‘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.

A good result for Virat Kohli

It was the best result for Virat Kohli in the end. What? Have I lost it? No. Stay with me. I wrote, after his stunning performance against Australia, that his self-belief was staggering and that it was even frightening. On Thursday evening and in the build-up to the semi-finals match, the ‘frightening’ part had taken over. In an oft-seen and familiar story of media and the man making each other, taking turns, Kohli’s persona had taken on a much larger-than-life image. Against Australia, he was focused and he allowed himself the luxury of a pumped fist only after a six in the closing overs of the game that brought India closer to victory.

But, here, it was half substance and half show. No doubt that he batted brilliantly again in the final overs but there was the showmanship, unmistakably, which was missing in the ‘quarter-final’ match against Australia. There was no rudeness; unsportsmanlike behaviour or anything like that. But, the image appeared just a shade bigger than the man. I could have been imagining too.

So, when he came on to bowl – I must say that it was a good decision – and took a wicket, it appeared that he could do nothing wrong. Dhoni trusting the man of the moment to turn dust into gold seemed like a brilliant instinctive play. It was not to be. The winning runs were hit off Kohli.

Turn to Chris Gayle. This match was billed as the contest between Kohli and Gayle. Kohli had played his part. A circumspect Gayle did hit a boundary but his attempt to be too responsible made him miss a dipping full toss. Had he batted with his usual attitude, he might have whacked it for runs, if not a six.

So, in a way, both the showmen came up short in their own ways, when it mattered. That might sound too harsh, in particular, as a judgement against Kohli. But, I suppose you get the drift. It is not a sporting judgement but a philosophical one. It matters for the game that it happened. Far more importantly, it matters to them that it happened. It is good to come down to the earth. It is more secure when the feet feel the ground beneath them. It is a different matter altogether that they may not see it this way. The system is organised in such a way as to prevent them from seeing it. But, if they can and do, they will stay and shine for long.

Kohli would have realised that there are limits to what he alone can do. Who would have thought that India would pick up two wickets off two no balls and a brilliant catch by Jadeja and Kohli would end up as a six! What a fantastic drama! Sure, most Indian fans would not have seen it that way. There was no place for fun and enjoyment amidst all the flag-waving, face paints and cupped faces. Pity.

The match, nay, this tournament, has been a victory for the Indian philosophy of Dvaita (loosely put, there is ‘us’ and there is God) over Advaita (God is intrinsic to humans). No, do not get me wrong. West Indies was not representing the Dvaita School and the Indian team the Advaita School. Hardly.

I just felt, after the match, that there had to be a God who not only had a wicked sense of humour, irony but also brilliant in story, screenplay and direction.

The memories of T-20 World Cup that preceded this one seem like a blur to me, perhaps, because I did not follow them that closely or I did and I had forgotten. That is something to remember as Indian fans fret over the defeat over the weekend. It ain’t going to last. Media and the marketing machineries will create the next mania and soon. They have to move on and so will we.

For now, however, for sheer drama, this T-20 World Cup ranks at the very top. Slow wickets, low scores and tense finishes. Batsmen not always dominating. Great sporting feats, reminders of mortality and the drama. India won when they did not appear to deserve it – against Bangladesh. Against Australia, India won when the match appeared all but truly lost. Here, India lost when they thought they had won! Humans and mortal, after all.

Such fantastic drama could not be spontaneous. It is the work of a brilliant story and scriptwriter and Director. There has to be a God – extrinsic to us – who keeps humans dancing at the end of the string, he manipulates so brilliantly.

Now, let us come to cricket. I could watch the match from the 13th over of the Indian innings. After hectic two days in Bangalore attending a Board meeting, I made it to the airport by 6 PM itself, anxious to catch the match from the beginning. My flight to Singapore was at 11 PM. I did not expect the Singapore Airline check-in counter to open before 7. They opened at around 7:35 PM. The departure hall in Bangalore airport has no TV. Immigration counters were thinly manned. By the time I made it to the lounge, 12 overs were gone. There was a bit of a lull in the Indian innings between overs 7 and 12. Those six overs yielded ‘only’ 43 runs. But, that is normal. It is hard to complain about the batting performance when the team puts up 192 on the board. I thought the score had at least a 10-run cushion for India.

