‘Lightning’ Bolt on the ground

The story of Usain Bolt’s exit from competitive athletics is a poignant one. He failed to win the 100-meters individual race and he had to limp out of the 4 *100 relay. Given a choice, he would not have wanted to script such an exit. Many of us who have admired his athletic prowess also would have wished a better exit for him. Apparently, he is also a good sportsman rather than being just a good athlete. I guess you know what I mean.

So, very few would have wanted an embarrassing and anti-climatic exit for him, as it happened. The cramps he suffered from and collapsed during the relay did not happen to anyone else although everyone was made to wait for 30 to 40 minutes in cooler weather, as Gatlin said. It happened only to Usain Bolt. Therein lies a message. There is very little that we control.

I was at the London (Kia) Oval Cricket ground in July. Sir Donald Bradman played his last innings there. He scored a 0 in his last innings. His test match average was 99.96. Had he just got 4 runs, it would have been an average of 100.0.

Sachin Tendulkar did not play a role in India’s World Cup victory in 2011 nor did he help the team win the finals in 2003. Virat Kohli could not beat the West Indies in the T-20 championships in India in 2016; did not play a role in the World Cup finals in 2015 against Australia and could not help India beat Pakistan in the Champions Trophy finals at the Oval in 2017.

Instances like these galore. There is only one message from all of these. There is very little that we control. If we remember this, we will stay grounded. If we stay grounded, the risk of a fall is almost nil.

 

ICC Champions Trophy has a new winner

The ICC Champions Trophy 2017 is over. Pakistan are the unexpected champions. Congratulations to the winners. I am not sure they are the deserving winners of the Championship, though. Sure, they played well on the day against India. But, one does not get the impression that they can sustain this. Much of the post-match commentary is emotional exultation in the victory of the underdog. There is no drama or story in the victory of the favourite team. The emotional outpouring, in itself, is a sign of the unsustainability of victory. There is still a sense of disbelief about it and correctly so. Emotions do not produce champions. Application does.

It is hard to resist the thought that the result dictates the justification of the methods and tactics and not just their intrinsic merits. Writing with the benefit of hindsight, commentators let ends justify or glorify means. In doing so, they celebrate chance; they praise brilliance but not hard work. The occasional flashes of brilliance make good copy. Sustained hard work is admirable but hard to emulate. Hence, they do not inspire poetry. But, that is what makes cricket teams and nations winners over a generation or two.

Pakistani cricketers have plenty of talent. That has never been in doubt. Over the last several decades, they have produced exceptional cricketers. Not all of them have shown application or stuck to a straight path. Only under Imran Khan did the team look like a professional outfit over a sustained period. He groomed a team although Misbah-ul-Haq and Wasim Akram had arguably better records as captains. If you are interested in the records of all Pakistan captains, then this article is for you. The current Pakistani team has plenty of question marks over sustained application. Sarfraz Ahmed, the Pakistan captain attributed the victory to God. He is right. The team does not look like it can achieve them with its efforts on a regular basis.

The victory on Sunday had lots of drama but it was not a comprehensive victory over India. For that, I would choose the Sri Lankan victory over India. That was clinical domination. Their batsmen were more systematic and purposeful than lucky. The way they deconstructed Ravinder Jadeja was impressive. Pakistan did not come anywhere close to them in the batting department. Their bowling was much more incisive, of course. More often than not, Pakistani bowlers have made the ball talk and sing. That is a compliment.

Unfortunately, the reliable Jasprit Bumrah went for twelve runs in his second over. Then, he no-balled on a delivery that took the edge and went to the wicket keeper. Inside edges missed the leg stump and ungainly heaves landed between fielders. Bails refused to fall.  Pakistan referred and got a verdict overturned. Indians thought too much about a review and did not get one. When fate reprieves a batsman who was out at three and he goes on to score a century, one must realise that it was not meant to be one’s day.

There are many interesting similarities between this match and the World Cup final of 2003. On both the occasions, the Indian captains won their tosses and invited the other team to bat first. Now, as then, India came into the finals on a high. It had decimated Pakistan in the semi-final. Here, they defeated Bangladesh rather easily. The totals of Bangladesh and Pakistan were close. Then, Zaheer Khan conceded fifteen runs in his first over, peppered with no balls and wides. Bumrah began better. But, in his second over, he emulated Zaheer Khan conceding twelve runs.  One big difference between that match and this one is that Srinath leaked plenty of runs that day whereas Bhuvanesh Kumar stood tall amidst Bumrah’s day off. India conceded 37 extras that day in 2003. On Sunday, it conceded 25 extras.

India’s top scorer – Sehwag – was run out on that day. A similar fate befell Hardik Pandya on Sunday. Against Australia, India was perhaps in the match until then. Similarly, notwithstanding Pakistan’s bowling brilliance, another five overs of Pandya and the match might have been a lot closer, even if the result would not have changed.

With the benefit of hindsight, one could talk of selection mistakes made by India. Not that they would have made a big difference to the outcome on a day like June 18. But, still good to reflect on some of the possible errors. They are not exactly Monday morning quarterback wisdom although I am writing this on a Monday morning!

The wisdom of playing two spinners is fair game for questioning. After the Sri Lankan victory over India, I did tell a few who cared to listen that Jadeja perhaps needed to be rested. He was not the same force as he was against the Australians in the Test series. He went for big runs on Sunday and eased the pressure on Pakistan when, at one stage, five overs went for just 20 runs. India was turning the tide back and Jadeja pushed it back to Pakistan. One can blame it on too much cricket but far too many cricketers in the world can complain of that these days. So, it won’t wash. In any case, his sacrifice of Hardik Pandya deserves a response from the team management. It was very unprofessional.

