February 28, 2011

Why a Tie is Perfect?

Perfectness like most things in life keeps running away everytime someone pursues it hard. And yet every now and then, the randomness of things and the folly and fervour of beings, assisted in conspiracy by a probable Unknown, provide us a glimpse, if not a probe, into perfectness, of the glories that might have been and of lifetimes spent in search of them. Yet as irony would have it sport, that hallowed turf that breeds unremitting competition and demands open-ended improvement, seems to appreciate the imperfect result with one side winning and another losing far more than a result where there is nothing to choose between the two sides. If the reactions to the tied Group A one-day cricket match between England and India in Bangalore, which I have been privy to, are anything to go by, it seems to me that we have missed the point about sport as being a celebration of life by taking it too seriously.

I reckon a number of decibels, reams of paper and bytes of virtual space would have been spent in the last twenty-four hours in arguing why it was a tie. An equal amount of passion would also have been spent, mostly by Indian fans and the cricketing media - which sometimes blur, for right and wrong reasons -, in trying to work out the shape of Dhoni's skull that decided in giving the 49th over to Piyusha Chawla. Amidst all the hullabaloo, the men who made it such an enthralling contest would have been unfortunately relegated to the background by fraying opinions. We in some parts of Asia revere the game so much - and as a consequence take it so seriously - that we fail to celebrate its nuances, the Practical Joke it plays on its exponents and thereby on their followers, the unseen grace with which it evens things and how it stands tallest when two sides vying tooth and claw are not able to sneak a yard past each other even after seven hours of boisterous pandemonium. In my opinion, a spectator who has an overwhelming preference for his team's victory - and I was once that kind of spectator too - over a humdinger of a game is rather like a student who studies for ranks with knowledge having little more use for him.

The England-India game at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore, afore arguably the most educated albeit ebullient crowd in the country behind Chennai, demonstrated two things: the cofluence of sparkles of individual brilliance into something close to collective perfection in a team game and how a tie in a cricket match is something even cricket scoffers, and those who think it fashionable to bemoan the game, would have to concede as unique if unwittingly.

In favour of the first point, there is ample evidence from yesterday's game. Tendulkar's 120 and the manner in which he blunted Swann in particular gave yet another account, if one was amusingly needed, of why Tendulkar makes his country's cricket fans go bananas after more than two decades in the game. If Sachin's ton was an incredible revelation of how he continues to respond magically to a world of expectations from the heartbeats of one country's fans, then skipper Strauss' 158 was a lesson in the art of setting up a chase and would go down arguably amongst the most purposeful and aggressive innings played by an Englishman in the one-day game. Tim Bresnan's five-for, which proved crucial in the final analyses, prompted just why death bowling is beautiful and critical even if the opposition has gone hammer and tongs thus far with a scorecard already reading in excess of 300. And finally Zaheer's spell during England's batting power play when everything seemed lost for the men in blue and the Bangalore crowd was a wonderfully written action piece on the subject how to make the ball talk! Give me one strong - foolproof - argument for why one of those deserved to be at the smiling end of the game, I will provide two such arguments for the others. I rest my case.

Shifting focus to those who pooh-pooh cricket, cricketers and cricket watchers, especially those with such craftily contrived undertones that debunk cricket every time they delight in praising the sport they owe allegiance to, what would they have thought of yesterday's tie? Well, if one of them said not much I would not be very surprised. But sample this: how precious can "same scores" be in a game of football played for 90 minutes and a few more of extra time if scores are level at the end of the 90? Even the most fervent football fan may have to mutter a "not much" because scoring goals is a devilishly hard task compared to getting wickets, let alone runs, for which reason a tie may actually be the more default result in that sport. Tennis? There is a tie-breaker that eventually resolves a tie, so tennis does not even allow itself to know what a tie feels like to its players and fans.

Enter cricket: even if we stick just to One-day internationals, we are still speaking of about seven hours of play. A wide here, a leg-bye there, an ungainly slog somewhere, a poor umpiring decision or a run out in a crunch situation are all so commonplace in the game that they can spoil one team's party by the narrowest margins. Yet when the artifacts and the very nature of the game, which seem so besotted to discriminate rather than unite, do conspire to even things after hours of battle, the result is not even remotely like any other that cricket or other sports can dare to script. As Strauss rightly opined one must celebrate games like yesterday's: a "historic high", submerging the twin disappointments of not winning,  is what I imagine a tied cricket match gives to those who partake of its cusp of earth-bound perfectness. No wonder we have had only four ties in eleven World Cups! If a passionate hater of the game chooses to remain unconvinced still, I can readily understand. But if a highly educated detractor shakes his head wilfully, all I can offer is a quiet smile.

