. Every time he came out to bat, the commentator would begin talking about Sachin’s shoulders – ‘He carries a billion expectations on those shoulders of his.’

Or, ‘A billion hopes lie on the shoulders of one man…’

sydney harbour bridge edited final

By elders, by contemporaries, by children – his every step, his every word, every move. A century every time he came out to bat, a word in appreciation of victims of earthquakes and floods. A political opinion from a political party, stooping down to the level of politicians who die everyday, for which there need not be a bandh.

The same moralistic nation that made him a God will now be watching every step of his.

Being conferred with the highest award of the country is a greater pressure. For Tendulkar, it is back to being 16 again. While one test has come to a close, another one begins.

I can imagine Arundhati Roy asking her secretary to buy a new file folder, marking it ‘Tendulkar’, rubbing her hands in joy, waiting for him to commit a mistake. And then, once he commits it, I can see her smile, lick her lips with joy, and begin…

“That day, when the madness of a billion people, the sentiments of a few, bent the country into offering him the highest award of the country. Not an award for his achievement in sports, mind you. But the greatest award that can be conferred on an individual.

And yet, as the din starts to die down, my mind searches frantically for the answer to the question – ‘How did the nation benefit?”

 

The same India that wiped tears of joy as he left, will bay for his blood if they see him doing anything that is against their morals. Just when the pressure seems to ease off, a more vicious pressure will now have its hands ready, to claw at his neck.

I hope we don’t make a Gandhi out of Sachin. An obsolete joke, a token of respect.

 

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The other thing about deifying somebody is that it obliterates the awesome parts of their life – shrouding it with a grey shawl of godliness. An overarching blanket that covers good, just, kind, humble, and awesome. Making ‘Awesome’ only a small part of the entire package of larger goods.

But for most of us, Sachin was not a god. Those are titles that the media makes up, they look good on placards, and in tribute videos.

But we, the children of 90’s, didn’t really treat him as God.

What did we treat him as?

Pure Awesomeness.

That was Tendulkar for us. Not a pagan god for the sport, but a player who could slay the greatest demons with his bat. He could go to any part of the world, on any type of pitches, face the fiercest bowlers, and yet the “Tok” sound that came when his bit hit the cherry, was sweet.

While he deserves every bit of the tribute he gets, for me and most of my friends, Sachin was not God. He was Fuck Awesome.

 

*

 

For all the criticism, when the time came, it did shake me. When I stood in front of the TV, watching him tell his coach that there were no more matches he would play, forcing a smile, and fighting back tears, I choked up too.

Sachin was the last connection to my childhood. A connection I had taken for granted.

Let’s hope he gets to chill out for a few months. And finds something else that he is just as awesome at.

 

*

 

68.9 years.

That’s the average life expectancy of a citizen of India, give (Kerala, Punjab) or take (Assam, Madhya Pradesh) a few years.

68 years is a long time.

If we do reach that age, while our grandchildren make love to their friends over their smartphones, and we sit on a chair, ignored, and someone comes to us and smiles a warm smile, and asks us what we were thinking about, we will say ‘Nothing..’ and shake our heads and smile.

Our grandfathers spoke of the freedom movement. Our parents spoke of their struggles to raise us.

We will speak about a short man with curly hair.

It will be a long, lonely walk. But like someone once said…

India v Sri Lanka - Tri-Series Game 11

My Own Armstrong Moment

If Oprah were my school teacher, I would be terrified of her.

She seems like the kind of teacher who would first coax you, “Dont worry, you can tell me anything”. And then, screw your happiness after you have confessed to her.

Last week, Lance Armstrong confessed at the Holy Grail of Television – Oprah’s couch. Admitting that everything that was being spoken of him was in fact true, Armstrong went on to admit that he had lied, cheated, and bullied people to have his way.

I have never really followed the guy’s career, but I remember thinking of him as an asshole when I saw an interview a few years back. A journalist had questioned him about the allegations, and he had gone on to lambast the journo for no reason. Also, his Nike ads, titled “I’m on my bike. What are you on?” smacked of arrogance.

I never bought any of his armbands. Wearing a pink or yellow band never fascinated me, no matter what the significance was.

So I stood on the sidelines and watched the incident take place, not once feeling a thing – neither vindication, nor disappointment.

For you see, I had had my Armstrong moment long back.

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Those of you who belong to the current generation would never have seen Mohammad Azharuddin bat.

