Meeting the Payyoli Express

Today I met an Olympian. To articulate more, I have breathed the same air as an Olympian (yeah, Shahrukh Khan has hit the ceiling, so better borrow his words). Well, is there a big deal in that ? Kerala has a rich history of producing athletes who go on to represent India at the biggest sporting event in the world.  But what if the person I met is one of country’s finest athlete ever. P.T Usha, the Payyoli Express was in town associated with an exhibition called the Usha Ex-2013. The event portrays the life and times of P.T Usha through pictures, news reports, articles and caricatures. The aim of the event is to let the new generation know more about our proud asset and inspire them by spreading the message of determination and hard work Usha had shown to achieve whatever she did.

I am writing this not out of a sudden influx of love towards athletics, like the way some people all of a sudden take a liking to Hockey once the Indian cricket team fails. I can’t recall whether I have watched  live telecast of P.T Usha running at least once. But from a very young age, I knew that she was the best athlete we have had in track and field events. I often think that our generation of Keralites were somewhat blessed that they knew who was the best on each front. Yesudas, the best singer. I.M Vijayan, the best footballer, Ananthapadmanabhan, the best cricketer, Kanai the best sculptor, Nampoothiri, the best painter, M.T Vasudevan Nair, the best writer (debatable), but what about the next, the best actor ? I’m not even going there !!!

A beautiful caricature depicting Usha's childhood.

A beautiful caricature depicting Usha’s childhood.

I went to the exhibition without any expectation that P.T.Usha, herself would be there. But she was there, crowded by a small group of people, she was standing near the entrance of the exhibition hall. I also wanted to greet her, but decided to bide time going around the wonderful collection of articles and pictures. Right from her birth all the interesting anecdotes were there. The highs and the lows, the struggles and the triumphs all were depicted nicely.  When she was born, the astronomer who had read her horoscope said that she would be going on to make her parents proud. The most talked about coach of Usha is O.M Nambiar. But before him people like Balakrishnan Master and G.V Raja played crucial roles in identifying her potential and bringing her up through the school games.

1984 Olympics 400 m hurdles finals.

1984 Olympics 400 m hurdles finals.

Under Nambiar’s guidance, she went on to become India’s brightest athlete. The exhibition had a detailed description of the 1984 Los Angels Olympics disappointment. She went into the event with a nation genuinely believing in her abilities. She had qualified into the finals of the 400 hurdles very easily by winning the semi final in a commonwealth record time of 55.54 seconds. But in the final she was not off the block quickly enough and had a  lot of catch up to do at the end. However, she did manage to come back strongly and finish third, almost. But she lost it by a whisker, 1/100th of a second, to  Christina Cojocarau of Romania. A medal at the Olympics remained elusive for her.  They were also playing that epic race on a T.V screen in loop but the pictures were not that sharp.

Usha With Nambiar

Usha With Nambiar

But the defeat didn’t deter her commitment to the sport as she practiced even harder and went on to win 4 gold medals at the 1986 Seoul Asian games. She earned another nickname, Golden Girl. She married V. Srinivasan in 1991 and took  a break from sports. But she came back to participate in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.  Even after retiring as a professional, she did not stay away from the sport. She opened the Usha School of Athletics in Koyilandi, near Calicut. The school is the breeding ground  for many of India’s current and future Olympians. One of Usha’s favourite disciple was there at the exhibition venue itself, Tintu Luka, the national record holder for 800 metre race and a medal contender for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.

It took me a while to go around and see all that was on display. When I came back to the entrance, there was no P.T. Usha there. Has she gone ? I took a walk to the other side of the hall and there she was interviewed by a small T.V crew. I felt relieved.  I waited for about 5 minutes as they went through their list of stock questions one by one and she was answering them in that familiar,  slightly male kind of voice. Then as she was passing by me, I smiled and managed to grab her attention. I said something along the lines “Great to see you, Madam”. She also smiled and asked me whether I had gone around and seen everything on display.  That moment was too big for me to let it pass by without a click (I’m not a click-aware person, if that adjective holds). So I duly asked her for a photograph with her and she was more than happy to oblige. There were not many people there at that time. But that somehow started a chain reaction and everyone wanted a click with her.

Well, not statues at the exhibition !!!

The exhibition started on the 30th of October and will end on November 3.  If anyone near Trivandrum happens to read this, do make sure that you visit the Chandrasekharan Nair Stadium to relive the great moments produced by a quintessential athlete that has given the sport her life and soul.

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From the ODI Corner

Cricket is a unique game in many ways. What makes it all the more trickier for a newcomer to understand the whole game is the simultaneous existence of three formats of the game. The traditional, the much revered and the most classical form, test cricket played over five grueling days with two innings per side, the one day game, with only one innings of 50 overs per side and then the newest baby on board, the twenty-twenty or T20 as it is called more fashionably.

One Day Internationals have been around from 1971. But they have been questioned for their relevance for a long time now. With the advent of T20 leagues around the world and the crowded calendar, nowadays it’s the 50 over format that is under the scanner. The administrators have also been not helping the case with the scheduling and the constant tinkering of rules in ODI cricket. In the last decade itself, ODI cricket has gone through a handful of rule changes designed to make the  game more interesting for the spectators and to sustain the format in an environment where T20 cricket is attracting more eyeballs.

From it’s very inception, one day cricket has been seen as a format to try out new things and experiment with. When they first began in 1971, ODIs comprised 60 overs to be bowled by a side with each bowler allotted a quota of maximum 12 overs. Subsequently, considering time constraints the ICC experimented with a quota of 55 overs and then  later 50. The first three World Cups 1975, 1979 and 1983 were played in the 60-over format.

In the 1983 World Cup, itself, the field restriction rules emerged. 30 yard circle was introduced to cricket. Back then the rule was that a minimum of 4 fielders must always be inside the 30 yard circle. But the biggest game changer was the rule allowing not more than 2 fielders outside the inner circle for the first 15 overs of an ODI innings implemented from 1992. Hard hitting opening batsmen became a norm and batsmen who could score quickly by going over the top initially started to win matches for their teams.

