Friday, April 10, 2015

Azhar lights up Gabba

Before he was accused of fixing matches and banned by the BCCI and before he entered and disappeared the muddy world of politics, Mohammad Azharuddin was perhaps the most popular Indian cricketer among the masses. He was an amazing batsman- my favorite- and the brilliance of his batting rose from the way he played. Wristy, a supreme artist, Azhar’s batting was a pleasure to watch. His batting defied the rulebook and yet was so simple and easy on the eye. He could flick off stump half volleys to square leg, wristily flick a delivery to mid off and hit a turning leg break through covers.  Watching Azhar bat was pure delight and no cricketer gave me more joy than this artist from Hyderabad.

Azhar was the captain of the Indian Cricket team at the 1992 Benson and Hedges World Cup. Like 2015, India had a tough test series prior to the World Cup in Australia and the team also took part in the Benson and Hedges triangular series. Both series were disasters, India losing the five test match series 0-4 and losing in the final of the triangular series.  Apart from a glorious stroke filled hundred at the Adelaide Oval, Azhar had a torrid tour with the bat and whispers about his position and place in the team were already being heard. When India lost the first game of the World Cup to England, a game in which Azhar was dismissed for a duck, the knives were truly out for him.

 India’s second game against Sri Lanka was washed out meaning that their third game against Australia assumed great significance in the context of the tournament. The game was at the Gabba in Brisbane. Australia batted first and scored 237, with Dean Jones, one of the greatest one day players the game has seen, scoring a 90. Just as the Indian innings started, a thunder storm broke out at the Gabba and play was suspended for a few minutes.  A strange rain rule was in place during the Word Cup in 1992. According to this rule, in the event of a reduced game, the best batting overs of the team batting first were to be considered. The match was reduced to 47 overs a side but India’s target was reduced by just one run as the best 47 run scoring overs of the Australian innings were considered for the purpose of calculating the target.

The slightly wet surface and the overcast conditions meant that it was difficult for batsman to put bat to ball, let alone score runs. Australia had a very strong pace attack in Craig Mcdermott, Michael Whitney and Merv Hughes and they were making the ball talk. Srikanth departed early and in walked Azhar amidst gathering clouds, actually and fugitively. He was tentative early on but then the wristy blade began to talk. Anything on the stumps was worked artistically on the leg side and soon Azhar started driving the ball confidently on the offside.   The stage was set for the artist and he was performing and delighting his audience.

Indeed it seemed as if Azhar was playing on a different surface for at the other end batsman kept struggling. Ravi Shashtri pottered around for 67 balls for his 25. A young 18 year old by the name of Sachin Tendulkar came and went for 11. Kapil Dev, promoted up the order to increase the scoring rate, scored a run a ball 21 before being deceived by Steve Waugh. The target looked out of reach for the Indians as they were reduced to 128/4 and the asking rate went over 8.

But Azhar was playing a dream innings. The Aussie paceman were treated with scant respect as he effortless drove them all over the ground. When All Border, the Australian captain, tried to stop him from scoring through the on-side, Azhar drove through covers and in one case hit Hughes effortlessly over extra cover for a one bounce four. When they tried bowling short he pulled them or just tucked them using his wrists behind square. This was batting of the highest quality and for a player who was thought to be suspect against the short ball, his batting of the backfoot was of the highest class. Power was never associated with Azhar’s batting but so good was his timing that day that he found the big boundaries on the Gabba with ease.

128/4 soon became 194/4 with Azhar having scored 93 of those and it seemed that we would lead India to an unlikely victory. However on 93 he went for a suicidal single and Allan Border, who had only one stump to aim at, hit the stumps and found Azhar short. It was a stunning piece of fielding to end a sensational innings. Sanjay Manjerkar and the Indian tail, inspired by Azhar’s counter attack carried the fight till the end. Manjrekar scored a valiant 47 of just 42 balls before being run out.  In a dramatic last over in which 13 were required by India for a victory, Kiran More struck 2 fours in two balls before being bowled while attempting a third one. With four needed off the last ball, Javagal Srinath swung his bat wildly only for Steve Waugh to drop the catch at deep midwicket. However, Waugh recovered quickly to throw at the striker’s end to find Raju short and eventually giving the Aussies a win by 1 run.

