April 27, 2011

Another from the Dark Continent!

Gary Kirsten might have had the style of a standing duck, which even traumatised someone like Andy Zalzman, second in ugliness only to Shivnarine Chanderpaul's. But the bloke could play, mind you: a one-day internationals' average of close to forty-one and a test average of over forty-five, which could have been even better had he not played frequently in the bouncy and pacy decks in his country, puts the issue beyond doubt. Dogged in defence, fierce in determination, fuel-efficient with his cover-drive rather than flamboyant as left-handers generally are, Kirsten channelled his aggression through more attritional means than any apparent artistry of method. Perhaps - coincidence or not - Kirsten was the beginning of an end, at once a throwback to an earlier and darker era of civil struggle as his utter lack of extravagance - even while hitting sixes - suggested, and a vanguard of the new, competitive times, yes, with quotas in place, but only to ensure a level playing field for those who had been formerly disadvantaged. And I personally cannot forget the fact, although it irritated me then, that when world-class batsmen still struggled to play on turning wickets in India, Gary Kirsten succeeded and it was a tribute to his technique, as ungainly as it looked, and mental toughness.

No doubt, those qualities and that background served Kirsten admirably during his extremely successful tenure as the coach of the Indian cricket team, one of the more demanding jobs in the sports circuit, which ended with the World Cup triumph. As a coach, Kirsten could have hardly hoped for a better farewell. He had arrived after the abrasive Greg Chappell who had left rookies clueless, veterans hurt and the Indian team directionless. He departed being hoisted on the shoulders of one from the young Indian brigade - visibly awkward, being the quintessential worker satisfied with the intensity of the work behind the scenes - a moment as poignant as Tendulkar's holding the cup with his son and daughter by his side or a head-shorn Indian captain posing with it the next day. I have always maintained that coaches and captains are only as good as their teams. And yet, Kirsten was a name never forgotten during the post-World Cup celebrations. That probably spoke volumes about Kirsten, the man, model and mentor. It is time to thank him for what he's done to transform a bunch of aspiring cricketers, both young and really old, into World Champions. It is also time to wish him well.

The man who has been called up to replace Gary Kirsten is a former England coach, a man who like Kirsten also comes from Africa, Duncan Fletcher. The comparison must, however, end with the continent from which they hail. If Kirsten appeared to be a dressing room version of Mahindra Singh Dhoni, cool, calm and collected, Fletcher was always reported to be passionate, opinionated, sometimes controversial and in a word un-English. But the Zimbabwean had his moments. During his seven years in charge of the England team, Fletcher presided over many memorable moments, most notably the Ashes win in 2005, and some real nadirs, the lowest probably being the revenge whitewash meted out by McGrath and company to the visiting Englishmen in 2007 and yet-another-hardly-surprising early exit for England from a world cup during the same year. So, it is not like Fletcher is an unknown; he is neither new  to the ebbing and flowing fortunes of cricket and cricketers in our time nor to the task of coaching an international outfit. But coaching the Indian cricket team would in terms of the sheer magnitude of the assignment - especially now that the Indians are World Champions as well - be nothing like anything Fletcher might have encountered during his time with England. Even that sounds like an understatement. 

Michael Vaughan apparently tweeted about Fletcher's discomfiture when it comes to handling the media on hearing about his appointment as Indian coach. The classy Yorkshire right-hander is right on the mark because there are few more impossible propositions in the world than facing the Indian media. Strauss' article about what Duncan Fletcher did for England is insightful and speaks of Fletcher as a man who commands respect and is meticulous about details. Doubtless, those are excellent attributes to have as a coach. But Harsha Bhogle sounded a right note of caution about the well-known Indian obsession for track records (read "statistics"), cricket fans and administration being no exception to the norm: Kirsten had an international record to be proud of. John Wright had had a respectable international career to. Greg Chappell's status as a fine modern-day batsman, irrelevant his standing as a coach, can hardly be questioned either. Duncan Fletcher, however, has not played any test cricket and had a reasonable one-day career which was brief. Despite that background, BCCI's decision to choose Fletcher on coaching reputation alone seems both admirable and sensible, even if a little surprising. But only time will tell whether the decision will stand Indian cricket in good stead (and I refer to more than merely victory-defeat ratio by that).