It would be difficult to describe how the man batted.

You know how Sunil Gavaskar often says about good batsmen, that they make batting look very easy? Azhar, a tall, lanky middle order batsman, made batting seem like the toughest thing to do.

If you saw him take a ball outside off stump and steer towards the mid-on boundary with a flick of the wrist, you would wonder how on earth could someone do that? An art that Laxman later took to dizzying heights, Azhar was the ‘Yo! Maan’ of the team – the cool cucumber who smiled, pulled off the most bizzare slip catches, and drove balls like he could do it in his sleep.

It wasn’t the grace of Dravid, nor the brute force of a Gayle. In fact, it didn’t look graceful all the time. Sometimes, it looked like his footwork had gone all wrong, sometimes it looked like he had mistimed it. But you had to listen to the ‘clockkk‘ sound – that heavenly sound of leather striking willow, and you knew the ball would race into the boundary in no time.

He wasn’t an artist, or a magician. If anything, he was the evil Maths teacher who would conjure up difficult formulae in front of you. Just because he could. And as I sat in front of the screen, I wondered how on earth could someone do that. Batting must be complex, indeed.

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My family never encouraged me to follow or play cricket. For them, anything that digressed from the path of salvation was unnecessary. Cricket (among novels, films, and comics) often came in my way of salvation, and was hence never encouraged.

I knew a stationary shop guy, who had a small black and white TV, with ‘Star Connection’. I sneaked into his shop to watch the first real match of my life. It was the summer of ’96, and India was playing Pakistan in Sharjah. India had a solid beginning and looked set to cross 300 for the first time in ODIs, when in walked Azharuddin, his white helmet and lazy swagger in tow.

The next few minutes were a flurry. Fours and sixers confounded the Pakistani bowlers, and Azhar scored 28 off 10 balls. From that day on, there were no two ways about it – Azhar was my favourite cricketer.

Cricket does strange things to us. It brings out the best in us, uniting a nation like glue. But at other times, it brings out the worst in us. A simple game turns us into brute, irrational beasts. It makes us strike below the belt, where it hurts the most.

My school taught me to love and respect all religions. I never really understood the magnitude of the statement, but believed it anyway. When I would watch matches at home, disgruntled viewers would repeatedly say things like, “Saala Musalmaan hai. Apna wicket deke aayega”, or “Pathaan hai, what do you expect on a Friday?”.

Those statements infuriated me. But since I wasn’t watching the matches at my home, I simply shut up, praying that he performs. And when he would perform, I was elated. I felt a vindication, a personal victory for me, and my beliefs.

Of course, it wasn’t only romantic reasons I had for being his fan. Azhar was the captain of the Indian cricket team, and held all the major records in ODI cricket – most matches, most runs, most catches, (and the dubious distinction of) most run outs too.

Which meant that if you were playing Cricket Cards and got Azhar’s card, you were guaranteed a win. When people asked me who my favourite cricket was, “Azhar”, I blurted out, without thinking.

Kapil Dev, Sachin Tendulkar and Mohammed Azharuddin all of India

Those were the days!

*****************************************

The year 2000 was full of stories of the Y2K bug. This ominous bug that would wipe out all the computers of the world when the new millennium began. None of that actually happened, of course, but the year remained one of the most heartbreaking years of my life.

The match fixing scandal broke out, and Azhar was named among the guilty. I never believed it at first, but the evidence was mounting, and Azhar was among the accused.

Of course, I gave a rat’s ass about the other cricketers named – Jadeja, Prabhakar, Mongia, and Kapil.

I never watched Kapil play so I had no real connection with him. I hated Mongia ever since I had read an interview where he said, “But I hate to dive for wides.” Jadeja was a bits and pieces cricketer, who scored more in ads and films than on an actual cricket field. And Prabhakar!

He was the country’s leading fast bowler in the Wills World Cup, and started bowling Off Spin when Jayasurya took after him. I never really cared about those guys. But Azhar!

The one guy who I rooted for. The guy who had become symbolic of my beliefs, of the secularism I prided my country on having. The pure joy of batting. It all came crumbling down.

My family was quick to pounce on the situation. They went on for hours about how they always knew that these cricketers played for money. Sportstar and Cricket Talk were banned from the house, and the television was packed up.

My tryst with Azhar had ended.

