Monday, March 22, 2010

The problem of being VVS Laxman

(Also in Cricket Aakash; a version of it is in Bengali daily Ek Din)

How can anyone not like VVS Laxman? He is easily the most stylish right-hand batsman since Mark Waugh (I’m talking of sheer elegance and laid-back class here, Sachin fans). He has done more for India in the second innings of Test matches than even Rahul Dravid. He won India that Test match in Kolkata back in 2001! And of course, he is one of the nicest men you will ever meet. He is such a throwback to a much nicer, more beautiful era, that you want to back him no matter what.

And that’s why his entire career graph saddens me. Yes, he is feted as one of the greatest Indian batsmen ever. But only in Test matches. He just didn’t have Ganguly’s grit, Dravid’s fitness, Tendulkar’s all-round machismo or Kumble’s advantage of being India’s best bowler. All he had, and still has, is class. And elegance. And wrists that Madame Tussaud’s should build a wax statue of, leaving the rest of him out.

Now, one could ask: what’s wrong in someone being a Test batsman and Test batsman alone? Well, I’d be inclined to agree. I have no problem with anyone being a super Test batsman and a flop in every other format. To me, Test cricket is what it’s all about, and Laxman is awesome there.

But the problem is that Laxman has been trying his darnedest to be a one-day batsman over the years and now knows he will never cut it. He chooses to play the IPL, knowing full well that he will never be good enough for the format. Hell, he isn’t even a contender for a spot in the Indian ODI or T20 team – the IPL is far away. But he needs to play it. For the money. For the fame. And he is destined to flop, because he will never be good enough for it. Or bad enough for it.

And what this will do is reduce his glamour in the eye of the public. The more people see him struggling, playing stupid shots, attempting the impossible, the more they are going to devalue him. Obviously, he doesn’t deserve it. But at the same time, he does have the option to say no and walk away. Can he?

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Should Akram be opening his mouth?

(Also in

Today, Wasim Akram came out with a statement exonerating Kamran Akmal and other Pakistani cricketers of corruption in cricket.

This sounds fine on the outset. After all, Akram is Big Brother to many of the kids, and a big hand of support on the shoulders feels wonderful. Akram’s done the right thing.

He’s done the right thing, but is Akram right?

To answer that, we need to know Wasim Akram. Not the Akram who has been the finest left-arm pacer in the history of cricket. But the other Akram. The Akram who was among the many who had to appear before Justice Qayyum during the inquiry into match-fixing in Pakistan in 2001.
Of course, Akram was exonerated.

But Qayyum wrote in his report: “This commission feels that all is not well and that Wasim Akram is not above board. He has not co-operated with this Commission. It is only by giving Wasim Akram the benefit of the doubt after Ata-ur-Rehman changed his testimony in suspicious circumstances that he has not been found guilty of match-fixing. He cannot be said to be above suspicion.”

That’s the Wasim Akram we are discussing here. The Akram who was ‘not above suspicion’.

That was 2001. Cut to 2006, and the Cricinfo article filed by my friend Siddharth Vaidyanathan after meeting Qayyum: “Qayyum told us that he hadn’t wanted a great player like Wasim to be banned, especially towards the end of his career. I had some soft corner for Wasim. He was a very great player, and I was his fan. I didn’t want that towards the end of his career, he should be banned or something like that.”

So Wasim Akram, dare we say it, wasn’t totally honest. And despite the truth of his interaction with Qayyum being made public by Cricinfo, Akram remains at large. No harm in that as such, except that Akram really shouldn’t be issuing certificates to players on the subject of match-fixing. And, well, Akmal and the others may well be honest, but Akram’s certificate, to my mind, weakens their case somewhat.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Who’s the Winningest of them all?

(Also in the March issue of Man's World)

Brazil and Spain are far apart in terms of success at the football World Cup. But make no mistake about it; they are the best their continents have to offer at the 2010 World Cup.
‘Winningest’. Nice word, isn’t it? Not a word you’d find in the dictionary, but in the lexicon of sports jargon, it’s a useful cliché.


