Friday, November 27, 2009

Thank heavens Sreesanth’s back!

(Also in my column 'Shoja Kotha' in Bengali daily Ek Din)

It’s easy to dislike Sreesanth. He is irritating. He is totally full of himself. He gets on your nerves at times. And I am not just talking about the Slapgate incident with Harbhajan Singh. I am talking about Sreesanth in general. During practice sessions. During breakfast at the team hotel. On the phone – sometimes he will pick up the phone and speak for hours; sometimes he will become incommunicado.

I remember one particular incident in Sydney – this was during the Commonwealth Bank series last year. Sreesanth had something going with Robin Uthappa from before the net practice session started. And when Robin’s turn to bat came, he went up to captain Dhoni and said clearly that he didn’t want to face Sreesanth. Dhoni refused to pay attention, but Sreesanth had overheard the conversation, as did all of us journalists standing by.

What followed was easily the most irritating and childish episode you are ever likely to see. Sreesanth bowled a sequence of about 15 deliveries to Robin. All of them were bouncers. And all of them were down the leg side. As a result, Robin couldn’t get his bat to a single delivery. Each time he ‘beat’ Robin, Sreesanth had a smirk on his face, as Robin went purple. Eventually, Dhoni had to intervene; he moved Robin to a different net to face the other bowlers.

Sreesanth’s line and length became okay within two minutes.

That’s what Sreesanth is like. Irritating. Childish. Churlish. Petulant. A kid.

But that’s what is also so endearing about Sreesanth. That’s what makes him so likeable. I’ve seen him promise an interview to a young reporter on the condition that the youngster take five catches in a row during an India team practice session. The youngster missed two, Sreesanth still granted him the interview. Over breakfast, Sreesanth has spoken to me at length about his bowling, his injuries, the problems with his temperament, his family, his home in Kerala...this, as the rest of the players went off to shop on an off-day while on tour.

And even when it comes to his indiscretions on the field, beneath the nonsense, you can’t help but admit that Sreesanth is basically an overgrown kid. Which is why, you have to admit that he has been punished enough for his stupidities – Slapgate and everything else. It was time for him to come back, and it’s such a relief that he has come back on such a high note. Because, sincerely speaking, he deserves a good turn now.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Tee-time for caddy golfers

(Also in M -
Muniyappa’s story is proof that a golf caddy could soon be the rich man whose bag he’s carrying today and also bring India our next Olympic medal
Something quite significant took place the other day. A 33-year-old man named Chinnaswamy Muniyappa won the most important golf tournament in the country around the second week of October. Before the Indian Open started, not many outside of the Karnataka Golf Association had heard of Muniyappa. Now, he is the placed sixth in the Asian Tour Order of Merit with earnings of $ 215,516.

All of this is momentous because Muniyappa was, until recently, a caddie. You know, the man who carries the rich man-cum-recreational golfer’s heavy kitbag on his shoulders on the golf course while the big business deals are sealed? Yeah, that’s what Muniyappa was. Back in those days, he earned a rupee for an hour’s work. He is now the sixth richest golfer in Asia.

“My parents used to work at the Karnataka Golf Association,” Muniyappa says. “I never thought of playing, but watched people play. I was happy with the 1 rupee I got every hour. But the other caddies would cut branches and play in the evenings. I did too. It was fun, but with a wooden club, the ball would only go around 75 yards.”

Things started getting serious only when, at age 12 after playing with the wooden club for five years or so, Muniyappa got his first real club – a used 7-iron a KGA member parted with. All the way to the 2009 Indian Open title.

Fascinating, isn’t it? Quite the script for a 1970s Hindi blockbuster flick.

But remarkable as Muniyappa’s story is, it isn’t a first in Indian golf. Or, for that matter, in world golf.

In India, the story starts with Ali Sher. 1991. The Indian Open. The first time an Indian golfer won the title, and broke the stranglehold of the foreigners. Importantly, the little man with the big heart was also a caddie-turned-golfer. Someone who, like Muniyappa but two decades before him, also “cut branches to make wooden clubs, watched the good players play, learnt the sport and then became obsessed with it”, as Sher puts it.