Fletcher has been given a two-year contract which once again seems like a reasonable move, but will start only after the Indian tour of the West Indies. Ironically, the first international tour the new Indian coach will be part of will be the tour of England after the tour of the West Indies. Fletcher's experience in England may come in handy there. Later this year, the Indians also tour Australia and it may be the last time we see Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman bat together Downunder. With Australian cricket undergoing transition and the Indian team looking at one in a summer or two, this will be India's best chance of a test series win in Australia. Fletcher himself would know that well. But his real challenge would come, especially if his contract is renewed, when the three of the Fab Four start calling time one after another. Given that Fletcher helped England, skippered by a fiery Nasser Hussain, from the brink of disaster to Ashes glory, overseeing an "encore", in this case with the Indian team, should not be a problem, albeit the likes of Dravid, Laxman and Tendulkar are irreplaceable. Fletcher's biggest cushion would be a calm and successful captain without an ego who is going to be around for a while by the looks of it. That's always a nice thing and here's hoping Duncan Fletcher makes a good beginning for, with and in team India.

April 7, 2011

Beyond the Victory Lap!

Every generation has its "cockahoop" or "high-five" moment (or variants thereof). And as far as sport and cricket in India is concerned, Kapil's Devils' unexpected storming of the World Cup in 1983, which had hitherto been the undisputed and unclaimed fortress of the men from the Caribean, is what my mother's generation, and to a lesser extent my father's, will remember as the event that changed cricket and the perception of it in the India. Sachin Tendulkar was a ten-year old boy then; I was twenty-one months from being born; my home was only one of four houses in all of what is today called Madipakkam; my grandfather's house had an Uptron black-and-white television; Marina beach was still clean; my father was in Calcutta; and one-day cricket was, besides the once-in-four-years Prudential-hosted tournament, considered by many as a passing fad.

Fast forward a better part of twenty-eight years and our own generation's cricket moment has come with an entourage of moments that will remain indelible forever: if skipper Dhoni's bottom hand "deposition" over mid-wicket reminded us of the maverick who had specialised in finishing games with sixes before becoming captain, Tendulkar's being paraded on Yusuf Pathan's shoulders is something no Indian fan, let alone a Mumbaikar, will ever forget. Gautam Gambhir's dive during his over-my-dead-body innings of 97, which is as uncharacteristic as a Sehwag forward-defensive, that signified the importance and desperation fuelling India's most important one-day chase in years, Man of the Series Yuvraj Singh's deserving presence in the middle when the winning runs were "thrashed", the scenes at the Wankhede stadium and Ravi Shastri's ear-shattering screams, without which no Indian victory, however small, seems complete these days, will remain with us till sunset. Some may say that for a country with one billion people and A Sachin Tendulkar and one which is as mad about cricket as Europe is about soccer, if not more, twenty-eight years is a long wait. But now that the wait is over, it is time to sit and revel in a fine team effort.

A lot has been written about the role of Captain Cool and Coach Low-Profile in newspapers and websites in India's winning the World Cup. Almost every player, present or former, who has spoken about the victory has hailed Kirsten's role behind the scenes and Dhoni's role on it. The captain-coach duo deserves every bit of the laudation they have received. However, I have always been of the belief that a captain and coach is only as good as the team; to put it differently, a team may be skippered by a genius and coached by an astute person but it is the results on the field that will be feted or stigmatised and in that sense the Indian team as a whole stepped upto the plate.

Nowhere was the Indian resurgence more evident than in the form and intent of Yuvraj Singh who some said looked like he was pregnant during last year's IPL and who, to make matters worse, lost his place in the one-day clothes six months before the World Cup. To hit one of your lowest nadirs before a tournament of great importance and to emerge as the Man of the Series in the tournament, with four Man of the Match awards to boot, is the stuff of legend. Not for nothing therefore did coach Kirsten call Yuvraj's turnaround as one of the most amazing comebacks he's witnessed in the world of sport. And as one part of the world continued to bother and the rest wonder about when he would retire, Tendulkar reserved his two centuries for two of the better teams in the tournament in England and South Africa, besides setting up a sterling run chase versus Australia in the Quarter Finals and running up a fortune-assisted eighty-odd in the semi-final clash against Pakistan that took India into their second world cup finals in the last three attempts. Sehwag had earlier set the tone for the tourney in initimitable style with the blitzkireg 175 versus Bangladesh in what was labelled a revenge encounter for the 2007 sting and though he did not do much afterwards apart from presenting the world some astonishing cameos, Suresh Raina more than made up down the order when he got the chance towards the end of the tournament. Kohli too began the tournament with a hundred against Bangladesh and although he did not quite reach those heights again he reminded us throughout the tournament that he's a young man who will decorate the Indian middle order for some years to come. The signs for Indian cricket, at least in the shorter formats, remains bright. 

