Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Down with Dow? Maybe not

Ordinarily, with a name like ‘Dow’, you’d be a caption writer’s delight. But when the ghosts of over 10,000 Bhopal residents you murdered – very, very indirectly, of course – peer from behind your red diamond shaped logo, puns go out the window. And when we know that the Olympic Games, that ancient sporting competition designed to bring people together, has signed on Dow Chemicals as one of its sponsors for the 2012 edition in London (and beyond), ‘shocking’ is pretty much the only word that comes to mind, ‘aghast’ coming a close second.

Aslam Sher Khan, former hockey star, is of the opinion that India must boycott the Olympic Games in London next year. The venerable Mr Khan, his heart totally in the right place, says, “It’s a shame that the people who murdered so many innocent people in Bhopal are allowed to be part of the Olympic movement. India must force Dow out of the Olympics, and if that doesn’t happen, boycott the Games.” Now that serves all those who are called on to defend India’s ‘disastrous showing in yet another Olympic Games – how can a country of over a billion win next to nothing’. But this might be a good time to step back and view the debate from a few different angles.

Ordinarily, especially in these days, when the absoluteness of Annaesque sentiments is what rules popular discourse, it would have been easy to go along with Khan’s opinion. But, really, is it all so cut-and-dried?

To start with, let’s just step back and place Dow under the right light. The Bhopal gas leak on December 3, 1984 is rightly described as the worst industrial disaster of all time. The leak of the poisonous methyl isocyanate killed about 3,000 people immediately, and has since taken the lives of 8,000-odd more. The company responsible: Union Carbide. Without littering this sports-related column with facts easily found on Google, let me just say that the law has failed to punish those responsible for the dastardly act (whether of commission or omission) or compensate those victimised. Even here in the ‘Third World’, it was a revelation that human life was so cheap (but the fact that it happened in a developing country had, of course, everything to do with how events played out thereafter). But Dow came into the picture only in 1999 when it bought Union Carbide. At the time, the Dow board had fears that the company would become responsible for Union Carbide’s crimes. And so it did.

Now, let me state a few cold facts, and please – please – take me at my word when I say that I hold no candle for Dow (why should I?):

· Dow did not commit the crime to start with, though that does not absolve them of the responsibility that comes with being the company that merged with the crime-committing company
· Dow’s main ‘crime’ is in refusing to pay compensation to the Bhopal victims as demanded – and I cannot find the words to condemn that strongly enough
· I see this as the difference between homicide and culpable homicide. Dow is culpable because it bought over Union Carbide, so as far as I can see, they did not commit the crime but – quite rightly – inherited the culpability. Don’t shed a tear for them. It was a business decision they made knowing every fact
· Since Union Carbide doesn’t exist anymore, the main sticking point now has to be the non-payment of compensation
· Lastly, and importantly, I believe that the Indian government is almost as culpable as Dow as far as the non-payment of compensation is concerned, simply because it has done very little over the years to push the law in this regard, acting only when the protestors’ voices grew loud enough to reach Raisina Hill

Given these facts and circumstances, the question I am trying to answer is this: what purpose does a boycott serve?

Do I mean that India, as a nation, should keep quiet? Certainly not. I think Ajay Maken has started a solid initiative, and importantly, it’s being backed by the sporting community. But, before moving forward, I also want to question Maken’s stance a bit. Maken started things off by writing a letter to Indian Olympic Association (IOA) President VK Malhotra asking the IOA to speak to the International Olympic Council about the issue. Why? Why is this IOA’s cross to bear? Call me a born cynic, but as far as I am concerned, it’s the Indian government’s job to take this up with the British government. It’s not an issue concerning sportspersons any more than it concerns the rest of us Indian citizens. It’s for the government – and remember that it must share half the burden of blame – to put diplomatic pressure on the UK and ensure the nation’s athletes don’t have to perform under banners emblazoned with the letters D-O-W. Why is the government firing from Maken’s shoulders and why is the Sports Minister firing from the IOA’s shoulders?

Having said that, though, I will now step back. I am not a political commentator. Let’s return to the sports side of things. And while Aslam Sher Khan might have gone a step too far with his boycott call, many others do make solid points.

Like Michael Ferreira, who told me, “Hit them (Britain) where it hurts the most. Freeze trade relations. Hurt their economy. Force them into a situation where they are forced to drop Dow from the Olympics.”

Viren Rasquinha and Ashwini Nachappa told me – separately, but almost entirely in agreement – that it’s not the job of sportspersons to do what politicians should do, but sportspersons must raise their voice to express the concern of the people of our country. Having Dow as a sponsor for the Olympics is not acceptable to the people of India, and we must express that in a unified voice.

And that, to my mind, is the solution. As far as the Indian sports community is concerned, we could consider participating in the Olympics with black armbands on. The government and Indian civil society must simultaneously protest in all other relevant fora. Not boycott, I believe. Because remember, these are athletes we are talking about. Not social or political activists. They have trained hard for four (or more) years to have a shot at Olympic glory. That can’t be snatched away from them because the Indian government is incapable of doing what it is supposed to do – get compensation from Dow for the Bhopal victims. It just doesn’t seem fair.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Ban the men, can’t ban the menace

(Written for Sahara Time)

I’m fairly sure that absolutely nobody, anywhere, actually believed that Salman Butt and Mohammad Asif were innocent. Indeed, despite their ill-advised ‘not guilty’ stances, the two were always up against it once Mohammad Amir and Mazhar Majeed pleaded guilty. It was not the Pakistan Cricket Board hearing their plea after all; it’s the Crown prosecution in London. The boys had no chance. And that’s what makes the story that much more different from past cases of fixing in cricket.