Azhar would emerge as India’s leading run scorer for the tournament, lighting up the grounds of Australia and New Zealand with his dazzling stroke play. But it was his innings at the Gabba that will remain in one’s memory forever.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Tragedy of Wahab Riaz

The contest today was always going to be between the Australian batsman and the Pakistani bowlers. When Misbah won the toss, the Pakistani bowlers would have hoped and prayed that the batsman gave them something to play with-some runs to defend. The batsman all got starts and threw it away. Pakistan got 213. The general opinion was that this was not enough. However there was one man in the Pakistan camp who believed that it was enough. Wahab Riaz.

Wahab Riaz is no Wasim Akram. He is not even a Mitchell Johnson or a Mitchell Starc. But he is a fast bowler with a big heart. Picture this- Mohali 2011. World Cup Semi Final. India v Pakistan. Sehwag has started like a bullet train smashing 38 in 25 balls. Pakistan seems to be wilting- Gul has lost his bearings. Pakistan needs a man with a big heart. Up steps Wahab Riaz. He dismisses Sehwag. He gets rid of Kohli, Yuvraj, Dhoni and Zaheer Khan. He gets 5/46. He hopes his team mates do their bit of the plan. They don’t. India wins by 29 runs. India is jubilant. Pakistan is despondent.

Wahab Riaz has taken five but nobody cares about him. That is the tragedy of Wahab Riaz.

Today Wahab Riaz was introduced in the 8th over. Australia was 44/1 and coasting towards their target. Australia eventually won but not before Wahab Riaz had bowled the most outstanding spell of fast aggressive bowling this tournament has seen. He was fast- very fast- accurate and hostile.  He was the lone warrior trying to win the battle for his team. He got Warner in his first over and then he was a man possessed. Fortunately Misbah realized that it was Wahab who would win or lose the match for Pakistan.  He perhaps told his warrior to lead the charge and win the battle.

Michael Clarke was welcomed by Wahab by a shortleg and two bouncers clocked at 145 km/hr. He played those awkwardly and survived for 5 deliveries bowled by Wahab but on the 6th Wahab forced him to fend straight at shortleg. Wahab let out a war cry. Perhaps he wanted to tell the Australians that the battle had started. In walked Shane Watson.

First ball to Watson by Wahab was a quick bouncer, bowled perhaps to wake Watson up. Watson fended that awkwardly. Next ball was clocked at 150 km/hr. Watson tried to play and then swayed away. It was too quick for him. A glare followed. The bouncer barrage continued. Runs flowed easily from the other end but Wahab Riaz did not care. He wanted to win this game on his own. Last ball of the 13th over was another fast short ripper. How Watson managed to evade that only he knows. Drinks were taken and then the pivotal moment of the game arrived.

First delivery of the 17th over. Another fast bouncer. Watson had enough. He tried to hook and got a top edge. Fine leg under it. If this catch is taken, Pakistan is on its way to a famous win. If this catch is taken, Wahab Riaz is on his way to cricketing folklore. If this catch is taken it would be the culmination of a tremendous piece of fast bowling along with a brilliant plan. Except that the catch is not taken. Rahat Ali drops it. He drops the world cup for Pakistan. He shatters Wahab Riaz’s dreams. Wahab yells in frustration.

But Wahab did not give up. Bouncer after bouncer was bowled to Watson. Watson fended. Watson ducked and Watson survived. When he was called later in the game for a second spell, Wahab bowled another hostile over. Steven Smith had been dismissed. The ‘big show ‘Glenn Maxwell was at the crease. Wahab bowled a bouncer; Maxwell did not know what do to do. Wahab made Maxwell look like a schoolboy. The ball hit the bat and flew to thirdman. Sohail Khan dropped it. One wanted to rush on the ground and give Wahab Riaz a big hug. Then turn around and yell at all the Pakistani fielders. What were they doing? One of the greatest spell of fast bowling was supported by one of the worst fielding efforts seen in this tournament.

Watson displayed a lot of quality too. He survived that torrid spell by Wahab .Wahab made him look like a tail ender but he survived. Once Wahab was rested, he opened out. Out came the Shane Watson strokes. The cover drive, the flick and the front foot pull were all seen.
But Shane Watson most importantly showed character and heart. Wahab Riaz bowled the most wonderful spell but Shane Watson survived that and then took Australia to victory .That required a lot of luck, skill and extraordinary class. Watson showed that when the going got tough, he could stand up and be counted.