In 2005, the ICC introduced two new major additions to the ODI playing rules, the Powerplays  and the Supersub. The Supersub rule allowed teams to replace a player in the playing eleven with a substitute player at any stage of the match. But the problem with it was that the rule heavily favoured the team winning the toss as they could take a decision best suiting to make full use of their super sub.  This rule was withdrawn within a season but they persisted with the Powerplays rules. Powerplays are basically an extension of the field restriction rules. More overs with field restrictions were introduced allowing teams to choose blocks of powerplay overs. This rule has gone through a cycle of frequent facelifts over the years. With each such revision, teams have been asked to constantly reassess their game plans in ODI matches.

A lot has been tinkered with the number of bouncers that are allowed in an over. Now it is fixed at two-bouncers per over. Another major change has been the use of two new balls from each end to start an ODI innings. But still the question remains despite all these wholesome changes. Has all this tinkering made the ODI game any better as a spectacle ?  One has to doubt that. The reality is that ODIs are a massive revenue generating tool for cricket boards through T.V rights and as a result so many pointless matches are being played across the globe. When nothing is at stake, teams do tend to field weaker teams on the park and that doesn’t bode well for the health of the format.

That leads to the other bruising issue, the scheduling. The administrators could try to give some context to ODI matches by giving a proper thought to scheduling. The marquee series this season has been the Ashes between England and Australia. In both England and Australia, test matches are still well received and they attract crowds who would flock into the grounds. Also the media coverage surrounding the Ashes test matches are surreal. So it was not really surprising that the ODI matches that followed the test matches failed to grab the public’s attention.

A straightforward solution to this is to schedule the ODI matches before the test matches in a tour. What many people call as the greatest test series of all time was the 2005 Ashes. That series was preceded by a highly entertaining ODI triangular tournament involving England, Australia and Bangladesh. For a big test series, the ODIs could act as a build up that could help the players get into the groove and the fans could get into the mood of the series.

In a column published on ESPNCricinfo, Samir Chopra puts forward a slightly more innovative way to take forward ODI cricket. In this, he ponders over a qualification system for World Cup of cricket. He suggests each and every ODI match should practically act as a qualification match for the big event with points to be won and lost.

One day cricket has given us some memorable moments and heroes. It still has its relevance in this ever changing world of cricket. After all, the 50 over World Cup still remains the biggest tournament in the game. So it is upto the decision makers in the game to make sure that the ODIs rediscover the lost mojo by showing some intelligence and commitment to improve the quality of the game.

This article first appeared on the website CricketCountry

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Everyone’s Ashes

Is cricket is a world game ?  If we consider the number of countries that play test cricket(10), then surely it is noway near a world game. if we start counting in the associate (37) and other affiliate members (60) of the International Cricket Council (ICC), cricket can boast of a wider reach. But still, it is a stretch if we go by the numbers. People who are calling cricket a world game are from the cricket playing nations and even not all of them regard cricket as their first choice sport. But in sports it should never be a case of either or. You can love and follow any number of sports if you have the interest and more importantly the time for it. So irrespective of the stature of the game on the world map and its appeal to nations far and wide, cricket is important to us.

Every sport is characterized by some celebrated rivalries carrying a weight of history. In Football, these rivalries are primarily between clubs playing in domestic leagues. Be it in Europe, Asia, or Latin America, every league has some marquee contests for the fans to look forward to. Often the biggest of these matches are between teams from the same cities (local derbies).  In cricket too, there are some interesting domestic match ups of great tradition and rivalry. But cricket being this game of nation against nation, its greatest duel is quite naturally between the two teams who started playing it. England and Australia.

All that matters

All that matters

We often hear or read about which is the biggest rivalry in world cricket and the only real competition for the Ashes in this battle is the nameless India Pakistan contest. Yes, that’s right, India and Pakistan may play one series as Samsung cup and the next as Pepsi series. But England and Australia always play for the Ashes. They have been doing it from as far back as 1882, five years after the first ever test match between the same countries. The legend of the ashes urn gives the contest the much needed context. Decades and centuries have gone by,  legendary players have come and gone. They all helped to add to the aura.

When comparisons are made between the Ashes and the India Pakistan cricket, people often tend to conveniently call one better and bigger than the other depending on which series is the impending one. But one thing that goes for the Ashes is it’s fixed calendar. Every 4 years, they will be played on both English and Australian shores once, whereas India and Pakistan play cricket depending on what is happening in our political fronts. cricket is often used as a tool to prove a point. Sometimes as a diplomatic means to show friendship by playing and most other times as an expression of eroding relationships by not playing.

Another aspect to be taken into consideration is the support for test cricket in these nations. In both England and Australia, they play their summer season test matches every year. This has been one of the strong reasons behind these countries being able to sustain a cricket culture that places the premier format of the game on a pedestal.  For long, India don’t have a fixed home leg in a cricket season. For Pakistan, international cricket has been deported from their land for a while now.  Before that too, test cricket has never been that appetizing for fans over there. In his book, ‘Pundits from Pakistan’, author Rahul Bhattacharya points out this partial treatment from the fans towards the longer format. They flocked in many a thousand for the ODIs and then after that just didn’t care about the test matches that followed. In fact, it was India’s first visit to Pakistan for a full tour after 15 long years. So the occasion was certainly not lacking in magnitude.

So now, I think I have clearly conveyed where my loyalties lie in this debate of cricketing rivalries. As an Indian, I often think, what is the one thing that helped me appreciate the enormity and importance of an Ashes series. It has to be ‘2005’.  That series had it all. Pace, seam, swing, spin, attack, counter attack, blunders, abuses, rain, draws and all. With every passing day, we knew then itself that it was reaching epic proportions. Under Michael Vaughan’s captaincy, England regained the urn after 18 years, inspired by Andrew Flintoff’s tour de force. Shane Warne came into the series as a legend and left it as a gladiator. Before that too, I used to watch the Ashes, but 2005 gave me a new perspective. I came to know that this is not just another series. And now after an Australian whitewash in 2006-07 and two English wins in 2009 and 2010-11, the services resume. The onus is on the Aussies to regain the coveted prize and also thereby regain their lost pride in world cricket. England do start as strong favourites with a balanced and experienced side and it would be a surprise if they don’t win this and the brought forward series in Australia later this year.

