Tag Archives: Indian Cricket

God and the Argumentative Indian

This article first appeared in DNA on 11 Oct 2013 in two parts: Part-1 and Part-2

I once had the opportunity to travel from Mumbai to Singapore with Raj Singh Dungarpur. He was on his way to New Zealand as a representative of the BCCI at an ICC meeting. During our conversation, I asked him what his best decision was. Almost before I could finish my question he said, “Selecting Sachin Tendulkar to play for India,” and added with a twinkle in his eye, “although if you had seen him play as often I had, it wasn’t really a risky decision. It was bold, but not risky. And mark my words, any investment in Tendulkar will always pay off.”

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Raj Singh Dungarpur, Akash Lal, Ramesh Saxena, Gundappa Viswanath and Naren Tamhane selected a young, bright-eyed, squeaky-voiced, curly-haired teenager to represent India in Pakistan. A young and determined 16-year old Sachin Tendulkar played against a tough Pakistan team on 15 November 1989; a Pakistan team that had three genuine pace bowlers (in Wasim Akram, Wakar Younis and Imran Khan) and a world-class leg-spinner (in Abdul Qadir).

Almost twenty four years after that bold decision, Tendulkar will retire from International cricket after having played 200 Test matches.

And in these 24 years, almost as often as we have heard the chant “Saaaaaachin Saaaaaachin” we have also had Tendulkar embody the very essence of the argumentative Indian. Rahul Bhattacharya captures this beautifully in his piece “Man-child superstar” in which he writes:

“If the strokes are flowing, spectators feel something beyond pleasure. They feel something like gratitude. The silence that greets his dismissal is about the loudest sound in sport. With Tendulkar the discussion is not how he got out, but why. Susceptible to left-arm spin? To the inswinger? To the big occasion? The issue is not about whether it was good or not, but where does it rank? A Tendulkar innings is never over when it is over. It is simply a basis for negotiation. He might be behind headphones or helmet, but outside people are talking, shouting, fighting, conceding, bargaining, waiting. He is a national habit.”

*****

Tendulkar never promised us that he would lead India to victory in every match he played. Yet, we wanted him to. No. We expected him to. No. We made him mortal if he did not. We expected more from Tendulkar than we did, from even our politicians.

Tendulkar never promised that, at 40, he would produce the fluent strokes he played when he was 28. Yet, we always expected ‘the Tendulkar of old’ or ‘the Tendulkar of 1998’. We could, of course, purchase a DVD of the famous ‘Desert Storm’ series and see that Tendulkar of old. But that wasn’t enough. It was as though even time stood still when we evaluated Tendulkar. We could not accept an ageing Tendulkar and watch the Tendulkar of now. For the argumentative Indian, if Tendulkar did not reproduce his shots from 1998, he did not deserve to be in the team in 2013.

Tendulkar himself never promised us that all his centuries would be made in ‘winning causes’. Yet we expected his centuries to always result in India wins (or else those centuries wouldn’t count, or we labeled him a selfish cricketer).

Tendulkar himself never claimed he was God. But, we made him God and then the rest of us brought him down. Bit by bit.

In the end analysis though, in a country that is somewhat bereft of (sporting) heroes, Tendulkar, the hero, has outlasted the argumentative Indian, crafted a career without a single blemish and stood as a beacon of hope and a giver of pleasure.

Perhaps that is the mark of (his) greatness in the Indian context. Greatness in sport in India is perhaps not defined by the heady confluence of elegance, balance, poise, grace, technique, focus, determination, power, dominance, imperiousness, confidence, occasional arrogance, consistency, longevity, awareness and intent. He has been all of that over a long career. He has had all of those qualities over an extensive and distinguished career. Perhaps greatness in the Indian sporting context has to be marked by violent disagreements on the very essence of that greatness; what exactly that greatness is about. His greatness should have been automatically assured. Yet in India, Tendulkar has always polarized opinion. And that, perhaps, ought to be the accepted definition of greatness in a country that needs heroes but is equally eager to tear them down and ‘cut them down to size’ every now and then.

*****

Sachin Tendulkar announced his retirement from all forms of cricket on Thursday, 10-10-2013. The fact that he had always worn the Number 10 India jersey may have had something to do with the timing of his retirement on this day. Or maybe it was the TEN that prefixed his surname which, in turn, may have earned him the number 10 jersey early on in his career.

The one other date that may have worked better for him — from the point of view of the numbers — would have been 10-10-10. If he had retired on 10 October 2010, he may have retired some five years too early. Indeed, on that very day, he was 44 not out at Bangalore against the visiting Australians. He went on to make a beautifully crafted 214 in that match. If he had retired on 10-10-10, we would have also missed his majestic 146 that he made at Cape Town on 4 January 2011. That Cape Town knock was his last Test century although, after that, he did come close to the 3-figure mark on a few occasions: a 91 (against England at the Oval in 2011) a 94 (against West Indies in Mumbai in 2011), a beautifully crafted 73 (against Australia at the MCG in 2011) a 76 (against England at the Eden Gardens in 2012) and an 81 (against Australia at Chennai in 2013).

So, on 10-10-2013, he has, in my view, retired two years too early. I say that although I am confident that my view is going to be questioned quite soundly and ridiculed significantly.

But that is what you get when you have an opinion on Tendulkar. There is no middle ground. You are either pro- or anti-Tendulkar. He polarizes opinions like no other champion players does (particularly in India).

As Siddhartha Vaidyanathan says in a post on Tendulkar, “What pains me is how a large part of discourse on the Internet is so limited to black and white. You are apparently either for Sachin or against him. If you question his place in the side, you are a moron who has no right to express an opinion or an ignorant bum who has never held a bat in his life or someone with a vested interest.”

*****

For all talk that he didn’t care about numbers and statistics, numbers did seem to matter to the man; or at least to the people around him who had a stake in him — and many did. So the choice of 10-10-2013 to announce his retirement was possibly deliberately crafted and carefully constructed like the 241* he made in Sydney in January 2004.

Numbers may not have mattered to the man, but they did to the industry around the man. And there is an industry around the man; an industry that seems filled with brand merchants, product architects, advertising honchos and people who launch things.

Perhaps I ought to have said ‘there was an industry around him’.

I would, if I can bring myself to talk about God in the past tense.

I cannot. At least, not yet.

Numbers did seem to matter. He worked hard to get to that 200th Test. Whether he did so because he wanted to, himself, or because of the people who had invested in him who had a vested interest in prolonging his career, we will never know. But it had been an open secret for far too long that he would play on until his 200th Test and that that 200th Test would be played in India. Indeed, it was the worst kept secret in the Indian cricket landscape; an environment that seems to have a steady growth — and not a decline — in innuendo and secret handshakes and less and less of assured planning and fact.

That his retirement in a home series was engineered so blatantly by his cricket Board just makes the cricket world sit up again and wonder at the beast at the ICC table that we Indian fans have created; the ogre that we continually endure and support.

*****

So how did you feel when you heard of the news of Tendulkar’s retirement?

Me? Although I sensed, since the start of this year that Tendulkar would retire after his 200th Test and even though I was prepared for the announcement, I felt a numbness when I heard the news. I cannot imagine an India Test team without Tendulkar. I cannot quite bring myself to accept that someone else will now walk in at the fall of the second wicket.