Things went according to plan, for India, that is. Nehra bowled tight. Whenever he is hit for a four off the first ball, Ashish Nehra bends his back more and manages to produce a tight over despite that. He did that again in this match. Ashwin had been a disappointment against Australia and against West Indies. Perhaps, a spinner does not need to have such a big final delivery stride. Well, that is hindsight wisdom. Some have criticised Dhoni for not giving more than two overs to his star bowler. But, the man watching the bowler from behind the stumps knows his rhythm. I think Dhoni was right to ‘rest’ Ashwin after two overs, in both the games. One more ego downsized, at least for the moment. Around the 12th over of the West Indies innings, it dawned on me that they were very much in the game. So it turned out. I liked the way that they kept going. No matter there was dew and the ball was wet, it is not easy to chase 192 in the semi-final of a major tournament.

Whichever team won, I was inclined to bet on England winning the tournament. They appear a more complete unit compared to others. But, after this win for West Indies, the eventual winner has become that much more difficult to predict. For a sport-fan and a sporting fan, that is the best thing to happen.

As for India, there is no shame. Except for those two no balls, India did not do much wrong. They bowled eleven wides and won against Australia. Here, they did most things right and lost. Enjoy the irony of life. It was just a cricket match.

(Cross-posted here)

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.

T-20 World Cup – some personal reflections

The sixth edition of the T-20 Cricket World Cup Tournament is underway in India. I did not expect to be watching this tournament. I had lost interest in following all cricket there is, simply because there is too much of it.

But, because this one is beamed late in the night into Singapore homes and a good way to unwind somewhat mindlessly, I decided to follow them. I must happily concede that I have been enjoying the matches.

First, I loved Chris Gayle’s 11 sixes against England and their new dance of celebration.

Then, came the low-scoring nail-biter between Australia and New Zealand. Happy to see NZ win, no doubt.

I am not a big fan of England. I do not root (pun intended) for them. I am being polite here. But, the way they beat South Africa by scoring 237 runs was truly magnificent. Joe Root was special. They thoroughly deserved it.

As I was watching this match, my mind wandered back to 2005, the year of a memorable Ashes Cricket Series between Australia and England. I could not immediately recall the names of the English pacers including that of their famous all-rounder at that time. Thanks to the Internet, it was no issue. I was struggling to recall the names of Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison.

I then came across as the series of articles ‘Daily Mail’ had done on Flintoff last October. I read only one of them. I found it fascinating. Here are some sentences from that:

‘When you search for things you are not always happy with what you find,’ he said. ‘In the early years of retirement that was what drove me. It was escapism. 

‘The mask became the man and it was exhausting,’ he writes. 

The India-Pakistan match was, well, the show of the tournament for India. Mamata Banerjee’s screaming at the top of her voice, as she opened the match, in her own English was somewhat hard to take.

Quite why and how Afridi let the pressure slip after having India reeling at 23/3 is somewhat hard to explain.

On that day, Kohli was in a different zone. That should have helped him to erase the memories of his 11-ball inglorious stay at the crease in the World Cup ODI finals in Melbourne last year.

Sri Lanka – West Indies match was a bummer. Sri Lanka was way below par. They are missing good leadership, perhaps. Something is missing.

New Zealand vs. Pakistan – it was a match that I could not complete watching. When I went to sleep, Pakistan were, in reply to NZ, at 24/0 in two overs. Good start. But, they had gone on to lose the match. If Australia beat them, they are out of the tournament. Then, it will be up to Australia and India to slug it out for the second spot. Hard to pick the eventual winner of that contest. Both teams are playing below par.

In a way, the slower pitches that this tournament has featured are useful for the game of cricket. They have elevated the status of the bowlers from being mere whipping boys for the batsmen. They are no longer passengers. They have played a key role in matches.