Australia go to Sydney where a different battle in the form of India awaits them. Wahab Riaz goes back home wondering what the story would have been if all the catches would have been taken. Twice in two world cups Wahab has produced match winning performances and yet been on the losing end only because his team mates have not been good enough to take advantage of those performances.

That is the tragedy of Wahab Riaz.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Southee and McCullum show

It is not often that one gets excited by a New Zealand- England one day game.  And it is not often that performances are seen in such a game that will remain in one’s memory for a long time. I woke up early in the morning today anticipating a closely fought game between the Kiwis and the Englishmen. My hopes of seeing a good game were destroyed by two men who made absolutely mockery of the contest. But there were two special performances from two cricketers whose reputation keeps on growing by the day and that made it worthwhile to get up early in the morning.

For the cricketing world, New Zealand is known as the land of Sir Richard Hadlee. Hadlee was a master of swing and seam often deceiving batsman with late movement. Tim Southee gave a display of fast bowling today morning at Wellington that would have made Hadlee proud. All the necessary ingredients of top class fast bowling- pace, late swing, accuracy and seam were on display.  There were stages today during the English innings that Southee appeared unplayable.   So petrified did the English batsman look in front of Southee that they appeared like rabbits caught in front of headlights. It will not be very farfetched to suggest that in the form that he was in today morning, Tim Southee would have rolled over most batting line up’s in the world.

There is nothing more pleasing in the game of cricket than watching a swing bowler torturing top quality batsman. Southee got in the act straightway in the morning dismissing Bell with a beauty and then following it up with the wicket of Moeen Ali. But it was his spell in the middle of the innings- between over’s 27 to 33 that broke the back of the English innings. Swinging the ball at pace, Southee gave a display of top class fast attacking swing bowling.  In particular the way Southee dismissed James Taylor was a joy to watch. The first delivery to Taylor was a fast swinging yorker that started on off stump and went away. Taylor poked his bat at that and missed. The next delivery was a similar fast yorker, except that this one started on middle and took out the off stump before Taylor could get his bat down. In cricket parlance that delivery was a ‘jaffer’.

A procession of batsman then followed. Joss Butler came, tried to drive a fast swinging delivery and could only edge it to Ronchi behind the stumps. Chris Woakes stayed back to a fast swinging full delivery and saw his off stump knocked back. Stuart Broad was so petrified of the bowling on display that he walked away from the stumps. Southee followed him got the leading edge of his bat and the catch was taken at mid off.  Steven Finn edged an outswinger to slip. From 104 for 3 England had stumbled to 117 thanks to Southee’s brilliance. Pitch the kookaburra up, swing it and get the batsman. The game made to look so simple. If ever Tim Southee produces another performance like this again, it will be worth travelling miles to go and see.

But the fun was not over. For Brendan McCullum decided that he would run salt into the English team’s wounds. At the most times McCullum is a very destructive batsman. Today he just took his batting to another level. Poor Steve Finn did not know what hit him. When he pitched it up, he was smashed over extra cover for six. When he pitched it short he was cut and pulled for six. When he bowled straighter, he was hit over long off for six. McCullum smashed seven sixes with great power; Stuart Broad was taken for 18 off his first over while Steven Finn was dispatched for 49 off two that included four consecutive sixes. Even Jimmy Anderson was not spared as McCullum scored in 77 in twenty five balls. If ever the word massacre had to be used in a cricketing context, it was today.

 Although Woakes dismissed McCullum of a fulltoss, the game was over.  The Kiwis wrapped up the chase in under 13 overs and New Zealand had sent a strong message to all other teams.  The contest did not live up to its expectations but Southee and McCullum more than made up for it. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Nobody cares about Test Cricket

Its 11 pm on a Saturday night. India has just lost a test match to England and have fallen behind 1-2 in the five match test series.  Winning and losing are parts of the game but this defeat is very depressing. India has lost the test in two and half days and India’s two innings have not even lasted a combined 90 overs. It has been a spineless, gutless and a worthless performance.  At the post match presentation, being conducted by one of the world’s finest cricket commentators- Michael Atherton, MS Dhoni puts up a brave face. But two things that he says stand out. He first says that he is happy with the progress made by his team.  This after India has lost 19 out of the last twenty sessions played in the test series. This after his team lost 4 wickets for no runs in the first innings and 4 wickets for 9 runs in the second. Then with a straight face Dhoni says “ one of the positives  is that the test has ended in three days so we get two days of rest “. 
That is when the thought strikes me.
 India does not care about test cricket. We don’t care about test cricket.