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There was always a calm sense of assurance that Sachin Tendulkar would walk to the middle at the fall of the second wicket; that he would walk down the pavilion steps (or ramp), look skyward, squeeze his eyes, walk purposefully to the wicket, take guard and perform his pre-stance box adjustment routine.

That was assurance. It gave me comfort.

And I cannot yet bring myself to accept that the now famous and always assuring pre-stance box-adjustment routine will now be replaced by the vigorous bat twirl and ‘inside of the helmet visor wipe’ routine that belongs to Virat Kohli.

That acceptance may happen too, only because it must.

Tendulkar had given me — and many others like me — much joy in the 1990s when India got routinely thrashed all around the world. He gave me cause to celebrate because of the way he played the game. His cricket was simple, uncomplicated and beautiful. His cricket was untainted and joyous. His cricket was pure.

I had watched with admiration and pride as he grew in stature: he was first a kid playing in the midst of grown-ups, then a boy, then a lad, then a man and then, a God in his country and then, a statesman in world cricket. He did not want to be a God, mind you. We made him God. And the same people who made him God cruelly called him Endulkar in 1996 2006 when he was going through a rough patch, as all human beings must (and do).

But that was us fans. This God did have clay feet. Sometimes.

In the end, however, there was only one constant. He had always played the beautiful game with the same wide-eyed enthusiasm. He only wanted to play. He knew no other life.

*****

I had watched him score 119* in Manchester. Yes, that innings that really announced his arrival on the world stage. I was in England in those days. A few months later, I moved to Australia and there, I watched every ball he faced when he made 148 in Sydney in January 1992 in the company of Ravi Shastri. But more importantly, a month later, I watched in awe, with pride and a growing sense of admiration as he braved the pace of Craig McDermott, Merv Hughes, Paul Rieffel, Mike Whitney and Tom Moody when he made 114 in Perth. I had watched the young boy grow up to be a man and then, a legend. All in the space of 18 months. During that defining Perth innings, a boy wonder had become a man. That is, to date, the best innings I have watched Tendulkar play.

Or is it?

Was it that 241* in Sydney in 2004? Or the 111 in Johannesburg in November 1992? Or the 177 in Nottingham in 1996? Or the 169 in Cape Town in 1997? Or the 155* against Australia in Chennai in 1998? Or the 155 in Bloemfontein in 2001? Or the 193 in Leeds in 2002? Or the 194* in Multan in 2004? Or the 154* in Sydney in that Test in 2008?

There are too many wonderful knocks to list. But talk about the best Tendulkar innings always polarizes opinions, like talk about the man himself. And that is what you get by having an opinion on Tendulkar. There is no unique answer. Was that 241* his best or was it that 194*?

Perhaps that is the point about greatness. We can’t quit agree on what constitutes greatness, although there can’t be much doubt on greatness itself.

*****

And then there were the endless debates on whether Tendulkar played for himself or for his team. Siddhartha Vaidyanathan wrote on “Tendulkar and the ‘clutch’ question”  in which he quotes his friend Jay, who said: “Most fans agree on what is a big game and what is not. There comes a time during these big games when most fans smell the moment, the moment when the game is balancing on the finest of threads. I have seen Tendulkar occasionally sense the moment and pounce on it, imposing his greatness on the occasion. But I feel I’ve seen him not seize these moments more often.”

Perhaps these arguments would never have happened if Tendulkar had finished the game off and won that Chennai Test against Pakistan in 1999. What that ignores is that there were a whole bunch of players who could have stayed with and helped a bruised Tendulkar win that game for India.

Perhaps these arguments won’t have happened if Tendulkar hadn’t skied that McGrath bouncer in the 2003 World Cup final. What that ignores is that it was perhaps because of Tendulkar that India even reached the 2003 World Cup final.

Perhaps…

But that is also an integral part of Tendulkar’s greatness in a country that is only now getting used to thinking about greatness in cricket. Fans have to either criticize his 136 in Chennai against Pakistan for what he did not do, or celebrate it, for what he did.

*****

Many will say that Tendulkar had extended his stay; that he ought to have retired from all forms of the game on 2 April 2011. But he continued playing all three forms of the game after that day. It was not his responsibility to select himself in the team. To play was his choice; one we must always respect. He had earned it. But did we respect him? No. Arguments raged notwithstanding the fact that, of the four member middle-order who have retired in the last four years, India has only found stable and able replacements for Rahul Dravid (Cheteshwar Pujara) and VVS Laxman (Virat Kohli). Four years after his retirement, India still does not have a steady replacement for Sourav Ganguly after trying out Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina, S. Badrinath, Ajinkya Rahane and Ravindra Jadeja. All of these have only had mixed success.

Yet, we were keen to disrobe God although it was clearly the duty of the national selectors to have a chat to the man and talk to him about retirement — that is, if they wanted to replace him.

Did he overstay his welcome? No. As I indicated earlier, in my view, he still had a year or two of Test cricket left in him. The team has already seen the departure of Ganguly, Dravid, Laxman, Kumble and perhaps Sehwag and Zaheer Khan. These days, a team that loses all of its stalwarts in one fell swoop is called Australia which thought — somewhat arrogantly — that there is an endlessly rich talent pipeline that affords selectors the luxury of a brutal revolving door.

National sporting teams need to carefully nurture talent and this needs the hands of an artist and not the axe of a wood-chopper.

Of course, Tendulkar’s place in the Indian team has never really been questioned (even in 1996) except, perhaps marginally, in the last one year or so of his career. Tendulkar still seemed to love the game and every time he took the field, seemed to play the game with the same zest that I saw in Manchester some 22 years ago. And he can still hold that 2-down spot.

In his retirement announcement, Tendulkar says, “It’s hard for me to imagine a life without playing cricket because it’s all I have ever done since I was 11 years old.”

His job was to play. He knew nothing else.

*****

So, the debates will continue to rage. And I had one within 5 minutes of his retirement announcement. I thought that his best shot was the straight drive to a fast bowler. A colleague said it was the upper cut over the slips, back arched, eyes focused on ball, neck slightly inclined. Yet another said that it was the back foot drive through the covers. Another said it had to be the casual flick through deep square leg.

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We could not arrive at a meaningful conclusion. Perhaps one is not necessary.

We moved instead, to a discussion on his best innings ever. 241*, 194*, 111, 177, 155*… An hour later, with no conclusion in sight, we moved on to his best ODI innings ever. And so the night meandered on.

When an international sportsperson plays for as long as Sachin Tendulkar has, it is hard — nay, almost impossible — to pick out one specific shot, one specific innings, one specific moment. All of them were perhaps equally brilliant. All of them were crafted carefully. But more importantly, all of them were played by a young, enthusiastic, curly haired lad who loved the game, loved playing for India and wanted nothing more than to give pleasure to the people who watched him play.

Today, a day after the announcement, the numbness is gone. The sadness is gone. I only feel pleasure. Pleasure that I watched it all — from 1989 to 2013. Pleasure that I argued about him. For him. Pleasure that he enhanced the appreciation I have for the game. Pleasure that he was there as a beacon of hope  in 2000, a time when the match-fixing saga raged; a time when I thought I would abandon my support for the game I loved so much because I had learned that some of the men who played the game had played it to line their own pockets.

