Sunday, February 21, 2010

The magic of the Garden of Eden

(Also in Bengali daily Ek Din)

They call the Old Trafford in Manchester the Theatre of Dreams. That’s the home ground of the Manchester United football team.

But in Indian cricket, there can’t be a Theatre of Dreams other than the Eden Gardens. Any theatre must have drama. And when was the last time an Indian cricket ground saw as much drama as in the second Test against South Africa?

A Test match that had it all. One team on top, one team fighting for survival. Four centuries by the Indian team – from four of the city’s favourite batsmen. One opposition batsman emerging as a hero; standing tall amid his team’s ruins. Rain intervening and almost robbing the Indians of the win. And finally, a resistance that took the match all the way into its second last over.

If that isn’t drama, what is?

But the Eden Gardens and drama have always gone hand in hand – because of the cricket as well as because of everything that went on around the cricket. The rioting and the fire in the stands back in 1966. Then in 1987, when Saleem Malik slammed 72 not out from 36 balls to beat India singlehandedly. 1994 – the Hero Cup semi-final, when Sachin Tendulkar bowled a magic last over to beat South Africa. The 1996 World Cup semi-final against Sri Lanka, when India threw away the match, and there was a riot in the stands, and then on the streets of Kolkata. And, of course, the 2001 Test. Cricketing drama at his most enthralling.

Interestingly, there’s a major parallel between the 2001 Test and the 2010 Test. The heroes of the 2001 Test – VVS Laxman and Harbhajan Singh – were the big heroes of the 2010 Test as well.

It happens. Players get attached to grounds. Both of Brian Lara’s triple centuries were scored at St John’s, Antigua. Thomas Muster or Sergi Bruguera never did well at a Grand Slam except at Roland Garros (of course, they were clay-courters, and that’s part of the reason). A player’s game meshes with the conditions at particular grounds. Some tennis players play better on clay courts than elsewhere; not because they don’t want to, but they have a comfort level there that goes missing elsewhere.

It’s true of VVS Laxman and Harbhajan Singh too at the Eden Gardens. VVS now has 1041 runs at an average of 94.63 from 9 Tests here. Harbhajan has 46 wickets from 7 Tests at 21.76 (much less than his career average of 30.94). No cricketer has done better with the bat or ball than these two gentlemen.

And when they have come to the party, they have done so with drama being a central part of their performances. And that’s what makes the Eden Gardens the Theatre of Dreams that it is.

Friday, February 12, 2010

An Asian takeover of the EPL!

(Also in Bengali daily Ek Din - a bit Bengali-focussed; and a bit of repeat of what I wrote here)

There’s a very interesting phenomenon developing around the English Premier League at the moment.

But that's in a bit. First, a check on what makes the Premiership the hottest thing going around right now. I am no fan of English football. My days aren’t made or broken by Manchester United’s fortunes. But it’s true that the 2009-10 EPL season has been magnificent to say the least. Did you know that this season, for the first time in its history, the EPL is seeing goals scored at a rate higher than three per match? More than in Italy or Spain or Germany.

Anyway, that’s just trivia.

What’s more important is what is going on in the boardrooms of the clubs. Once upon a time, American tycoon Malcolm Glazer’s takeover of Manchester United made crazy headlines. Today, four of the top 20 clubs are owned by Asians; Manchester City, Portsmouth, Birmingham and Fulham. And there’s talk that the second-most historic British club – Liverpool – will be bought over by Sahara’s Subroto Roy. Yes, a Bengali. Another honorary Bengali – Lakshmi Mittal – is currently the owner of Tier 2 club Queen’s Park Rangers.
Interesting, isn’t it? While on the football field, Asians are nowhere among the best in the world, off the field, their big bucks are making the world dance to their tune.

The logic is very simple. The worldwide recession has hit Europe and America the worst. As a result, owners of Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal are currently in debt of close to 500 million pounds each. The clubs are trying to sell. And the clubs can’t find buyers anywhere except in Asia, where the recession has had an impact, but not a massive one.

So imagine a tomorrow: the biggest sporting franchisees are on offer – not just in the EPL, but even in the NBA or elsewhere. Their owners are in debt. What happens? The Ambanis and Tatas and others are among the best-placed around the world when it comes to spending power. And they go and buy. It’s a win-win situation.

And who knows, once he counts his profits at the end of the third season of the Indian Premier League, Lalit Modi might be interested as well. And then you have a semi-complete takeover of the biggest British industry by non-Brits. Asians at that!

Friday, February 05, 2010

Spin is out!