A week back, when the third test was being played at Southampton, Indian cricket was in a much happier space.  India put a terrific show at Lords to win the second test. And although England had made 569 at the Ages Bowl, India seemed to be fighting back through a good partnership between the two  Mumbai boys, Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane and were placed at 210/4.  5 minutes before tea Rohit Sharma, on 28 charges down to Moeen Ali and plays the most horrendous shot possible and gets out. A few minutes after Tea, Ajinkya Rahane tries to slog one to deep midwicket and is caught.  India never recovers, concedes a lead of 260 and loses early on the fifth day.  At the end of the third day, Ajinkya Rahane is specifically asked if he regrets that shot and the manner of his dismissal. He shrugs and says “These things happen”. No regret. No disappointment. Slogging a part time off spinner to midwicket and getting out at crucial junctures supposedly is normal for the Indian Cricket team.

But then we don’t care about test cricket.

Virat Kohli came to England with a stellar reputation. He was considered by many as the best batsman in the world. He had all the shots in the book and had made runs everywhere. His ability has never been in doubt. He has had a tough series in England. That’s acceptable and understandable because most batsmen go through such phases in international cricket. At the end of the fourth day at the Ages bowl, Kohli gave a television interview. He said he was not to be blamed for his poor form and there was not much he could do since he was nicking everything early on. This from a man who cried his eyes out when India got knocked out of the 2012 T20 World Cup. This from a man, whose  anger is very visible, when his franchise loses an IPL game.  For him his poor form in England was something he could not do much about.Ofcourse he couldn’t do much and we couldn’t do much.

We don’t care about Test Cricket.

The period between 2007 and 2011 was a golden period for Indian test cricket. We won in England, West Indies and New Zealand. We came back undefeated from South Africa and Sri Lanka. We won test matches at Perth and Durban.  We were the number 1 test team in the world. The slide and decline of Indian Test Cricket started in England in 2011. Prior to that series an Indian team had gone to the West Indies to play a test series. This was after the success of the 2011 World Cup and after the IPL was played.  Gautam Gambhir, Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag and Zaheer Khan all chose to play the IPL but decided to skip the test series in the West Indies.  India lost in England for want skill, commitment and attitude.  The lack of desire and attitude was manifested in the reluctance of the stars not to play test cricket in the West Indies and get ready for the England tour. We noticed that but we did not comment /criticise or opine on it. We were happy that the stars were playing our home twenty twenty tournament. Of course we would be.

We don’t care about test cricket.

The decline of Indian test cricket started in England in 2011. Since then India has played 16 test matches outside of the India. India has lost 12 of them, drew 3 and won only one. That’s a diabolical record for country claiming to be a leader in the game of cricket. What is even more disturbing is the fact that no attempt has been, no initiative taken to try and find out the reasons for this ineptitude and try and rectify them. When Australia lost the Ashes in 2011, they  formed an Argus committee and made changes to the structure of their cricket based on the recommendations of that committee. When England lost the Ashes 0-5 this year, their chief coach and batting coach were replaced, their star batsman was sacked and their captain nearly lost his job. When Australia lost 0-4 against India they sacked their coach. You may agree or disagree with some of these decisions but they at least show a desire and intent to improve. India has taken no such steps. Infact the president of the BCCI in an interview to justified these defeats by stating that the test matches were played on ‘super fast wickets’. It is unlikely that even now an Indian board will take any steps to find out the reason for this pathetic show. But why should they do anything.