See, in the past, no one has ever been caught red-handed. In this case, unlike Tehelka back in 1999-2000, News of the World recorded a live incident of matches (or spots, as is the case) being fixed. It was all happening in England; in London, to be exact. It became a criminal case. Very different from earlier incidents where statements, which talked about incidents past, were recorded and then investigated. As a result, the case went out of the hands of the PCB or the ICC. Butt and Asif were tried as committers of a crime. And now, their next few years will be spent as criminals.

But on to more relevant matters (and without shedding a tear for the obviously guilty Butt), we need to figure out why the only two great exposes on cricket fixing have both been conducted by news organisations. Did it have to come to that? Doesn’t the ICC have something called the Anti-Corruption and Security Unit that is supposed to prevent corruption? Isn’t it a massive failure on the part of the ACSU that journalists have to do their job?

Well, the obvious answer to that will have to be ‘yes’. But it isn’t. Not quite. See, corruption, in some ways, is like terrorism. You can have the best systems in place to prevent it, but someone or something will always slip through the cracks. The International Olympic Committee, the biggest governing body in the world of sport, has been trying to prevent doping in sport for heaven-knows-how-long. Has it succeeded? No. In fact, nations have put in place systems that are carrying out scientific research every single day to find newer and newer performance-enhancing substances and substances that can mask their presence in the human body. Hasn’t baseball and basketball in America, two of the most professionally-run sports in the world, had to deal with drug use and fixing? Aren’t there big stories about fixing in world football? Or world tennis?

As an aside, do we honestly believe that India as a nation is not trying to prevent terror activities in India?

Cheats, and kamikaze kids, will always exist, and always slip through the cracks. You can reduce the instances, but can’t weed it out completely.

But at the same time, can the ICC really hide behind the cloak of helplessness? Can it continue to justify its incredibly naive policy of asking players to report approaches by bookmakers? I don’t think so. Look at the IPL (which has recently been elevated to the status of ‘List A’ cricket); the BCCI pushed away the ICC ACSU from the IPL by saying that the IPL is an Indian domestic league. Not acceptable. But it was to the ICC. After all, what the BCCI wants, the BCCI gets. So if the BCCI wants corruption to take place in Indian ‘domestic’ cricket, the ICC, or anyone else for that matter, can go take a hike.

What that proves, all over again, is the complete toothlessness of the ICC. So yes, the ICC has a tough, almost impossible job in its hands. And it’s made doubly tough by the ICC bending over backwards to accommodate the BCCI, even if it’s Sharad Pawar in charge.

Coming back to the latest episode, Sarfaraz Nawaz has called for the ICC to be taken to task for “allowing fixing to flourish”, saying that he plans to file a case against the ICC. While former ICC President Ehsan Mani (a Pakistani) says “An example should be made of Butt and Asif for other cricketers”. And Lalit Modi, himself no paragon of virtue, says there should be no forgiveness for people like Butt and Asif.

Sure, but Butt and Asif’s guilt is only a third of the actual truth. One of the other thirds is that the powers-that-be are as culpable as the players. The PCB has told its cricketers over the years that crimes can easily be treated as aberrations. That a ‘life ban’ only means a ban till someone in the PCB decides it’s time to overturn it. While the final third is that even as these Pakistan cricketers serve their sentences, a pile of other cricketers will be sitting away smirking at their good fortune. Yes, three players can’t be the whole lot. There were others. There must have been others. Like Farokh Engineer told me, “I want Salman and Asif to go to jail, but I regret that so many others, who have also filled their pockets in the same way, are sitting pretty”.

Much as we want, fixing cannot be wished away. Nor can the use of drugs in sport. As always, some people will get caught, but many more will go scot-free. That’s the reality. We can try. The ICC can show some intent and will. As can the IOC and FIFA. The menace will remain, as pessimistic as it may sound.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Srinivasan Regime: Lots to worry about

I don’t claim to posses any degree of astuteness when it comes to political issues, but I must say that I am very uncomfortable with the idea of having Narendra Modi as our Prime Minister. Not that it’s happening in a hurry, but many analysts feel the rest of India is being deprived of Modi’s magic touch – something that has made Gujarat so very vibrant and much else.

But why am I talking about Modi in a sports column? Oh well, it’s because I feel much the same way about N Srinivasan taking over as the new BCCI President. I know being the boss of India’s favourite sport is a long way off from being the boss of the nation itself, but I think it’s a fair analogy. The point being that however brilliant Srinivasan might be as an administrator, I can’t believe that someone with a proven track record of twisting and changing the BCCI’s rules and regulations for his own benefits can be trusted to run the game in the country. Especially when the motive for his indiscretions in the past remains unchanged – the Chennai Super Kings.

From all accounts, Srinivasan is a good administrator, a more than competent manager. As a boss at India Cements, he has taken the company places. As a cricket administrator in Tamil Nadu he is known as a strong but silent sort, who gets what he wants and gets done what he wants done. That’s pretty much his reputation as BCCI Secretary and CSK owner as well. Except that documents have emerged that clearly prove that Srinivasan might have used a bit more ‘crook’ than ‘hook’ in getting his way at times. To start with, by changing the BCCI Constitution that prevents officials from having financial stakes in affairs of the BCCI. This was changed to allow Srinivasan to own a team in the IPL. And, interestingly, this was changed after the first edition of the IPL. There are documents that also prove that Srinivasan picked and chose umpires for matches concerning his team CSK. And much more.