Australia under new coach Darren Lehmann and their talismanic captain Michael Clarke are trying to start a new chapter in their history. For England, Alastair Cook is nicely warming up to the captaincy and he is batting the best in his life. A lot will depend on Kevin Pietersen because he is the one player who could swing a game’s flow very quickly. Bowling is the most bankable one in the world with James Anderson and Graeme Swann leading the pack. Australia do have an array of sharp fast bowlers, and they could trouble the English on any given day. It is the fragile batting order that would concern Clarke going into the series.

If both teams get their act together, we could be in for some thrilling cricket within the next two months. May be it can be said that this series doesn’t showcase the kind of star players it did in the past, but still it’s the Ashes, where legends are unearthed. We will all be glued to it, that’s for sure.

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In Appreciation of Men In Blue

‘Men in Blue’, Blue brigade’, ‘Bleed blue’, these are  words that we are all familiar with.  The common factor in all these is Blue, the color of our national cricket team’s kits in limited over formats. For the last decade or so, it has always been blue, and frustratingly enough, similar tones of blue for long periods. If we look around team kits of all other ODI teams, they mix it up often enough to kill the boredom associated with that familiarity.  There was one appreciable change in mid 2009 when India adopted a darker blue, which was received well by fans as it exuded more confidence than the lighter shades of blue. This piece is however not about jersey colors,  it is about the men who wear them, Team India, our ODI team.

The last decade has often been looked upon as the most successful in Indian cricket’s history. The best highlighted  have been the successes we have had in Test match arena and rightly so.  But let us have a look at our ODI exploits for the last 13 years or so, which have some high points over the course of time.  We always have had strong batting line ups and much of our success hinged on our batsman either putting up huge scores on the board or chasing totals down. They flutter too along the way, but they often responded to the team’s call.

Sourav Ganguly took over as captain of the team in 2000.  The unsavory match fixing episode of 2000 meant stalwarts like Mohammad Azharuddin and  Ajay Jadeja would never ever play for India. For all the brilliance of Sachin Tendulkar in the 1990’s, it would be unfair to overlook the contributions of players like them for whatever little successes we have had in those times. But the team under Ganguly was something different. They started to hunt down chases. If Jadeja and Robin Singh often used to get us so near to an otherwise improbable target, Yuvraj and Kaif started to win it for us. Rahul Dravid started to play the floater role in the middle order. He literally had to keep his pads on always once he started to keep wickets for India in ODIs.

Natwest Trophy 2002

Natwest Trophy 2002

Sachin Tendulkar started to play the percentages more, yet on any given day he would unleash his majestic stroke play against the best of  bowlers.  Ganguly started to pollute his silky smooth stroke play with odd agricultural heaves, but in the process became a much more dangerous batsman in the format. Sometimes, he even outscored Tendulkar in some big century partnerships. Then Sehwag came along and outscored and out-thought everyone. Even after Dravid became the captain, our batting continued to flourish. We became chase masters in ODIs by winning 17 matches on the trot under Dravid. Players like Kohli and Dhoni have now taken that chasing mastery to an all together higher level. MS Dhoni arrived on the scene as a hard hitting wicket keeper batsman, but showed enough cricketing acumen to be elevated as the captain of the team in 2007. He re branded his batting by mixing a bit of Javed Miandad street smartness into the old power game of Dhoni. That deadly combination meant his became the most important wicket in the Indian line up.

CB series 2008

CB series 2008

Under Dhoni’s captaincy players like Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina became permanent fixtures in the team. The hitting prowess and the fearlessness they showcase, makes India a watchable side even for fans who aren’t Indian supporters. If we look at the statistics, most of the batting records in this format during this period are set by Indians. They have successfully chased down targets of over 300 as many as 13 times in the history which is almost twice the number of the second team in that list, Sri Lanka with 7. Well, that attributes to one thing most people would find as India’s major weakness, the bowling. To chase down over 300 consistently you need to concede that much first.

When we compare the Indian ODI sides over these period to that of the likes of the Australian or South African outfits, it’s the bowling that looks pale. Bowlers like Ajit Agarakar, Ashish Nehra and Irfan Pathan have had their moments, they sometimes managed to get that new ball talking and get that yorker on the spot in tense finishes but bowled some filthy stuff along the way too. Zaheer Khan burst onto the scene in the 2000 Champions Trophy and by and large carried the bowling spearhead role for a long time.  Anil Kumble sparingly appeared in ODIs once Harbhajan Singh made his presence felt. Harbhajan for a long while was India’a 40-1  bowler, figures which needed other bowlers to chip in too to have a match winning effect.

Asia Cup in 2010

Asia Cup in 2010

India have achieved some memorable ODI wins too during this period. Natwest Series win in 2002 constitutes a seminal moment in our cricket. That same  team reached the finals of the 2003 world cup on the back of some solid all round performances led by Tendulkar who batted through from one innings to another in that tournament. In 2007, out of nowhere, India won the inaugural 2007 World T20. Then at home under Dhoni in 2011, won the world cup healing the wounds of that first round exit in the 2007 world cup. Yuvraj Singh showcased his true potential as a match winner in both these world cup victories. In between all these they won ODI tournaments in Pakistan in 2004 and 2006, Sri Lanka in 2009, Australia in 2008, England in 2002, West Indies in 2011, and New Zeland in 2009 to go with many bilateral tournament victories at home. They also won the Asia Cup in 2010.

World Cup 2011

World Cup 2011

India never had the intimidating aura of the Australian sides of Steve Waugh or Ricky Ponting. An Australian victory during their period of invincibility was received with a casual appreciation of the obvious, while every Indian victory on the big stage was always a cause of celebration. An emergence of a new team spirit was lauded even when there was hardly any personnel changes in the team.