There are winningest players; Roger Federer is one, Lance Armstrong, Muhammad Ali, Tiger Woods…. Then there are winningest players within teams, like Shane Warne or Michael Jordan. And of course, there are winningest teams. In the football World Cup, none bigger than Brazil.

Apparently, some players and teams know how to win, and some don’t.

Brazil, the winningest team ever
The only team to have qualified for every single one of the 18 World Cups to date and with a record five trophies in their cabinet, Brazil are always one of the favourites for the World Cup. They may not eventually make it to the top despite having the best team; they didn’t in 1982. Or, they may win even when they are playing with a weak team on the field – like in 1994 in USA; leave out Romario, there’s no team. In any case, it was a boring team, because coach Carlos Alberto Parreira seemed to think the traditional Brazilian flair was outdated – he chose to focus on the defence without any good reason. The team won in spite of—not because of—this wisdom. Leave out the six key goals Romario scored, and Parreira was inches away from becoming the most hated man in Brazil.

The curious incident of Romario
Romario was an idol in the 1993-’94 season. In Brazil. And in Barcelona. It was an almost-disastrous qualification campaign, where Brazil desperately needed at least a draw in the last qualifier against Uruguay to make the cut. Romario was left out of the team’s first qualifier. He complained, as always, “If I knew I wouldn’t play, I wouldn’t have come over from Spain.”

Parreira banned Romario from the Brazilian team for the first seven qualifiers, leading to outrage among fans and the media back home. Parreira had to relent. Romario came back and scored two in a 2-0 win over Uruguay. Romario remained undisciplined. Parreira had to keep picking him. Romario won Brazil the World Cup.

A flair for tradition, a tradition for flair
It started in 1958; Brazil’s first step towards becoming the winningest team in the World Cup. Look at the team – Didi, Zagalo, the Santos brothers, Zito…and Pele! Six players. Take out any three and leave the rest in. Chances are, the team will still be good enough to win the World Cup.

Then in 1962, the same heroes, bolstered by Garrincha and Vava. Unbeatable. Conceding goals was never a bother; they knew they could score more. So the team let in 5 goals in 6 matches, but scored 14 in response.

1970, again. Amarildo in the mix too, as were Rivelino, Gerson, Tostao and Jairzinho.

The big star through the 12-year period, of course, was Pele. In 1958, he was the youngest player in the tournament, the youngest ever World Cupper at the time. In the semi-final, against France, he became the youngest to score a hat-trick in a World Cup. Cut to 1970, Pele played his last World Cup at 30, a year before his retirement.

Pele and the No 10
Since 1950, all players have had numbered uniforms, but players could switch numbers at will; in 1958, it was decided that numbers shouldn’t change during a tournament. Brazil overlooked the norm in Sweden during the World Cup. The Swedish commissioner decided to assign numbers himself before Brazil’s first match. Pele, the youngest and least known of the players, was given the number 10. It stayed on his back since. And from 1970, the number was reserved for the best attacking player in the team – everywhere in the world.

No Pele, no World Cup titles either
Pele was gone after 1970. The golden generation also faded away, and so did Brazil’s dominance. And that’s where we go back to the Winning Habit. 1982. Zico. Socrates. Falcao. Serginho. Juninho. No trophy. The best team that didn’t win the World Cup.

Until 1994. The Romario Edition.

And then, in 2002, the Ronaldo Edition.

Yes, it’s a team game. Also yes, individuals can make the difference. Diego Maradona did, as did Zinedine Zidane. It happens. Return to the top of this article; you do have winningest players within teams.

The 2010 Campaign
Ronaldinho might still be a regular starter in the AC Milan squad, but Brazil coach Dunga is sure he doesn’t want the down-on-his-fortunes superstar in the team anymore. And why not? He does have Kaka, doesn’t he? He also has Julio Baptista from AS Roma. And up front, who do you leave out among Adriano, Robinho and Luis Fabiano?