Also, don’t forget, he admitted to the Parliamentary Standing Committee recently that Lalit Modi had taken him “for a ride” when it comes to financial matters of the BCCI. Uhhh! If he’s lying, he’s a liar and culpable in the IPL mess. If he is being honest, he isn’t really a good administrator, is he?

And then there is, to my mind, the biggest problem. An intangible problem. The fact that, as BCCI President, Srinivasan can not only attend IPL meetings, but also effect changes that help his and his team’s cause. Will he use the unfair advantage? Maybe not. But history suggests there is the possibility.

But let’s move away from Srinivasan to a couple of other major changes to have hit Indian cricket at the end of the BCCI’s Annual General Meeting in Mumbai over the weekend. One of the first big decisions taken by the new dispensation, led by Srinivasan, is to terminate the Kochi team’s contract. Interestingly, I spoke to two of the co-owners of the team, and while one of them threatened to take the BCCI to court, the other blamed the investors in the team for the eventuality. Satyajit Gaekwad, in fact, said that the BCCI had done the right thing, because, like Srinivasan announced grandly, “the breach cannot be remedied”. So nine teams in the fifth edition of the IPL. Not a bad thing, unless it ends up increasing the number of matches again!

Elsewhere, the big positive. Mohinder Amarnath being instroduced as the ‘joker in the pack’. Once upon a time, two decades ago, when he was being picked and dropped in the Indian team like a yo-yo, Jimmy announced that the selectors were a “bunch of jokers”. Not much has actually changed because earlier this year, just before the World Cup, I had asked him during an interaction whether “anything has changed or do you still think that the selectors are a bunch of jokers”? Jimmy said with a thoughtful expression: “Well, they do get a lot of things wrong a lot of the time”. Oh well!

Now though, he is a selector himself. Someone who will be a paid professional, much like the current crop led by Krishnamachari Srikkanth. Jimmy is known as a straight man, who calls a spade a spade and usually walks the talk. Someone you can trust to do the right thing. But will he be able to, or be allowed to, do that? Remember, though he is senior to Srikkanth, Srikkanth remains the Chairman of the BCCI Selection Committee for the time being, and Amarnath will be his understudy. If no major overhaul is in the offing, Amarnath will work under Srikkanth for at least a year and then take over as Chairman of the Panel for the next three years. That doesn’t sound too positive. In fact, it’s a recipe for disaster, because knowing Jimmy, he is quite capable of walking out in a huff if he sees poor decisions being taken.

But there’s the other speculation that might come true sooner than we think. The Independent Selection Panel. Srikkanth might have a whole year left on his contract, but what if the BCCI finally gives the go-ahead to the long-pending Independent Panel, and dissolves the Zonal Selection Panel which is headed by Srikkanth? Yes, it’s a possibility. And if that happens, Amarnath might be the man to head it. Very probable.

A lot of all this, however, depends on the route adopted by Srinivasan. If he plays with a straight bat as some of us expect him to, and puts Indian cricket above Chennai Super Kings and the IPL, things might move in the right direction. Tricky. And remember, stranger things have NOT happened in the BCCI!

Friday, September 02, 2011

‘No accountability please’

[Written for Sahara Time]

What was Ajay Maken thinking? Did he seriously think that his colleagues would jump at the opportunity to be made accountable and help him push through the National Sports Development Bill? Did he seriously think that some of the most powerful politicians in the country would suddenly slip on the veneer of honesty and help Maken become a hero? How naive! How very naive!

Think about it. Vijay Kumar Malhotra, Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa, Praful Patel, Jagdish Tytler, Satish Sharma...and many others. They care a damn about sports or sportspersons. Much like Uma Bharti or Mani Shankar Aiyar or MS Gill – recent sports ministers who considered their jobs ‘punishment postings’ and made it clear that they didn’t want to do what they had been asked to do. Come on, who are we fooling? It’s one of the oldest known secrets that politicians choose to become part of sports federations for two reasons and two reasons alone: one, because of the funds that come in, and are not really accounted for; and two, because of the free foreign tours that come as one of the fringe benefits of the job. Period. And Maken actually thought that the politicians would chuck up years of ‘hard work’ and become accountable and transparent? Ridiculous!

I don’t hold any brief for Maken, but it’s obvious that his intentions are noble. But much like the Jan Lokpal Bill propagated by Team Anna, Maken’s method is naive. Ill-informed. Do I know what the right way is? No. But that doesn’t mean I can’t see that this way is ineffective. Because it will never work. Any Bill – Jan Lokpal or Sports Lokpal – needs the nod of Parliament to come into effect. When Parliament itself, or the people who make up Parliament, stand to lose so much, why would they give the nod?

So far, among the people I have spoken to, Vijay Kumar Malhotra has cried hoarse about the ‘age and tenure’ clauses of the proposed Bill that affect him both on the count of age (he’s 80, 10 years past the mark) and tenure (he has been President of the Archery Association of India for close to 40 years). His argument was “What’s my age got to do with anything? Our archers are winning medals in international tournaments. What else do we want?”