But then God was there. He did not know how to cheat or how to throw games. He could not be procured. And in the end, his love of the game is really the measure of his greatness. He played for the team always. He played for the fans who loved the game always. Throughout his life, he lived cocooned in the warm comfort of his home or on the cricket field. He knew of no other life other than cricket.

Meanwhile, the arguments will continue unabated…

— Mohan Krishnamoorthy (@mohank)

The author is an unabashed fan of cricket, tweets at @mohank and blogs at http://www.i3j3cricket.com and mohankaus.blogspot.com


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Changes to the Ranji Trophy… Not enough

The BCCI’s technical committee, which included former players, Saurav Ganguly and Roger Binny — along with ‘special invitee’, Anil Kumble — recently recommended an overhaul of the Ranji Trophy, India’s premier first-class tournament.

The Ranji Trophy currently has 27 teams divided into 2 Divisions; one called Elite with 15 teams and the other, the Plate, with 12 teams. The Elite league is split into two groups, one with 8 teams and the other with 7. The Plate league is split into two groups with 6 teams in each. A collection of teams from these groups then fight it out at the knock-out stage of the Ranji Trophy competition. The people who decided on this current structure either had a lot of fun, smoked a rare kind of weed or had a gun stuck to their heads (or all of the above)!

Thankfully, the BCCI’s Technical Committee suggested an overhaul of the Ranji structure. They have recommended the scrapping of the Elite and Plate divisions and have suggested a rearrangement of the 27 teams into three groups of nine each. I am sure the BCCI will come up with imaginative names for these three groups although PlateCup and Saucer are my initial offerings.  This is certainly not a bad suggestion by the Technical Committee. Indeed, I campaigned for a somewhat similar restructure nearly 5 years ago.

In my view, this current overhaul is a step in the right direction; but it not quite enough. There are several reasons why this is just not enough, in my view:

  • The Premier Division should contain fewer teams that play each other more often.
  • There is no reason for constructing the knock out competition in the manner suggested unless one is worried about elitism and a complaint from Ram Guha about the lack of adequate representation for the down-trodden.
  • The Ranji Trophy, the primer inter-State tournament in India and the tournament from which India gets to harvest the next generation of talent, lasts a bit over 2 months! The Sheffield Shield involves fewer teams and lasts close to 4 months.
  • There are way too many domestic tournaments that need to be squeezed into the calendar: Challengers, Corporate Cup, Irani Trophy, Ranji Trophy, Duleep Trophy, Deodhar Trophy, and the IPL.
  • The pitches should be result-oriented and the points should reward risks and outright wins far more than it currently does.

We have to assume that a league with less than 27 teams is just not feasible. Ideally, the league should have no more than 14 teams in two Divisions of 7 teams each. However, let us accept that, for a variety of political reasons, a league with a fewer number of teams is just not possible.

The best players in the competition ought to play more games against the best opposition. The reason why Australia produces a string of excellent quality players — especially bowlers — who appear to be International match-ready is, in my view, because of the intensity of the battle at the highest level. Australia’s Sheffield Shield has just six teams that play each other home and away.

In addition, the Ranji League ought to see many more result oriented pitches. Home and away games must be the norm. A 9-team league does not provide the luxury of structuring a home-away type competition.

The Technical Committee also made recommendations aimed at providing greater incentives for outright wins in the league matches. The current suggestion is that outright wins will be worth six points (as opposed to the current five) and the bonus point system (for ten-wicket wins or innings victories) will remain. This is not enough in my view. I agree with Aakash Chopra on this suggested change. A team that wins ought to get a purse of Rs 15 Lakh (a lakh per player) and teams that draw ought to receive just Rs 1.5 Lakh, say (ten thousand per player). We might then see teams behaving differently. The reward that is on offer might see teams take on different kinds of risks. I also think that the points system ought to be tweaked much more in favour of a win. I would have made a win worth 10 points.

The current model that has been suggested by the Working Committee is that

  • Nine teams from the three Divisions play each other once only.
  • The 3 top teams from Division-A the 3 top teams from Division-B and the 2 top teams from Division-C play in the knockout phase; a phase during which players from the remaining 19 teams twiddle their thumbs and prepare for the IPL!

There is no real justification for having a knockout stage constructed in this strange manner unless we want to (a) satisfy the romance of another Rajasthan happening, (b) give Aakash Chopra an opportunity to write another book and/or (c) keep Ramachandra Guha from picking up his pen once again in a show of anger at the lack of democratic representation!

The real problem I have with the suggestion that is on the table is that it does not promote a drive to excellence as much and as hard. It just does not go far enough in my view.

A different model:

I would like to see the BCCI Technical Committee consider a totally different model though:

  • Split the current 27 teams into 4 Divisions: Div-A (6 teams), Div-B (6 teams), Div-C (7 teams) and Div-D (8 teams).
  • Each team in Division-A and B play each other at Home and Away (a total of 30 games in A and B played over 10 ’rounds’ or a max of 10 weeks).
  • Teams in Division-C play each other once and 4 of the teams again (schedule constructed in much the same way as the IPL-4 schedule was constructed) thereby resulting in a total of 39 games in C played over 10 ’rounds’ or a max of 10 weeks.
  • Teams in Division-D play each other once and 3 of the teams again (schedule constructed in much the same way as the IPL-4 schedule was constructed) thereby resulting in a total of 46 games in D played over 10 ’rounds’ or a max of 10 weeks.
  • The top 4 teams from Division-A (A1, A2, A3, A4) play for the Ranji Division-A Finals in an AFL-style (IPL-style) finals series where the winner of the league stage gets two bites of the cherry to appear in the Ranji-A finals.
  • A5, A6, B1 and B2 play an elimination-style B-Finals series to decide: (a) The Ranji Division-B Winner and Ranji Division-B runner-up. These two teams will be A5 and A6 in the next year’s Ranji Trophy. The losers play in Division-B for the next season.
  • B5, B6, C1 and C2 play an elimination-style C-Finals series to decide (a) The Ranji Division-C Winner and Ranji Division-C runner up. These two teams will be B5 and B6 in the next year’s Ranji Trophy. The losers play in Division-C for the next season.
  • C6, C7, D1 and D2 play an elimination-style D-Finals series to decide (a) The Ranji Division-D Winner and Ranji Division-D runner up. These two teams will be C6 and C7 in the next year’s Ranji Trophy. The losers play in Division-D for the next season.

In the above format, each team plays the same number of games in the league stage. The league games happen over 10 rounds and the finals series for all four Divisions would involve 3 games (or 3 rounds). So, the overall competition would take 13 rounds or just under 3 months. In the model that I have suggested above, as many as 16 of the 27 teams are involved in the knockout phase of the competition. This retains interest in the competition. This continues the engagement and interest in the results. And the relegation/promotion battles ensure that there are result-oriented matches.

Yes, this makes the Ranji Trophy last a bit longer. But, in my view, this would add to the flavour of competition – particularly in the A and B Divisions.