Whenever I watched Ashwin Ravichandran in this tournament, he did not strike me as the same bowler. His aggression was not there. I did not get the impression that he was looking for wickets. He was going through the motions anxious not to be hit for runs. Usually, when one is anxious, one’s mission fails. That is what happened to him. So, the team management could have thought harder about playing both. In fact, in one of the warm-up games, Mohammed Shami looked keen, purposeful and fit.

Similarly, Kedar Jadhav does not inspire confidence as a one-day batsman. Ajinkya Rahane and Dinesh Karthik do. Kedar’ fielding mistakes were quite a few, throughout the tournament. It goes for Yuvraj Singh too. He has done a very good job for India over the years but he has become a slow mover and does not bend down as quickly as he should or used to. In his prime, he was a brilliant fielder.

Ajinkya Rahane’s mindset impressed me the most in the fourth Test against Australia in Dharamsala when two quick wickets had fallen. It was in the fourth innings of the match. He was the captain. He came in, took charge and broke free of the mind games that small total chases play on players. He went after Hazelwood and ensured that the match went India’s way without any further hiccups. That was leadership. One must mention here the contrasting style of Ashwin Ravichandran. He dropped a sitter in the slips then and looked at the ball, looked at the skies and looked at the other players as though everyone else were to be blamed, except himself. I had noticed this tendency even in some IPL games in the past. He needs to reflect on it. Else, he cannot be a leader of men.

One final thought on cricket itself: The boundaries have become excessively short. The game has tilted far too much in favour of the batsmen. Youngsters get the message that the game is all about lofted shots with bigger bats. Just as there is a debate in tennis about the rocket frame, the cricket bat’s thickness should be circumscribed. Cricket needs bowlers. Batsmen cannot hit by themselves. Just as there is a sex ratio imbalance in some countries due to male bias, the game’s administrators should not create a batsman-bowler imbalance. It is easy to pander to the lowest common denominator of entertainment, akin to WWF Wrestling. Cricket used to be more sophisticated.

Postscript: In a blog post covering India’s defeat in a cricket match against Pakistan on Sunday, the 18th of June, it would be a big omission not to cover India’s achievements on the same day.  In the World Cup Semifinal League Hockey Match, India beat Pakistan by 7-1. Indian Badminton player Kidambi Srikanth beat an unseeded Japanese player to win the Indonesian Open Super Series title. In the semi-finals, he had defeated the top-seeded Korean player.

Shekhar’s silver

Shekhar Gupta (former editor at ‘Indian Express’) now writes a weekly column for ‘Business Standard’. He has written a good one (behind paywall) on the Indian hand-wringing over the absence of medals in the Rio Olympics. He deserves at least a silver medal for the article. He could have easily won the gold but for the (mischievous?) reference to Gujarat. He could have used any other State for comparison. But, that is too minor to quibble about.

Besides incomes, training (depends on incomes too), diet and nutrition (latter is an outcome of diet), the hot and humid climate too disadvantages athletes from the developing world. Diet and heat do affect stamina, endurance and strength quite a bit.

His article provides a very good perspective. India is making progress in the international sporting arena.

Virat Kohli

There are occasions when it sinks slowly into our consciousness that we are watching something special, something that happens rarely, extraordinary and beyond normal human effort and that we are simply lucky to be watching it.

Those who watched Virat Kohli carry India to victory, almost single-handedly, on Sunday night at Mohali would have had that feeling.

At the end of fifteen overs, the match was as good as last because the ‘asking rate’ had climbed to two runs off every ball. I remember seeing on the screen that the quotient was 55 runs off 27 balls.

At that time, it appeared that India’s generosity with wides (eleven of them) and the last two balls would prove decisive.

How he managed to tame both James Faulkner and Nathan Coulter-Nile in two overs with mostly cricketing shots would be talked about for a very long time. He almost made them bowl where and how he wanted them to and he found gaps in the field at will. It was almost as though Australian players had vacated the arena leaving an empty ground for Virat to score at will, which he did.

His self-belief was staggering and frightening.

Shikhar Dhawan had perished to a pre-determined shot. He wanted to hit another six in the square-leg region regardless of the ball. Rohit’s dismissal was a consequence of a pre-meditated charge down the wicket. Suresh Raina succumbed to his old weakness. Yuvraj hobbled and that must have been both a distracting influence and a negative influence on energy levels.

It did appear that Kohli would suffer a lapse in concentration in his Thirties and perish. He appeared frustrated and distracted then. Luckily for him and for India, he regrouped and how!

Amidst all the well-deserved praise being heaped on Virat Kohli, we should not forget the excellent bowling spell by Ashish Nehra and by Ravinder Jadeja until his last over. Nehra delivered just when his captain desperately needed him, he kept his cool when all those around him were losing theirs. He is 37. He bent his back. Ravi Jadeja stands and delivers. It would be nice if he did bend his back, at least once in a while.

As Steve Smith told Sanjay Manjrekar, 160 was a par total although Australia looked set for bigger things at the beginning. It was a good last match for Shane Watson. He would have been happier with a better finish to his international career but one diminutive man stood in the way.

The professional satisfaction that comes from your adversaries’ acknowledgement is something special. Virat will savour some of these tweets for a long time.