We don’t care about Test Cricket.
MS Dhoni is an impressive personality. He is, in my view, India’s best ever limited overs batsman. He is also a very impressive limited overs captain. But he is also, in my view, one of India’s worst test match captains. Apart from the record stated above, all of which has occurred under the leadership of Dhoni, India has allowed dominating positions in test matches slip away on many occasions. At Cape Town in 2011, at Trent Bridge in 2011, at Melbourne in 2011, at Durban in 2013 and Wellington in 2014, normal basic test cricket would have seen India win test matches. Instead on each of those occasions India allowed the opposition to recover and dominate. Even in this series some of Dhoni’s tactics have been bizarre. The idea of playing Ravindra Jadeja ahead of Ravichandran Ashwin as your front line spinner was strange but the idea of asking Jadeja bat ahead of Stuart Binny and Ravichandran Ashwin lacked any sense of logic. At Southampton, Jadeja was bowling with 7 fielders on the onside inside the second session on the first day. At Manchester, India, needing early wickets on a seaming track, opened their bowling with Ravindra Jadeja.  Shane Warne has called Dhoni’s captaincy bizarre. Saurav Ganguly has called it poor. Ian Chappell, perhaps the most brilliant cricketing mind alive, has repeatedly called for Dhoni to be removed. But among the Indian cricket board and the Indian cricket selection committee, there is no discussion or debate on Dhoni’s captaincy. And why should there be one.

We don’t care about Test Cricket.

Mohinder ‘Jimmy’ Amarnath was one of India’s greatest batsmen. In 1983, playing 8 test matches away from home against Imran, Sarfaraz, Holding, Roberts, Garner and Marshal, he scored 600 runs , making everyone unanimously declare that he is the best player of fast bowling in the world. Jimmy Paaji was a selector when India lost 8 consecutive test matches to England and Australia in 2011/12. Always believing in calling a spade a spade, Amarnath declared that Dhoni should be replaced as captain of the test team. Two months later he was sacked as the selector of the Indian Cricket team. Indian cricket does not like people who tell the truth. Commentators tell us whata brilliant place Indian cricket is. We are told that the IPL is a magnificent event. We are told that  our players are the best in the world. Nobody tells the BCCI what’s wrong. Nobody discusses captaincy on Indian television. Nobody discusses selection. After India lost 0-8 to England and Australia, there were no calls for review, debate, discussion about selection, captaincy, domestic cricket structure etc. Why would anybody do that?
We don’t care about test cricket.

Of course all of this is my perception. I may be totally wrong. May be Indian cricket does care about test cricket. May be currently every single Indian cricketer in England is hurt and disappointed. But India are doing the fundamentals wrong. They are dropping slip catches.  They are bowling with a defensive mindset. Batsman are throwing their wickets away after being set. The basic application and temperament required to succeed at Test Cricket seems to be lacking. And when the conditions are hostile, there seems to be a lack of desire to fight. The Indian cricket team is like a brilliant student who appears for a mathematics exam without any preparation. Through his brilliance, he may get one or two problems solved but the chances of consistent success are slim.  It almost as if they don’t care. And that has led to this perception.
We don’t care about test cricket.

Last summer in England, India played some stunning one day cricket to win the Champions Trophy.  Early this year, they played some very good cricket to reach the finals of the world T20.India will always have success in the shorter formats of the game. Unfortunately for history to recognise you as a serious cricket team, you need to succeed at the longer version of the game. Arjuna Ranatunga’s Sri Lanka dominated world one day cricket in the late nineties. Imran Khan’s  Pakistan won the one day world cup in 1992. But when analysts and experts debate the great teams of the modern era these teams are not even considered. Clive Lloyd’s West Indians and Steve Waugh’s Australians are considered the greatest and this is based only on their test match success.

It is unlikely that an Indian Cricket team will be spoken of in the same breath as the above teams. But I  believe that  people  who run Indian Cricket currently will  not  lose any sleep over it.

I have said it a lot and I say it again. We don’t care about test cricket.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The pain of Luis Suarez

Its 11.45 in the night. The mind is restless.  It has been a brilliant few days for sports lovers. Sri Lanka and England have played a wonderful test series, Wimbledon has started and the Football World Cup has been brilliant to watch.  But it is not about what has happened before. The concern is about what has happened a while back and the consequences of that.  This blog is not about, cricket, Wimbledon or football.

It is about Luis Suarez.

Football fans are a strange community (at least the ones that I know). They take pride and abundant delight in the misery of another fan. Slowly the messages start coming in. “Luis Suarez is a disgrace to football” someone messages.  “He should be stoned to death” an overexcited individual messages me. Television commentators and analysts are going crazy telling us what a disgraceful act it was.  All this for a football player who was voted by all the players in England as player of the year.  All this for a footballer player who was voted by the English press as the player of the year.  All this for a football player who is being chased by the leading clubs of this world. “Liverpool should rot in hell” someone tells me. “Your Suarez is a disgrace” another message pops up. My Suarez?  Well he is my Suarez. He is my favorite player. He is the player I enjoy watching the most. He is the player who elevated a mid table ordinary club to a champion team. He is the player who for 6 weeks last year made me go through the most amazing dream of my life.