Now, the Indian team is  in the middle of a Champions Trophy campaign in England. They have mostly surprised the pundits with their showing in this tournament. But what they are doing is actually putting together those facets of  their game which have all worked pretty well before too, may be not always simultaneously. Most of the players in the team have reasonable experience at the international level, so it is not a team of rookies by any means. Dropping non performing senior players have helped too. It helped to rejuvenate the fielding unit and also to give Dhoni more of a free hand to assert his personality on the team.

So is it Dhoni’s team now ? Dhoni is as much a man who polarizes opinion as Ganguly does. He is the punching bag, the whipping boy for many Indians, for reasons which are unknown. If there are any reasons, then it must be non- cricketing ones. Ganguly formed a team of highly skilled, competitive players who expressed on the field and never backed away. If the same theory applies here too, then Dhoni’s team would be playing hard cricket, but treating it just as a game and they would always be playing with a smile. They may collect some more trophies in the process.

P.S: This post may appear as a one eyed view on the Indian team, an eye of a fanatic supporter. Indian team have had their fair share of losses too. If we go by the stats from the start of 2000 to up until now, India are placed only in the 4th position based on Win/Loss ratios in ODIs, behind Australia(2.64), South Africa (1.81), Sri Lanka (1.36). India have a ratio of 1.34.  I have written this post just to express the joy of a fan when his team tends to do well and how these victories make an everlasting impression on our mind.

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Desert Storm Chapter

Sports come up with a lot of intangibles that we often find ourselves emotionally attached to. Moments and memories illuminated by persons and places. We all have our own collection of such precious pieces of memorabilia. Without us even noticing it they grow on us and they make a huge impression on our consciousness. They sometimes form a chapter in our life which goes well beyond the number of pages it should in a completely rational world.

Then one day we happen to read or hear somebody else saying something about that same thing, our very own personal treasure. We often feel that something is not right about this. “Will justice be done to that jewel in the realm of  our memory ?”, we fear.  “Nobody would or could appreciate and revere this as much as we do!”, we prejudice. So now I run that risk of writing about something that adorns the forefront of our cricketing memories. It started only as one of those many tri nations series in Sharjah in the year 1998, but in the end it became a folktale in our lives.

Yes, I am after the Desert Storm, those April nights in Sharjah. If we go by exact dates the desert storm happened on 22 April 1998.  But without what followed on the 24th of April , would it have become an iconic moment of this magnitude ?  So I would like to call this chapter ‘Desert Storm April 22 – 24, 1998’.

We often hear quotes like “Where were you when the Desert Storm happened ?”. But what if  the answer is  that you were in your bed at home, thinking about the game, cursing the cable connection for not having the channel telecasting the match. You wanted to go to a distant relative’s place where it was available, but then as a 9 year child you also wanted to hide the fact from people around you that you are somehow addicted to this game of cricket. Internet, live score updates and live streaming, you never saw it coming then. You picked up the newspaper the following day and had that mixed feeling reading the match reports. You couldn’t have written a better script, you felt rejoiced and you wouldn’t get to see something like this live in the future, you got despaired.

But within a few days you managed to get to see the full replay of the matches, yes replays, not highlights, definitely not the half an hour shows that we are presented with these days on T.V.  That was to be the beginning only. You would go on to watch it time and time again for a million times since then. But still missing out on them live hurt you for a while. You started asking people whether they had managed to see it live, and if they had, you would think how lucky they were then.

sachin

Coming back to the highlights shows, on the field, Sachin had already been your king but they introduced you to a voice that was to become a household name in the coming years. Tony Greig all of a sudden would become your favourite commentator.  ‘Whaddaplayer’ gave you goosebumps every time. And every time he said ‘Sachin tendulkar wants to win this match’, after he had managed to get India qualify for the finals, you would hold your breath and watch it even more closely as if expecting him to do it this time. But that was never to be the case, every time he would get out to Damien Fleming, “Tendulkar is walking”, Greig would say, everytime.

But the best part about them is that the highlights of these matches are often shown back to back, one after another. In the finals, you knew that Shane Warne would come around the wicket at once, and Sachin would greet him stepping down and hitting over long on and you cherished everytime the look on Warney’s face. Was he really swatting flies or was that a gesture of the disbelief on the treatment he received.  You preferred to believe the latter.

Sachin_Sharjah 2

On days when there would be no friends to play in the evening, you would recreate the match situations in your mind and replay the shots all on your own. You would run down the ground and play a front foot pull. You would then have a look at an imaginary Michael Kasprowicz in front of you and have a nod at him suggesting that you had his measure. You would scamper between the wickets, and after reaching the century, you would be pretty particular about not removing your helmet, there wasn’t one in any case.  You would acknowledge the applause with that bat with an MRF sign holding it horizontally, not lifting it above your shoulder.

But the most you had done in stretching your imagination is when, you would assume a sandstorm blowing around you, all opposition players and umpires lying on the floor covering their face, you having that determined look on your face ready to counter the next ball, not even closing your eyes. Yes, you realized then that the Desert Storm chapter had really grown big on you.

Happy Birthday, Desert Storm (April 22-24, 1998), Happy Birthday Sachin Tendulkar.

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Why We Should Bet On Pujara

“Hi I can predict the result now. 3-1. Sorry but that’s what going to happen. Watch out!”   11;32 AM, 24 Mar

“Don’t think so Pujara to win it for India chasing 200”. 11:34 AM, 24 Mar

These are two messages interchanged between myself and my brother in law who is settled in Sydney, Australia. It happened during the first session of the third day’s play between India and Australia at Delhi in the fourth and last match of the test series. He was predicting an Aussie win. Please don’t get me wrong, it was not because he wanted Australia to win that he suggested this but it was because he always believed in their fighting spirit and he expected them to come up with one last effort to save themselves from the humiliation of a 4-0 whitewash. Don’t know why I said that Pujara would win it for India. Pujara is relatively new to International cricket, but somehow I felt that he is not one to fail in these circumstances. Thanks to some impressive rearguard action by Peter Siddle, Australia managed to take their lead past 150. But the 200 mark that I predicted was a long way off as India needed only 155 to win and make history by clean sweeping a series of 4 or more tests for the first time in the history of Indian cricket.