I would move on to Sachin Tendulkar. A more wholesome, author-backed hero. Flawless, humble, and prolific, Sachin would then go on to accumulate runs like a mad man – the most runs ever scored in the history of cricket. It has been a memorable journey. But I miss being an Azhar fan. The unpredictability, and the vindication.

It wasn’t the same. Ever again.

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So as I watched Lance Armstrong sit on the couch and talk to Oprah about how he cheated, and how he lied, I wasn’t moved at all.

I heard him apologise to cancer patients and his sponsors.

But his biggest apology should go to the little kid. The one who stays awake at night, puts up a poster in his room, and pastes newspaper cut-outs in a scrap book.

It’s that little kid you need to apologise to.

You broke his heart, you smug asshole, and he is going to be shattered for a long time.

Tricky Ponting

I discovered Ponting the same time that I discovered Sachin Tendulkar, which was the same time I discovered cricket.

Outlook had released a special World Cup edition in 1996 which had articles, pictures, and profiles of all the teams. Ricky Ponting was featured as a young, aggressive batsman who could change the match with his strokeplay.

Of course, after the World Cup, Sachin shot to astronomical levels of achievement, and was quickly hailed as the greatest of his era, along with Lara and Akram. Ponting’s rise wasn’t meteoric – it was a carefully crafted road that would take him to the pinnacle of world cricket.

Comparisons with Sachin are inevitable, and I am sure Indian fans have begun flooding blogs, websites, and YouTube with ‘Sachin is better. Jai Hind!’ sort of remarks. Both of them got recognition around the same time, they both started young, and had boyish looks and an attacking style of batting. But Sachin and Ponting travelled diverse paths to the same destination.

Sachin was destined for glory from the beginning. He was a lotus in a dirty pond full of mediocre cricketers, so much that his singular achievements in a team game gave the nation a sense of pride and achievement.

Ponting broke into the team that already had a range of stars. From David Boon to the Waugh brothers, to Taylor, Ponting had to cement his place by shoving away bigger stars. He had to fight for his place.

While Sachin was the Arjuna – a mix of skill and character, always ready to take the right path, Ponting was like Karna. Supremely confident of his abilities, and audacious enough to stick to his own decisions.

While one was soft-spoken, polite, and politically correct, the other was brash, rude, and fiercely confident.

May be how they came into the teams, also chartered the course for the rest of their careers as well.

You would never find Ponting smiling and walking up to a batsman who was hit. You’d never find him sharing a friendly banter with an opposition bowler. None of that smiling, good-natured bubble gum romance that makes for great Cricinfo articles and biographies.

Cricket was a war for Ponting. A war that had to be won by gritting your teeth and fighting it out. If a ball went near him, he leapt at it. If a ball was pitched short, he shuffled across and hooked it over the boundary. There were no smiles, no mercy, no joy in celebrating the spirit of cricket. It was a bloody war!

It was no surprise that, like most Indians, I hated Ricky Ponting.

I hated his guts. I remember famously telling my classmates in school that I’d support Pakistan in a Pak vs Aus match. That was how much I hated the guy.

Of course, Ricky Ponting cared two hoots about how much I liked him.

He went on to become the captain of the Australian team in all three formats, compiling runs at home and abroad, and for about a decade, epitomising Aussie aggression for the rest of the world.

And then, the 2007 tour to Australia happened.

India was a resurgent side, a healthy mix of vintage class and new found aggression. Australia was simply Australia. Ready to fight till the last breath, no matter how ugly the situation got.

I remember being crestfallen that series. Umpiring decisions were awful, the third umpire was not referred to, a stupid, career-threatening charge was slapped on Harbhajan Singh, and to hammer the final nail in the coffin, after the match was over, I remember Anil Kumble standing on the field for the customary handshake, and the Australian team looking at him, and walking away.

It was the worst series I had witnessed in my life. Also, the highest run getter in the series was Sachin, for whom my respect shot up manifold.

When Ponting pushed Sharad Pawar off the victory podium, India seethed (Of course, two years later, when some random guy slapped Sharad Pawar, India cheered. But that’s another matter!)

My hatred for Ponting kept growing through the years. I couldn’t stand the smug expression he carried on the field, and off it.

They say that a villain’s greatest achievement is if the viewer wants to leap on to the screen and kill him.

As an Indian, I hated how Ricky Ponting thought of nothing but victory. Everything else was secondary.

As an Australian, may be that would have been the very reason I would have loved the guy.