Well, how about that old argument? Medals are won despite the administration, not because of it, Mr Malhotra. I tried to suggest that, humbly. The old BJP hand said to me, though not in as many words, to “stuff it”! I suspect I would have received similar answers from the rest of the men named earlier.

And I haven’t even started on the BCCI yet. “We don’t take any funds from the government,” grandly announced Congress MP and BCCI Vice President Rajeev Shukla. “If we (my real employers, the BCCI) don’t take help from the government (my part time job as Minister), then why should the BCCI be answerable to the government?”

How about this, Mr Shukla? One, because the BCCI gets lands at subsidised, often nominal, rates from the government, and this is where stadia as well as academies are built. Two, because none of your international matches or the IPL would take place without the security that is arranged by the government. Three, because of the tax exemptions the government extends towards you, and helps your crores multiply. And four, that stupid old thing about our boys not representing the BCCI but India. Does any of it make sense?

Importantly, the sports fraternity has come out in complete support of Maken, and that might make a difference as we go along. Four-time world champion cueist Michael Ferreira says, “It’s vested interests and nothing else that is making the politicians reject the Bill.” Former India captain Kapil Dev lauds the BCCI for what it has achieved, but adds, “Why should it have a problem coming under the ambit of the Bill if it has nothing to hide?” Former India all-rounder Ajay Jadeja asks, “How can there be different rules for different people?” While former sprinter Ashwini Nachappa says, “A clean-up is necessary and there is no doubt on that front. Politicians should come out and set an example.”

Let me pick up Kapil Dev’s statement and expand a bit. “If the politicians have nothing to hide, why are they worried about coming under the RTI?” Can’t argue. We are not talking about sensitive and confidential matters of the Defence Ministry or the PMO here. We are talking about sports. Simply about money coming into the federations and associations, and being disbursed for the development of sports. That’s the brief for the politicians in question. If they have been doing their job, as Malhotra so eloquently told us, then they should use the Bill to blow their own trumpets.

Truth though is that there isn’t much to boast about. Truth is that, as mentioned earlier, the big money that comes into the federations are frittered away, wasted, or worse. No one cares as long as a few stray cynical journalists sit back and say these things over a drink or two. But once it reaches the public domain, things become problematic. And remember, as Kirti Azad says, “the RTI is not about the government, it’s about being accountable to the public”.

Who wants to be accountable to the public? Not us!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Eddie Had to Dive

(Published recently by Scholastic in their collection 'Sports Stories - Nine Short Stories by Contemporary Children's Writers')

[The photo is unrelated; courtesy]

No one knew very much about Edmont G Spitzworth. He was obviously firang, gora as he was. But when he sat down with his haph-cha (in Calcutta, that half a glass of tea is a legitimate menu item) on a bench by the side of the pavement and held forth in Bengali on the government’s failures in the city, he seemed anything but firang. When someone asked him, he might say he’s of German descent. To someone else, he’d probably say ‘Australian’ or ‘British’.

Eddie loved that aura of mystery and that people spoke and speculated about him. As it happens, there was much talk of him in certain circles – because along with being a pavement party hero, Eddie was also a champion boxer. Not the sort who goes to the Olympic Games, but the sort who takes on opponents inside a warehouse at night. You’ve seen them in Hollywood films, haven’t you? Hollywood was in Calcutta in the 1970s and ’80s. Even in the early 1990s, which is when Eddie was around. Warehouses became boxing rings at night. The rings were made of wooden boxes. People bet money on boxers. People – layabouts, dockyard workers, local gangsters, small-time businessmen.

Boxers fought with their bare fists, bare-torsoed…they bled when they got a good punch on the face, they bled when they fell hard against the wooden boxes. The businessman booed. The dockyard worker cheered. The layabout had fun. The local gangster paid good money for the night. And made some as well.

The boxers fought through the pain; meagre as their income was, it was more money than they could make otherwise.

But I was telling you about Eddie, the champion boxer. It’s true. He was only 5-foot-7 and he wasn’t too muscular, but Eddie had something the bigger guys didn’t. He had speed. And agility. He could avoid punches better than anyone else in the warehouse. So he won often and made enough money. Enough money to rent a little hostel room in Middleton Row, eat decent food, buy decent clothes and have his haph-cha. Every now and then, he would get drunk at night and create a racket outside the expensive restaurants on Park Street, the most exciting road in Calcutta, just off Middleton Row.

In the warehouse, people bet only about a hundred rupees in a night. You didn’t win too much, and you didn’t lose too much either. And you bet on the safe boxers. Not the ones who would be brilliant one night and stupid the next. You bet on boys like Eddie. You bet on boys like Eddie because you knew he wouldn’t do anything stupid. You knew that he always gave you a good chance of making those extra bucks.

Until he lost a few fights in a row. Four of them. In the warehouse, losing meant no money. Losing also meant that no one offers you a chance to fight. You wait your turn. If one of the regulars fall ill or something, you get an urgent call. If no one fell ill, Eddie wouldn’t get a chance to fight.

Now, Eddie’s friend Kisser was one of the guys who promoted the warehouse fights. Kisser – Qaiser Mohammedally – worked hard and ruthlessly to make money. One of the things he did was to scout the dark alleys of Calcutta looking for youngsters to join the warehouse circus. He promised the young toughs a good time, a bit of money and a lot of glory. To youngsters in the dockyards and the mean back-streets of central Calcutta, this was as good as it got.