Then Chetheshwar Pujara came out to open with Murali Vijay and India started scoring easily and even though 4 wickets were lost, an Indian win always looked like a formality to be completed . Pujara stroked all around the ground and against all bowlers too. He was so much at ease on a difficult wicket to bat on that even his teammates too appeared to be batting on a different track to him. He finished unbeaten on 82 from 92 balls.  So that was it . The series was over. 4-0 to India.

Later that evening I had a discussion with one of my cousins who is also as much a cricket buff as I am. As usual we discussed at lengths about all that happened in this match. Even though most of what we said were Tendulkar centric, like how he now finds it difficult to come on to the front foot and smother the spin while defending and how he would fare in South Africa and all, there were other things too like how Rahane had squandered an opportunity and how Jadeja had turned into a true match winner. Then there was Chetheshwar Pujara. There was no pleasant surprise about his performance. It was pleasing but not surprising we felt.

One of the things we both concurred about Pujara was that he always seems to be in control of the game, not just his own game,  but from the team’s perspective too. He just has that innate ability to score at just about the right pace that the situation demands of him. Often he has been compared with Rahul Dravid, but from the evidences of what he has done so far in his career, his game has more resemblances to other number three batsmen like Ricky Ponting and Hashim Amla. By no means, he is already in that league but we felt that he provides that right mix of caution and aggression that the team needs.

A sight that may become so familiar

A sight that may become so familiar

Let us have a look at his career so far and the major innings he has played in test match cricket.  India were chasing 207 to win the match in the fourth innings in his debut match and as part of a team strategy to distribute experience across the batting line up uniformly he was promoted to number 3. He played positively and scored 72 off 89 balls.  It was a very modest target and it was Pujara’s approach that helped to make light work of it.  After his long lay off from International cricket because of injuries, Pujara came back to the team to play against New Zeland in 2012 and marked his comeback with 158 in the first Innings at Hyderabad.  India were batting first and their score of  438 was more than enough to make the New Zelanders bat twice and secure victory.

Then his next big score came in the first test against England. There again in the first innings, he scored 206, his first double hundred and that laid the foundations for an easy victory by the fifth day morning.  Then in the second test match at Mumbai, he played an innings which required more skill and temperament than his double hundred at Ahmadabad because the pitch at Mumbai had some demons in it. He scored a patient 135 spending more than 7 hours and helped India post a respectable 327 in the first innings. But Kevin Pietersen’s all conquering return to England team meant that Pujara’s innings was all in vain and was overshadowed. Sadly he was not able to carry on with that good form through the rest of the series and India lost the series 2-1.

In the series against Australia, in the second test match at Hyderabad, he scored his second double hundred. With a partnership of 370 runs with Murali Vijay for the second wicket, he shut the door completely on the Aussies.  He was the aggressive partner in their stint at the crease and scored 204 runs with 31 boundaries. If Australia had any hopes of a comeback in the series, that was sealed there with that dominant performance from Pujara and Vijay. The last match in the series was played on a rank turner at Delhi. Pujara had already scored an impressive 52 in the first innings before his second innings heroics of 82 not out.

One of the striking aspects of all these scores is that it shows that once he gets in, he rarely gives it away. Out of the 7 times he has gone past 50, he converted 4 of them into hundreds and 2 of those into double hundreds.  Now, that is a very impressive conversion rate. More than the numbers, it is the influence that his scores have had on the outcome of the matches, that is to be taken into account. There are obviously some weaknesses one can identify with Pujara like his not so agile running between wickets and that tendency to sometimes play down the wrong line against spinners. But the results he has produced so far gives us hope for another great period of Indian batsmanship. Along with Virat Kohli, Pujara could become the mainstay of India’s batting for the next decade and if the signs hold true, we may get to witness more brilliantly orchestrated knocks and more great victories in the future.

Late that night I again got a message from my brother-in-law.

Wrong Prediction from here. Perfect prediction from there. Well done, talk to you soon “. 5:05 PM, 24  Mar

“I just got that feeling like Ravi Shasthri does so often ” 8:25 PM, 24 Mar”

I replied !!!

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Sehwag, Legend? Could Have Been? Could Still Be?

Legend. That’s one word that is thankfully not being overused in these times of superlatives in sports, especially cricket. We use ‘brilliant’, ‘magnificent’, ‘super’ and even ‘great’ so liberally that they have lost the weight that they ought to carry with them. But somehow, we tend to be a bit reluctant to use the word ‘legend’ to describe cricketers and it is not to be heard thrown around in search of a filler word for the sake of non stop commentary. In fact, the very first time I even associated cricket and the word legend was while watching the T.V series ‘Legends of Cricket’ on ESPN. It really helped me in getting to know some of the stalwarts of the game from yesteryears and those rankings made a lasting impression on me.  But as is the case with everything, with time those rankings are bound to change. New players would come into the game, new records would be created, new historic moments would be played out, and of course  new legends would be created.  One such player who entered the scene around the turn of the new millennium was Virender Sehwag. He showcased a brand of cricket that was never heard of before, one that only he could try, he created new records too, those that are never even dreamt of before, and he made us fiddle with idea of  of that legend tag to qualify him for a while.  But now, after his international career has found new depths, has he really made into that league?  Whatever that be the case, let us now think about how we should remember Sehwag and how he fills that jigsaw puzzle of cricket memories in our mind.

Debut Century

We should remember him for his non sensational debut for India in 1999 against Pakistan at Mohali.  For playing an uninhibited innings and picking up three wickets to set up a win for India against Australia on his comeback trail at Bangalore in 2001.  For playing that hurricane knock at Colombo against New Zeland. For surprising all us with his debut hundred in Bloemfontein against South Africa, a country where traditionally most Indian batsmen had struggled in the past.  For forming a partnership along with Tendulkar that was reminiscent of that 1996 Cape Town classic written in the folklore of Indian cricket by Tendulkar and Azhruddin. For batting without any pressures or hesitancy of a debutant.  For making us feel a bit guilty for not appreciating his efforts enough at the time as we were too caught up in the Tendulkar classic that was unfolding at the other end. I would like to recall something the former England captain Michael Vaughan once said, that he quite liked the fact that he had to come to bat in his debut match while everyone else around him were failing, against South Africa. He said that it did take a lot of pressure off him and allowed him to play without any fear of failure. Likewise Sehwag too might have enjoyed the fact that he had to come in after a batting collapse in his first match.