There is so much more I wanted to convey through this post but I surmise those thoughts can wait for another day. I shall end on a humorous note based on TheVenk's tweet which jocularly suggested that India and England should give their tie to some corporate person. I would fully agree with my friend for once, but with a small tweak to his suggestion: they should probably gift it to a Body Corporate which goes by the name International Cricket Council  as it would help immensely in ICC's bid to save the one-day game from dying a quick death.         

February 19, 2011

The Wait is over and the weight of expectations have begun!

After more than four lousy years the world cup is back. When it was announced a few years back that the sub-continent would be hosting the WC, i was in school telling my friends “No matter what happens, we should stay together and watch the world cup” The statement has become true to the extent that we are able to see the matches together on TV, thanks to the inflated ticket prices and food prices inside the stadium. We will get a spanking of our life if we asked for a 1000 from our parents for watching the match at Chepauk, added to the fact that i am supposed to be preparing for my IPCC exams in may, so that i wont be sitting jobless at home for another 6 months. Thank GOD! Me and one other friend were lucky enough to watch a lousy warm up match between SA vs ZIM, some dancing from Morkel and Ray Price blushing every time the crowd cheered his name :-D

   Within a few minutes the World Cup will be kicking off and I WILL have Goosebumps when the first ball is being bowled. World Cup gives me some fond memories. It was only in 2003 WC, I fell in love with the game and started playing it. I used to mimic “The Zaheer Khan jump”,  “The Shane Bond load up” and “The McGrath Approach to the wicket” That’s how i learnt the game.

  However, the next WC in the Caribbean in 2007 didnt quite live up to the standards SA had set in hosting the previous WC. It was not just that the Indians got kicked in the middle out of the first round but it produced some pretty boring matches and hell a lot of controversies. Damn! I hated watching the Aussies dominating every other team, not that WC 2003 was any different :-D

   Now that the tournament has finally comeback to the place where people know their cricket team captain and not their president, I hope it is a success :-P At the same time it is really disappointing and annoying to see Chepauk hosting no “important” matches and Why should it always have to be Mumbai that gets the cake! Why not a Feroz Shah Kotla? Why not an Eden Gardens? Or even the only ground SL play cricket in “The Premadasa” hahaha :-D

  As far as the team winning the title, I’ll tell where my money is not definitely with, Australia! They are only a shadow of themselves now. Goodness gracious me! They were trembling in front of the spinners. We witnessed something which was not new, Mr Punter complaining about the pitch or the saltless salad he had at dinner! If you are expecting the Aussies to comeback like they did last time when they lost 3-0 to NZ and dominated the WC 2007, it aint happening.

NZ, hmm what shall I say?! They’ve gone from “one of the worst” to “The worst”, talk about loosing 4-0 to Bangladesh. Their usual Semifinal exit looks like a villain’s chance to win over Rajni! They are not going beyond Quarters. WI have tough competition with Bangladesh and Ireland to make it to even the Quarters let alone winning the cup!

  Like every other WC, SA are once again favorites to lift the cup. One could light up a colony with tube lights with the number of “chokes” they’ve committed. Ghosh! They made me cry in 1999! Every time an ICC event happens they make their fans go into depression! 

The Teams I think, will have great a chance are India, Srilanka and England. I say India purely because of the talent they’ve got, the lesser the hype, the better they’ll perform; Srilanka because they won it when it was last held in the subcontinent. Let’s face it, they play all their cricket in a city which has 3 grounds, a ground near the beach and another somewhere in the middle of the jungle and score truck loads of runs. There would also be one lousy camera man showing us crows, which we see plenty here in Chennai and the same old places like they are showing it for the first time.  Personally I dont like the SL cricket team but I hate to admit that they have a nice chance this time! I would fall into an abyss of depression if they actually manage to win it. England are probably the most balanced side in the tournament and the last ICC event they played, they ended up taking the spoils.

  Oops! I almost forgot Pakistan. That has been the case for the past few years, hasn’t it? They can turn from paupers to prince and then back to paupers again in just a single innings. Winning or making it to the business end of the tournament would be nothing short of a miracle!

  I simply dont care who takes the title as long as it is not SL but it would be all the more special if India end up winning it because that would be the best retirement gift that the master blaster will ever get!

February 9, 2011

The Verdict: My Opinion!