In the bowling department, it was interesting to hear bowling coach Eric Simmon's refer to Munaf Patel as an "unsung hero". Often has the medim pacer's temperament been questioned in the past, including by this author, but Patel came up with a steady performance that should not be glossed over in the final analysis. Ashish Nehra, though plagued by injuries, delivered his bit to the team whenever he played while Ravichandran Ashwin showed why he is Dhoni's talisman by bowling both economically and successfully whenever his captain asked him to open the bowling. All said, Harbhajan Singh was a disappointment for me although he looked to be coming into his own during the knock-out stages of the tournament. People have said a lot about Sreesanth - some unfortunately going to the extent of getting personal in ways that do not go well as far as I am concerned - and the Kerala pacer would know that he did not do much in the couple of games he got. I personally believe that Sreesanth is more of a test-type bowler, especially suited for conditions where the ball swings a touch. The game-breaker, though, for me  (except during the finals where Jayawardena's enviable artistry and Perera's calculated rush undid his unbelievable first spell which comprised five overs which seemed McGrathian and three maidens for a farthing!) was Zaheer Khan. If the ball that bowled Michael Hussey in the Quarter Finals was one of the balls of the tournament, the Yorker to dismiss Strauss on 158 arguably tops the list. Although a lot more expensive than the tournament's other leading wicket-taker, Shahid Afridi, Khan struck almost always when Dhoni brought him back before the ball change.

I did not see enough of the matches to assess the ground fielding but everyone seems to be of the consensus, especially now that the Indians have won the cup, that after sleepwalking through the league games, the boys really turned the screws in the knockout stage. Far too often in the past, the Indians have peaked too early going into tournaments and run out off steam at the half-way stage. But during this World Cup, it seemed like everything including their worst suit, the ground fielding, was 'destined' to peak at the right time. It was heartening to see Yuvraj Singh remind the younger turks Raina and Kohli as to how good he can be on the field and why he had made backward point his own position for many years. The inspiring yards, however, came from the older legs like Tendulkar and Zaheer Khan who also threw themselves with childlike joy and commitment to stop whatever runs they could, something that might have been invaluable during the final three games of the tournament.

Just before the start of 2010 the Indians received the number 1 test ranking and it seemed like they had hoodwinked the Proteas with the unsought help of nonsensical ranking technicalia in getting there. But there can be no such grudges with regard to the Indians winning the World Cup. As a skipper, Dhoni, as Venk aptly said, seems to have the Midas' touch: aside from having the T20 World Cup trophy and World Cup trophy in his cabinet, he has led the number 1 ranked team in the world well for over a year. No wonder, he now says he would love to repeat what he has accomplished. I generally refuse to get drawn into the debate of "best versus others" but I acknowledge the fact that Dhoni is amongst the best skippers we have had. His record vouches for that and as with most things in life Dhoni's ways are grounded in two simple traits (though to have them in the heat of battle makes him commendable): calm decision-making and backing his instincts even if he knows that the world (which the Indian media and spectators sometime appear like) will go hell for leather if he fails.

However - and I admit this also has to do with my being a nostalgia freak - some past greats cannot be forgotten during this glorious hour even though they were not part of this outfit. A decade ago when the match-fixing allegations rocked the cricket world and the Indian team needed an inspirational leader, it was Sourav Ganguly's mercurial personality and captaincy that gave the Indians a new attitude. While standing at Indian cricket's greatest summit, though some may dislike the superlative, we cannot forget Dada's contribution. Another great who never came close to winning a World Cup, and in my opinion the greatest cricketer India has produced, but whose commitment to the team cause, prodigious ability to bear pain and sincerity amid trials is second to none deserves a mention too: this World Cup is as much a gift to Anil Radhakrishna Kumble as it is to Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar. They shelved Rahul Dravid from the one-day plans long ago and despite emotional biases I must say he may not have contributed much to this team: but as a man who kept wickets under Ganguly's captaincy for close to four years, all for the sake of team balance, exemplifying the ultimate spirit of being a team man and who for all the slings he has received averages close to forty in one-day cricket, I missed Rahul. Laxman's case is worse; in a fast man's game, Laxman's swiftness, or lack thereof, has meant that the Hyderabadi's incredible on-drives and silken cover-drives have not been seen in the one-day game for a long time. This World Cup is an ode, though, for the Bangalore-Hyderabad duo too as well as others who have given their best for Indian cricket in whichever form.

And why not?! When I, an Indian fan who has not held a bat for six years now, get a beer at 3 a.m. and celebrate the Indian victory with my German roommate whose only route to understanding cricket is through its likeness to baseball, feeling as if I have won something, every Indian who has done the hard yards on the field only to never end up where Dhoni and his men deservedly can deserve to feel proud about what they did wearing the Indian blues at some point in time in their lives.

And now that the cup is won, my favourite part of the cricket calendar awaits: no, NOT the IPL, but beyond: tours to the West Indies, England and Australia! I don't think India has toured any two of those countries during the same year in the twenty-six years I have been alive. It will be fun, and the Indians will be touted to win the tests and one-day series in these countries. Unless they play very poorly, they will probably meet those expectations. After all, they are now the WORLD CHAMPS!                  