May be that’s what makes Ricky Ponting great.

ponting

Rohit Sharma – Bad, ‘Bad Boy’

If there was one thing that reaffirmed people’s beliefs during the World T20 tournament, it was the fact that Rohit Sharma is the Kumar Gaurav of Indian cricket.

For someone who burst into the scene with applause from the Two Wise Men of Indian cricket – Shastri and Gavaskar, Rohit Sharma also had Sachin Tendulkar say this about him, “Rohit Sharma will score 10,000 Test runs in his career.

Five years down the line, Sharma is just 10,000 runs away from his goal. Just the minor issue of actually debuting stands between him and the target.

Meanwhile, Rohit Sharma has managed to stay relevant and in the thick of things in many ways. Drunken brawl on tour, telling a fan that he’ll fuck his life, crashing into an IPL party – Sharma has followed the consistent pattern of ‘In The News, Out of the Team’ for a long time now.

After a few comebacks, he finally got his moment at the WorldT20. And he stood up to the occasion in trademark Sharma style; scoring 23 runs off 28 balls and giving 12 runs in his only over.

Now, the fear is that Rohit Sharma may go the Bad Boy Down the Drain way.

You see, fans love Bad Boys.

Since ages, it has always been exciting to watch cricketers who don’t give a damn about rules and regulations, and go about their lives kicking ass and breaking rules.

The only difference is that these guys actually performed where it mattered. On the field.

Virat Kohli

Just a few years into the team, Kohli had no one endorsing him, and yet, has become the most valuable batsman in the team today. This is not to say that he is a good boy. He talks back to sledging bowlers, and screams out the choicest words, after scoring a century. Even if nobody sledged him in the match. You know, just for fun.

So Kohli was fielding at the boundary last year when India was getting butchered by the Australian batsmen. Some of the Aussie spectators, who have not known to be the friendliest crowds around the world, said something to Kohli.

He did not raise a word. He raised a finger.

 

Andrew Symonds

For years, Symonds epitomised Aussie aggression. Menacing with the bat, handy with the ball, and a Shaktimaan on the field, Symonds fielded close to the batsman and loved chatting them up once in a while.

Apart from numerous run-ins with batsmen, Symonds also once appeared drunk on the pitch in a domestic match. And once in the commentary box, Symonds displayed a penchant for choosing his swearwords carefully, once calling Brendon McCullum a ‘lump of shit’. He also said that he loved having dinner at Hayden’s house so that he could ‘glance at his wife’.

Of course, he later acted in a Hindi film and appeared in Bigg Boss. But when he got onto the field, you had to deal with Symonds the cricketer. Fierce, and supremely talented.

Shane Warne

Nicknamed ‘Hollywood’, Shane Warne has been there and done that. Linked with bookies, caught with drugs a day before the World Cup, and caught posing in his underwear with female models, Shane Warne has consisted contributed to gossip columns and Times of India’s supplement edition with his antics.

But give him the cricket ball and watch the magic. Making the ball spin like it’s high on LSD, Shane Warne tormented batsmen the world over, wherever he went. (Of course, except in India, where he had about the same status as Venkatpathy Raju, but that’s another story). Hailed among the greatest bowlers ever, Warne carefully balanced a Bad Boy image with winning performances throughout his career.

And oh, he also married Liz Hurley.

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And then there are those who have lots of attitude, but fail to show results. A kind of aggression that is, in common parlance, called Chutiya Aggression.

Sreesanth

Way before Sreesanth became the Asshole of the Nation, I remember reading about him in a news report of a domestic match in India:

Now, after doing that, you gotta have something backing you up. Unfortunately, Sreesanth continued his magic run with bad luck, spraying wides, pissing off people, and making a face when hit for boundaries.

To the extent that, Dhoni said ‘It’s difficult to control Sreesanth’. Harbhajan went one step ahead and slapped him.

Asif, Ameer and Butt

The three of them got together to commit the most audacious and hilarious scandal in the history of the game.

Pakistan is playing England, and are being led by a young pace attack of Mohammad Asif and Amir. Meanwhile, a bookie called Mazhar Majeed, has negotiated with them to bowl no-balls for £150,000.

When the time comes, captain Salman butts in to remind his bowlers of their duty. The bowlers bowl atrocious no-balls, and then look at the pitch and cover it with hay, indicating that their feet had slipped. The three got banned for match-fixing, adding to the long list of controversies that Pakistan cricket offers to the world on a yearly basis.

