Friday, January 22, 2010

Time to say 'to hell with hockey'?

(Also in Bengali daily Ek Din)
Indian hockey is a rather interesting subject. Not many people are really interested in it. But everyone knows that it is the right thing to shed tears about. Whether we like hockey or not, we can’t criticise it. We can’t, as Aslam Sher Khan once said, say ‘to hell with hockey’. We can’t. So when a set-up that has won nothing of note since 1980 cries about the players being slighted and ill-treated, we must cry for them. We must make the right noises about them. And we must criticise the powers-that-be for being insensitive towards our great national sport.

Okay, I agree that hockey must be backed, like all other sports. Not more, not less. If the Indian kabaddi team is in trouble, we should back them. If the Indian judo players are in trouble, we should back them. Only because they are being ill-treated by their bosses. For no other reason. So the Indian hockey players – men and women – must be backed and supported if their bosses don’t pay them money. Not because hockey is our national sport – it isn’t. Cricket is our national sport; about time we accepted it.

Honestly, I am a bit sick of this neverending sob story around hockey. It’s been well over 20 years that the world has moved to the astroturf. India doesn’t have a lot of grounds with astroturf, true – but the national team has always practiced on astroturf. Why then can’t we stop crying over being discriminated? Why is it that the rest of the world can play the fast-paced hit-and-run game while we can’t? We can’t because we choose to use it as an excuse to be failures.
We cry about hockey not being popular among the masses. Of course it’s not. It’s not popular because we haven’t taken it to the masses. Cricket became as popular as it is, because we won the 1983 World Cup just over a decade after the format was introduced. We adapted. We won the 2007 T20 World Cup – just 5 years after the format was introduced and before any of our players had played any serious T20 cricket. We adapted. As a result, the formats became popular. As a result, youngsters wanted to play cricket and nothing else. They also want to play tennis and football because they have their role models.

They don’t have a role model in hockey – no, not even Dhanraj Pillay.

It’s taken us 30 years, and we still haven’t adapted in hockey. Yes, the players should get the money they deserve, but at the same time, isn’t it high time they went out and won something important – apart from the Asia Cup and the Azlan Shah Trophy and the Champions Challenge? If they won, they would be heroes. They don’t win, so even a Shah Rukh Khan superhit can’t make the sport popular. No chance. And till then, all of us will continue to cry for our ‘national sport’ even though it’s not important enough.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

It's not just cricket

(Also in the January 2010 edition of Man's World as part of the overall look at the highlights of the decade gone by)
A millennium ended, a new one swung by. In many ways, nothing changed in Indian sport. Cricket remains the big deal. Politicians continue to run (nay, rule) sports federations much as they run the country: ineffectually and indifferently. The National Sport continues to languish at the bottom of the foodchain. But, as if from nowhere, we found individuals who cut through these constants; they are the ones who made ‘change’ possible.

Abhinav Bindra
None more so than Abhinav Bindra. Possibly because his federation’s apathy didn’t matter to him – his affluence puts him above these petty obstacles. But more than anything else, it didn’t matter because he is super! He’d missed out in Athens 2004 as Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore set the benchmark – almost ‘up there’. So if Abhinav were to bring home a silver in Beijing 2008, it wouldn’t have counted for much. It had to be better or bust. And better it was. Gold! The first time anyone but the Indian hockey team had conquered the world in the Olympic Games. And even if his feat is emulated in years to come, Abhinav Bindra will remain the man who broke the glass ceiling. Speaking of glass ceilings, a couple of old men who know all about that were still out there rock-and-rolling.

Leander Paes & Mahesh Bhupathi
Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi. Admittedly, they didn’t do anything important together in the current decade except win the French Open doubles crown in 2001. But Leander has gone on to win six men’s doubles and seven mixed doubles Grand Slams since. While Bhupathi has won one men’s doubles and seven mixed doubles Slams. We can shake our heads and wonder about what could have been… Fact is, they split up. Fact also is that they made us happy more often than most others have. And, in a sense, they also paved the way for people like Sania Mirza, Yuki Bhambri and Somdev Devvarman to poke their heads out. Meanwhile, away from the glam-sports was a small, muscular and uncannily spirited young woman breaking new ground.

MC Marykom
Magnificent Mary – MC Marykom. A four-time 46-kilogram world champion in women’s boxing. A feat no one can stake claim to. And, would you believe it, Mary is not yet 30. This means that apart from being India’s longest-ruling world champion, Mary also has a shot at Olympic glory when women’s boxing is introduced in the 2012 Games.

Viswanathan Anand
Now, when a sportsperson receives the Khel Ratna award, you assume the person is closer to the end of his career than the beginning. Viswanathan Anand earned the accolade in 1992. In his case, the award was more a beginning than an end. Seventeen years since, Anand is the undisputed world champion. Still. A title he first assumed in 2000. He lost it in between, regained it in 2007 and has held it since then. Along the way, Anand became the first player in history to win the World Championship in the three different formats: knockout, tournament and match. Along the way, Anand has also been the undisputed world number one – twice. All in this decade; one decade after receiving the nation’s highest sports award.

Saina Nehwal
And on the way out, we must include the one person best-placed to become India’s next world champion – Saina Nehwal. Queen Saina has already made us sit up and take notice of her. First, when she reached the quarterfinals at the Beijing Olympics. Then, when she won the World Junior Championships last year. And in 2009, when she became the first Indian woman to win a Super Series title. Saina is just 19. Already sixth in the world, she is getting stronger and better. Who knows, number one might not be all that much to ask.

