Archive for the ‘CRICKET’ Category

India’s Independence Day gift to England

Sunday, August 24th, 2014

Mint, 18 August 2014

There are many reasons why we should be grateful to the British Raj. The British took charge of an India which was, at that time, little more than a collection of kingdoms large and small headed mostly by effete wastrels, yet not demoralized enough by the invasions of Nadir Shah and Ahmed Shah Abdali to stop fighting one another. Maratha power had waned dramatically, and only Punjab retained some of its military might and glory. The Mughals had lost their relevance, and India was a Balkanized land mass, sliding back into ignorance, superstition and anarchy.

Even the greatest British-hater would have to acknowledge that the new invaders brought in a governance structure, better law and order, Western education, scientific temper, a justice system, modern technology and, unwittingly, the powerful ideas of liberty and democracy.

For all this and more, Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s Indian cricket team offered a small tribute to England in the fifth and final Test at the Oval that began on 15 August, India’s 68th Independence Day.

It was a small tribute, but a very significant one, for English cricket. Over 42 days—indeed, less than that, over a mere 30 days, if you discount the first two Test matches, the Indian team took a broken-down, dispirited, confused, vilified side and transformed it into a confident, fearless, tight-knit team that looked good to take on any 11 men in the world. What sweeter gift could England have asked for, in return for all that it had blessed India with?

When the Indian team landed in London one-and-a-half months ago, England was still reeling from a humiliating 5-0 defeat at the hands of Australia. In fact, ‘humiliating’ is an understatement. After the second Test, the team’s leading batsman Jonathan Trott cited stress and anxiety and simply took the next flight home. After the third Test, England’s best spinner Graeme Swann abruptly announced his retirement from international cricket with immediate effect and vamoosed.

The team that returned from Australian shores was a shattered one. The coach, Andy Flower, was sacked. Kevin Pietersen, supremely talented but always a rebellious spirit, was told by the English Board that he would no longer be considered for the national squad. Every cricket commentator, including several former England captains, bayed for captain Alastair Cook’s head every day on every TV channel and in every newspaper.

Cook, till months ago, the golden boy of English cricket, was now a contemptible loser. It didn’t help that his batting form, too, seemed to have deserted him. Already, at the young age of 29, recognized as one of England’s greatest batsmen ever—the third highest Test aggregate among all England batsmen and the highest number of centuries, he had been reduced to prodding around at balls, desperate to get a touch. Very often, when he got a touch, he was caught.

And then India decided to take matters into their own hands.

The first Test was drawn, and India won the second one at Lord’s comfortably. After which, with a determination rarely seen on a cricket field, India set about the task of rebuilding the England team.

The first step was of course to give Cook back some confidence as a batsman. Self-assurance as captain would surely follow. So, Ravindra Jadeja, one of India’s best fielders, dropped Cook in the third Test on 15. It was a strategic move that paid off handsomely. Cook went on to make 95, and his instincts as a captain began looking suddenly better when England took the field.

But this was only the beginning of India’s game plan. The team’s two best batsmen—Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara—decided to forget where their off-stump was. Kohli chose James Anderson as the man he wanted to bestow his manna on, while Pujara opted for Stuart Broad—both strike bowlers, after all, needed their full powers restored. Neither Kohli nor Pujara sweated too much about how they would go about their mission. They just did the same thing over and over again. Kohli decided never to play for the movement of the ball off the pitch, managing to close the face of the bat a bit too early, and nicking it to the slips to grateful Englishmen. Pujara relied on sending faint outside edges to the wicketkeeper or first slip. And in an act of charity that would have brought tears to the eyes of any descendant of Sir Robert Clive or Warren Hastings, they went beyond the call of duty, and dropped more catches than they held through the series.

But even such efficient graciousness did not satisfy the Indians fully. After all, England had lost their best spinner, Swann, and they seemed in no mood to call up Monty Panesar. So our batsmen, in a frenzy of love and sharing, focused on a part-time spinner called Moeen Ali. Ali—I am sure somewhat to his own astonishment—ended up taking 19 wickets, as many as Broad! This must have confused the hell out of Cook, because in the final Test, he hardly let Ali bowl. But the Indians weren’t to be taken in by such tricks. They chose young Chris Jordan, and lavished four wickets on him in the space of 19 deliveries to finish off the Test series, with the third largest defeat ever in Indian cricket history.

You don’t mess with the Indians. They can adapt to any level of opposition facing them and escort them lovingly up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

In this glorious evocation of the spirit of Mother Teresa, and by eagerly turning the other cheek as soon as they had been resoundingly slapped on one, the Indians have given the world an example of selfless love and forgiveness that should be required reading in remote Himalayan gurukuls.

These are real men, with a sense of civilizational values and historical context. You gave us Jallianwala Bagh, we give you three resounding victories and a resurrection. Happy Independence Day, old men, what?