Shoaib Akhtar

The Granddaddy of Bad Boys in cricket, Shoaib Akhtar’s ascent to the top was meteoric. By far the fastest bowler in the world, Akhtar supplemented his pace with aggression. Of course, the other supplements, the dietary ones, were part of his armour too.

Shoaib Akhtar’s Report Card over his career is stellar.

Shoaib Akhtar could have been Iron Man, attitude and talent rolled into a powerhouse combination. But what he ended up being is an overweight, has-been bowler who has some good videos on YouTube.

Sudhir Naik:

Even though this has nothing to do with ‘attitude’ as such, I thought I should add this name to the list too. Simply because I love showing off my knowledge of cricket.

Sudhir Naik was a Masters in Organic Chemistry who also opened the innings for India in England. On the tour however, Naik was accused of stealing a pair of socks from a Marks & Spencers store.

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So you see, the point is that being a Bad Boy is effective when you are a Good Player.

And with Rohit Sharma, he certainly needs a lot of Lady Luck.

IPL and the Shit by the Pool Theory

The recent sting operation by India TV exposed five cricketers who were caught asking for money to bowl no-balls. It’s not as if the earth stopped moving after watching the video (Skip the bullshit, the real action starts at 8:08)

Before anything else, let me make it clear that I don’t take sting operations very seriously. It’s a cheap trick to play, and there is no guarantee that the person is speaking the truth in the first place. Now, if you take Shakti Kapoor, who has spent 15 years of his life playing lecherous characters, get him drunk, and put a hot woman in front of him, obviously he’ll say that the entire industry engages in casting couch. What did they expect? He’ll say “Nahi, beti. Aise kaam nahi karte. Ghar jaake so jao!” ?? In fact, my respect grew for Shakti Kapoor because he didn’t pounce on the girl right away.

Now, if Shalabh Srivastav has to convince the ‘stinger’ to get some money, he has to act cool and nonchalant about it, saying that everyone does it. I am not saying that the IPL is clean as Chidambaram’s chit, just that you can’t take someone’s words seriously when they’re trying to impress someone else.

Looking back, have the owners made an ‘ass’ of themselves??

And also, the IPL was never known to be a fully transparent organisation. Since its inception, unlisted companies with shady backgrounds have been a part of it. Take for example the case of Modi’s kin having stakes in many of the franchises. Or the rules being bent for RCB to buy Chris Gayle in the middle of the 4th season, where he went on to slam his team into the finals. Or how the BCCI is the only organisation where politicians from every major political party work together for the betterment of the game. Or simply how Laxman Sivaramakrishnan is allowed to commentate when he clearly is less interesting than a Class 8 Chemistry teacher.

When the IPL became the money-spinning monster that it is now, many of the veteran sages of the game (Shastri, Gavaskar) had said that the league would primarily benefit domestic players. One cannot deny that salaries have shot up. While a domestic player would earn 450 rupees per day in the 90s, he earns 35,000 per day of a domestic test match. Compare that to the $4.13 billion it earns (figures of 2010) yearly, and it is chickenfeed. The BCCI shares 26% of its profits with the players, the major chunk of it goes to its bigger stars.

Now, to come to the Shit by the Pool theory. Suppose you went to swim in a pool. After a lap, you stop to take rest and notice that there is some pigeon droppings by the side of the pool. Do you feel happy that the shit is not inside the pool you’re swimming in? Or would you assume that there might be lots of shit in the pool too?

Everyone knows that the IPL is a murky field. If India TV wanted to do some serious journalism, they should have asked how people like Vilasrao Deshmukh and Arun Jaitley have such a strong hold over the BCCI? How can the owner of one of the teams be the President of the BCCI? Why does the BCCI not open its accounts for scrutiny under the RTI? Give us that, and then we’ll bother. What’s the point of faaltu mein ruining the careers of five players we haven’t even heard of?

Slowly but surely, this news will pass. Sidhu will say something like “Oye, Guru! Pride is like an underwear. Once there are holes, you cannot wear it.” The Sports Minister will make a little fuss about it. India TV will play the video till the 2014 General Elections.

By the way, aaj kiska match hai?

Sachin and Gandhi : The Bringing Down of an Icon

When Sachin Tendulkar struck his long awaited 100th century about a month ago in Bangladesh, the nation was supposed to celebrate. He was after all, the darling of the country, someone who has been followed wherever he went for the last two decades, an idol, a role model, even a god. And this was a feat that was never thought achievable in the history of the game, and doesn’t look like it can be broken by anyone else. It was but expected that the nation would go into a frenzy.