Friday, January 15, 2010

I like Manish Pandey

(Also on
Yes, I like Manish Pandey. I liked Pandey when he threw caution to the winds in the IPL last year to score that 114 against the Deccan Chargers. I liked the fact that it was in South Africa that he got the hundred, and not in India. I liked the fact that he was happy to hook and pull. I liked the fact that he had a stroke for every delivery, and had natural footwork to back him.

Then I liked Manish Pandey in the Ranji Trophy final on Wednesday and Thursday. The top order had fallen. There were three India discards bowling with a fair bit of pace on a track that offered good bounce. Manish slammed 144 off 151 balls to give Karnataka a chance. He pulled the pacers with ease. He appeared to be a compulsive hooker, which may or may not be a good thing. But not once did he hook or pull without watching the ball till the last moment. I haven’t seen a single top-notch Indian batsman do that except Rahul Dravid.

Why isn’t he in the Indian team yet then? Well, for starters, he has been a bit inconsistent. He is also a bit of an impulsive chappie, who wants to hit every ball for a boundary or more. And though he was brilliant while he lasted in the Ranji final, it was his all-or-nothing attitude that seemed to mess it up for him in the end. He seems to be the sort who can be very exciting, but not very dependable.

Which also suggests that he can be a good T20 or ODI prospect, but not a Test prospect.
And that’s the mistake we might end up making.
Manish clearly has the talent, the strokes, and the ability to become a great Test batsman, and I use the word ‘great’ knowing I will be accused of using it too loosely. He has a good cut. He has a good cover drive. He has a good hook and a good pull. Plus a neat flick around mid-wicket. But more than all these things, he has presence. He ‘looks’ like a good cricketer. Something that I last saw in Murali Kartik – when he walked out to the field, he looked like a cricketer.

Manish Pandey has that. The right attitude. Possibly one for the future then.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Is the Ranji Trophy relevant anymore?

(Also in Bengali daily Ek Din)
Another Ranji Trophy final. Another appearance for Mumbai in the final – their 43rd. And then, another win – their 39th. Of the 76 editions of the Ranji Trophy, Mumbai have won 39. But that’s just a record. If we play the Ranji Trophy for another 50 years, Mumbai will probably win it another 30 times.

How does it matter though?

Yes, I still think Test cricket is the most important format of the game, and I do think the Ranji Trophy is the best source of young talent. But if the BCCI doesn’t care about the Ranji Trophy, then why are we so bothered about it?
Senior Indian cricketers are not asked to play the Ranji Trophy. Rahul Dravid played the semi-finals for Karnataka, but Sachin Tendulkar, despite being in India, refused to take part. Tendulkar, of course, does what he wants, and the BCCI does whatever Tendulkar wants. But if the BCCI is not in a position to force the players to play in the Ranji Trophy, what legal right does the BCCI have to force the players to play in the Indian Premier League?

Yes, the players, being human, would rather play the IPL to earn money. They are not as interested in the Ranji Trophy, because they are already in the Indian team – their state teams don’t matter anymore.

Yes, the IPL is played within a fixed window, the Ranji Trophy is not. This means that players who are playing for India cannot, logically, make time for the Ranji Trophy in its entirety.

And that brings me to my point: why do we have to play the Ranji Trophy then? Only because it has become a tradition? Only because no one has the guts to say “let’s forget the Ranji Trophy – it doesn’t matter”? Or only because the state associations and their cricketers don’t have any other big stage to perform in?

Come on, let’s face it: The Ranji Trophy doesn’t matter anymore. The IPL does. Whether we like it or not, the Indian team is selected on the basis of players’ performances in the IPL, or on the basis of Krishnamachari Srikkanth’s likes and dislikes. Success in the IPL brings you a place in the Indian T20 team. Then the ODI team. And once Dravid, Tendulkar and VVS Laxman retire, the same people will be in the Test team.

Then why this annual farce?

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Give the Churchill boys a chance

(Also in Bengali daily Ek Din)
When he spoke to us, Felix Chimaokwu claimed that he and Odafe Onyake were chatting in the aircraft when he accidentally elbowed the airhostess in question. He says both of them immediately apologised. He also says that the airhostess in question didn’t say anything; it was a steward standing close by who raised the stink.

How much of this do we believe?

Do we believe every word Felix says?

Do we believe Churchill Brothers goalkeeper Arindam Bhattacharya when he says both the Nigerians are completely innocent?

Or do we refuse to believe them and side with the Indian airhostess, whose modesty was outraged – allegedly?

I don’t really have an answer to this. But I do have a couple of points to make in this regard.
Firstly, Indians are by nature racist. Blacks are usually treated with trepidation, disrespect. A Black man going slightly out of line is often looked upon with a tad more suspicion than a White man. We have all bumped into enough women over the years – unintentionally – and gotten away with an apology. A Black man in India might never have it so easy.

To this day, we refer to Blacks as ‘kallus’. You do too, reader of this editorial. It’s ingrained in our DNA.

The second argument is that Felix, or Odafe, or any Tom, Dick or Harry, will think at least 500 times before attempting to molest a woman inside an aircraft. There are people all around. There are stewards, airhostesses...very little space, in an airline like SpiceJet. In fact, having travelled in SpiceJet often, I can vouch for the fact that airhostesses and stewards bump into passengers in the aisle seats all the time. All the time!

Now, I am not ruling out the possibility that the two Nigerians did commit the crime they are being blamed for.

But I think the possibility that they are innocent is much bigger.

It’s just that India, as a nation, along with being racist, is also suspicious of foreign sportspersons. It’s almost as if we can never trust them or take them at face value. And if that foreigner is an African, with a strange accent, he becomes that much more alien.