When Kisser came to Eddie, the boxer hadn’t paid his hostel rent for six months and everyone was wondering whether he would go back to Germany or Australia or England or wherever. Kisser had fixed a fight for Eddie with a six-foot Bengali boy. Everyone in the warehouse circus knew the newcomer was a muscular but dumb fighter. He could swing big punches, but he’d telegraph them so far in advance that he hardly ever landed them where he wanted to. Kisser had fixed for Eddie to fight with him.
For Eddie, it was an answer to his prayers. He finally had a fight – and against someone who had no hope in hell of beating him.

“But it’s a fight you must lose, Eddie,” Kisser said.


“Yes. His dadas are powerful local people. They want him to win. They are willing to pay you big bucks to lose. They are willing to pay anyone who gets into the ring with him and loses.”

“But how can I lose to him? He is an absolute idiot. He has to punch me for me to lose.”

“You have to let him punch you then, Eddie. Land a couple of your own. Do whatever. Just lose.”

“But I can’t lose to him. There’s no way I can lose to him. You want me to take a dive? Come on, dada!”

“Then there’s nothing I can do for you, Eddie. This is all I have. If you don’t take it, someone else will.”

“I want it, but I can’t lose. If I get the fight and win it, I will still get some money, won’t I?”

“Yes, but if you don’t agree to lose, there’s no fight. And if there’s no fight, you don’t get anything. Don’t you see it? Eddie, you are going to get chucked out of this room if you can’t pay your rent. Everyone’s tired of loaning you money. This is your chance. Your last chance.”

It was the face of his Armenian landlady that finally swung it. Germany or Australia or England, wherever he may have been from, Eddie didn’t actually have a home outside of Calcutta. It was a one-way ticket that had landed him in this city, and he had to live here or die here.

If he lost the fight, he’d have enough money to pay off the six months’ dues and a few months’ advance.

Finally, it was a deal Eddie couldn’t say no to. There was no point in fretting over it. If he had to dive to live, he would dive. What else could he do anyway? And keeping the Bengali dadas happy might just help him sometime.

Eddie reached the warehouse on the night of the fight. So did the layabouts and dockyard workers and local gangsters and small-time businessmen. A lot of the regulars knew Eddie. They had bet money on him in the past. When he started losing, they chose one of the other Eddies. Any Eddie that won was good enough. But against the Bengali boy, Eddie was the favourite. The ones who knew Eddie also knew Bengali Boy. They knew Eddie could beat him with his eyes closed.

These people in the warehouse, they lead hard, tough lives. They like seeing people getting beaten up. They like their boys winning. They like making a bit of extra money to go with their meagre earnings. And when they had a fight with an obvious favourite, they knew they wouldn’t lose money. They might not win a lot of money, but they wouldn’t lose anything.

Eddie knew that he had signed up for his last chance. He hoped it wasn’t his last fight. The Bengali dadas knew what they were about too. They were new to the business, but they were rich. The Bengali Boy was part of their new plans and they were willing to cheat. They’d pay people to lose, and they’d be sure to make way more money than they’d spent on the fight. So they had paid Kisser a lot of money, and Kisser was happy to pass on a share of that to Eddie.

If Eddie lost the fight on Diwali night.

It was like a carnival that night. Diwali was on outside the warehouse. Calcutta’s North Indians were playing cards, betting, gambling. Inside though, it was just another fight night. As people stepped into the warehouse, they looked up at the fireworks once again. The money riding on Eddie was much more than on other days. He was the favourite, wasn’t he? And it was also Diwali night; the night to loosen the purse-strings a bit – especially when you knew you could get back more.

The fight began. Eddie was looking good. He landed a couple of punches. Not as well as he would have on another day… Kisser smiled. The Bengali dadas smiled. The plan was working. It worked even better when Eddie let Bengali Boy swing a couple towards his face. Avoiding them was easy. Eddie could do it with his eyes closed.

Five minutes passed. Eddie kept landing punches...soft ones. Bengali Boy kept missing.

The dockyard worker told his friend – Eddie won’t ever let Bengali Boy land a big punch.

The local gangster thought to himself – Bengali Boy doesn’t even know where Eddie is half the time.

The small-time businessman told himself he wasn’t gambling – it’s Diwali night; two hundred rupees extra will let me buy enough firecrackers to bring a smile to Titlu’s face.

The layabout knew it was only a matter of time – Eddie would get it right soon.

Kisser knew it was only a matter of time – Eddie will falter; he will dive, he will let one big punch hit him.

The Bengali dadas knew it was only a matter of time – the money had been well invested; this firang boy is playing to the script.

And Eddie knew it was only a matter of time.

Eddie waited for Bengali Boy to catch him with a big punch. If he had to dive, he had to make it look authentic. In fact, Kisser and he had gone over it again and again. Eddie would land a few soft punches here and there, and Eddie would dodge all the big punches that came his way. And then, he would let Bengali Boy get him. And crash, not to get up. That way, no one would suspect anything. Simple.

And Eddie did keep it simple. His opponent was much bigger than him, so it didn’t look odd when his punches didn’t rock Bengali Boy much. No one needed to know that Eddie wasn’t punching as hard as he could.

Three minutes...Eddie had landed many more punches than Bengali Boy. Five minutes...ten minutes of sweating, punching, abusing, and missing.
Till Bengali Boy did actually land that big fist on Eddie’ jaw.