I am not a lawyer and I do not understand what the suspension clauses of the sentences to Salman Butt and Mohammad Asif mean. I also do not understand the hue and cry from some quarters about how the punishment given to Butt is lenient and the one handed down to young Mohammad Amir is too harsh. In any case, the ICC tribunal headed by Michael Belof (QC) has, I am confident, gone through the case as carefully as possible and even made sure they have not jumped into conclusions taking time before passing the verdict. And I am fully in support of it.

The wheels of judiciary will, however, recommence in two directions. The players would most likely appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (Switzerland) against the bans imposed by the ICC. Plus there is the complication of the case pending against the players by the British Crown in London. Subtracting the legalese, what this means is we have not seen the end of this sad spot-fixing drama nor have we seen the last of these three players in terms of the present case. Be that as it may, it is important to look into the implications of the judgments handed out in the case for the general health of cricket at large and ICC in especial.

From Ian Chappell to Giden Haigh to individual cricket boards to sometimes the average cricket fan, just about everyone concerned with the game has had a slingshot at the International Cricket Council, pooh-poohing it as an organisation that, to put it short, is good for nothing. On the one hand there is this prevailing impression, one which does have a grain of truth in it, that the ICC as the game’s official governing body is not making enough crucial decisions and not making them assertively enough, giving room for powerful and notorious member boards to exercise their own muscle power in the running of the game. The lack of a firm stand by the ICC on the (non-)use of UDRS is a case in point and has come under the hammer recently from cricket analysts, players and former players alike as the Indian team, backed by an unhealthily potent BCCI, continues to deny its use for reasons the world and its uncle cannot fathom.

Allowing teams to play local and international games arbitrarily outside of the FTP window, lack of monitoring over the increased number of one-sided pitches around the world, failing to clamp down more stringently on drug abuse in the game and mishandling of corruption are only some of the important issues the ICC has been found wanting in. That ICC’s top jobs have increasingly had a political slant to them with someone like Sharad Powar at the Presidency, and John Howard’s Vice-Presidency candidature splitting the cricket world right down the middle, have only contributed to exacerbating matters.

In this context, the ICC’s efforts in leading the charges of corruption against the three Pakistani cricketers to their logical conclusion were as necessary a few months back as they are commendable now. That the ICC has had at its helm a CEO like Haroon Lorgat, who is at once a discreet administrator but a forthright speaker, as the fixing controversies raised their ugly hood again after ten years is probably a blessing. Irrespective of whether the verdicts stay as they are or are modified after appeals or are completely overturned, the tribunal’s judgments against the discredited Pakistani trio could yet turn out to be a landmark in ICC history as an example of the governing body’s no-nonsense attitude against corruption.

Although I feel for Amir, and a lot of fans (including many Indians, surprisingly) who thought he was the next young Pakistani fast-bowling magician in the making, his surprise at being given a five year ban for bowling “just two no-balls” rings more rhetorically than sensibly to me; and in the process it also rings with that inalienable “convenient” tune of our times, the hesitancy to square up to one’s mistakes and accept them even at the brink of disaster.

The issue that is at stake is not whether an inconsequential illegal delivery was bowled or whether a match was deliberately lost; if that were all at stake then the amount of attention given to the case by the ICC and cricket fans, leave alone an ever-hyped and –hyping world media, would seem absurd. The issue is one of principle, of upholding fairness as one of the most important virtues of the game not in the least because it is belief in the game’s fairness and its tendency to even things out that makes heartbroken fans still come back after a depressing loss and route for their team. Violation of that fairness, even if only for something miniscule and even if for money that is not somebody else’s daily meal, is a violation of the spirit of the national flannels one plays in, of the unspoken trust that connects a sportsperson with other sportspersons and the world that worships him, and of sport’s greatness in general. Sport, as is often believed, does not test only human strengths; it also tests whether one can tide over one’s weaknesses and in that respect Butt and Asif are perhaps more to be blamed than the rookie Amir but none of them is above the game. It is also sad that three Pakistani cricketers, three of their better ones arguably, were caught red-handed at a time when Pakistani cricket was already in doldrums. But examples needed to be set and one hopes the judgments have sent out the right signals to the generation of young and upcoming cricketers.

In less than two weeks, the attention will shift inevitably from these and other issues to the 2011 Cricket World Cup, as the one-day game’s most coveted prize returns to the sub-continent after fourteen years. Even as one prays that it should not be the Australians lifting the cup for a staggering fourth time in a row, I will settle for a tournament where cricket alone will talk: if that is ensured, whoever wins it is a secondary issue. I would obviously love it if India goes on to win it but the tournament’s conduct is far more important than its eventual result.