He committed a terrible act.  I felt the pain. So did many of his other fans.

The morning after is torturous if you are a Suarez Fan. People pour their emotions on social media.  Friends are rampant on Facebook. Facebook- the most terrible invention known to mankind. It makes you see others celebrate when you are going through grief. It can make you envious, depressed and sad. A normal innocuous statement may seem like a taunt to you. I read a post which says that Suarez should have been the lead actor in the Hollywood flick Jaws. Someone calls him a rabid canine. I hope his family is not reading this. All sorts of analogies are provided and all sorts of names are being called. There are taunts and insults on twitter. This for a man who just a week back had produced one of the greatest individual performance seen at World Cup Football since Diego Maradona in 1986. Louis Suarez is the best player in the word, I had tweeted. Some one retweeted that yesterday and asked me whether I still believed in my declaration. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  I consoled myself   by claiming that all people were hypocrites. If Suarez was playing for their teams, these very same people would be drooling over him.

Luis Suarez has given me so much joy. Today he is given me a lot of pain.

When Luis Suarez is in form, he makes watching football such a wonderful experience. Football is the mistress of my life. It has taken me away from my first love- cricket.  Some say, a mistress only brings pain. Maybe I deserve this pain. A few years back, I would never event have dreamt to miss a final of a global cricket event featuring India. This year when India played against Sri Lanka in the world T20 final, I followed the scores but my eyes were Suarez and my beloved Liverpool who were playing against West Ham. Liverpool won that game and India lost theirs. A few years back I would have been devastated. This time I was sad for India, but delighted that Liverpool was still in the title hunt of the English Premier League.   In that game against West Ham, in the last fifteen minutes Suarez was unstoppable. He hit the post twice and played some breathtaking football.  If I ever have a son, I told myself, I shall name him Luis Suarez.

No chance of that happening now.

January last year. Have just had the most wonderful week with my family. That Sunday Liverpool is playing away at Stoke. Last year this fixture brought out the worst in Liverpool Football Club. This year they play some stunning football inspired by Suarez and win 5-3. Suarez scores twice, creates twice. A few weeks later Suarez inspires Liverpool to a 5-1 win over Arsenal. Liverpool lead 4-0 within 18 minutes but it is not the goals that I remember. In the 14th minute of that game Suarez tries the most audacious attempt to score a goal. It hits the post. Liverpool march on and tell the world that they are back among the best. On March 16th he leads Liverpool to a most comprehensive victory at Old Trafford. They hate him there. Yesterday the supporters of that club, which finished 7th in the Premier league, were very active in describing how Suarez was a curse to the game of football.  That club had Eric Cantona who jumped and assaulted a spectator. It had Roy Keane who admitted to deliberately hurting an opposing player. Memory can sometimes function according to one’s convenience.

 Luis Alberto Suarez Diaz. Wonderful Wonderful player.  My favorite player. Stupid Stupid Player. A player who has made me smile. A player who has caused me pain. A boon to football. A disgrace to football. Biting an opponent cannot be justified and should never ever happen on a football field. Biting an opponent should ensure the strictest of censures. Indeed if Suarez is banned for two years it will be justified. But what caused a player, who was celebrated across the world only a week back, to take this incredibly self destructive step. Surely but surely he would have known that this would cause irreparable damage to his career. Luis Suarez has let his fans down, his country down and his club down.  Yesterday was a tough day for all his fans, it must have been unbearable for him and his family.  He has let himself down the most. To work so hard to restore your reputation and then to throw it away in a moment’s madness is something very hard to comprehend.

 The relation of a sportsman and a fan cannot be explained. It may seem irrational to many. A fan ignores all the failings of his hero. He lives in denial. A few years back I was devastated when another of my hero was accused of fixing cricket matches. That was painful. I defended him resolutely, digging out statistics, scorecards to prove he never did it.  I still believe he never did it. In Suarez’s case his misdemeanor, although less significant, is more apparent and caught on video.