Silence. A smile flickers across the older Bengali dada’s face. Kisser raises an eyebrow.

Eddie stumbles at the impact, but only for a second. And he replies. A right just above Bengali Boy’s left ear, a left on his chin, a right on his left jaw and another left on his right eye. The four punches fly out in less than a second. Remember, I told you Eddie had something no one else had? He had speed. And agility. He could avoid punches better than anyone else in the warehouse.

Bengali Boy looked blank for a second. Then his eyes closed. His arms flailed. Before Eddie had even stopped to remember the dive he had forgotten about momentarily, his opponent started to fall, his arms now by his sides. And then the head crashed against one of the wooden boxes.

I’d like to have told you that the story ended with Kisser and Eddie having to return all the money. No, actually, I wish I could have said that it ended with Eddie making a good return to the ‘ring’. It could have ended like that...

It did end. But differently.

Indeed, it ended the day after the fight; the day after Diwali, was when I first heard of Eddie. I was sitting on the pavement outside the Armenian hostel where Eddie stayed with my friend. We were sitting on the pavement with a haph-cha, talking about nothing in particular; maybe the government’s failures in Calcutta, or about going to watch a fight in the warehouse ‘one of these days’.

My friend caught sight of Kisser-da standing some distance away. He was smoking a cigarette; his eyes red, looking rather dishevelled, stinking…possibly drunk. He was a man my friend acknowledged but was also clearly intimidated by.

“I know him well, he usually chats with me,” my friend told me. “No idea why he is behaving strangely today.”

“Call him,” I said.

And he does. Kisser-da brings his haph-cha and sits down with us.

And that’s when we meet Eddie.

Kisser-da tells us Eddie’s story. He tells us what happened on the night of Diwali that year. He tells us about losing a lot of money and having to spend most of the night trying to pacify the Bengali dadas.

And then he tells us about the phone call. A phone call the younger Bengali dada made immediately after Eddie ran out of the warehouse. Eddie ran out without picking up his shirt, without wiping the blood off his face; in just his jeans.

But Kisser-da said, with the hint of a smile, that Eddie did raise his arms to acknowledge the cheers. Only for a couple of moments...before starting to run.

Kisser-da hadn’t slept all night. Even after the Bengali dadas left. He had come straight to the hostel on Middleton Row at four in the morning. He had been drinking. He had been waiting. And now, we were waiting with him, waiting for the police to bring Eddie’s body back to the hostel. I was waiting to say farewell to a young firang man I hadn’t ever met. I was waiting to sight a young man who had no address, no citizenship, but had often helped a lot of people go back home with 200 extra rupees in the night.

The 20-year-old I was, back then, felt he knew this man. I was waiting to say farewell to a boxer who knew he had to lose, but just couldn’t. He tried, but he couldn’t stop his hands from tightening into fists and letting fly when a punch landed on him unexpectedly. He was a boxer, and a good one, no matter that he’d never fought outside a warehouse. When that one punch came his way, and his agility wasn’t good enough, he didn’t think. Not for a moment. Nothing crossed his mind. It was only his arms. They knew what they had to do.

Maybe Eddie was an idiot. He was, wasn’t he? But strangely, many years after the 20-year-old me heard the story about Edmont G Fritzworth, I think of him as a hero. And I think of him as someone I lost along the way...somewhere.

No comments, the BCCI is paying us!

(Written for Sahara Time)

News is that Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri are both BCCI stooges. News is that the BCCI pays them money and they mouth lines the BCCI wants them to.

And this is a revelation to you?! I mean, sure, you or I probably wouldn’t know all the facts, but did it never strike you that the two Mumbaikars can be nothing but BCCI propagandists? Despite hearing them on all the contentious issues over the years and realising that they are the only two major voices in Indian cricket who have never criticised the BCCI; they have defended the indefensible over the years, raised the pitch when all around them have gaped incredulously. Well, maybe you didn’t know that the BCCI was paying Gavaskar and Shastri, but did you not wonder how they could be saying what they do?

Okay, how about hard facts? Gavaskar and Shastri are both part of a number of BCCI committees, they were both part of the IPL Governing Council (Shastri still is) and they are the only two commentators who are not committed to any one broadcaster – they appear on every single channel if there’s an Indian interest in the proceedings. Is that possible under normal circumstances? Obviously it’s not. Now you know the truth. Though I would have thought that you’d suspect the truth anyway.

I had my first major suspicion back in 2001. Remember the Mike Denness controversy in South Africa when a combination of offences saw five Indian players being suspended by the match referee? It was Port Elizabeth, and the Indians were fighting hard to avoid going down in the series. There was some ‘excessive appealing’, though Denness’ ‘excessive’ might not have been so for another ref. There was most certainly a bit of rule-breaking from Sachin Tendulkar, when he was filmed digging his nails into the seam of the ball. He said he was cleaning the dirt, but it was against the law anyway. In any case, Denness suspended five Indian cricketers and, obviously, the BCCI swung into action, creating a situation where the next Test match was rendered ‘unofficial’.

As it happened, the press was invited to an unscheduled press conference, where Denness was brought in by an ICC official. It was announced that Denness would be present but not field any questions. Kind of bizarre, but that was the rule. And as the question-answer session panned out, came a booming voice: “Why is Mike Denness here if he won’t answer questions, we know what he looks like!” Oh sure, it was a cool thing to say. But Shastri was not there as a speaker or as a journalist, so why was he there? And he sure as hell wasn’t really asking a question.