Then what are the other things in his early career we should remember Sehwag for?  For becoming a fearsome opening batsman in ODIs within the next year or so. For making potentially difficult run chases look like cakewalks for India with his onslaught at the top of the order. For giving us the impression of a Tendulkar clone in his stance and sometimes getting us confused as to who’s who while they were batting together.  For parting with his preferred position in the middle order in test matches to fill the opener’s slot and for backing his ‘see the ball- hit the ball phiolsophy’. For ‘seeing the ball like a Football’ on most occasions and for making even the best of bowlers think if they could trade bowling for something less taxing.  For letting captains around the world know that the standard three-four slip and gully would not work against him and for forcing them to come up with some innovative field placings. For making a mockery of  tactics by some of the great captains of the times Steve Waugh, Nasser Hussain, Graeme Smith, Inzamam-ul- Haq, Kumar Sangakkara, Stephen Fleming, Ricky Ponting and many more. For teaching us that big scores in test matches could be made consistently and there are ways other than the Marvan Atapattu school of batting to make them regularly.

Sehwag early years

Then what are the numbers that we should fondly remember Sehwag for ? 195, 309, 155 , 164, 173, 201, 254, 180,  151, 319 , 201 *. These are the scores he made in the innings in which he had crossed 100 during the period from December 2003 to July 2008.  Not a single score of under 150 in that list. For coming up with some strange theory on why he manages to score those big hundreds so often.  If I ‘m right, he once said something along these lines that after scoring a hundred he would try to score even more quicker because the more time you spend on the wicket you are more closer to that moment of being dismissed and so he would like to score as many runs as he could before getting out and that naturally would lead to those double hundreds and triple hundreds. It was something that defied common cricket logic but we should remember him as not one for conventional cricket wisdom. One that is not much into history of the game either. One that didn’t find it shameful to ask “Who’s Vinoo Mankad ? “after his opening partnership of 410 with Rahul Dravid against Pakistan at Lahore in 2006 that fell just 3 runs short of the world record opening partnership of 413 runs made by Vinoo Mankad and Pankaj Roy in 1956.

What are the moments that we should remember Sehwag for in the later half of his career? For that second wind from early 2008 to 2011. For that successful opening partnership with Gautam Gambhir that was a major catalyst to India’s rise as the No.1 test team in the world. For being a key component in India’s World Cup victory in 2011. In almost every game he managed to give India that initial impetus though he hadn’t always kicked on and made bigger scores in that tournament. For showing his clarity of thoughts in the biggest of stages. Two of enduring images from the World Cup were when Sehwag had asked for reviews of his LBW decisions in the semi finals and finals. He felt the need to save his wickets,  so he straightaway asked for the reviews without consulting his partner. For  breaking the record of highest Individual score in ODI cricket with his 219 against West Indies in late 2011, that one record that seemed destined for him all the way.

Sehwag spects

Then there are some not so nice things that we should remember him for. For the well publicized, less than cordial relationship with Greg Chappel. For the alleged captaincy ambitions and the dressing room split up with MS Dhoni.  For the extended run of lack of form for the last couple of years culminating in his booting from the team. Sehwag coming out to bat with a spectacle to aid his vision was one of the most symbolic events of recent Indian cricket history.  The man who was once renowned for his great hand eye coordination now reduced to some one who need help to enhance one of his most natural gifts. At the end of it all, the question remains:  “Has he made himself a legend of the game? or the more important question now is “Will he get a chance to redeem his path to become one?, a chance to belong where he should ideally be and to make himself a household name for the coming generations through another of those ‘Legends of Cricket’ series.

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Let The Cheers Never Stop

ImageIf I am honest, I must say that I now take some pride in adding some ‘I was there’ moments to my live cricket viewing experience. And so there I was at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Kochi for the second one day International between India and England. For a start, the name of the venue doesn’t evoke the same feeling as an Eden Gardens or a Wankhede does, there must be a dozen or even more Jawaharlal Nehru Stadiums across the country, as in the case of Mahatma Gandhi Roads in India. And secondly, It wasn’t a match where somebody made a record or some incredible batting or bowling performance was seen. Usually we associate ‘I was there’ with matches like these. So what was so special about the day ?  I would like to call it this way. ‘I was there’ when the Indian cricket fans made it clear that they are not detached from the game as some point out and that they don’t need the cosmetic tweaks that some T20 league offers to a viewer’s experience to bring them to the ground. ‘I was there’ when the Indian fans made their voices heard and that too in a big way. ‘I was there’ when the noise levels for a match inside a stadium reached its maximum. If only they had a device to measure the decibel levels like the speed guns.

Frankly, when I decided to go for the match, I never thought that it would become a sell out like this. It was a weekday and Sachin Tendulkar had retired from ODIs. So I thought only nuts like myself would bunk their work and be there at the stadium. How wrong I was. I went with my cousins for the match and we got into the stadium a good two hours before the game and the crowd was filling up quickly even by then. We took our seats. One of the most enjoyable parts of reaching early is that you get to see the players doing their warm ups and the cheers they get when they first come out indicate how popular each of them are. People were ready with ‘Miss You Sachin’ placards and those with out that were too missing him, just like us. We were left to ponder how it would have felt if Sachin too was there playing.

So India won the toss, and they were batting. The English bowlers started with some short stuff and  the openers were forced to the back foot and then two fuller deliveries accounted for them, clean bowled, both of them. Yuvraj Singh looked in supreme touch square driving, half pulling, cutting and scoring nearly a run a ball. At the other end was Kohli. He came into this match with some poor form and struggled through most of his innings. The spinner Tredwell got Yuvraj LBW and it was a poor decision from the umpire. As he was coming back we could see how disappointed he was at that decision. He was fuming with a mouth full of foul language. But Kohli was not to be left behind in that respect. After a delivery where England had only 4 fielders inside the circle, Kohli asked  the umpire to call that ‘no ball’ and the umpire was having none of it. Kohli looked really angry and the next ball he faced from Samit Patel, he hit a six over extra cover inside out and I thought, yeah, finally he is back in track, but that was not to be. Chris Woakes got Kohli caught at deep point after an unnecessary attempt to charge the bowler.