Ditto with Kolkata-based caddy-turned-golf heroes Jamshed Ali (1970s), Basad Ali (1980s), and Feroze Ali and SSP Chowrasia (1990s).

The point, though, is that this isn’t all that surprising. It’s widely accepted that, like tennis markers, golf caddies are the quickest learners of their sport. They are in a prime position to pick up technical nuances because they watch decent players playing all the time. They are seeped in the game through the day, every working day. If the best of them don’t become golfers themselves, they become a Fanny Sunesson – easily the world’s most famous caddie; a woman in a man’s game. She shouldered Nick Faldo’s ‘burden’ for ten years before ‘dumping’ him for Henrik Stenson. Sunesson’s resignation letter coincided with Faldo’s decline. Faldo won four Majors while Sunesson was around, and even rehired her for a while after the split – but the magic had faded.

This brings us to a difficult question: why aren’t there more caddy golfers then? If caddies can become such super golfers, then why not have programmes where caddies can be nurtured as potential golfers, instead of a handful of caddies becoming good golfers by sheer individual hard work, perseverance and big dollops of luck?

You want to know why this needs to be done, and done desperately? It’s because we are in the process of moving away from golf being an elite sport to becoming a mass sport. It’s going to be part of the Olympic Games from 2016 in Rio de Janeiro after all. It’s not going to be a sport of the elite. It’s going to be a sport where nations compete. For the most important gold medal in the world of sport.

And you know why India must have a programme at the earliest? It’s because golf is among the few sports in the country that is not governed by a federation run by the government. Like cricket. There isn’t a politician at the helm of affairs who does nothing to improve the sport – like is the case with every single Olympic sport in the country.

Do you know how players like Digvijay Singh reacted upon hearing the news that golf will be included in the 2016 Olympics? While the rest of the golfing world was celebrating, Digvijay said, “I don’t want Suresh Kalmadi (President, Indian Olympic Association) or anyone else to look into the golfers’ future at all. There is enough mess in every other sport in the country.”

We do have Jeev Milkha Singh. As well as Jyoti Randhawa, Arjun Atwal, Shiv Kapur and Gaganjeet Bhullar. But are they good enough to bring us a medal from Rio? Good as they are, can we count on them to deliver against Tiger Woods and the rest of the top golfers of the world?

Could the answer then lie in a Professional Golf Tour of India (PGTI) nationwide programme to ‘create’ talent? Or, for that matter, ‘tap’ talent? From where? Yes, the talent pool that already exists in the form of the caddy brigade. To repeat, people who love the game, know the game and are part of the game, but not quite.

As things stand at the moment, caddies get interested in golf by being involved with the sport as a career, earning a pittance, starting to play with hand-me-down clubs from club members and occasionally, only occasionally, becoming good enough to become a pro. Clubs do help, but not in a deliberate or organised fashion. Ravi Puri, CEO of the Classic Golf Resort in Manesar, explains, “Most clubs let caddies use the facilities after the playing hours for the members are over. Imagine, you have the entire course, the driving ranges and the putting greens at your disposal. Maybe you don’t have a good kit or a coach, but you do have everything else. And then, most members will change their kits from time to time, and the old kits are handed down to the caddies.”

Doesn’t sound like a bad deal. But there’s no plan in place anywhere. There’s no target. There’s no objective. Is any of that really programmed to produce India’s next golf hero?

True, caddy tournaments have become fairly popular across the country now. Like the All India Invitational Caddies Tournament, played annually for seven years now at the Delhi Golf Club. As well as programmes for caddies, like the ones initiated by the historic Royal Calcutta Golf Club and the Tollygunge Club in Kolkata. RCGC, the second oldest golf club in the world, started a training programme for caddies around the turn of the millennium. Caddies are handed out spare balls, second-hand clubs and given basic technical training, enough to add the natural ability some of them possess anyway. Tolly Club does the same.