KKR won, but Kings XI were the stars of IPL

Thursday, June 12th, 2014

Mint, June 02, 2014

From tonight, a strange disorientation will set in among millions of Indians. They will not know what to do and how to occupy themselves between evening and bedtime. Some will wander around dark streets aimlessly, looking for what they know not; others may hit the bottle. Spouses may start bickering bitterly over inconsequential matters, but children and pets will again be fed on time, and the international conference call will return to its usual 9pm slot.
IPL 2014 is over, and we will all go back to doing whatever we were doing in the evenings before it began. The Hindi film industry will heave a big sigh of relief and start lining up the big-budget films it had been sitting on for the last 45 days, for release.
The Kolkata Knight Riders won a truly exciting final, made all the more intriguing because the supposed big guns on both sides did not fire.Virender SehwagGlenn Maxwell and George Bailey failed for the Kings XI Punjab (and David Miller got only one delivery to face, the last one of the innings), while Robin UthappaGautam Gambhir and Shakib al Hasan were out cheaply for KKR. The heroes for Kings XI were Wriddhiman Saha,Manan Vohra and Akshar Patel, and for KKR, Manish PandeyYusuf Pathan and Piyush Chawla (as batsman, not bowler). It was the sort of match which you wish no one side need have won, but that’s not possibly, is it? Post-match, KKR co-owner Shah Rukh Khan (What’s with the man’s hair? Really!) expressed the same sentiment, and even went a step further by appearing for the interview wearing a Kings XI jersey.
Yes, KKR won, but for me, the stars of IPL 2014 were Kings XI Punjab. Their team selection had been brilliant. Coach Sanjay Bangar (an authentic Indian coach, as opposed all the heavyweight foreign names that most other teams had hired) kept just two players from last year—David Miller and Manan Vohra—and created a whole new team. Delhi Daredevils tried the same—it did not retain any player at all from last year, but failed miserably. The quality of thought that went into choosing the players made all the difference.
To lead the team, Bangar brought in George Bailey. Bailey proved to be the shrewdest and most cool-headed captain of IPL 2014, and was able to forge a palpably positive team spirit and happy camaraderie that was unique and wonderful to watch. (Bangar said in a TV interview that to break the ice in the first few days, Bailey instituted a system that everyone had to relate at least one joke every day).
Glen Maxwell, while earning a million dollars, had mysteriously languished in Delhi Daredevils and Mumbai Indians, hardly given a chance to prove himself. Wriddhiman Saha had been in Chennai Super Kings, where, for obvious reasons, he could not keep wickets, and did not get much of a chance to bat either. Saha is arguably the best wicketkeeper in India right now, and Kings XI also unlocked his value as a game-changing batsman.
Bangar reposed faith in Virender Sehwag, who most of us thought was over the hill, and that too paid off. Simultaneously, he picked the unknown Akshar Patel, who gave away only 21 runs in his four overs in the final, and ended a highly successful IPL journey with the Pepsi Emerging Player of the Tournament Award.
IPL 2014 has seen some astonishing batting displays—in the last stages of the tournament, from Corey Anderson, Yusuf Pathan, Sehwag and Suresh Raina, but certainly the most entertaining parts of IPL 2014 came from the Maxwell-Miller show. In the league stage, when the two came together, in match after match, they pulverised the opposition’s bowling and committed acts of extraordinary audacity. Maxwell must be the only batsman in the world who is willing to switch-hit the very first delivery he faces, and this he did more than once (He did it once too many in the final and was caught off the first ball; Gambhir had placed the tall Morne Morkel at short third man, just for that shot). Unfortunately, Maxwell was out of form in the last four or five games, but he had already done enough to be the most popular player of the tournament, irrespective of which team you supported.
In fact, when IPL began, I was merely a neutral spectator, not supporting any particular team, but Maxwell, Miller and the always cheerful Bailey turned me into a Kings XI fan.
Also, I confess, the sheer enthusiasm, commitment and energy that co-owner Preity Zinta exuded in the stands in every match, cheering and applauding her team like a teenybopper. I wanted Kings XI to win, I wanted her to win.
This did not happen, but as Bailey said in the post-match interview, they could all go back home with their heads held high. He was the most gracious loser I have seen in this IPL, fulsomely praising Manish Pandey, his team’s nemesis in the final, calling him “ballsy”, and mentioning that every time a wicket fell, Pandey hit the next ball for a six.
What Bangar and Bailey achieved in a very short span of time was that they had been able to build a happy, cohesive, confident and fearless team out of a bunch of players, many of whom had never seen or met one another, and some of them coming out of bad experiences in previous IPLs. Players like Maxwell and Saha would sorely have wanted to show the world what they were capable of, Sehwag and Balaji were keen to prove that they could not be written off just yet, and others like Vohra and Patel were plain talented and hungry. The Kings XI we saw in this IPL was a far cry from the team which had pottered around without much conviction in the previous six tournaments.
I will look forward to them in 2015.
But what I am definitely not looking forward to is the horrendous public celebration that Mamata Banerjee will organize in Kolkata for the home team. I am sure she has many admirable qualities, but good taste and sophistication have never been her strong points. Add to that the chronic exhibitionism of Shah Rukh Khan (Yes, what is with the man’s hair?) and I am already cringing in fearful anticipation.