The best players need to bubble through the system from the best teams. A (limited and controlled) free auto loan calculator movement of players between teams will ensure that we see the best players play for the best teams. The Ranji Trophy should be about the best players being identified, nurtured and prepared. The suggestion made above has a greater chance of identifying such talent than the proposal that is currently on the table.

I would like to see the Irani Trophy, Deodhar Trophy and the Corporate Cup scrapped. These serve no real purpose in my view. In its place, if the format suggested above is adopted, at the end of the season, each Division selects its best players. Players from Division-A, Division-B, Division-C and Division-D teams (respectively) could play a revamped Duleep Trophy; one without ‘zones’. The same 4 teams could play a revamped Challenger Trophy too with teams named Division-A, Division-B, Division-C and Division-D (instead of red, blue, green and yellow).

And that would be it. Oh yes! And I would scrap the IPL too…

— Mohan (@mohank)

BCCI’s criticism-tolerance and the role of critics…

By Mohan Krishnamoorthy (@mohank)

There is much to dislike about the BCCI… there is much to like about Harsha Bhogle

The bully

I am not a fan of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) or of the way it functions. Many journalists, writers and opinion-makers (I will use these terms interchangeably to mean “opinion influencers”) around the world appear convinced that the BCCI is a self-serving organisation that does not have the best interests of either world cricket and/or (sadly) Indian cricket.

This might be an inaccurate view. This might be a view that is highly unfair on BCCI. However, it is a view. And there appears to be a growing number of people in the world who hold this view.

When writers from around the world express their strong anti-BCCI views, they often need to brace themselves for a subsequent attack from a (largely) Indian fan base. This often includes a trivialising — either of them or of their views — by millions of cricket fans from India who think that this criticism of the BCCI is equivalent to a criticism of India. Many of these critics are easily (and lazily) labelled as racist by the chest-thumping flag-bearers. We can only cringe when these critics are attacked mercilessly in the comments section of the anti-BCCI articles they write. India and the BCCI cannot be criticized.

Some of these opinion makers from around the world are possibly wrong (at worst) or ill-informed (at best) in their criticism of the BCCI. Many of them are, in my view, right.

There is much to dislike about the BCCI.

The BCCI, rightly or wrongly, has an image of a ‘world cricket bully that goes around throwing its weight and thumping tables’. Some of this perception is justified. Some of it is about the “old world” worrying that the “new world” will use its new found power tastelessly and wrongfully.

However, perceptions have a way of becoming realities.

My perception is that the BCCI worries about money more than it does, about the state of the game; that the BCCI worries more about the size of its coffers than about how it is perceived by the rest of the cricketing world; that the BCCI concentrates more on the power that comes from the money it generates than it does about using that money to develop the game; that the BCCI thinks about the monetary value of the broadcast contracts it signs more than the quality of the broadcast; that the BCCI thinks more of the size of its audience viewership-base than it does about the audience itself; that the BCCI worries more about the fans that it has today than it does about caring for the sustainability of the game; that the BCCI worries more about today than it does about tomorrow; that the BCCI constantly plays victim than it does leader; that the BCCI craves praise more than it tolerates criticism.

The undeniable fact is that the BCCI is the most powerful member of the international cricket fraternity. It provides the ICC with more than 60% of its revenues. With that comes power. As a prominent and respected Australia-based writer once said (by email): “Of course, it is not BCCI’s fault that they have power at the world cricket table. Nor is to their credit!”

What I would like to see from the BCCI is that they use that power sensibly; that they show exemplary leadership. What I would like to see from them is an open, accountable and transparent organization that shows the world how cricket ought to be run. There were many things wrong about the way the English Cricket Board , in collusion with Cricket Australia, ran the game of cricket in the period leading up to 1990. In the early-90s the BCCI accidentally bumped into a television contract. The world of cricket changed. Irrevocably.

The past wrongs are undeniable. However, the BCCI has an opportunity now to show how the game ought to be run differently; an opportunity that BCCI is, in my view, ruining.

Critics, journalists and opinion-makers

So, it has to be the responsibility of Indian journalists to question, explore, attack, inquire and constantly seek honesty, integrity, accountability and transparency from the BCCI.

However, we also know that most journalists and opinion makers in India will find it hard — no, make that almost impossible — to be critical of (or take a stand against) BCCI. The organisation controls accreditation, passes, access and hence, the privileges that journalists enjoy. There are few independent voices in Indian cricket — voices that do not care about either access or privilege. And without access and privileges, a journalist is as useful to cricket as slurry is to shoes. The BCCI runs cricket in India like a feudal landlord would, his/her land. Access and privilege are traded for good press and praise.

It is impossible for critical views to be aired in an environment like this. Some respectable voices are paid by the BCCI — we know of at least two such cases. Good press can be (and is) purchased. Good press can be purchased for cash; lots of it.

I cannot think of anyone other than Kapil Dev and Bishen Bedi who have, in recent times, criticized the BCCI openly. The former was ‘disenfranchised’ as a result of his ICL involvement. The latter seeks no favors or privileges and has always been his own man. The rest dabble in nothing but banal clichés and platitudes.

Enter Harsha Bhogle

It is impossible for even a respected and learned voice — like Harsha Bhogle (for example) — to be harshly critical of the BCCI. Even if the criticism is accurate, justified and backed up with significant analysis/data, it is almost a foregone conclusion that such critical opinion will be dealt with the same equanimity as a hand would, an irritant mosquito. The hand that feeds just cannot be tarnished. Clarity and objectivity become the loser.

Harsha Bhogle is a respected and responsible commentator. He has contributed strongly and with remarkable integrity, over a 20 year period, as one of the most learned, mature and responsible voices in Indian cricket. He is an inspiration to a generation of aspiring sports journalists, TV anchors and TV commentators in India. One such aspiring young journalist and TV anchor once said to me that his career objective was to be “The next Harsha Bhogle”. He was inspired by this simply-stated, challenging goal.

Today, Bhogle is to commentary what Sachin Tendulkar is to batting. Just as it is impossible to imagine an Indian team without Tendulkar, it is impossible to imagine a commentary box without Bhogle in it. He is the “go to” person when Indian cricket sound-bytes are required by the BBC or the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). And rightly so. His body of work precedes him. His body of work speaks of passion and suggests vast knowledge, tremendous impact and signifcant contribution. He is an honourable man.

A tête-à-tête with Harsha Bhogle

I got into a brief (and somewhat heated) tête-à-tête with Bhogle on Twitter a few days ago (Sunday 13 May 2012). The exchange was captured by Nicole Sobotker.

It was an exchange and not a debate or an argument, for Twitter does not provide the proponents with either the time or space for engaging in genuine understanding — leave alone augmentation — of perspective or context. However, it appeared as though it was an argument. For the sake of this piece, I will call it a debate.

The debate stemmed from an article in the Times of India. In it, Anil Kumble raised questions on India’s dismal overseas Test record in 2011-12. The report, quite alarmingly, stated that the BCCI is “likely to” request the Team India coach to submit a report on the dismal record. So let us get this right. The coach’s report has not been submitted. The report has not been requested. The report may not be requested. It is only “likely” that a report may be asked for.