Not the best Brazilian team of all time, but would you lay your bets against them in a World Cup?

And remember, the winningest member of a team can also be the coach; Dunga won the World Cup as captain in 1994.

The non-winningest favourites for 2010
On the other end of the spectrum is Spain. Along with Holland, the best team to have never won the World Cup. But the Spain of the past is very different from the current line-up. That Spain choked. This Spain choked, choked, choked some more, and then won Euro 2008. Spain’s first-ever major title (leaving out the small 1964 edition). This is an all-star cast; and a team that plays in, arguably, the best football league in Europe.

An all-star line-up
Two of the top five players in the world at the moment are Spanish – Andres Iniesta and Xabi Alonso. The most exciting striker in the world at the moment is a Spaniard: Fernando Torres.

Look at the roll call: Iker Casillas in goal; Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol and Sergio Ramos in the back; Xabi Alonso, Cesc Fabregas, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and David Silva in the midfield; David Villa and Fernando Torres up front.

Can Spain break the jinx?
Man for man, Spain has a team that is the best in Europe by far. It has a league that is the best in Europe by far. The best club in Europe is FC Barcelona. The team’s players play against the rest of the best in the world on a daily basis. And they have now tasted victory. You could even say that if the Spaniards can’t do it this time, they will never be able to do it.

But then, there’s a reason why in 18 editions of the World Cup, we have had only seven champions; only six since 1938 (Uruguay fell hard); and only five multiple winners of the trophy (Brazil, Italy, Germany, Argentina and Uruguay). That old Winning Habit. Spain has tasted a bit of it, but do they actually have it?

Sehwag, The Simple

(Also in Bengali daily Ek Din)
There’s something quite amazing about Virender Sehwag, and no, I am not talking about him being India’s second-best Test batsman of all time (after Rahul Dravid). I am talking about the man himself. Just his attitude towards life.

Just a couple of days back, Sehwag appeared for a press conference in Delhi. No questions on cricket, we were told. We were told that Sehwag wants to talk about something very specific, and different.

And what we got was Sehwag talking about his hair. You would have noticed how the completely bald Sehwag has recently sprouted a nice, lush outfield on his head. Almost the exact opposite of what happens to the pitch the morning before a Test match in India against one of the teams with good pace attacks.

In any case, for a while, Sehwag gave no one even a glimpse of his head. Bandanas, caps, hats, helmets...the secret was well protected. I remember a colleague telling me, “Dekhna, yeh hair-weaving kara raha hai”. It turned out to be true. That’s exactly what Sehwag was up to. But that’s not important. It’s fun to joke about, but nothing more.

What’s important, and interesting, is the man himself, and how he approaches most of these matters.

2000-2001; as a cub sports reporter, Sehwag was one of my regular interviewees as he was making waves and getting into the Indian team. He was one of my ‘contacts’, I thought. Till, within a year or so, he became really big. I called him. He greeted me fairly warmly on the phone, told me he was sitting in a ‘coffee shop in a five-star hotel’, quite proudly. And then told me, without any arrogance, but with a fair dollop of innocence: “You’ll have to SMS me if you want my interview; too many people want me now”. Simple. Hoiked from outside off over mid-wicket for a six.

In fact, ‘simple’ is a word that comes to mind often when thinking about Sehwag. He is a simple man. His batting is simple. And he deals with situations pretty much the same way. Like with Harsha Bhogle recently. Sehwag would rather bat in the middle-order, so Harsha said, “But it’s because you are an opener that you are getting to bat for long periods and scoring those big hundreds”. Sehwag’s reply: “If I were batting in the middle-order, I would have scored more.” And he explained, “I am still not comfortable with the moving ball so much.” Wonder if he explained that to the Pakistanis and South Africans after those triple centuries!

To come back to the hair-weaving press conference; sample a few of his answers: “I got the weaving done because it helps get advertisements”, “Have you ever seen bald men do ads”, “It’s not to get female fans, I am married”, “If you have hair, you can take off your cap more often”. Again, simple; and, of course, witty.