Well, what he was doing, is making a statement. We probably didn’t understand it then, though we did find it rather strange. But now, in hindsight, it was clearly a BCCI line going out to the world.

Which is exactly what Shastri dished out – like a tracer bullet – when Nasser Hussain, justifiably, called the BCCI’s stance against the UDRS ‘disgraceful’. Oh well, you can argue against the use of the adjective, but not the sentiment. Enter Shastri: “England is jealous of India. People can’t stomach the fact that India are the number one team in the world and that the BCCI can organise such a great product like the Indian Premier League.”

Huh? What? What exactly is the connection?

Or, at the end of the tea break of the Trent Bridge Test when Ian Bell had been run out in bizarre fashion: “India have done the right thing by running Bell out; they have nothing to apologise for.” Till Shastri realised that the boos had changed to cheers as a result of some tea-time diplomacy between the two sides. The tone changed in the blink of an eyelid: “Dhoni has given a great example of how the game should be played,” Shastri boomed, no hint of embarrassment in his trained voice.

Remember, when it comes to BCCI ‘properties’ like Sachin Tendulkar and Mahendra Singh Dhoni, you will never hear a word of criticism from Shastri or Gavaskar. Never. At least not on air. Because the BCCI’s payment to the two doesn’t involve their newspaper columns. Shastri doesn’t bother changing track there either, but Gavaskar certainly does make an attempt to speak his mind in his columns even if he doesn’t do it on TV.

To conclude; it all comes down to the BCCI and its insecurities. All tyrants are by nature insecure because they know their rule can’t last forever. Winds must change. And so is the BCCI. Which is why it chooses to stunt the growth of cricket around the world, prevent its evolution. Put people in the right places to ensure that it’s the BCCI’s opinion that gets played out. Broadcasters are helpless, because their futures in the cricket arena depends entirely on the BCCI and the cricket the Indian team plays. Shastri and Gavaskar are just pawns in a much bigger game. A game that we can watch from the sidelines, booing or cheering if we choose. But at no stage can we actually enter the field of play and be part of the action.

Not unless the BCCI wants us to, of course.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Copa Larissa!

(Written for the August issue of Man's World)

Someday, somebody is going to place Larissa Riquelme in the Football, nay, World Sports Hall of Fame. And I (and, I’m sure, zillions of other football fans) will be cheering all the way!

Think about it. What is sport if it isn’t about entertaining people? About bringing people with differences together? What makes a sportsperson great if he or she is not able to spawn a generation of clones? And in today’s scenario, add to that gate and TV receipts as well as bringing in tourists?

Muhammad Ali, Diego Maradona, Roger Federer, Dawn Fraser, Tiger Woods (just talking about his game here), Lance Armstrong, Sachin Tendulkar, Steffi Graf, Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt.... Heroes. Legends. People who made their sports what they are today. People we respect and revere; people lesser mortals have tried to emulate over the years, usually without success.

Now then...Larissa. I don’t know if she’s ever played a sport, but she could. Any sport. But consider her pioneering efforts as far as international fandom is concerned. A promise. A big smile. A flash of her...umm, mobile phone. And football will never be the same again. Nor will football fandom.

Facetious, am I? Well, maybe. But things do get serious as we move on.

Not right now though.

Let’s start at the start. One small statement: “I’ll strip and run down the city square naked if Paraguay wins the World Cup.” That was last year. Most thought she was being a bit random. Paraguay had no chance anyway, so Miss Larissa could keep her clothes on. But she had her nation’s best interests in mind after all, and stripped anyway for a magazine cover only to tell her boys that it was all right that they couldn’t win. Long as they did want to see her naked!

Just over a year later, Larissa has taken the Copa America by storm. The Copa is not among the more followed football tournaments in India. It doesn’t involve La Liga or the Premiership, for starters. And, because of the time difference between India and Latin America, matches usually start at an ungodly hour in the morning. But ask any football fan you know, and they would have been tracking the tournament with a magnifying glass. Literally. Because most of the coverage has been centred around Larissa. Her promise remained the same. Paraguay wins, she strips and runs around the streets of her country.

And did Paraguay try! For themselves. And for the rest of the world. Give me one other reason why they could step past Argentina and Brazil and reach the Copa America final. Finally, right at the end, the most improved football nation in the world – Uruguay – stopped their march. The Paraguay team isn’t any better than it was when it finished nowhere in most international tournaments. The only thing that’s changed in the last two years is Larissa’s presence in the stands. Every day. Every match. Fans from Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador...everyone wants a souvenir photograph with her. And there’s Larissa; a Paraguay-coloured shirt with a plunging neckline highlighted by the strategically-placed mobile phone. Sometimes, no phone. And often, depending on the circumstances, a little extra treat for the fans. And the cameras.

And in case Larissa is too far away from where you are sitting, there’s Javy. As well as Patty Orue. The Larissaheads. Part of the growing tribe of smiling, sexily-dressed, bust-on-camera groupies of the Paraguay team – or, maybe, just Team Larissa.
Not many of us even know the name of the captain of the Paraguay team. Or their number ten. It’s a team no one outside of Paraguay has ever cared about. But today, it’s the Neutral Fan’s favourite team – by far. Everyone wants Paraguay to keep winning. Everyone knows Paraguay is not really good enough to beat the top teams.