Bhogle reacted to the above report with surprise. He wrote, “so anil kumble is told duncan fletcher will submit a report after his vacation. this is may, the last of 8 tests lost was in january”.

Extremely valid. But hardly surprising. In the intervening period, we had a few ODIs and immediately after that, the IPL distraction commenced. It distracted BCCI from 0-8. It distracted the players from 0-8. I believe it may have distracted Bhogle too from 0-8.

I responded to Bhogle saying that the article was hardly surprising to me considering that everyone that ought to care (including him) “have been busy with the utterly draining madness called the IPL”.

Bhogle asked if everything he had “said in England and Australia while the Tests were on is (now) forgotten.”

Evidently, yes!

The BCCI, who need to listen, had forgotten, The IPL is their balm. It enables them to forget. It enables cricketers to forget. It enables fans to forget. It enables “serious voices” in the media to forget.

In my view, it is not sufficient for the voice of cricket to make a few noises while the whipping took place in England and Australia, and to assume that the responsibility of the voice was, as a result, over. The noise that was made, then, has clearly had no impact whatsoever. So either Bhogle needs to carry out an introspection and assessment of the impact, weight, carry and strength of his voice or assume that it is not enough to shout once and sit back. In India, and especially with the BCCI, it is necessary to keep shouting till you are heard.

That is only if one wants to see change; if one wants to make a difference; if one wants to use the unenviable position — that one has worked assiduously hard for — to good effect. Bhogle considers himself a “serious voice”.

A serious voice cares about impact; about making a difference; about being more than a ‘caller’ of the game.

Bhogle did write with pain and anguish in January about how India needs to overhaul — not merely tweak — its cricket system. He also made a suggestion of a 12-team Ranji Trophy.

With the BCCI though, it is not enough to declare the pain of a 0-8 whipping once or twice during the whipping. Any commentator would do that. Several did. One who cares and one who has a body of work that is accumulated over a period of 20 years should look beyond the whipping and relentlessly seek change. The fact that nothing happened subsequent to the whipping and the subsequent anguish expressed by Bhogle is a suggestion that Indian cricket does not need or admit even a respectable voice like Bhogle’s!

Then, either through boredom or expectations from his employers or loss of personal passion or an air of defeatism (or a combination of the above), Bhogle himself seems to have moved on from the pain of 8-0 to making somewhat banal observations on fitness comparisons across teams, Kohli’s next big challenge, Tendulkar’s 100th 100 burden (obligatory) and retirement timing of great players. Since that series of observations, Bhogle donned his IPL hat and unleashed on us a series of IPL-related articles: whether the IPL will be the “big ticket”, an IPL-5 wishlist (in which he declares, “the IPL will have to survive and blossom as a cricket tournament”), on why Test cricket is not the only cricket, and whether the switch-hit is kosher.

As Shyam Sundararaman says in this piece on Bhogle, “he rarely takes a stance on issues of not(e).”

I am not sure whether I would agree with that. However, in my exchange with him, Bhogle asked if 10 years or 15 years of service are not good enough. He claimed that it is “easy to throw darts a people without realising they’ve been and are serious voices.”

My point is simple: If after 15 years of service, the pain and anguish expressed by the “serious voice” of Bhogle in January leads us to a situation in May where it is only “likely” that the BCCI will ask for a report from Duncan Fletcher, clearly one of the following three observations are right: (a) Bhogle’s is not a serious voice, (b) the BCCI does not care about Bhogle’s voice or any “serious” voice, however serious it might be, (c) Given that we are dealing with the BCCI, Bhogle needs to be even more serious about his voice for even him to consider it as serious enough.

I am convinced (a) is wrong. Bhogle is the serious voice in Indian cricket. The answer, I suspect, lies somewhere between (b) and (c).

The IPL bandwagon

I do not care if Bhogle or anyone else applauds the IPL. Irrespective of the seriousness (or otherwise of his voice) it is his choice to celebrate it. And he does. It is my choice to scorn the IPL. And I do.

It is, in my view, a decadent chest thump; an entertainment package that makes us forget the 8-nil drubbing. In my view, it has no context or relevance. For example, I have watched almost all games in IPL-1, many games in IPL2 and a few in IPL3. Yet, I can’t remember a single game other than that game in Dharmasala in which M. S. Dhoni hit the winning runs off the last ball. Yet when I mention the numbers 97 or 241, everyone knows what I am talking about.

But, I digress…

A review of Indian cricket

It is Bhogle’s choice to celebrate the IPL. However, if he really cares about Indian cricket and felt the pain of the 0-8 loss, the responsible thing to do would have been to continually hammer for a review of what went wrong; to demand what came of Aakash Chopra’s review of domestic cricket; to demand an Argus style review of Indian cricket.

Within weeks of the second successive Ashes loss in 2010, Australian journalists demanded a review. They were all over Cricket Australia like a rash. Cricket Australia (CA) listened. It went ahead and constituted a review committee with clear and agreed terms of reference. The Argus Review process was initiated. It was a review of Australian cricket and covered everything from domestic competitions, player payments, CA governance, coaching structure, selection committee functioning, etc. It was comprehensive.

Such a review might work for Australia. Something similar may never work in India. That is not the point. The point is that serious voices demanded a review. Serious voices continued to demand a review until it was conducted. The Argus Review recommendations are now being implemented.

Such a review may be impossible — or even unnecessary — in India. With the BCCI what you get is a serious series of ‘closed-door meetings’ held by ‘think-tanks’. And when explanations/clarifications are sought for certain decisions, what you may get is a bullish roadside scrap in which the BCCI official barks, “Boss, you just shut up ok”, “chuppal se horthenga”, “googly dalenga”, “ungli karenga” and a clutch of other obscene profanities.

Monopsony and the market argument

But the BCCI can do bullish. It has the money. It has the power. It has no absolute necessary for accountability — to either the Government or to players or fans. It can unleash a national selector on us who says “boss you just shut up ok”.

The BCCI is a monopoly. Sorry, it is a monopsony.

In an imperfect market, the BCCI is a single buyer — that operates though a license bestowed on it by the ICC — with many sellers (resources). These sellers of resources includes the players, TV companies, and “serious voices” that are somewhat dependent on BCCI ‘handouts’. The landlord may take back what he giveth if the respondents do not queue up appropriately. The dictator can specify what (s)he wants to do because these resources are dependent on the unique buyer of their services. One is either in the queue or not.

Which is why the “market” argument for justifying the IPL is as banal as the IPL itself! If we want to see the BCCI and the IPL operate in perfect market conditions, we need to have the IPL operate alongside the now-defunct ICL (or an equivalent)! Only then will we know whether resources, commentators and fans prefer the IPL over the ICL (or its equivalent)!

The critical role of serious critics

Given the market in which it operates, it is necessary for the BCCI to use its power appropriately — both externally (at the ICC table) as well as internally (in developing the game, its structures, its TV contracts and its resources). I have no hope that this will happen in a cogent, clearly articulated and transparent manner.