The national media did their bit : feature stories describing milestones in his long career, TV channels churned out their bulletins with Jai Ho playing in the background. But on websites like cricinfo.com and youtube.com, there was an outpouring of hatred by fans. Many called Sachin Tendulkar selfish, others said he was playing for records, and that he needs to hang up his boots.

Not once did anyone say that he didn’t look fit on the field, no one spoke about him unable to run, or his eyes and hand-eye coordination getting worse, or anything else related to cricket. The argument was that he was selfish and needed to be dropped.

It was then that I could see a clear reflection of my thoughts a few years back. I was out of my spiritual boarding school. I felt like a free bird, and a rebel. I remember having strong hatred for Gandhi back then. I could attribute some of it to the simultaneous release of three films on Bhagat Singh, but there was more to it than just the release of the films.

I didn’t know enough about Gandhi – just that he was a freedom fighter, and whatever else our books and teachers in school told us about him. There were a few others from our class as well, and we regularly sat together and spoke about Gandhi, along the lines of how he was responsible for all the problems in our country.

Much later, when I read more about him, I learnt that Gandhi was more than just a freedom fighter. And I also realised that most of the opinions I had harboured about him were wrong in the first place. What then, prompted me to hate him so much? I have asked myself this many times, and this is the closest I have come to as an answer.

Throughout our childhoods, we are surrounded by Gandhi, his principles, his photos, his teachings, his songs, his stories, and films on him. We had a subject called Human Values and books by Gandhi were used as our course material. This ubiquity, after a point, felt suffocating. And to be able to criticise Gandhi seemed like an act of rebellion for me. I did not understand him enough, so I went ahead and made my own opinions, often basing them on things my friends (who were equally, if not more ignorant) told me. Through some twisted logic, we believed that Gandhi was responsible for the partition, and that he was a propagator of Hindutva.

I have made my peace with Gandhi today. I have learnt to dissect his public from his private life, and have learnt to look at things with a broader perspective. But when I see criticism of Sachin Tendulkar, I can’t help feel that he has reached the same stage as an icon.

The most common criticism about him is that when he scores a century, India loses the match. This fact automatically translates to him being a selfish player who is intent on achieving personal milestones. This could not be further away from the truth.

The nature of the game of cricket itself means that individual performances are not as crucial to a side’s fortunes, as it is with other games. Take football, for example, where a goal by a single player could tilt the match totally in the favour of the team, thus critically affecting the match. In cricket, batting is just one aspect of the game. A century by no means implies that the team is going to win the match, because the game is divided into two halves – batting and bowling – and each of the aspects affect the match equally.

To further illustrate my point, let me give you the example of the match between South Africa and Australia in the March 2006. Australia batted first and scored 434, the highest score ever in a One Day International, and the first time any team had crossed 400 runs in 50 overs. Australia, however, lost the match at the end of the day because South Africa was able to score 438, thanks to the shoddy bowling by the Australians.

There have been umpteen such examples where individual performances did not result in the team winning the match, and this by no means implies that the performances weren’t good enough, it just means that the other aspect of the game wasn’t good enough on the day. That it happens with surprising regularity with Sachin is a reflection of our universally acknowledged poor bowling skills, and not because his centuries are not good enough.

Here, let me take you back a little into the past again. This was in the same phase when I was vehemently against Gandhi, circa 2005. Sachin Tendulkar at that time had been struggling for a year or so to score his 35th Test century, one that would result in him beating Sunil Gavaskar’s then highest 34. He was suffering from recurring back injuries, tennis elbow, and seemed nervous and edgy in the crease. I was among the many that rooted for his retirement from the game.

I remember the day he scored the century, this is what he said to the media – “Landmarks happen. You just go and bat because you want to bat well and get runs for your team. If you chase landmarks then it becomes a problem.” He made it clear that the fans had been demanding the century for a long time, and that it was quite stressful. I remember reading it with cynicism.

However, if I look back at the incident now, I realise he knew what he was talking about. If he had retired then, we wouldn’t have witnessed some of the greatest knocks in the history of the game. He went on to make a spectacular comeback, a resurrection that culminated with him becoming Player of the year in 2010. We wouldn’t have seen his knock of 200, or his crucial role in the World Cup last year.