But what’s sport without hope? And fun...entertainment? Because it’s not like Larissa will be the first nude woman any of us will see – in real life or otherwise. Especially in Latin American football, where the likes of Larissa are a dime a dozen in the stands during football matches. She isn’t even the most gorgeous, is she?

It’s the fun of the occasion. It’s the unlikeliness of the occasion ever coming true. It’s in how a sport that’s littered with examples of fan clashes and violence, a bit of voyeuristic pleasure is attracting fans from around the world to one corner of the stands. For a while at least, fans of Paraguay’s opponents also want Paraguay to win. One Copa title less won’t change Brazil or Argentina or Uruguay’s rich history much. Certainly not in any dramatic way. From the point of view of their fans then, it’s an ‘I was there’ opportunity. A couple of photographs. An embarrassed smile of explanation to the wife or girlfriend. And a little memory. A memory that doesn’t really add up to too much.

But, to go back to the start, think about what Larissa has done for football. Eyeballs. Not that football needed it, but what’s the harm? She’s brought The Football Fan to the forefront. At the World Cup, it’s only a sidelight. At the Copa, it’s a headline, especially with Brazil and Argentina doing their bit to let Larissa live her promise.

Pity the wait’s just gotten longer. Or wait, maybe that’s just added to the fun.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Club it; nations be damned!

(Written for Sahara Time)

I’m fairly sure a lot of you are going to hate me by the end of this article, but I’ll take the risk anyway.

Yes, records and patriotism can take a backseat. The future of world cricket is with the clubs – for starters with the IPL, soon, with similar leagues in the rest of the world. Today’s villains will be tomorrow’s pioneers, and we will stop hating Chris Gayle and Lasith Malinga and Shaun Tait and the rest of his ilk soon. Because they will become the they must.

At the time of writing this, now, today, cricket remains the only sport I can think of off-hand that survives on bilateral and triangular series, made up of contests spanning three formats. How sustainable is that? It doesn’t take an Einstein to tell you that it’s not. Limiting cricket to six competent nations and a handful of teams that really shouldn’t be competing with the top six is not the way to structure a sport. Unfortunately, nothing suggests that this will change in a hurry. It won’t.
And you know what, the ultimate sport, the sport of the world – football – is no different.

Think about it. If it had to survive on bilateral and triangular tournaments, only tournaments between Brazil, Italy, Germany, Argentina, England, Holland, Spain and France would make for compelling viewing. Just eight nations. Out of over 150 that actually play the sport very seriously. If football had been structured like cricket, we would never have seen George Best or Didier Drogba or Ryan Giggs or Cristiano Ronaldo or George Weah or Emmanuel Adebayor or Diego Forlan or another one thousand mindblowing footballers. In fact, that list could go on forever and we’d still manage to think up a few new names.

That’s where club football comes in. And that’s where club cricket comes in. A format where cricketers from all nations clash in either a T20 format or an ODI format.

In case of the IPL, it’s played in India over just under two months at the moment. Tomorrow, you could either have one of two options. First, a series of T20 leagues like the IPL in, say, Australia, West Indies, South Africa and England. That’s a total of five leagues of 50 days each. Players can sign up for a club in either of these countries and play in all of them. Or, the second option, where the leagues take place over a whole year like in football, and you have a Champions League-like face-off at the end of it. Then, every two years, you can have a T20 World Cup...and because the cricket fraternity is sentimental, an ODI World Cup every four years.

And what happens to Test cricket? Well, much as I portray myself as a purist and a fan of Test cricket, I honestly don’t see it fitting in. Simply because the ICC hasn’t managed to put together a proper Test World Championship. If they had, we could have fitted it in somewhere.

Which brings us zooming back to the biggest debate in world cricket today: club or country? Should the players’ allegiance be towards the club that pays him so much money, or should his country’s cricket team take precedence? Well, I think there is no reason to treat sports any differently from other professions here.

Yes, you might not like it, but picture this: a 25-year-old executive works in Company A. Company B offers him more money and/or a senior designation. Wouldn’t he go to Company B? Of course he would. A cricketer needs not do anything different then.

You are Manpreet Singh Gony or Paul Valthaty (just as examples). You know you will play in the Ranji Trophy for many years, not get paid too much, and then hope to make it to the national team, where you may or may not be a success. Is that tempting enough when you can earn loads of money by playing the IPL instead? And away from India, say you are a cricketer from New Zealand or West Indies or Bangladesh. Say you are Daniel Vettori or Chris Gayle or Shakib-al-Hasan. You know that despite your best efforts, your team is likely to lose against the bigger teams. And you’re not getting paid much either.

What, then, are you playing for?

The answer is: nothing. Years of the hard grind, at the end of which you get very little unless you are Brian Lara or a top Indian cricketer. In the good old pre-IPL days, no one had the option. Today, the option is there. And under the circumstances, Gayle and Malinga and Tait are only the frontrunners to the future international cricketer. A man who will go where he is respected more and paid more. Country? Sure, it can be fitted in. Like it is in the case of Lionel Messi or Wayne Rooney or Kaka. They are not gods because of their exploits with Argentina or England or Brazil. It’s what they do for Barcelona and Manchester United and Real Madrid that makes them who they are.

Then why is a cricketer a misguided traitor if he wants the same?