But isn’t that too little? And too unfocussed? Isn’t that mainly to try and be inclusive and not much more? Not to say that’s not a good thing, it is. It’s very noble. But is there a solid objective anywhere?

After Muniyappa won, a delighted Asian Tour chairman Kyi Hla Han predicted: “Muniyappa's triumph will inspire more rags-to-riches stories. Young and underprivileged Indian golfers will practice harder. He has shown that the way to success is through hard work and dedication.”

Can’t argue with that. But why not put words in Mr Han’s mouth and frame the statement this way: “Muniyappa's triumph is proof that caddy-turned-golfers can make the cut. But for that, the PGTI must put in place programmes for caddies that will help them reach the top level.”

To end, here we have a natural talent pool waiting to be tapped. If the golf clubs scattered across the country stretch their resources a wee bit, and the PGTI takes a little more interest, a rupee an hour needn’t be the only reward a caddy gets.

Time to standardise pitches?

(Also on
What makes a good Test match?

Without getting into the nuts and bolts of it, you need (a) the pitch to be batsman-friendly for the first couple of days, (b) the pitch become a spinners’ game as it wears on into the last day, (c) two or three centuries, (d) about 35-37 wickets, and (e) a result.

Simple, right?

Let’s break it down further. The first innings should last just over a day-and-a-half, the second innings should last about a day-and-a-half, the third about a day and the fourth slightly less – not counting the possibility of declarations.

What you need then is a pitch that starts out with the ball bouncing and moving around a bit – so that the pacers get a few wickets in the first hour of the first day. Then the batsmen come into play and see out the day without losing too many more wickets. On the second day, the pacers become effective only for the first half an hour. By the fourth day, the spinners start becoming effective. And on the fifth day, spin is all the works.

If you accept this as the basic template of a Test match, my suggestion might make sense to you. If you don’t accept this as the template, let’s chat some other time.

Right – my suggestion: put together a committee that standardises pitches across the world. It’s not a wholly original idea, but it’s a good time to revive it. Yes, home advantage must be there. An Indian pitch must be batsman and spin-friendly while Australian pitches must be pace friendly. But the science of making pitches must be brought into play. How can curators get away with preparing dead and daft pitches like the one in Ahmedabad? Not the first one in India in recent times.

So bring Fat Andy Atkinson back. Or get someone else to head the committee. You can’t force teams to play for draws and against losses, but the conditions must be made such that teams are forced to pull at all stops to negotiate.
Do you think crowds won’t come to the grounds if they know a result will in all probability happen? I don’t think so. I’m sure that if a result is promised, or a tough, grinding draw is promised, the crowds will be excited. But the more we make Ahmedabad happen, the more we will ensure that Test cricket dies away. Unless, of course, that’s what the IPL-obsessed cricket bosses actually want.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

What’s your favourite Sachin moment?

(Also in Bengali daily Ek Din)
I suppose it’s one of the Indian cricket fans’ pastimes of choice – asking each other what their favourite Sachin Tendulkar moment is. I’ve been part of a few of these...obviously!

Many instances come up almost on cue: Operation Desert Storm for one, and that look on Shane Warne’s face. Then that double hundred in Sydney where he didn’t play a single cover drive. Or when as a 16 year old he slammed Abdul Qadir for successive sixers. That last over in the Hero Cup final maybe. So many others...

Strangely, I have usually stood out when these discussions happen. Yes, each of the instances mentioned earlier are fantastic, and I will explain why I feel so slightly later in the piece. But the incident that I remember most fondly is one that many people usually don’t remember. I don’t use it to stand out or to say something that makes me appear more intelligent than others. It’s because that one incident sums up Sachin Tendulkar for me.
The incident took place in Kolkata in probably the most important Test match in India’s history. Yes, the one in 2001, when VVS Laxman, Harbhajan Singh and Rahul Dravid walked away with all the honours. This was the 51st over. Shane Warne was the batsman, facing up to Tendulkar. The match was in India’s pocket already, but here was the moment of the match. Tendulkar ambles up, pitches the ball outside the off-stump, it’s a googly! The greatest leg-spinner in the world fails to read it; he is caught plumb in front. For a duck!