(Also in Bengali daily Ek Din)
VVS Laxman has finally come out and said it like it is. Quite courageous, if you consider the BCCI’s rather glorious tradition of shutting people up whenever they open their mouths. In Laxman’s case, that’s not happened. He has come out and openly said that the depleting spin reserves in the country is a cause for concern. And we have accepted it.

We have accepted it because the truth is that there isn’t one quality spinner in the country anymore. Once upon a time, paraphrasing Jatayu, the Indian team could choose from the ‘innumerable spinners in this spinner-infested country’. Not so anymore.

Harbhajan Singh is at best a containing bowler right now. The spin is almost gone. The flight is completely gone. All he has are spearing darts at the batsmen’s feet. And very few wickets. Amit Mishra. Good. But is he good enough? Ditto for Pragyan Ojha. Or Piyush Chawla. The only spinner of any standard really is Murali Kartik, but he has fallen foul of the Indian selectors a long time ago.

At the end of it, the situation is that a country that was once famous for its spin bowling now has not even one spinner the world will fear.

Look at the list of top spinners in the world at the moment: Muttiah Muralitharan, Daniel Vettori, Graeme Swann, Nathan Hauritz, Ajantha Mendis and Saeed Ajmal. Not one of them is Indian.

Part of the reason for this is that about five years back – in the face of growing criticism from many quarters – the BCCI decided to change the nature of the pitches in India, choosing to make them more pacer-friendly. What that meant is that spinners stopped getting assistance from the domestic wickets. And the number against their wickets’ column dried up, making the selectors ignore them.

Part of the reason is also the advent of T20 cricket. One-day cricket had, in any case, made spinners become defensive. And with more and more teams scoring at a rate of over 4.00 in Test matches too, economy became more important than striking. It seems to have affected the Indians more; obviously, seeing that India play more ODIs and T20s than most other teams.
And part of the reason is also the change of focus in the last 20 years. Pace bowling became more popular in India after Kapil Dev. We didn’t have a spinner of the stature of Bishan Singh Bedi or Bhagwat Chandrashekhar to inspire youngsters. So now, we have an assembly line of pacers.

When it comes to Harbhajan though, the problem is somewhat different. Some bowlers are happiest when not playing the lead role. Harbhajan was a lethal weapon when playing under Anil Kumble’s shadow. As an individual, he doesn’t have the same bite. And with him losing sheen, none of the youngsters who have come in have managed to play the support act with as much panache, simply because the lead hero isn’t good enough.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Ball-biting: how much is too much?

(Also on
I’m sure Shahid Afridi didn’t expect to get away with it. Holding the ball with both hands, taking three-four chomps on the ball, with a good dozen-plus cameras focussed on him. Obviously he didn’t think he could get away. Not even if the camera had focussed on Rana Naved-ul-Hasan’s face – where a big, indulgent smile spread out the moment the ball went between Afridi’s teeth. Surprisingly, bowler Mohammad Asif showed no emotion – almost as if it was par for the course.

In any case, whenever something like this happens, you ask a few questions: (a) why do cricketers continue tampering with the ball when they get caught? (b) Is there a chance cricketers think they can get away? And most importantly, (c) Do cricketers think they can get away because they know they can get away?Afridi might have taken the thing to an extreme. But what he said afterwards is more damning. Afridi said that all countries and players continue to tamper with the ball. Outrage followed. But is he completely off the mark?

Truth is, he is not.

Yes, there are 20-odd cameras on the cricket field, but how much do they actually catch? More than one former paceman I spoke to confirmed that while bottlecaps are out, various other things are still in. Like the trusted old fingernail. Yes, it still works wonders, and yes, despite Sachin Tendulkar getting caught in South Africa back in 2001, hundreds have not gotten caught in the nine years since.

Remember Rahul Dravid’s little cough drop on the ball? Well, you don’t necessarily need to run the sweet on the ball, but the spit from your mouth when sucking on a cough drop is good enough. It does the trick. Dravid might just have accidentally dropped the sweet when all he wanted to do was use his spit. He got caught. The ones who continue to use the spit and manage to keep the sweet in their mouths are fine.

Importanly, Afridi and Dravid are at two ends of the spectrum. Afridi is a repeat offender. Dravid is one of the nicest people you’ll meet.But both realise that the game, especially ODIs and Tests, are loaded heavily in the batsmen’s favour. Every once in a way, the bowler needs a bit of extra help. Does that mean fielders can tamper with the ball? Not at all. But, to widen the scope of the debate a bit, maybe a couple of rule changes to make the game a better match between bat and ball might do the trick.