 I cannot defend him although I desperately want to. I cannot stop the taunts and insults. Today the world is ridiculing him, almost flogging a dead man. But his supporters will forgive him as times goes by.  His supporters will remember him for his goals, his desire to succeed, and his ability to do something unbelievable on the football field. The hypocrite football world will keep reminding us of his misdemeanors. One day he will go to play football in Spain. And one day he will stop playing football.

  But for me football always is about Louis Suarez.

Monday, January 20, 2014

A fairy tale in making

In the 1990’s, when cricket was the only sport that consumed us, I was a big supporter of the Maharashtra Cricket team.  I was told that the last time Maharashtra won the Ranji Trophy was in 1941. The grand old sage of Indian cricket, Professor DB Deodhar led the team to its last Ranji Trophy victory a year after India’s independence. Since then Maharashtra’s pursuit of the Ranji Trophy was a tale of struggle and failure.

For some reason Maharashtra has never been a powerhouse of Indian cricket and has always suffered in comparison with its illustrious rival Mumbai. Mumbai has won numerous Ranji Trophies and has had many of its players don the India colors. Apart from its failure in the national competition, Maharashtra players had to suffer the disappointment of being repeatedly being snubbed by Indian selectors.

Every year, I and some of my friends would hope that Maharashtra would win the Ranji Trophy. That dream nearly came true in 1993. An inspired Maharashtra team, under the captaincy of Surendra Bhave made it to the Ranji Trophy finals and played Punjab in the finals. Maharashtra ended day three needing 250 odd runs to claim the Ranji Trophy.   I spent a sleepless night and came back hurrying from school, nervous yet expectant. I switched on the transistor only hear the commentator telling me that  Maharashtra had folded for 132. I was shattered.

That Maharashtra cricket team had a lot of great players, some of whom were unfortunate never to play for India. Shantanu Sugwekar was a terrific batsman, technically correct and classical and he  piled on thousands and thousands of runs every year. Milind Gunjal, Santosh Jedhe, Iqbal Sidduique were all big names in Pune but my personal favorite was Surendra Bhave.

In domestic cricket Surendra Bhave was a colossus.  Every season he used to score big and every season we wondered why he was ignored by Indian selectors. A mere look at his first class figures will make one shake his head in disbelief  and wonder why Bhave never played for India. Particularly since in the 1990’s (post Gavaskar) India never had a solid opening batsman. For me personally Bhave was a hero. He played for the same club that I did (all be it a senior level). One evening he decided to bat in the nets that we youngsters were practicing and I was ecstatic at being presented with the opportunity to bowl to him.

Surendra Bhave is now the coach of the Maharashtra team that has defied all expectations and reached the final of the Ranji Trophy. Maharashtra Cricket has been in total disarray in the last few years and  has never featured in the knock out rounds of the Ranji Trophy for a long time. But this year Bhave has inspired a young team and they have played some outstanding cricket to reach the finals.

Maharashtra’s achievements are tremendous because the team does not have any glamor players or national superstars and the  support staff has not been paid adequately.  Samad Faalh, Anupam Sanklecha, Rohit Motwani and Srikant Mundhe may not get fat IPL contracts in February and may not play for India. But it is players like them who keep the first class system in India rolling. They are true unsung heroes of Indian cricket.The Ranji Trophy may not excite a majority like the IPL but for the growth of Indian cricket it is the most significant tournament.  It is a tournament on whom the foundation of Indian cricket is based. 
I will be a keen watcher when the final commences on the 29th of this month and hopefully Maharashtra will cross the last hurdle this time.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Thank You Master

                                       Zindagi aur kuchh bhi nahin, teri meri kahaani hai.”

I was six years old when Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar made his debut for India. I was 8 when he scored his first test hundred and 10 when he scored an incredible hundred at Perth, possibly the best innings by an Indian abroad. I was 11 when he scored his first test hundred in India. Three years later, when I was fourteen, he emerged as the leading run scorer in the 1996 World Cup.  Six months later he became the captain of the Indian cricket team. A year and a half later, when I was preparing for my 10th standard board exams, he was sacked as the captain of the Indian cricket team. That year as I went through the emotional roller coaster of giving my board exams, clearing them and entering college, Sachin Tendulkar scored 400 hundred runs in a test series against the best bowling attack in the world (Australia), scored two incredible hundreds at Sharjah (again against the Australians), scored hundreds in three one day finals and emerged as the undisputed king of international batting. A year later he became captain again and oversaw one of the worst phases in Indian cricket history. India lost six test matches in a row and as I came out from my 12th board exams, I heard that Sachin Tendulkar had resigned as the captain of the Indian Cricket team. He never led India again.