In the absence of such hope, what is required is a bevvy of serious voices that ask tough questions. It is insufficient if such questions are asked once and forgotten. These voices need to ask tough questions repeatedly. They need to demand to be at the review table. They need to be at the review table, making changes that will have a long-term impact. They should not be surprised over 5 months of inactivity. They should expect it and seek change; not by applauding the switch hit but by demanding a switch in priorities. They have to explore why the slide commenced with a fatigue-induced handshake at Dominica and whether the craziness of IPL-4 had a role to play in it. They should ask hard questions about the long-term health of the domestic game, for however much they applaud the richness of the IPL, the long-term resources are going to come from domestic cricket.

The “serious voice” must be, simultaneously, a critic, an ombudsman and a watchdog, where there are no explicit requirements for either of these roles. The “serious voice” must make up for the collective failure of the organisation that controls the game. This is a high expectation. It is my expectation of a “serious voice” in Indian cricket. It is an expectation that is, sadly, unmet.

It is my hope that I have not offended Mr Harsha Bhogle or his ilk. He believes his is a serious voice. It is. But we need to hear it. Not once, but repeatedly. We need to hear other voices too. For otherwise we will continue to be surprised if a review is only “likely” to be requested of a coach who presided over an 8-0 drubbing.

— Mohan

Ps: Although this blog post talks specifically about Mr Harsha Bhogle, it is intended as a request to all “serious voices” that care about Indian cricket.

Defeat and the Cricketing Experience

By Rohit Naimpally (Guest Contributor, i3j3cricket)

The immediate aftermath of Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s World Cup-winning six is a blur to me. I have watched the highlights from that night umpteen times over the past few months, but the moment itself? That is a blur; as soon as MS Dhoni hit the shot, all I remember is a sudden release. And tears. My next memory is of Yuvraj Singh crying into Sachin Tendulkar’s shoulder.

It is impossible to describe the intensity of those World Cup winning moments, and in many ways it is unnecessary. Those that could comprehend would not need any explanation; those that could not, would never be able to. A lot of that intensity was owed to the compression of memory, an idea that requires going beyond the effervescence of victory.

By way of explanation, I need to return us to another World Cup final eight years ago, to the eve of my economics board exam. That team did not carry with it the air of destiny that the 2011 outfit would, but this did not preclude hope and desire on our part. Every Indian fan will be familiar with what followed; memories of Zaheer getting tonked all over the park stayed with me for a long time. No roller-coaster could ever make my stomach sink more than it did when Sachin miscued that pull of Glenn McGrath.

Fast forward to 2011 at The Motera: a much cannier Zaheer Khan, almost unrecognizable as the bowler from that final eight years ago, totally bamboozles Michael Hussey. Sachin pulls a 91 mph ball from Mitchell Johnson somewhere towards cow corner on his way to a neat half-century. I do not like to talk in binaries, but the symmetry of the Motera encounter with the Wanderers one was undeniable. Watching this team expiate the sins of 2003 was cathartic; a catharsis that would have been impossible had it not been for the 2003 trauma. This was the compression of memory, images both good and bad all feeding into each other and enabling a nationwide collective effervescence of historic proportions.

It is necessary to look beyond the moment of victory to see the crucial role played by defeat in our experience of victory. Wanderers 2003 and Motera 2011. Eden Gardens 1996 and Wankhede 2011. Victory cannot mean as much without defeat, for highs are most accurately measured against the lows.

The value of troughs in one’s cricketing experience goes even beyond the heightened enjoyment of subsequent peaks. Sticking with a team through the tough times lends greater weight to the very meaning of fandom. It signifies a commitment to an ideal, a commitment to a cause. It is cliché to say that the true fan sticks with his team through thick and thin; while laudable, this is a normative statement that I am not concerned with here.

My questions are: What does it even mean to be a fan only when one’s team is winning? How does one then distinguish support for a team from support of simple victory, no matter the vehicle? Does one support the pursuit of excellence as an abstract ideal, or does one root that support in a specific context?

It has been wonderful to chart Zaheer Khan’s rise to the status of premier fast bowler, from his early excellence, to the falling-off and injuries through the Worcestershire stint and the ascension starting with the England tour of 2007. So much of that experience has been about seeing Zaheer’s evolution and growth. About the journey, not just the destination. Cricket has always been a sport about flows, not static moments. Do not let the apparent singularity of victory fool you into omitting the process that led up to it. As great as that picture of Brett Lee and Andrew Flintoff at Edgbaston in 2005 was, it would be empty without the context of the events that preceded it. The tough times lend us context, they lend us starting points.

I have been part of a privileged Indian generation: the majority of my cricketing memories were forged over the last decade, when the Indian team fully emerged from an age of diminished expectations. We have gone from hoping that Ganguly’s men could be contenders to criticising Dhoni’s backups for not seizing greatness. We react in the way we do because the process thus far has been largely a pleasant one. It may sound counter-intuitive, but this England tour has gone towards rounding out our experiences as fans. I often think of cricket as a wonderful metaphor for life, in all its dimensions (that is a post for another day). From that perspective, the tribulations of this tour have merely added to the wealth of experiences that I can draw on as an Indian cricket fan. Support this team, draw on your stock of wonderful memories associated with this crew (see the symmetry of victory and defeat again?) and just go with the turbulent flow that is the life of the cricket fan.

The BCCI and the team are not the only parties that can stand to take lessons away from this tour.

— @noompa

Does the team need a “mentally weak” player?

I am either quite unhappy with MS Dhoni or in sheer awe of him, and I am not able to decide which of the two states I ought to be in! Indeed, I don’t believe I know which of these two states I am in! For the first time since Dhoni took over the captaincy role, I accept unabashedly that I am utterly and totally confused.

I have a lot of time and a lot of respect for MS Dhoni. He is cool, calm and collected. He seems to have plenty of time on his hands and rarely gets ruffled, even when adversity stares at him. He gets the best out of his players. He is a “straight talk” captain who gets the best out of his “seniors” as well as “juniors” in the team.

Dhoni took on the captaincy mantle after Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble had built the foundation on which this current teams’ edifice stands. Dhoni has stood on these impressive shoulders and crafted his own style of leadership; one that makes him, in my view, the best captain India has ever had.

In his captaincy, Dhoni calmly and easily demonstrates the flair and the “one of the boys” style of leadership of Sourav Ganguly. Dhoni will always be one of the boys. He will never appear or be aloof. Like Ganguly, he will back his players who are “down”. In an early selection meeting he is reported to have said that if his voice/needs will not be heard at selection meetings, he may as well not turn up! He backs his players in the manner of Ganguly.

He also possesses the steel of Rahul Dravid that requires you to be calm in the face of extreme pressure. Dravid has that inner calm as a batsman that comes from both ability as well self-confidence. It also comes from him relishing a fight. These qualities earned him the moniker, “The Wall”. He brought a “no emotion” steel to the captaincy; a steely resolve that made him declare the India innings close when Sachin Tendulkar was on 194; a dogged resolve that made India not go for a win in The Oval because a 1-0 win in England was more coveted! His was a “no emotion” captaincy that drew mainly on his own inner confidence. Dhoni has that too. He is supremely confident of himself. This makes him burn any anxieties inside him. He rarely yells, stomps, glares and huffs on the field — and believe me, this team that he leads gives him plenty of opportunity to do all of that, and more!