And that’s Sachin Tendulkar for me.

A man who can do almost anything in the game, but wants to do a bit more. He can play every stroke in the book, but he wants to play the top-edged cut over point because Virender Sehwag can play it. He wants to play it better. He wants to play the reverse-sweep because the rest of the world is playing it. He wants to play the scoop over short fine-leg because everyone else is doing it. And while bowling, he wants to bowl six different deliveries because Shane Warne can do it.

That’s Sachin Tendulkar for me.

What about the other incidents then? Desert Storm? Sure. After all, how many others can make Shane Warne look around in awe like that?

But that’s Sachin Tendulkar.

How about Sydney 2004 – the unbeaten 241 where he didn’t play a single cover drive? That proves the ability of the man even more. Imagine Warne not being able to bowl the flipper. Or Shoaib Akhtar and Muttiah Muralitharan not being allowed to chuck. Or Brian Lara banned from using the square drive. Or Sunil Gavaskar being told he can’t play the forward defensive stroke. Imagine one of them scoring a double hundred, or picking five-six wickets.

Yes, that’s Sachin Tendulkar.

It’s one of the great privileges of watching cricket in the modern era. Possibly the greatest privilege of them all. That we watched cricket in the era when Sachin Tendulkar played. Nothing beats that. Nothing at all.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

What do we do with Sarfaraz?

(Also on
Rahul Dewan is one of my fellow columnists on this website, and being ‘on the rise’, he would probably be best-equipped to answer the questions I try to raise in this post; I’m talking about Sarfaraz Khan, the boy who scored a mammoth 439 in the Harris Shield the other day. It’s the highest score ever in Indian school cricket. And the second highest recorded score by an Indian – after Bhausaheb Nimbalkar’s 443 in the Ranji Trophy back in 1948.

Question 1: How important is the innings?
Question 2: What can we expect from Sarfaraz going forward?

At the onset, let me confess that I have no answers to either question, but can only hazard a couple of guesses.
How important is Sarfaraz’s innings? Well, a score of over 400 is always fantastic. Young Sarfaraz batted aggressively hitting 56 boundaries and 12 sixes, which is a good thing. It means that the little boy is not afraid of going over the fielders’ heads or of putting away the loose delivery. He batted for two days, resuming on just over 200 on the second day. This suggests that his focus and concentration are both good. And just the sheer number of runs confirms that he has the ability to play long innings. This is an especially a good thing in this day and age of T20 cricket.

Sarfaraz is just 12 – which means that all the faculties necessary for a good batsman are already there, and all he needs is to build on his strengths.
Now, what can we expect from Sarfaraz? This is the trickier bit. If Sachin Tendulkar is a yardstick, then we can expect loads. If Vinod Kambli is a yardstick, then we can expect a lot of unfulfilled promise. The difference between the two was ‘discipline’. Nothing else.

But there are other people we can turn to as well. Ramesh Nagdev and Sanjeev Jadhav, for example, who hit 427 and 422 in Bombay school cricket as well. We haven’t heard much about them either.

This suggests that an early spark isn’t enough to start dreaming.

This also suggests that the key to the proper development of a bright young talent is just that: proper development.

If success goes to your head, then you are most likely to become a Kambli.

If early success tells you that you will be part of the Indian team in a jiffy and you then get frustrated when reality hits you, then you are most likely to become a Nagdev or a Jadhav.

The idea should be to work hard, and try to be a Wasim Jaffer, who also scored a 400 in Bombay school cricket, has played a champion role for Bombay over the years and done moderately well in Test cricket. If, in the process, you do become a Sachin Tendulkar, be glad for it. Don’t expect it. Because chances are, it won’t happen. And planning for it will only set you back.