As I entered law school, Tendulkar scored a hundred at Port of Spain to take his test century count ahead of Sir Donald Bradman. In 2003, when I was 21 years old and beginning to enjoy an odd drink of whiskey, he played the most incredible one day innings against Pakistan at Centurion in a game that the country so desperately wanted to win that had India lost it, perhaps a great depression would have engulfed us. Between 2004 to 2007, as I stepped out of law school and tried to find my way in this world, Tendulkar’s career stuttered along due to a serious elbow injury, which many felt would end his career.  In December 2008, when I was studying for my masters and two months after Mumbai had witnessed India’s most horrific terror attack, Tendulkar scored an incredible hundred at Chennai, taking India to an improbable victory against England. In 2011, two months before I got married, Sachin Tendulkar and the Indian cricket team gave this country its most cherished and celebrated sporting  achievements- the 2011 ICC Cricket world cup. In March 2012, four months after I had started my 4th job, Tendulkar scored his hundredth international hundred. On Thursday, he begins the final chapter of his international career.

So while I was in the process of growing up, all this man was doing was smashing hundreds and bringing smiles to millions of Indians.

The above mentioned lyrics from  a song from the movie ‘Shor’ may have been sung with romantic conations. However most of us can sing those lines to Sachin Tendulkar. I am perhaps not his greatest fan although I remain a great great admirer of his incredible batting skills. However like many many others of my generation, Sachin Tendulkar will always be a significant part of my life story.

A lot has been written by many experts about Tendulkar the batsman and Tendulkar the cricketer. I am not an expert and hence cannot contribute much to what has already been written. There are innings that will always stand out in my memory. There is his 165 against South Africa in Cape Town in 1996 when for three hours he batted gloriously and along with Azhar displayed batting that is worth going miles to see.  There is his 90 at the Wankhade against Australia in the 1996 world cup which for me is his finest one day innings.   For a man bought up on the maidans of Mumbai, to go to  Perth and score a hundred against McDermott, Hughes and Whitney, when the rest of his colleagues were falling like nine pins was amazing.That was in 1992. 20 years later he scored another memorable hundred on a similar wicket at Cape Town against Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and others.  If ever the game of cricket is endangered, the video tape of that innings by Tendulkar and his battle with Dale Steyn should be shown to the world and the world will re-discover the joy of this beautiful game.

In terms of skill and ability, Sachin Tendulkar was the greatest batsman in the modern era. For a period between 1994 till 2000 he was a ruthless destroyer of bowling attacks. Post 2000 he became a more careful and calculated accumulator of runs though the quality of his stroke play never deteriorated. But he never lost his amazing run getting ability and his batting constantly remained a source of joy.

But Tendulkar is much more than a batsman to this country for there is no disputing that Sachin Tendulkar for a period of twenty four years has had a significant impact on our lives. He has made people laugh and very often his failures have resulted in people crying. No other sportsman has affected the emotions of so many people. In the nineties, very often when Sachin scored, India won (meaning happiness) and when Sachin failed India lost (meaning depression).  For two decades, he held a country together. Through bomb blasts, riots, scandals, corruption, match fixing etc he was the one constant positive element that bought a smile on the faces of India’s people. He carried us through bad times and very often he was responsible for our good times.

Of course like all great sportsman’s there were certain things he could have done differently. Perhaps he should have retired earlier, perhaps he should have stopped the farcical media obsession with the hundredth hundred, perhaps he should not have cried foul when Dravid declared on him when he was on 194, perhaps he should have taken a stand on certain issues affecting Indian cricket, perhaps he should have gone to the West Indies in 2011 rather than playing the IPL, perhaps he should have clarified certain selections during his time as captain, perhaps…..

 But these are mere footnotes in the career of a great man. Tendulkar’s retirement ends a significant era of modern Indian sports, the reality of which will only hit us when once sees the score card on December 18 at the Wanderers and sees V Kohli at number four rather than S.R. Tendulkar.  A nation will realize that the one savoir that this country had has bid goodbye.

He leaves the cricket field having entertained us and given us a lot of joy for twenty years. He has not left cricket, he has left our lives.