The ‘dumbification’ of cricket with too much pre-eminence and leeway given to batsmen is par for the course in modern times where anything is nothing if it is not a viewing spectacle that provides cheap thrills.

These times are about superficial over the subliminal in everything we so. There should be no surprises that cricket has not been exempt from this trend.

Was at a book launch function last evening in Singapore. A research fellow at ISAS, Ronojoy Sen, was releasing his book, ‘A Nation at Play – India’s sporting history’. He came across as an unassuming, thoughtful and a good researcher.

One Mr. Manu Sawhney formerly of ESPN-Star, current CEO of Singapore Sports Hub, was the keynote speaker. It was interesting to listen to him about how the fees had changed. From USD8mn for a four-year right in the early 1990s, now it is USD17mn per match, regardless of the form of cricket – test, 50-over ODI or T-20.

No surprises that TV, instead of telecasting the cricket that is played, dictates how the game should be played. We, humans, are always good at elevating the ‘means’ to ‘ends’ and reducing the ‘ends’ to irrelevance. These are, btw, not comments on him. Perhaps, it is not just cricket that has been afflicted.

Of course, while I view IPL T-20 cricket league phenomenon with disdain, I must concede that the copycats it has spawned in other sports in India has been welcome. Many livelihoods have been improved beyond imagination and a sporting culture is taking root in the country. Whether it is Kabaddi, Badminton, Football or Hockey league, all these games have been granted new leases of life in India. Especially, Kabaddi. Very welcome indeed.

In this context, I came across this wonderful article from ‘The Week’ on the revival of board games in India. These are subtle but extremely effective ways to maintain and preserve our traditions and civilisations. When we play these games with children, we bond and we share other stories about age-old customs, practices and other Puranic stories too.

Pl. read the article and support those who have found a way to pursue these besides their other avocations. My Namaskarams to them.

Now, we come to the final (as of now) match that I watched: India vs. Bangladesh. Quite how and why Bangladesh lost the match would take some explanation. They had done everything right even right into the last over of their innings. They never allowed any Indian batsman to get away with the game. They took a stunning catch when Pandya looked like he would take India beyond 160.

Then, they chased well. What was the turning point? Was it Bumrah’s comeback overs? Should Bumrah have been named the ‘Man of The Match’? Or, was it Dhoni’s lightning stumping? Or, was it the masterstroke that made him keep a slip fielder for Ashwin? Was it Yuvraj’s save of a certain four? For my money, the player of the match should have been Ravinder Jadeja or Dhoni. Jadeja scored 12 runs, took two wickets and took a very good catch in the final over.

It was hard not to feel for Bangladesh. They had played very well, planned and executed well. They deserved to win. It was sad to see some spectators crying and one player too, as he walked off the field. Could the Indian players have commiserated more with them? I do not know. I think they should have tried.

Perhaps, this comment in Cricinfo reflects some justifiable frustration at their loss.

Two days later, I watched the South Africa – West Indies match. West Indies made heavy weather of the modest target that South Africa had set. In fact, they made such a meal of it that the equation came down to 20 runs off the last two overs. South Africa could not contain the West Indies. The latter won. As I watched the final overs of the West Indies batting, a thought came to my head. Do these tense situations help to bring out the worst or the best in players?

Very few appear capable of handling the pressure without losing their intrinsic composure. Others want to brazen it out by closing their eyes to the situation and simply lashing out at the ball, hoping that it would somehow connect and relieve them of their troubles. There is hope and denial in that; not so much planning. Joe Root, Virat Kohli and M.S. Dhoni seem the honourable exceptions. Of course, AB de Villiers is one of them too. When he was around, Steve Waugh of Australia was another. In the past, Australian Michael Bevan stood out for his calmness in challenging circumstances. I would reckon that it played a big role in him helping Australia win out of impossible situations.

Lest someone think a cool and collected head writes these lines, perish the thought. It is easier to be a critic than a doer.

Enjoy the rest of the tournament.