We were left with the Captain and his trusted partner. Dhoni must have spend more time with Raina than with his wife Sakshi, oh no, why am I trying to sneak in these unwanted jokes here. Anyway Raina was playing cleanly if I have to use a word for his batting. Hitting boundaries from time to time and running well between the wickets, he made sure that the run rate was not dropped down drastically. As expected, the batting powerplay did India no good and they lost the wicket of Raina while it was on. Jadeja joined Dhoni and India was still not getting a move on. Their run rate never took that big leap during those overs and it was always around the 4.5 mark. After 42 overs India were 192 for 5.

Dhoni

Dhoni Going for a Six

Then came the moments that made this match memorable. It was not that surprising that India got 94 tuns in the last 8 overs considering MS Dhoni’s pedigree as a finisher. There is a template to a Dhoni innings in one dayers now. He just waits and waits and unleashes in the last few overs. He may play a lot of dot balls but he hardly hits a skier too early in his innings and get out leaving his side with no one to finish off the innings. Even though the crowd were cursing him while he was struggling to hit the boundaries at the beginning, at the end it was only ‘Dhoni Dhoni’  ringing around the place. At the other end, Jadeja in the initial parts struggled to get the ball off the square for even singles and then some loose deliveries by the English bowlers let him off the hook and that was it. He finished the Indian innings with 4, 4, 6 and India reached 286, which was a lot more than we expected half way through the innings.

The English innings virtually got over in the first 15 overs. After threatening to take the game away from India, Cook and Pietrersen got out. Cook was a bit unlucky with LBW decision though. England were 4 down after 15 overs and with no batsman of the class needed to pull of this chase, all of us were assured of an Indian victory by then. We were feeling a bit disappointed because the edge was taken away from the game. Even though we wanted Pietersen to get out it would have been far better if that had happened after him hitting a few sixes to where we were seated. In the end it was a bit of an anti climax as England folded up in 36 overs and that was that. Our day at this theater was coming to an end, a premature one we felt. To be fair to the English, the pitch started turning in the latter half of the match and batting looked tougher as the match progressed.

As I pointed out at the beginning, what made this match special was the crowd. They or rather ‘We’ were having a party out there.We must have done countless Mexican Waves and it was a sight to behold every time. Kevin Pietersen tweeted the next day ” For the record – last night was the best atmosphere I have ever played in front of.. Deafening! Thanks Kochi.. Love KP x “. I often fantasize about getting to watch a test match at Lord’s or at MCG. These traditional venues carry such an aura and romance that makes them a cricket tragic’s destination in dreams. But last Tuesday, even a free trip to these places would not have taken me away. The Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium was my place, the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium at Kochi, Kerala, my own state was my place. 2012 was a frustrating year for Indian cricket supporters. With this win at Kochi, let us hope that 2013 will see a turn around in fortunes for our team.

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The tea had been sweeter for a while

They say that the North Stand at the Wankhede offers the best view for watching Cricket. Not that it mattered much to me, I decided to make sure that I get one of the best seats in the North Stand to enjoy a day of Test match cricket. November 25, 2012, the third day of the India England test match is the setting. Ever since the fixtures came out for the series, It was pretty apparent to me that I would be there or rather I must be there for any one day of this match. I had already booked the tickets for the match online, but I had to collect my ticket from the counter outside the venue. So I missed the first 20 to 30 minutes of the day’s play. England had got off to a decent start to the day by then, but I was not at all thinking about the match situation. I was too busy getting myself seated properly and getting a feel of the atmosphere.

13 cricketers all in whites were doing their stuff in the middle. All kinds of them were there. Heroes and flops, Those who delighted us and those who disappointed us, Those on whose abilities we believed and those whom we doubted. But my mind was wandering. It took me some good 10 or 15 minutes to really come to terms with the fact that I was having a taste of International cricket.

Pietersen and co. during a drinks break

Pietersen and co. during a drinks break

Coming to the match itself, now it is already well documented that what Kevin Pietersen did that day was something outrageous. He stood tall, defended calmly, played with the spin to the offside, slog swept, and lifted the ball straight back past helpless spinners. When a batsman goes like this it is always intimidating, but when Pietersen does it it looks a bit more, just because of the frame of the man.

When Cook and Pietersen were going great guns I was like this: “Yeah, I am here to see cricket, why bother about not being able to see India’s batting ? “. But India had a dream session after lunch, England lost 6 wickets during the post lunch session, and there I was, or rather us, the whole crowd, after all, our sunday was not to be spent for those Poms batting. We desperately wanted our Rockstars to wield their willows in front of us. There was an overwhelming sense of relief on the face of everyone.

Sourv Ganguly coming out to do some pitch side analysis during lunch break

Sourv Ganguly coming out to do some pitch side analysis during lunch break

So there were to be had 33 overs of the famous wristy, elegant Indian batting. The noise level at the Wankhede just went some notches up. But if the previous session was dreamy for India, this was nightmarish. Sehwag was the first to go. Chetheshwer Pujara was greeted with “Pujara, Pujara” chants, but poor man, his dismissal was accompanied with the loudest cheer for the entire match. He must have felt like he was given a false reception earlier, but it has been happening to every Indian second wicket for years. I was ready with my camera then for the occasion. Sure, no other sporting arena in the world would ever witness what took place at the Wankhede for the next one or two minutes. The video can be seen here

A shot from the Indian Innings


A shot from the Indian Innings

Tendulkar was beaten by Panesar a couple of times. The stumping claim which went upwards produced the most nervous moments of the day, The big screen read ‘Third Umpire Decision Pending’ for about a minute, but finally he was given Not Out. He scored two boundaries of Panesar too. He was stretching himself forward and smothering the spin well, it looked from the stands. But then the quicker straighter delivery did the trick, the finger went up instantly and that was it. Sachin was walking back. I was not opportunistic enough to be able to pick myself up to capture that moment of silence, which would have complimented nicely, the earlier video of the reception given to him.