April 5, 2011

We are on top of the world!


This is probably the moment everyone had waited for,“The World Cup” and let me tell this, it wasn’t quite surprising to see these teams, India and Sri Lanka, in the final. Before the WC began, i wrote a post on the teams that have a nice chance of winning it. Here is a small excerpt

“The Teams I think, will have great a chance are India, Srilanka and England. 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!”  

Two things are quite clear. No 1: I cant be more wrong about the England team. No 2: It boiled down to Sachin’s retirement gift and my hatred towards SL cricket. I have been dissing Sri Lankan cricketers for quite a time and despise everything Sri Lankan. I feel there is an aura of ‘OC’inness surrounding them.

  The thing I really liked about this world cup was the rise of the Irish. They really deserve to play cricket with top teams.The fact that there would be only 10 teams in 2015 is downright demoralising and unfair on the associate members and it aint helping spreading cricket. If there is any other team Whom i would have wanted to get the booty, it would’ve been Pakistan. The way Afridi handled after they lost to us was simply amazing. Such a brave heart he was and so gracious in defeat! I wish “others” take an ode from Shahid’s behaviour.

It really left a bad taste in the mouth when Sangakkara, who is the most diplomatic bugger you would ever see said he didnt know what he said at the toss when we clearly know he said ‘Tails” and lost it. The guy talk bollocks to the press how great a player is and then drop him in the match! Why dont you say it on the face you moron! We beat far more tougher teams on our way to final than what SL did, playing at the same pitch for the both the quarters and semis and never came out of little cozy home barring a match against NZ.

Let me tell you something, the thing I am going to try now is probably one of the hardest things for me do. Looking at SL without any bias. I promise that I tried my best but excuse if I slip up because it’s bound to happen :-P

  Looking at World Cups right from 1996, there has been no turning back for Sri Lanka. 1996 - winners, 2003 – semi-finals, 2007 and 2011– runners . They’ve been pretty consistent in World cups. They’ve always had these freakish players who changed the game for the good. Starting from Sanath’s over the top hitting to Randiv’s “I wont bend my back and bowl” style. They’ve got this X-factor around them that probably makes them get where they are right now. When someone leaves another freak comes by and takes his place.

Mendis for example bowls a style of bowling that is called “Soddukku” in local terms. There are so many bowlers around here in Chennai who can do what Mendis does. If you walk around a few streets you can see bowlers with a slingy action like Malinga’s playing there. The problem is we tamper too much of one’s own technique and Lankans dont, that is their strength. Another thing they are good at is using their resources. They have so many mediocre cricketers and yet they perform well! Lets take the case of Angelo Mathews’ bowling. The guy opens the bowling and does a decent job! I am really clueless as to how a bowler like Angelo manage to contain the batsmen. But they do pull it off with other players like Thisara Perrera, the guy couldn’t bat for life when he played for CSK. He opens the bowling (Angelo –type) and also bats lower down and scores runs! They keep on doing this!

I wouldn’t hesitate to say we truly deserve to be at the top of the food chain! Considering we lost Sachin and Sehwag cheaply, played Sreesanth and yet manage to win it comfortably, chasing the highest number of runs in a World cup final and become the first home team to win the Title. Boy! Didn’t Dhoni find the right stage to score that 90 odd runs. Respect to Dhoni, not because he won us the world cup but because he had the guts to accept that he played with the pressure that he would be asked about Sreesanth’s inclusion if India failed.

It was really funny how Virat Kohli managed to get into every shot of the camera man after we won the world cup! The guy is so thrilled to see him on TV. I mean, he fields a ball and the next moment he watches the big screen! Dont give the “He is seeing how his technique is” crap. Wherever the camera goes Virat follows :-) Whatever, everything is forgiven and all these 15 players ( including Sreesanth) will be immortal in the annals of Indian cricket.

Kiwis proved they had wings but they cant fly; Saffers lit another tube light with their recent “Choke”; Poms proved they aren’t far away from the Saffers, after all there are so many South Africans in their team; Aussies came know how it feels to be at the other end of the boot; Pakistan lost the match but they won hearts and Afridi proved he bowls faster than Nehra; Windies continued to disappoint; Irish showed us some pride; Yuvraj rose from the ashes to become the Man of Tournament; Zaheer became India’s best of bowler in the tournament perhaps at the moment, he is the best we have; Dhoni proved why he is a Midas and finally the Master Blaster got his hands on his dream.

It was as if every fan had won the cup! Winning the most prestigious thing in the sport in front of your home crowd is something out of the world. For once I forgot how much I hated Sri Lankan but remembered how much I loved India. The Prize to the players for the winning the world cup, 1 crore but the joy in the faces of a billion when they did it, simply PRICELESS!