Dhoni also possesses the upright earnestness of Kumble, who brought a certain dignity to the Team India captaincy. Kumble, by sheer dint of his dedication, resolve, commitment, professionalism and contribution was unblemished. He had no dark spot on his resume. He expected the same level of pre-game preparation and commitment from his team and got it too. Dhoni has that quality too. He circles away from controversy and seems to have an instinctive feel for the right things to do and the right places to be at. More importantly, he seems to have an instinctive feel for the things he must avoid! He does his thing and he does it well. In a country where the press continually bay for blood, Kumble would have nothing of it because he led a lifestyle away from the night-lights and trance music. For Dhoni to stay away from the trash talk columns while demonstrating a liking for the high-life is indeed quite commendable. He is able to do it because, in my view, he has that Kumble-like quality for dedication, commitment and professionalism to his task on hand. He takes his profession, his art and his talent extremely seriously.

So I do like him as a captain of Team India. If Ganguly, Dravid and Kumble laid the various foundation stones for India’s ascent to the terrace — along with the architects in John Wright and Gary Kirsten — Dhoni is the one that has actually taken the team closer to the terrace.

Regardless of the outcome of this World Cup, I think he will be one of India’s best captains ever — in my book.

So, why am I either unhappy or in awe of MS Dhoni? Why am I confused?

The reason is not Piyush Chawla, but Dhoni’s reason for Chawla’s inclusion in the match against The Netherlands.

Dhoni says, “We are still supposed to give Ashwin a chance, he deserves a place, so he will feature in one of the teams [that will play in the group stages].”

No. The team does not owe any player anything. The team is not supposed to give anyone any chances! The team contains the elite; the best in India. Hence, it is not a socialist republic where everyone “deserves a chance”. But let me give Dhoni some rope and assume that he said, “We will give Ashwin a game, he deserves a place…”

That is still fine by me, especially since he also said in the same press meet, “basically you have to see which was the player that needed this game most, rather than the team needing the player. I felt it was Piyush, who needed this game much more than Ashwin.”

This is sound logic, in my view. Ashwin did not need this game to get game-ready. Piyush Chawla needed the game. So it makes sense that this experiment is carried out in a low-stakes game, earlier in the tournament.

Therefore, even though I have continually mocked the “Ashwin is on the bench today because he is mentally strong” line of thinking by MS Dhoni on Twitter (@mohank) I actually accept that line of thinking.

If all we want is to strengthen the “currently mentally weak” by giving them an opportunity in Team India colors, several people (ranging from Suresh Kalmadi to Kamran Akmal) would be queuing up for a gig! Ok. I am being facetious, but that’s all I can be in my current “mentally not so strong state”!

More seriously though, I accept the principle that a mentally strong person can warm the bench while we strengthen a person who is mentally weak currently.

However, that acceptance is strongly based on the condition that the team actually needs the player who is in the current “mentally weak state“!

I had no problems with the team giving extended opportunities to Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina and Gautam Gambhir in their “mentally or physically weak” states — both initially (in the times of Ganguly) and more recently. These players have that something in them that inspires confidence; confidence that they will surmount their current problems and reach that higher state of preparedness. They have won matches for India on their own. They have demonstrated talent, ability, guts, determination, resolve and fight. And when they go through dips in form or confidence, the team has to carry them along. So I have no problems with the team “carrying” a few players who appear to be in a mentally weak state currently.

Mainly because there is strong evidence to suggest that (a) that mentally strong state exists for the player under question, and (b) when that player reaches that mentally strong state, he becomes a match winner!

The above conditions — (a) and (b) — are strong prerequisites for “carrying” a mentally weak player in my view. So I think I am being fair, as a fan, to apply these tests on Piyush Chawla before I see whether the team needs to “carry” him.

I believe I am being more than fair when I see that these tests are being applied to a player who upsets the current team balance maximally. So, in my book, there is a third condition that a mentally weak player has to satisfy: (c) The “mentally weak” player who is being “carried” cannot destroy team balance.

In other words, I believe that while it is fine for this current Team India to carry a “mentally weak” batsman who exhibits conditions (a) and (b) above, it borders on professional negligence for the team management to carry a “mentally weak” bowler who does not exhibit conditions (a) and (b) above. This is because the current team is, in my view, imbalanced as a result of her weak bowling attack.

So, even though we have (c) being demonstrated through Chawla’s inclusion at the cost of Ashwin, I would be happy to ignore that constraint as long as (a) and (b) are satisfied. In other words, while I do not mind Chawla’s mind being sharpened and strengthened during the course of an important competition, the question I would like to ask is whether there is much use of such strengthening and sharpening.

I do not see Chawla emerging as a mentally strong player. I am not convinced that that state exists for Chawla. And even if it does (that is, even if condition (a) is satisfied) I am an not sure whether Chawla will become a match-winner in the Zaheer Khan or Suresh Raina or Yuvraj Singh mould! So the question I ask is “why bother” especially when you have an admittedly mentally strong and match ready player on the bench?

Hence my current confusion.

And yes, for the first time since he took over the mantle of captaincy, I am quite unhappy with MS Dhoni. However, as I said in my opening, it is likely that his continued confidence in Chawla will infuse me with awe at his amazing foresight! He must see in Chawla something that I do not (or refuse to) see. Given this, I accept that I am utterly confused.

– Mohan (@mohank on Twitter)

The Indian Cricket Ground

The Grace Gates, The 3 W’s Oval, The Greenidge & Haynes Stands, The Malcolm Marshall & Joel Garner Ends – all names with a nice ring to them. The practice of christening arenas in honour of sportsmen is perhaps as old as sport itself. Sadly, it is a tradition that’s not highly valued in India. The Wankhede is an exception, with stands celebrating the achievements of Vijay Merchant, Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar, and gates paying homage to Vinoo Mankad and Polly Umrigar. One may argue, and not without reason, that with Mumbai having produced a lion’s share of India’s heroes from yesteryear, there aren’t too many cricketers going around for other associations to honour. Hence we have stadiums named after administrators (acceptable), sponsors (a necessary evil) & politicians (downright embarrassing). The new stadium at Uppal seemed to take a step in the right direction with the V.V.S. Laxman stand, but for Shivlal Yadav to bestow his own name upon the pavilion, was a case of terrible blasphemy to a lineage that has produced, among others, Ghulam Ali Ahmed, M.L. Jaisimha, Abbas Ali Baig, Asif Iqbal, Abid Ali & Mohammad Azharuddin. And of course, like everything else in the state of Andhra, it is called Rajiv Gandhi.

Now let’s say the BCCI got together over cocktails, and commissioned the ultimate Indian cricket ground, and got so drunk that they decided to baptize it in tribute to cricketers, and not DLF, Lalit Modi or Pranab Mukherjee; how might that go? At once, an exercise in appellation and an expression of admiration.

The name of the stadium is a no-brainer. Let’s call it Kapil Dev and move on. World Cup winner, all rounder nonpareil, and quite simply, the finest natural cricketer to have emerged from our shores. May this recompense him for PCA’s Mohali mural fiasco, an impudent obloquy on a legend who dared to bless a rebel.