Some started leaving then. With a tinge of disappointment, I stayed back to see the day coming to a close. India lost 7 wickets in that single session and the match was almost lost. It is not everyday that you get to see live cricket from the ground. So regardless of the match situation I was feeling great as I came out. I was seated near the press box where there were some familiar English faces like Michael Atherton and Lawrence Booth. I often looked at them, were they chuckling ? no, it was just my fickle mind. One thing about the hospitality at the Wankhede must be said. I have not been to many venues, but this renovated Wankhede has to be one of the most spectator friendly venues atleast in India. The security arrangements never came in the way of the viewer experience.

The Media Box

In 2002, as Sachin Tendukar was about to play his 100th test match, Tom Alter, the actor wrote a piece for Rediff. In which, he summed up a cricket fan’s emotion beautifully :
“Let us celebrate all the mornings he also has gifted us — the mornings when we wake and know he will bat today; the mornings when tea is especially good and hot, and the air clearer and crisper — only because we feel blessed inside, waiting to see him play”. Since the day I had decided to go for the match, I too was feeling blessed inside waiting to see not just Sachin, but this grand old stage of a Test match and its nuances and the twists and turns. Well, my tea had also been especially good and hot and sweeter.

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IPL and the soul of cricket

Writing about a topic that gets discussed often is a challenge as you are always bringing up points already said. Well, it’s the IPL that I want to talk about. That makes the task even more demanding. IPL, the great Indian Premier League, Within 5 years of its arrival on the scene, It has been discussed and written about more than even the English Premier League at least in the media. We can say that it polarizes opinion like anything. I recently had a discussion with a friend who lives in Bangalore about the IPL. On a casual note, I just asked him whether he had been to any of the IPL matches in the city. The fourth-right friend of mine responded strongly saying that he hates the whole system of the IPL and its structure or the lack of it.He spoke about how the people of this country are cheated by some greedy corporates who are willing to milk the game to the maximum for their own benefits. He is a guy who always has a straight forward opinion on things and when it is about nationalistic issues he leaves nothing untold. So it was not surprising for me to hear that from him. In his opinion, the IPL is a money making machine which runs for up to 2 months in the hot Indian summer and just makes a fool of ordinary Indians. Then I had to mention about the kind of support this year’s IPL had received all over India. That’s the most important factor in this business of IPL, the support from the public, the masses.

The way the Indian public received this year’s tournament was heart warming to see or heart breaking depending on which side you are. Crowds packed the grounds and they cheered for their stars wearing the coloured clothing of the franchises. The commentators and the broadcasters too were on a no holds barred mission to make the IPL the flavour of the season. They roared to the maximum decibel levels and the DLF maximums and the Karbon kamaals were made sure to be heard at regular intervals. Yet, I believe that IPL on TV is not appreciated the way it is at the grounds by the public. But at the end of the day, all is well with the IPL, yes indeed all is well with the IPL, the business, the money making entity, the extra innings’ played by Bollywood stars on cricket fields, everything falls in place and it is here to stay.

I had my reservations about the long term success of the IPL from the beginning. But this year even after two of the most disastrous tours of Indian national team, people are ready to spend their evening watching this unscripted drama that takes place in their city centers. They took their children to the grounds and cheered for Chris Gayle and co. If their team won, they were happy, if not they were not dispirited and just took pleasure in uploading the pictures taken from ground zero on Facebook and lived the next day as any other. What people wanted was some entertainment and the IPL did indeed provide it. We Indians do love to party and when a Cricket match near your home town provides it, why give it a miss. Going back to my dear friend, this is where the cheating happens according to him. To him the whole business is a murky deal. Another way of making black money white and we are the falling preys of this extravaganza. Now, this is not the first time these sort of allegations or doubts of credibility are expressed by people and you must be wondering where I am going with this. I nodded to all of the things said by my friend but the thing that hurts me about the IPL or cricket in general has a far different context to it than its internal corruption and politics. My biggest worry is best described by these 3 contrasting images.

Eden Gardens for the 1998 test match between India and Australia

Eden Gardens for the 2011 test match between India and West Indies

Eden Gardens for the celebration of the IPL 2012 victory by the Knight Riders

Now, these images do tell a lot about how the Indian cricket fans have evolved over the last decade or so. Eden Gardens once used to be this theater where around 90,000 thousand people turn up for a test match in a day. For someone who familiarized with the game in the 1990’s watching a match played at Eden Gardens even on television used to give goosebumps. I again have to go back to the lines by Rahul Dravid during the scarcely attended test match in 2011. “I remember coming here in the 90s…. it was 100,000 people, 80,000 people watching a game of cricket. In some ways, it is little sad. There was a magic about this ground when the atmosphere was electrifying with 80-100,000 people cheering”.

When I read this there were a lot of mixed emotions bubbling inside. It was so nostalgic that it brought a smile within me. But suddenly I realized that there was a kind of admission in his words that this place will never be anything like it was in the 90s. Now that was the order of the times that we live but it is painful for all who have that emotional attachment to the game. If anyone happens to read this piece and starts to wonder what this emotional attachment is, then I’m sorry for ruining your valuable time.

The large turn up at Eden Gardens for the welcome party of the victorious Knight Riders team proved one point. Indian fans are not detached from the game of cricket. They will go to watch a game, but they would rather have it as short as possible. I only hope that nobody comes up with a Hong-Kong 6’s style tournament in India with all the international stars. The IPL provides a chance to see the best of the International stars giving their very best and it all happens inside 3 hours. So why should you waste your time and money on Test matches. There is no definitive answer to this question that I can give. This is no place for a Test vs T20 dissection. This is just a portrayal of how times have changed in our country with regards to the fascination to the game of cricket. I do watch the IPL because it still cricket but does it have the soul of cricket, I doubt so. I would rather not have the IPL if that leads to a change in attitude to Test cricket from the people and the administrators and larger attendances for test matches. Hoping to go to watch India’s next test match and without offering any real solutions to the problems that the game faces in our country that ends another post on cricket.

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