It is actually a matter of great credit to Sachin Tendulkar that no one is talking about the way he is playing his cricket, how he is running between the wickets, or his fitness. The criticism is always generic – that new blood needs to be infused into the team, and that it is high time he retired. From my experience seven years ago, I know that the decision to retire is best left to Sachin himself.

With the ruckus about him becoming an MP, I can see a clear link between my criticism of Gandhi back then, and the criticism Sachin faces today. It is not to do with him as a cricketer. It has got more to do with the rebellion involved in the bringing down of an icon.

Karan Thapar vs Kapil Dev

 

The year was 2000. My heroes, idols and inspirations all lay on the floor, humiliated and accused. The game I had played for most of my life, and one day (foolishly) hoped to play was hit by the matchfixing scandal.

It was the time when private news channels were sprouting everywhere, and India was seeing a shift from the behenji on Doordarshan news, to the sansani-sensation style of reporting.

Karan Thapar was acquiring a reputation for being a hard-hitting interviewer, and was working with BBC.

This was the time when Kapil Dev, arguably India’s biggest cricket icon then, was also named in the list of cricketers accused of throwing away matches for money.

Kapil Dev was our fathers’ Sachin Tendulkar. There was something that was endearing about Kapil Dev, to make him an icon of an India that emphasised on honesty, simplicity and hard work. The way he played his cricket, his opinions, even the products he endorsed, had a lack of sophistication to them.

Kapil Dev was invited to an interview by Karan Thapar.

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To his credit, Kapil Dev was the only one among those accused to have agreed to do an interview in the first place. None of the others – Azhar, Jadeja, Mongia, or Prabhakar had come on a show to defend themselves.

I personally think Kapil Dev took the interview a little less seriously. You can see he is dressed casually in khaki shorts. Kapil’s naivety probably led him to think it would be an ‘Aap ka Adalat’ kind of a show where jingoistic lines win you applause from the audience, and emotional dialogues are given prominence.

Clearly, Kapil Dev did not know much about Karan Thapar.

With a degree in Economics and Political Philosophy from Cambridge, Thapar was also the President of the Cambridge Union, and had won awards for his work, and a reputation of being a no-nonsense interviewer.

It was an interesting clash: a hard-hitting, articulate, informed journalist. And a man who had the reputation of being spontaneous, honest and hardworking.

Like Ravi Shastri would say, “You can expect something big here…”

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The interview began slowly, with questions on cricket, integrity and some facts. Gradually, the questions got straight to the point. Thapar has this way of getting statements out of his interviewees. He asked Kapil straight – “So you’re telling me that you never accepted any money to fix a match?”. And then asked the same question four times over.

I must say I am not a huge fan of the Karan Thapar style of interviewing. An incisive, caustic approach is fine when you have a corrupt politician to interview, but it restricts you to doing ‘investigative’ sort of interviews.

I believe a good interview is one in which the person feels comfortable and has opened up to you – impossible when you have Karan Thapar looking into you from above.

Kapil took it for a few minutes, this was clearly something he wasn’t prepared for. The usual respect and praise that he people gave him everywhere he went wasn’t there. There was Karan Thapar, and his questions, and it was getting hotter by the minute.

After about ten minutes, there was a tear in Kapil’s eye. He asked for a few moments off, which of course, Karan Thapar did not give him.

Instead, the camera zoomed in on him further. Thapar pushed on with the interview.

Kapil Dev was sobbing now. He spoke in a high-pitched, girly voice – nothing like the man who held the World Cup in his hands. Even after his breakdown, the interview carried on for a good ten minutes, as everyone watched in stunned silence.

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More than a decade has passed since the interview, and that remains the worst shame to have come across cricket.

Was Kapil involved? No one knows for sure.

While Manoj Prabhakar kept saying that Kapil was aware of matchfixing, and there were doubts about a fan having ‘gifted’ Kapil a BMW. However, in the investigations that followed, Kapil’s name never came up.

It’s hard to see Kapil as a matchfixer. There is no science behind this, but the swagger that Azhar had made it easier for me to deal with the truth that he wasn’t entirely honest. Ajay Jadeja never had too much character anyway.

But Kapil??

No one knows what really happened. The matchfixing incident became a ghost of the past, and India quickly grew to become a country that controlled cricket all over the world.

But this episode with Karan Thapar remains one of the most riveting interviews in the history of Indian telejournalism.

Watch the clip here: Link