I have come up with a system wherein great Indian batsmen lend their names to stands located in the directions of their respective signature strokes. Thus, we start with the Sachin Tendulkar pavilion, for there’s nothing straighter in cricket than pavilions, and the full face of Tendulkar’s instrument. The stand diametrically opposite to the pavilion would bear the name of that other champion of the V, Sunil Gavaskar. Square on either side of the pitch is the territory of those exalted exponents of square-cuts and square-drives, the two masters from Banaglore, Gundappa Vishwanath and Rahul Dravid. Giving Tendulkar company on his right, his comrade of a thousand opening sorties in ODIs, Saurav Ganguly. Batting from the same end as Tendulkar, his serene cover drives would be lapped up by the adoring patrons of this stand. Antipodal to this section, would be the V.V.S. Laxman Acres, HRH of Wide Mid-on & Deep Midwicket. Now that leaves us with stands flanking long-leg on both ends. While Indians haven’t been the best practitioners of the hook, the stroke that earns them a lot of their keep is the leg-glance. The inventor of this once exotic skill, the flagbearer of Oriental artistry, Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji, could claim this stand dominion. The last remaining stand would be dedicated to Indian cricket’s first great partnership, Vijay Merchant & Syed Mushtaq Ali.

In cricket-speak, a stand is the reserve of batsmen, and an end, the bowler’s domain. The high pedigree of spin that Indian cricket has embraced is sassy enough to ensure fierce competition. The pavilion end would be eponymous with India’s biggest match-winner, Anil Kumble. The far end would salute the Bedi-Prasanna-Chandra axis, as glorious an inspiration as any for any bowler plying his craft from that end. I have deliberately left S. Venkataraghavan out as I have other plans for him.

The dressing rooms must convey a sense of sartorial elegance. I can think of no two cricketers better suited for the home and visiting sides’ changing rooms than Tiger Pataudi and Mohammad Azharuddin.

Most of us have never watched cricket in the flesh. We owe it to those who have brought it to our living rooms, to our earphones, and to our bookshelves. The Media Centre would be an institution to toast Dicky Rutnagur & Rajan Bala. The Commentary Box must recognize the services of Bobby Talyarkhan & Pearson Surita. The Broadcasting Suite has only one contender – Harsha Bhogle.

Let’s go back to Venkat, and honour him with the Third Umpire and Match Referee’s cabin. Raj Singh Dungarpur, for long the grey eminence of Indian cricket, would be the nomenclature incumbent for an imposing clubhouse. The scoreboard could be Mohandas Menon’s little alcove.

If anybody is keeping score, I have overlooked C.K. Nayudu, Vijay Hazare, Vinoo Mankad, Subhash Gupte, Syed Kirmani, Dilip Vengsarkar & Virender Sehwag. At least the first and last of this list could be pacified. Being the biggest hitters, they could own the gates to the stadium, for that is where they deposit the ball. To the rest, all I have to offer is a sincere apology.

Kartik

When Selvi came alive

In his compelling collection, Lawley Road & Other Stories, R. K. Narayan narrates the highly poignant tale ofSelvi, the leading classical singer of her day. The subject is accustomed to the adoring applause of celebrity audiences, and yet immune to it through her piety to music. Following a renunciation of the spotlight, she restricts the expression of her art to a daily saadhana, witnessed & cherished by a handful of Malgudi commoners. The descent from exclusive chamber sessions at her estranged husband’s plush residence in upscale Lawley Extension, to impromptu rehearsals in the verandah of her late mother’s humble dwelling in decrepit Ellamman Street, fails to tarnish the quality of music.

Art breathes in its own inspiration. Dispossess it of the big stage. Divest it of adulation. Yet it remains resplendent, adorned by its inherent effulgence. It was a happy coincidence that I read Selvi in the car on my way to watch 2 artists grace an occasion more modest than their habitual realm. It has been second nature for Rahul Dravid & V. V. S. Laxman to parade their gifts in the rarefied echelons of international cricket. It is also to their credit that their relationship with domestic cricket (since they graduated to higher honours) wears proud commitment and goes beyond random dalliances. It was one such tryst with the Irani Cup in 2003 that gave me an opportunity to watch them forge a memorable partnership in flesh – one that didn’t win them as many accolades as their triple-century heists at Kolkata & Adelaide against Australia, but no less memorable for me personally. It was a game that saw most of their peers follow their example and embrace domestic cricket. Indeed, Rest of India, led by Saurav Ganguly, was pretty much the Indian Test XI save for Sachin Tendulkar who captained the opposing team, the Ranji champions Mumbai.

The first 3 days saw one of the most delicious contests possible – Anil Kumble bowling to Tendulkar – playing out to near empty stands at Chepauk. Neither man bested the other, but their gratitude for not having to lock horns in an international game was reinforced. Twin half centuries by Tendulkar & a substantial first innings lead for Mumbai meant RoI had to get 340 on a wearing wicket to lay their hands on silverware. They got 50 of those by stumps on day 3, but lost both openers Virender Sehwag & Sanjay Bangar. Dravid walked out the next morning amidst enthusiastic cheering from a healthier Sunday crowd for local boy L. Balaji, and quickly banished Ramesh Powar over long on for a couple of sixes. The nightwatchman’s resolute defiance nearly lasted through the session, but altogether progress had been relatively slow. Laxman took guard with the misery of a 53-ball 5 in the first knock hanging over his head. On the other side of the luncheon interval, both men blossomed. Leg-spinner Sairaj Bahutule looked to exploit the rough. In a twinkling exhibition of decisive footwork, Laxman repeatedly met him on the full and the expanses at extra-cover & midwicket lay enslaved to a sovereign whim. Dravid stayed crisp and efficient against the faster men Ajit Agarkar & Avishkar Salvi, combating the short stuff with the fierce cut and the regal pull in all his majestic glory. Powar came back for a new spell with an over that was bookended by 2 4s and 2 6s. The former brought Laxman his half century, both full tosses caressed away. The latter took Dravid from 88 to 100, in a manner that would go on to become synonymous with Sehwag. On each occasion he danced down the track flouting open impertinence to the challenge, and thundered the ball into the Royal Sundaram stand high over the bowler’s head. A stalwart of Indian cricket had shown an upstart his place. After tea, Laxman relegated even Dravid to spectator, uncorking one champagne stroke after another. The promise of a glorious hundred wasn’t honoured though, Bahutule pooping his party one short of the landmark. That was my cue to leave as I had to catch a train back to my college in Vellore. As I haggled with an autowallah near Buckingham Canal, Chepauk went up in a groan that could only have meant Dravid’s dismissal.

With my hair standing on end, I wondered what the forthcoming season – featuring important tours to Australia & Pakistan – would have in store for the partners-in-crime. Dravid had started the season with a legitimate claim of being India’s finest. Six months later, he would end it undisputedly as the world’s best. 3 double centuries in 9 Tests, each one successively higher than the previous, would propel his Test average from 53 to 58. Laxman would also score 3 Test hundreds, and curiously, 5 ODI hundreds that winter. His 99 that day had been scored at nearly run-a-ball.

I got an SMS from my father as the Yelagiri Express pulled out of Central Station. I learnt that Ganguly & Kumble had steered the Rest home after a mini-collapse. I was also informed that I had left Selvi behind, my copy of Lawley Road & Other Stories having been forgotten in the car.

– Kartik